The Generous Planet

Click to a larger version of Ynys Iago, Llandeiniolen, Gwynedd (National Grid): photo © Jean Williamson

Ynys Iago, Llandeiniolen, Gwynedd (National Grid): photo © Jean Williamson

Our thirst for a reliably constant power supply, not limited to what we can produce by our own physical efforts, has led to much of the earth’s finite resources being used to generate electricity and carry it about the country in a cat’s cradle of expensive metals. Even those who care little for the environment - what things are made of, where they come from, the transport and processes involved, the possible dangers to health and the natural world - are growing restless as it becomes clear the days of ‘cheap’ energy are over, that heat and light must be produced by burning more of the money in our pockets. Around the sizzling pylon the cycles of nature continue: the sun shines, clouds form, rain falls, lightning cracks, the wind blows, water runs in the verdant stream and the power of growth provides firewood and grazing for fuel and food. Can the natural, sustainable systems of our world be efficiently harnessed to replace, or at least complement, our old technologies so dependent on shrinking reserves which cannot be renewed? Any form of electricity production that relies on contributing to a national grid perpetuates the problems of the grid and our addiction to power. One long-term, sustainable answer may be community renewable energy schemes able to supply houses directly and store electricity in something more eco-friendly than modern batteries. The subject is much more complicated than lobbyists and jumpers on the green bandwagon usually allow, as for every viewpoint there is a convenient statistic: reports on the Danish experience of large-scale wind power make interesting reading.
Click to a larger version of Rhyd y Groes Windfarm, Amlwch, Anglesey (TPG Wind Ltd): photo © Mick Sharp

Rhyd y Groes Windfarm, Amlwch, Anglesey (TPG Wind Ltd): photo © Mick Sharp

Around 50 windmills on the Isle of Anglesey used to grind grain and power such tasks as pumping water from the Parys Mountain copper mines. Modern wind turbines have their admirers, as do pylons, but many dislike them for their appearance, noise, disruption of wildlife, scatter of radar and TV signals, expensive subsidies and failure to deliver efficient ‘green’ energy. Statistics often include the theoretical amount of CO₂ emissions a windfarm has saved but without factoring in the fossil fuels used in the manufacture, transport, installation and dismantling of the turbines, access roads and bases. The working life of a wind turbine can be as little as 20 years and currently (April 2010), Britain does not manufacture its own. Most efficient at a steady 20 mph, over a year the turbines produce 30% or less of their theoretical maximum output. Wind power is more efficient than solar, but around half as efficient as a fossil fuel power station, and most wind electricity goes into an existing national grid. Because the amount is relatively small and inconsistent, it must be backed up by conventional stations, usually coal-fired ones which can be put in and out of ‘spinning reserve’ as supply and demand fluctuate. This produces more CO₂ than if the stations were allowed to run constantly. The 24 turbines here, in operation since 1992, are capable of producing 7.2 megawatts, enough to power around 4,000 homes. It would take well over 3,000 turbines to equal the output of the Wylfa nuclear power station on the coast 3 miles to the north-west. Its replacement, Wylfa B, has been approved for construction, but there is much opposition to it based on understandable fears about safety, health issues and the problems of decommissioning, decontamination and safe storage. Allegations of links between cancer spikes and nuclear material found in the Irish Sea and Menai Strait have been made, and hill farmers in North Wales must still check their sheep for radiocaesium levels caused by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear fallout.
Click to a larger version of Cwm Dyli Hydroelectric Pipeline, Nant Gwynant, Gwynedd (Npower): photo © Jean Williamson

Cwm Dyli Hydroelectric Pipeline, Nant Gwynant, Gwynedd (Npower): photo © Jean Williamson

Water hurtles by inside the pipe at 3,500 litres (770 gallons) a second, on its way down to the powerhouse in the valley. Over 400cms (13ft) of rain fall on Snowdon a year. The Llyn Llydaw reservoir on the mountain’s eastern flank stores some of this water and uses it to drive a turbine producing 9.8 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply a small town the size of Llanberis. Hydroelectric power has been generated at Cwm Dyli since 1906; early customers included three slate quarries and Marconi’s transatlantic wireless telegraph station on Cefn-du above Waunfawr. The private company was nationalised in 1948 and its electricity goes into the grid. The pipeline was rebuilt in the 1980s and the station now runs automatically, its 1990’s turbine generating as much electricity as the original five once did. At nearby Llanberis, the The Dinorwig hydroelectric facility is a net user of electricity, but it was built to make the national grid run more efficiently. Off-peak electricity is used to pump water up from Llyn Peris to Marchlyn Mawr reservoir, it is then run down again through turbines to produce extra electricity at times of peak demand. In the right location, hydroelectric and tidal power schemes can be efficient and worthwhile, but poorly sited they too create environmental and wildlife dilemmas. For example, too many dams on major rivers can reduce fish and flow downstream, rob flood-plains and deltas of fertilizing silt and increase salt content. In the second half of the 18th century, Sir Richard Arkwright and his partner Jedediah Strutt saw the potential power of water in the Derwent and other Derbyshire rivers. Using sluices, channels and aqueducts they harnessed the abundant natural energy to drive their cotton-spinning mills and the Industrial Revolution.
Click to a larger version of Thame Park, Oxfordshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Thame Park, Oxfordshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Wood is a renewable source but, since Britain’s Neolithic farmers began nibbling at the ‘wildwood’, our consumption has tended to outrun regrowth. Woodland, trees, forest friendly timber, biomass, firewood and greenwood products are all back in fashion, but Britain is still a net importer of woodland products. Even a country like Sweden imports more cheaply produced wood from the Baltic to use in its power stations. It is considered carbon neutral to keep growing and burning the same mass of firewood, but modern methods of management, felling, processing and transport add to the carbon footprint. The intensive farming of crops for biofuels, and to a lesser extent biomass, create higher carbon emissions, take valuable land away from other crops and are prone to the pest, disease and land fertility problems of any monoculture system. The timber in the photograph comes from clear felling overgrown woodland to bring it back into production as a willow and ash coppice with oak standards. A constant supply of greenwood or firewood is most efficiently produced by using the coppice system: understorey trees are cut down to a short ‘stool’ then allowed to grow again as multiple poles on a regular cycle of anything from four to ten years. The standards are allowed to reach maturity, cut for timber and replanted in rotations of 20-30 years or more. So let’s all burn wood in our 70% efficient stoves - problem solved. Unfortunately, to heat an average family home requires something like 7-9 tonnes of seasoned wood produced from at least 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of well stocked and managed mixed broadleaf coppice. For most householders in Britain, being self-sufficient in firewood is simply not an option and there is not enough working woodland to supply us all.
Click to a larger version of Quiraing Peat Stacks, Trotternish, Isle of Skye, photo © Jean Williamson

Quiraing Peat Stacks, Trotternish, Isle of Skye, photo © Jean Williamson

Some 50-75 million years ago, a volcano threw up lava which became the basalt backbone known as the Trotternish Ridge. During the Carboniferous period of the Palaeozoic era, around 245 million years ago, solar energy was absorbed by primitive moss-, fern- and tree-like plants which used photosynthesis to turn carbon-dioxide and water into complex organic chemicals. When this sub-tropical vegetable matter partly decomposed, in waterlogged conditions with little oxygen, it began to form peat which was then compressed for an eternity by layers of sediment to form coal. The peat so beloved by horticulturists had begun forming in the British Isles by at least the third millennium BC, as the remains of Neolithic and Bronze Age houses, fields and burial chambers, revealed by peat cutting in Ireland and Scotland, attest. As the weather grew colder and wetter in the Iron Age, the formation of acid peat bog increased with sphagnum, and other mosses and grasses, forming dense masses across waterlogged ground, the lower layers decaying to form deep blankets of peat over once fertile land. By June, crofters are on their designated parts of the moor to cut peats and leave them to dry in small stacks. The dried bricks are taken home to be made into a larger stack, traditionally resembling the long, thin, round-cornered croft-house itself. A fit, skilled cutter can throw out around 1000 peats a day, but ‘a croft can burn as many as 15,000 - 18,000 peats in a year’ (Am Baile/The Gaelic Village), so that’s the equivalent of 2-3 weeks of continuous hard work in favourable weather conditions: roughly, 200 of these drying stacks make a full year’s supply.
Click to a larger version of Causeymire Peat Cutting, Mybster, Caithness (Dale & Achkeepster Farms Ltd): photo © Jean Williamson

Causeymire Peat Cutting, Mybster, Caithness (Dale & Achkeepster Farms Ltd): photo © Jean Williamson

Cutting peat by hand for local domestic use removes a non-renewable resource fast enough, doing it on a commercial scale for widespread distribution can strip over 1000 hectares from such sites as Shapwick Heath (Somerset) and Hadfield Moor (South Yorkshire). Forestry plantations and peat cutting in the Caithness and Sutherland Flow Country - the southernmost wholly natural tundra in Europe - was apposed in the 1980s and early ‘90s by the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and other environmental bodies: an ancient, slow-forming, remarkable and irreplaceable ‘wilderness’ habitat was in danger of being removed wholesale. The aptly named greenshanks were upset too. The worst of the afforestation, much of it fed by tax breaks, was halted, but stripping of peat continued. This photograph was taken in 1997 looking south-west from the A9 to the Little River, a tributary of the Thurso. The peat extraction licence for the area immediately north-west was given up in favour of the construction of a wind farm, fully operational by 2004. Between 1954 and 1960, peat from a different site was burnt at the nearby Braehour experimental power station. In Finland, peat is classed as a renewable resource and the Toppila power station is peat-fired. In Ireland, milled peat is used to generate electricity and to make compressed briquettes for domestic fires which scent the evening air. Some of the Scottish whisky distillers, especially on Islay, still use traditional malting processes and manage to imbue their ‘water of life’ with the wonderful smell of peat smoke.
Click to a larger version of Moel Rhiwen Heather Burning, Llandeiniolen, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Moel Rhiwen Heather Burning, Llandeiniolen, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

A mid-March, almost full moon rises from the north-east into the smoke from burning moorland. Heather is burnt in controlled patches on rotations of anything from seven to 25 years to extend its natural life and provide a succession of new growth to feed moorland birds and livestock. Left unmanaged, heather grows long and woody, shades out other plants and eventually dies back. The aim of managed burning is to stimulate new growth from existing roots and dormant seeds, recycle dead material and, if the area is not being grazed by sheep or cattle, prevent scrub and birch taking over the moor. A well managed moor will have a patchwork of heather and other moorland plants at different stages of development to give shelter and food to a wide range of species. Burning is not allowed between 15 April and 31 August; it is a skilled job and must be carried out to strict guidelines designed to prevent runaway fires and protect carbon rich soils. In perfect conditions, when the peat is still wet but the heather dry, a consistent breeze will move the fire steadily through the woody growth, ‘shocking’ heather seeds into germination but leaving existing roots and the peat bed undamaged. Much of the world’s carbon was held in peat reserves, but agriculture, forestry, peat drainage, extraction and erosion are putting it back into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. Waterlogged peat exposed to the air decomposes and releases CO₂, as does peat uncovered by deforestation. Forest fires and accidental, unstoppable peat burns in Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries are considered to have made major contributions to the acceleration in carbon dioxide levels since 1998.
Click to a larger version of Egton High Moor Shooting Butts, North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Egton High Moor Shooting Butts, North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Rounds of drystone walling topped with turf are laid out across the heather in a line at right angles to the road crossing Murk Mire Moor. They are there to hide sportsmen, armed with breech-loading shotguns, who wish to test their skills against the ‘high, fast, jinking flight’ of ‘the King of Gamebirds’; to blast him out of the sky and into the pot. Moorcock or red grouse have long been trapped and snared for dinner, or shot by men walking the heather with dogs. By the early 1800s, grouse moors were being specially created and the ‘grouse shoot’ system of beaters driving ‘farmed’ birds over massed guns was being developed. Although much declined from its Victorian heyday, when over 3,000 grouse moors were available for hire in Scotland alone, joining in the fun ’n’ gun of a grouse shoot is still a crucial status symbol, the purchase of a productive moor a worthwhile investment for City types and rich émigrés. There are still some 3 million acres (1.2 million ha) of grouse moor in Britain, but the grouse population has declined to something like a quarter of a million from its Victorian summer peaks of 5 million pairs (brace) when up to 1.5 million of them would be shot in the season starting on ‘the Glorious Twelfth’ of August. In the 1872 season, High Force and Wemmergill moors (Yorkshire) produced 15,480 and 17,074 brace respectively, and the Maharajah Duleep Singh set a record for shooting 220 brace in a single day at Grandtully (Tayside). By 1888, the record for pointless competitiveness was held by Lord Walsingham who contrived to bag 535 brace in 12½ hours on his Blubberhouse Moors (Yorkshire) estate. Although very hardy, grouse fall victim to a parasite in the heather which can reduce their numbers even more savagely than the guns. The dramatic effects of these threadworms gave gamekeepers the perfect excuse to try to eradicate the ‘vermin’ - mainly birds of prey - they mistakenly thought responsible. Much of the information for this caption comes from the brilliant ‘Birds Brittanica’ by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey.
Click to a larger version of Prince of Wales Road Allotments, Holyhead, Anglesey: photo © Jean Williamson

Prince of Wales Road Allotments, Holyhead, Anglesey: photo © Jean Williamson

In this ‘Age of Stupid’ one ‘Inconvenient Truth’ is that our world is overcrowded, and far too many of us are too irresponsibly selfish and greedy for our own good and that of the planet. The estimated population of 5 million people for England in 1300 was halved by the Great Plague of 1348-9, and it took until the 1650s to rise to 5 million again. The 2010 estimated population of Britain is over 62 million. With an area of some 94060 square miles, that gives us just under one acre (0.4 ha) of land each, including everything from mountain tops to toxic dumps. The Small Holdings and Allotments Act of 1908 considered the standard plot size of 1/16th of an acre (1/40th ha) sufficient to grow enough vegetables to feed a family of four. This area of 10 square rods (253 sq. m), is based on an Anglo-Saxon unit of 5.5 yards, the length of the rod used to control a plough team of eight oxen. In ‘The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency’ published in 1976, John Seymour shows how to manage holdings of one, and five acres, of ‘good, well-drained land’ in the most intensive and efficient way, while adhering to traditional methods of working with natural cycles, using crop and animal rotations to maintain soil fertility and minimise pests and diseases. His scheme for five acres will feed an omnivorous family of 4-6 with some surpluses to sell. It is a demanding regime requiring many skills and much hard work, and does not make a family truly self-sufficient. But take heart, since the withdrawal of Soviet food imports in 1989, the citizens of Havana (Cuba) have ‘greened’ their urban environment and today more than half of their ‘fresh produce is grown within the city limits, using organic compost and simple irrigation systems’. ( We can make a difference here too, even though - as Jude’s son in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ writes in despair before hanging his two siblings and himself - ‘......we are too menny.’
Click to a larger version of Oil Seed Rape, Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Oil Seed Rape, Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Ramblers on the public footpath have cut a dark swathe through a field of rape below Whitehorse Hill. Fashionable farming methods come and go, as do cash crops led by public subsidy and taste. Prehistoric fields were relatively small, especially those cultivated by hand. In Anglo-Saxon and medieval times large open, communal fields were worked in long thin strips for ease of ploughing with oxen. By the 1700s an excessive enthusiasm for order and ‘improvement’ led to dramatic changes in the man-made landscape: wetlands were drained, pastures put to the plough, venerable trees ripped out, common land forcibly enclosed, regimented lines of thorn hedges planted. Witnessing these changes, the poet John Clare wrote passionately of long-established, familiar landscapes being dismembered. In our own times farmers have been paid to remove hedges for the sake of ever larger farm machines and the economies of scale. Grants are now given to plant hedges, sow environmentally helpful crops and maintain wildlife zones damaged by previous practices. Oil seed rape was first grown in Canada to provide a lubricant for steam-driven engines. Its bitterness was bred out to make it useable as animal feed and cooking oil. Rape produces more oil per acre than other oil crops such as flax or soybeans, but it requires heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers whose production releases nitrous oxide - a more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - into the atmosphere. The growing of biofuel crops on a huge scale is not the magic answer to our energy and climate problems. Globally, to replace our consumption of liquid fossil fuels, we would need to turn over so much land to vegetable oil production that other economic, ecological and food supply difficulties would be created, with such issues as soil fertility, water supply, pesticides and genetic modification left unresolved.
Click to a larger version of Carludden China Clay Works, St Austell, Cornwall (Imerys): photo © Mick Sharp

Carludden China Clay Works, St Austell, Cornwall (Imerys): photo © Mick Sharp

Agriculture, fishing, tin and copper mining, tourism: despite having been at the forefront of many ‘gold-rushes’, Cornwall is one of the poorest areas of the UK and qualifies for European Union regional policy grants. The discovery, in 1746, of a very special kind of decayed granite eventually led to a new industry providing work for tin miners who had fallen on hard times. The finding of high quality china clay, or kaolin, by William Cookworthy ended a long search in Britain for a material to rival that used by the Chinese in porcelain and bone china production. By far the biggest modern use for china clay is as a filler and gloss for paper, with only around 12% being used in high quality ceramics. Some of it goes into cosmetics and pharmaceuticals including Kaolin and Morphine, a calmative for wobbly tummies. Most was exported, and china clay became vital to Cornwall’s economy. English China Clays received the Queen’s Award to Industry in 1966, a time when the average weekly wage in Cornwall was around £12 against a national average of £19. The kaolin deposits of Devon and Cornwall started to form some 300 million years ago, an estimated 120 million tons have been removed since quarrying began in 1768 and there are reserves for another 100 years or so. This pit with its cone-shaped ‘sky tip’ has been worked out and covered by a slurry pool or ‘mica dam’, one of the impurities washed out of the raw clay. Under certain conditions the mica imparts an unearthly emerald glow to the pools set in their lunar landscapes. The china clay workings around St Austell cover some 25 square miles; there are plans afoot to reclaim six of the sites to create linked communities forming an ‘eco-town’. Around 1000 homes are planned for this one at West Carclaze, with the sky tip to be retained as a beacon at its heart.
Click to a larger version of Pembroke Oil Refinery, Rhoscrowther, Pembrokeshire (Chevron): photo © Jean Williamson

Pembroke Oil Refinery, Rhoscrowther, Pembrokeshire (Chevron): photo © Jean Williamson

If you would like to buy an oil refinery now is your chance. Owned by Texaco when this photograph was taken, it is now Chevron who, at the time of writing in April 2010, is inviting bids for purchase. The refinery opened in 1964, with a processing capacity of 6 million tonnes of crude oil a year which has gradually been increased to 10.5 million tonnes. Oil tankers come in from the North Sea, Africa and the Middle East. Products, including petrol, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel and fuel oil, go out by sea, pipeline and road. Our lives depend upon a bewildering array of petrochemical articles and substances, and those who ‘know’ cannot agree if we have reached the feared point of global ‘Peak Oil’ production or not. The raw material formed in lake beds and under the sea, now its products are becoming ubiquitous components of beaches and oceans: as much as 80% of marine debris is estimated to be of plastic which does not biodegrade and is slow to photo-degrade when wet. Chevron is the biggest private sector employer in Pembrokeshire, puts around £65m into the local economy, and is proud of its record on improved efficiency and effluent water quality, reduced emissions, environmental management and the biodiversity of the land around its refinery. Some of the land is rented out to local farmers for grazing and cultivation. In 1993, this field was sporting a ‘set-aside’ crop of corn-poppies and other ‘weeds of cultivation’ which had been sprayed out of the wheat fields by chemical herbicides. Reliant on petrochemicals, our society seems increasingly dependent on the products of the corn-poppy’s exotic cousin as well. The opium poppy gives us codeine, morphine and, of course, heroin, reassuringly called diamorphine when used medically for pain relief. The Assyrians knew poppies as ‘the daughters of the field’, we dub the plastic pellets in the sea: ‘mermaids’ tears

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