Category Archives: nature conservation

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!

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October Diary 2016

It’s about time for another diary post, since it’s been a busy week here in Somerset.

Thursday was the Community Food Forum, an annual event organised by Feed Avalon. Around forty people gathered this year – its third – to network and exchange ideas. It was great to see projects like Plotgate, a community supported agriculture venture near Barton St David, developing from their initial fund raising to a successful business!

There seems to be a steady increase of interest in growing food, with new sectors engaging every year. This time there were people who work with mental health, where its therapeutic benefits are being recognised.

Saturday saw the Glastonbury Town Council hold a public consultation on possible uses for a splendid old building they have just acquired for the community. It would be ideal for a practical crafts centre; I’d like to see that combined with an ‘eco-college’ like Dartington Hall in Devon. We could explore local materials for textiles and ceramics – Somerset having a lot of wool and clay.

edible flower baskets in Glastonbury
edible flower baskets in Glastonbury

In the evening, I went to the energy evening hosted by Green Wedmore. The purpose of the presentation and following debate was to explore future energy options for the local area. The range of these on the table was impressive. Not only solar, wind and hydropower, but also biomass from the surrounding RSPB nature reserves and anaerobic digestion using farm waste.

Vince Cable, former business secretary, gave the introduction and Pete Capener from Bath and West Community Energy provided an inspiring talk on how the renewables industry is adapting to a hostile government. I chatted to a long-serving member of the parish council, who’d recently had an impressive 16Kw array installed on the roofs of her farm buildings – using panels built in Wrexham. We snacked on excellent smoked trout vol au vents from the nearby aqua farm. The people of Wedmore intend to take quality with them into their sustainable future!

Someone had brought a particularly backward article just published in the Times. After spending much of the last forty years off grid, I view people who harp on about ‘the lights going out’ with the same astonishment as I’d view a flat-earther. Lights are easy. Washing machines, even freezers, are well within the scope of a modern personal renewables system without mains backup.

Tumble driers now, you could have a point.  It’s not such a rousing battle cry though – ‘without nuclear power, you might have to actually hang your clothes out to dry!’

Meanwhile, the smart consumer is considering the benefits of making their own electricity…..

solar power regulator

The best way to start this process is by looking at the devices you use already, and finding out how much electricity they use.  In the Energy chapter of the Resilience Handbook, task eight asks ‘can you calculate how much of your home could run on a supply of 2 kilowatts?’  This level of supply is not only possible with a personal solar array, but designed to use a small ‘suitcase’ generator as emergency backup. ( More power requires a larger, noisier generator.)

Once you know the answer to this question, you’ve got a much better idea what local energy can do for you – it’s more resilient than a centralised power supply!

For more information about food and energy resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’

Malta – Transport and Trees

We thought we had come well prepared for the challenge of hiring a car in a strange country after arriving late at night. We’d printed out a full list of Google directions to the hotel at the far end of Malta. Luckily my colleague, Linda Benfield, had also bought a map at Bristol Airport.  It was a very valuable last minute purchase!

The directions relied on street names. We found one later, sixteen feet up a wall in inch high letters, some of which were missing. Navigation was a challenge even with the Marco Polo map. Signage seemed optional, the names of towns changed as you got nearer and EU funding had inspired a proliferation of new roundabouts. There was even an extra tunnel to the ones depicted!

Hedgehog sign
Beware of the hedgehogs!

Being resilient, we had a torch to do map reading with, and made it to the hotel. The ‘Riviera’ sign lights up blue at night and is something of a landmark as you drive the the hairpin bends of Marfa Ridge. There was no need to worry about Reception closing, as a coach full of German tourists had just arrived.

Discovering it only took ten minutes to go from really close to our sought after destination in central Mdina, to being confused on Route One at the northern edge of the island was a revelation, and explained why we spent the first few days visiting sites at random as we stumbled across them. We were simply expecting too much distance.

Malta is a small island with a long history. Everyone knows their way around. If you’re able-bodied, there’s an excellent bus service – without, alas, the iconic yellow buses, which were stood down in 2011. Walking is a good option too. Some of the important Neolithic sites can only be accessed on foot. Remember the summer sun can be merciless in this open landscape; take water and a hat.

Land here has been cultivated for centuries and deforestation is a problem. On their arrival in 1529, the Knights of St John – soon to be the Knights of Malta – reported ‘an island without trees.’

Rural landscapes are divided into tiny vegetable plots, there is neither space nor water for many large trees. Although it was only 20 C in January, the impact of the summer heat was baked into the very stones.

The contrast with Buskett Forest Gardens was startling. Here, we found open water, running streams, cool and damp air. This reforestation project dates back to its use as a hunting preserve by the Knights in the 1600s. It’s now a Natura 2000 site. Native tree species from Malta’s once extensive forests support a variety of rare wildlife, including many migratory birds.

Buskett Forest Gardens, Malta 2016
Open water in the forest

On Sundays, as we discovered, many Maltese families come here for picnics, and the car park becomes very full. We were hoping to find the famous cart tracks and caves, which were surely just at the top of that hill, but couldn’t find the way. Perhaps it was signposted from the other side of the plateau. I recommend hiring a guide!