False Dichotomies

Today’s post is a bit of a diversion from the normal run of things, but bear with me. The ability to think clearly, recognise false arguments and counter bad logic is valuable for anyone, in any circumstances.

My father, when we were kids, used to drive us nuts on a regular basis. A simple yes/no question invariably drew difficult answers.

Tea or coffee?   Yes.

Cake or ice-cream?   Yes.

Do you want badgers or hedgehogs?

I don’t believe we ever asked Dad that last one, but it’s the same principle and I’ve put it in for a reason.

I’m getting fed-up of the hysteria over badgers. The UK has badgers. Lots of badgers. 288,000 at least, probably more since that’s a 2011 figure and the badger population is rising all the time, despite 45,000 a year squashed on the roads. Dairy farmers aren’t that happy about the badger population density because badgers, like cows, can catch, carry and transmit tuberculosis. Whether cows give it to badgers or badgers give it to cows is probably irrelevant – though TB has long been known to be a cattle disease, arriving in the human population when we started keeping cattle as livestock, thousands of years ago, even though now most TB in humans (in the UK, at least) is caught from other humans.

Whichever way it goes, a farmer whose cows test positive for TB has to destroy the affected animal(s). So a farmer with TB infected badgers roaming about his farm runs the risk of losing his livelihood as his cows may pick up TB from the badgers. The argument there goes, there’s lots of cows and badgers are cute, so the cows (and farmers) should be sacrificed for the badgers.

I’ve had first-hand experience of badgers and livestock – some years ago we lost our small duck flock in the back garden overnight, together with some chickens. The culprit? We found the cheeky beggar sleeping in the henhouse, curled up in the nestbox with his dinner (one of the ducks) snuggled under his chin, ready for a late snack. It was a badger.

(Newsflash – real badgers are not “cute”, no matter what they look like on TV. They are amazingly smelly and can bite your leg to the bone when cornered.)

They’re strictly protected. You can’t disturb their setts (burrows) nor shoot, trap, snare, drive ’em out with terriers or otherwise persecute them. But there’s no law that says you have to give them board and lodging in your henhouse so young brock went down the drive at high speed with the prickly end of a brush chasing after his tail and we no longer keep ground-nesting birds like ducks. He was probably a young male on the roam for a new sett to move into – young males get moved on to fresh territories by their elders.

Now, I don’t particularly hold it against badgers that they act like the predators they are. They may mostly eat earthworms and beetles but they’re members of the weasel family and they’re carnivores. Show a carnivore a sitting duck (pun intended) and he’ll head in teeth-first. I don’t expect a badger (or a fox) to consider my property rights or the ethics of scoffing the livestock I’ve carefully nourished and cared for without due recompense for my loss. I expect a badger to eat unguarded poultry, just as I expect any predator to be a predator. That why we lock the hens up at night (foxes), that’s why the rabbit shed door isn’t left open (cats) and why I’m careful not to discuss the full extent of my prepping activities with anyone (humans).

Not all predators go on four legs.

Let’s get back to hedgehogs. The UK used to have lots of hedgepigs, or urchins. It was estimated there were upwards of 30 million in the 1950s, when badger numbers were lower, cities were smaller, there were less people and more hedges. Now there’s probably less than 1.5 million. Tiger populations are decreasing more slowly than this! Causes of the decline? Certainly habitat loss, to some extent – less hedges, bigger fields, more intensive agriculture, more pesticides (means less slugs/beetles for hedgepigs to eat). Urbanisation is probably irrelevant – back gardens and parks, provided they’re reasonably untidy, are superb hedgehog habitat. More people…. probably mostly irrelevant too, except more people means more road-traffic and hedgehogs famously have road-crossing problems. But badgers? Badgers eat hedgehogs. They’re the only animal in the UK (except people) which can get past the spiky wrapper to the meat on the inside.

Kew Gardens used to have lots of hedgehogs, apparently. Then in the 1980s, badgers moved in and now Kew, 300 acres of superb hedgehog habitat, has 60+ badgers and zero hedgehogs.

Obviously badgers and hedgehogs have both co-existed in the UK since the end of the Ice Age so it’s possible, under the right circumstances, for them to continue co-existing now. But with blanket protection for brock and an exploding badger population, maybe the time has come to ask, are we over-protecting badgers and what will we sacrifice to keep the badger-huggers happy? Hedgehogs? Farmers’ livelihoods? Poultry?

Are hedgehogs “cuter” than badgers?

Now, I called this post false dichotomies for a reason. Remember that question?

Do you want badgers or hedgehogs?

This is a false dichotomy because, as my father so delighted in pointing out with his frustrating one-word answer, it’s not an either/or choice. I’d like badgers AND hedgehogs, please. In a reasonable balance and, while we’re at it, I don’t mind foxes but only in moderation. I’d like ground-nesting birds not to be wiped out by exploding pine-marten numbers. I don’t see why anglers playing catch-and-release games with innocent fish complain when a hungry otter (shock horror) catches and doesn’t release some fish (and I’ve no time for anyone who spends their time ranting about social inequality and anti-austerity while taking home more money for less work than any other politician in the UK when there’s ex-servicemen living rough. When was the last time a politician showed willing to put their life on the line for the country?)

The relevant word in my answer is balance. Badgers presumably had some kind of natural check on their population during the millennia when they and hedgehogs lived in balance in Britain – maybe bears eat badgers, or lynx, or maybe wolves, or perhaps there were enough aurochs roaming the forests to squash 45,000 badgers a year. Something must have kept badger numbers down enough for hedgehogs to thrive alongside them, but it’s not here now. Whatever it was, it’s a fair bet that humans removed it (or them) because we’ve had such a massive impact on this island of ours since then. We wiped out all the big predators, we cut down a lot of the forests, we built towns and cities (there are urban badgers, if not so many as urban foxes!) and, admittedly, we also hunted badgers and tortured them in baiting rings. I’ve no time for anyone who’s deliberately cruel to any creature, whether it’s pulling the wings off flies or setting dogs on badgers, rats, each other or whatever. If you’re going to kill, it should be for a good reason (“fun” isn’t a good reason) and it should be quick and clean. Kill to eat, kill to protect yourself (I wonder how many of the ardent “animal-lovers” would willingly allow a tiger or a bear to bite them?), kill to prevent suffering, or kill to keep the balance, but I don’t kill for fun – and do, please, note there’s a distinction between killing for fun and taking a pride in killing something well. If you don’t take a pride in killing well, that means you don’t mind killing incompetently. (While we’re on the subject, please do stop and finish off your roadkill, don’t leave it lying in agony for hours while the crows take it apart piecemeal. Animals feel pain and fear just as humans do so show some decency and kill the poor beggars properly. Quickly.)

After all, if people didn’t kill wild rabbits, we’d have no cereal crops. If we didn’t shoot foxes that raid henhouses, we’d have no chickens or eggs. Pigeons and rooks damage cereal crops, badgers take poultry (and hedgehogs) and deer can devastate crops and young trees alike. We took away the things that kept their populations in balance before, so it’s up to us to provide that balance now – by culling the populations that are too strong, and encouraging the populations that are struggling.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirzig addresses this problem of false dichotomy though the metaphor of the horns of a bull. It’s a very appropriate metaphor, since another word for ‘dichotomy’ is ‘dilemma’, which means ‘two horns’. It’s been a while since I last read the book and I don’t remember exactly how many options he came up with for avoiding having to choose “left horn” or “right horn” of his dilemma, but it was about 13 or thereabouts, I think.

Hedgehogs on the left, versus badgers on the right. Now…. we could refuse to enter the arena. Give them both exactly the same treatment and refuse to face the problem. Unfortunately this will continue the current course and it’ll be curtains, urchins.

We could establish hedgehog reserves where badgers can’t go. Offshore islands, perhaps? Oh, wait, offshore islands are ideal ground-nesting-bird territory and Mrs Tiggywinkle, if you didn’t know, loves eggs. That’s why there’s hedgehog-removal schemes in the Western Isles.

We could re-introduce the big predators that used to keep badger numbers down. Oops, no, remember why we wiped them to begin with? Lynx and wolves take livestock and bears have been known to kill people. Probably not a starter for ten, that one!

We could fall back on culling badger numbers to protect farmers, cows and hedgehogs – we just need to find a reliable, humane and effective method, which was the major problem in the trial culls over the past couple of years. Live trap and then shoot at close range? Go back to gassing setts?

Any more suggestions?

False dichotomies like this show up all the time in real life. In climate change, one of the most common false dichotomies is “natural or man-made” causes. It’s not an either-or question because there are both natural and man-made causes – but the natural ones don’t cause such rapid change that we risk being unable to adapt.

Politics is another area where false dilemmas breed – do you vote Labour, or Tory? Though this, looking at the recent election, seems less of a dilemma now we also have UKIP and the SNP getting major support in some areas! In the States it’s even worse, since they only seem to have Republican and Democrat as flavours.

It’s worth learning how to spot these false dichotomies and find ways around them in any context – anything that helps with thinking in colour instead of black and white is good, as my father used to say!

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RIP Tigger – but his genes live on.

I’ve been concerned about Tigger, my harlie buck, for a week or so. He started looking a bit unhappy on his feet and “rough” generally – ungroomed, a bit miserable – towards the beginning of last week so I moved him to a smaller cage where he didn’t have to travel so far between food hopper, hayrack and water bottle, just leaving the door open for a couple of hours a day so he could go sunbathe, socialise or whatever. He wasn’t getting any better though and watching him when he reluctantly moved around, he seemed to be trying to keep his weight on his front feet and off his back legs, trying not to move them more than he had to – which is a problem when you’re an animal that hops in long bounds, normally. That made me wonder if he’d damaged his back.

The cage-rest didn’t help and he carried on looking worse, so this morning I put him out of his misery.

I was right about the back injury – there was a patch just behind his last ribs where the tissues around his spine had swollen and discoloured, and the muscles just behind that felt softer and thinner than the rest of his back so I think he must have slipped a disc or the like. I know from my own experience that injured backs take months to stop causing agony, years to heal and they never come back to 100% anyway, so I’m glad I put the old boy down. He had a good life, he fathered some excellent kits for me, and his genes will continue through Jet, Ebony and Ivory, so for a rabbit he’s left a pretty good legacy!

I’ll keep a harlie kit from Ivory’s bunch, I think – a doe, if she’s got one! – and pick out a good harlie buck from a future litter by Ebony to go with it.

I’ll take a screwdriver to Tigger’s old cage and take the upper levels out of it, then any future occupant won’t run the risk of falling off them and doing its back in, too. If they’re determined to fall off something, they’ll have to go a bit further afield!

What Do You Do When The Taps Don’t Work?

This post is inspired by some reports from the States, not anything amiss in the state of our supplies here – yet, anyway!

I came across an article on the current problems in water supply in Baltimore and Detroit that sparked a bit of thinking on my part. Unlike California, the problem isn’t lack of water, per se. Both Baltimore and Detroit have plenty of water available. The problem here is that maintaining the infrastructure to collect, purify and supply water to a city is an expensive job – maintenance costs, wages, etc – that needs to be paid for, and both Detroit and Baltimore choose to pay for this process via billing customers for their water (Don’t get excited about “free” water in the UK – it’s not free, we just pay for our supply via our taxes). If you can’t pay your water bill, the water supply gets shut off.

It’s in the nature of cities in economically depressed areas to have a fair proportion of long-term unemployed, jobless and generally poor people who can’t afford to pay for much. In the case of both Baltimore and Detroit, they’re seriously economically depressed (part of America’s “rustbucket” belt where the death of heavy industry and off-shoring to the Far East has stripped jobs away from the area) and as a result, a certain number of people default on their water bills. There are, by the looks of things, some schemes for assisting those in financial difficulties, but at the end of the day those water pipes still cost money to keep in one piece with clean water flowing through them, so the water companies have to find the money somewhere to keep operating. If people aren’t paying the bills, where does the money come from to pay the workers to fix leaks or operate the treatment plants?

I’m not that interested in the whys and wherefores or the philosophy of paying directly for water or having it tucked into the tax bills. What exercised my mind was scenario planning. Take this a little further (as I suspect will happen to all major cities at some point in the future) and play the mind-games: suppose this happened where I live? Suppose there wasn’t the money to pay for clean water to fall out of taps in endless quantities? As a survivalist, what would I do if the water supply failed, long-term?

Short term, say a few days or weeks, is no challenge at all. We have a big water-butt in the garden and the climate here is soggy enough it stays full, or near-full, all the time, even through we’re using it for gardening and for the bunnies and chooks. We could easily fill up a bucket and pour it into the Berky filter in the kitchen and we’d have pure, clean, safe water for ourselves. If we lived in a city and had some warning (like knowing we’d just had a shut-off notice!) we could fill up containers and store water to tide us over a short break in supply.

But if the supply’s out for months? Or forever? What then?

The usual recommendations are that a human needs 2 litres of water to drink per say, plus washing and cooking water, say about 4 litres a day, per person. 4kg of water. In a week, that’s 28L of water per person. 126L per month. 1,512L per year. Multiply by however many are in your household and then think about the weight-bearing capability of your floors. You really can’t store that much water upstairs!

What if you live in a flat?

And then there’s that perennial problem, the neighbours. If the water’s out for a couple of hours, you can bet someone will pop round to ask if you could let them fill the kettle, because they didn’t have any water stored! All very well when you know they’ll fix the problem in a couple of hours, but what do you do when you’re the only one in the area with a water butt and a filter and the neighbours haven’t had any water for a few days? You can’t go without water for very long – even in a fairly damp, cool climate like the UK, people get thirsty after a few hours and dehydrated after a few more. Bottled water and soft drinks will only last so long and then the local shops will be stripped bare.

After a day or two your neighbours will be losing the plot. Dehydration affects brain function and irrationality will set in. If it’s a choice between drink untreated water or die of thirst, people will drink the dirty water, and since there won’t be water spare for washing, it’ll encourage the outbreak of the diseases of poor hygiene – cholera, typhoid, typhus, E coli and salmonella.

I’ll admit to a big advantage here (and it’s not accidental!); I live in a smallish village in a rural area, not in the middle of a city. We have natural water sources available by way of a small river, various springs and some old wells. I’m not planning on sharing my filter with the village but I can teach people how to build their own, using sand, gravel, charcoal and a bucket, so if (when) our taps run dry in the aftermath of civilisation, hopefully I can reduce the risk of being mobbed by neighbours desperate for a drink.

But what do you do if you live in a flat in a city? How do you supply your water needs without the infrastructure and utilities we all take for granted?

In other news: the bunnies all seem fine and the kits are opening their eyes and beginning to stagger around their cages, beginning the process of driving their mothers slightly demented. I had to pick Jezebel up to get her back in her cage this morning, she wasn’t going back in with those ‘orrible little monsters willingly! In the garden we’re pricking out brassicas and netting them at the moment – both butterflies and birds liking brassica leaves! – and the peas and beans are sprouting nicely. The parsnips haven’t put their shoots up yet but parsnips are often slow so we’re not worrying about it. They’ll turn up in their own good time! We’ve also ordered this year’s tomatoes – last year we were disappointed in our crop from plants bought locally, so we’ve gone back to the mail-order company which supplied our plants the year before, when we had bumper harvests from grafted plants. They should arrive mid-June and we’re looking forward to more big, delicious harvests!

Last August I put some eggs into waterglass as an experiment: my grandmother used to preserve eggs this way during WWII and I’m always interested in food storage methods that don’t rely on a constant supply of electricity so I put 4 dozen away to see how it works. I fished them out a couple of days ago to see the results of the experiment and I’m very pleased: they all looked like eggs, smelled like good eggs, and although when broken the white is very runny and the yolk breaks rather easily (it’d be difficult to get good fried eggs out of them), they taste normal and delicious.

All very good – but then I had 4 dozen eggs to use up! An orgy of cooking and baking ensued and we now have over 9lbs of cakes and another 9lbs of quiche in the freezer.