Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Praise Of Trees

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When you drive through Northland, there appears to be quite a few trees on farms. Shelterbelts often line the roads and here and there are patches of pine plantations and pockets of native bush. However, when you fly over the district (or use Google Earth) it is very obvious that there are in fact very few trees amongst the thousands of hectares of bare pasture.

In parts of France, which have a very similar climate to Northland, the landscape patterns are quite different. There appears to be many more trees in the landscape. I suspect that this is due to hundreds of years of peasant farming which broke the land titles up into small pieces and kept a lot of trees for practical reasons (food, timber and shelter).

When I was at school we were taught that New Zealand farming was much more efficient than French farms. We were told that farmer’s incomes here were higher too due to them owning larger farms, greater use of technology and modern processing methods.

At the time that was probably right. But when France helped form the EEC, their farm gate prices rose and production on these so called backward farms rapidly increased. Eventually, the EEC had to pay French farmers to produce less to better match production with consumption.

This was a bit of a mystery to me because I really believed what I was taught. I now know that some peasant farming methods actually make a lot of sense when you take a longer historical view. Food markets and politics are always changing and it obviously pays to be fairly self sufficient and not have all your eggs in one basket.

Perhaps there is a timely message here for Northland farmers who try to maximize production from one or two types of animals such as cattle and sheep. Like many areas in rural France, Northland is close to a large prosperous urban area. This offers plenty of opportunities for a diverse range of small specialized farms and mixed land use on larger farms.

Trees can fill that niche and lower the carbon footprint of livestock grazing as well. We are blessed with a climate that can successfully grow trees from both temperate and sub-tropical regions. In the farmers markets in Northland, there is of course a demand for familiar fruit such as plums and apples etc. The better prices though are gained from the more exotic fruits that grow well here such as bananas, figs, cherimoyas, dates and sapotes.

Timber for housing, furniture and shipbuilding are also needed (including natives). I was impressed with the way a farmer in Waipu persuaded his children to plant quite a few timber trees on an unproductive part of the farm. These trees now stabilize the land and provide valuable shelter. His kids put in the hard graft and their efforts are now secured in writing to enable each child to pay off student loans and capital for other ventures.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pigeon Alert

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Native pigeons in New Zealand might be very beautiful, but they are not the smartest of birds. Unfortunately, their city slicker cousins are not much brighter. They got into the news recently when it was discovered that 10,000 of them had joined the Chinese Army.

A Chinese military spokesman has been reported to say that messenger pigeons are being used as a backup if electronic communications break down. This explanation sounds plausible enough, however are there possibly other uses for these pigeons that we do not know about?

For quite some time now, there has been much speculation about the development of a Chinese Stealth Bomber. It has been commonly thought that it will resemble the American versions that look like giant Manta Rays. Stealth Bombers are designed to sneak into enemy territory (by evading radar detection) and then make a surprise attack.

There have been pictures of various prototypes of Chinese Stealth Bombers appearing in the media, but so far there has been no reliable confirmations of one flying. What we do know for sure is that the Chinese Army has 10,000 pigeons being trained.

The Chinese Army also has access to the latest advances in Nano Technology. It is now feasible to make very tiny machines to interact with (and potentially control), any part of the body. It is quite possible therefore, that giant aircraft are only red herrings and the real Stealth Bombers are in fact electronically controlled pigeons.

If indeed Chinese scientists are using pigeons in this way, then they have certainly chosen the right bird for the job. Pigeons can be trained to reliably return home from over 700 kilometers away and twice that distance has been shown to be possible. It is thought that pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic fields to guide them over long distance and then with their excellent eyesight, they use landmarks for the last 80 kilometers.

Visiting a city park might never be the same again. Some of the innocent looking pigeons, that jostle to get your food scraps, might in fact be stealth bombers in disguise. All it would take would be a button to be pushed in Beijing and it will be all on. Forget about conventional warfare, pigeons would be able to disrupt a nation’s military capacity behind the lines in devastating ways.

How on earth could you stop explosive pigeons terrifying the civilian population and then attempt to shoot down thousands of controlled pigeons that carry nano nuclear bombs?

You might of course prefer to accept Chinese assurances that their weapons and huge army, are kept purely for defensive purposes. It is true, that apart from invading Tibet, the Chinese Army has been content to keep the Chinese Government in power at home.

Even so, the Chinese Government would be wise to keep sharp eye on the personal in the pigeon brigade. It might very well attract the wrong sort of people who would like to carry out a “Cooo d’├ętat” and threaten World peace.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kaipara's Tidal Turbines

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After years of speculation and hearings, it seems that the Kaipara Harbour will soon be the site of New Zealand’s first tidal power station. I am sure a lot of people have mixed feelings about this. We all need electric power to run our houses and businesses, but we also need a healthy environment to maintain an enjoyable and sustainable way of life.

Most of us probably take reliable supplies of electricity for granted and it would be very hard to live without it. As we all know, every day there appears to be a new “must have” appliance that is bound to increase our power bills.

Northland’s power supply comes from far away in other regions. This will change radically if Crest Energy fulfils its expectations to use its tidal turbines on the Kaipara Harbour. They expect to produce enough power to supply all current electrical demand from Albany to Cape Reinga.

Ruawai and Dargaville will be the closest towns to the turbines and this must surely offer them unique opportunities to access cheaper power. This is because a lot of power is lost transmitting it away from the generators and so power hungry businesses are bound to be waiting to invest there if the price is right.

In my opinion, one of those enterprises would be fish farming. A while back, I heard an interesting BBC documentary about salmon farming in the fiords of Chile and I could see how easy it would be for the Kaipara Harbour to attract that sort of investment. Various people were interviewed and the least happy were the native Indian people whose ancestors have been living there for thousands of years.

They were slowly being forced to move out because of the pollution that has upset the purity of the water. As a consequence, the wild fish stocks and shellfish beds declined and can no longer support the local tribes with food. Another problem was the use of thousands of electric lights to boost the growth of salmon. These further upset the natural balance, along with the diesel generator fumes and spillage from servicing craft.

The Kaipara Harbour too has been under a lot of environmental pressure ever since man first arrived here. What we see today is very different from pre-human times. Even though there are some positive changes in land use that are slowing the decline of water quality, there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the proposed Crest Energy Kaipara Trust Fund could put some money in that direction now that their project has the green light.

The Crest Energy website assures us that their turbines will not have a negative affect on fish in the Kaipara Harbour. However, I imagine the photo on the homepage will do little to calm their opponents. Some might see it as a large group of birds waiting on the shoreline for the tidal turbines to provide their daily feed of “fish in chips”.