Oct 012011
 

Three Cheers for Aberdeen City Council!  The Cull is on Hold!  Or so you might think if you glanced at a headline in tonight’s Evening Express. Voice’s Suzanne Kelly writes.

Several people on the anti-cull e-mailing lists have seen these headlines and written to say how happy they are the deer are safe.
‘Thank goodness, we can all forget about the cull and get back to business as usual’.

But what is the truth behind this and other media stories, and what is the truth? Conflicting information is  leaking out of Marischal College like a particularly leaky sieve.

There has been Council and anti-cull advertising.  There have been stories in the Press & Journal and the Evening Express, quoting experts and animal organisations.

The City has unnamed officers making statements, and city rangers apparently say that community councils are now OK with the cull.  It is time to look behind the headlines, read between the lines of the propaganda, and challenge what the city and rangers are saying.

First, let’s look at the last few weeks’ worth of media advertising.

In terms of advertising, you may have seen the anti-cull ads which were paid for by Animal Concern; these ran in the Evening Express and the Aberdeen Citizen. These quarter-page colour ads spelled out the logical reasons for opposing the cull.

Aberdeen City meanwhile took out a four-page, full colour supplement in the Aberdeen Citizen on 7 September. This for the average person would have cost at least a thousand pounds; it would be of interest to find out what the City spends on this and similar advertising in these service-cutting, low budget days.  This pull-out was to tell you how green and ecologically-minded the City is.

A portion of this supplement (approximately a third of a page in size) concerned the deer cull. Or as the City prefers to call it, the ‘City Woodlands.’ The ad says nothing about a deer cull, but calls on schools and small businesses to help plant the trees. The reader is directed to contact Ian Tallboys for further information. Businesses are told that the scheme can help:

“as part of their overall carbon management work. This will reduce the impact of their greenhouse gas emissions.”

The ad also says:

“The tree planting work will start in early 2012, ground and weather conditions permitting.”

And apparently:

 “planning of the second phase of tree for every citizen planting is almost complete, with funding applications in place.”

This is being tied to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the woodland sites are selected:

 “to provide a living, breathing legacy and tribute to her Majesty the Queen”

There is a very good reason I have bored my readers with these details. Firstly – we already have a ‘living, breathing legacy’ on Tullos Hill. We have a diverse ecosystem supporting a vast variety of flora and fauna. We are going to kill our existing living, breathing legacy because some politicians (Cllr Malone for one) decided to do so.

If you read this ad, you would know nothing about the proposed deer cull. You might also conclude that some substantial carbon offsetting benefits had been expected in order that the City felt comfortable telling businesses the scheme would benefit them in this regard. The calculations I have previously reported, the information from animal charities, and common sense tell us that the benefits are negligible.

For one thing, we are apparently having a 21,000 seat, glow-in-the-dark football stadium built fairly close to the south of Tullos Hill with houses, offices and 1400 parking spaces. I challenge anyone to tell me that the Tullos tree scheme will offset this stadium to any meaningful degree.

It seems straightforward:  planting will go ahead, as funding applications are in place and the City’s own advertising says that planting starts in early 2012.  However, up crops some issues with what I must loosely call ‘journalism’ appearing in the Press & Journal and Evening Express.

Going back to the earlier part of his week, P&J articles advised that protestors were going to stand in front of guns.  You will have seen quotes apparently from the British Deer Society and Chris Packham saying deer culls are necessary.  These experts and their support of culls appear alongside direct quotes from my asking that:

“the city must come up with a better plan and halt this senseless cull.”

If you read these articles quickly or casually, you could easily come to the conclusion that Chris Packham and the British Deer Society support this specific Tullos cull.  At the time of writing, I have made initial contact with Packham’s agent and the Deer Society:  neither were able to confirm they had been contacted on the specific Tullos case.

In fact, both parties were interested to hear what I had to say about the history of this whole scheme.  When they get back to me, I will update everyone.

I had also given the P&J a detailed press release spelling out the major flaws in the public consultation, the opinion of the Scottish SPCA, and so on.  Not a word of this side of the story appears in print.

So – when is the cull?

The police are not saying.  The City is however saying something different to everyone who asks.  Today, 1 October, the Press & Journal have asserted the cull may be delayed by two weeks for financial reasons.,  In the 29 September Press & Journal article:

“a [City Council] spokeswoman said that Saturday was the earliest date in the hunting season that deer management can take place.  However, any such activity would be subject to weather conditions and the availability of staff, she added.”

By the way, the City have said they don’t need to give anyone any notice and can put gunmen on the hill at will.  People who understand arms, guns and hunting tell me bullets can travel very considerable distances (this is not to mention the damage and sheer agony they cause to anything that is shot).  So, we will either be suddenly excluded from the hill for the gunman/men to get killing, or they will shoot with us present.

Neighbouring residents in homes and trailer parks were appalled  and worried when I spoke to them earlier this week.  Two men told me they feed the deer in winter, and the deer are veritably tame.  Another man told me a similar story over the phone; he is distraught that the deer he has watched and fed for decades are to be shot for non-existent trees.  No one I contacted has been warned of shooters coming to the hill at the time of writing.

But I digress.  Now we come to the glaring Evening Express headline of Friday 30 September:

DEER CULL OFF… FOR NOW”

The story on Page 5 has a headline fragment ‘move to protect trees’  which makes it seem as if this is the only way to protect trees.  We all by now know this is not the case.

Unfortunately, whoever the City’s ‘spokeswoman’ was on Thursday has been contradicted by a ‘city council spokesman’.  I guess it is true:  ’24 hours IS a long time in politics.’  The spokesman said:

“It takes time for money to filter through.  The long-term plan for tree-planting and the deer population haven’t changed.’  According to the Reporter, D Ewen, the spokesman added ‘..it could be months before the cull started.”

You might think an accurate headline would  have been ‘Deer Cull could be months away’ – not ‘Deer Cull Off – For Now’

If you are not yet sufficiently confused as to if/when a cull will take place and whether or not the tree scheme has the funding and business community support, someone else at the City has further muddied the waters.

A councillor has been told by yet another anonymous person that no cull will start until after the trees are planted, and that won’t happen for months.  Of all the oddball anonymous City leaks, this one takes some beating.  This calls for a brief diversion as to what we are actually looking at in terms of deer per tree sapling.

First, the Forestry Commission letter – sent by me to both the Press & Journal months ago, says the previous planting which cost the taxpayer £43,800 failed due to deer browing and weeds.  Yes, and weeds.  Somehow, the city and the P&J only mention the deer as being the cause of failure.  Weeding 89,000 trees sounds like quite a job to me – I do hope they have it all planned out.

The Evening Express do write:

“And the council had to hand over £43,831 paid out by Forestry commission Scotland after it failed to protect the trees in Tullos”

But other news reports seem to pin the entire failure of the previous planting on the deer alone.

The press inaccuracies go on and on.  For instance, ‘hundreds’ signed petitions according to the Evening Express.  The figure I supplied and can document is 2,400+, (not counting community councils which represent thousands more).

Speaking of community councils, one of our city rangers has put it about that the community councils are favouring the planting and the cull.  He surely must know this is inaccurate.  I will be seeking an immediate explanation and if necessary a retraction from him and an explanation – that’s if some of the community councils don’t beat me to it.  I have read many of the community council letters of protest to the city:  the community councils are not happy.

The press make little mention of how the deer cull was planned in November but left out of the phase 2 consultation (which in its mention of rabbit management made everyone I’ve spoken with assume rabbits were the only obstacle.  Why on earth mention rabbit fencing when you are planning to shoot deer – if not to get your consultation to sail past the public?).

If the City and the mainstream press wonder why people do not trust them to deliver facts about the cull now, they need look no further than this first initial manipulation.

The new maths

I pointed out the absurdity of the City’s need to cull the deer many times, including the initial plan for 40,000 trees.  This would have had the 29 deer all chomping some 1,379 tree saplings.  But the tree figure suddenly grew (no pun intended) to Ms Watt’s claim of some 89,000 trees.

This makes our tiny deer (which live 6-7 years on average) eating 3,068 trees each.  But the Council plan to kill some 9 deer this season (unless they have changed their collective mind again) – and continue killing for years to come.  Look at the figures again:  20 deer eating 40,000 trees is 2,000 trees per deer.  Those must be hungry deer, but they are as nothing compared to 20 deer eating 89,000 trees:  this calculates to a stag-gering (pun intended) 4,450 trees per deer on Tullos Hill.  Now this is food for thought.

But the press / city leaks don’t’ stop coming.

For some reason, most of the people telling us not to worry about any cull at present are anonymous. When the tree scheme was first announced, politicians and council officials were all very keen to get their names in the news – Aileen Malone said how great everything would be for one example.

If no funding is in place, then the council wasted some serious money on its full colour advertising in the Aberdeen Citizen earlier this month. It was saying how great the tree scheme was. The ad encouraged local schools to help plant trees, and told local businesses to help, implying that the C02 offsetting benefits could help with their C02 targets.

Why would they place this ad and ask for help and sponsorship if they didn’t have funding?

The hunting – or legal hunting – season is not a very long one; this further makes me question assertions that nothing will happen for months.  The initial SNH letter of November 2010 recommends careful ‘handling’ of the public’.  Do you have the feeling we’re being handled – and possibly mis-handled?

Who is telling the truth – the city spokeswoman who said the earliest the killing can start is Saturday 1 October, the City spokesman who indicated there is no funding in place and a cull won’t start soon, the claim that the cull is delayed by two weeks because of lack of funding, or the third anonymous city person who said the killing won’t start until the trees are planted?

I would dearly love to tell you the truth about the financials (have we hired a hunter?  What is the cost of the scheme from start to finish?  Why do some documents say there will be income from trees but other officials deny the same assertion?).  The fact is I asked for this information months ago – only for Valerie Watts to write back asking me to explain what I meant by ‘financials’. (in an email that mysteriously never got to me until I chased it about a month later).  I have looked for the truth and feel as if I have been deliberately misled.

When she finally answers me, I will update the position.

In any event, I would recommend everyone who cares about this issue to start spending as much time walking Tullos Hill as they can – wearing bright clothing obviously.  If you see a hunter, be safe and get away – but please then get in touch with the Aberdeen Voice straight away.

Please read news stories and listen to rumour with care. And please if you have time ask your community council and elected officials exactly what is going on.  I for one would absolutely love to know.

Sep 222011
 

It’s the debate we weren’t supposed to hear, it seems, and there is suspicion that the full facts were held back from publication to Aberdeen residents. Public opposition to a controversial scheme seems to be growing. With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

Local campaigners, opposed to Aberdeen City Council’s cull of the Tullos Hill roe deer, have placed advertisements in the local press and launched a postcard campaign.

The first advert appeared in Aberdeen’s Evening Express on 7 September, and it appears again in the 21 September issue of Aberdeen Citizen.

Campaigners will also be out in force in Aberdeen city centre this Saturday (24 September).

“The City Council may think they can go ahead with the cull of the roe deer unnoticed,” campaigner Suzanne Kelly said, “but the truth is the opposition is growing daily. People are watching the hill and reporting anything that might indicate a cull.”

A postcard campaign with a strong graphic encourages people to write to Aberdeen City Council Chief Executive, Valerie Watts.

The advertising campaign spells out some of the many reasons why opponents are so fierce in condemning the Council’s plans. These reasons include:

  • The cull was already being planned (as per correspondence in November 2010 between Aberdeen City Council and Scottish Natural Heritage) but was kept out of the Phase 2 public consultation. This consultation mentioned rabbits and therefore gave the impression that these were the only species affected by the massive tree plantation. Current public objections would have been made during the consultation had the public been properly informed that a cull was planned. Many people therefore feel misled by the Council and the scheme’s main proponent, Councillor Aileen Malone.
  • The Scottish SPCA calls the cull ‘abhorrent and absurd’ – to kill animals to protect trees that aren’t even planted and which could go elsewhere, is wrong. They will support culling only for animal welfare reasons
  • The City Council recently had to return £43,800 to the Forestry Commission for a failed planting on Tullos Hill. It certainly seems the Council tried to keep that information under wraps. Taxpayers could spend over £100,000 if further planting goes wrong, according to the Forestry Commission
  • Since the cull was made public, several community councils, representing tens of thousands of local residents, condemned it and complained about the lack of proper consultation. Over 2,400 people locally signed petitions, and hundreds of letters of protest were sent to the Council. Still the Council refuses to back down
  • The Council has turned down or ignored offers from experts including Animal Concern to provide other non-lethal solutions, of which there are many
  • There is already an eco-system on Tullos Hill which includes flora and fauna; changing it makes no sense

A hunter in camouflage gear with a gun on Tullos Hill was reported to police by a dog-walker on 5 September, but the police are neither confirming the report nor supplying any further information at present.

Earlier this month, the City Council mentioned the tree planting scheme, but not the deer cull, in a full colour, four page Aberdeen Citizen supplement touting its environmental credentials.  Campaigners against the cull have not yet been able to find out the cost to the public of this supplement.

Anyone opposed to this cull or who wants further information can contact: www.tullosdeer@yahoo.co.uk

“The response the advertisement received when first launched was overwhelming; the email inbox is overflowing with people – 100% of whom oppose the Council’s plans and the handling of the whole affair. I do hope that commonsense will prevail and this scheme will be altered to spare the deer. With a previous planting on the hill already costing the taxpayer £43,800 – the City must come up with a better plan and halt this senseless cull,” said Kelly.

The cull could begin in October this year; it is likely that the killing would continue for several years.

Sep 012011
 

By Bob Smith.

Fin walkin doon the fairway
T’wis jist a fyow days syne
A gowfin freen he did declare
Decorum’s noo in decline

Decency an gweed mainners
Are less aften ti be seen
Be it in oor aingranite city
Or awa doon in Gretna Green

Nae decorum in oor dress sense
Some fowk they look like tramps
Faa hiv bin draggit backwyse
Throwe the funns ower in the Gramps

Young chiels in torn troosers
Some quines dressed like tarts
Ample bosoms are on show
Even eens  o some auld farts

A lot o skyrie heids ye see
In orange, mauve or pink
Some fowk  try their best ti be
A maist orra bliddy tink

TV soaps they dinna help
Fowk aye bawlin an yellin
Faa’s shackin up wi faa
Ye’ve  gey difficulty in tellin

Young bairns ye aften hear
Lit oot an oath or twa
Div they learn iss in the nursery
Or fae their ma or da

Car drivers hiv nae mainners
As they drive aroon oor roads
Wi road rage aa aboot ye
O twa fingers ye see load

At  maist fitba matches nooadays
Fae the stands they hurl abuse
Fin a player he maks a bad pass
Fans dinna tolerate ony excuse

Am nae sayin things war perfect
Fin ma freens an I war loons
Bit we didna ging aroon actin
Like a bunch o bliddy goons

So let’s hae some mair decorum
As we gyang aboot oor chores
Even jist sayin a thank ye
Fin a bodie huds open doors

Listen ti anithers pint o view
Withoot aye snarlin “yer wrang”
Decorum ye see costs nithing
We need decency afore ower lang

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2011
Image Credit: © Paul Prescott | Dreamstime.com

Sep 012011
 

A look at more contradictory information from different arms of the council – with deadly consequences for the Tullos Hill Roe Deer by Suzanne Kelly.

In the first instalment of ‘Truth’, I revealed part of Valerie Watts’ response to my formal complaint.
This contained the shocking story of how we have already paid £43,800 for a previous failed plantation on Tullos Hill – and that Ms Watts failed to clarify the existence of this debt when asked.
In fact, Aberdeen Council (ie the taxpayer) “could be liable for a reclaim of up to £120,333.91” if trees to be planted fail, says a Forestry Commission Scotland letter.

The second part of the story will examine Watt’s response in more depth, revealing yet more contradiction; council use of general statements to justify the specific Tullos Hill situation; and the deliberate snubbing of experts who offered objections to as well as solutions to this completely arbitrary tree-planting.

As detailed in Part One, I launched a formal protest following my researches into the details of the tree scheme and the cull; these can be found in Aberdeen Voice. I found no fewer than 10 main points, which I felt the Council should be called to account on.
See: http://aberdeenvoice.com/2010/12/10-more-reasons-to-call-off-the-deer-cull/

The Council and I have traded emails back and forth. My specific, targeted questions are largely going unanswered. Either that, or I get sweeping, non-specific statements (such as ‘deer culling is perfectly normal’ – which has nothing to do with killing deer to protect trees that could be elsewhere – or not planted at all). This all wound up in my formally complaining, and the initial response from Ms Watts was much in the same vein as what I had heard before. I sent a reply, which I had to chase twice.

The first time I chased my reply was 8 July. The Council now say that they sent a reply to me on 11 July, and this date appears on a letter sent via email (although there is no trace of it in my inbox).

Interestingly, their first letter, also sent by email, was addressed to me at my home, and was posted. The second letter the city says it sent on 11 July did not include my street address, and certainly did not ever reach me in the post. I do wonder why they would change their method of communication.

But there are larger points at stake.

Time is running out, and this article cannot touch on all the new information or recap all of the previous points raised. There are previous stories still available on Aberdeen Voice, and a good deal of information can be found on the internet.

If at the end of reading this and other articles you decide you want the deer spared, then please contact your councillors as soon as you can, as well as the City Council. Your voice can make a difference yet. Details of councillors can be found at:
http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgMemberIndex.aspx?bcr=1

Here is a selection of some (certainly not all) of the issues arising from my last letter from Valerie Watts – the one that never arrived either in the –post or by email at the time it was meant to have been sent. Sadly, I am not getting any closer to getting any definitive, meaningful answers, which the following examples will show. It is time for everyone concerned for the deer to consider other forms of action.

Income from trees? Depends who’s talking

Various council officers and rangers have written to me saying that there will be ‘income streams’ from the trees.

In fact, some of the reports say that some income can be relied upon from this giant forest in time. I asked Ms Watts for the financials. She replied:

“There is no business plan to justify the potential future timber crop and subsequent potential income stream.”

Either Ms Watts is right and the rangers and others who mentioned an income from the trees are wrong – or the City is confused. In fact, here is what the public consultation for phase 2 said:-

“… the trees should be well established and require minimal maintenance before they start generating income”

Which leads us to Watts’ comments on the public consultation.

Public Consultation: ‘was robust’

We have already established what a flawed, misleading document this phase 2 consultation exercise was, but Ms Watts insists the consultation was ‘robust’.

Those supporting the tree scheme are adamant that the consultation was never about the method of tree planting, and it was not relevant. This is the excuse they give when asked why shooting the Tullos deer was not in the document.

If it had been mentioned, the scheme would never have passed the public consultation in a million years. But people like me and those I have spoken to cite this passage from the public consultation as the reason we thought the deer were safe:-

“Where necessary some sites will require rabbit fencing to minimize damage from rabbits…”

If you read this document, you would come to the conclusion that animal damage had been considered: why mention fencing to control rabbits and not mention damage from other animals? I concluded –as did dozens of others (and more) that if deer were a problem, they would likewise have been mentioned.

We now know that in November 2010 the Council and Scottish Natural Heritage were already planning to shoot the deer to plant these trees: they just decided not to tell us this.

The Scottish Natural Heritage letter suggests handling the public over the deer. Well, the public has most definitely been misled by this poor excuse for a consultation. It was biased. It withheld information. To date, no one has come forward despite my requests to say they were the author of this document; the author certainly has some questions to answer.

See: shhh-dont-mention-the-pre-planned-deer-cull

The Media can’t see the Trees for the Forest

Perhaps the most pompous claim Ms Watts makes is that the media got the facts wrong, and that the community councils got misinformation from the media, so didn’t understand the scheme.

I find it a bit late in the day to blame the media – does Ms Watts include the P&J, EE, BBC, STV, Northsound, and the Scotsman as well as Aberdeen Voice? Where and when did the City’s Public Relations staff counter any inaccuracies in the media? In fact Ms Aileen Malone, convener of the housing committee and large proponent of this plan spoke to the media on many occasions. Here is what Watts wrote on the matter:-

“Aberdeen City Council has no control over how the media report Council meetings. In this case the media did not accurately report on the decisions of this Committee and have continued to publish inaccurate information about this project. They have published their interpretation of the committee decisions.”

It should be noted that when the media have published inaccuracies in the past the Council swiftly jumps in to make corrections when it suits them. We saw the recent debacle of the City countering its own press office’s release about the frequency and costs of using outside consultants. I also recall a Press & Journal editorial stating that the P&J would apologise when it made errors, but would not apologise for publishing information the City released and subsequently retracted.

Scottish SPCA don’t understand the project – says Watts

The work and the position of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is world-renowned and respected. Except here.

The Scottish SPCA issued a statement specifically about the Tullos cull: they called it ‘abhorrent and absurd to kill deer to protect non-existent trees.’ Ms Watts doesn’t believe the Scottish SPCA are clever enough to have formulated its stance, and writes the following:-

“You quote the Scottish SPCA in your response. We* have been unable to find any evidence from the charities [sic – she must mean charity’s] policies that it has one that is against culling.

“We are in the process of checking this with the organization. We believe that the quote from Mr Mike Flynn is based on inaccurate reporting of the committee decision in the media. If the SSPCA were financially able to and prepared to relocate the deer legally within the project timescales, then the City would be amenable to them doing so.”

However, this amazing about-face needs examining, regarding allowing the deer to be relocated. The Council and the Scottish Natural Heritage made their positions clear previously that moving deer was not a solution.

I wrote to the Scottish SPCA to get their feedback on Watt’s paragraph above, and spoke to Mike Flynn on 26th August. He explained the difficulties in catching and moving deer, and says this idea just does not work. Mike confirmed the Scottish SPCA’s position on culling: it is to be carried out only where there are clear animal welfare issues or public safety issues.

Flynn confirmed that a person from the City did contact the Scottish SPCA to ask for its policy on culling. He was not happy that Watts believes he didn’t understand the issues and had been misinformed by the media. He understands, and is happy to stand by the previously-stated position: it is abhorrent and absurd to cull the Tullos Hill Roe Deer to plant trees. And whatever anyone at ACC may say, Mr Flynn is right.

* (somehow Ms Watts is now a group or is using the royal ‘we’ –she does not spell out who she means when she says ‘we’)

My Opinion and Conclusions Summarised

• The main conclusion I reach from months of research and asking questions is that I will be given different information from every council official, officer and elected member I speak to.

• They are united in one thing: they want the deer shot and the trees planted at all costs.

• The expert they hired after a tender process (note – the cost of this expert should be queried) is not interested in other experts’ opinions: this is no longer detached scientific expertise, but dogma.

• They are not actually as united as they think they are. There is increasing SNP resistance to this plan, which must be encouraged. Ms Malone insists the ‘tree for every citizen’ scheme was a Lib Dem election pledge. Ms Watts writes the Lib Dems and SNP jointly pursue this scheme, which “… has the mandate of the people of Aberdeen.” This Mandate is most definitely in the past tense – now that we know what the planting means for our deer and other existing wildlife.

• Most importantly: it is not too late to stop this insane scheme!

Watts next? – my opinion

A radio presenter had invited me and Aileen Malone to speak about the deer situation some months back.

Aileen was far too busy to spare the 20 minutes of a Sunday morning for this phone-in debate. A shame – as she could have rectified all the ‘misunderstandings’ which Watts claims the media are putting about. The show’s researchers were told I was not part of any group. And, I am not.

Still, the presenter seemed keen to draw me into an argument about direct action and getting people to stand in front of guns. I do not want to tell anyone to do anything, particularly anything to do with gun-toting shoot-to-kill mercenaries. However, it is plain that reason, logic, expense and the will of the people are being thrown out the window.

Before I had seen Emily James’ film about average people taking direct action, ‘Just Do It’ (at the Belmont a few weeks ago), I would not have considered taking steps to directly intervene in this tree plan. I am now re-thinking my position. When campaigning and logic have no effect, other (peaceful) means may be needed.

In the meantime, please get in touch with your elected representatives. Details of councillors can be found at:
http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgMemberIndex.aspx?bcr=1

Tell them what you do and do not want to happen regarding Tullos Hill. Stopping this cull is not down to me or any one group – it is down to everyone.

If anyone wants a postcard to send the City, or a poster to put in their window, or to be kept informed of any developments, please write to oldsusannah@aberdeenvoice.com – sooner rather than later.

Aug 172011
 

For the past several months Voice’s Suzanne Kelly has been attempting to persuade Aberdeen City Council to stop its planned cull of the Tullos Hill roe deer, which the City insists is necessary in order to plant tens of thousands of trees.  At least four community councils representing tens of thousands of people have likewise condemned the cull, as have 2,400 petitioners and hundreds of letter-writers. As the proposed cull looms, Suzanne updates readers regarding her search for answers.

The public were initially invited to consult on a tree-planting scheme.  The consultation document said rabbits would need some form of control (fencing) – but no mention was made of the deer slaughter – even though the City and Scottish Natural Heritage had already planned to kill the creatures.  The animals have lived on the hill for at least 30 years with no cull; their average lifespan is 6 or 7 years, and they are a source of pleasure for local residents.

But the City wants the cheapest method to plant the trees. As they are spending public money, they must go with the most cost-effective methods available. Do they really always take such care with our money I wonder.

Aileen Malone – the most vocal City proponent of the plan has stated that  ‘A Tree  For Every Citizen’ was a LibDem Election pledge, and a LibDem/SNP plan according to City Council Chief Executive Valerie Watts.

The plan therefore, she writes:

“has the full backing of the people of Aberdeen.”

Search for the Truth:

Whether or not the people back this plan is not the only area where the City and the deer campaigners differ. 

For my part I made formal complaint to Valerie Watts in May.  The City’s response in June was riddled with generalisations and flawed logic – and a serious omission (more about that follows).  I countered the City’s answers in mid June.  I waited for a response and chased this up on 7 July.  Nothing happened.

I chased a reply again on 8 August – and sent a copy of the email to the Public Services Ombudsman, asking them to look at the delay.  Watt’s office then replied to me very quickly – saying that they had already answered my questions.

The City’s says it sent me an email on 11 July (there is no concrete electronic proof of it yet) with a response to my counterpoints.  I searched my entire email without finding any trace.  I will see if I can get an expert to determine if I accidentally deleted any incoming email on my end, and I will be asking for proof from the City that the email exists on its servers (I find it very interesting that their first answer to my complaint came by both email and hard copy in the post.  The second reply certainly did not show up in the post either, and did not have my home address at the top, which the first document did).

But I digress.  The quality of the City’s reply is astonishing.

It again glosses over facts, misinterprets my very clear questions, promises to send me attachments which I don’t have, and denigrates any professional opinions (SSPCA, outside experts) who disagree with a cull.  I will be detailing the full amount of complaints to the Ombudsman and sharing the information in the press.  However, there is one point that to my mind is so blatantly disingenuous that it looks for all the world like the shabbiest attempt at climbing out of a hole I have ever seen or heard of.

If any readers whether for or against the cull would like to give me their opinion on the following, I would be most grateful.  I really want to know whether the following exchanges seem open, fair, and accurate to other people.  It occurs to me that I may be over-reacting, but everyone who has seen this so far is, well, outraged.

Black and White facts:

In my ten-point initial complaint I wrote to Valerie Watts on 20 May, 2011, this was one of my questions – word for word:

“I would like to ask:  is it true that the Council owes a sum for previous, failed planting?  I was told that £44,000 approximately is owed by the City in this regard – please clarify”.

Ms Watts’ reply to me in early June (received on 7 June 2011) reads as follows regarding the point; again the text below is verbatim:

“Aberdeen City Council does not owe any amount to any organisation relating to a previous failed planting scheme.”

This reply surprised me greatly, as I had a source who was certain a debt definitely existed and had long gone unpaid.  I asked my source for proof and they very quickly came back to me with proof positive that the City had been chased by the Forestry Commission for money; the proof was a letter from the Forestry Commission dated 2 March 2011 –  See attached for ease of reference, but here is the crucial paragraph:-

Tullos Community Woodland

“This is a failed WGS planting scheme. The scheme failed due to inadequate protection from deer and weeds. On the 4th November 2010 we issued Aberdeen City Council with an invoice for £43,831.90 – the reclaim of monies paid out under the above contract. This invoice was to be paid within 30 days. The monies have not been received. This invoice is now accruing interest and has led to a payment ban being put in place over your Business Reference Number”.

I found it astonishing that Ms Watts did not know about this debt; this was a fair amount of taxpayer money for a cash-strapped city to be spending on trees it could not successfully grow.  She was still new in her post as Chief Executive – perhaps she did not know about it.  It never once occurred to me that our highly-paid Chief Executive knew all about this debt but decided to respond to me as she did. 

But that is exactly, precisely what happened:  she knew all about it – and decided to not mention it.

As it turns out, the City had paid the debt not long before I wrote my question.  A critic might on first thought side with the city – after all, the debt was paid.  But I most clearly asked for clarification  I asked about a debt adjacent to £44,000 for a failed tree planting on Tullos Hill.

I found this shocking as far as it went, and was eagerly awaiting Watt’s reply.  It is inconceivable to me that I would have accidentally deleted an email I was chasing and had looked for eagerly in my inbox for months.  But here is the newly-received response from Valerie Watts, which pushes the word ‘disingenuous’ to a new level – if not straight over the edge to dishonest:-

“The £43,831.90 you refer to does not relate in any way to the current Tree for Every Citizen Project.  This as a grant repayment from a previous planting scheme from 1996 which failed due to deer damage and a lack of weed control.  This amount was repaid to the Forestry Commission Scotland prior to your enquiry so at the time of your enquiry dated 20 May 2011, when you asked “if ACC owed £44,000” our response was correct as the re-payment had been made against  the 1996 grant payment prior to this date”.

  • First I note how conveniently Ms Watts says she was ‘correct’ as the repayment had been made.  This of course ignores my asking for clarification of a £44,000 debt for a failed tree planting on Tullos Hill.
  • Secondly, the ‘weed control’ has not had any mention whatsoever in any of the public consultation documents.  I find virtually no mention of weed problems in the Housing & Environment Committee minutes on this subject  – just a gung-ho desire to find a cheap way to kill the deer.

The public certainly did not agree to this and are justifiably angry that the cull was kept secret.  The city keeps repeating to me that the public consultation was not about the method to be used – yet it clearly talks about the method for keeping the rabbits out.

  • Thirdly, I think the Forestry Commission must be very generous:  if the scheme was rooted in 1996, and they were only chasing their £43,800 in 2010, then that represents some fourteen years of waiting for payment. ( I wish my creditors took a similar stance).  I would say that this old debt coming out of the city’s treasury at this tight financial time is something of a disaster.

So, in Ms Watts’ eyes, my asking about a ‘previous, failed planting’ and an approximate cost of £44,000:

“does not relate in any way to the current Tree for Every Citizen Project”.  

I had not asked her to relate the current plan to the past debt.  I had asked if there was a previous failed planting.  Ms Watts goes on to describe – in her own words:

“a grant repayment from a previous planting scheme in 1996 which failed….”

I would very much like to know if anyone who reads this piece sees a similarity between the previous failed planting I asked about and the “previous planting scheme in 1996 which failed”.  Does any reader see a similarity between the £44,000 I mentioned that I wanted clarified and the £43,800 repayment?  Perhaps it is just me.

The bigger picture here is why the city is so desperate to take this completely arbitrary gamble to turn an existing wildlife area into a forest – a forest which apparently cannot be created without killing some of the existing deer.  The residents do not want it, despite Ms Watts’ claims that they do.  Protesters are told time and time again that this scheme is ‘cost neutral.’ 

If we had to pay £43,800 – and may indeed need to make more  payments as the Forestry Commission letter hints at – then I for one cannot see any ‘cost neutral’ claim holding up.

Your help is needed – Urgently.   

If you can spare a minute to contact me with your opinion of this exchange, it will be greatly appreciated.  If you think I am right to now have serious questions on the honesty, integrity and suitability of Ms Watts to continue in her role , then please do let me and her know.

She is paid a higher salary than the Prime Minister, and is responsible for projects worth  millions of pounds  – but  is apparently incapable of seeing a relationship between my question and the facts she had.   If on the contrary you think that this £43,800 bill (note – in the Forestry Commission’s letter it emerges that we might wind up owing over £100K) is fair enough, that  the matter of Ms Watts reply is not important, and the cull is fine with you, then I want to know that as well.

The deer and existing wildlife and plants have very little time left, and I do not even know if the City can answer simple questions accurately – and/or honestly.  If you can in any way help to stop a slaughter which the Scottish SPCA calls ‘absurd and abhorrent’, please do speak up now.

It is known that many people inside the City government are concerned at the scheme’s details and some are looking for a way to end it.  Let’s help them with some hugely-deserved public pressure on those who are pressing ahead with the cull regardless.

Finally,  please come to a picnic on Tullos Hill next Sunday 21 August at 2pm.  It may well be your last chance to enjoy this habitat as it exists.

Image Credit: © Catalin Pobega | Dreamstime.com

Jun 082011
 

Aberdeen Council “could be liable for a reclaim of up to £120,333.91” if trees to be planted fail according to Forestry Commission Scotland. The entire ‘tree for every citizen’ scheme is now mired down in controversy, misinformation, mismanagement and cost implications  says campaigner Suzanne Kelly as she urges councillors to stop the cull plans and get the facts right.

Aberdeen City launched a scheme to plant a tree for every citizen.  This was, in  Aileen Malone’s words (at the 26 May Cults community Council meeting) a “Liberal Democrat election promise”.
This ‘Tree for Every Citizen’ scheme had attached to it a cull of deer living on Tullos Hill.  This cull was planned as long ago as November 2010, but the City did not put it in the consultation for Phase 2, which closed at the end of January.

The Torry Community Council was likewise not consulted over any cull, and voted unanimously to condemn it.

Other community councils followed suit, protestors in their thousands registered their disapproval, and the council remained unrepentant and unwilling to consider any changes or compromise to their scheme.

I launched a formal protest following my researches.  I found no fewer than 10 main points, which I felt the Council should be called to account on.
See: http://aberdeenvoice.com/2010/12/10-more-reasons-to-call-off-the-deer-cull/

On 6 June I received Aberdeen City’s Chief Executive Valerie Watt’s response to this complaint (her letter was dated 2 June).  Perhaps the City thought this reply was going to be swallowed whole without question.

My formal reply will be sent to her shortly.

While drafting my reply to Ms Watts, one of the thousands of cull opponents came up with a startling letter from the Forestry Commission to The City:  it discredits  claims the City has put in writing.   I subsequently spoke to the author who confirmed the letter and who had some other interesting points.

This article examines the controversy and contradiction surrounding only the first two points of my complaint:  there will be subsequent coverage of the remaining issues in the near future.

Did Aberdeen City Council owe money for a previous failed tree planting? This was the first of the ten points making up my formal complaint  (The document, with responses from Aberdeen City Council Chief Exec. Valerie Watts can be viewed here: http://aberdeenvoice.com/?p=8978 )

My question:

“I would like to ask:  is it true that the Council owes a sum for previous, failed planting?  I was told that £44,000 approximately is owed by the City in this regard – please clarify.”

Council Response:

“Aberdeen City Council does not owe any amount to any organisation relating to a previous failed planting scheme.”

Forestry Commission Letter:

“ Tullos Community Woodland

“This is a failed WGS planting scheme.  The scheme failed due to inadequate protection from deer and weeds.  On the 4th November 2010 we issued Aberdeen City Council with an invoice for £43,831.90 – the reclaim of monies paid out under the above contract.  This invoice was to be paid within 30 days.  The monies have not been received.  This invoice is now accruing interest and has led to a payment ban being put in place over your Business Reference Number.”

The invoice per the letter writer was paid on 15 March 2011.  The argument could be made that Ms Watts was being truthful:  after all, no money was still owed when I made my complaint.  However – I specifically asked for clarification.  Do we really believe that the City’s answer to me was an honest clarification?

The letter from FCS can be viewed here: failed-tree-planting

The second point I raised in my letter of complaint concerned the ‘invitation’ for those concerned to raise £225,000 for alternative measures. Why ask the public to come up with a quarter of a million pounds within some 11 weeks if, as we now know, a cull was still going to be ‘required’?

My question:

“Despite the demand for £225,000, Pete Leonard, Head of Housing and Environment has written to say a cull would still be required. In an email to Suzanne Kelly, Pete Leonard has stated it is SNH’s position that a cull would still be required. Therefore, the demand for money made by a committee to its electorate is shown to be completely misleading.”

Council Response:

“The £225,000 was for alternative means of planting the trees (not just for fencing) from deer damage. To quote from the Committee minute for the Housing and Environment Committee of 1st March 2011, the additional recommendation stated

(in relation to Tullos Hill) that an invitation be extended to the individuals and organisations who have objected to these deer control measures to raise the sums necessary to provide and maintain alternative measures, including fencing and rehousing of deer by no later than 10 May 2011 (the sum to be approximately £225,000).’

“Also as stated in the minute of this meeting that prior to the division

‘The Head of Environmental Services highlighted to the Committee paragraph 3.2 of the report which advised that the progression of option four (tree planting within smaller deer fenced enclosures surrounding individual planting blocks) would not mitigate culling on Tullos Hill altogether, as a reduction cull of deer locally due to loss of habitat from approx 60 hectares of this site would still be required, in the view of SNH.’

“The whole Tree for Every Citizen Project is being funded from grants and contributions from businesses. As the majority of this funding is from the Scottish Rural Development Programme which is public money from the European Union, the EU require that best practice and best value methodologies are used. The grant rates available are based on these terms. For a tree-planting scheme on the scale of that proposed for Tullos Hill, the use of individual tree shelters or deer fencing (which still requires a deer cull to reduce the population) does not represent best value or best practice. To spend money on these alternative means would require funding that was not from the public purse.”

Ms Watts’ reply also contradicts itself in terms of the money demanded by the public to save the deer:  they were always going to kill deer anyway – whether or not the public paid up.  I can find no instance of the City counteracting the many press articles and media stories that their demand was in order to save the deer:  they had a chance to say that some killing would still be required.  They did not take this chance as far as I can see.

From beginning to end the proposed tree planting and resultant Tullos Hill Roe deer cull plan has been plagued by misinformation and lack of consultation.

These have been highlighted in Aberdeen Voice (“shhh! don’t mention the secret deer cull” and other articles) and by the BBC, STV, local radio Northsound and SHMU, and so on.   The biggest mystery remains why they will not consider any compromises.  A Forestry spokesperson confirms that our Council can plant elsewhere if they want to.

Perhaps it is time for them to consider a plantation that is not in an arson hotspot where deer currently live?

More on this issue to follow…