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: https://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

Jul 222011
 

Last week in the first of this two part investigation, Suzanne Kelly described how The City Council and its officials were dealing with the Tullos Hill roe deer cull and tree-planting issues. Part 1 also covered the decades of arson on ‘The Gramps’, the excellent quality of Tullos Hill as it is, local community councils’ opposition to the cull, and the considerable public anger at the City’s refusal to even consider modifying its plans.

The hill itself is a wildlife haven; the very important gorse providing homes to bees and birds.  There are fields of wildflowers (the spectacular Dame’s Violets for instance), and it is a recreation area.

This is why our City Council – as a LibDem election pledge – want to turn it into some gargantuan 40,000-tree profit-making (ie lumber-producing) forest.

We now look at other important aspects of this issue, challenge the government to comment, and propose some actions.

The Gorse is always Greener

‘Kissing is out of fashion when the gorse is not in bloom’ goes an old saying – based on the fact gorse virtually always has blossoms.  This is an extremely useful plant for bees.  If you’ve not been made aware, bee populations around the world are in serious trouble.

As long as we still want our plants to be pollinated so we keep eating, we are well advised to do all we can to encourage bees.  My research leads me to conclude that gorse is far better for bees and several other species than trees are (particularly trees which will be cut down for profit when the Council chooses).

Don’t take my word for the importance of gorse.  Do take Dr. Ian Rotherham’s word:-

“Gorse is an incredibly valuable habitat for wildlife – supporting a diversity of invertebrates and many birds and mammals. It provides dense cover plus abundant nesting sites, invertebrate food associated with the gorse, and of course the blaze of flowers during much of the year. Butterflies, bees, hoverflies, spiders, badgers, whinchats, stonechats, yellowhammers, chaffinches, linnets, greenfinches, meadow pipits and skylarks for example, all thrive in gorse-rich areas.

“As the biomass of gorse builds up it loses vigour and beings to die back. If there is a fire then the gorse is reduced to ground level and will quickly regenerate for the next 30-40 years or so. Clearly fire risk can be a problem but not for the gorse or the associated wildlife (except at the immediate time of a conflagration).

“Cyclical cutting of gorse, grazing, and cutting of fire-breaks are positive ways to reduce risk and damage but to maintain what is a rich but often unappreciated wildlife habitat. The establishment of a friends group to watch over the area would also help reduce risk. The gorse in bloom is also a wonderful landscape feature. A plantation wood does not provide a biodiversity resource or a landscape feature to match this. Trees are often planted at the expense of the wildlife habitats and landscape features because of the misconception that they are inherently better for wildlife – which they are not – and because money is available as grants to do this.”

(  Dr  Rotherham is a Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change, International Research Coordinator, associated with universities around the world. He is editor of several important academic publications including International Journal of Urban Forestry, Journal of Practical Ecology & Conservation, and International Urban Ecology Review )

I would be interested to hear from any City Council officer, ranger or pro -Tullos Hill tree plantation consultant wishing to comment on Dr Rotherham’s statement. 

In the meantime, Ian Talboys, Countryside Ranger for Aberdeen wrote to me on 6 June:-

“The amount of gorse on the site will be substantially reduced to make way for the tree planting
which again reduces the risk of wilful fires”.

Why should a countryside ranger particularly be keen to change an ecosystem such as  Tullos to a profit-making, lumber-producing forest?  Where is the evidence that replacing gorse with saplings and trees will reduce wilful fire risk?

City  Council ‘austerity’ and ‘budget’ cuts

I spoke to a person connected to the countryside services for the Council.  They advised me that like virtually every branch of our local government, they are now expected to find income streams and do all they can to make money.

It is not enough that our environment is under threat from over-development, pollution and loss of biodiversity – our environmental conservation activities are supposed to make money for the City.  Would our rangers’ time be better served in patrolling the fire-prone areas, educating people and engaging in active conservation, or are we asking them to look for grants such as the tree-planting ones and to make money at all costs?

If I get an answer to this question, I will share it with you.  Again, I invite comment from the City.

I still await a reply as to how this timber business is going to be set up, and for a copy of the business plan.  Should any of this information ever be forthcoming from our elected officials, I will share it with you.  Again, should any City proponents of the scheme like to come forward and (finally) explain how the timber business will work, I invite them to do so.

It has just been announced that despite negotiations with Unions being incomplete, the City has signed an agreement with external consultants to make £120 million worth of budget savings over a five-year period (cost of these consultants has been estimated at between £500k to £600k).  Perhaps they will have their own opinion as to the viability of a timber business venture on an arson hotspot which has already resulted in the City returning £43,800 to the Forestry Commission…

Failed Tree Planting, Failed Open Government, Failed Freedom of Information Requests

In a ten-point complaint I clearly asked for clarification of a £44,000 debt for a failed tree plantation which I had heard of.  The City’s Chief Executive Valerie Watts wrote in early June to deny any money was owed.

Proof that this payment was made was given to me almost immediately  after Watts’ denial – but as of 21 July,Wattshas not explained the failure to disclose the repayment.

The proof is a letter the Forestry Commission sent to the City earlier this year which was copied to Ian Talboys.  The question is whether Watts knew of the letter when she wrote to me or not.  Until she explains her answer, the whole planting programme should be put on hold.  It is not just returning money for the past failure (we had to pay interest) but the implications for this new planting that need to be considered, which could be significant for the cash-strapped council’s taxpayers.

Watts was made aware of this repayment by me, and possibly earlier by others.  What is beyond the pale is that Freedom of information Officers continued for some weeks afterward to advise that no debt was owed.  All of the requests I have seen referenced the £44k figure; mine specifically asked for clarification of the matter.

If the City tries to use the excuse that since the debt was paid in March and the questions arrived in June, then that would be the most disingenuous logic coming from Town Hall in memory.  I am sure it is beyond the Council’s lowest standard to try and make pretence of using such a childish defence.  When we will get the truth is crucial – they must not be allowed to stall this matter until cull season opens.  If anyone trying to prevent the cull could ask their elected officials to have these issues addressed and investigated fully as an urgent matter, it will help.  I have asked the FOI office to explain whether or not it discovered this letter in its search to answer my question.  I have asked it to advise whether or not it made a deliberate decision to not disclose this letter.  I await the outcome of the investigation.

Yet another Freedom of Information anomaly exists regarding Grampian Fire.

Fire power

The previous article covered the problems of arson.  Confusion emerges as to the number of fires.  There was a FOI request response from Grampian Fire which shows a nominal number of deliberate fires.  At the time of writing I await permission to share or reproduce these figures, as they are apparently ‘copyright’.  I have officially applied to print them, but cannot do so until Grampian Fire’s officials approve my written request.

However I came across an internet document which shows a rather different, substantially higher number of fires than the FOI request revealed, entitled  ‘Grampian Fire and Rescue Service Category 2 – Advancing Community and Citizen Well-being’ .  This document states there were over 70 fires for 2006, and claims the figures were going down; it had partial 2008 figures and said only 11 fires started that year.  It is worth mentioning that there have been at least half a dozen fires in the Gramps since May of this year.  In any event, the paper’s numbers are not the same as the recently supplied figures, which are lower.

I will try to discover an explanation for the discrepancy, and will cover whatever explanation Grampian Fire sends in another article. Both email addresses for the FOI officer and the above paper’s writer are at the address ‘@grampianfrs.org.uk’, which leads me to conclude the same organisation might be responsible for distributing contradictory figures.

I add this to the ever growing list of things I am trying to discover, and yet all the while a cull remains the City’s goal, and the clock is ticking.

SNH – Natural Heritage as long as it’s not inconvenient

Scottish Natural History have been taking great pains to gain media coverage recently (BBC and local press), saying in effect that deer are great, but to stop them being killed in road accidents and over-populating, they have to be ‘managed.’  They launched a consultation, which many animal groups felt had a strong bias towards hunting and culling red deer and roe deer equally.  First, what kind of animal are we talking about exactly?

What are roe deer?

Recognition: Small deer, reddish brown in summer, grey in winter. Males have short antlers, erect with no more than three points.

Height: Average height at shoulder 60-75cm (that is less than 3 foot tall). Males slightly larger than females.

Weight: Adults 10-25kg

Lifespan: The maximum age recorded for wild roe is 16 years, but most die before 7 years.

Diet: Their diet is varied and includes buds and leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs, bramble, rose, ivy, herbs, conifers, ferns, heather and grasses.

By permission, the Mammal Society,
http://www.mammal.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&id=228

So in short these tiny creatures, of which we seemingly have 30 on Tullos Hill alone jeopardise a 40,00 tree plantation.  (The Council has made absolutely no mention of how they will tackle the weed problem cited by the Forestry Commission as a partial reason for the previous expensive failure – again, I have asked for this information with no reply).

Glasgow has made a strong statement against these types of culls which can be found at:
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/291204/0089678.pdf  and the relevant section starts on page 5.”

Here are some relevant extracts:-

“….collaborative deer management is not necessary for Roe deer in urban environments as there is no scientific justification for this.

2.4 There is no mention of the positive role of wild deer on natural habitats. Large herbivores help to create and retain glades and rides within woodlands, which provide habitat for a range of other species.

2.5 This section of the Bill has the potential to perpetuate and reinforce the perception of deer as pest species. Whilst this will promote the interests of a minority who have a vested interest in deer management principally through culling, it goes against the reason for the inclusion of native wild deer on the Scottish Biodiversity List, Le. the appreciation of these animals by the general public who wish to see them left unharmed.

2.6 Glasgow City Council believes that this section in its present form promotes an unbalanced view of the rationale behind deer management, whilst acknowledging that there is scientific justification for the management of red deer in parts of the Highlands.

Deer in Scotland – General Comments.

2.7 GCC object to the blanket statement that ‘Deer therefore need to be managed … ‘ for the following reasons:

• The terms manage/managed/management are not defined but appear to relate to culling deer, which is not the usual definition of management. This needs to be clarified.

• If the above is the case, then deer do not always require to be culled because in some areas an increase in population size could be beneficial.

•Red Deer and Roe Deer are quite different animals not only in size but also in habits etc. Why are they covered by one piece of legislation and why do they both have to be managed?”

The various animal charities I’ve communicated with all remain against this cull and have their own experts who explain the flaws in the entire premise.

Can we have some urban trees please?

A personal observation.  The section of Aberdeen I live in, Torry, has fewer trees on its main streets than any other part of the world I’ve lived in, city or suburb.  The streets are however covered with cars and trucks 24/7, and the exhaust fumes have air quality implications.

A few trees would do a good deal to clean the air.  It would be costly and difficult to plant and protect them.  But it would not be impossible.  We know from the Council’s websites that parts of Aberdeen (Wellington Road in particular) have serious air pollution issues.  We also know trees help reduce vehicular pollution.  In the course of my research I learned that the indigenous fir trees for the Grampian area have been greatly depleted over time – yet there is no plan to replace these native species.

Conclusion:  Stop this destructive, unwanted plan now and cancel any deer cull.  Plant fewer trees.  Plant in other locations

Unanswered questions
  • Regarding the business plan for the proposed forest.  How much will it make?  How disruptive would this plantation be to the area residents and businesses? 
  • Why does the City insist only a ‘minority’ of people are against this cull when elected bodies have objected on behalf of their communities?   If the Community Councils are lining up against this scheme – which started life as a Liberal Democrat election pledge – is it not just time to dump it?
  • Why didn’t the City disclose the £43,800 failure when asked to clarify whether a £44,000 debt existed?  
  • As the failure was due to deer and weeds – what are we doing about the weeds?  What kinds of pesticides will be used?  What are the risks and implications?
  • If the scheme is ‘cost neutral’ – who exactly pays the (low-seeming) estimate of some £2,500 per year for ten years to shoot the deer?
  • Have council employees been discouraged from expressing opinions against the cull? (My sources tell me this is the case).
  • Why take the scheme up at all if it must be done at the lowest cost – which is shooting the deer?  Who is hold a gun to the City’s head and forcing it to change Tullos Hill into something it is not?  What is the reluctance to just stop this scheme now?  Has the City made any effort at all to get sponsors to pay for the non-lethal options?  (Note: BAA and Wood Group have contributed for the phase 1 scheme – neither seem keen to be associated with this deer-culling phase 2.  Concerned people may wish to contact these and other companies to state opposition to phase 2).
  • What are the real arson risks once a forest is established on this windy hill (if indeed it is not too windy for trees to be established in great number)?   Is it possible the situation could be as severe a problem as the forest fires that plague the US and Europe?  What are the correct figures for the arson attacks?
A final summary

Last week a media contact asked me to supply the statement below, which sums up my conclusions and reflects the opinions of the vast majority of the people I have spoken with:-

The public have in no way given up on stopping the deer cull on Tullos Hill. Tullos is an important and beautiful ecosystem as it is, and the deer population has been stable for many years.   

Putting up signs to warn motorists that deer are in the area is sensible; putting 40,000 trees on this arson hotspot is not sensible.  Four Community Councils have told the Council they do not want the trees if it means a cull – these elected councils represent thousands of people. 

The City had to repay £43,800 for a planting on Tullos that failed due to deer browsing AND weeds.  The City initially omitted this when I asked for clarification- and I patiently await sensible answers to this and other questions. The tree planting was a Liberal Democrat election promise – it is amusing that it is this unpopular promise they are so stubborn about keeping. 

Finally, Peter Leonard has written to say that the Community Councils don’t understand the issues and they only know what they got from the media.  I find his remarks unbelievably patronising and insulting, particularly when it was down to the Council to communicate the details of its scheme in the first place. 

The Council kept the deer cull out of the phase 2 public consultation and is now claiming people don’t have the facts.  This is wholly unacceptable, and I am pleased that my sources tell me there is a great deal of unrest, with an official calling the situation ‘a hot potato’. 

Unfortunately the lack of timely, sensible answers looks to many people as if the City is stalling and hopes to get away with a cull.  There will be no cull without repercussions at the ballot box in May.

I am creating a presentation to give to any community council that wants it, particularly aimed at those councils which will have the City’s experts present their side.  Direct action is being considered by some animal rights/concern groups.

If you have any feelings one way or the other, then I urge you to contact your elected representatives (you may also wish to contact Scottish Representatives Roseanna Cunningham and Stewart Stevenson who are backing the proposal). 

Good luck to the roe deer and the wishes of the people of Aberdeen in the face of our government.

 Image Credit: Roe Deer Standing Still © Catalin Pobega | Dreamstime.com

Jul 152011
 

In the first of two parts, Suzanne Kelly offers an update into what is and is not happening on the hill.

There may have not been much about the controversial Tullos Hill Roe Deer Cull in the media of late; therefore it’s time for an update.

The relative quiet in the media is not for lack of investigation, protest and anger on the community’s part.

As for the City and its LibDem councillors and officials, they are either spreading incorrect information (denying the past failure and £44k debt which resulted), or not answering questions at all (I eagerly await overdue answers on a number of fronts).

The question is:  are they trying to stall a proper investigation until they start shooting in September?  It looks as if stalling might indeed be their strategy.

There are so many outstanding issues, questions and problems with the Tullos Hill deer cull that this article needs to be split into two parts.  This part will look at the location chosen for the trees, Community Council’s stances and the small matter of arson.

Next week will cover issues including the SNH, the unanswered Freedom of Information requests and formal complaints, the importance of the gorse-covered hill as it exists (an expert writes), and the curious case of the £43,800 Forestry Commission ‘repayment.’  This repayment  Ms Watts either forgot about or didn’t know about when last she wrote to me.

Interestingly, Freedom of Information requests on this point are still being answered that no such debt exists. 

Either the council is being very very accurate (the debt was repaid late this March, but it most definitely existed), or someone was keen to keep the repayment quiet.  If so, they failed just as they failed in their bid to keep the cull quiet).

Before we get into the details, a small ray of hope: unnamed sources confirm that there is unease within the corridors of power over this ridiculous plan, with officials calling the situation ‘a hot potato’ and a ‘can of worms’.  Take heart from that, but please continue reading this article.

If at the end of it you decide you don’t want the cull, then write to your elected officials and Aberdeen City Chief Executive Valerie Watts, making it clear you will vote against anyone in May who has voted for this cull.

See: http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgMemberIndex.aspx?bcr=1

Deer have lived in relative security (bar the arsonists and Aileen Malone) on Tullos Hill for many decades; they delight the residents of Torry and Kincorth as well as people visiting from further afield. 

The hill is a wildlife haven as it is with the very important gorse providing homes to bees and birds, fields of wildflowers (the spectacular Dame’s Violets for instance).

It has bronze age cairns set dramatically on its summit (currently un-obscured by trees), and it is a recreation area.  This is why our City Council – as a LibDem election pledge – want to turn it into some gargantuan 40,000-tree profit-making (i.e. lumber-producing) forest.

Of all the Liberal Democrat promises, killing the deer and planting the trees is about the only one in the UK they are adamant about sticking to.

They told the community councils and the public at large what a great thing this forest would be – but as previously demonstrated, they and SNH deliberately sought to keep a cull of the Tullos Hill roe deer secret.  Without a cull, there is no money for planting all these trees (although we could have had experts advising us – for free – how to plant trees without culling deer:  it just would have cost money).  Why then we are insisting on a forest of this size or a forest at all, and why on Tullos Hill?

Location, Location, Location

If we accept without question that trees must be planted because we can get grants for doing so as long as they reach growth targets, then where to put them? 

The easily-accessible Loirston Loch greenbelt area has several young trees on it – all in tree protector sleeves (the same sleeves which the SNH November letter tells us are rejected because they have ‘visual impact’ among other reasons – someone at ACC took this decision to reject tree protectors for us all with no recourse to the public or local councils).  There was a splendidly suitable area for these trees – but we are putting a football / community stadium on this piece of ground now.

This virtually flat land is easily reached by car (Tullos at present has no parking and is mainly reached by several footpaths), is not on a windswept hill, and is not as remote as Tullos – therefore less desirable to arsonists.  It is a largely open field with grasses and some vegetation in very moist, nearly marshy ground.

Loirston was not the only option either.  But this is Aberdeen:   Tullos Hill is apparently the only choice we have, according to our Council.  They are happy to sacrifice greenbelt at Loirston and elsewhere for stadiums, offices and housing – but are adamant that an existing, stable ecosystem must become a forest:  and they will not answer us why.

Fire on the Mountain

For all the City rangers’ and Grampian Fire’s attempts to be ‘down with the kids’, the arson issue remains the burning question:  why put 40,000  young trees on a windswept hill with access issues which is next to settlements and industry when we can’t keep the arsonists out?

Ranger Ian Talboys is at pains to play down the arson issue.   In an email to myself, 6 June 2011 he states:

“As the trees to be planted are mainly broadleaved species which do not readily burn in the way gorse does the risk of fire is reduced.   The conifers in the scheme will be mixed in with the broadleaved species again reducing the risk of large scale fire damage….. The recent statistics have shown a substantial reduction in wilful fire raising on the site, despite the recent incidents.

“It is however encouraging that the Police have charged a number of youths in connection with these fires as a result of intelligence gained from the local community and following the work we have been doing with the local schools over the last 5 years.  In the last couple of years there have been very few fires on Tullos Hill, a total of some 11 fires were reported for 2010 on Kincorth Hill and Tullos Hill combined….”

Mr Talboys also talks about getting rid of the gorse, which:

“reduces the risk of wilful fires”

Gorse is a vital part of the ecosystem, particularly on Tullos Hill which we will look at later.  However it is disappointing that the attitude is to get rid of a natural feature which supports wildlife because it is more flammable (allegedly) than trees – rather than to simply stop the arsonists.

Who are the arsonists, and is Talboys right that the fires are decreasing?  So far this year there have been at least a dozen fires.  Two men aged 27 and 23 are being charged with starting fires on 3 July:  so much for the idea of stopping the schoolchildren starting fires, which is the strategy Talboys promotes.

American studies identify half a dozen types of arsonists; these two would fit into the ‘excitement-motivated’ arson category, often men between 18-30.  Blaming children was the favourite option; it is now discredited.  The Council may wish to do more research on this one.

You may be interested to know that Talboy’s figures are slightly at odds with figures supplied by Grampian Fire.  Then again, media reports would seem to say there have been more fires than either of these sources.  I would love to tell you what Grampian Fire had to say:  but they have qualified that their statistics are subject to copyright and are for personal use and not publication!  I await clarification and will report once they explain themselves.

At least someone in power loves Tullos.  When the fires were blazing in May of this year, Fraser Burr of Grampian Fire (Risk Reduction) told the BBC:

“It would be a shame to see such a beautiful area of the city, enjoyed by hundreds throughout the year, ruined by wilful fire raising”. – (BBC News 22 May 2011)

I spoke to a New York-based former fire department captain; he seriously disputes Talboy’s contention that young or mature trees are relatively safe from fire. California for one example habitually fights forest fires that are vast in area; the size of the trees makes the fire considerably more dangerous than a few burning gorse bushes.  Wind makes the problem far worse.

Fact:  Tullos Hill is extremely windy at times.  People often need to be evacuated from their homes when the fires rage (also seen in Europe) – who will promise this will not happen here with 40,000 trees virtually on top of residential and industrial areas as Tullos is?  My fire-fighter source said ‘there is no magic plant that doesn’t burn’.

He also posed a hypothetical question and asked me why these people are so fixed on planting these trees in this location.  I have asked, but I have no answer.  He then jokingly said ‘who’s getting kickback?’  We both laughed.

Your Community Councils at work

When the truth came out about the secret cull plans, community councils and citizens (in their thousands) condemned the plan and the way the City handled the public ‘phase 2’ consultation.  How did your local community council react?

I am writing this piece on the 13th of July.  The Minute of the Housing & Environment Committee meeting of May 10 is still not available on the Council’s website a mere 2 months after the fact.  It was at this meeting that Andy Finlayson and I had both put in delegations to speak about the deer cull and Tullos Hill, for all the reasons that had emerged since the cull was first brought up.

It was because there was no written report on the deer – only a verbal one which had been requested by Malone – that we were not automatically allowed to speak.  Abuse of process springs to mind.  In the event, the matter of our delegations was put to a vote and only a handful of councillors supported letting the truth be heard.

I have been waiting to check the accuracy of these Minutes; for one thing I admit I got confused as to whether Andy Finlayson was from Nigg or rather from Cove (which I now understand to be the truth).  Finlayson was the other would-be speaker.  Maybe after another two months have passed, the Minutes will be published and I can double-check this point.

But take note:  in another two months it will be the season for the cull:  could our City be deliberately stalling us until it is too late for the deer?

Community Councils are your elected local representatives.  The City has a duty to consult with them on local issues – something sadly lacking on this issue, let alone the massive Loirston AFC football ground which will fragment the greenbelt.  Nigg CC is very busy with this important issue.

The City is not consulting, and it is certainly not listening.  Here are what the Councils are saying – how did yours react?

Kincorth (population 8,300) –  ‘Abhorrence’

Kincorth Community Council resolved at its May 2011 meeting:

“Item 10.1 The City Council has agreed to the killing of the deer on Tullos Hill but have stated it will be done as humanely as possible. The Chair asked the Secretary to write indication our abhorrence at this decision”.

Kincorth spokesperson Graham Bennett, quoted in the Press & Journal, 13 May:

“We are all united.  We deplore the willingness of the City Council to cull the deer.  We all agreed we didn’t want a tree planted for every citizen.  These are defenceless animals.  We would rather do without the trees and have the deer.”

I spoke to a member of Kincorth CC; they are all outraged and want the hill to remain as it is, with the deer continuing to live there.  My contact cites the fact that the ‘phase 2 consultation’ said nothing about the deer cull, yet mentioned rabbit fencing.

This is one of the strongest points of contention – the public and community councils were deliberately kept in the dark about the deer cull.  This is proved clearly in the 25 November letter the SNH sent to the City Council, stating the need to ‘manage’ the public over the cull.

It seems SNH are fully aware that culling these animals in general is an issue – but to kill animals in order to protect non-existent trees is ‘abhorrent’.  (More about the SNH and its recent deer consultation next week).  The word ‘abhorrent’ is also how the Scottish Society for the Protection of Animals and Kincorth Community Council describe this LibDem plan.

Torry  (population c 9,400) –  Unanimous condemnation of the cull

Torry Community Council allowed me to speak at its meeting in May on the cull; they had been informed about the trees in some detail – minus the crucial detail of the deer cull.  

The 14 members present voted unanimously to condemn the cull and to write to the City to protest the cull and the lack of consultation.  Talboys specifically communicated with Torry about the trees, without ever mentioning a deer cull.

To put it mildly, the Council and the residents of Torry are Not Happy.

Cove & Altens (population 7,100) –  Chairman gagged by Malone

On 10th May Cove’s Chairman Andy Finlayson attempted to address the Housing & Environment Committee over the cull and all the issues which had arisen (lack of consultation with CCs, no reference made in the public consultation documents, etc.).

Aileen Malone initially referred to him as the ‘gentleman from Cove Community Centre’ as opposed to his status as duly-elected Council member.  On the technicality of there being no written report on the deer – only a verbal one – Cove’s representative was unable to raise the many points which the Council had kept out of the public domain which were relevant to the tree scheme.

“We are totally against it, basically… the community council is unanimous and everyone in the area we speak to is against it…the message is, stuff the trees – we would rather have the deer.” – Andy Finlayson, Chair, Cove & Altens CC, Press & Journal 13 May 2011

Nigg  (population 8,200)  – a history of concern for animal welfare

I think the majority of the Community Council are against it (the cull)” – James Brownhill, Nigg CC – Press & Journal, 13 May 2011

Nigg is committed to preserving its greenbelt land as its actions and its website attest.  It is doing all it can to stop the ridiculous AFC stadium plans which will see a 21,000 seat stadium plunked in the middle of the greenbelt to its permanent injury.  A year ago, the Nigg Community Council April Minutes had this entry:

“Lochinch Visitors Centre Deer-  thanks to activity of Cllr Cooney, Nigg CC, Jenny Gall and Vivienne McCulloch, deer had been saved from culling and will live out their lives in their current (but reduced) enclosure.”

Before the furore broke out over Tullos Hill, Councillor Neil Cooney and others from Nigg were already going to bat against needless slaughter of our indigenous animals when tame deer were earmarked for needless slaughter.

One year later at its 14 April 2011 meeting, Nigg CC resolved:

“Proposed Deer Cull Tullos Hill – Majority against proposal. Lack of deer management policy holding up planting of trees under ‘tree for every citizen’ scheme.”

Nigg’s Council met again on 12 May 2011 after the Housing Committee’s undemocratic debacle over the deer and would-be speakers.  Nigg’s minutes read:

“Proposed Deer Cull Tullos Hill. Decision to cull deer city-wide approved by ACC Councillors. SNH recommended cull to save deer from starvation. Nigg CC still not happy with this decision”.

I disagree with the comment about starvation, and wonder if SNH have actually said the deer at Tullos will starve – they are in no present danger of that as things stand.  But this is a very minor point concerning the minutes.  When it comes to accuracy in Minute taking, Cults has managed to create an interesting document indeed.

Cults:  (population 10,824)  – An important debate with Cllr Aileen Malone

I spoke to Cults Bieldside Milltimber Community Council on 26 May where Aileen Malone and I finally had the debate she had so far resisted (again, she would not let me speak to the Housing committee which she convenes; and she was too busy one Sunday morning in May to spare 20 minutes to debate the issue with me on Northsound).

In my initial request to speak to Cults, I sent them newspaper cuttings that Torry, Kincorth, Nigg and Cove & Altens Community Councils were opposed to the scheme, as well as the Scottish SPCA.  I sent them articles on the SNH letter which shows the City wanted to keep the cull quiet.  In these circumstances I was asking Cults CC to let me address its May meeting and specifically to follow suit.

The community council meeting that ensued was interesting (and heated) on several points.  Mike Shepherd of Friends of Union Terrace Gardens was there to discuss the future of the gardens, and Aileen Malone stated that there would definitely be a public vote on whether to go ahead with any scheme for Union Terrace Gardens.

At my request she repeated this was the truth, and that the only question unresolved was whether residents in the shire as well as the city would get a vote.

I wrote an article on this Cults BM CC meeting.  I wrote it that night and the next day with my own shorthand notes taken on the night (amongst other things, I have been a secretary minuting meetings for some 25 years, and like to think I have some skill and experience in this area).

My notes reflect that Cults BM CC was going to write to Aberdeen City Council to express a position opposed to the Tullos Cull; I asked the secretary on the night if I could have a copy of any letter they sent; the secretary agreed.
See: you’re-shooting-yourself-in-the-foot-cults-cc-tells-malone

This is what came out in the Cults BM CC Minutes for that meeting:

“Tullos Hill Deer Cull (Peter Reiss)

The Community Council had been made aware of resentment in parts of the city towards the plans to cull some of the local roe deer, seemingly triggered by the need to limit damage to new trees to be planted on Tullos Hill. Suzanne Kelly a Torry resident had written to CBMCC to ask if the CC would take a position on this matter.

In discussion the following points were made:

– The tree planting drive is an election commitment of the current LibDem administration

– Funding from EU and other sources requires best practice and best value for money.

– Due to problems with earlier plantings, City will not get any more funding for tree planting unless a robust roe deer management programme is in place,

– Deer have no natural predators in Scotland. Aberdeenshire, Moray and private estates have a deer cull policy in place. Aberdeen City has management programmes for several other wild animals – e.g., rabbits – but not one for deer.

– A management programme that includes an annual deer cull of about 30 animals has been agreed recently by the City’s Environment Committee. This is a city wide programme but will help to reduce damage to new plantings in Tullos  where some 10 to 15 deer will be culled.

– Objectors say that there has been insufficient consultation on this programme. They would prefer fencing or other positive tree protection rather than killing deer. They are extremely unhappy about the Committee’s request to them to raise £225 000 for 10 years deer fencing as there is no council money to pay for that alternative.

The CC resolved that the deer culling policy appears to be a separate issue not just related to the planting of trees.

Post –meeting note: City tree specialists have been invited to speak in the next community council meeting.”

(Cults Bieldside Milltimber Community Council Minute 26 May 2011)

I have added italics to the excerpt above where the minutes have gone back to repeating verbatim the City Council’s double-speak, sweeping statements about deer culls in general.  Readers of previous stories or Council documents will find a familiar ring to the Cults minutes.

General tree planting issues aside, the Tullos Hill deer have survived in the existing ecosystem – an ecosystem enjoyed by the public as well which the neighbouring Community Councils have clearly said they want kept as is.

I have  also italicised the ‘post meeting note’ wherein someone has invited tree specialists to speak at the June meeting (I would have gone to that had I been informed or had I seen these May minutes in time).  So, without any counterpoint some ‘tree experts’ were called in to explain the City’s perspective on killing deer and planting trees.  Again, who was there to explain all of the issues specific to Tullos?

I will look at those minutes when they are issued.   

It now transpires that Peter Leonard, council officer, is deploying council tree experts to speak to the community councils.  This is what Leonard has to say (I have put the particularly objectionable phrases in bold) in a Freedom of Information Request answer:

The Community Councils who have objected have not been in possession of the full picture of the project, some who have no planting areas within their areas will have had no information about the project from the team delivering the project as there was no requirement to consult on a project that was not within their area.

“Officers from Housing and Environment have offered to attend the community councils who have written in opposing the cull (Kincorth & Leggart and Cults Bieldside and Milltimber, Cove and Altens Community Councils) to present the full picture about The Tree for Every Citizen Project including the deer management proposals so they can make an informed decision.

To date any decision they will have made will have been based on the information published in the media which has not given the full and balanced picture. Officers will be prepared to undertake similar presentations to other community councils covering areas where there are sites proposed for tree planting if invited.”

Personally, I find his comments about the community councils’ decision-making process extremely patronising: how does he know where these elected groups got information from and why does he assume it is only from the media? If people are not in full possession of all the facts this is the Council’s fault – they launched the ‘phase 2 consultation’ over six months ago, and it was a very flawed document. I certainly have been asking for information since then, largely without any real answer.

There is currently no plantation of young trees on Tullos requiring a cull.  The whole point is that there do not need to be this number of trees there, and the local community councils representing some 25,000 people said they do not want the trees.

Attention city officials and councillors:

These two reasons alone should be enough to stop your plans.  But if this is not enough for you, then we will examine your past planting failure and your cavalier attitude towards facts as well as other issues next week. 

Do feel free to weigh in – remember, Aberdeen Voice wants articles from all points of view.  Nothing is stopping you from making your point.

 

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: https://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: https://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…

 

 

May 272011
 

Voice’s Suzanne Kelly reports from a dramatic meeting ( 26.05.11 ) of  Cults, Bieldside & Milltimber Community Council she was kindly invited to attend as a guest, and took the opportunity to discuss the roe deer cull  in person with Cllr. Aileen Malone, Convener of the Housing and Environment Committee responsible for the decision.

Lib Dem Councillor Aileen Malone avoided debating with me the Tullos Hill Roe Deer cull she supports  on Northsound 2 a fortnight ago.

She ‘had a prior engagement’ and could not spare 20 minutes over the phone on a Sunday morning to give Aberdeen her reasons for wanting the deer shot.

Cllr. Malone successfully silenced me and the Nigg Community Council representative when we wanted to debate the cull issue at the 10 May Housing & Environment Committee meeting.  We weren’t allowed to speak to the Committee because there was no written report on the cull  – just a verbal report.  It didn’t matter to the Committee (except for four members) that new information had come to light, and the Community Councils wanted to be heard.

After the Housing Committee voted to get on with killing the deer to plant ‘a tree for every citizen,’ Malone told the media she hoped that would be an end to the controversy.  With thousands of petitioners, four protesting community councils, and various animal charities against the cull, this was wishful thinking taken to a new level.
See: Tullos Hill Picnic

I was not alone in making complaints about the handling of the deer cull and tree planting issues to Aberdeen City Council.  It is hoped that any cull will be halted until a proper investigation and a democratic, fully informed debate can be held.  The 10 point report I prepared as a basis for my complaint is attached at the end of this article.  ( click here )

It had been circulated to the members of the Housing Committee and to  Cults, Bieldside & Milltimber Community Council, where Ms Malone is an elected City Councillor.   I told them I would like to attend their next meeting as a guest on this issue, and they kindly invited me along.

Having served as a Community Council member myself, I was not surprised to hear they have some of the same issues I remembered from my days on Torry’s Council – litter, tree pruning, and so on.

I was surprised to find Mike Shepherd, Chair of the Friends of  Union Terrace Gardens at this meeting.  He gave a presentation on the state of play of the design competition, and what funding might be used for any scheme.  To his surprise and mine, Councillor Aileen Malone made a promise that was both dramatic and new to Mike and me.

Cllr. Malone categorically stated  and repeated this promise:  after a final design for the gardens is chosen, the people will have a vote on whether to go with the design – or to leave Union Terrace Gardens undeveloped (which could include some improvements and amenities)

She was not sure whether or not this would be only for the people of Aberdeen – perhaps the Shire would be voting as well:  but she was adamant this was the case.  So Friends of Union Terrace Gardens – do not despair just yet.  She also confirmed twice that “not a penny” of City Council money would be used to develop the gardens.  No doubt Mike Shepherd will have more to say on these matters.

Back to the deer...

The Cults, Bieldside & Milltimber Community Council Chairman, Peter Reiss opened the deer debate by saying he attended a recent Civic Forum meeting – and was struck that on the subject of the deer cull, there was virtual agreement across the ages and across the boards against the cull.  “For outsiders looking in, this looks like a no-brainer:  let’s put the trees elsewhere” he said.

Ms Malone tried to use arguments which had already been dismissed in the press – not least in the Aberdeen Voice.  She said that expert advice had been given.  I countered, and explained to the Councillors that someone had briefed the SNH against the non-lethal measures (as shown in a letter of 25 November from SNH to the council), and offers from experts – who had knowledge and experience of ways to plant trees without killing deer – was refused.

I told the Council that the SNH letter proves someone had said tree guards were out because ‘they had visual impact.’  This did not sit well with the Cults Council at all.  I explained that the phase 2 consultation documents made no mention of any deer cull – again, the councillors sided with me.

By now an increasingly desperate Ms Malone explained that the tree  planting was ‘A Liberal Democrat manifesto promise’ – as if that were justification of some sort.

Other council attendees had comments for her position such as:

“Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot,”

“other forms of deer control should be paramount”,

“think about the reaction you have had here tonight – it looks like a stupid thing to do:  you have not won the argument.”

Amazingly Ms Malone tried two further tactics.  One was to make general sweeping comments that deer culls are necessary, and her earlier, discredited ploy that only a handful of people initially objected to her in writing, and most were animal activists.

I reminded her that the full story had not come out immediately – the phase 2 consultation made no mention of the cull for Tullos Hill, and it had been subsequently proved that I was one of those who had written to her with my address opposing the cull.  She had gone to the Press and Journal at first, saying ‘only about one’ person from Aberdeen had objected to the cull. She later made private apologies – but none through the Press & Journal, leaving readers of it with the wrong impression.

Animal lovers and activists might be interested in two further statements Councillor Malone made at the meeting.

  • Firstly, there has been permission in place to kill the Tullos Hill Roe Deer since March.  The Council still are not answering questions about when the shooters will be sent in – I have asked – and if anyone else cares to ask the Council, it may help.
  • Secondly, Malone alludes to plans to kill the deer at Bridge of Don.

Some Councillors were all in favour of culls of animals – where the animals are in danger of starvation or over population.  They were reminded that 30 deer live on Tullos Hill.  Malone seemed to say that 9 to 12 of these would be shot now, and the shooting would go on.

She had no real answer why the £225,000 for ten years of fencing / protection was demanded up front.  One person present said:

“no one in their right mind would put their hands in their pockets” for protection in the circumstances – i.e. not knowing exactly what they were paying for or for how long.

I reminded those present that there were  plenty of ways to have deer and trees together.  One councillor suggested having less trees planted. I reminded everyone of the Scottish SPCA position on the matter – the Tullos Hill deer would be killed not because it was for their safety/health – but to plant trees . Abhorrent and absurd” were how the Scottish SPCA put it.

At the end of the day the Council decided to draft a letter to the City.  The debate was closed with Peter Reiss saying to Ms Malone “you have not taken the public with you, and people are saying “this is ridiculous”.  It was suggested this might even damage Ms Malone’s political career.

And that is where we leave it for now.

But one thing is certain, the opposition to the cull has not gone away by a very long shot.   If nothing else, the Cults, Bieldside & Milltimber Community Council gave me the democratic forum for debate that I could find nowhere else:  I am extremely grateful to them.

Suzanne Kelly’s 10 point report – Click here. Please consider writing to Aberdeen City Council’s Housing and Environment Committee in support of this formal complaint.