Sir: Full marks to Terence Blacker (Opinion, 20 May) and the report by Helen Phillips from Natural England for drawing attention to our wildlife. Man cannot exist without wildlife: plants to produce oxygen and food, insects, bats and small mammals to pollinate our crops – the list in endless. The biggest problem is that we damage all life with chemicals – pesticides which should be banned to let predatory insects, ladybirds and ground beetles for example, do the job of control instead.
As an ecologist (still active at 78) and a member of the Somerset Invertebrates Group, which expressed concern at the decline of insects more than 10 years ago, I am very worried about the lack of young, enthusiastic taxonomists to take over the work we do.
One cannot conserve or protect a species if one cannot identify it, and the graduates emerging from universities these days appear to have had very little instruction in the classification of organisms or their taxonomy. Over the last 15 years, I watched an inevitable decline in the knowledge of graduates entering the Somerset Environmental Centre as trainee surveyors. Most have never even tried to use an identification key.
When I retired from teaching in 1987, biology A-level students were required to know the life-cycle and anatomy of an example from each of the major taxa and went on field courses to learn ecology in practice.
Nowadays, with all the hassle over "health and safety", few establishments seem to take pupils away and children grow up with little idea of the magic of wildlife and the fun of actually being among it. It seems that the only body to carry out real outdoor education in ecology and taxonomy to all ages is the Field Studies Council. It is easy to get children interested in creepy-crawlies, but it needs a pretty good naturalist to be able to identify what they find.
Local authorities are reviewing Biodiversity Action Plans and associated Species Action Plans. Can the local authority employees recognise the SAP species? Are they willing to get help from specialists? Not apparently in Somerset – we are struggling to be heard, to have a say in which species get a SAP; and Habitat Action Plans are being written by non-specialists.
Dr Pat Hill-Cottingham
Brown stumbles towards defeat
Sir: Listening to Gordon Brown at Prime Minster's Questions, you would never believe that people are struggling to pay mortgages, many increased by the unfair stamp duty imposed by this government; cannot afford pensions, having had their occupational pension schemes closed, again as a direct result of this government's policies; struggle to afford transport to work because of petrol prices inflated by tax, very little of which has been used to provide a decent public transport infrastructure. This after 11 years of a Labour government. This is not even to mention Iraq, or the reversal of the disastrous lower tax band decision.
Local elections have turned into a protest vote against the national government, as the public have no other way to voice their concerns, with a very effective Mayor of London losing his post as a result.
Labour's response is to dress up as toffs in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, which, given the schooling of the Labour Prime Minister for the previous 10 years, is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate.
People are so anxious for a change that David Cameron doesn't have to advance any policies of substance to forge ahead in the opinion polls. Whoever is leader, we deserve far better from a Labour government.
Sir: In the 1990s Tony Blair flashed his toothy grin and declared: "The class war is over". "New" Labour's charm offensive worked a treat as Tories and Labour voters alike hurried to embrace a bright new age of triangulated centrist politics.
A decade later, that nice Mr Blair has gone, and former friends in his now ruined party are left to curse their old leader's once-prized powers of persuasion as voters in a traditionally safe Labour seat continue to endorse the "third way" – by preparing to elect a "Tory toff".
What goes around . . .
In defence of the 'neo-Malthusians'
Sir: Dominic Lawson uses the arguments of a witch-hunter ("The best population policy is to have none", 20 May).
He doesn't like the idea that population pressure might be a real problem in the world and sets out to try and suppress debate. Everyone who expresses any positive view of this issue, no matter how reasonably and openly they put the case, he brands with such language as "population control freaks" and "neo-Malthusians".
Disappointed to find that modern concern over population pressure comes from moderate and reasonable people, presumably against whom he lacks sound arguments, he deduces that "they are less honest than their predecessors".
Why are they less honest? Because they do not express any of the views he complains of. He admits this himself, but deduces that they must really hold them, but are being dishonest. This is straight out of Monty Python.
Market Rasen, Lincolnshire
Sir: We should be concerned not merely about life but the quality of life. On Dominic Lawson's parallel planet, families sit down and choose their own fertility rate. Back on Earth the low status of many women deprives them of any choices whatsoever, including when and whether to have sex and even whom to have it with, let alone the use of contraception. Illiteracy and ignorance condemn them to a life of endless childbearing, poverty and virtual slavery.
Johann Hari's thoughtful article of 15 May was right: there are too many people and the empowerment of women is the humane solution to this (as well as to many other urgent problems).
Sir: Dominic Lawson mentions in his article about population policy the situation where pensioners outnumber the young. How else can one arrive at a smaller overall population than by passing through a peak of retired people? Once that peak has passed the benefits of a smaller population on the environment and services generally will be apparent.
Old arguments won't bring peace
Sir: In recent weeks you have published a stream of letters arguing the case for and against the existence of the State of Israel. I have been reading letters and articles making the same points for 60 years, and a solution to the problem is as remote as ever. Do you not think that the time has come to stop regurgitating the same old arguments and instead discuss the situation as it exists today and attempt to find a sensible solution?
To state that Israel's formation was "a mistake of colossal proportions" (letter, 13 May) is as futile as to state that Israel belongs to the Jews because the Bible says so. Why not agree that history cannot be reversed and try to find a solution that will give all the people in the area the peace they desire so much? Land can be exchanged and compromises agreed in many areas.
Cynics will regard this as unrealistic. A attempts to find peace in Northern Ireland attracted the same scepticism.
Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire
Gender equality in new Jewish liturgies
Sir: Your report "Reform Jewish prayer book dispels sexism" (20 May) is an admirable acknowledgment of the efforts of a section of the UK's Progressive Jewish community to demonstrate, as it describes in its own words, its "commitment to the equality of the sexes" by making changes to traditional Jewish liturgy in its new prayerbook. All of the changes reported in your article have been part of the liturgy of the UK's Liberal Judaism movement for more than a decade, featuring in its 1995 prayerbook, Siddur Lev Chadash.
Liberal Judaism in the UK, in common with its larger sister movement of Reform Judaism in the USA, is also distinguished from the rest of British Jewry through its principle that Judaism is not transmitted maternally but rather is a result of educational and cultural experience of the religion. As such, Liberal Judaism is at the forefront of opening doors for many who would otherwise be rejected by the UK's Jewish community, including the Movement for Reform Judaism.
Liberal Judaism applauds the Movement for Reform Judaism on its new prayerbook and looks forward sharing with it the challenge of "providing a natural home for the majority of British Jews".
Rabbi Pete Tobias
Chairman-elect, Liberal Judaism Rabbinic Conference, Elstree, Hertfordshire
Ancient bigotry enshrined in law
Sir: After the Manchester riots there was much condemnation of sectarian chanting by some Glasgow Rangers fans. However anti-Catholic bigotry is also alive in the dark heart of the British establishment.
Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne, married Autumn Kelly, a Canadian with Irish heritage. Good luck to them. However, in order that he could retain his position as 11th in line to the Crown, Ms Kelly had to renounce her Catholic religion. The 1701 Act of Settlement bars Catholics and those who marry Catholics from the succession.
The UK will never be a modern European country unless it removes this ancient prejudice from its laws. Or better still become a republic.
Could Scotland defend itself?
Sir: Although the Union cannot be maintained without consent, I do not share the apparent equanimity expressed in your editorial (17 May) should it dissolve.
The defence of these islands, both in its conventional and nuclear aspects, has been predicated on doing so as a geographical and command entity. The SNP would pursue defence policies that negate the integrity of that tactical and strategic defence. Would an independent Scotland be prepared to undertake the necessary expansion of land, sea and air forces to defend its territory, for to do so must require expenditure that would severely limit its social and welfare programmes?
It cannot be assumed that the US will be able, or willing, to bear the disproportionate expenditure in defence of the western alliance in this century that it bore in the last. Scottish independence will be illusory if the country is unable or unwilling to defend its freedom. An unacceptable price, if it fatally undermines the ability of the rest of the people of these islands to defend theirs.
Doncaster, South Yorkshire
Sir: I don't understand why it should be suggested that in the event of Scotland leaving the UK, the remaining state should lose its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It would retain something like 90 per cent of the population and GDP. Russia retained the Soviet seat after a much greater proportional loss.
The fact of the matter is that a split would greatly affect the Labour Party, Scotland itself and almost nobody else. Having grown up in Scotland, I appreciate how hurtful and difficult to understand this would be to many Scots. But national pride is one thing; wilful disregard of reality is another.
Children who suffer an injustice at birth
Sir: I am appalled that MPs have decided that women seeking fertility treatment will no longer have to take into account the role of a father figure. I have every sympathy with lesbian women's rights to marry and have equal status in the law, but deliberately creating a child to grow up without a father in order to satisfy their own desires is pure selfishness.
As the mother of two young adults, I know that their lives have been immeasurably enriched by the presence of their father throughout their childhood, enriched in ways that I could never duplicate. Unfortunately, there are too many inadvertently fatherless children, and we should not be deliberately creating more just to suit the selfish wishes of a couple of adults. A permanent injustice is done to these deliberately fatherless children.
Pitfalls of PR
Sir: Nick Clegg's article in Extra (20 May) was brilliant. All he needs to do now is come up with a voting system that won't make us like the Italians.
No toff he
Sir: Despite all three leading members of the Tory Party (Cameron, Osborne, Johnson) being ex-members of Oxford's Bullingdon Club of restaurant-trashing aristocrats, the fact that, as Gerald de Lacey points out (Letters 20 May), Osborne attended St Paul's School (day pupils £15,300pa, boarders £22,800) rather than Eton (boarders £26,500) clearly shows how socially varied the Conservative leadership is.
The fat issue
Sir: Of course it was not very polite of Katie Derham to call Lucian Freud's model "Fat Sue" (Philip Hensher, 19 May). On the other hand if we become too timorous about criticising the grossly overweight, surely this terrible obesity epidemic will only get worse.
Stockport, Greater Manchester
Acts of God
Sir: I notice that the religious community no longer refers to earthquakes as Acts of God and now accepts the geologists' explanation of readjustments in the Earth's crust; but he still gets credit for the minute proportion of those affected who survive.
Yorkshire to Mordor
Sir: Whatever "Wetwang" may mean, it is nowhere near the coast ("Britain's rudest places", 21 May), being situated some 15 miles inland. However, so arresting is the name that Tolkien appropriated it to describe the marshlands just west of Mordor. This is the only place name in Middle-earth that is lifted directly from the "real world" – praise indeed.
Bilton, East Yorkshire
Sir: You report that cat litter costs £3 a week (20 May). I just use three folded pages of your excellent publication a day – after I have read it of course.