Peril of wildlife, Supporting US troops and others

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The Independent Online

Beleaguered amphibians warn of wide peril to wildlife

Beleaguered amphibians warn of wide peril to wildlife

Sir: May I congratulate you on putting a biodiversity story on the front page ("The polluted planet", 15 October). Steve Connor's excellent summary emphasised the decline in species in the tropical biodiversity hot spots. We should not however be complacent about amphibians in this country.

While the status of rare and actively conserved species such as the great crested newt and the natterjack toad is reasonably well known, we know embarrassingly little of the fate of "common" species such as the frog and toad. There has been no national survey to provide statistical data on where and to what extent decline is happening. We can only note a very obvious and worrying drop in abundance, accelerating over the past few years.

All six British amphibians depend on ponds or ditches, and these habitats enjoy no automatic protection in law or even in planning guidance. At least 75 per cent of British ponds have been lost during the 20th century, and many of those remaining are too isolated to support fluctuating populations in the longer term. Furthermore, most countryside ponds are now heavily degraded by road and agricultural run-off, supporting half the plant species of those in protected areas. There is a growing consensus that frog populations are so impacted in farmland that three-quarters of the remaining frogs are now confined to urban gardens.

Then add the other factors - red leg disease, a fatal fungal infection, is decimating frog populations in England, and is spreading in range and intensity. With increasing rural traffic, we believe up to 20 per cent of the toads in some populations may be wiped out every year as they migrate across roads to reach their spawning ponds.

The European Water Framework Directive requires that by 2015, all water bodies must be in "good ecological status". Great - but the UK implementation will ignore water bodies smaller than 50 hectares. This landmark legislation will offer no protection to the pond habitat essential to the survival of our amphibians, and to many species of insects and molluscs as well.

The decline of British amphibians is a canary to the state of the environment in general. If we do not take steps to monitor and reverse this trend, we will soon see similar abrupt declines in the more robust (and popular) butterflies, birds and mammals.

Director, Pond Conservation, Oxford

We have no duty to help this US assault

Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith argues that the duties of a military alliance require that we give the US the troops they need (Opinion, 18 October). This assistance would free yet more American troops to join the assault on Fallujah.

So far as I am aware, Fallujah is an Iraqi city with a vast population of ordinary families. By day and by night they have been bombarded by American warplanes and helicopter gunships. When similar treatment is meted out by the Israelis to the Palestinians in the Gaza strip, Jack Straw protests that this is "disproportionate", as indeed it is. It is also in direct contravention of international law.

If we agree to America's request we will be aiding and abetting the US in ever more heinous crimes against the beleaguered Iraqi people.

Whittam Smith reminds us of the commitments which friendship involves. But friendship should not demand blind loyalty. True friends point out the questionable morality or legality of an action and then withdraw.

If Mr Bush is so convinced of the rectitude of his strategy, then he will surely have no qualms in calling up yet more of his own troops? Presumably his avid Republican supporters would welcome his call to arms.


Sir: As an American citizen who has lived in Great Britain and is very fond of its inhabitants, I write to plead with the British government and the British people not to give in to the disgracefully cynical tactic being employed by our ersatz president. I refer to the request that your troops be moved to the far more dangerous parts of Iraq where US troops currently dwell.

One of Senator Kerry's criticisms of President Bush's Iraq policy is that he ignores the rest of the world's advice; and 90 per cent of the death rate is sustained by the US. Isn't it obvious that Bush's request to send British troops into harm's way now is an attempt to cause more British deaths? This would partly negate Kerry's charge against Bush.

Please do not be fooled by a plan that can only be called evil. Your fine and brave soldiers have done enough to prove the UK is a staunch ally. You must not throw away lives just to bolster a ruthless politician's re-election hopes.

Kingston, New York, USA

Sir: Let us focus on the realities of deploying a battalion of British infantry to support US Forces near Baghdad. The US Army has approximately 140,000 soldiers in theatre. How much difference can a battalion battle group of 650 men make to that?

The purpose of this request is obvious and two-fold. Firstly to provide a figleaf of cover for this wholly illegal war, to assist the re-election of the US President. Secondly, to imbroil British forces deeper into the war. How long will it be before more units from the British Army are required to support the unit which will inevitably come under heavy pressure ?

It is clear that the UK is yet again being used by the Bush administration as a pawn in its game. How long will Parliament permit this manipulation of this country? Perhaps the UKIP would care to focus on this as an example of loss of British sovereignty.

Altrincham, Greater Manchester

Sir: It is too late for Gerald Kaufman not to want his government manipulated by "one of the most unscrupulous US administrations" (report, 19 October). How does he think we got into the war - that he supported - in the first place?

I note that he and his fellow pro-war Labour MPs are "drawing a line in the sand". I did that yesterday on a beach in Northumberland, and guess what; the tide came in and swept it all away!

Alnwick, Northumberland

Sir: The Prime Minister's triumphant riposte to Charles Kennedy that "If [Kennedy] had his way, Saddam Hussein and his sons would still be running Iraq" treats Saddam's loss of power (desirable in the abstract) as isolated from the events which brought it about, and their consequences, so Mr Blair can claim credit for the former without considering his responsibility for the latter. He could have said the same had Iraq been obliterated by a nuclear bomb.


Pensions crisis

Sir: I assume there must be plenty like me: when I left university in 1971, I was asked by the DHSS to pay over £280, perhaps £7,000 today, as my National Insurance contributions for the three years' when I had not been earning. I was told that if I did not pay it, I would not be fully entitled to a state pension on retirement - a dilemma for a 21-year-old with no money. I did pay, with difficulty.

I have spent my career in public (local authority) service where, despite never quite reaching the national average wage, I for a long time paid a marginal tax rate of 40 per cent, with compulsory deductions of over 10 per cent on top. More than half of all I've earned in my life has gone on taxes and deductions. I paid without too much complaint because I assumed a secure if not generous pension. I never came within a mile of earning enough to buy property.

Mr Lowe-Watson (letter, 14 October) is absolutely right when he criticises our generation as a whole. But what of us as individuals? You win some, you lose some; I am wholeheartedly grateful that I've known no Western Front or cholera epidemic; but I am now in my fifties, and afraid - that a future that I paid for and, more to the point, contracted for is being taken away. Is that really such temerity? Statistics tend to conceal people.

Fleet, Hampshire

Sir: On the day the Pensions Commission reported I happened to be reading A Textbook of Economics by J L Hanson (1961), which mentions that, because of the increase in the ratio of beneficiaries to workers, the Phillips Committee in 1954 recommended that the retirement age for men should be raised to 68 and for women to 63.

So much for Hamish McRae's comment (12 October) that "the Government is showing unusual foresight to flag this issue up now". In this country short-term electoral considerations always outweigh long-term policy reforms, so I confidently expect that in 2054 the then government will be appointing a commission to investigate ways to solve the pensions crisis.

Chelmsford, Essex

Sir: One of the scandals of the pensions crisis is that those who formulate and decide on the regulations regarding pension provision are in no way affected by their own decisions. Government ministers and senior civil servants enjoy very generous pensions which are entirely secured by the state.

Basingstoke, Hampshire

Sir: Government mixed messages: save for retirement; we are going to licence more casinos.

Ottringham , East Riding

Darfur dilemma

Sir: Can you tell me what line you want us to take over the appalling abuses in Sudan. Lord Alton is sending Tony Blair a report (18 October), but what use do you or he expect him to make of it? Take it to the UN, to stir them into action? The best of luck. Start unilateral sanctions? Self defeating in every sense, I would have thought.

Or do you think we should carry out a unilateral military invasion, to put a stop to the torture, rape and murder? I'm all for it, but I think I should warn you ... a lot of people will give you a hard time.

Alfold, Surrey

Drug regulation

Sir: Jennie V Younger's letter in defence of GlaxoSmithKline (12 October) demonstrates the breathtaking chutzpah of the pharmaceutical industry.

The experience of regulators and pharmaceutical companies working together has damaged the interests of patients. Pharmaceutical companies cannot be equal partners with regulators without undermining their independence. The recent crises of Seroxat and Vioxx demonstrate that the regulators in their incestuous relationships with pharmaceutical companies have failed patients by not holding these companies to account.

Urgent action is needed to establish a truly independent regulatory system for medicines that requires the publication of all clinical trials.

(Newport W, Lab)
House of Commons

Tory snub to gays

Sir: The failure of the Shadow Cabinet to back the Civil Partnerships Bill shows that the Conservative Party has neither listened nor changed since it lost the election in 1997.

Messrs Redwood, Davis, Fox and others expect people in same-sex relationships to live as second-class citizens. Perhaps they could explain why those in same-sex relationships should not benefit from next-of-kin, inheritance and pension rights. I and my partner have been together for nine years, longer than some couples who have married.

The Conservative Party needs to realise that such views will consign them to oblivion as this century progresses.

London SW9

Back to work

Sir: The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Alan Johnson, thinks the role of healthcare professionals is to "facilitate the return to work" of sick patients ("Doctors urged to refrain from signing sick notes", 19 October). I always thought our role was to cure, palliate, advise and comfort our patients.

If patients are well enough to return to work then this is a wonderful end to their illness. We should recognise however that some will never be able to. Mr Johnson should leave these decisions to those professionals with the knowledge and experience to deal with them.

Bury, Greater Manchester

English in Wales

Sir: Unlike many English incomers to Wales of my acquaintance, Colin Rose (letters, 19 October) sees "little point in learning" Welsh "in a country in which everyone speaks English". What about simple good manners, Mr Rose? And are you really so narrow-minded as to think your life could not possibly be enriched by being exposed to the vibrant and ancient British culture that the language makes available?

Y Fenni, Sir Fynwy Cymru

Sir: I notice from Colin Rose's letter that he was always able to sell his catalogues by speaking English in Wales. I speak Welsh to the catalogue salesmen who come to my door. They never come again. Mind you, this is Yorkshire.

Ripon, North Yorkshire

Reality check

Sir: I note, from the photo caption accompanying "The Secret Dam" story (16 October), that China's Tiger Leaping Gorge is the "real location" of the fictional Shangri-La. The gorge clearly exists; its reality is not in doubt; it is located. One can only wonder about the "real" location of the obviously fictional sub-editor who tapped out that caption.

London W1

'Cheating' prince

Sir: What is the world coming to, with a teacher claiming to have done coursework for an AS-level student? What happened to parents doing it?

Weymouth, Dorset