Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Nation's Interest

172 British Labour Party MPs have called for Jeremy Corbyn to resign on the grounds that he did not do enough to ensure LP members voted to remain in the EU.  

So, not what he did do, but what he failed to do, i.e. the reason the country is in a total shambles and the self-proclaimed centre has been left with egg on its face and people in Europe are laughing at them, is all down to him. 

The 172 are backed by the likes of Cameron - that vile, duplicitous example of over privileged windbaggery - who also says it is 'in the nation's interest for Corbyn to go. 

Like he has any idea whatsoever about what is in the nation's interest.

Some of those 172 Labour MPS will be responding to peer pressure; some will want to be on the winning side; some will personally dislike Corbyn; some will have been bought off with promises of future political or other benefits; some will be embarrassed by having a bike riding, bearded, principled socialist as their leader, and some will be calculating ideologues who want to drag the party firmly back to the political centre, aka the right.

They all overtly or tacitly support a political system in which two major rightwing parties compete against each other - creating circuses, cults of personality and promoting tribal loyalties to con the electorate into believing they have real political choice. In truth that political system is about ensuring conditions in which global corporate capitalism can operate feely and without having to adjust itself to changes in political direction every 3 to 5 years. 

They knew Corbyn was between a rock and a hard place on Brexit - that like any principled and thinking person he has serious reservations about the EU and its role as a hand servant of neo-liberalism, US imperialism and militarism, and that he sees free movement of labour as being about the ability of business to access cheap labour and to undermine organised labour in more subtle ways than the sledgehammer approach of the likes of Thatcher.

Like any politician, Corbyn has had to compromise. He swallowed his personal beliefs and he stood the party line of remain in the EU and try to negotiate a better deal for Britain. He unconditionally deplored the vile racist and xenophobic lies of the leaders of the Leave campaign and its many supporters in the Tory Party and the media. He stood as firm to his principles as it possible for a mainstream politician and leader of a deeply divided party could. And anyone who thinks that is easy has never been involved in politics. 

Had the Remain camp won they'd probably still have used Brexit as a stick to beat him with but, perhaps by having been so embarrassed by their unexpected defeat, they've added tones of hysteria and unrestrained vitriol to their calls for him to go. 

That they can turn away from attacking the Tories who stage managed this cruelly divisive fiasco and who are in total disarray, and choose instead to publicly eviscerate their democratically elected leader is almost beyond comprehension. 

BBC Newsnight reported that 45 of the 50 Labour Party constituency chairs they contacted support Corbyn and are furious with the revolting MPs.  Clearly there is a chasm between the grass roots of the Labour Party and the MPs it has selected.  

If I was a member of the LP in Britain I would struggle to stay if Corbyn is ousted. I would be torn between the need to fight to retain the name, the history and the resources of the Labour party and the need to send a message to the Labour light/right that more than ever, there needs to be a strong, united, principled opposition to the short termist, profligate, war mongering, self serving forces which currently are spinning the world into an uncontrollable nose dive. 

Over the top? No. Not even close to the top. In the context of the world as it is today and what it will become unless radical changes are made now, the top is so up there we can't even see it.

More than ever before in their ignoble history,  the Blairites and the spineless fellow travellers who have attached their self interest to the Blairite bandwagon have demonstrated they are Bogus Labour Advancing Indefensible Rightwing Ideology To Eliminate Socialism. 

It's time they did the decent thing and resigned - in the interests of the nation.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Dancing Horses

You may have seen the video of the 'dancing horse' - Blue Hors Matine - the Danish grey mare which came second in the freestyle dressage at the 2006 WEG.  Matine was a glorious horse and mostly excused her trade mark tail swinging - a sign of tension which should result in loss of marks - by judges and audience alike because of how expressive her movement was and because she was white and fans of equestrian sports do so love a white horse. 

Marine had a meteoric rise to the top and a spectacular fall after just one season of competition at Grand Prix.  She was retired at the age of 10 and put down at the age of 13 after a field accident in which she broke her carpal joint (the anatomical equivalent of the human wrist). She had been retired to stud after straining her pastern when she slipped off the ramp of a transporter, and never came right.  It's a common enough story. 

Lots of people see the video - it is the most commonly viewed equestrian video on YouTube - and most think it's an example of rider and horse in perfect harmony, the peak of equestrianism.  But there's a dark side to all equestrian sports, and one that gets darker the higher up you go largely because more money and ego are involved. 

Matine's rider, Andreas Helgstrand, was a proponent of 'rolkur'. This training method relies on extreme hyperflexion of the horse's neck with the alleged aim of building up the muscles of the 'topline'.   It is highly controversial.  Opponents of it argue it is cruel and damaging to the horse; advocates and proponents of it argue it is a perfectly safe form of exercise when performed by skilled riders. 

Dressage is supposed to be the 'highest expression of horse training', progressing through stages to the highest possible level, Grand Prix.  The outline demanded of the advanced dressage horse is derived from the horse's natural display postures - i.e. arching the neck, and elevating and /or lengthening the stride. The advanced dressage horse has to be - i.e. it is a requirement of the FEI - worked in a double bridle in competition. That's two bits attached to two sets of reins.  The single jointed snaffle element has a nutcracker action and is judged to be less severe; the solid curb bit has a chain that runs under the chin which tightens when pressure is applied to the rein, and has a lever action on the tongue and lower jaw occasioned by the bit's long shanks. The pressure that can be exerted on the jaw, tongue and chin by even moderate rider action can be extreme. 

The picture above is a close up of a horse being worked in by Andreas Helgstrand at a competition.  The way the horse's nose is wrinkling and the fact his mouth is open indicate he was in some distress.  The fact that his tongue is blue is as a result of the loss of blood flow because of the pressure of the curb bit. That, and spur marks on the horse's flanks, evoked international outrage and resulted in Helgstrand facing cruelty charges. 

Helgstrand was acquitted of animal cruelty although he was judged by the Danish Dressage Federation to have been using the double bridle and aids 'inappropriately'.   The spur marks were judged by a vet not to have caused the horse harm but the question that was not asked or answered by the vets or the courts was, is why did a supreme equine athlete need to be spurred so heavily? 

The answer may be that the horse was in pain from the bone spurring the vet found on the right side of the animal's lower jaw, which would have been caused by repeated pressure and concussion from the bits. It may also have been that he was in oxygen debt because of the impairment of his respiration - both from having an open and wet mouth, and having his head cranked into a posture that, in effect, almost pinched his airway shut. 

This is another Grand Prix rider employing hyper flexion when working in a horse before a competition.

Anyone who knows anything about the horse's anatomy and physiology knows that extreme hyperflexion both inhibits breathing and prevents the horse from seeing where it is going. It is a simple anatomical fact that when the horse has its nose 'behind the vertical'  i.e. it is 'over bent', it cannot see properly, nor can it breathe efficiently. The physiology is simple so there is no excuse for how often and how utterly it is misunderstood - to the horse's detriment.

Horses at liberty adopt display postures only briefly.  All horses when exercising at liberty have a closed and dry mouth because the more the horse exercises, the more air it needs. When the horse is exercising it does not want to be producing large amounts of saliva because of the fact that it - like us - cannot breathe and swallow at the same time.  Unlike us, the horse can only breathe through its nose.When it needs to maximise air intake, it swallows what is in its mouth and closes its mouth firmly  which ensures its oesophagus is fully closed off and its airway is fully opened. It flares its nostrils and stretches its head forward which ensures a smooth flow of air into its lungs. Its body is in exercise mode - i.e. adrenaline and cortisol are being produced to kick start and fuel activity and saliva production stops - the mouth is closed and dry. Saliva and/or food in the mouth when breathing heavily means there is a risk of breathing fluid or solids into the lungs  which would result in a severe coughing fit in the short term and aspiration pneumonia in the longer term. 

Put simply, a closed dry mouth ensures no choking and the full opening of the airway. An elongated neck and flared nostrils means the passage of air to the the lungs is maximised. You have only to look at the way the horse stretches its neck down and forward when is is galloping - going flat out - or when it is recovering from extreme exertion to see how important that anatomical arrangement is. 

A bit interferes with those processes by creating confusing signals - i.e. unless the horse is in a state of panic, the presence of something in the mouth provokes autonomic saliva production. Horsey folk are told is a sign of 'the horse 'accepting' the bit which means that the horse is not panicking but is experiencing competing autonomic signals: something in mouth = produce saliva to aid mastication and digestion; exercising =  need for closed, dry mouth to maximise efficient respiration and avoid aspiration of saliva or food particles.

The reason that ALL dressage tests from beginners to advanced have periods of extended or free walk in them are to allow the horse to regain its breath because the head posture required of the dressage horse - even when technically perfect, i.e. the nose being on or slightly in front of the vertical - restricts the airway. It also inhibits vision. The horse raises its head to focus on distant objects and lowers its head to focus on anything close to it. The more 'over bent' the horse's head is, the less it can see - its vision is restricted to what is immediately in front of its front feet.  

Being released from a position of severely restricted vision and air intake is the reward associated with the pressure of hyperflexion.  Hyperflexion is not about building up the top line, it is all about domination. 

The horse was and remains a potent status symbol. The image of the prancing horse, a powerhouse of brute strength and energy held in check by the rider's hands on the reins is one beloved of ordinary folk as well as megalomaniacs and those who portrayed them in stone, bronze and on canvas. To my eye, these statues below depict horses that are in pain and terror. There is no excuse for this these days.

In case you are tempted to think that cruelty cloaked by tradition is confined to the upper echelons of dressage - think again. This piece of abject grossness below is American saddlebred showing - and there are equally vile and routine abuses of horses in reining and rodeo, in show jumping and eventing and horse racing. 

If you want to see how a Grand Prix dressage horse will choose to position its head when ridden without a bit - this is a demonstration by Polish rider Andrzej Slack. 

Clean, green, hmmm.

We went for a walk up the south branch of the Kowai river a couple of weeks ago.  For those who don't know this small river, it rises on the flanks of Maukatere-Mount Grey, splits into two branches and carves a route to the sea just north of Leithfield Beach village. It often dries up in the summer, sometimes going dry several kilometres inland.  Even when it is flowing, by the time it gets close to the sea it's so shallow and warm and turgid, much of its stoney bed is coated in various forms of algae. 

A couple of years ago there was a massive flood in the Kowai.  Very heavy rain in the foothills after a very wet autumn combined with the extensive clear felling of the exotic pine forest on the lower slopes of Maukatere.  The north branch of the Kowai rejoins the larger south branch a few hundred metres above the SH1 bridge at Leithfeld. By that point the flood was like a lahar -a torrent of massive boulders, trees, shingle and mud that once it subsided, had raised the river bed by a metre. 

Up above what we call the top ford on Marshman's Road, the damage from that flood is still raw and impressive. At one point the waters would have reached almost 4 metres above the current bed.  Huge deposits of yellow and blue clay litter the river bed and everywhere there's an ugly tangle of downed willows.  The fallen leaves of the willows that line the banks clog the stream, which was still very low despite recent rain.  Because the area in the headwaters is a mass of gorse, the flood brought down masses of seed and the river bed is sprouting a forest of the vile stuff.

What struck us as we wandered along was there was no bird song. We get used to the background chatter of birds on our own property but the Kowai was almost completely silent. 

As we walked along I could not help but feel anger and grief at what this sad little river once would have been.  

Maukatere was once covered in east coast beech forest.  The Kowai river would have risen amongst this forest with its complex understory of small trees, shrubs, flaxes, ferns, mosses and lichens and wound through bush on its way to its estuary where it formed lagoons and wetlands rich in fish and bird life. Its waters, filtered through the bush, would have been pristine. 

Now we have a largely denuded estuary, choked with gravel and exotic tree debris. The river bed along almost its entire length is choked with gravel and mud and festooned with the scars of gravel extraction and the tracks of various off road vehicles which use it as a playground.  It is full of pine and willow debris from the flood and gorse and broom and a host of other exotic weeds.  Its banks are lined with wildling pine, willow and poplar hybrids with blackberry, old man's beard, ivy and convolvulus choking the life out of any native that tries to reestablish itself or which people have planted in attempts to restore a little of what once was there.

It's pretty ugly. 

And when you emerge on the edge of the commercial pine forest that was sold to Ngai Tahu as part of the Treaty of Waiting settlement (*) and has recently been clear felled, it goes beyond ugly. It looks like a war zone - which, in a manner of speaking, it is.  The flanks of the bare mountain are scarred by the run off from those heavy rains 2 years ago. Deep gashes that were once bush lined gullies, will continue to pour clay and shingle and boulders down into the Kowai in heavy rain.   

Pinus radiata is not a pretty tree en masse and it pours its toxins into the soils beneath it to deter competitors. Not much likes to grow under densely planted pine trees and when you plant vast forests of them you create an environment that is hostile to most plants and animals.  Gorse will cope though - give it a bit of light and it will colonise and - as it seeds several times a year in NZ and its seed is almost indestructible - it spreads with astonishing speed and vigour. If you've ever burned gorse you'll know that it's also highly flammable. 

Someone once said to me when they were looking at my heap of composting horse and sheep poo that, given I grow native plants, I wouldn't need to use it because natives don't need such rich compost.  That struck me at the time as not just wrong factually but also a metaphor for a lot of what is wrong with NZ. 

That person never stopped to consider that the NZ bush is largely evergreen and foliage tends to be quite fibrous and slow to rot down; that it evolved in symbiosis with an vast array and number of birds, and that the deep litter on the forest floor would have been heavily fertilised by bird droppings which are full of readily accessible nitrogen - among other nutrients.  I wonder how much the vitality of our remaining bush is affected by the loss of its bird life.  

I look at Maukatere with its numerous scars and the tiny remnants of its once glorious beech forest and bush and think what a wonder it would be to regenerate it, to turn this symbol of all that is wrong about NZ into a beacon of hope for a greener and more sustainable, planet-friendly future. 

Over to you Ngai Tahu.  

*Ngai Tahu bought the Ashley Forest then a Crown asset, freehold at market value in 1989 as part of the deed of settlement, and granted Carter Holt Harvey long-term forestry rights which were assigned to Matariki in 2005.  Ngai Tahu owns the land and Rayonier manages the Ashley Forest for Matariki Forests which is part owned by Rayonier.  The Department of Conservation manages the top of the mountain, the tiny remnant of native bush at Lake Janet and the tracks which lead up to the lake and the summit.