In the abstract

Still locked down and with the weather continuing to be as grey as grey I have very little to report from the last few weeks. As mentioned in my last post I’ve been going through my images – some 40,000 dating back to the year 2006, when I began my journey in digital photography. I’ve retained the habit from my film days of taking a three-frame burst for most landscapes, with 1/3 stop difference in exposure between each one. This was crucial with transparency film as you really only had one chance to get the exposure right. With digital it is far less important – especially with full-frame, I’ve found, which is so forgiving of minor errors. So after every photography trip I have a very large number of surplus files to examine, rate and dispose of. I’m getting quite good at it now but going back a few years I kept far more than I needed to.

As well as deleting about 6,000 of them I’ve found a few gems which I had missed the first time round. Some might be suitable for postcards and there are also quite a few “abstracts” which will never see the light of day unless I post them on my blog and/or website. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is a selection. Enjoy!

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Warts and All

Looking north east from Tre’r Ceiri

As I’m sure most of us now are, I’m stuck at home and finding it difficult to keep myself occupied. During the spring/summer lockdown the weather was delightful and I explored my local area on foot and electric bike. It was exciting to get to know the local wildlife a little better. Mid-winter is a completely different kettle of fish, of course, and my bike has barely left the garage in the last couple of months. I’m still walking, but to a very limited extent; on the edge of the uplands around my home it’s cold, wet and windy and most of the wildlife has left for lower altitudes. It’s not a very exciting task, I know, but I’ve taken to deleting digital image files to make more room on my hard disc.

This morning I came across a folder from January 13th 2012, exactly nine years ago. I was working on the book Wales at Waters Edge at the time, and spent the day on Yr Eifl, a triple-topped peak on the north coast of the Llyn peninsula between Caernarfon and Nefyn. It is one of the most spectacular locations in Wales, with views down Penllyn to Bardsey Island and inland to the mountains of Eryri. On one of the peaks is a beautifully-preserved hill-top settlement known as Tre’r Ceiri – or, in English, “Town of the Giants”. There are numerous hut circles within the settlement walls, suggesting that the inhabitants were – in fact – far from tall in stature! Isolated fragments of low cloud drifted onto the hilltops in a light breeze, while most of the landscape remained lit by strong sunshine. It was one of those once-in-a-hundred days. I spent several hours up high during the morning, before returning to the van for something to eat.

Tre’r Ceiri itself; hut circles are clearly visible, but hardly big enough for giants…..

Finishing my lunch I discovered I no longer had my mobile phone. I had recorded some thoughts on it during the morning so I must have left it up on the hill. Fortunately it is not a difficult walk back up to Tre’r Ceiri and the repeat visit gave me chance to try some sunset shots. But despite a thorough search there was no sign of the phone and I came back empty handed. The sunset shots weren’t much cop either……….

I started the blog in July 2012, but by the January I must have already started thinking about how I could describe my experiences in outdoor photography.

It was never intended to be a typical photographers blog, with equipment reviews and technique lessons. Plenty of people were doing that already. It would be more of a story-telling exercise in which I wouldn’t necessarily take myself too seriously. Leaving my phone on a hill-top after an exhilarating morning’s photography was exactly the sort of thing I thought I might include.

Even more so when I found the phone in the cubby hole above the van windscreen where I always put it! It had been there all the time. So, just a mere nine years after it happened this is the “warts and all” account of my day!

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Homecoming – the Aberystwyth purple sandpipers

A couple of weeks ago I had a look for the purple sandpipers at Aberystwyth. There has been a wintering flock of these dumpy little waders here since at least 1927, and their high tide roost is always at the same place – on the sea wall, facing north, below the castle. This year a maximum of four birds has been seen, but the size of the flock has normally varied from five birds up to about twenty-five. Perhaps the current cold weather will bring some more in this winter.

I’d like to say that I found them after a couple of hours staggering about across treacherous rocks and seaweed, but it wasn’t like that at all. I parked my van near the right spot, walked over, looked down, and there they were! They were a little jittery at my presence above them and at the waves passing by below, but allowed me to take a nice series of photographs. Later, as the tide began to drop, I found them beginning to feed on the rocks.

What amazes me is how they return to the same spot every year. There must be plenty of suitable habitat for them around the coast. Could there be a suggestion of “culture” about it, rather than ecological necessity? Whatever, Aberystwyth must feel like home to them.

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With seasons greetings ……

Well, it’s that time of year again. After the year we have had – and many people have had a far worse one than me – it doesn’t feel as if we have much to celebrate. Staff in hospitals and care homes who are putting in superhuman efforts to treat their patients deserve, once again, our thanks. And the tremendous efforts made by scientists all over the world to create new vaccines also deserve recognition, and perhaps, in good time, they will officially receive it. Let us hope that the fruits of their labours will allow us to return to “normal life” before too long.

The photograph shows Comet Neowise, taken at Aberystwyth at 12.45 am on July 20th. I’ve done very little astrophotography and my current camera – an Olympus EM1 Mk 2 – is rather ill-suited to this branch of photography. It has a very small sensor and consequently usable ISO’s are limited without introducing high levels of noise. I eventually settled on this composition and took a range of shots at different shutter speeds and apertures. In the end it turned out to be – to adapt a well-known photographic maxim – “8 seconds at f4.5 and be there”.

I had to do more processing on these images than normal: it was basically a case of “try anything and see if it works”. In particular it was one of the first tests I threw at some software I had recently acquired – Topaz Denoise AI. This seemed to be able to distinguish between required detail and unwanted noise, and was able to sharpen the image at the same time. So I’m quite happy with the final result.

So to conclude this short post –

With best wishes to you all and let us hope that next year will be a good deal better than the current one.

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(Still) shooting itself in the foot…….. (Part 2)

Firstly if you’re a landscape or wildlife photographer wanting to hear my opinions on the latest piece of kit or technique – my apologies. I’ll get back to photography in due course. But the first part of this post (see here) has proven to have been read by far more people than anything else I have written in the past eight years, and I have a couple of updates.

Firstly, a comment on my piece from Tony Johnstone went like this:

Wild Justice did not win their case at all, this is false news put out by a failed attempt to stop Game Shooting. DEFRA issued an open licence with regard to EU SSI’s and all other UK SSI’s are already covered by existing UK laws. Please get your facts right.

I didn’t suggest that Wild Justice “won their case” but nevertheless Tony Johnstone did have a point. The case did not get as far as court because prior to the hearing DEFRA agreed that gamebird shooting should be subject to licensing (in England, inside and within 500 metres of a site protected by European law). I realised that I needed to understand more about gamebird shooting and the law. In particular I needed to know what “open licences” were, or “general licences” as they are actually called.

A general licence is deemed to be held by anyone, providing certain conditions are met, without needing an application to be made. A general licence is required to control agricultural pests such as crows and woodpigeons, plus introduced species like canada geese; or to protect endangered wildlife species or human or animal health. Please note, however, that this is a very condensed version of the situation and I Am Not A Lawyer. For more complete details see the Guns on Pegs website.

DEFRA is making general licences available for the 2021 -2022 shooting season as a temporary measure. More research will take place meanwhile on the actual impacts of gamebird releases on the environment. When that has been completed, decisons will be made on what new conditions to impose on the gamebird shooting industry. Wild Justice have a list of actions they expect to be considered in setting up a new licensing scheme. Whether they “won their case” or not depends on how many of these ultimately turn out to be included. For more information see this post.

The second thing I’d like to mention here is this: on November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe the shoot that was taking place on that day. I kept a very low profile, carefully using public rights of way (where they weren’t blocked) and open access land. I left my van at the end of the public road adjacent to the entrance to Cwmrhaiadr. When I returned I found that two of my tyres had been slashed.

EDIT: For a much better (but much longer) explanation of General licences, please click on this link –https://wildjustice.org.uk/general/general-licences-in-general-and-our-challenge-to-the-nrw-general-licences-in-particular/

NB 1: Guns on Pegs is a shooting website but their summary of the situation is far more straightforward than, for example, the BAS(C) website, with all its spin and prejudice.

NB 2: Following the DEFRA decision, which is only valid in England, the Welsh Government is opening a consultation on the subject of gamebird shooting.

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(Still) shooting itself in the foot……..

The Upper Llyfnant valley (with newly bulldozed tracks)

Living in west Wales as I do the issue of gamebird shooting has rarely raised its unpleasant head. I knew there was a shoot on the Dyfi estuary but it didn’t really seem like a problem. That all changed in a big way over the summer.

Cwmrhaiadr had been farmed in a fairly wildlife-friendly way for decades, is much loved by local people, and is stunningly beautiful. It consists mainly of the Upper Llyfnant valley, which runs north-south along the Ceredigion / Powys boundary, a few miles from Machynlleth. The river then swings westwards and flows into the Dyfi estuary. It is short but sweet. At the head of the valley is Pistyll-y-llyn (“waterfall of the lake”), down which the infant Llyfnant plunges from the Cambrian Mountain plateau into the lowlands. The farm was purchased by a businessman from Essex (he paid cash…), who sold the shooting rights to a Shropshire-based company, and began turning the valley into a commercial game-bird shoot. New roads were bulldozed throughout. It was lockdown so few people knew what was going on.

The valley has been renamed “Dyfi Falls”. The cost of a day’s shooting? A staggering £2640 (+ VAT).

The moorland at the head of the valley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); this includes the cliffs and steep hillsides at the head and upper reaches of the valley. Another SSSI lies a few miles downstream. It is deciduous woodland, a remnant of the “temperate rainforest”; rich in lichens, bryophytes and invertebrates. It would be susceptible to changes in the quality of the water running through it, and the air surrounding it..

In their early publicity the shoot company (Cambrian Birds) boasted about releasing 40,000 birds or more (pheasants and red-legged partridges) into the valley. Imagine that! Although this figure seems to have disappeared from their website they have never denied it. Certainly if you walk there (or anywhere within a few miles) you are continually tripping over pheasants, and I saw flocks of partridges totalling at least fifteen hundred birds. The shooting industry itself has estimated that only 35% (on average) of released birds are actually shot. At Cwmyrhaiadr that leaves 26,000 to die of starvation, predation, disease, parasites or being run over by cars. And of the estimated 57 million released annually in the UK – yes, you did read that correctly – 37 million will die similarly unfortunate deaths. One may view the shooting of birds for pleasure as unpleasant but these figures show that in every way the industry has a callous disregard for living creatures.

Now, regarding the SSSI. It is quite clear to anyone visiting the valley that the gamekeeper has placed many of the feeding hoppers as close as possible to the SSSI boundary. A trail of feed has illegally been laid – inside the SSSI – along the footpath from the valley bottom to the top of the waterfall. Cambrian Birds’ publicity states –

“The steep sided valleys will allow us to present high-flying birds flying straight back to their home at the centre of the estate”

And on their social media pages they excitedly tell us –

“Can’t wait to see these [pheasants] flying off the tops of those hills!”

The trouble is, those hills are the SSSI and (supposedly) protected from the release of non-native birds. Cambrian Birds may be (largely) respecting the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. Or as one planning officer I spoke to put it:

They are very good at pushing the boundaries“.

For many years the RSPB has been equivocal about gamebird shooting. It accepted that in agricultural lowland Britain woodland was retained for the rearing and release of gamebirds. This provided habitat for many other species of wildlife and would otherwise probably have been felled to increase agricultural production. However the Society now recognises that the nature of gamebird shooting has changed, saying in a recent report –

there are substantial negative environmental consequences from the industrialised form of this shooting, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife. ” 

It has now told the industry that if it does not put its house in order within 18 months – reducing the quantity of birds released, for example – it will call for statutory regulation of gamebird shooting. The RSPB is a powerful organisation and this may bear some fruit. But we should also remember that the landowning class has its own political party which is currently in power with a very large majority.

Meanwhile the pressure group Wild Justice is pursuing a legal case against the government in the High Court, arguing that it is failing in its duty to protect native species in the UK from the excesses of the shooting industry. . The industrial quantities of non-native birds released into the countryside amount to “a very serious ecological assault” upon it, Wild Justice says. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released every year “exceeds that of all native UK birds put together“, it adds. The Court case will be heard in early November.

What of the shooting industry itself? The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) portrays itself as the voice of the reason in the debate. It has a series of “guidelines” for the industry, for example, and a “policy” of zero tolerance over the killing of birds of prey. As for the RSPB’s new position on gamebird shooting, the BASC says –

 if the RSPB really wants to regain some good will and positive influence with the shooting world, they would do well to start formally recognising and celebrating where and how things are going right.”

The problem is that this has been the RSPB’s position for many years already. Self-regulation has failed to keep the shooting fraternity in check. Raptors continue to be killed on shooting estates, for example, and many believe that the industry is completely out of control. Hence the RSPB’s change of heart. So will the shooting industry begin to mend their ways? If the example of Cwmrhaiadr is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding “no”.

POSTSCRIPT: On November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe and photograph the shoot that was taking place on that day. I kept a very low profile, carefully using public rights of way (where they weren’t blocked) and open access land. I left my van at the end of the public road adjacent to the entrance to Cwmrhaiadr. When I returned I found that two of my tyres had been slashed.

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Taking your chances….

I recently heard about a very approachable otter not far from here. I assumed it was a one-off but later discovered it had already been attracting wildlife watchers and photographers for several weeks. Better late than never, of course, but my first visit offered two brief, unsatisfactory views and a few unusable photographs. I was more lucky on my second visit. I first noticed the otter mid-river; it then proceeded to hunt downstream towards me in the seaweed along the edge of the channel. It very quickly came up with an eel, brought it onshore and proceeded to crunch it down. It then resumed its hunt, moving back upstream in a similar manner. I quickly realised that if I could position myself beyond it, and my luck held, it would gradually get closer. And so it did! I was particularly fortunate in that there was no-one else around, so no there was jockeying for position or complaints that I might be too close.

I lay flat on my belly on the riverbank, the otter oblivious to my presence. I repeatedly reduced the focal length of my zoom lens as it got closer. At a certain point it stared directly at me at close range without really registering what I might be. After twenty minutes with this lovely animal I realised it was finally heading downstream. Meanwhile quite a crowd had built up on the bridge: the otter and I had had quite an audience! Back on dry land I felt like I was floating on air: one photographer friend said she thought I was in shock!

I hasten to add that I had already put plenty of hours in but when an opportunity like this presents itself you just have to grasp it with both hands and take it………..

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A visit to the Rheidol gorge and some thoughts on the quality of light.

The Rheidol Gorge, between Devils Bridge and Ponterwyd.

One day last week dawned clear, mild and still and after a slow-ish start I set out on my electric bike for Devil’s Bridge – about ten miles on mountain roads from my home. I was glad to have the compact, lightweight micro four-thirds Olympus kit with me rather than the full Canon system which I sold late last year; and of course it was impossible to carry a tripod.

I had a location in mind overlooking the Rheidol Gorge which would be at its best at about mid-morning; at this time of day the sun would be at right-angles to my line of sight and my polarising filter would be most effective. I wouldn’t shoot landscapes at this time of day in the spring/summer because the sun would be too high in the sky. But by October the sun is already much lower and will still produce modelling and contours on the land.

It is surprising how much distance you can cover on an electric bike and it only took me about 40 minutes to cover the first 8/9 miles. There may have been low-lying fog around earlier in the day but by the time I arrived it had all burned off. (Yes, I know, I should have got up earlier……!) The light was still excellent and the autumn vegetation was spectacularly colourful. I climbed up a steep hillside to the east of the gorge and took in the view…… .

Rheidol panorama

Cloud was steadily developing but clear sun still illuminated most of the landscape; the only exception being the steep north-west facing walls of the gorge, which remained in deep, velvety shadow. I took a series of three images from left to right with the intention of creating a panorama in post-processing (see above). However as time passed and the cloud continued to develop I realised the quality of the light was changing. The cloud layer was creating more and more diffused light which had the effect of opening up the deep shadows in the gorge. I think the difference can be seen by comparing the panorama and the main image; the latter taken about 30 minutes after the former. I had always known in an intellectual sense that a mix of diffuse and direct sunlight really was the landscape photographer’s best friend. But I had never before noticed the change occurring in real time. So this was quite a revelation for me.

Well, more time passed and cloud cover became one hundred per cent. Diffused lighting like this are ideal for woodland and waterfall photography. And where better to try this than lower down the gorge below Devils Bridge (Pontarfynach), just a couple of miles away. Here a tributary (the Mynach) drops almost vertically for 100 metres into the Rheidol. Any direct sunlight here would create completely unacceptable extremes of contrast.

Bridge over the Mynach ( 1/4 sec @ f5.6; 20mm)

The path down to the attractive little bridge below the falls is steep and includes a long, narrow, and almost vertical descent down concrete steps. An equally challenging climb up the other side follows. There is barely room to swing a kitten, let alone carry and set up a tripod. Here my Olympus kit really came into its own. I have had some issues with the Olympus system but where it really excels is in its image stabilisation abilities. Given the right technique it is possible to take perfectly sharp two second long exposures handheld.

A section of the Devil’s Bridge waterfall. (1/3 sec @f11; 100mm)

I didn’t need exposures this long but took a series of handheld images at up to 1/3 second and focal lengths as long as 100 mm (200 mm full frame equivalent). My EM1 Mk2 / 12 – 100 f4 zoom combination coped perfectly. It felt at times as if I were walking through a Chinese landscape painting but I’m not sure if any of my photographs really expressed that quality successfully. So I may try again before too long and hope that I can catch the autumn colours before it is too late.

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Steel yourself for this…………

For a while I have been itching to get down and dirty with some industrial landscapes. I toyed with the idea of a trip down to the south-west of England to photograph the “Cornish Alps” – the china-clay tips and quarries around St Austell, and I still may do that before too long. But then the memory gradually came back to me that there was still an area of heavy industry right here in Wales which may well now be unmatched for visual impact in the whole of the UK. Most evidence of heavy industry in Wales has been tidied way, all of the collieries and most of the steel works closed and demolished. But despite periodic threats of closure,  what might be called the Port Talbot sacrifice zone is still in operation. 

Strangely I still have a warm feeling about the years when coal extraction and steel making were staple industries in many parts of the UK. It probably dates back to my very earliest era of picture taking which came to an end in 1968, with the demise of steam power on British railways. I still regret I never tried to photograph heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s in the Welsh valleys, for example, when it was still cheek-by-jowl with otherwise unspoilt countryside. I did visit Port Talbot to photograph the steel works in the mid-1990’s and well remember a very unpleasant encounter with a security guard on the beach – which I hadn’t realised was actually owned by British Steel.  On another visit about ten years ago I had a frightening encounter on a car park, which turned out to be a dogging venue, at night, in my camper van,  So that was two reasons why, photographically speaking, I have never really done the place justice!

My first location was actually the promenade at nearby Aberafan, which has some bizarre life-size concrete wildlife models on it – emperor penguins and a whale. Then I made my way to the south end of the steel works site where a public footpath runs down a track through fields to the beach – all now owned by Tata Steel. Having arrived at the foreshore I stood very prominently there for ten minutes and pointed my camera at things to make sure I could be seen by security if present.  There didn’t seem to be anyone around. I began the walk back along the public footpath but strangely there is no barrier between it and the site itself, so no disincentive at all to keep out…..  I soon found myself amongst coal conveyor belts and huge piles of coal. From somewhere came the evocative (for me) smell of burning coal. 

I pottered around with the camera for almost an hour without interruption. After a while some stubborn cloud moved away and allowed some beautiful late afternoon sunlight to illuminate some of the structures. These were just the type of images I never thought I’d have the opportunity to take, but I didn’t push my luck by intruding too far into the site. Suddenly I got a very strong feeling that my time was up and hurried back to the track. Almost immediately there was a rumble and a clatter as one of the conveyor belts started up; and a small yellow pick-up truck appeared. I had timed my exit perfectly!

The next day I climbed steeply up a hillside overlooking Port Talbot which gave me an overall view of the site beyond it. I took my tripod and full photographic kit this time which gave me a complete range of focal lengths from 24 to 800 mm (full frame equivalent).  The longer focal lengths were the most useful as I was more than a mile from the nearest edge of the extensive steel works site. The top (main) image was taken with my Olympus EM1 mk 2 and the Panasonic 100- 400 zoom set at 350 mm. In full frame terms that’s 700 mm or 14x magnification. These figures are way beyond what could have been obtained with reasonably priced equipment even ten years ago. I have examined the file closely and the quality is really pretty good even at 100%.

One thing that really puzzled me about these images was the white balance. I normally use “auto” and it’s usually fine, but as you can see the main image has a dirty pink / salmon colour cast. At first I corrected this in post-processing but that didn’t look right either. I then noticed a shorter focal length image showing some foreground foliage which looked perfectly normal. I have concluded that the centre of the site in the main picture is suffused with coloured fumes emitted by one of the processes there. You can see this contrast in the third image (@132mm equivalent). Who would live near Port Talbot? The air quality must be dreadful.

But I do think these photographs have a message for all of us. I don’t know what type of steel this plant produces but no matter how environmentally friendly a lifestyle we live, if we use a car, or a saucepan, or a fridge, or a filing cabinet, somewhere in the world a steel works like this was involved in its production.

 

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Support the Climate and Ecological Emergencies Bill (2020)!

XR action at Aberystwyth

Extinction Rebellion groups in Ceredigion, Powys and nationwide have held actions and events over the Bank Holiday weekend to revitalise the fight for action on the Climate and Ecological emergencies.

It is hardly surprising that members of public are now less willing to engage with the Climate and Ecological Emergencies than they were six months ago. They have been acutely aware of an imminent danger to their own health and that of their families, and doing whatever was necessary to prevent that happening.

At the same time the focus of government activity and the media has also shifted from the Climate and Ecological Emergencies. But that does not mean that those problems have gone away. Far from it.

Following catastrophic wildfires in Australia late last winter (with massive loss of wildlife), extreme heat and drought in the western United States has resulted in serious wildfires which are ongoing. Heatwaves have again occurred in north-west Europe, while in Siberia, temperatures were an astonishing 10 degrees centigrade above average this June. It has been estimated that as a result, an additional 59,000,000 tonnes of CO2 were emitted to the atmosphere.

You could say that governments around the world are fiddling while the planet burns.

So far in 2020, the months of February, March, April, May and July have all globally been the second-hottest on record.

On measure after measure, the results of climate change are happening sooner and more severely than has been predicted.

Carbon emissions have reduced slightly in the developed world as a result of lockdown measures, but the temptation now is for governments and industry to return to “Business as Usual”.

However the economic recession resulting from the Coronavirus lockdown is an ideal opportunity to rethink the direction that development is taking us.

Air travel, for example, has dramatically declined during lockdown and its return to its previous level should be discouraged. We need to fly less; the planet just cannot afford it. Now is the time to “Build back Better”

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (2020) will shortly put before Parliament. This will :

Require the Prime Minister to ensure that the UK achieves specified objectives regarding
climate change, ecosystems and biodiversity; to give the Secretary of State a duty to draw
up and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives; to establish a Citizens’ Assembly
to work with the Secretary of State in drawing up that strategy; to give duties to the
Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and the strategy; and for connected purposes.

The CEE Bill, written with contributions by respected climate, energy and ecology academics, aims to bring urgent action on the climate and ecological crisis into law.

Green Party M.P. Caroline Lucas said :

The Climate Change Act was ground-breaking when it became law over 10 years ago, but it’s nowhere near ambitious enough for the scale of the crisis we face today.”

Caroline Lucas is the lead sponsor of the CEE Bill. Members of all political parties but one have put their support behind this Private Members Bill, including Ceredigion M.P. Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru). I think we can all guess which party is missing from the list of supporters: unfortunately it does hold power in Parliament at the moment.

Extinction Rebellion Aberystwyth fully supports the introduction into Parliament of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. We warmly and sincerely thank Ben Lake M.P. for his commitment to a greener future.

If you think your M.P. might be amenable to persuasion to support the CEE Bill, please contact him/her.

Link to for more information on the CEE Bill –

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-crisis-extinction-rebellion-emergency-bill-parliament-law-greenpeace-a9665561.html


(This is a slightly amended version of a press release recently sent to the Cambrian News, my local newspaper.)

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