Best of our wild blogs: 20 Nov 11

Colugo in Bukit Timah!
from Nature rambles

Do they really need to cut them down?
from Urban Forest

Life History of the Lime Butterfly v2.0
from Butterflies of Singapore

Birds using ferns as nesting sites
from Bird Ecology Study Group by BESG

Jeff shares about diving Singapore's reefs!
from wild shores of singapore

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Bukit Brown road project 'can't wait'

LTA says it is needed to ease Lornie Road traffic, though estate will be built only later
Christopher Tan Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

THE controversial four-lane dual carriageway through Bukit Brown cemetery is slated to be one of two crucial backbones of a road network that will serve the residential estate to be developed there.

Although this future estate that spans more than 200ha - bigger than Serangoon and slated to have a mix of private and public housing - will be developed only in 30 to 40 years, the new road is necessary today to bring relief to the increasingly congested Lornie Road.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said Lornie Road, which forms an outer ring road system designed to allow traffic to bypass the Central Business District, already sees 6,000 to 7,000 vehicles an hour during peak periods.

That is equivalent to the peak load on expressways. And the LTA sees demand rising by 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020.

So, instead of building alternative roads that may spare Bukit Brown in the short term, the LTA decided to kill two birds with one stone - by building a road through Bukit Brown that will be an arterial carriageway to be joined by smaller roads in the future estate.

'We would not have to waste money building one road now to take some load off Lornie, and then another in 30 years' time when Bukit Brown is developed,' said LTA group director of engineering Paul Fok.

Also, the LTA said, alternatives such as building a viaduct or an underground road were found to be unfeasible, and might even be more detrimental to the environment.

The LTA held a joint briefing with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last Friday to explain why the four-lane dual carriageway had to be built now, and why it will cut through Bukit Brown.

It was the first time the two agencies had come out together to elaborate on the plan which has caused unhappiness among conservationists, the Singapore Heritage Society and ordinary citizens.

Opponents wanted the site preserved as it is the resting place of many early migrants, including prominent ones. They added that the site is also an important green lung and home to several species of birds and plants.

Strangely, the URA said, no one raised a ruckus when plans highlighting the area's intended future use were displayed for feedback.

URA deputy director Zulkiflee Mohd Zaki said: 'We showed it in the 1991 and 2001 Concept Plans, and it was also in the 2008 Master Plan.'

No one came forward to object, he said.

It was only after the URA reaffirmed its development plans to the media in May that the protests began. The outcry intensified when the LTA said in September that a new road will run through the cemetery.

The LTA has reiterated that the road would affect only 5 per cent - or about 5,000 - of the 100,000 graves there. The remainder will go only in 30 to 40 years, with redevelopment of the area.

Asked why the LTA could not wait until then to build the new road, the authority said it could not allow the congestion to worsen further. It said it has been getting an average of 10 complaints a month from motorists about the Lornie Road jam in recent years.

'Cars are still an important part of the land transport system,' said LTA deputy chief executive Lim Bok Ngam. 'It is not possible for us to rely completely on public transport.'

Mr Fok added that it would not be right to erect Electronic Road Pricing gantries there because the outer ring road is an alternative to the priced expressways.

Automobile Association of Singapore chief executive Lee Wai Mun said that although there is a need to have new infrastructure from time to time, existing roads can be improved 'to increase mobility and to have better circulation'.

He said it was also vital for road usage to be better spread out. 'We should do more to stagger working times. It calls for a mindset change,' he said.

Businessman Baldev Singh, 30, whose daily commutes are affected by the Lornie Road jam, said: 'Heritage value is important. But it is important to be practical as well. It would be good to strike a balance.'

Lively debate over fate of cemetery
Yen Feng Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

There was no end to the questions, so much so that the symposium ran for more than three hours, and the organisers had to start ushering people out.

The issue? Bukit Brown.

More than 250 people turned up at a public forum on the historic cemetery yesterday. Volleys of probing queries were fired at the expert panel working to document and preserve the site's graves and ecology.

The symposium, the first of its kind on Bukit Brown, was co-organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) South-east Asian Studies Society.

Packing a small hall in the Asian Civilisations Museum, the audience heard out the five experts - moderated by NUS architectural historian Lai Chee Kien - who made presentations on the cemetery's heritage and ecological value.

The blitz of queries followed in the Q&A session.

A few did offer the panel tips on furthering the conservation work. One person suggested creating a publicity video on the historic site and uploading it onto YouTube; another proposed putting the cemetery up for Unesco world heritage site status.

But for every tip there were many more questions, and as the evening wore on, past its second hour, the crowd grew restive, eager to be heard.

To many, talk about documenting the graves seemed to signal that the experts had given up the fight to stop the road construction altogether - though two of the five had said earlier that it was not the graves, but the proposed road, that should give way.

The two were cemetery guide Raymond Goh and NUS anthropologist Irving Chan Johnson. The other panellists were Dr Hui Yew- Foong, the anthropologist leading the documentation project; Dr Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society (Singapore); and Mr Chew Kheng Chuan, the great-grandson of pioneer Chew Boon Lay, who is buried at the cemetery.

Why the air of resignation, teacher Lisa Li, 30, asked the panel, earning appreciative nods in the audience.

'As a concerned citizen, I just cannot accept that this will happen,' she added.

Logistics director Gregory Loh, 48, wanted to know if SHS was concerned that in proceeding with the documentation project, the wrong idea would be conveyed to the Government that the SHS accepted its decision.

Ms Tan Beng Chiak, 48, a teacher, said she did not want to volunteer for the documentation project for this reason precisely - she felt it signalled that the graves were a lost cause.

Frustrated by what she felt was missing in the debate so far, Ms Claire Leow, 44, a heritage enthusiast, blurted: 'Why has the Heritage Society stayed so silent on this issue?'

Amid calls for the heritage groups and experts to stand up for the cemetery in their discussions with government bodies, Dr Ho urged the audience to do their part too.

He said heritage groups had not given up the fight, but that the work could not be done by the groups alone.

'If you don't agree, say something,' he said.

'Things can happen, but the ground must be moving too.'

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A farmer's life

Producers of locally grown food face shortages and an uncertain future
Natasha Ann Zachariah Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

It is no simple life down on the farm in Singapore today. Farmers - yes, they still exist in urban Singapore - are under increasing pressure to yield more from their fields.

This comes amid the Government's push to produce more locally grown food, given the increasingly real threat of a global food crisis.

However, farmers whom LifeStyle spoke to say their future is uncertain, with land leases in limbo - some expire in a few years and might not be renewed - and a lack of workers due to the unattractiveness of farmwork.

Singapore has about 180 farms producing fish, vegetables and eggs. Others sell mainly ornamental flowers or fish.

The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) wants to get local production levels to 30 per cent of overall consumption for eggs, 15 per cent for fish and 10 per cent for leafy vegetables. The rest would be imported.

Currently, egg production stands at 23 per cent, 7 per cent for fish and 7 per cent for leafy veggies.

To help farms, the AVA set up a $5-million Food Fund in 2009 to help farmers to improve their technology and upgrade production capability. The fund was doubled to $10 million last year.

Of that, $6 million has been awarded to 15 projects, which were chosen based on their financial position, proposal and track record.

AVA launched in August this year a second tranche of $10 million under its Food Fund programme.

However, expiring land leases are a stumbling block to expansion. Take goat farm Hay Dairies in Lim Chu Kang, which would like to have an abbatoir beyond just selling milk. But with its lease expiring in about three years, it is unwilling to pump in about $200,000, only to close soon after.

Ms Stephanie Hay, 27, a third- generation farmer of the 23-year-old goat farm, hopes the authorities will soon give it the thumbs-up to continue.

'Even if land is scarce here, farming is not a sunset industry. With seven billion people, there may soon be food scarcity, so food will become an important commodity in the future. But many people don't see the importance of farms.'

Another second-generation farmer, Ms Chelsea Wan of Jurong Frog Farm, wants to increase production but does not dare pump in more money with two years left on the lease.

The 28-year-old says: 'We are thinking of how to change production if they don't renew the lease. But the lack of information about future plans doesn't help us because we're not sure if we will lose money investing in new technology.'

The farmers have become organised, forming associations such as the Kranji Countryside Association and the Fish Farmers Association Of Singapore to make dealing with the authorities easier, and to help one another with farming methods and buying product in bulk to lower costs.

Kranji Countryside Association president Ivy Singh-Lim, who owns Bollywood Veggies farm, says local food production is making a comeback.

The 62-year-old says: 'The whole world is talking about food security and an impending food crisis. We would be a paradise for fools in Singapore if we remain unconcerned about growing our own food.'

LifeStyle speaks to four farmers about their lives as farmers and what the future holds for them.

From IT to fish farming
Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

All Mr Malcolm Ong wanted was a boat to cruise the open seas. But instead, he ended up buying a fish farm, despite not having any knowledge or experience running one.

The unusual business move four years ago has paid off for the former managing director of an IT software company.

Today, together with business partners Tay Yong Peng and Lim Sin Guan, he runs one of the largest fish farms, in terms of production, in Singapore.

The 48-year-old says: 'While searching for a boat, which I realised would be money-losing anyway, I found out more about fish farming and thought it could be viable as a business.

'It was a big risk and people asked me if I was sure about what I was doing, but I wasn't putting my family at financial risk.'

The three men pumped in about $500,000 to build what is now a 3ha farm off the shores of Lim Chu Kang.

Metropolitan Fishery supplies grey mullet, milkfish and mussels to supermarkets and restaurants. It also exports to Malaysia.

As he did not know much about fish or farming, Mr Ong left it to his partners, who were long-time fishermen.

He concentrated on marketing, accounting, technology and developing business plans to expand the business - what he calls 'marrying traditional farming and professional expertise'.

Production at the farm is now being automated. The fishery tapped the Food Fund last year to buy oxygen pumps and a water-monitoring system that keeps track of oxygen levels. Mr Ong says: 'We need the technology because we don't have a lot of people or space.'

But it is a happy problem, as production levels and demand for produce have been increasing. Last year, he was supplying 280 tonnes of fish, but that shot up to 500 tonnes this year.

While he expects the farm to earn revenue of about $1.5 million this financial year, up from about $1 million last year, he points out that farmers have to do everything from inspecting the fish, feeding them and monitoring water conditions.

He says: 'They work almost 24 hours a day. The fish may die at the start or they may grow but die before you sell them.

'It's not easy at all. A lot of blood and sweat has gone into building the farm to what it is today. You must absolutely love the work.'

Mr Ong, a father of one who graduated as an engineer from Nanyang Technology Institute in 1988, does not think more Singaporeans would want to be farmers.

'Young people have a lot of good choices for jobs. Unfortunately, because it's not glamorous, it's not farming,' he says.

Muscling in on mussels
Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

Workers (above) cleaning the mussels. Mr Lim changed the operation method by using a small cement mixer to detach mussels from the rope instead of by hand, which saves time and manpower.

For Mr Lim Sin Guan, starting a mussel farm was the natural thing to do. After all, he grew up by the seaside near Yio Chu Kang and loves the feeling of being out at sea.

The former electrician sold his seven-room HDB flat in Woodlands 15 years ago to buy a rundown, second-hand kelong about the size of a football field in Lim Chu Kang.

During the first five years, he estimates that he lost half a million dollars, which mostly went to renovating and restoring wooden rafts and worn ropes, and hiring staff to run the farm.

The 45-year-old says in a mixture of Mandarin, Hokkien and English: 'I thought it would be easy. All you needed were ropes to let the mussels grow and collect them.'

In the early years, he did not make any profit on the sale of mussels. A kilo of live mussels sold for $4 and the meat between $2 and $2.50 a kilo, but he had five workers whom he was paying $80 a day each.

He changed operation methods from the original, where the mussels grew on ropes tied to wooden planks. When the mussels were mature, they were hauled up and removed by hand.

In 2003, he started growing them on 2m ropes attached to a 60m stretch of recycled plastic drums. As the drums are light, the mussels bob up and down with the tide and do not fall off easily. He uses a small cement mixer to detach mussels from the rope instead of by hand, which saves time. Only two workers help him with the harvesting.

'With the new method, I saved 60 per cent on operating costs and kept the farm environmentally friendly. And as I started doing well, I built up my confidence to carry on,' says Mr Lim, whose parents were also small-time farmers, growing their own vegetables and livestock.

Today, he produces about 6,000kg of mussels a month and supplies to places such as Jurong Fishery Port, which sends them to various supermarkets here, selling them at 90 cents a kilo.

As business is not booming now as much as it did between 2003 and 2009 - he saw profits increase by 10 per cent during that period - he has branched out to fish.

He has formed a partnership and investment with Mr Malcolm Ong, who runs Metropolitan Fishery Group.

The quiet, unassuming man says that life has been tough and it has taken a toll on him.

Partly in jest, he says: 'I have already lost my youth. When I started at 31, I was so handsome but now I look very old and I have lost at least 12 kg.'

But the tanned, wiry Mr Lim adds that the challenge of running the farm has strengthened his marriage to his 32-year-old wife Lydia, who helps him on the kelong where they live.

The couple have two girls, aged 10 and eight, and a five-year-old son, who stay with their maternal grandparents in Choa Chu Kang. They see their father at least four times a month while their mother returns home daily.

'My wife is my working companion and because we have to run a farm together, we can't fight. Over the years, we have become closer to each other.'

Quail, sweat and memories
Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

The pungent 'aromatherapy' mix of chicken dung and wisps of tiny, flying feathers makes you reel as you enter one of the quail houses at Lian Wah Hang Farm in Lim Chu Kang.

Despite that - and the long hours and manual labour - Mr William Ho (right) gave up his dream of working for the Singapore Air Force as an engineer.

After doing his national service in the air force, he wanted to sign on as a regular, but he decided to join his family's business instead.

The 45-year-old, whose father first started with a chicken farm in Choa Chu Kang, says: 'Growing up, I fell in love with the farm and liked to work there. So, even though I love the air force, when my father asked me in 1991 to take on the business, I was willing to do so.'

His only condition was that he would not have to take on chickens.

'I hate chickens because you have to spend so much time innoculating them and you get terrible aches after a whole day of doing that. Also, the insect bites inside the coops make me very itchy.'

So he researched how to diversify and settled for quail in 1997 after learning of the bird's short maturing period of 63 days, after which it can lay eggs.

'I don't have to wait long for them to produce eggs, so that doesn't increase the overheads. And they can be used for both meat and eggs, so that's why I settled on quail.'

But things did not go smoothly. His first batch of 100 quail, which he bought from America, all died because of the climate change.

He then ordered 1,000 eggs. Most hatched but many of the birds did not survive. Finally, on the third try, the quail farm took off.

Today, the father of two daughters has more than 100,000 quail, which lay 30,000 to 40,000 eggs a day. He also sells about 3,000 quail each day.

Despite his success, the future remains uncertain as the lease on the 2.7ha farm is up in four years.

'It has been 16 years of sweat and memories. I love doing this but if they take away the farm, I'm not sure if I want to start a new one,' says Mr Ho, who adds that he needs at least $1.5 million to open a new 1ha farm.

Mr Ho, who also conducts farm tours, says that having farms here benefits not just food sustainability but also helps educate the younger generation.

'A lot of the children who come to the farms here think that eggs come from the supermarket. Many have never seen a chicken before.'

A publicly listed farm
Straits Times 20 Nov 11;

Mr Chew Chee Bin has big plans for his family- owned chicken farm.

The executive chairman of Chew's Group Limited, which runs the chicken egg farm Chew's Agriculture, wants to change the image of what it is like to be a farmer.

The 52-year-old, who runs the business with his siblings and extended family in Murai Farmway, says: 'People have the impression that farmers clean up dung and are lowly educated. But technological advances have changed that greatly.'

The company has already pushed the boundaries of that perception. Earlier this year, it launched its initial public offering at 25 cents a share. It listed on the Singapore Exchange's Catalist.

Mr Chew hopes the move to corporatise will encourage more people to take the farming industry here more seriously. 'In Singapore, we are urban farmers and we are no longer operating like in the past. Also, with corporatisation, we hope to attract younger people and we are willing to take on anyone who wants to learn more.'

The farm is now automated, with waste management, feed distribution and collection of the 370,000 eggs that are laid daily being done by a machine.

It has about 105 workers for quality-control inspections, monitoring the farm environment and maintenance, and research and development. There is also a need for engineers and animal science and bioscience graduates who know how to care for chickens.

Change has been a common thread of the farm's history. Mr Chew's father started a breeder farm selling day-old chicks in 1975. But breeder farms become unprofitable in the late 1980s and the company switched to egg production. As a boy, Mr Chew worked on the farm repairing machines and collecting eggs by hand after school.

As business improved, the farm expanded and is now spans 20ha. Mr Chew, who is married with two daughters aged 23 and 19, and a boy, 18, is optimistic that the farm has a future and plans to expand and diversify it further.

The company has started a pilot project to plant papaya trees in the vacant land between its chicken sheds. He says: 'We have additional land not used for the chicken farm, so this is a good way to extend the usage.'

His vision for the future is a farm that produces everything from vegetables to fruit and even fish. And he wants to make it an environmentally friendly farm. 'I've been in this business for so long and I've put in all my expertise. I'm already planning for the next 10 to 20 years. Hopefully, farms in Singapore will look better and more different then.'

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Tuna fishing countries vow to protect shark

AFP Yahoo News 19 Nov 11;

Countries involved in bluefin tuna fishing have decided to do more to protect a species of shark against collateral killing, environmental groups said Saturday.

Elizabeth Griffin Wilson of the Oceana group said the 48-state International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) had ruled that tuna fishermen who find a silky shark in their nets must put it back in the sea.

The only exceptions should be coastal communities who hunt the shark for consumption, she said.

Wilson hailed the move, saying studies had shown the silky shark to be highly vulnerable to long-line tuna fishing in the Atlantic.

The US Pew Environment Group also praised the decision, while deploring the fact that another shark, the porbeagle, was not similarly protected.

Marine protection groups claim that three-quarters of migratory shark species that inhabit bluefin fishing areas are threatened with extinction.

Pew wants fishermen to use new materials that allow sharks to escape, such as nylon fishing lines that can be severed by a shark but not a tuna.

ICCAT has been meeting in Turkey to discuss ways to put tighter controls on catches of the endangered fish, savoured by sushi eaters for its firm meat.

One decision was to introduce an electronic tracing scheme for catches to replace the returns on paper which environment groups say is open to widespread fraud.

ICCAT also cut from 20 metres to 12 metres the size of boat which must undergo a mandatory inspection of its bluefin haul on return to port, Pew said.

But the WWF condemned as weak and insufficient a decision to set the minimum size of swordfish allowed to be caught at 90 centimetres (three feet).

Small steps for tuna, sharks and swordfish
Richard Black BBC News 19 Nov 11;

Measures to prevent illicit fishing of Mediterranean bluefin tuna have been strengthened at the annual meeting of governments involved in the industry.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat) decided to implement an electronic system for recording bluefin catches.

Research shows catches have been far higher than skippers have declared.

The meeting, in Turkey, also gave extra protection to the silky shark, whose numbers are falling because of fishing.

Tuna boats often snare this species by accident; and now, fishermen will have to release them alive.

Government delegates also voted through a minimum legal size for swordfish, and will draw up a comprehensive recovery plan in 2013.

But proposals for protecting the porbeagle shark, classified as vulnerable to extinction on the internationally recognised Red List, were rebuffed.

The most controversial issue on the agenda - illegal fishing for the lucrative bluefin in Libyan waters during the height of this year's civil conflict, which BBC News revealed earlier this month - will be addressed in a separate meeting next year.

Conservation groups gave a mixed reception to the outcomes.

"Iccat's new bluefin tuna electronic catch documentation scheme is an important and positive leap forwards in the monitoring of the fishery and protection of the species," said Sergi Tudela, head of fisheries for WWF in the Mediterranean region.

A report from the Pew Environment Group last month showed that last year 140% more bluefin meat entered the market from the Mediterranean than was declared, largely because the paper-based catch recording system was open to abuse.

The new system will not, however, track bluefin through the "farms" or "ranches" where they are fattened for eventual sale, usually to Japan.

"The continued absence of data on quantity and size of bluefin tuna caged in fattening farms creates a black hole and provides an easy facility for the laundering of illegal, unregulated and unreported catches of Mediterranean bluefin tuna," said Dr Tudela.

Although the focus of Iccat meetings is often on the Mediterranean, the body also regulates fishing across a huge swathe of the Atlantic Ocean.

This includes waters off the west coast of Africa which are beginning to see heavy fishing.

Here, Iccat governments voted to restrict the use of fish aggregating devices (Fads) which attract tuna and sharks, and whose use often leads to significant catch of unwanted species and juveniles.

The Istanbul meeting also produced some good news for birds in the south Atlantic.

Longline boats, which tow lines tens of kilometres long carrying thousands of baited hooks, will have to use at least two out of three methods proven to reduce the accidental catch of albatrosses and other ocean-going giants.

The three strategies comprise deploying streamers from the back of the boat to scare birds away, setting lines at night, and adding weights to their hooks so they sink too deep for the birds to reach.

"This is a great day for albatrosses and other seabirds which die needlessly every minute of the day, accidental casualties in the tuna and swordfish fisheries," said Dr Cleo Small of the RSPB and BirdLife International.

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