Born to be wild
For some time, the idea of a landscape scale approach to nature conservation has popped up in documents, but without anyone really explaining what that approach would be. With the publication of a report from the Wildlife Trusts that this article describes, we get a glimpse of where it is probably going – and it isn’t what I thought it would be. It is desperately underwhelming in its ambition for wild nature.
There is wide recognition that our small nature reserves are just snapshots, unconnected to each other, and vulnerable to the inimical activities of the farmland that surrounds them. Climate change is now added to those threats, giving further exposure to how inadequate orthodox conservation is in future proofing for our wild nature.
As I have conjectured, areas of refuge for wild nature must be much larger than they are at present, through establishment of core areas at a landscape scale that will have a greater inherent resilience to whatever external threats they face.
These core areas are linked by strategic corridors of enhanced habitat networks that allow migration. The core areas and habitat networks are buffered by an immediately surrounding landscape of low intensity of use, separating them off from the mainstream agriculture that predominates in the rest. The principle is that wild nature is for once given some primacy in our landscapes and some space for itself. It may only need 4-6% of our land area to establish this as a viable system.
It turns out that this not what the Wildlife Trusts are thinking. Instead, it’s all about tinkering with farmland practice to make it more ‘environmentally sensitive’. Thus the landscape scale for the wildlife trusts comes from thinking of new ways to reward farmers for owning land, whether paying them to reverse the drainage schemes that farming put in, in the first place, or replacing sheep with Highland cattle in the forlorn hope that ‘conservation grade’ meat will bring in a premium that overcomes the lack of viability of upland livestock farming.
report is just a suck-up to Natural England, as
it just parrots back what their Chairman designate revealed last December
as the strategy for climate change and, likewise, there is
no hint of any concession to wild nature from the
wildlife trusts. Stephanie Hilborne, their Chief
Exec., is quoted as saying:
And it is that sentiment that reveals it all, so that when the title of the report says “A Living Landscape” it really means a lived-in landscape. It is thus just one more example of how we adulate farmland in Britain and will not concede one square metre of it to wild nature.
Worse still, Hilborne takes it upon herself to close down what may be other options. The article refers to a conclusion from the Stern report on climate change that calls for efforts to operate at the landscape scale with “larger contiguous tracts of land that can better accommodate species movement."
response to this, Hilborne points out:
It’s not about fencing people out. As Hilborne very well knows, few wilderness areas around the world restrict access to walkers. Why is she so threatened by large scale rewilding? Could it be that there’s no money or jobs in it for the wildlife trusts?
I got to know some of the wetland habitats of the Dyfi valley when the Wildland Network used that location for a field trip on the second day of their conference in Wales, back in April this year (follow the link here to see the write-up of the meeting and field trip). Thus I was interested to read this article about the application for the valley to achieve Biosphere Area status, given by the United Nations body Unesco.
A Biosphere Area is recognized as on par with a World Heritage Site, and so I suppose would bring this area recognition around the world. What is less certain is what the new status would mean for the landscape as it is one of the most highly designated areas that I have come across. It already has the following layers of national and European designation - SSSI, NNR, SAC, SPA, Ramsar Wetland (and part is in Snowdonia National Park) – all of which recognize specific species, and examples of habitats in the valley, but make no judgment about the overall use of the valley.
The article reports on what appears to be a setback for the process of obtaining the biosphere status when Unesco decided that the Dyfi proposal area was too small and did not contain enough people for it to be considered a “modern” Biosphere Area.
Andy Rowland of Ecodyfi, a regeneration organization based in the area, explained in the article that Unesco had changed their rules, that having important habitats was less important now that Biosphere Areas were no longer primarily concerned with nature conservation. Instead, they are “about how people benefit by looking after things that are important to them”.
Thus to qualify the Dyfi Valley should be that exemplar of a sustainable rural economy which is the aspiration of much of the large area landscape designation that goes on in Britain, and is entirely in keeping with the European Landscape Convention. What we are talking about here is farmed land, which when given our common landscape designations of national park and AONB have the equivalent rating of IUCN Category V for protected landscapes.
Understanding this, you have to wonder why no one briefed the (anonymous)
journalist as to why a central hook of the article was such nonsense when
it said that:
Who are these experts? Both Uluru and Yellowstone have national park status in their respective countries, but there is a world of ecological difference and determination as these parks have an IUCN Category II rating that requires a landscape that “excludes exploitation or occupation inimical to the purposes of designation of the area”. These are not farmed and populated rural areas – they are areas that “protect the ecological integrity of one or more ecosystems for present and future generations”.
It would be unfair to suggest that this confusion (delusion?) over what landscape designation means is unique to Wales. We have this awful compromise in Britain which sets wild nature in amongst farmed land without it being given space of its own, as it is in many other countries. The sooner we do sort it out in our heads, the sooner wild nature will have the chance to get on and reclaim it’s existence.
Trust’s edict leads to howls of protest, this is Hampshire 28 September 2006
This story - about a nature reserve at St Catherine's Hill near Winchester - may sound familiar. It adds to a recent pattern of disputed land management procedures – brought in by wildlife trusts and English Nature – that cut across the longer-term public access and use of land enjoyed by local people (see Blacka Moor in peril).
St Catherine’s Hill is the site of an iron age fort, one of a number of similar defensive positions along the southern chalk ridge of Hampshire that includes Danebury and Old Winchester Hill. As with most of the chalk downland of the area, its millennia of use in livestock farming has built up a diverse grassland flora and accompanying invertebrate population, but with the wild nature of shrubs and trees always looking to reclaim this plagioclimax.
Remnants of the characteristic juniper of this downland are now uncommon, and thus receive some measure of respect from conservation professionals, but hawthorn, privet, dogwood and blackthorn scrub occurring in nature reserves designated for chalk grassland are destined for merciless persecution from poisoning or grubbing up, and the recommendation is to keep them in check by sheep and cattle grazing. Such is the case for the SSSI that is St Catherine’s Hill nature reserve, because English Nature has spoken. Its recent report on the condition of the SSSI grades it as unfavourable, with the levels of scrub at the "upper limit of acceptable cover".
The land has been owned for over 130 years by nearby Winchester College, who have munificently allowed local access, which my partner can attest to from 25 years ago when she was at school nearby. She does not remember seeing any cattle or sheep there. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust now manage the reserve by agreement with the owner.
At dispute in this news article is that dog walkers on St Catherine’s Hill are soon to lose the freedom of letting their animals off the lead. A notice went up two weeks ago that announced without consultation that sheep would be grazing the whole of the reserve from the 15th October, whereas in the last few years the trust had only been grazing sheep on a small scale in pens.
The article reports that a Mr Garratt of the wildlife trust is encouraging local people to come along to the "Born To Be Wild" event being held by the trust at the reserve on the day that the sheep will be allowed to graze free-range. Turning to the trust's website, we find that Mark Langford, the trust’s officer for the reserve, will be on hand to “talk about the valuable work that the sheep do on the reserve”. I expect they will be particularly keen to show off their pet flock of Shetland sheep that the trust has bought for what is often erroneously called conservation grazing.
Well Messrs Garratt and Langford, there is nothing wild about sheep grazing a chalk downland. Sheep are not a wild animal, native to Britain, even if a flock of feral sheep on Soay in the Western Isles seem to persist. Moreover, if the trust think they are using the sheep as “wild” conservation tools in the sense of being a surrogate for wild herbivores, then they should welcome the free-running of walker’s dogs because predators such as wolves had a key role in distributing the affects of wild grazers and browsers by scaring them up and moving them on.
As much as they will never agree to that (and livestock get more welfare protection in law than wild animals) they will not also admit that their conservation efforts are just farmification – maintaining the land in an artificial, farmed state. This not what being born to be wild is about.
ADDENDUM November - the row continues with the wildlife trust descending into the usual bunker mentality when challenged - see the addition to the article Blacka Moor in peril from the conservation professionals
Archbishop fears for future of countryside, Yorkshire Post Today 13 July 2006
Since the tragedies of BSE and FMD, the gloss has gone off the popular image of farmers as rubicund producers of bountiful food. Searching for some other justification to become liked again, the mantra then became the role of farming in keeping the countryside neat and beautiful. The ever present threat lurking behind this claim is that without farming, the land would degenerate into some untamed savagery, and we are supposedly meant to agree that that is not a good thing.
This outlook - whether sincerely believed or not – probably owes its origins to a Judaeo-Christian ethic. The attitude of some religions to wild nature doesn’t always bear close scrutiny. Unproductive land is abhorred and nature is there to be bent to mankind’s will. And the W-word does crop up in scriptures, often in an allegorical context and not necessarily in a good light, but at least there is one instance where it was an aide to contemplation rather than just being a place that someone was banished to.
In John Sentamu, the new Archbishop of York, we have the
synthesis of religion and farming. The Archbishop was visiting the Great
Yorkshire Show in Harrogate and is reported in this article to have
Take this sentence in isolation and you could think that it was the mission statement of English Nature. But the Archbishop did have a point to make - he regarded it as important for a country to have food security – the ability to feed its own people without being dependent on imports. However, he could have made his point in many different ways without being the crowd-pleaser he was at Yorkshire’s biggest agricultural show. It is not about the either/or of farming versus wilderness – its about how we have a balance between land that is farmed and land that is left to wild nature. At present, there is no balance and the Archbishops crude, inaccurate and fear-inducing use of the word wilderness is not helpful.
Gordon Brown, death by
droning, Times 12 June 2006 &
Ms Johnston is an arts correspondent for the Times. Last January, in previewing a gallery showing of photographs and sculpture chronicling the life of a remote Northumberland hill farming community, she wrote a syrupy piece in praise of upland landscapes created by sheep farming, framing this adulation in the typical context of the Romanticism that she believes is deeply rooted in our culture: in poetry from Spenser to Wordsworth and Blake; in paintings from Constable and Palmer, and in the music of Vaughan Williams.
I suspect the hill farmers tolerated the attentions of the two artists during their 15-month project. They have about as much awareness of the context of their actions as do their interpreters through the artwork, and Ms Johnson herself when she says "those far-off hill farmers who have created the landscapes that lie within our urban minds". The only clarity that the super-metropolitan Johnston brings is the reality that this (ecologically damaging) upland sheep farming exists today solely on subsidy - and she wanted that public subsidy continued and improved.
The article was a breathtaking example of the current thoughtless orthodoxy that requires us to venerate the taming of our land and admire the practitioners. I toyed with denouncing it on this page at the time, but withheld as the article used none of the "W" words. But Ms Johnston has been at it again, somehow linking in her current article a new book on the human voice; the admittedly drone-like capacity of the Chancellor-who-would-be-Prime-Minister; the sound of larksong; and the continuing need for farmers to receive subsidies. For Ms Johnston "The voice of the skylark is the anthem of summer. Our lovely British landscape seems distilled in its sound".
Johnston demonstrates that she does know that there has been a cost to our landscapes in accommodating the skylark as the bird "came to this country with our Bronze Age ancestors. It bred on farmlands that they cleared from thick woods." But there is no mention from her of the loss of woodland species as their habitat was fatally diminished, or the enforced change of habitation brought on woodland species such as the blackbird, a native bird that originally dwelt in woodland and that arguably has a much wider evocative appeal as a songbird than the skylark. Instead she cautions Gordon Brown not to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, and for him to keep his hands off farming subsidies.
Everyone is deserving of an opinion. However, the often subjective nature of art appreciation - at least in the case of Ms Johnston - would appear not to be a sound basis for evaluating or even understanding the history and future of landscapes.
Return of the native - Indigenous trees rekindle the spirit of our pre-industrial land, and are a big brother to birds, bulbs and bugs, Monty Don, Observer, 5th February 2006
Monty Don is the archetypal save-the-planet media habitué who leaves no bandwagon unhitched, nor any cliché un-adopted, and perennially wears his heart on the sleeves of his trademark navy blue cotton fatigues. Like him or loathe him (I can’t watch Gardeners World now) Monty mainstreams sustainability thought without turning a hair that he is often ten-years behind.
This recent article in the Observer magazine is worthy (ouch!), and I shouldn’t really take a pop at him as it is an exhortation to re-vegetate landscapes with their natural, woodland species. He makes an honest attempt at visioning natural regeneration and the benefits it would bring to wild nature, while salving the conscience of himself and his jet-setting pals on the carbon-offset it will produce (Monty did travel programs before he got into TV gardening).
with Monty is that he takes on the mantle of every ideology he embraces,
churning out the buzzwords so that it can often sound a false note. Thus
untrammelled crops up a couple of times. The W-word comes in
a sentence that must have left most people stupefied:
I don’t have the benefits of a classical education that the public school-educated Don probably has, and so I had to think long and hard about what he meant by pre-Romantic wilderness. Is this an allusion to perceptions of nature in landscape painting, poetry and prose? Do we need to distinguish between the Enlightenment (scientific), Gothic, pre-Romantic and Romantic eras of human creativity and thought before we can understand and value the functional characteristics (and aesthetics) of wild nature?
The trouble is that the centuries covered by those eras left us with a lot of anthropocentric baggage that became attached to perceptions of wild nature. Whether it is the neat, ordered scene of the agricultural landscape, or the beguiling romance of the sculpted parkland, they are all artifices of human origin that rely on us for their continued existence.
I am reminded of the long-horned sheep that came and sat near me in the wilderness of the Jasper National Park, Canada. This was a wild animal and it was his sitting spot. Other than a first glance, he completely ignored me. The blow to my self-esteem was a valuable lesson.
(Sub-editors working for NewsUnlimited please note: try thinking of a different headline for articles on wild nature!)
16th February 2006
Return of the native - Green groups are increasingly buying farmland to return it to vanished wilderness, Owen Bowcott, Guardian, 30th December 2005
Full marks for the accuracy of the subtitle in implying that wilderness has vanished from Britain's farmland. Not so high marks for the error later in the article where the cost of land is transposed between acres and hectares (cheaper in bulk?).
Bowcott reports in the article on the growing trend of wildlife and conservation groups in buying up tracts of farmland, often near their existing reserves, using income from their enlarging memberships or appeals, but also significant public funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The National Trust has for years run Enterprise Neptune, a very successful project to buy up coastline and give it the inalienable protection that follows most of their acquisitions. The Trust is also buying farmland around its long-held small acreage of Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, extending the wetlands and with ambitious plans to expand to 9000 acres.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is also using the considerable heft of its million members to target substantial areas of farmland in areas that will suit their aim of optimizing bird populations. The 47 local county wildlife trusts are doing the same.
The context for this land, Bowcott explains, is a transformation of cultivated land into nature reserves and the potential to reintroduce vanished native species. Buying next to existing reserves increases their overall size, the larger uncultivated tracts generating greater biodiversity.
Bowcott likens this to “rewilding” in the United States where land is “returned to its state before settlement by Europeans”. No such luck for British land as Bowcott has been sucked in by the usual excuse for why true wild nature is not allowed to re-establish here. Yes, “the British landscape has been formed by thousands of years of human occupation”, but that is the human conceit and not an obligation that binds us to continue.
The trouble is, these wildlife and conservation groups only value the nature that exists in these cultural landscapes. They don’t really want real wild land as that doesn’t optimize the species that their members favour. There is absolutely no intention of "buying farmland to return it to vanished wilderness". Thus on the chalk downland of Manor Farm in Wiltshire, the RSPB will seed its 730 acres with wildflowers to encourage stone curlews and orchids. The only difference to the land will be the discontinuation of cereals and pheasant shooting. But you can be sure that the RSPB will not countenance any scrub appearing. As Bowcott says: “Managed grazing prevents most sites reverting to wild forest.”
Well, Mr Bowcott, a true rewilding in Britain will create wild forest. Don’t just listen to these conservation professionals with their species fixations (and their insatiable need to grow and do the next thing to keep the money rolling in). Think instead about conservation that has natural landscapes as its goal, and with the community of species and ecological processes that go along with them.
18th January 2006
Scotland 'to lead the way in attracting wilderness tourists', Fordyce Maxwell, The Scotsman, 4th November 2005
I am normally supportive of people in Britain who make a distinction between wilderness and wildland. Our bleak, open spaces that tend to get called wilderness are really just cultural landscapes where wild nature is only a secondary force. This distinction was made at a recent conference in Edinburgh, and reported in The Scotsman, but the distinction has more to do with prejudice than to have been made on a functional basis.
The conference was the fourth Europe’s Wilderness Day, organised by the Protected Area Network (PAN) Parks Foundation, a non-profit organisation, primarily funded by WWF Netherlands. www.panparks.org
The conference heard speakers from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Wild Scotland, the Tourism and Environment Forum and the Scottish Seabird Centre, who talked about Scotland’s sustainable tourism successes and the potential for developing further sustainable tourism projects in Scotland’s wild and protected areas. The potential is for these to join the European network of protected wilderness areas in the PAN Parks system. Started eight years ago, there are currently eight Certified PAN Parks across Europe.
Bill Taylor, natural heritage manager with Highlands and Islands Enterprise is reported in The Scotsman to have identified the unspoiled (???) Caithness flow country - thousands of hectares two hours from the nearest road - as one possibility, with others being the land bought by the Assynt Community in Wester Ross and land bought by the crofters of North Harris.
"But we can't call it wilderness in Scotland," he said. "Visitors might call it that, but the locals get upset. We would call it wild land."
The whiff of prejudice is reinforced later in the article when Peter Scott, an environmental planner, felt that the label of wilderness park would be resisted as “many people thought of their land as productive rather than wilderness”. He went on to add: "And if they thought we were sitting here discussing what they should do they would have a fit."
No swipe at the journalist this time, as Fordyce Maxwell, Environment Editor, has given us an insight in this report into the impenetrable world of Scottish land rights and use. The Scots appear to cling to historical grievances and in so doing perpetuate a land use in the Highlands that is often marginal at best, and impoverishes the land at its worst. Their fear of the word wilderness comes from the fact that in other countries, it implies land on which a decision is made for it not to be farmed and that there is an exclusion of human habitation. Echoes for them of the Highland Clearances.
Wilderness is a rational approach to land "use", realising the benefits of self-willed land in acting as a reservoir of wild nature from which the greater landscape can regenerate, and is more fitting than scratching the last remnant of production. It is also an approach by degrees since self-willed land will always be likely to be represented by core areas and corridors (as they are in the PAN Parks), and not in the wholesale retreat of humanity from a nation. The Scots really do have to grasp this, and work out what is a best balance between self-willed land and their productive use of land. They should also recognise that their farming of land would benefit from an element of rewilding of the Highland landscape so that it is replenished from the often impoverished state that it is at the moment.
8th November 2005
Now in its 11th consecutive year! - Catherine Bennet, Grauniad (Guardian) 13th October 2005
Columnist Catherine Bennet took pot shots at the Government's record in combating anti-social behaviour, and at a Minister who had commented on the quality of daytime television. Bizarrely nestled in between was an excoriation of those who held the view that the revised information on the extinction of Lynx from Britain creates an obligation under EU directives for their re-introduction.
The renewed interest in Lynx arises from recent carbon-dating of bones found in Yorkshire and Scotland that shows that the cats were alive well into the first millennium AD. This indicates that they did not die out as was thought when the climate became cooler and wetter about 4,000 years ago, but probably as a result of deforestation and hunting to extinction some 2,500 years later in the early Saxon period. Under the European Union’s Habitats Directive, member states have to consider reintroducing species that were killed off by the actions of humans.
This is too much for Ms Bennet, who obviously thinks her world is scary enough, and castigates those contemplating re-introduction of Lynx for "forgetting how people once felt about bears and packs of wolves". For Ms Bennet, the extinction of the Lynx 1,500 years ago suggests that "these animals could hardly be said to be missed". The flippancy continues when she accuses Lynx enthusiasts of being "less ecologically inspired than sentimental" and that their re-introduction to Britain would be "a thrilling antidote to fat-bottomed, contemporary decadence".
The anthropocentric arrogance of Ms Bennet is revealed when she says that "their survival could be guaranteed only with continual human protection". This is the sometime tortured logic of fox hunters (the illogical alternative espoused is that fox are vermin that have to be controlled). Perhaps Ms Bennet has already made the connection because at a simple level, the Lynx may be considered as the feline equivalent of the fox, having perhaps a parallel role in nature.
Native populations of Eurasian Lynx still exist in Scandinavia, Romania, Slovakia, Greece, the Balkans, central Asia, and in the Carpathians and Pyrenees. A second species inhabits the Iberian Peninsula. Lynx has been re-established in a number of European countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia and Austria. Peter Taylor advocated the reintroduction of lynx in his recent book Beyond Conservation: A Wildland Strategy (Earthscan, 2005). Peter believes that there is sufficient habitat and prey in Scotland, which combined with the solitary nature of lynx, argues strongly for reintroduction to start there. He says “There is no doubt that lynx was a key element of the British fauna throughout the formative period of the larger European fauna." We should perhaps remind ourselves that re-introduction of Lynx will not plunge our cultural landscapes (i.e. man-made landscapes) into chaos as a smaller wild cat still exists in the Highlands of Scotland (it is similar in appearance to a domestic tabby).
It is not sentiment or indulgence that drives wild nature re-introductions such as the Lynx, it is because they are a missing component in an ecologically functioning landscape.
31st October 2005
British Food Fortnight comes around in October, and the campaign encourages us to buy British, and local if possible. This moved Magnus Linklater to write in The Times about his fears for British livestock and the competition it faces from cheaper, imported meat from South America. Linklater condemns this meat as being of lesser quality, reared under "Third World Standards" and its production is steadily eroding the rainforest.
He also rehashed the debate that raged over vaccination during the last FMD outbreak in Britain, condemning British farmers for resisting vaccination in 2001, and suggesting that current import controls may not be picking up the vaccination of animals that routinely occurs in South America.
Linklater says Government support for the British beef herd would stem the loss of South American rainforest. In a curious juxtaposition, Linklater says that raising livestock is an essential part of the British environment - "without cattle the countryside becomes an empty wilderness"!
Well, Mr Linklater, true wilderness in Britain would not be empty as it would be full of the wild animals, plants and trees that are the real community of its landscape - not the endless smoothed over landscape of grass and not much else that animal farming has created. And can you tell me why you want to see protection of rainforests, a wilderness of South America, but have no interest in seeing wildland in Britain?
13th October, 2005