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There's a deep cultural resistance to the idea of land no longer being farmed

grazing animals manage the land, keeping it cropped and tidy and attractive to visitors

Shoot a moose and you have saved the equivalent of two long-haul flights

Woodlands are managed in such a way now that they are the shadiest they have been for thousands of years

We must increase our efforts to restore and manage lowland heathland

Detested the barren hills of Scotland

Re-wilding, creating woodlands and heathlands

Naurally maintain one of Britain's most sensitive eco-systems

Now we should fear for the wild -see the Addendum March

A true British wilderness


Wilder parks can tame climate change threat, Ed Douglas, The Observer, 23 December 2007

I read this article with some puzzlement and then incredulity since it appeared to show that a staunch advocate of the protected cultural landscapes of Britain, such as our national parks, had changed his mind. Thus Adrian Philips, who wrote the Management Guidelines for IUCN Category V Protected Areas: Protected Landscapes/Seascapes (1) was now saying that the idea that we can keep the great part of our national parks farmed full-time in the future is unrealistic”.

This is contrary to all the prevailing ideology that surrounds our cultural landscapes, especially in the uplands where many of the national parks are located and where there is an excessive and romanticized belief that human influence is improving and crucial. Thus the Council for National Parks believes that “farming and forestry have helped to shape much of the landscape which is now so valued nationally and by visitors”. They think this is particularly the case in upland areas “whose scenic beauty is partly the creation of centuries of livestock rearing, as well as management for shooting and other country sports” (2). Philips himself has written of the importance of lived-in, working landscapes, with traditional forms of land use in which there is a “sustainable use of natural resources in places that have been shaped by people over long periods of time” and where there are “valuable habitats and rare species whose continued existence may depend on the survival of traditional forms of land use.”(1).

Philips, however, now appears to be saying that traditional farming in our national parks should not be preserved at all costs, and should be wound down in marginal areas allowing some landscapes to be "rewilded". He said there would be many benefits from a wilder form of landscape, such as absorbing more water and reducing flooding downstream.

Philips saw that these cultural landscapes were increasingly failing in their current land use. He argued they must instead provide a range of environmental services for the whole nation. Philips knows this is an extremely unpopular message, and he knows why “There's a deep cultural resistance to the idea of land no longer being farmed, but it has other values which are now probably much higher for society.”

Much as I welcomed the Observer’s Ed Douglas bringing to my attention this portentous change of view from Philips, I just know that one “wild” swallow doesn’t make a summer and so it was important to get a measure of the seriousness of Philips message, and to whom it was being given other than to this journalist. Philips is reported by Douglas to believe that local national park communities are likely to be resistant to the changes he proposes, such that it will require political leadership if they are to come about. Thus it’s not surprising, considering the hard things he had to say, that Philips walked straight into the lions den and delivered it as a speech to the National Park Societies’ Conference last November (3).

A reading of this speech reveals the entirety of the hard messages from Philips. The time has come, he says, to think anew about the place of the parks in our national life. The appeal of the national parks he believes is that they stand at the end of a spectrum of experiences – beginning with bird watching in the back garden or walking in a local park, and then moving progressively along that spectrum towards places that are closer to nature. However, he believes that the wild places within our parks are now so much less wild than they were, and so much less wild than can be found in the national parks nearby in Europe, where they have remnants of agriculture, and certainly less wild than the national parks in many other parts of the world where agriculture is excluded (a fact which Ed Douglas doesn’t seem to know). Thus our national parks no longer provide that challenge to our citizens – young people especially - that the framers of the original legislation had in mind.

Philips wants to throw off three long established ideas in national parks: the assumption that we should struggle to keep the traditional landscapes of all parts of our parks, even if this is not economic over the long term; the view of national parks as landscape plus access in the 1949 Act, thereby ignoring natural processes; and the view that, by working through local communities, we can find answers to all the problems that face the parks.

The latter point arises from Philip’s fears that the innate conservatism in local groups will be a barrier to change, especially since he doubts if the sum total of local knowledge will be up to the task:
“To bring about such change will be difficult, and will be strongly opposed by many local interests. And here I add to your sense of horror by repeating the politically incorrect observation that the current commitment to putting local community views first – the very theme of this conference – will make it more difficult to bring about the necessary changes.”

Philips offers some scenarios that in the uplands includes a regrouping of traditional farming, but he says that this will not work everywhere and that rather than supporting marginal farming systems, much of the future upland economy should be based on delivering a range of environmental services. He believes the look of the landscape will change: most obviously, broadleaf woodland will be much more dominant. For the lowlands, he says the pressure for more intensive farming will need to be resisted where it will be particularly damaging, but in general the same principle should apply – use the parks more for their ability to conserve natural resources, accommodate to the effects of climate change and re-discover a national purpose.

In a counter to expected criticism, Philips says that he believes his is not a romantic view of “rewilding” but a functional one, with the immediate beneficiaries being nature conservation and low intensity recreation so that the parks will once again be performing a national role. He emphasizes their value for young people as outdoor classrooms for the nation, teaching them in a practical way about the enduring values of the natural world: “A wilder landscape in many parts, it would offer more space for nature and a more challenging physical environment to young people especially”.

I met Adrian Philips over a year ago when he chaired a meeting of the Wildland Network on reintroducing wild species to Britain. Because of his track record of advocacy of cultural landscapes, I was wary of Philips, and I don’t remember him expressing any strong views on rewilding. But I respect a person who can reassess their position when the evidence invites a throwing off of the shackles of orthodox dogma. Let’s hope more people get to hear his hard messages, including the politicians who he believes should be providing the leadership for change in our national parks.

(1) Management Guidelines for IUCN Category V Protected Areas: Protected Landscapes/Seascapes. Adrian Philips (2002) IUCN Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK
(2) Protected Landscapes in Benefits Beyond Boundaries, Council for National Parks 2003
(3) National Parks in the 21st Century – Time to Face Reality, Adrian Philips (2007) Council for National Parks

11 January 2008

Walk in the enchanted forest, Anna Shepard, travel, The Times 17 November 2007

Ms Shepard is the EcoWorrier (sic) correspondent and Eco-blogger for the Times. I have to say that her writings pass me by, but the front page picture of her, and her cover story in this weekend’s travel section of the newspaper caught my attention. Her article was in praise of the New Forest National Park as the winner in the Best Destination category of this year’s Responsible Tourism Awards. The New Forest NP beat out the post-tsunami, small-scale community-based tourism of Sri Lanka, and the eco-tourism of Costa Rica. Since about everywhere else in the other winning categories was in a warmer climate than Britain, then the New Forest NP would seem to have done exceptionally well with the judges. I wonder what were the criteria that they used to judge the Best Destination category?

For her own part, Ms Shepard learnt some of the reasons for the success of the park as a tourist location from Anthony Climpson, the “tourism destination manager” from the district council. Mr Climpson himself was a winner, in the category of Outstanding Personal Contribution. He has been around long enough to see a 40mph speed limit restriction imposed in the forest, is pursuing the closure of several roads in the middle of the forest, and is involved in a project to prevent road traffic accidents arising from deer and livestock. He’s also a bit of a wrangler of local people and businesses in the forest, bringing them together to believe that co-operation will bring all of them benefits from tourism.

Mr Climpson is unlikely to be an expert in landscape conservation as well as tourism, but I do not doubt him when he tells Ms Shepard about the crucial relationship between tourism and livestock”. Many people choose the New Forest as a tourist destination because of the likelihood of seeing the wild (feral) ponies that roam freely. And some of the tourists may agree with Ms Shepard when she writes that “grazing animals manage the land, keeping it cropped and tidy and attractive to visitors”.

Behind this, however, is a terrible toll levied on the wild nature of the New Forest. I noted myself during a visit this year that the ground layer in one ancient woodland area where it was almost completely devoid of vegetation, except in the very few places where grazing was excluded, creating a conspicuous absence of natural regeneration and a clear browse line, all indicating the over-grazing of the forest. Roger Deakin, in his last book - Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees - recounts how he was disturbed as he walked the same woodland noticing "how open and empty of growth the forest was”. And it is this very same woodland – Denny Wood – that has been the focus of a study of the long-term changes in vegetation since 1959.

The report (see reference below) notes that regeneration rates have fluctuated in response to changing populations of deer, cattle and ponies, and that during the past two centuries, periodic declines in grazing in the New Forest have allowed many areas to regenerate with secondary woodland. However, in recent decades the pony numbers have once again increased, to the extent that by 1999 the canopy and understorey had been greatly reduced. Gaps were widespread and with a ground vegetation in stands dominated by bracken.

The New Forest has long been subjected to grazing use, and its designation as a commons with 400 odd commoners pretty much locks it into that land use for some time to come. In fact it is described by super-enthusiasts as one of the finest surviving wood-pastures in temperate Europe, containing as it does over 3,000 hectares of grazed ancient woodland, much of which is dominated by old-growth beech, oak and holly. But the beech, holly and ground layer is now under threat from over-grazing, as is potentially the long-term replacement regeneration of the woodland. Is this any part of responsible tourism? Should an artefact of cultural tradition, superficially attractive to tourism because it is cropped and tidy, be maintained at the expense of wild nature? Should Ms Shepard, the EcoWorrier, be concerned about this?

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin (2007) Hamish Hamilton
Long- term changes in the vegetation of Denny Wood, an ancient wood-pasture in the New Forest, Edward P. Mountford (2001) English Nature Research Reports Number 434

19 November 2007

Moose with wind are ‘worse than gas guzzlers’, Roger Boyes, The Times 23 August 2007

The forced humour that surrounds this story of hapless wild moose – aided by a flippant Editorial – reflects first of all a dangerous trivialisation, but is also part of a depressing trend that is seeing new reasons put forward for the persecution of wild nature to compensate for the greed of the human species.

The story reports on research that has quantified the yearly methane emissions of a fully grown moose in Norway and, as is the fashion in this time of concern for climate change, compares it to the carbon dioxide emissions of car and air travel. Methane is thought to be over 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and thus the emissions of a moose are the equivalent to 8,000 miles on the road, or 36 flights between Oslo and Trondheim.

I doubt whether the research set out originally with this kind of evaluation in mind, it was more likely to have been a study of the changing nutrition of Norway’s 120,000 wild moose as they have altered their eating habits in response to receding winter snow lines. Having confined themselves previously to a poor winter browse, moose now have access to such as wild blueberries, and the taste of a better diet has increased their breeding success and led to greater encroachment into human habitation. Norwegians are therefore pleading for a higher kill quota than the present 35,000, to keep intruding moose numbers in check. Except that Prof. Reidar Andersen, a “biologist” from the technical university in Trondheim, but also a hunter of moose, took advantage of the emissions data to lay another blame on the moose, and gave the journalist Roger Boyes a brilliant tag for his article “Shoot a moose and you have saved the equivalent of two long-haul flights”

Is this the scientist or the journalist talking when the article speculates on whether shooting moose will become a fashionable way for globetrotting Scandinavians to “ease their troubled environmental consciences?”

Let’s be careful about singling out the moose here since emissions from livestock animals have been studied for a number of years after it was recognised that they too contribute significantly to methane production – a report last November by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revealed that the global livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than does all transport (1).

Experiments in the UK with modifying livestock diets have led to reductions. Thus feeding garlic to sheep and cattle, adding natural supplements, substituting silage for fresh grass, or ensuring young grass is eaten over older, stemmy grass, can reduce methane emissions by upto 50-70% (2-6). I do wonder though at the effort that is put into these palliatives when we don’t want to reduce our dependence on a meat culture, but are happy to scapegoat the moose whose life also seems to be disposable at our convenience. More importantly, it is not even certain that livestock emissions are a net contributor to total carbon emissions since they – and the moose - may just be recycling the carbon fixed through photosynthesis in the vegetable matter that they ingest.

Critically, we should be looking at the other impacts that livestock production has, and which are described in the FAO report as a major source of land and water degradation (1). Livestock now uses 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface mostly as permanent pasture - the proportion is higher in the UK at 54% - but to that can be added 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock. In addition:

·         Livestock production is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

·         Herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered as degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. In the drylands, inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.

·         Livestock is damaging to water resources, causing water pollution, euthropication and the degeneration of coral reefs. Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed. Phosphorous and nitrogen contamination of seas contribute to biodiversity loss in marine ecosystems.

You may wonder how conservation professionals can justify their use of livestock in conservation grazing after this report?

The clamour surrounding climate change has brought out some pretty unusual and untrustworthy self-justifications for landscape management. Thus the National Trust as owners of considerable areas of upland peat bog, put forward their stewardship principles for their peatlands as a contribution to a 20 year storage offset to national industrial emissions that our total peatlands could represent (7) – but surely this would only be in the situation where that carbon storage is completely mobilised?! Since that stewardship is pretty much business as usual for an SPA-driven birdscape of wet moorland, then it is not much of a stretch for them – or any other contemporary uplands conservation by such as the RSPB.

The conservation strategies of reducing sheep grazing and blocking up drainage grips and rewetting the peat can be calculated to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of a drying peatland, and may even reverse it into net carbon dioxide absorption. But this is a preciousness about a relatively insignificant factor, unless we rip up every peatland tomorrow. Thus when an NT spokesperson can say “It is the forgotten climate change timebomb” then you know that the level of exaggeration is a self-justification gone too far, especially when it can and is being used in arguments against any proposals for re-afforestation of those moorland areas, even though a recent study rejects that assertion (8).

Yet again, we see the apologists for wet upland wastelands shore up their defences, as was shown from a preceding entry below that also includes their importance for game birds and the notion that they somehow represent a natural state (see Three million trees planted in largest native woodland plan, David Ross, The Herald 3 July 2007).

Forests get it in the neck for another reason to do with climate change. A report in the journal Science in late 2005 concluded that in temperate zones, conversion of forests and grassland to agriculture would cool the region and counteract the effects of global warming by 25%-50%. Thus ripening corn and other staples would reflect more sunlight back into space, and release more moisture into the air, while dark forests would absorb sunlight and raise surface temperatures. A second study cautioned against the planting of forests in temperate areas, as an offset to carbon dioxide release, due to the loss of reflectivity of reforested landscapes – called the albedo effect - especially where this occurred in areas normally blanketed in heat-reflecting snow during the winter (9). I was given the latter as another argument by one of the miserabalists against reforesting the Highlands in Scotland – I guess he must have been thinking about the Cairngorms but, as is the case with the movable target that is climate change, snow cover of the Cairngorms recedes with every passing year.

Thus in the same way that perhaps we should be shooting all the moose in Norway if we took the Times article literally, then should we also be cutting down all the forests in temperate areas? Well, as this reportage shows, the needs of journalism have outweighed the potential message of the studies and, can in fact, misrepresent them. One of the scientists in the forest studies, Dr Caldeira, felt moved to rebuke the Guardian for implying that the research indicated that planting trees to save the planet was pointless (10). In their third attempt at the story, the Guardian finally reported on what were the key beliefs of two of the scientists involved (11). Thus Dr Caldeira warned that:
"Preservation of ecosystems is a primary goal of preventing global warming, and the destruction of ecosystems to prevent global warming would be a counterproductive and perverse strategy."

A colleague of his, Dr Bala, added: "Apart from their role in altering the planet's climate, forests are valuable in many other aspects. Forests provide natural habitat to plants and animals, preserve the biodiversity, produce economically valuable timber and firewood, protect watersheds and indirectly prevent ocean acidification."

You would just wish that journalists had a better grasp on these things before they ventured in.

(1) Livestock a major threat to environment, FAO Rome 29 November 2006

(2) Cowabunga! Cutting cattle flatulence to save the planet, The Guardian 1 March 2003,12374,905360,00.html

(3) Trial bid to stop belching cattle, BBC News Scotland 4 January 2006

(4) Tackling UK's gassy cows problem, BBC News 12 October 2006

(5) Tackling cows' gassy problems, BBC News Northern Ireland 8 January 2007

(6) Garlic 'may cut cow flatulence', BBC News Wales 10 July 2007

(7) 'Preserve peat bogs' for climate, BBC News 28 February 2007

(8) Implications for changing from grazed or semi-natural vegetation to forestry for carbon stores and fluxes in upland organo-mineral soils in the UK, B Reynolds, Hydrology & Earth Science System Science, 11(1), 61-76

(9) Climate change theory barks up wrong tree, study shows, The Guardian 9 December 2005,3605,1663414,00.html

(10) Planting trees to save planet is pointless, say ecologists, The Guardian 9 December 2006,,329663302-121568,00.html

(11) How trees might not be green in carbon offsetting debate, The Guardian 10 April 2007

27 August 2007

Bringing sunshine into the woods should stop decline of butterflies, Valerie Elliot, Times 21 July 2007

More bad news about the killing-off of the wildness in nature. A total of £900,0000 has been given over to the South East Woodland Project for butterfly conservation over the next three years. This means that woodland in the home counties will now be under attack as it is regarded by conservation professionals as being "neglected" and thus in need of management to increase light levels: "woodlands are managed in such a way now that they are the shadiest they have been for thousands of years". So that would be going back before the time that we humans cleared greater than 90% of the woodland in Britain, and then constrained the remainder by managing it to serve our needs?

What this means in effect is that the conservation professionals want patches of woodland completely cleared by coppicing, even though there is no market now for the coppice products. What a burden to impose on the broadleaf woodland of the SE now that Butterfly Conservation has been put into the situation where it can dictate to woodland owners that the woodland is there just to support butterflies. I thought woodland did best when it supported woodland flowers and fungi, and other species that have evolved within the shade that woodland creates! Chillingly, “conservation experts believe that this is just the first phase of the programme”.

24 July 2007

Woodlark population takes off, thanks to set-aside land, Lewis Smith, Times 16 July 2007

This reports the results from a survey of woodlark populations carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology. The ten-fold increase in breeding pairs to 3,084 since 1986 (a doubling since 1997) is said to be due to the birds making their way back to farms, where set-aside has provided a source of food and nesting sites. Set-aside was introduced in 1992 to lower grain surpluses, and this timing seems to fit with the recovery of the woodlark.

In a confused message in the article, ornithologists also state that the improved upkeep of heaths and forests have contributed. So which is it? And why is an RSPB spokeswomen quoted at the end of the article as saying “We must increase our efforts to restore and manage lowland heathland”.

As is becoming clear in many areas of the south of England, this mania that the RSPB has for heathland restoration and management is causing considerable resentment amongst local people as the fencing and grazing that is imposed cuts across their access and is coupled with the wholesale slaughter of trees and collateral damage to other wildlife. Heathland used to exist for its products. There is no market for these now, and so it is a senseless killing of wild nature to restore and manage heathland.

24 July 2007

Three million trees planted in largest native woodland plan, David Ross, The Herald 3 July 2007

This is a good news story about big numbers. John Mackenzie set out 10 years ago to regenerate native woodland on his Gairloch Estate in the Wester Ross National Scenic Area. Three million trees were planted within 13,000 acres, in the largest native woodland scheme in Scotland. Another way to think of that area is 20 square miles, large enough to walk around in woodland for a whole day and still hope to get lost.

Species planted included Scots pine, alder, birch, hazel, holly and mountain ash, with the seed being collected from the nearby islands on Loch Maree. These new forests of Baile Mor and Bad na Sgalag will provide habitat and home for the charismatic species of the Highlands, such as capercaillie, wild cats and black grouse. Mackenzie, whose ancestors have lived on the land around the Gairloch for more than 500 years, is obviously keen to give something back to the land: "It will be wonderful to see the return of native species that have not been seen in these parts for many years."

Nothing controversial as reported, but I read this story on a web issue of The Herald and it is in the Comments added by readers where it really comes alive. It becomes the archetypal battleground on what is the true natural state of the Scottish landscape. Thus “art100” from Dunfermline was very pleased with the news of the tree planting, and felt that the potential was for it to be much repeated in the Highlands:
All my life I have detested the barren hills of Scotland. Like with many other things, for too long we were brainwashed in Scotland into thinking that our moonscape scenery was somehow beautiful.

The riposte from the other camp was swift – Geva Blackett said:
Moorland is not barren! It is home to waders such as golden plover and lapwing (which are up to 5 times more prolific on managed moorland - scientific fact!), Britain's only indigenous bird the red grouse, rare plants, mosses and insects AND don't forget: heather is endangered too!

It helps to know in this context that Ms Blackett is secretary of the Scottish Gamekeeper's Association, is married to the factor of a very large moorland grouse estate, and is on the board of the Cairngorms National Park Authority (a national park with its fair share of “barren” moorland). It is not a stretch to conclude that Ms Blackett has a vested interest in seeing a Scottish landscape devoid of trees. She may wish to consider whether it’s wise to use the argument that managed moorland is scientifically proven to be more attractive to lapwing and plover since that seems to deny a natural, unmanaged state for the landscape.

Tree planting in the Highlands has been sniffed at in recent years by miserablists who think moorland is the true natural state of the landscape. For instance, one of these miserablists poured cold water on the notion that the woodland on the islands of Loch Maree offered some sort of a source link to original natural forest of Scotland by virtue of their isolation and continuity of succession, when he dismissed them to me as likely to have been planted. His view seems out of step with most other commentators, including Michael Heseltine who in his Channel Five television quest late last year to seek out wild woodland in Britain, eventually alighted on the islands of Loch Maree.

The miserablists were given support for their views three years ago when a study of pollen samples in Glen Affric indicated a period a few thousand years past when tree regeneration catastrophically stopped for 500 years, the cause unknown but considered to be climatic. This schism is thus considered to repudiate the charge that human clearance of woodland was the cause of moorland. Except that it doesn’t overcome the fact that humans then maintained that landscape treeless by their land use, irrespective of whether they were the original clearers. There is, anyway, some doubt about the validity of conclusions from the pollen study as one of the PhD students that I talked to maintains there was charcoal in many of the core samples.

This battle for the heart and soul of the Scottish landscape may never be resolved. While “art100” would not resile from his stance that virtually all of Scotland is barren moorland as a result of exploitation, he was at least conciliatory in his reply to Ms Blackett when he called for both woodland and moorland to have their place in Scotland:

Surely we need a better balance so more species - beyond lapwings and plovers - can flourish.

And I should give the last word to John Mackenzie who when interviewed back in 2003 when the replanting project was half completed said:
"It's a positive, practical use for a large piece of land that frankly was almost totally useless.
The forest should become a great amenity for visitors and local folk. It will be wide open for all and sundry to come along and enjoy it"

10 July 2007

The middle class have hijacked the English countryside for themselves, Madeleine Bunting, The Grauniad 23 April 2007

This is an otherwise laudable article about the paucity of access to the countryside for urban dwellers, and how the rural planning laws and the support they receive from interested parties (the "middle class") undoubtedly creates a drawbridge effect that maintains the exclusivity of the countryside. For many urban dwellers in search of a wilder landscape experience, their enjoyment of English countryside is tempered by a feeling that they are only there on sufferance. It's as if the mass trespass on Kinder Scout had never happened, and it is the fallacy that is at the core of our so-called national parks.

I wouldn't be as sure as Ms Bunting that the hijacking of the countryside by the middle class, who use both conservationist and environmentalist arguments to defend their self-interest "is an untold story of the past century".  Authors such as Cloke and Goodwin, and Murdoch and Marsden wrote extensively on this in the 1990's without pulling any punches as to the influence of class and wealth (see my article Reconstituting Rurality).

What troubles me about this article is that Ms Bunting throws in an ecological contradiction. The pity of this is that she raises the issue of environmental illiteracy amongst modern urban dwellers, indicating that they no longer have simple knowledge of the natural world, and that they have lost the sense of entitlement to their land that the pioneering ramblers of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout had in 1932. I tend to agree, but people are ill-served if they are fed what are often the pre-occupations of conservation professionals. Thus a prescription to give greenbelt greater meaning for urban dwellers through "re-wilding, creating woodlands and heathlands within easy access of cities" contains a habitat that is the current darling of the conservation professionals - heathland - which is the antithesis of woodland. Lowland heathland is an artificial habitat, created originally through destruction of woodland on sandy soils and, today, is being reclaimed from regenerating woodland when the landscape has rewilded after cessation of management.  Perhaps urban dwellers wont see the contradiction, but that's not been the case in the reality of the Dorset heath project, or in the asdown forest area, where there has been dismay at the wholesale destruction of trees (see my article Nature grooming - killing the wildness in nature).

28 April 2007

Ethical Living, Lucy Siegle, The Observer Magazine, 4 March 2007

Ms Siegle writes a weekly advice column on 'eco-friendly' living that adopts a classic Observer style of a winners and losers gallery, amusingly called The Green Gauge. 'Going Down' in the column this week are the black-faced sheep of Dartmoor,  apparently because rustlers have been stealing them in their hundreds. Why should we be concerned? Ms Siegle thinks we should mourn the loss of these sheep because they "naturally maintain one of Britain's most sensitive eco-systems".

The smug trendiness of most of Ms Siegle's weekly advice is probably very comforting to her journalistic colleagues. Thus the newspaper has recently taken on an allotment that staff volunteer to work on. Perhaps Ms Siegle might like to comment on the eco-friendly wisdom of transporting a wagon load of compost for the allotment from 135 miles away (see The muck stops here - same issue) but I don't hold out much hope of that. Nor do I have any expectation that Ms Siegle will ever understand that management of landscapes by sheep is only natural in comparison to the thought of someone driving a tractor mower over Dartmoor to achieve the same effect. If Dartmoor is a sensitive eco-system, it is because of our exploitation of it for farming, and for the centuries of over-grazing with sheep.

4 March 2007

We used to fear the wild. Now we should fear for the wild......, Simon Barnes, Wild Notebook, The Times, 3 February 2007

Barnes is chief sports writer for the Times but, on Saturdays, he gets to write a regular Wild Notebook for the op-ed pages of the paper. His columns are predominantly birdist, and frequently contain sightings in reserves near his Suffolk home, or over into Norfolk. The good press he has given the RSPB over the years is worth more than a few free lunches.

Always exhortatory, his columns of late have taken on the air of observer as poetical interpreter, the lyrical descriptions contrasting the historical fates of many East Anglian landscapes. Take as example this passage from his latest article, about a trip to Hickling Broad in Norfolk:
"It is beautifully, expertly managed for its desolation. Dark, open water; reedbeds in which reedcutters still pursue their ancient craft; grazing marshes on which tough-minded ponies make their wild living."

This desolation to Barnes is because Hickling is a human desert - deserted by humankind - "An affront to civilisation". What he is trying to do is set up a falsity, a throwback to some mythic fear of wild nature such that areas with no population today are in some way the lineage of wilder times. And yet our human influence is as pervasive everywhere as it has ever been as the site is "expertly managed", the reedcutters gardening the landscape, as much as the ponies are also exerting a huge influence.

The delusion is that these ponies represent some form of native herbivore pressure on the landscape vegetation - "their wild living" - just because we don't choose to eat the ponies, as we would the livestock that are the usual, broadscale herbivore pressure. We must also ask ourselves why Hickling is so "expertly managed". The goal, is of course, for a target species - in this case the marsh harrier. Joy for the birdist Barnes, and brownie points for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust for meeting some Biodiversity Action Plan target for the harrier -and probably justifying to them, the enormous amounts of public money they and other Wildlife Trusts receive for gardening our semi-natural landscapes all over the place.

Barnes give us another example of this falsity, "another place of glorious desolation". Norfolk WT have probably been meeting another birdist BAP target, this time for stone curlews. These curlews have "a taste for blasted heaths" - thus Barnes can state:
"The cruel open spaces of the Brecks were created by deforesting Stone Age farmers and are maintained by the constant nibbling of the rabbits that were introduced to this country a mere millennium back."

The rabbits have become the surrogate landscapers in place of the Stone Age farmers. To better employ their nibbling nature, and to ensure the continued presence of the stone curlew, the Norfolk WT have hit on the brilliant wheeze of fencing the rabbits into Weeting Heath. Barnes calls this a "sweet paradox of nature conservation". Sounds like farming to me.

I really do "fear for the wild" when Barnes can serve up every week these paeans to a false and delusionary wildness. He is not an unthinking person, but his birdism seems to blind him to the clunking dissonance contained in his columns.

7th February 2007


Birdist Barnes has had to eat crow over a mis-identification, not that his weasel words in doing so were very persuasive. In his Wild Notebook for 24th February, Barnes waxed lyrical over the flowering of his local blackthorn, citing it as a harbinger of spring and throwing in both a literary and a cultural reference -William Cobbett and Richard Mabey. Except that the following week, 3rd March, he had to admit that it wasn't blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) that he had seen flowering, but cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera). Also called myrobalan, the cherry plum originates from eastern Europe and western Asia, but has long been in cultivation in southern Britain as hedging and in wind breaks, and its rootstock is used for grafting of cultivated plums and gages. On the other hand, blackthorn is a native, highly branched and very thorny suckering shrub with much smaller flowers, that is also used in hedging, but which is typically wild across Britain in woodland edges.

I can't shrug off this mis-identifcation as lightly as Barnes does. The cultural landscapes of the farm land that Barnes mostly deals in, have become a hybrid over the centuries, the inclusion of myrobalan being just one example. Far worse, though, has been the loss to our landscapes of native, wild shrubs because of their persecution by farmers. Thus the barberry (Berberis vulgaris) was eliminated from many areas because it was discovered to harbour a wheat rust, and spindle (Euonymus europaeus) grubbed out for its poisonous fruit and propensity for blackfly.

Barnes should try harder - his proffered differentiation between cherry plum and blackthorn of leaves appearing along with the flowers of the former, and the blackthorn flowering much later, are both fallible. He should get to know his landscapes much better than this if his advocacy in Wild Notebook is to be worth anything.

Britain's forgotten wilderness - less than an hour from Norwich, John Vidal, The Grauniad, 8 January 2007

It is rare to find a habitat in Britain that has lain mostly undisturbed for many years. The RSPB has just bought Sutton Fen, 365-acres of fen and grassland in an almost inaccessible side valley of the River Ant in the Norfolk Broads. Previous owners over the last 100 years have made few demands on the fen, maintaining a level of privacy that means it is a pretty unknown landscape. Some wildfowlers may have visited it by boat, there may have been some sedge cutting, the main channels may occasionally have been cleared of vegetation, but it has never been drained, there are no paths or fences, or even much contemporary knowledge about it amongst local naturalists.

The RSPB as the new owner reckon that the £1.5m price tag is money well spent as it gets them an area of slow moving water running through tall reeds, and with bog myrtle and alder in the boggy marsh areas. There may be otter, there will be orchids, perhaps bittern and other wetland birds, and there certainly will be warblers and maybe red deer travelling through. As Ian Robinson, the RSPB's Broads area officer is quoted as saying:
"This is one of the very few places left in southern England where you get that feel of wilderness. It's quite conceivable that for many centuries only one or two people ever came here a year. It's very remote, very isolated, hardly accessible. It's almost impossible to walk over and it's dangerous and very fragile. It's pretty much as it was 100 years ago, in the middle of nowhere. Very few people know about it".

For once, I won’t quibble over the use of the “W” word here, as I suspect that the lack of exploitation will have given the fen an exhilaratingly wild and natural feel. It is an example of what can happen anywhere in Britain if we remove our influence and let wild nature get on with it, even when it is a man-made landscape. And it is a (re)wilding at Sutton Fen, as Vidal reports the view of Broads expert Martin George that much of what is now reedbed and low alder wood would have been shallow water, created by peat diggers. Over the centuries it has filled up with sediment, which has allowed the reed beds to grow.

Vidal has been around as Environment correspondent of The Grauniad for many years, and he is obviously caught up in the enthusiasm for the fen – “It is a true British wilderness he says, complementing his lyrical descriptions of the site. He ends his piece with a final quote from Mr Robinson:
"It's such a precious place that we just can't mess it up".

We should all have a glowing feeling by now, but Vidal has made the classic gaffe of media types of “bigging” up the story without looking at the inconsistencies in the details, not least the red herring that inaccessibility makes places wild when it is more about how they are exploited.

The RSPB are going to move in and reapply the human influence that was lacking in the past 100 years, and what makes Sutton Fen so special. Thus reed and sedge cutters will be brought in to harvest the grasses, and to keep down the myrtle and alder woods since it wouldn’t do to have them invade the fen. Next year they will reinstate the former reed cutting regime, and a local firm will cut the sedge. The RSPB will hide behind this massive return of managerialism by implying that it will be only way that they will be able to find out exactly what is in the fen.

So why do they feel they have to manage Sutton Fen? Can’t they break out of the straightjacket that says conservation managerialism knows better than wild nature? How much of a “true British wilderness will it be after they start to “mess it up”?,,1984918,00.htm

12 January 2007