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“The Grasslands Trust has been able to secure Government funding to ensure ten years of wildlife management at Arcot”

in an unfavourable condition and requires management to improve its status


We are proud to have a sustainable conservation system up and running to safeguard the future of this unsurpassed southern wilderness and its wildlife” - -see the Addendum Nov


Northumberland wildlife site rescued from decline: Largest area of lowland species-rich unimproved grassland in the North East, Wildlife Extra June 2011

I get so tired of the litany of self-congratulatory praise in “press release” driven stories about the latest heroic action of the conservation industry in working hard/fighting to secure/rescue/boost/safeguard/save/restore to former glory/tip-top condition something rare/precious/threatened/declining/at risk. This story is no exception, with the Grasslands Trust bigging up the wildlife value of the 32ha they have taken on next to a golf course near Cramlington in Northumberland. They bask in the reflected glory of coming to the rescue of this “special site” that is Thought to be the largest area of lowland species-rich unimproved grassland in North East England”

Like all these stories written from a press release, it concentrates on the good news that the conservation industry wants you to associate with them, chucking in as many substantiations as they can for their interventionist actions, however much they stretch the point. We, as simple people, are here to be impressed. We are not here to question the motives or justification, nor understand, just be in awe. However, the press release couldn’t avoid letting slip one part of the process that lies behind many of these stories, and which set me off on a train of discovery:
“The Grasslands Trust has been able to secure Government funding to ensure ten years of wildlife management at Arcot”

Sure enough, the Grasslands Trust gets to trouser £78,306.76 of agri-environment funds in a combined agreement for Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship for the 32ha of land, of which 27.18ha make up Units 2 and 3 of the Arcot Hall Grassland and Ponds SSSI (1). The golf course is Unit 1. It is of course because of the SSSI designation, and the currently unfavourable condition of Units 2 and 3 (2) that allows the Grassland Trust to apply for the agri-environment funding, and its not in the gift of the Government – “Government funding” – its solely in the purview of Natural England and its conservation agenda. It’s a win-win situation, because Neil Tulloch of Natural England, who probably negotiated the funding with the Trust, now gets to change his Condition Assessment Description of Units 2 and 3 of the SSSI from unfavourable no change (based on the cover of scrub as a negative indicator) to unfavourable recovering, and the conservation industry gets the satisfaction of another "job" well done even before it has started.

I wonder what’s going to happen to the woodland on Unit 3, which is shown on the National Inventory of Woodland and Trees mapping to cover about two-thirds of the 7.57ha of this Unit. Surely that is an inconvenience to this “largest area of lowland species-rich unimproved grassland in North East England”. Knowing the dogma of Common Standards Monitoring (CSM) guidance for open habitats, it is likely to be sacrificed in the cause of this “grassland”. But let’s not forget that the notification for the whole of the SSSI has this (3):
"The intricate mosaic of habitats and the occurrence of all stages of ecological succession from open water to woodland are particular features of the site"

I could be wrong about the threat to the woodland as Units 2 and 3 of the SSSI are classified for the features of Standing open water and canals, which makes sense when Unit 2 has a huge pond (lake?) that probably takes up 40% of its area. The CSM guidance for both Standing open water and Canals says nothing about trees or scrub away from the water features (4). Except that Mr Tulloch doesn't even mention these water features in the condition assessment, but instead assessed Units 2 and 3 for MG5 Cynosurus-Centaurea grassland (2) a classification in the National Vegetation Classification for a community associated with neutral, well-drained permanent pastures and meadows of anthropogenic origin (5). There are around 400 SSSIs in England with MG5 Cynosurus-Centaurea grassland (5) and since Unit 1 – the golf course – is classified as Neutral grassland – lowland (2) then this is probably one of them. Chillingly, the CSM guidance for lowland grassland says (6):
“As a generic standard, woody species and bracken together should be at no more than 5% cover”

So, the Grassland Trust has taken on an area of land that has significant woodland coverage and a whacking big pond, and is going to manage it as grassland. But then I find that the BAP priority habitat on all three Units in the SSSI is mapped as heathland (1) even over the pond. No mention of heathland in the story, but then it is the Grassland Trust! The conservation industry just makes it up as they go along.

I wonder - do NGOs go around looking for pay days like Arcot Hall Grassland and Ponds SSSI because of the agri-environment money that will inevitably follow from the SSSI condition assessment?

(1) Nature on the Map, Natural England

(2) Condition of SSSI units, Arcot Hall Grasslands and Ponds SSSI, Natural England

(3) Arcot Hall Grassland and Ponds SSSI

(4) Common Standards Monitoring Guidance for Freshwater Habitats and Species, JNCC 2005

(5) The European context of British Lowland Grasslands.  JNCC Report, No. 394, 2007

(6) Common Standards Monitoring Guidance for Lowland Grassland, JNCC 2004

11 June 2011

Wildlife is threatened by experts, Wigan Today 19 January 2011

The heavy handedness of the conservation industry looms large in the many complaints of local people when confronted with evidence of the industry’s overweening approach to nature conservation. As a first example, reported recently, what started out as a clear-up of path-side woodland prompted three years ago by Kendal resident Chris Walker, turned instead into a nightmare when the conservation dogma kicked in and the woodland got managed. At first, Walker was pleased when the volunteers from Cumbria Wildlife Trust and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) came to clear rubbish, but then according to the local paper “Natural England decided to coppice the woodland because elm trees were getting too high” (1)

Did they really? Why would Natural England be involved with a small area of isolated urban woodland next to a public path? Moreover, would they have given the height of the trees as a reason for coppicing when the usual dogma is about creating an artificial early successional stage in tree growth? Either way, Mr Walker was not happy:
“My understanding of coppicing is not what they have done. They have devastated the area and left it in a mess. It looks even worse than it did when we started this process three years ago”

The newspaper report doesn’t tell us who did the coppicing, but who ever sanctioned it seems to be seeking protection against criticism by hiding behind the authorative voice of Natural England. Never mind that coppicing has a similar environmental impact as clear-felling woodland. It is a drastic change from woodland to open landscape conditions, such that many small mammals will have immediately lost the cover that they have been dependent on. The intention usually is that this artificial early successional tree growth will attract woodland edge species and stimulate growth in light-demanding plant species, but it will be at least 3-5 years before this will have an effect and any of the disruption begins to be reversed.

The classic symptom of the dogma of the conservation industry is that they don't see the devastation that this heavy-handed management creates. Thus it was defended by Kendal Town Cllr. Tom Clare, who told the Westmorland Gazette:
“It’s part and parcel of woodland conservation. This is standard procedure – this is just part of the process, unfortunately”

It was Cllr Clare who also comprehensively patronised Mr Walker in a letter, after he had complained to the Town Council about the coppicing. Cllr Clare said that the situation would be reviewed in spring to see how wildlife was developing at the site and whether new plant-life was required. What new plant life? The letter continued:
“One of the principle issues you expressed concern about is how unsightly everything looks, but this is often the case immediately after such work – indeed, Natural England often get similar complaints from residents living near to sites where they carry out similar operations”

That’s alright then. But its not, is it? A bit of simple digging revealed that Cllr Clare is Chair of the Environment and Highways Committee of the Town Council, as well as a member of the Environment Task Group of the South Lakeland Strategic Partnership, and it would appear that this was a pet project of the local conservation industry “to improve and interpret the small woodland” (2). That improvement turned out at a meeting of the Environment Committee in November 2009 to be coppicing, but the extent of gardening for nature of this woodland went further when it was agreed that the coppice area be planted in the future with plugs of wildflowers (3). So that’s what the plants are - light demanding species of the sort that usually exist along the base of hedges rather than inside woodland. The funding for the work was approved at a full council meeting when £2,195 was allocated “to enable BCTV to improve woodland management and improve bio-diversity” (4). I wonder if tenders were sought for the work? It is usual practice for sums of that order, but then perhaps Cllr Clare had another psychic exchange with Natural England, and it was Natural England that decided that BTCV should get the work.

A second example, and the story of the headline, blew up in my face as the enormity of what was behind it became apparent. At issue are objections from angry residents that a wildlife corridor near Wigan was going to be trashed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust. The Trust wants to clear trees and vegetation, and then put in a road surface on a 1km length of disused railway track so that access for heavy plant machinery can be gained along it to a reserve. However, local people value the natural regeneration that has taken place since the last narrow gauge train ran 50 years ago, and believe that it has become a nature reserve in its own right. Thus local Cllr. Eddie Russon, of Abram ward, is against the clearance because it would cause a significant loss of wildlife habitat:
“The linear nature of the site means it acts as an important wildlife corridor into the nature reserve site because it is completely overgrown these days with mature trees and bushes”

Local farmer Bernard Lillis, of Balmers Farm, who has encouraged and protected wildlife on the railway route for the past quarter of a century said:
“My neighbour, who owns the land concerned, has allowed the old line to become overgrown with trees and bushes, which has created the perfect wildlife corridor to harbour many rare species including bats”

Makerfield MP Yvonne Fovargue looked to the future and foresaw a return to the difficulties for the reserve from anti-social behaviour if the wild saplings, brambles and bushes were cleared:
“The existing vegetation prevents access to the area at the moment and provides the wildlife and natural surroundings with protection. But the access road would expose the area and encourage destructive elements”

So what is this reserve, and why does the wildlife trust want to get heavy machinery onto it? The article reports Mark Champion of the wildlife trust as saying that the reserve is “in an unfavourable condition and requires management to improve its status”. The management proposed by the wildlife trust to overcome this unfavourable condition is:
“grazing by specialist cattle to discourage grass and encourage reed bed development, along with re-profiling ditches and improving the hydrology of the site with heavy earth-moving equipment within the meadows area”

Champion warned that if the work doesn’t take place the site will continue to decline and birds will fail to colonise the area as the wetland continues to dry out.

It took me a little while to find information about this reserve, as the name given in the article of Lightshaw Meadows SSSI doesn’t exist. The reserve in the article is on Unit 2 of the Abram Flashes SSSI, designated in 1990. This and the adjacent Unit 1 are areas of farmland in which there are shallow open water-bodies formed through the flooding of the land when it subsided because of deep-mining activities. These artificial open waters and surrounding wet grassland attract a range of breeding waterfowl, as well as waders and fenland birds, and are a primary reason for designation (5). It is the case that Unit 2 is regarded by Natural England to be in “Unfavourable condition” but the reasons given are (6):
“Inappropriate weed control, Overgrazing: …over grazing has resulted in the loss of 0.7 ha of reedbed and swamp within unit 2….. lack of management of non native weeds ……Invasive non-native species should be absent …Impatiens glandulifera was observed all along the banks of hay brook within this unit and occasional-to-frequent occurrence within the S4 reedbed and S28 swamp”

So the “specialist cattle” that Champion intends to enlist will solve the problem of OVERGRAZING and the loss of reeds, and the heavy earth-moving machinery is obviously needed to clear the Himalayan balsam! Perhaps it may also help the wildfowl interest if the intensive shooting by two organised shoots during the open season was stopped (7).

There had to be more to this story than in the newspaper report, and it turns out that a massive amount of Heritage Lottery money is involved, paying for a massive intervention on the reserve. In a chain of intermediaries worthy of an overseas tax scam, over half a million pounds was granted to Community Forests Northwest (CNFW) last March (8). CNFW is a charity that supports the three community forests in the NW, and it is the Red Rose Forest, along with Lancashire Wildlife Trust that will use the grant to purchase about half of the area of Unit 2 of the SSSI, locally known as Lightshaw Meadows, and "develop” it as part of the green infrastructure to the SW of Wigan. Lancashire Wildlife Trust (LWT) already own Unit 1 of Abram Flashes, bought in 2009 from funding provided by Natural England through its Wetland Vision scheme (9). How these wildlife trusts build empires on the back of public funds!

It is claimed by Red Rose Forest and LWT that “a lot of work is needed to restore Lightshaw Meadows back to its ‘wet grassland' habitat” (10). They allude to some previous time in history when everything was perfect in this artificial wetland landscape, blaming agricultural use for making the wet grassland “much drier than it would naturally have been”. Natural? How can a wetland resulting from subsidence from coal mining be natural? Then they say that work is needed over the next three years to restore ditches within the site and create ponds and scrapes. Chillingly, the restoration will be for the “benefit of key habitats and species listed on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority List”. This sounds like a massive intervention, publicly funded, and fulfilling every wet dream of the conservation industry in confirming their prowess at gardening for nature. If you look at the landscape masterplan that was used to support the lottery bid, then the degree of the gardening becomes clear to the extent that the development will be more in keeping with an amenity park than a nature reserve (raised viewing area, viewing screens through an earth bund?!) – but it will have a cattle crush and, of course, the obligatory conservation grazing by cute-looking "specialist cattle" (11). Apart from that, it looks like they have some deluded notion that they will be able to emulate the nearby Pennington Flash Country Park “the jewel in the county's birding crown and remains one of the top birding locations in the north-west of England” (12).

It seems that the wild area of the disused rail line is to be sacrificed to the grandiose ambition of the conservation industry and the stonking funding that allows them to play with heavy machinery. I leave the last word to northandsouth in a comment left on the article:
“The same trust wrecked a place near Southport with their know it all attitude. The place once had loads of waders and now there is nothing because of their intervention. They should know, Nature Knows Best”

(1) Coppicing left Kendal wood 'in a mess', Scott Kirk, Westmoreland Gazette 29th December 2010

(2) A new vision for Kendal’s parks and public open spaces. Kendal Town Council, SLDC, CCC, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Environment Agency November 2008,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,28/Itemid,83/

(3) Parks and Public Spaces, Kendal Town Council Environment and Highways Committee, 23rd November 2009,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,131/Itemid,83/

(4) Heron Hill Woodland, Kendal Town Council, 7th December 2009,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,124/Itemid,83/

(5) Abram Flashes SSSI, Natural England

(6) Abram Flashes - Unit 2, Natural England

(7) Abram Flashes, Manchester Birding- Birds, birders and birding in Greater Manchester

(8) £539,000 to conserve Lightshaw Meadows, Heritage Lottery News 22 March 2010

(9) Abram Flashes, Lancashire Wildlife Trust

(10) Lightshaw Meadows Evening Nature Walk, Red Rose Forest 7 June 2010

(11) Lighshaw Meadow Landscape Masterplan, TEP 30 November 2009

(12) Pennington Flash, Manchester Birding- Birds, birders and birding in Greater Manchester

30 January 2011

'Extinct' roaming red deer protect Pirbright heathland, BBC News Surrey 24 November 2010

This is a story for which the word irony was invented. It is the usual “good news” about how a wildlife trust has reintroduced grazing to a heathland site so that it keeps invasive scrub and coarse grasses under control and from threatening the habitat”

Such nonsense is going on all over southern England, often on the back of funding from Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) subsidy, and is the target of much of my ire about the conservation industry (1). But what marks this story out is that the grazing project is not based on the use of domestic livestock, such as sheep or cattle, but on the re-introduction to the heathland area of a native wild animal – the Red deer. The article tells us that Red deer became locally extinct more than 200 years ago, and I must agree with James Adler, the grazing manager of Surrey Wildlife Trust, that:
"To see the first red deer for 200 years walking across this stunning landscape is incredibly moving”

I may also say, like my colleague who so magically documents their existence on Blacka Moor near Sheffield (2,3), that Red deer are very much part of a wild, natural landscape, and their presence and influence as wild herbivores is ironically always overlooked by the conservation industry. They prefer the more devastating command and control approach to “nature conservation” of fences and domestic livestock. It seems sometimes, that they just want to cover the whole of our landscapes with cow dung.

Thus you can imagine my surprise on reading this news story that it seemed that at least one wildlife trust had seen the light, shrugged off the dogma and ideology of their industry, and gone with an approach that has much more credibility in being part of a natural process. However, and here comes further explanation of the irony – this was the only choice open to them. Reading the wildlife trust press release (4) we find out that because of the years of military training on the 11.2 square kilometres of Pirbright Ranges, the options of clearing native woodland regeneration (the “invasive scrub”) with machines, burning, or grazing with domestic livestock, are all ruled out by the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

Instead, we are told that a group of partner organisations that included Natural England, the RSPCA, British Deer Society, the Deer Initiative, Forest Research, and Defence Estates has been working with Surrey Wildlife Trust since 2006 to find a solution to the “long term management” of the area. All those minds and it still took four years to come up with the idea of reintroducing Red deer.

Unfortunately, the Red deer on Pirbright Ranges will not have the autochthonous free living of those on Blacka Moor. We are told that a full risk assessment was carried out on the welfare of the deer by “recognised experts” and that “deer management” – that’s culling deer to you and me - will be undertaken by “qualified” members of Defence Deer Management, the MOD’s management system for wild deer found on the Defence estate (5). An additional intrusion into their free-living is that several of the deer will wear GPS/radio tracking collars so that their every move can be monitored.

I looked up the distribution of deer in Surrey, and there are records of both Red and roe deer close to, if not on the heathland around the Pirbright Ranges already (6). Fallow deer, a non-native that is in greater numbers in the south than Red deer are also close by. Thus I’m not sure why Red deer are being “re-introduced” unless they have long been fenced out of the Ranges.

The press release alludes to some restraint on the Red deer just deciding they don’t like Pirbright Ranges, and wandering off somewhere else. It mentions a “main enclosure” of 740ha as their new home, about two-thirds of the heathland site on the ranges. If you combine that with the fact that there is a HLS scheme covering that enclosure area (an HLS scheme based on deer?!) then this looks just like any other grazing scheme on heathland that uses domestic livestock, the Red deer being just captive animals in another command and control exercise of the conservation industry. I would at this point usually tell you how many millions the grazing on this particular heathland site is going to receive in funding through HLS (could be 3 million) but the Natural England website Nature on the Map (7) is currently unable to provide this information. The cynic in me suggests that Natural England are avoiding scrutiny by covering up their use of HLS funding as the way they impose their agenda on landscapes.

In what has to pass as an astute comment on all this nonsense, the following popped up on the Surrey Wildlife Trust website when I clicked on the information link for heathland:
“The habitat you tried to access is invalid”

This is in juxtaposition to the evident excitement of James Alder, supreme amongst his peers in the conservation industry, who even got the “W” word into his sense of achievement in the press release in implementing another example of conservation industry dogma:
We are proud to have a sustainable conservation system up and running to safeguard the future of this unsurpassed southern wilderness and its wildlife”

Granted, many military training areas have a distinctly different landscape feel compared to most, and that is because their primary purpose is not farming. But to say that Pirbright Ranges is a wilderness is the usual hyperbole of people who have no real value system for wild nature. As it happens, I was at a conference in Brussels recently where there was a presentation from the Foundation for Natural Landscapes in Brandenburg, Germany. Set up 10 years ago, the Foundation bought three ex-military training areas south of Berlin that they are restoring to wilderness, and with a range of public trails (8). At their 10th anniversary meeting last May, they agreed a wilderness resolution for Germany – the Potsdam Resolution – in which they define wilderness as (9):
“Large, largely unfragmented areas free from human influence and that can therefore develop freely”

Pirbright Ranges is publicly owned land, albeit presently without public access. Perhaps one day, it too may be restored to wilderness with public access, but this will never happen under the dogma of the conservation industry in Britain.

(1) Heathland madness – the juggernaut of nature conservation, Self-willed land

(2) How Dear are Deer to SWT, and Nigel? Blacka Moor 13 October 2010

(3) Spelling It Out, Blacka Moor 19 October 2010

(4) Red deer roam ranges to protect Pirbright heathland, Surrey Wildlife Trust News November 2010

(5) Deer management on the Defence Estate, Defence Factsheet, MOD

(6) National Biodiversity Network's (NBN) Gateway

(7) Nature on the Map, natural England

(8) Stiftung Naturlandschaften Brandenburg (Foundation for Natural Landscapes in Brandenburg)

(9) Potsdamer Resolution Wildnis (Potsdam Resolution on Wilderness) Stiftung Naturlandschaften Brandenburg May 2010

26 November 2010


Red deer roam ranges to protect Pirbright heathland, Natural England Press release 18 November 2010

My thanks to the Blacka Moor blogger (1), who picked up on the Natural England press release that was issued for this story. While it pretty much says the same as the Surrey Wildlife Trust News, the photograph accompanying it is of a group of Red deer on Pirbright Ranges, and it shows that each one has either a yellow or blue ear tag. In addition, in the Notes to Editors of the Natural England Press release, it says that an 18km long security fence was constructed around the range during the 1980’s. You can gauge the height of this fence from the photograph shown in a story about a fire on the ranges earlier this year (2). It is at least 2.5m tall and has a coil of barb wire topping it. This would have been sufficient to have stopped any wild deer getting in to the ranges since the 1980's, and it will of course stop the Red deer from getting out that Surrey Wildlife Trust put in this enclosure.

The ear tags could suggest a number of things: some ear tags that can be used with deer contain a VHF transmitter so that the animal can be radio-tracked (see above), but the size of these tags suggests that they are more likely for identification purposes either in studies of their movement, or more likely because these animals were derived from farmed Red deer, and are being kept on Pirbright Ranges as farmed deer (3) and not wild deer. The latter would be consistent with the full risk assessment that was carried out on the welfare of the deer before they were "re-introduced" (see above).

Putting all this evidence together explains how the scheme appears to have attracted a whacking great HLS payment. Its just another heathland grazing project, but using Red deer as the captive grazers rather than domestic livestock. This is not a successful re-introduction of Red deer 200 years after they were locally extinct, but the nauseating self-justification of the conservation industry goes on and on. I suppose I should also ask the question of why Red deer are suitable on the Pirbright Ranges as farmed animals but not sheep and cows. Could it possibly be that SWT consider there will be less outcry if a Red deer was injured by unexploded ordnance?

(1) Incomprehensible, Blacka Moor 28 November 2010
(2) Alarm over uncontrolled fire on Pirbright Ranges, Rusell Butt, Staines News 21 May 2010
(3) Animal Welfare: Codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock – Deer, DEFRA

29 November 2010