Big areas for ecological restoration


An inevitable question that ecological restoration faces in Britain is where are the big areas in which it has a good chance of taking off? It is an easy obstacle that can be placed in front of its advocacy: you just know there is a smug complacency that it will be unanswerable in a largely privately-owned landscape where there will be an unwillingness to cede any space from perpetual exclusion of much of wild nature, or even any blame for that exclusion over history. Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley summed it up in an interview he gave last year. He was asked how the attitudes of land managers in Scotland could be changed so that they looked beyond just using their land for deer and grouse shooting – “Well, I suppose we could wait for hell to freeze over” (1). He thinks we should become more political, more willing to flex collective power in common cause, squeezing out the old regime. Land ownership is his key factor in the barriers to ecological restoration. Thus Crumley advocates state funding being used to assist land purchase for those that undertake the restoration and expansion of every native habitat, even to the extent that national parks should be publicly owned rather than by “fractious coalitions of often unwilling private landowners”

We don’t encourage lethal control

Crumley’s most recent book is about beaver as Nature’s Architect (2). I have yet to read it, but a review highlights his great fear about current reinstatement efforts in Scotland, that under pressure from landowners who object to trees being felled in the wrong places, the Scottish Government will one day “lose its nerve” and instigate a beaver cull (3). Well, that beaver cull has already been instigated by farmers, a recent news report documenting the slaughter of 21 of the beavers living in the wild in the Tay catchment since the end of 2012, their bodies having been discovered with gunshot wounds (4). A graphic depiction of the slaughter is provided in that article by a series of x-ray images showing one of the slain beavers peppered with buckshot. I noted the clamour for a cull among land owning interests immediately the Scottish Government announced in March 2012 that the Tay beavers would be left in place and monitored until the end of the official beaver trial in Knapdale in 2015 (5). Then and until today, the Scottish Government is always keen to emphasize that there is no legal protection for beaver, and it takes a certain supineness towards farming interests for David Bale, a Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) manager, to respond to the evidence of the slaughter with “We don’t encourage lethal control” (4). He doesn’t discourage it either, but then SNH hasn’t exactly acquitted itself at all over other measures that farmers have taken to deny beaver a foothold within the riparian landscape of the Tay catchment. The game was given away back in January this year by Adrian Ivory of Strathisla Farms at Meigle (6):
“I know some farmers have, out of desperation, cut down all the trees and bushes along the watercourses to deprive the beavers of building material — but it hasn’t really worked, because they have started pulling crops such as wheat out of the fields to make dams”

Step forward Peter Grewar, a farmer at Ardler who chairs the Meigle Burn Group, and who we will hear more from, but firstly this - “We are experimenting with removing trees, the beavers’ food source, from the banks of various reaches”((6) and see the two photographs in (7)). Grewar is also reported as saying “Any planned level of protection for beavers must be resisted”, a sentiment backed by Adrian Ivory, and with Ewan Pate, the reporter, opining that “agricultural havoc” would arise from giving beaver full protection (6). This is echoed by a spokesman for Scottish Land & Estates when he said “There is a need for robust management and sufficient controls to bring about balance between the natural and farmed environments”. Misleadingly, Pate throws in a misconception that European countries with a presence of beaver can operate a zoning system with “populations being licensed to develop unhindered in higher wilder country but strictly controlled in arable areas”. He was perhaps recycling second hand the oft quoted system in Bavaria where a presumption against beaver activity in sewage works is operated, and where they may disturb key flood protection systems, leading to their description as “no tolerance zones” and a recent advocacy for their use in beaver management in England if it becomes the case that they are formally reinstated after the River Otter trial in Devon (8). As is accepted in this approach, management does not always imply lethal control, and nor is it a system to avoid the inconvenience to farming activities, because it is not the intention of the strict protection given to beaver under the Habitats Directive (9). It would be difficult to see how such a zoning system based on agricultural inconvenience could be justified within its strictures, even if a member state sought to implement it through the much abused system of derogations. It is worth considering what the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has to say on options for resolving conflicts with beavers (10):
“Tolerance - People who learn to tolerate a certain amount of beaver influence on their land generally find that co-existing with beavers provides more benefits than perceived harm. In situations in which beavers are simply an inconvenience to landowners, tolerance is the easiest solution”

Astonishingly destructive action

The intolerance that has led to the slaughter of beaver in the Tay catchment is a symptom yet again of the hegemony of private land ownership in determining what may live and what should die, and how any excuse is pressed in justification. After torrential downpours in July, heavy flooding hit the village of Alyth in Perthshire, the Alyth Burn overflowing after fallen trees blocked a series of bridges (11). It did not take long before Peter Grewar sought to implicate beaver in that flooding even though it could quickly be disproved (12) and was officially discounted in a report of joint investigations by Perth and Kinross Council, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and SNH (13,14). Grewar, however, moved on from pinning blame solely on beaver to another attack on riparian vegetation under the guise of a “common sense” strategy to alleviate flooding (15). Grewar parroted the feeble assertion after the flooding of the Somerset levels (16) that the “faster the water leaves Alyth the less the water level will rise in times of heavy rain" (15). Thus he advocated that dredging should be used to remove loose material from the centre of the burn - "The cleaner the bottom of the burn the faster it will run”

It wasn’t just dredging because he also advocated removing all the trees on the banks of the burn – “Stumps should have holes drilled in them and glyphosate applied to prevent regrowth” (15). This is an illogical action in the context of flooding when trees increase water infiltration, and more enlightened land owners have recognised the value of naturally-formed leaky dams from fallen trees in slowing the flow in streams, and mimicking these in their own flood prevention measures (17,18). Thus large pieces of wood across a channel gather smaller branches and leaves that allow some water through, but slowing the movement of silt and sediment downstream. As I noted for the River Dove in Derbyshire, woody debris dams help create pools and riffles, providing a variety of habitats for fish and aquatic insects (19). I also speculated that that these large wood debris dams could arise in the River Dove if beaver were reinstated. Thus we can conclude that this nonsensical advocacy by Grewar of riparian deforestation has nothing to do with flooding, but is purely a subterfuge to continue the persecution of beaver habitat. The article notes that as well as being chair of the Meigle Burn Group, Grewar is also chair of the Kettins & Coupar Angus Burns Group through which he has “coordinated efforts to prevent flooding of farmland and settlements, notably Coupar Angus” (15). Fortuitously, someone took photos that document the extent of riparian deforestation along Coupar Angus Burn, as well as the appalling nature of the subsequent earthworks that have scooped out the burn, using the arisings to create a levee so that the burn is disconnected from its natural floodplain, another likely intent all along (19,20). It is no wonder that the person who took the photographs thinks the name should be changed to Coupar Angus Ditch!

It is this astonishingly destructive action that shows that SNH (and SEPA) has not acquitted itself over the measures that farmers have taken to deny beaver a foothold within the riparian landscape of the Tay catchment. This catchment, that includes Alyth Burn, is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) that is designated for, amongst other species, the otter (21). I have noted before that many of the SAC designated for beaver in the EU are also designated for otter (5) and thus it is not surprising that beaver have been doing well in the Tay catchment (22). However, the deforestation and dredging not only is purposely putting at risk beaver habitat, but also otter habitat such as “vegetated river banks” that are used for foraging, breeding and resting (23). The conservation objectives for the SAC require that the structure, function and supporting processes of habitats supporting the species are maintained in the long term and without disturbance (24). Unsurprisingly, “Agricultural operations” and “Water management” are seen as deteriorating pressures on otter presence (25). We can see a measure of the diligence of SNH in monitoring the disturbance of habitat by the fact that the last time the SAC was evaluated for otter was in 2004 (21). While the smaller water courses like Coupar Angus Burn may not be part of the SAC, they drain into the catchment of the SAC, and when the UK reports on the conservation status of the otter, as is required under the Habitats Directive, it is not just in the SACs but for the UK as a whole (26).

Having to row back centuries of absolute control exerted over our countryside, and consequent persecution and extirpation of species, is a blame and a burden that farming has to bear. It is a lesson that our farmers should be learning that, while the designation of SACs (and SSSI) was never intended to prevent the farming use of land, there is no free for all under the Habitats Directive for persecuting strictly protected species, that there are strictures on what persecution they can continue with, but it is also a lesson that our statutory agencies need to learn as they continually fail to implement the system with any integrity. It is perhaps a salutary if disturbing fact that while an attitude survey of European member States shows a level of public concern at 80% about the decline and possible extinction of animal and plant species, natural habitats and ecosystems in the UK, and with a similar level of commitment to a responsibility to look after nature, recognition of the Natura 2000 network – the EU system of designation under the Habitats Directive – is the lowest at 4% in the UK compared to other Member States (the next lowest are Germany and Denmark at 15%) and only 2% in the UK also know what the Natura 2000 network is (27). What this survey also showed was that 61% of people in the UK do not feel informed about the loss of “biodiversity”. As you would probably expect, I am unsurprised that very few are aware of the Natura 2000 network, understand it or its consequences, nor that they feel informed about loss of the natural world. I am convinced that this ignorance works to the advantage not just of farmers, but also the conservation industry, and it is not in the interests of our system of nature protection to have it any other way. Thus if you are repeatedly told by the conservation industry that the European system provides the highest level of protection (just one self-serving example (28)) even if you don’t know what that system is, what lengths would you go to question that, if no one else did?

A less persecuted space than farmland

The conflict in the Tay catchment tells us something about contemporary issues for reinstatement of former native species, or the redistribution of species persecuted into diminishing exile and refuge. The choice of Knapdale in the Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) Argyll Forest Park for the official beaver trial ducked many of the long term issues that the presence of beaver in the Tay catchment is able to address, once SNH capitulated to the opportunity it presented, including trialling systems for protecting trees and putting in submerged bypasses to dams (29). The FCS plantation area of Knapdale was never going to show how beaver could coexist with agriculture as there is an admission that it would only explore how beaver could co-exist with forestry operations and tourism (30). Thus the overwhelming reason for the choice was that it was probably thought to be a less persecuted space than farmland. In the same way, the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s (VWT) choice of a large area of conifer plantation owned by the Welsh Government and managed by Natural Resource Wales south of the Wye Valley, between Llangurig and Devils Bridge, for the recent release of pine marten, is also recognition of the same low persecution as well as the lowest risk of road mortality (31,32,33). This is even though it is recognised by VWT as "arguably unnatural forest" that has few potential arboreal denning sites, which have to be compensated for by having to provide secure artificial denning sites off the ground (31). So far, 16 adult pine martens out of a target of 20 for this year (and 20 next year) have been trapped on various areas of FCS land in Scotland under licence from SNH, driven down to the site in Wales, radio-collared, and released under permit from a holding pen after a few days recovery (32, 34). If you want a measure of the persecution that these pine marten may have faced if they had been released into farmed land, then ponder the grim discovery at the beginning of this year of 50 dead moles found strung along a livestock fence in N Wales, as though the perpetrator was displaying trophies (35). As you would expect, Stephen James, president of NFU Cymru, was quick to justify the slaughter – “It is important that farmers control mole numbers on farmland” although the RSPCA in this instance made an appeal for information - “Our inspectorate exists to investigate and tackle cruelty, and the RSPCA will become involved if there appear to be any offences committed”. You just know though that nothing will have happened, so entrenched is the tradition of slaughtering anything inconvenient to farming.

This is a terrible indictment that for two of our woodland associated mammal species, they have been plonked in to sub-optimal habitat for reasons of safety in the face of potential persecution - as has been shown by the failure of beaver at Knapdale to thrive compared to those in the Tay catchment (22). It would seem from the recent spate of consultation documents from the Lynx UK Trust (LUKT) that their intended reinstatement of lynx may face these woodland animals with a similar fate of sub-optimal habitat (36). A couple of observations first about the consultation: it was headlined as a “National Stakeholder Consultation” but drew a very limited approach to stakeholders as being organisations like “landowners, farmers, gamekeepers and conservationists” (37) - the usual suspects when it comes to ignoring the great disenfranchised masses that never get a say about their right to an inheritance of wild nature, nor will their voice likely be heard within the steering group that the Trust seeks to form from representatives of those organisations (amongst the online consultation questions in (36)). The second issue I have is with the emphasis on cost-benefit analysis in advancing a case for lynx reinstatement, quantifying as many of the “costs and benefits of a proposal in monetary terms as is feasible, including impacts for which the market does not provide a satisfactory measure of economic value” (38). This is a sop to bean counters and politicians and, while it does reveal the likely minimal impact that lynx predation of sheep will have, the strength of that conclusion is diminished when the potential release sites used in the analysis for England are conifer plantations on the Public Forest Estate (Kielder and Thetford) or have that as a significant presence (Grizedale in Cumbria) and thus not where there are concentrations of grazing sheep (39,40). Similar considerations apply to the two potential release sites in Scotland, of Kintyre with two FCS owned forests of the West Argyll forest district, and Aberdeenshire with four FCS owned forests in the Kincardine forest district (39, 41).

I have previously written about a scoping study for reinstatement of lynx in Wales that concluded that a main limiting factor was the lack of native woodland, and while there are significant areas of plantation woodland in Wales, the level of disturbance in plantation woodland, of clear felling and replanting, led the authors to believe that much of this woodland at any time would be unsuitable habitat for the lynx (42). There were also concerns in the study about the scarcity of roe deer in Wales by comparison with England and Scotland (43). The British Deer Society (BDS) have since published a report on aspects of the reinstatement of lynx in Great Britain after it was proposed that they could help control Britain’s burgeoning deer population (44). This report identified the issue of whether sufficient understorey vegetation is available in woodland as a measure of quality of habitat, noting that browsing by deer has reduced the density and cover of understorey vegetation in many parts of Britain. The report explained that lynx show high selectivity for microhabitat and require woodland with structural diversity, good availability of cover for stalking prey and dense thickets or undergrowth for resting.

It also had concerns about the suitability for lynx of dense coniferous plantation stands typical of British commercial forestry. While they did not tie the two, I would suggest that the sparsity of understorey vegetation in much plantation woodland is an indicator of it being sub-optimum habitat, not only for the structural elements required by lynx, but also for the availability of browse for roe deer. That is why, a few years ago, Steve and I used the deciduous woodland inventory of Britain to map higher native woodland cover so that we could find areas functioning ecologically as wooded landscapes that could offer the best opportunity for lynx reinstatement (42). The mapping picked out a large area of SE England, including E and W Sussex, Surrey and W Kent, the location in the SE presenting its own problem in having high human population density and which is accompanied by roads and traffic, although the implications of this have yet to be mapped. Thus the BDS report identified that vehicle collisions are the second most serious cause of mortality for lynx, the dense transport networks in central Europe causing high rates of traffic-related lynx mortality, especially among dispersing sub-adult lynx. This is not necessarily an absolute reason for ruling out areas for lynx reinstatement: FERUS in France suggests identifying potential "hot spots" on road and rail routes that must be equipped with appropriate wildlife crossings, giving examples for the Vosges in their national plan for lynx (45) and there is a European Handbook for designing solutions for the habitat fragmentation that is caused by transportation infrastructure (46). Nevertheless, the choice of plantation forests as release sites for pine marten by VWT (see above) and for lynx by LUKT would seem to be a strategy not only to avoid persecution, but also a means to overcome issues of conflict with traffic.

While the BDS report said it was clear that further work on habitat quality was needed, it also noted that good estimates of spatial variation in prey availability throughout Britain are currently not available, not something admitted in the consultation documents put out by LUKT. It concluded that the available evidence suggests that lynx do not actively select sheep or alternative prey available to them of rabbits, brown and mountain hares, woodland grouse, wildcat, red squirrel, red fox and pine marten as well as domestic pets, goats and reared game birds, but kill them when their preferred prey of roe deer is scarce (44). The report also indicates that to understand the potential impacts of lynx predation on roe deer populations, estimates of current roe deer reproduction and mortality rates are needed for proposed reintroduction sites, and which will allow for more accurate predictions of the size, density and viability of reinstated lynx populations.

Beyond our wildest dreams

A final observation I would make from the BDS report is a requirement for further work on the social acceptability of lynx re-instatement and, in particular, positive public and stakeholder attitudes in areas surrounding release sites, and over sufficiently large areas so that a viable population would be tolerated (44). VWT did hold community meetings on consecutive days in Llangurig, Devil’s Bridge and Pont Rhyd y Groes, three settlements that bound the plantation forest of the pine marten release area in Wales (31) and LUKT does say that once potential lynx release sites have been narrowed down, that further detailed consultations will take place at a local level around those plantation sites (36). This is getting away from solely consultation with the usual suspects, and note that the BDS report argues for both stakeholder and PUBLIC participation, but why aren’t we having a public debate about the use of publicly owned land, albeit plantation forest, for the official beaver trial in Scotland, the release of pine marten in Wales, and the possible re-instatement of lynx in Scotland and England? If these events are seen only to be able to go ahead because of their being on publicly owned land, unfettered by the prejudice and persecution that invariably accompanies private land, then we see a principle in how wild nature is better protected, as Jim Crumley would no doubt agree (see above) and which allows the expression of a public will for an inheritance of wild nature. What I have to ask now is, given the limitations that plantation forest presents for our native and former native woodland-associated mammal species, where is the really large area of native woodland in public ownership that could be a big area for ecological restoration, a location where we can be ambitious in restoring trophic levels and natural processes beyond our wildest dreams?

Mark Fisher 14 December 2015

(1) Where eagles dare, Susan Wright, John Muir Trust Journal No 56 Spring 2014

(2) Nature’s Architect, Books by Jim Crumley, Jenny Brown Associates

(3) Book review: Nature’s Architect by Jim Crumley, Roger Cox, The Scotsman 15 August 2015

(4) DAMBUSTERS: 21 Bavarian beavers shot dead in Scotland, Joe Stenson Deadline News 25 November 2015

(5) Tay beavers to stay free and living wild, Self-willed land May 2012

(6) Flood of concern over Tayside beavers, Ewan Pate, The Courier 27 January 2015

(7) Photos from Bob Beaver-boy Smith's post in Save the Free Beavers of the Tay, facebook 16 January 2015

(8) Beaver Management in Bavaria, Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust Blog 26 Oct 2015

(9) Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora

(10) Preventing Conflicts with Beavers, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

(11) The fright of summer: Flash floods, torrential storms and power cuts.. welcome to Scotland in July, Lucinda Cameron, Daily Record 18 July 2015

(12) The Alyth Flood, 17th July and afterwards. Paul Ramsay, Beavers at Bamff, 26 July 2015

(13) Flooding report clears Alyth beavers of blame, The Courier 6 October 2015

(14) Joint Agency Report on the Flooding in Alyth of 17 July 2015, Perth & Kinross Council, The Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage 18 September 2015

(15) Farmer wants common sense flooding strategy, Ewan Pate, The Courier and Advertiser 14 November 2015

(16) Flooding and cherry picking, Self-willed land February 2014

(17) Slow the flow, Shropshire Wildlife Trust

(18) Stroud Rural SuDS Project - Taster

The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland, Self-willed land January 2011

(19) The Strathmore Sentinel facebook 5 September 2015

(20) The Strathmore Sentinel facebook 18 September 2015

(21) Features, Site Details for River Tay Special Area of Conservation, Scottish Natural Heritage

(22) Coastal temperate rainforest - in Britain?! Self-willed land June 2015

(23) 1355 Otter: Lutra lutra Vertebrate species: mammals, Annex II Species accounts, Joint Nature Conservation Committee

(24) Conservation Objectives for River Tay Special Area of Conservation for Qualifying Species, Scottish Natural Heritage

(25) Otter (Lutra lutra), Feature Pressures, Site Details for River Tay Special Area of Conservation, Scottish Natural Heritage

(26) Conservation status assessment for Species: S1355 - Otter (Lutra lutra) Third Report by the United Kingdom under Article 17 on the implementation of the Directive from January 2007 to December 2012, European Community Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora (92/43/EEC)

(27) ATTITUDES OF EUROPEANS TOWARDS BIODIVERSITY, Special Eurobarometer 436, European Commission October 2015

(28) Defend nature, RSPB Campaign

(29) Tayside Beaver Study Group Final Report, 2015

(30) FAQ: What impact did the beavers have in Knapdale Forest? Scottish Beaver Trial

(31) Pine Marten Recovery Project April Update, Blog Archive, Vincent Wildlife Trust News 15 May 2015

(32) Pine martens arrive in Wales, Vincent Wildlife Trust News 29 September 2015

(33) Feasibility Assessment for Reinforcing Pine Marten Numbers in England and Wales, Jenny MacPherson, Vincent Wildlife Trust November 2014

(34) Pine Marten Recovery Project November Update, Vincent Wildlife Trust News 3rd November 2015

(35) RSPCA appeal after 50 dead moles are hung on fence 'like trophies', Josh Morris Daily Post 28 January 2015

(36) National Stakeholder Consultation on Trial UK Lynx Reintroduction


(38) White, C., Convery, I., Eagle, A., O’Donoghue, P., Piper, S., Rowcroft, P., Smith, D., & van Maanen, E. (2015), ‘Cost-benefit analysis for the reintroduction of lynx to the UK: Main report’, Application for the reintroduction of Lynx to the UK government, AECOM

(39) White, C., Convery, I., Eagle, A., O’Donoghue, P., Piper, S., Rowcroft, P., Smith, D., & van Maanen, E. (2015), ‘Cost-benefit analysis for the reintroduction of lynx to the UK: Site selection appendix’, Application for the reintroduction of Lynx to the UK government, AECOM

(40) Smith, D.J., O’Donoghue, P., Convery, I., Eagle, A., Piper, S., White, C. & van Maanen, E. (2015). Application to Natural England for the Trial Reintroduction of Lynx to England. Lynx UK Trust/Clifford Chance/University of Cumbria

(41) Smith, D.J., O’Donoghue, P., Convery, I., Eagle, A., Piper, S., White, C. & van Maanen, E. (2015). Application for the trial reintroduction of lynx to Scotland. Lynx UK Trust/Clifford Chance/University of Cumbria

(42) Lack of natural control mechanisms - the missing lynx June 2014

(43) Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) About wild deer, The Deer Initiative

(44) Milner, J.M. & Irvine, R.J. (2015) The potential for reintroduction of Eurasian lynx to Great Britain: a summary of the evidence. British Deer Society Commissioned Report August 2015

(45) Propositions de FERUS pour la définition d’un « Plan national de conservation du lynx en France » Septembre 2009

(46) Luell, B., Bekker, G.J., Cuperus, R., Dufek, J., Fry, G., Hicks, C., Hlavác, V., Keller, V., B., Rosell, C., Sangwine, T., Tørsløv, ˇ N., Wandall, B. le Maire, (Eds.) 2003. Wildlife and Traffic: A European Handbook for Identifying Conflicts and Designing Solutions. COST 341