Giving the bird to farmification

If the Guardian newspaper is anything to go by, then their flurry of articles on wildland over the last few months suggests that it is a notion that is breaking out from the idiosyncratic and peculiar, to become less challenging and more embraceable by the metropolitan elite. (1) A similar thing happened over the last decade with sustainability, a word hackneyed by its myriad definitions and by the too frequent examples of unconvincing use. Wildland could go the same way as sustainability, being corrupted in meaning to suit variable self-interests and ends.

The spread of sustainability amongst its more sincere aspirants was a process of action learning, self-discovery and realisation, often difficult for those dispossessed of land and having to make sense of sustainability in the meanness of hard-surfaced urban landscapes. Take away the ability of people to fend for themselves - to provide for essentials of food, fuel and fibre - and they become dependents, having to make the most of their restrictive surroundings while being reliant on distant processes for their survival.

Making the most of opportunities in urbanscapes gave rise to a new understanding of how natural processes are as significant to urban dwellers as they are to the rural manufactory. A whole systems approach was developed to assess the flow and circulation of raw and manufactured materials (resources) at all levels of use - individual, in local communities, and overall in towns and cities – and adapt their cycling and use to have lower ecological impact. This is an urban ecology in which nature and its resources are given more serious consideration, where many manufacturing and productive processes will have to be modified, many more products arising and being reused or recycled locally, new forms of technology developed, and many old habits altered or abandoned.

The resilience of human life in this urbanscape, not least in its spiritual and psychological health, is nurtured in the spaces in between the clamours and displacing activities that compete for our attention. The respite of the community, back of terrace or courtyard garden; pocket park; or some soft landscaping, provide the visual stimuli that modifies our perception of location and, removed from hard edges, we can often filter out the noises that would drag us back to an urban reality. Thus we strive now to embellish our urban locations with living things, knowing that a restoration of proximity to natural processes can fulfil an important human need.

In the process of assuming some measure of control over material and even spiritual flows - and thus in the shaping of urban futures - it is not hard to imagine that people may develop a view over the material flows arising where they have a less direct influence. You don’t have to be a farmer to have a view about how the greater part of your food is produced. Nor in how land in open countryside is managed - as an urban dweller, the ecological services of clean water and air are delivered in bulk through widescale processes in which everyone is a stakeholder, irrespective of the ownership of the land that generates those public services.

In reality, we don’t get to have much of a say over how a private landowner in open countryside makes use of their land. There is consumer choice over their products, the power of its targeting blunted by mass distribution systems. Then there is a “corporate” public will, when public funds through subsidy or project scheme grants are dispensed as inducements to meet attached criteria, and compliances that achieve some public output and benefit.

Sometimes that public benefit doesn’t have to be bought at a financial cost: the right to roam in England and Wales came about through a Governmental decision to restore open access to commons, heaths and moorlands, something that never, ever troubles the thought processes of a wild animal born to be free. Open access to coasts may also be gifted back to us soon, thus giving us more opportunity to observe natural processes in landscapes least affected by the extractive resourcism of the rural manufactory.

A few private landowners have tapped into this consciousness by recognising that restoration of an ecologically functional landscape is a rational use of land, if all land in private ownership has to ascribe to a useful purpose that is more than just human abandonment. Perhaps the one with the highest profile in terms of wildland restoration is the Glen Alladale Estate of Paul Lister in the Scottish Highlands. Lister made his money in manufacturing furniture, but has a personal enthusiasm for landscapes rich in charismatic wildlife, born out of his experiences of the gamelands of southern Africa.

The plan for restoring the original Highland ecology of this former hunting estate (23,000 acre) began on a small scale to explore the success of habitat recovery, with a replanting of native trees (saplings of juniper, willow, rowan, birch, aspen, Caledonian pine) and a reduction in grazing pressure through a culling of the local deer population. Red squirrel, wildcat, and wild boar will be reintroduced on a 1000 acre site, the aim eventually being to re-introduce these to the whole of the estate, along later with the wild grey wolf, lynx and brown bear.

The estate will be enclosed with high fencing to prevent release of carnivores into the wild, but the open access provisions that exist in Scotland mean that everyone can benefit from this restoration. It will be an opportunity to study how the re-introduction of wolves and other native predators in the longer term can restore a natural balance in the deer population without the need for further culling. Lister is seeking the co-operation of surrounding landowners to double the potential area of wild reserve to 50,000 acres. He believes that this area of land could support two wolf packs (12-15 animals in each pack), three pairs of lynx, and up to 30 bears.

In smaller scale, six European beavers were introduced to their new home on the 550 acre Lower Mill Estate of property developer Jeremy Paxton. The estate near Lower Cerney in Gloucestershire, has a housing development combined with an enclosed nature reserve within the Cotswold Water Park, the biggest man-made wetlands in Britain. Paxton has spent about £1million on the project, importing the beavers after capture in Bulgaria, and holding them in quarantine before their release in October last year. The beavers will act as a tool in the management of the 100 acres of willow woodland around the main lake.

It is to be hoped that it is not just the affluently blessed and land rich that get to dabble with this new plaything of wildland restoration. The public sector is represented, but not much by Government even though it holds considerable and various land in our trust. The voluntary sector of charities like the National Trust, Woodland Trust (2), various Wildlife Trusts, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) do more, and are ever expanding their landholdings.

The National Trust, like the RSPB, has hit on a rich vein of wetland restoration, buying up farmland next to their Wicken Fen reserve in eastern England. Wetland restoration is perhaps one of the more authentic natural processes that we can initiate, with moisture being a significant driving force for the return of native wetland vegetation. The National Trust also goes in for heathland restoration, although the authenticity of this is more questionable. In many locations, even on light sandy soils, heath is an unstable, artificial habitat that will revert to woodland, and this would be the case for their restoration of lowland heath on Purbeck farmland in Dorset. Perhaps more authentic would be their restoration of heath at Trehill Farm on the Pembrokeshire coast at Marloes.(3) Coastal heath is a characteristic of the land atop the cliffs of this coastline, the lack of soil and adverse climatic conditions maintaining a natural low-growing acid heathland community. It is significant that to drive the farmland adjoining these cliffs back to heathland from their long use for pasture and early potatoes, fertility has to be reduced by removing at least a foot of topsoil, and the years of liming have to be reversed by scattering sulphur, a waste product of the nearby oil refinery. The removal of fences as no longer needed field boundaries brings an open character to this farmland that is especially pleasing to see.

The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB are particularly active in the land market, buying up farmland and then tweaking it to maximize a few target species, using Biodiversity Action Plans as justification and a measure of their success. I have written elsewhere (3) that the Wildlife Trusts seem to specialise in what has been called the farmification of land, their management approach inevitably based on fencing-off to introduce grazing pressure by livestock herbivores, either big-horned or maned. I have to say that the RSPB’s aspiration for land, while sometimes similar in method, deserves a word of its own – birdification.

Birdification is perhaps forgivable when RSPB press releases trumpet the return to significant numbers of the marsh harrier and bittern on their various wetland reserves, because it also means that the landscape has probably regained its natural wetland vegetation. And yes, maybe we will feel more disposed to donate money to them for this achievement. But is the reversion of farmland in Wiltshire to chalk grassland as laudable? This is farmification as birdification, since the press release sentimentality over the seeding with chalkland wild flowers (which inevitably will be followed by fencing and livestock grazing) is but a context in which to maximise landscape conditions for stone curlews. It has nothing to do with a return of a natural vegetation to produce an ecologically functioning landscape.

I would not single out the RSPB here if it were not for their open and aggressive chasing of lottery money to fund their expansion of birdification. In an editorial in their membership magazine, the Chief Exec. details the millions of pounds of lottery money that they have received, and then fires a warning shot over any changes there may be in future distribution that would reduce their take of the funds. (5) Indeed as the strapline to the editorial says – Lottery Winners: Birds and People. But are the winners just to be the members of RSPB and their beloved stone curlews? Is it just for the bird watchers of Britain? Should our landscapes bought with public money be bird farms, or should there be a wider aspiration for a return of wild nature?

We should put ourselves in the position of the land-dispossessed urban dweller, who makes the most of the resources that an urban ecology provides, and perhaps is sighing in resignation that they don’t get much of a say in how land is used that, if given the chance, could have a significant impact on their life. Isn’t it time that they got a say – you got a say - when the RSPB receives £933,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and £175,000 from landfill tax to buy a farm in Wiltshire to farm stone curlews? (6)

Mark Fisher, 7 June 2006

(1) Articles from the Guardian:

Return of the native, Owen Bowcott, 30 December, 2005

Green groups are increasingly buying farmland to return it to vanished wilderness.,13369,1675287,00.html

Return of the native, Paul Evans, 19 April, 2006

Continuing resistance in the UK to the reintroduction of species such as the beaver contrasts with projects in the rest of Europe where the benefits for the eco system have quickly been realised.,,1755973,00.html

Daunting prospect, Madeleine Bunting, 24 May 24, 2006

Grazing sheep help keep down the cost of maintaining Britain's national parks. But cuts to farmers' subsidies mean flocks are shrinking, forcing a rethink on the management of our landscapes.,,1781219,00.html

(2) Woodland bid's 'stunning' success

A campaign to safeguard ancient woods in East Sussex has been "a stunning success", the Woodland Trust has said

(3) Addition of sulphur to agricultural fields to restore heathland, Trehill Farm, Pembrokeshire, Wales - Case Study 168

(4) Blacka Moor in peril from the conservation professionals, 18 December 2005

(5) The RSPB View, RSPB Members Magazine, Winter 2004

(6) New reserve at Manor Farm, Wiltshire, RSPB Members Magazine, Summer 2006