Nature grooming - the killing of wildness in nature

The bizarre things that do go on

Aren’t we killing off the wildness in nature, when we kill these feral goats?

The BAP threatens the concept of wildness itself

ADDENDUM -  May 2007

Changing face of Ashdown Forest

ADDENDUM -  Jul 2007

Ashdown Forest Action Group

I struggle to find an apt allusion for nature conservation in Britain, only to always return to a sickening vision of a conservation professional cutting the throat of a fox while telling the poor animal that its death is for its own benefit. This may not be a true event, although in light of some of the bizarre things that do go on, you should never say never.

If it seems that I am constantly maligning conservation professionals, then believe it because I’ve always had it in for people who I think should know better, whatever their profession. Farming gets short shrift from me as well, but then it does set out openly to protect livelihoods at all cost, and so it’s not a question of hypocrisy in their case if they exterminate everything in sight, just straightforward immorality. In addition, and often connected to the latter, is this wonderful notion abroad in game shooting and sport fishing interests that only through their diligent management are the objects of their blood lust conserved (1). Never mind the collateral slaughter of any challenge to that conserved supply of moving targets, such as foxes and the illegal massacre of avian predators such as raptors and cormorants.

It thus seems to me that it is only a short distance from the farmer, through the game keeper and on to the conservation professional. I have already explored the issue of the RSPB shooting foxes at their Abernethy reserve and their forming of arrangements with wildfowlers on their wetland reserves. Stories such as this are arriving daily, as more of our so-called conservation organisations are put in the frame and exposed.

The bizarre things that do go on

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) got their public humiliation when Scottish Natural Heritage announced that they were reducing the annual grant they gave for conservation management at the Mar Lodge estate by the equivalent amount that the NTS spent on providing grouse shooting facilities on the estate. Quite rightly, there was anger that public money was being used by the NTS to host country sports and for rearing birds for shooting. Many found it a distasteful contrast to the NTS’s attitude towards other native birds on the estate when they boast of recreating natural habitat for the black grouse, the capercaillie and the Scottish crossbill (2). More on black grouse later.

The National Trust in England also tripped up and got egg on their face recently when they ordered the slaughter of feral goats that they had introduced last October as conservation grazers on one of their heathlands on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Heathland conservation is the huge, shiny merit badge winner for conservation professionals in Britain, and the dumb approaches associated with it cause probably the most aggravation. More of this as well.

Those canny feral goats were not going to be penned in on that heathland by any fence, and got out to look for more interesting grazing. The response of the local population forced the National Trust to round up 15 of the goats, and when they escaped again they were shot. The National Trust soon had to apologise after the culling when many animal welfare campaigners accused them of not trying hard enough to find an alternative solution, and various animal centres said they would have happily taken them in (3). You wonder what the NT was doing in the first place, by relocating what were essentially animals used to being wild and living free, and expecting them to stay put.

The culling of feral goats is, along with the slaughter of both urban and rural foxes, a potent indicator of our attitude to bothersome wildlife. I have written before of the contradiction of the Valley of Rocks feral goats near Lynton in Devon. Praised for years as a tourist attraction, they become a cull-able nuisance when they chomp up gardens. Sad to say, I have to report that somebody tried to poison the Lynton goats in March this year when a pile of apples left near a shelter the goats use was followed a few days later by 12 green peppers filled with a mixture of caustic soda and rat poison (4). Having commissioned the cull of 15 large billie goats two years ago, the local council has this month announced another cull (5).

Feral goats in Wales fare no better from the sharpshooters. A meeting was called last August by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) the Snowdonia National Park Authority and the National Trust, to plan for a cull of feral goats in two areas of the national park. The decision was to monitor further the Nant Gwynant and Beddgelert area, but to go ahead with an autumn cull in the Rhinogydd area above Harlech (6). Well, this announcement is slightly disingenuous. I’ve seen those feral goats in the Rhinogs and been surprised how little impact they seem to have on the upland vegetation. I listened to a CCW worker over a year ago boast about feeding them during the winter to persuade them to stay up in the hills and away from gardens, and he admitted that they took it upon themselves to cull them anyway.

Aren’t we killing off the wildness in nature, when we kill these feral goats?

The goat doesn’t know it’s not a native animal, it just gets on living and breeding without the help of humans. The only potential restriction on their lives is the capacity of the landscape to support them because the adult feral goat lacks a natural, wild predator that would make some sense out of its death by eating it. Not for nothing did someone complain on the Times website in response to the article about the National Trust culling that I bet they weren't even eaten. What a waste.”

Waste has also cropped up as a criticism of the massive lowland heath project in Dorset that’s been receiving millions in lottery and EU funding in recent years. First some interpretation of the lowland heath: its an artificial, shrubby landscape born out of our economic use of often poor sandy soils to give us a range of products and potential harvests. Woodland that once covered the area was cleared thousands of years ago and re-growth prevented by grazing with domestic animals. The removal of nutrients in the form of crops and livestock impoverished the soil and made it acidic so that gorse and heath moved in. As well as the use for grazing, the vegetation and turf were cut to provide fodder, bedding, fuel and thatch. Once that economic use declines or ceases, wild nature takes over, the heather and gorse gets leggy, and woodland regains its place. Thus a heath cannot exist in stasis without our influence.

Unsurprisingly, the area of open lowland heath has diminished over the last century, reflecting its reduced importance in our economic living, but since many of the heaths in Dorset are commons (they can’t be fenced) and are close to major urban centres, they have developed a purpose instead as spaces for outdoor recreation and enjoyment.

Others have found value in the bonanza these open spaces have afforded to the proliferation of wild species: thus sand lizards and smooth snakes if you’re a fan of reptiles; the Purbeck mason wasp, silver-studded blue butterfly and the ladybird spider if invertebrates are your thing; and woodlark, stonechat, Dartford Warbler and nightjar if you are birdist. Because of the presence of these species, many of the heaths have attracted the designation of SSSI. And because of the decline of lowland heath, targets were set for its restoration and for the re-creation of new lowland heath in the national Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).

The BAP threatens the concept of wildness itself

Peter Marren, writing in his book on rare wildflowers reflected on the impact that a target driven action plan would have (7):
There is a new concern, which is evidently widely felt though seldom expressed publicly: that the envisaged level of intervention in the BAP may in some cases come to threaten the concept of wildness itself.”

Peter could have been talking about the Dorset heathland project because the scale of killing off of wildness has been huge. Thus the Hardy’s Egdon Heath Project, driven by Natural England, cleared some 1,000 hectares of mixed young woodland and scrub from different heathland sites. Five grazing projects were set up to reintroduce livestock for conservation grazing as a control against scrub and tree reinvasion. In other areas heather was cut and 48 hectares of gorse coppiced, while 204 hectares of bracken were cleared. Some 100 hectares of pine plantation were also cleared to re-create heathland areas (8).

The RSPB are quite cold in describing how they reclaim their own Dorset heathland sites: pine and birch (and presumably gorse) are cleared using chainsaws; heather is mown using a tractor and forage harvester; and bracken is controlled by treating it with herbicide spray (9). They give their Dorset heathland project prime billing as a case study in their report from 2001 on large scale habitat restoration entitled Futurescapes. The RSPB loves the BAP, as is shown by this report. The Species and Habitat Action Plans in the UK BAP bring with them funding and provide a justification for the RSPB land management practices that more often than not are a farmification of the landscape. To them the BAP target of 6,000 hectares of recreation of heathland by 2005 was peanuts, and thus they are shooting for 32,000 ha by 2020 (10).

All good news if you are a conservation professional, but other eyes have been able to pick up on the flaws in the Dorset heathland project, especially the wasteful aspects of it. An appraisal of sustainability by the Forum for a Future notes that no provision had been made to make use of the tree, gorse and heather clearings, which could have found use in wood fuel systems in community heating schemes, rather than be burnt on site or just left. The language of their criticisms is measured, such as when they advocate a reduction in use of energy hungry heavy machinery, but even they must have been shocked by the use of helicopters to spray herbicide on the bracken, when with more humanscale techniques, it could have been cleared and composted from some areas. They also noted that the herbicide spray was killing off ecologically important fern species.

Perhaps their most damning criticism is that the Dorset heaths project appears to lack a shared, locally agreed long term vision and overall plan for multiple land use and resource protection, in spite of the fact that it has received Heritage Lottery funding and EU Life funding. They allude to the fact that the project has more to do with the aspirations of conservation professionals than it does to the local population, and indicate the tensions that have existed (11):
“It is proving difficult to achieve consensus with local residents and landowners in urban and some urban fringe areas about the best ways of managing the heathland, e.g. some people don’t want trees removed or fences put up, they don’t want to see any changes.”

Conservation professionals are not big on accepting criticism, and so their voice comes through in the appraisal report when it is suggested that the resistance to tree clearance on some sites is due to a vocal minority, or from people who have only recently moved to live near the heathland – this in spite of the fact that it is known that some local conservationists are content with the land as it is.

The contempt is further shown in a recent story in the Dorset Echo (12). The Parish councilors of Hurn and Christchurch cllrs have objected for a second time to a plan by Dorset Wildlife Trust to cut down 5,000 pine and birch trees on Sopley Common so that it can be restored to heathland. The Hurn councilors have accused the wildlife trust of having a "cavalier attitude" because they have not been prepared to discuss their objections. Alastair Cook, a press spokesman for the Wildlife Trust played the SSSI card, hiding behind the designation to claim that there was a legal obligation on the Wildlife Trust as owners of the common to cut down the trees. He went on to say:
"As for being cavalier, it may be that our legal obligations do not allow us to negotiate with the parish council."

Not much hope there for a locally agreed long -term ‘master plan’ or landscape vision for the project! What depresses me most about all this is the awful destruction. Surely it is too late to want to re-impose some notion of nature for the species that conservation professionals want to see when there is something quite unnatural in the clearing of often quite mature trees. It can’t be called nature conservation because it’s killing the wildness by chopping down the natural return of mostly native species. And this grooming of nature goes much further than just clearing trees. The Purbeck Mason Wasp requires exposures of clay and a ready supply of water, and also some Ecleris moth caterpillars which feed on the new shoots of bell heather and cross leaved heath. The heathland project has used a digger to create areas of bare clay and has groomed the nearby heather with controlled winter burning to encourage vigorous new growth. Is this nature grooming natural? Is it in any way wild?

I want to leave you with another example of nature grooming, this time from an RSPB press release about the habitat requirements of the black grouse. The black grouse is one of those examples of a species given particular attention in conservation circles so that it ends up being symbolic of the management prowess of conservation professionals and, yes, there is a Species Action Plan and targets for black grouse in the BAP (13). The news release reported on a study that made a link between falling black grouse numbers and the maturing of commercial forestry plantations as their canopy closed over the heather, blaeberry and other plants that provide food, shelter and cover for chicks (14). Black grouse do better in areas of birch and other native woodland and scrub, but Dr James Pearce Higgins, lead author of the study, points to a much wider range of habitat requirements for maximising numbers of the birds:
"We're not saying that extensive forest is necessarily a bad thing; but for black grouse to be successful demands a delicate balance to be maintained between several types of habitat. The ideal landscape for these birds contains a mix of heather moorland, rough grassland, wet flushes and open woodland or scrub.….. The challenge is to maintain the required mix of forest and moorland habitats within a commercially managed landscape”.

It’s a wonder that this bird ever existed in wild nature before we took to nature grooming and killing all the wildness.

Mark Fisher 23 April 2007

ADDENDUM -  14 May 2007

Changing face of Ashdown Forest

It is true that people often object to change as it discomfits them. Thus the criticism levelled at conservation projects is dismissed as being part of that generalised discomfiture, and that if people knew why the changes were being brought about, then they would support them. And yet it would be unwise of conservation professionals to be certain in this analysis, because the growing evidence against them is too consistent for it to be dismissed. The consistency is a product of the consistency of the contemporary drivers: a burgeoning voluntary sector conservation industry, fuelled by millions of pounds of national (lottery/landfill tax) and European money, and set in a framework of targets contained in the BAP plus the rigidity caused by the arbitrary indicators used to measure the condition of SSSIs.

I was prompted to write this Addendum by a news item that popped up only weeks after the writing of the article. Having researched the background to the news item, I find it is another example of the tensions that exists around conservation projects, and it illustrates the consistency of the drivers. Its about Ashdown Forest in the High Weald of E. Sussex, and it reports that the forest has become a place where dog walkers and nature lovers feel they have been “left out of the loop” (15).

At issue for the residents who regularly use the forest is the amount of gorse that is being cleared, the level of tree felling and, more recently, the re-introduction of sheep grazing, which they say is destroying the landscape. The residents are reported to feel they are “being patronised by never being told what is happening to the protected heathland” and that they are “becoming an inconvenience to the Conservators of the Ashdown Forest”.

The Board of Conservators are empowered by the Ashdown Forest Act of 1974 to manage the forest (16). They have recently benefited from a huge lottery windfall – more of which later – and Hew Prendergast, Clerk to the conservators, is reported to have said that some of that money would be used to fund a more informative visitor centre than they have at the moment. In a peculiar ending to the article, it says that the improved visitor centre “could either worry people further as being another scheme they had no idea about or it could be a turning point where the centre becomes a place where residents can reveal the hidden answers to their questions.”

Ashdown Forest is a big SSSI and Special Protection Area (SPA) of 3207ha, half of which is heathland, 40% is woodland and the rest is bog or mire. The Celts are credited with first exploiting the forest for its iron deposits, the Romans later clearing substantial parts of the forest and setting up iron and tile works. The area later became a royal hunting Forest, originally enclosed by a pale (boundary) in 1296. Rights of Common - grazing and cutting estovers (wood) - existing over the Forest have prevented re-forestation, such that on these soils of Hastings Sands, heathland replaced the cleared woodland.

Unsurprisingly, wild nature has taken advantage of this open heath landscape, and the SPA designation is for two bird populations judged to be of European importance: the Dartford Warbler and the Nightjar. The SPA data form highlights lack of management as a threat to the SPA site (17):
”Succession from open heathland to woodland is rapidly taking place and a lack of resources makes appropriate and sustainable management difficult.”

It goes on to say that the key vulnerability is the lack of grazing which is now being addressed through a Grazing Strategy by the Conservators:
”Obstacles to grazing include the need for fencing, constraints on dog walkers and other forms of informal recreation, the availability of appropriate stock and the fragmentation of the heathland blocks within the site”

Lets do some sums – there were 29 pairs of Dartford Warblers and 35 pairs of Nightjars adjudged as the reason for the SPA designation. Even if those populations double due to greater conservation efforts to maintain the open heath, then each bird still gets 6ha of an artificial habitat to support it.

On the money side, the Ashdown Forest will benefit from the £2m from the Landscape Partnership program of the Heritage Lottery Fund, given to the plan for the Weald Forest Ridge that will “enhance the area’s special habitats” and “reveal the hidden histories” (18).

The Ashdown Forest has been fertile ground for the RSPB as well. They received a fifth slice of the £2.4m Biodiversity Challenge Fund given out in June 2006 for their Heathland Restoration Across the High Weald project, and then bagged a further grant of £486,000 of Landfill Communities money to assist their land purchase of the 180ha Broadwater Warren site (19). Presumably, the RSPB will also benefit from the Heritage Lottery Fund money, as the citation for the grant to the Weald Forest Ridge proclaims:
Broadwater Warren … will become the largest heathland restoration project in the South East.”

It is no wonder that in the puff on the RSPB website about their “Inspiring work” (20) they can boast about the completion of a number of major land deals, including Broadwater Warren, and “all accompanied by cracking grants”. I have written before of the millions of pounds of lottery money that the RSPB have received over the years (£13m from the HLF). To that you can also add “Income ...... from Landfill Tax topped £10 million”.

Thus all the drivers are there for the killing of the wildness in Ashdown Forest that the local walkers have observed and then complained about. Given that these drivers are now common in many parts of Britain, isn’t it time for conservation professionals to reflect on how they have willingly gone along with the industrialisation of nature conservation - and without taking the local population along with them?

ADDENDUM -  23 July 2007

Ashdown Forest Action Group

Peter Crane, President of the Ashdown Forest Action Group and Chair of the Ashdown Forest Wildlife Protection Group, contacted me after he saw this article. The Action Group was formed to prevent further enclosure of the Forest and its grazing by sheep. Peter had seen this article and was surprised but relieved that someone who doesn't live near the Forest could come to similar conclusions as the Action Group.

Peter has set up an E-Petition on the 10 Downing Street website that calls for a public inquiry into the management of Ashdown Forest. The Conservators intend to enclose increasing areas of the commons that constitute the forest and graze them with sheep. The Ashdown Forest Action Group website shows a young dead deer entwined in the sheep fencing that went up with the initial grazing of the 100 acres of enclosure allowed under the 1974 Forest Act. Helpfully for the Ashdown Forest Board of Conservators, English Nature funded a report on a grazing action plan that envisages an increase of 1625 acres in grazing area, which would need consent for fencing as registered commons cannot be fenced. A key point in the summary of the grazing action plan is:
"There is some opposition to grazing, but there is much more opposition, both locally and nationally, to the fencing of commons. The question of how to demonstrate to the local neighbourhood (and beyond) that some fencing is necessary for the best management of the Forest should be left to public relations professionals. Money spent at this stage could defray the cost of a public enquiry when consent for fencing is sought."
(The authors emphasis!)

The Action Group believe the Board of Conservators is not acting in the public interest, but in the interest of conservation professionals and with the SSSI and SPA designation to hide behind. Hence the E-petition because the feeling is that the 1974 Ashdown Forest act does not reflect that the forest has been in public ownership since 1989, and that the management by the Ashdown Forest Board of Conservators is not open nor accountable. Moreover the public have no means of holding anyone to account as the 1974 act is outside of the jurisdiction of the English Standards Board and the Local Government Ombudsman.

(1) Against a tide of gloom, the salmon makes a comeback, The Times, 11 April 2007

(2) Anger at National Trust grouse shoots triggers withdrawal of public money, Scotland on Sunday 8 April 2007

(3) National Trust shoots troublesome goats, The Times 24 March 2007

(4) Poisoned peppers used in bid to kill herd of 100 wild goats, the Times, 21 March 2007

(5) Goat cull plan stirs things up like billyo at Devon resort, The Guardian, 7 April 2007,,2051980,00.html

(6) Feral goats to be culled in park, BBC News 17 August 2006

(7) Britain’s Rare Flowers, Peter Marren (1999) A & C Black ISBN 0-85661-114-X

(8) Hardy's Egdon Heath Project, Dorset County Council partnerships

(9) Why clear scrub? Dorset Heathland Project, RSPB

(10) Futurescapes: large-scale habitat restoration for wildlife and People, RSPB, 2001

(11) The Dorset Heathlands Projects: ‘Hardy’s Egdon Heath’ and Urban Heaths LIFE Project, South West Sustainable Land Use Initiative sustainability appraisal case study, Forum for the Future, October 2004

(12) Trust plans to fell trees opposed by councillors, Dorset Echo, 22 February 2007


(13) Species Action Plan - Black Grouse(Tetrao tetrix) UK Biodiversity Action Plan

(14) Can't see the grouse for the trees, RSPB Scotland News Release, 21 December 2006

(15) Changing face of Ashdown Forest, this is Kent 10 May 2007 this is Kent

(16) Ashdown Forest Act of 1974

(17) Ashdown Forest, NATURA 2000 Standard data form for Special Protection Areas

(18) Beauty spot boost, Landscape Partnerships, HLF press release 8 May 2007

(19) Grantscape – Funding for the Environment

(20) About us – Inspiring work, RSPB