Losing wild nature to the decision of one person

ADDENDUM -Oct 2011 "Nature conservation” or “fishery purposes”? Clearance of water crowfoot in fishing rivers

It took the decision of only one person walking the 15.86ha of Winchester Meadows on a day in June last year to unleash the fury and discontent of 220 people who live in the nearby St Cross area. So much power vested in one person, and yet this is how we carry out nature conservation.

A tale of two water meadows

The Hampshire Chronicle ran an article in June that achingly contrasted the fate of two adjacent water meadows in the corridor of the River Itchen near Winchester (1). The more northerly water meadow is a reserve of the Hampshire and IoW Wildlife Trust, who has a whacking £1.3m, mostly from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to “turn back the clock” on Winnall Moors by chopping down hundreds of alder, poplar and willow and reintroducing cattle grazing. The vision is to return the water meadow to the mostly treeless state that existed in the 1930’s when agriculture sucked the vegetative life out of the landscape (2).

Two smiling trust workers are pictured in the Chronicle article (1), content in the knowledge that their mastery will re-impose the correct landscape, with 40% of the trees removed, cattle grazing reinstated, and the long, open views - much loved by the conservation industry - restored. Why is this the correct landscape? Because the same person who surveyed Winchester Meadows and condemned it as being in unfavourable condition (3), came to the same conclusion for Winnall Moors (4). These water meadows are units notified for “Fen, marsh and swamp” and “Neutral grassland – lowland” in the extensive River Itchen SSSI. The Common Standards Monitoring guidance for units of this type specify that they should have less than 10% and 5% tree cover respectively (5, 6). Thus Rue Ekins of Natural England decided that both water meadows had too much scrub and were in need of grazing.

These are the landscape micro-management opportunities that Wildlife Trusts live for, the justification for their existence, and the means with which to obtain the funding like HLF and Higher Level Stewardship that enables them to build empires. As the Chronicle article notes, there had been no outcry at the felling of trees on Winnall Moors as few people live nearby and access is not universal. The situation is however different at Winchester Meadows. Winchester College, the owners, faced with the unfavourable condition report, drew up plans for a similar tree-felling exercise. Once the plans were out, the criticism began. A Dr Chris Dixon of nearby Kingsgate Street, wrote a letter to the Chronicle, saying that it was the worst idea to “restore” the water meadows to their condition in the 1930s (7):
"In the 1960s the college very sensibly decided that removing the cattle and providing a wildlife sanctuary was the right thing to do. Cutting down all the trees and shrubs, fencing off two large areas north of Garnier Road with three strand barbed wire and grazing cattle in the enclosures, will have a devastating effect on the surroundings. The insects and invertebrates the current vegetation supports, allow a huge variety of wildlife to live there"

Dr Dixon has a dim view of the predominantly agricultural landscape that lies to the south of Winchester meadows, where the effect of livestock on the land can be seen for miles: “It is featureless and unattractive, with far less of the wildlife we all enjoy so much”

The letter was a portent of what was to come from people living in the nearby St Cross area, moving city councillor Robert Sanders to predict widespread opposition as the college’s plans became better known. Local resident Keith Story explained his opposition to tree felling on the basis of the importance of the visual value of the trees, but it went deeper for him (1):
”Many people have an emotional bond, they love large trees and hate to see them taken down”

The extent of opposition is shown by the petition voicing concerns to Winchester College, and it had its affect. The college amended the proposals in the light of public reaction, with the intention of perhaps only 200 of the non-native trees being removed, followed by grazing with some 4-6 cattle introduced. Robin Chute, college estate bursar explained (8):
”We have listened to people and the proposals have been tempered. We will retain more trees in the Falloden area. The last thing we want to do is upset 200 people living on Kingsgate Road”

Mr Chute was perhaps mindful of the howls of protest in 2006 when St Catherine’s Hill, owned by the college but managed by the Hants and IOW Wildlife Trust, was at the centre of a previous row over scrub clearance and re-introduction of grazing due to a monitoring report of that SSSI by the very same Rue Ekins, saying that it was in unfavourable condition (see St Catherine’s Hill (9)). The reality of the SSSI system interjects though as Mr Chute then notes that in theory Natural England could force the college to remove more trees from Winchester Meadows, but that because of the objections, the College had “persuaded Natural England to tone down their wish list” (8)

The new proposals are to be presented at a meeting at the college in a few days time by an outside consultant, but someone from the wildlife trust will be there, as will Dr Ekins from Natural England, the latter two undoubtedly intending to bolster the proposals by saying how important and successful are the works at Winnall Moors, the water meadow to the North that is now under the heel of invasive management. As is the fashion with wildlife trusts, the Hants and IOW WT promote their Winnall Moors restoration as an opportunity to come and "meet the cows" now grazing the water meadows, as if Highland cattle are somehow an embellishment or enhancement for wild nature (10). They did the same with St Catherine's Hill when they encouraged people to attend their "Born To Be Wild" event there to mark their re-introduction of sheep grazing after a gap of many decades (11).

While the concessions on management works at Winchester Meadows may be of some comfort to the people of St Cross, it does not prevent the inexorable onslaught on our landscapes that the SSSI system imposes, and which undoubtedly will be revisited in full force on Winchester Meadows if not now then later. No one who protested at the felling proposals on White Moss in Cumbria are in any doubt that while Natural England have backed down for now, they will eventually come back at some point in the future with revised plans that may just spread the agony out longer (see Natural England withdraw felling application for White Moss (12)).

As with White Moss, it is very likely that much of the tree cover on Winchester Meadows, and in particular the line of wingnut trees (Pterocarya) were in place before its notification as a SSSI in 1984 (13). It is thus perverse some 25 years later to impose an "ideal condition" on the meadows that harks back to an agricultural past of the 1930s, especially when that past is not a certainty for Winchester Meadows based on the much lower content of drains and channels there compared to other areas of the River Itchen valley. Moreover, it is iniquitous to base the need for such interventionist management on a judgement of favourable condition, the criteria for which in Common Standards Monitoring have only been in place since 1999. As I have written before, this process of enforcing and maintaining land in a prescribed stasis is a "McDonaldising" of our countryside. Worse still, the pressures for our landscapes to comply with these recent standards is resulting in drastic actions "to turn back the clock", a level of abrupt devastation and damage that only the ideologues of the conservation industry are immune to.

Water crowfoot in the River Avon

Hampshire provides me with yet another example of one person’s decision having profound implications for wild nature. The River Avon System SSSI extends through three counties, but it is the Lower Avon section in Hampshire that concerns Ray Walton, an angler who also has a keen interest in river wildlife. He believes that water crowfoot, a water weed plant that provides a habitat and food source for wildlife, is being cut unnecessarily by the Environment Agency. He said of the recent cutting in the river in June (14):
”No consideration was made for the wildfowl that were nesting on the ranunculus weed growth or that the Avon fish species were spawning at the time, or eggs had been laid on the weed or in the gravel beds. The huge weed cutting boats are indiscriminate in what they cut and also deliberately ‘scrape and disrupt’ the gravel bottoms where most of the macro invertebrates and insects – food for fish and all river life forms – are disturbed or destroyed in the process”

An Environment Agency spokesman, aware of the competing agendas of agriculture and nature conservation swirling around the Avon, said that the agency was in the difficult position of trying to achieve a balance between the interests of the flood plain and the interests of the river:
“Weed cutting has always been contentious with some people wanting to see more weed removed from the Avon while others want the cutting to stop. By removing weed the Environment Agency provides a service for Natural England to help it achieve its conservation objectives”

And there we have it, since Dianne Matthews of Natural England decided in her monitoring reports that the River Avon SSSI (15), from Burgate to Burton, is in unfavourable condition because of “Invasive freshwater species”

Perhaps the Environment Agency need to step back from always being in thrall to Natural England and instead consider the health of the river in front of them, and the damaging effect of their weed cutting, rather than adhere to some mechanistic formula derived elsewhere. They do understand the importance of river bed gravel as refuge and spawning sites for many native fish and invertebrates, or they would not be laying new beds in sections of the River Medway in Kent. As Ben Lord, Environment Agency technical officer, said (16):
"The gains for the river Medway are potentially huge and we expect to see a wider range of fish species in the river"

Ray Walton is filming the destruction on the River Avon, to add to his persuasive case, and it is perhaps that which brought forth the following from the Environment Agency (14):
”The Agency’s commitment to weed cutting on the Lower Avon beyond 2009 is currently under review, whereby the agency will reconsider its position to under-take this work and explore other options, one of which could be the cessation of cutting”

Natural justice for wild nature?

Should the views of people like Ray Walton and Chris Dixon be listened too? On the basis that the decisions of Natural England employees Rue Ekins and Dianne Matthews alone have such profound implications then natural justice would suggest yes. That the latter are representatives of a system, and they were only doing their job, denies the force of argument of people like Walton and Dixon, unbound by orthodox dogma, and with the eyes to see for themselves the reality of wild nature and the processes that go on without our interference. Theirs is not just a difference of opinion – it’s a fundamental disagreement with the way “nature conservation” is regulated and carried out.

Mark Fisher 3 September 2009



Shortly after I wrote this article, the decision was taken to stop the mass removal of weed and aquatic vegetation from the River Avon, the Environment Agency announcing that the five-year plan then in operation would not extend beyond the end of 2009 (18). For more than a decade, the Environment Agency had been using a weed cutting boat to remove tons of aquatic vegetation each year from the Hampshire Avon in order to meet “specific conservation objectives” – presumably, this was the removal of the “Invasive freshwater species” (see above). I was always puzzled by this justification since the river was designated as the River Avon System SSSI in 1996, with the Reasons for Notification stating the various water crowfoots as features of interest (18):
“The water crowfoot Ranunculus penicillatus var. pseudofluitans is dominant through most of the river. Other water crowfoot species are present, reflecting different conditions. In the upper reaches R. peltatus occurs, in the middle reaches R. fluitans and in the lower, more sluggish, river R. circinatus”

In 2005, the aquatic flora in the river was given further recognition through the river system being designated a SAC for the Annex 1 Habitat 3260 Water courses of plain to montane levels with the Ranunculion fluitantis and Callitricho-Batrachion vegetation (19). The latter vegetation refers to watercourses characterised by submerged or floating-leaved vegetation, of which the water crowfoots play a major part. This from the description of the SAC:
The Avon in southern England is a large, lowland river system that includes sections running through chalk and clay, with transitions between the two. Five aquatic Ranunculus species occur in the river system, but stream water-crowfoot Ranunculus penicillatus ssp. pseudofluitans and river water-crowfoot R. fluitans are the main dominants”

How was the Environmental Agency able to destroy this vegetation on the River Avon?

Each SSSI has a statement on the Views About Management (VAM) of the notified features. These statements tend to be compilations of generic views about Management principles for standard features, and so for Rivers and streams, the River Avon System VAM has (20):
“The characteristic aquatic plant communities associated with in-channel vegetation should be allowed to flourish, including fringing emergent vegetation and beds of submerged plants. Any cutting of vegetation should aim to leave at least 50% of the channel vegetated, comprising an active marginal fringe and a mosaic of submerged and floating beds that are allowed to flower and set seed”

You can judge for yourself whether this is what used to happen on the River Avon, as Ray Walton has posted his filming of the destruction on the river as an 18-minute video on YouTube (21). The video shows many of the wild inhabitants of the river and their association with the water crowfoot, such as swans and their cygnets, ducks and duckling, moorhens and coots, and fish life. It also shows an Avon Weed Boat (22) a bizarre and devastating contraption, scattering waterfowl as it proceeds, the massacred weed seen floating downstream after its severing. The boat is shown running aground and thus having damaging contact with the river bed, after which it thrashes around until freeing itself. It is not surprising that a comment has been left for the video that decries the wanton vandalism and needless destruction”

Was this destruction about “nature conservation”? Each SSSI also has a list of Operations Likely to Damage the Features of Special Interest. There is a prohibition on the “destruction, displacement, removal or cutting of any plant” in point 11 of this list for the River Avon System (23), but there is an exception to this for “selective cutting and removal of submerged and emergent water plants….. as currently**undertaken for fishery purposes (see Footnote 5)”

So was the massacre of water crowfoot for “nature conservation” or for “fishery purposes”? The asterisks take you to a note that explains that “currently undertaken” means activities that were carried out before designation of the SSSI and which are continued after designation, and Footnote 5 refers to Fishing and fishery operations, including water weed cutting and explains that these activities are subject to regulation by the Environment Agency through byelaws etc., and which therefore “will not require prior notice to be given”

This level of confusion (obfuscation?) about the purpose or even need for the clearance of water crowfoot helps no one, especially when set against the fact that objections to it often comes from anglers, like Ray Walton who led the objection to the massacre on the River Avon. Ray contacted me last week about the posting of his video footage of the pre-2010 vegetation cutting by the Environment Agency on the River Avon, which he had done in response to evidence that it was still going on elsewhere around the UK:
“Even though the EA have stopped doing it to a major extent on the Hampshire Avon, I thought it might set a precedent on other SSSI/SAC rivers, but it is not the case and has not been communicated or implemented to other EA/NE regions. In Kent on the Kentish Stour, they have cut the weed in low flows and exposed the gravels to air thus killing off the macro invertebrates (food for fish and other species) and leaving no cover or sanctuary from predators”

There a number of videos on YouTube showing a mechanical cutting boat clearing vegetation on the Kentish Stour (see, for instance (24)) and Ray has also set up a discussion forum on the Barbel Fishing World website that has brought in responses about similar damage, such as on the River Test. This from Peter Littleworth (25):
“I witnessed these boats in operation on the Test, makes one hell of a mess, but doesn’t create the required end result……...The effects on the Test in a very dry year, were to reduce levels, and flow rate and effectively make a lot of salmon holding areas unsuitable to hold fish, so they just ran through. Not what was required by fish or anglers, very poor river management in my book!”

It seems the heavy-handed and unjustified use of these maniacal machines is set to continue. As Ray says (25):
“no 'impact assessment' is carried out beforehand or after! If they did, I am sure it would be stopped immediately!”

Mark Fisher 24 October 2011

(1) Turning back the clock at Winnall Moors, Andrew Napier, Hampshire Chronicle 11 June 2009

(2) Restoring the Winnall Moors, Hampshire Chronicle 10th January 2009


(3) Winchester Meadows, Unit 66, River Itchen SSSI, Natural England


(4) Winnal Moors, Units 61, 62, 64, 65, Condition of SSSI Units, River Itchen SSSI, Natural England


(5) Common Standards Monitoring Guidance for Lowland Wetlands Habitats, Joint Nature Conservancy Council


(6) Common Standards Monitoring Guidance for Lowland Grassland Habitats, Joint Nature Conservancy Council


(7) Worst idea is to ‘restore’ meadows, Dr Chris Dixon, letter to Hampshire Chronicle, 8th April 2009


(8) College waters down plan for meadows, Andrew Napier, Hampshire Chronicle 19 August 2009


(9) St Catherine’s Hill, Addendum November 2006 to Blacka Moor in peril from the conservation professionals, Self-willed Land


(10) Meet the cows on Winnall Moors, Hampshire Chronicle 24 August 2009


(11) Trust’s edict leads to howls of protest,  this is Hampshire 28 September 2006


(12) Natural England withdraw felling application for White Moss, Addendum July 2009 to Cutting down trees to restore open habitats – only now a policy emerges, Self-willed land


(13) River Itchen SSSI, Natural England


(14) Avon weed clearance ‘harmful’ to wildlife, Bob Jolliffe, Daily Echo 31st August 2009


(15) Units 11, 12, 34, Condition of SSSI Units, River Avon System SSSI, Natural England


(16) Gravel beds improve river habitat, BBC News online, 2 September 2009


(17) Hampshire Avon weed cutting set to end soon, Angling Times Fishery News 15 September 2009


(18) River Avon System SSSI, Natural England


(19) River Avon SAC, JNCC


(20) A statement of English Nature’s views about the management of River Avon System Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).


(21) THE LEGAL DESTRUCTION OF THE HAMPSHIRE AVON SSSI/SAC and UK Rivers - The Movie - Part 1, YouTube 23 September 2011


(22) Avon Weed Boat, Weed Cutting Boats, Water Plant Ltd


(23) Operations Likely to Damage the Features of Special Interest, River Avon System Site of Special Scientific Interest




(25) 'How to Destroy UK Rivers' - The Movie, Ray Walton, Barbel Fishing World Forum 24 September 2011



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk