Heroes and VILLAINS

The nature conservation “tafia”

The PONT meeting

The Pumlumon Project

PONT statement on ‘Rewilding’ and Wilderness in Wales

A meeting to look at the constraints and opportunities for a ‘Wilder Wales’

PONT, sponsored by CCW, 10th November 2006, Carno Community Centre, Powys.

Pori Natur a Threfyadaeth (PONT) is the welsh arm of the Grazing Animals Project (GAP). The latter was formed to aid the development of conservation grazing throughout the UK.

The PONT meeting was set firmly in the context of the peculiar politics of nature conservation in Wales. As evidence of how this can work in practice, it is worth unfolding the shameful link between the eventual holding of this meeting and the events that led up the the Wildland Network (WN) meeting held in Machynlleth some seven months earlier. When WN first announced its Wildland in Wales conference for April 2006, it was met with enthusiasm by the speakers initially contacted to take part. It then became clear that the meeting would be treading on some big toes (or big egos). What follows is a synthesis of a number of observations.

The nature conservation “tafia”

The first sign of the “tafia” at work was when someone from Wildlife Trusts Wales (WTW) sought to persuade WN to postpone its meeting, suggesting that there had already been some discussion on setting up a Wildlands Wales network, and that there had been informal links between most of the existing large projects with a view to holding a meeting to which all mainstream bodies would be invited to get their support as well. This person was also hoping for support from the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) the statutory nature conservation agency, indicating in his message that:
“CCW were positive in their response and there have been more recent meetings at a high level which suggest that something will happen in 2006”.

This was a puzzling approach as the simple aim of the WN meeting, as it is wherever they are held, was to showcase some wildland projects and ideas, and create a space for discussion. There was no intention to initiate any new project or network in Wales. Thus it was decided within WN that their meeting would not be in conflict with anything else that may have been going on in Wales, and there was no need to postpone the meeting.

However, within a few weeks it became clear where this misunderstanding on the part of WTW had led, as staff from the Wildlife Trusts and CCW were told that they were banned from attending the WN meeting, the instruction coming from a senior level in both CCW and the WTW. Speakers began to drop out of the WN meeting like flies, and take-up of meeting places was very low.

Enquiries to WTW revealed the official reasons for the boycott:
“this conference, being held at this time and at this venue, is likely to jeopardise a major project that we are involved with in the area”

The measure of control that WTW sought to exercise on wildland issues in Wales is shown by what followed:
“WTW…….do not think that the conference as planned will assist current initiatives. We would be interested to see such a meeting held in Wales at some stage, but with far more consideration given to impacts on current activities and the context in which we are all working.”

One interpretation of this is that WTW were fearful that if their staff attended a meeting with the word ‘wildland’ in it, then local landowners would believe that the initiatives that WTW were involved in would be forcing the landowners to re-wild their land, a sensitive issue whichever of the home countries you are in. As will be seen later, the “major project” was the Pumlumon Project, which by any measure has turned out to have nothing to do with wilding.

The PONT meeting

The PONT meeting was very clearly a response to the meeting that WN held in April, and was set up by the tafia to be the ‘real’ meeting about wildland in Wales, as espoused from the perspective of the ‘official’ representatives of nature conservation in Wales (CCW and the Wildlife Trusts). From a WN perspective, it could think itself pleased that it seemed to have forced the tafia’s hand on wilding as an issue for Wales, an exchange during the PONT meeting giving evidence of this. The Farmers Union of Wales representative, having been very hostile about any hint of ‘re-wilding’ all day, asked in the concluding discussion:
"Has the train left the station, who is driving it and where is it heading?"

Mike Alexander from CCW, who chaired the meeting, replied that the train had certainly left the station, but he couldn’t say who was driving it, nor where it is heading. Peter Taylor, an invited speaker, added that yes the train has left the station, and that if anything it is being driven by the public who want more and better quality contact with nature. Where it is heading depends on how conservation professionals and landowners respond to this challenge.

The meeting had started with an introduction by Alexander looking at the various ideas on ‘wildland’ that have entered the thinking on nature conservation: Peter Taylor and his book “Beyond Conservation”; Mark Fisher’s Self-Willed Land; Frans Vera and English Nature’s response; IUCN definitions and national definitions. He appeared well-informed, but it is likely that he lifted the information from the WN website. He concluded that he doesn’t like the ‘re-’ words, that he doesn’t like the idea that wild areas should exclude people, and that people’s connection with the land through working on it needs to be maintained.

Alexander’s approach can be summed up from experience of him gained at a VINE get-together early in 2006 when this very rude man browbeat the workshop group he facilitated. The next day, he droned on for over an hour when he was only allocated 30 min, sending those who had heard it all before into apoplexy and provoked others into indignation at the travesty of much of what he said, including his total misreading of Peter Taylor’s book. Alexander adopts the veneer of a scholarly approach while, at the same time, appealing to base human sentimentality. A look at his presentations reveal that the diverse sources he quotes are usually mis-used or misunderstood to serve his own purpose, and the light weight of his intellectual rigor is found out when he is not in control, or if he has to extemporise.

Peter Taylor was the first main speaker. The intention of the organisers might well have been to have Peter on as the representative of the loony fringe, to be dismissed or ridiculed. Peter would be difficult to trap in this way, he is too well-informed in his science, too good at speaking, and too ready to go to the heart of the matter. He seemed to skip over the material in his book, giving instead a long unscripted introduction where he talked about nature and spirituality, the feminine and dark side of nature, drawing on his own experience, and inviting the audience to accept as a premise the importance of this heart connection with nature.

It was clever and inspiring, and difficult to contradict. Later on in the day, however, when Peter mentioned how he would like to return to the Rhinogs for a visit, the Farmers Union man had enough bad attitude to tell Peter that he certainly wouldn’t be welcomed by local people there. Peter very humbly said he thought that would be very sad if that was the case, as he thought he had made some very genuine connections with people and learnt a great deal from them. A landowner from the Harlech area who knows Peter, and who is Chair of Snowdonia National Park, then stood up to say that he thought he would be very welcome generally and that he would be happy to receive Peter there.

Next speaker was Keith Jones from National Trust, who had also spoken at the WN meeting the previous April. He gave a very different talk this time, talking about the ‘Square Mile’ concept in Welsh, that of people’s close connection with their immediate area. It was perhaps meant to be a celebration of how people are part of the land, but there was an uncomfortable element in the implication that this connection to an area is exclusive only to rural Wales, and to families with a long history of living in the area.

Everyone is capable of developing a strong connection with a part of the world, whether rural or urban. Sometimes they are lucky enough to live there, but for many urban dwellers their connection is to a part of the countryside, either through a family connection or some other emotional connection. They might well be considered visitors, however frequently they visit, but it could still be their ‘Square Mile’ in their own mind or heart. One interpretation that could be put on this was that Jones was subtly saying to non-Welsh speakers, and visitors, and especially conservationists, that their interference was not welcome and that the farmers should be left in peace on ‘their’ land.

Next up was Clive from Montgomeryshire WT in presenting the Pumlumon Project. He did a good job of talking up the Pumlumon Project, but see later for the pivotal role this project plays in the contradiction that is a CCW/WTW approach to wilding. It is also clear that the attempt by WTW to have the WN meeting postponed was because they feared it would be a spoiler for the grand launch of their “A Living Landscape” report in which Pumlumon was to be a key example for Wales.

The afternoon workshops were wide ranging, following the themes that WN tends to use at their meetings. The workshops were badly focalised, causing confusion in what was supposed to be discussed and thus dooming any constructive outcome. Hannah Scrase of the Woodland Trust made the point in a workshop that the meeting had ended up discussing how to make farming more wildlife friendly, and there had been no mention of whether there should be wildland in non-farmed areas.

This point was not taken up in the plenary discussion after the workshops. However, one farmer said he would be happy to do what people want on his land, but he needs to be paid for it. It was noted that farmers are already being paid: by subsidies and, further, by agri-environment schemes. The Farmer’s Union man found the whole thing much more threatening and had a completely closed mind, as did the man from the Sheep Society. The discussion tended to follow along the lines of:
”Wild herbivores are too difficult to manage and dangerous. Much better to use domestic livestock for conservation grazing. They need to be hardy breeds at a low density. That is not very profitable so we have to increase the value of the produce through marketing strategies. Some people question whether that can be achieved adequately to make farming profitable….Further compromise…agri-environment schemes….something similar to business as usual……We seem to have got a long way off wildland.”

This gives little hope that it is worth trying to engage farming businesses in wildland: they are compatible up to a point, for example in rangeland pastoralism, but in Wales farmers are too used to killing everything that is not agricultural produce. Every small compromise in favour of wildlife is painful.

There are landowners who are sympathetic, but they do not confuse productive farming with conservation management. In time, the political pressure for truly wild areas, for reintroducing lost wildlife and for access to engage with wildland will force the issue. The beautiful simplicity of releasing publicly owned Forestry Commission land from sitka spruce production – as could be done in the Pumlumon Project area - will become very clear.

Overall, there seemed to have been a dominant misunderstanding at the meeting about wildland principles, which is reflected in the PONT statement on ‘Rewilding’ and Wilderness in Wales that was issued after the meeting (appended below). Several speakers had concentrated on references to wilderness that expressed the absence of people or their influence (including references to Mark Fisher's Self-willed land) as if this is the only defining feature of wildland. This was then contrasted with the pride of the Welsh farming community in their relationship with the land. The implication is that wildland proponents are in favour of clearing the land of people and letting it run wild.

Parallels were made with the Highland clearances (which, by the way, were carried out to make way for sheep farming, and which also happened in the rest of Britain as the barons took possession of the common land and became the 'landowners'). Perhaps a closer parallel is the clearing of America's First Nation people to create the National Parks. It is ironic that the very small numbers of people that live in the uplands supported by sheep farming often seem to take pride in keeping the public off their land as much as possible. In contrast, the aspirations of genuine wildland enthusiasts often include recreation and tourism as being integral parts of the wildland ethos.

As can be seen in the PONT statement, this issue is being used to discredit the wildland ethos generally, so that business-as-usual farming is being presented as the only land management option. PONT's statement is unwise in that it is taking an overtly political stance, which should not be the role of PONT, and when viewed alongside the useful role that GAP takes in the rest of UK.

It is obvious that agriculture has only been able to support viable businesses in the uplands, and therefore keep people living in these areas, through the CAP subsidies. Areas of wildland and charismatic large mammals might well be better at attracting income than upland sheep, so wildland principles have the potential of keeping people in rural areas. Despite the efforts of wildland enthusiasts at getting this message across, there are vested interests - e.g. the farming unions, or the chair of the sheep society who is also on the board of PONT, who are skilled at misrepresenting the wildland position in order to promote their own agenda.

In America, communities live next to wilderness areas. Similarly, here in UK there are wild empty wild areas next to towns. Absence of people is not part of the equation. Nor does a presence of wild species necessitate an absence of people. In Holland there are beavers living on the edge of towns. In Germany and Poland, there are wolves living near to cities.

The Pumlumon Project

The Pumlumon Project had probably its first public airing at the PONT meeting, followed by a mention in the Wildlife Trust press release on ‘A Living Landscape’.

It became increasingley clear during the early meetings that the Pumlumon Project has for the time being been hijacked by the ‘Living Landscape’ philosophy of the Wildlife Trusts. It involves persuading farming businesses to enter agri-environment schemes with the aim of getting the large upland SSSI area centred on Pumlumon into favourable status.

If it succeeds in doing CCW’s work for them, the project will have had some successes - there will be lower levels of grazing, more cattle and less sheep, and more heather. But there will not be much in the way of extra wildland attributes. A better approach to this potential wildland area would be to draw up a long term plan. Key in this would be the managed retreat of farming as it becomes uneconomic, to be replaced by natural processes with wild herbivores. The Forestry Commission (FC) should be engaged in the plan so that wildland can have a start right away on their public land. Also conservation charities should be engaged in the plan on the basis that they are also landowners in the area and could start to do it on their own land as well. The project should be ready to buy strategic land when it comes up for sale, either through the existing charities or a trust formed for the purpose.

Unfortunately, from discussions so far, it is clear that FC staff are not ready to embrace this vision, and the existing conservation charities do not have this kind of land management on their radar. The Pumlumon Project as it was presented at the PONT meeting, and in the ‘A Living Landscape’ document, shows an approach that allows the Wildlife Trusts to say they are doing it already, ‘it’ being ‘large area nature conservation’. This is not wilding in any real sense.

An interesting contrast exists between lowlands and uplands. Farmland in the uplands already has wild elements of scale and remoteness, and semi-natural habitats up to a point. Arable land in the lowlands is not wild, but the Great Fen or Wicken Fen projects show a transforming change in habitats that can be called wilding, when arable farming is discontinued and domestic livestock are introduced as a herbivore pressure. In the uplands of Wales, we need something beyond domestic grazing to present something that is different enough to be called ‘wilding’. Enter wild herbivores and other reintroduced native species. The remoteness and scale of upland sites should allow for experimentation with these without fears for public safety or impact on neighbours.

It was possible to leave the PONT meeting feeling quite uneasy about how the Pumlumon Project is being presented, as something inspiring or radical, when the detail of what is happening shows otherwise. The word ‘spin’ comes to mind – with this attempt to satisfy aspirations for wilding by the presentation of fairly mundane tinkering with farmland.

Mark Fisher 8 April 2007

PONT statement on ‘Rewilding’ and Wilderness in Wales

If we apply international definitions of wilderness, there are no wilderness areas in Wales, and there is no potential for such areas.  The common misconception of wilderness relates to people’s sense of exposure to the natural elements and absence of built development, not to wild untouched places.  When people understand the history of human settlements, agriculture, forestry and water management, the human influence becomes obvious everywhere.

In its place, we have a glorious landscape, the wildlife of which has been shaped over thousands of years as the mainly unintentional by-product of generations of people toiling to provide a living for their families.  This is also our cultural landscape and it is special and precious; its values should be celebrated and not diminished through comparison with something that happens elsewhere. 

PONT is an organisation that is primarily concerned with protecting the living and evolving Welsh cultural landscape and particularly the wealth of semi-natural habitats that it contains.

We will achieve this through promoting appropriate sustainable and, whenever possible, traditional grazing management to contribute towards a continually evolving landscape.

Management by grazing with domestic animals is only possible if there are robust and sustainable rural communities that possess the necessary skills and commitment to deliver and gain benefits from it.

PONT will give the highest priority to supporting and developing projects that make a contribution towards ensuring the sustainability of appropriate grazing and agricultural practices.

We do not support the idea that areas of Wales should be returned to some version of a wilderness, particularly where this implies the introduction of semi-wild herbivores and large predators.

We believe that our purpose is to promote a Welsh Countryside where, whenever and wherever possible, measures are taken to optimise conditions for wildlife; this may lead in some places to a 'wilder Wales', where natural processes are the most significant influences.

Tomorrow's wilder places will not replace areas of high cultural value.  They should be developed in areas that currently have little perceived value, and which make little contribution to Welsh rural communities.

This statement was developed as an outcome of the PONT meeting held in November 2006 called ‘How wild should Wales be?’, and is draft for guidance until ratified by the PONT Executive and Advisory Committees in early 2007.

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