Searching out the wildness


I get immense enjoyment from exploring limestone ghylls in the Yorkshire Dales, those narrow ravines down which becks (streams) flow and that can be quite deep and scrambling in places. It is like a secret world, hidden from view and full of wild nature compared to the empty, overgrazed landscape of the hills that surround them. A few weeks ago, I dropped down into Catrigg Force near Stainforth, a deep ravine of waterfalls and tufa-covered cascades, the woodland clothing the ravine making it a haven for ferns and woodland wildflowers, including the delightful Goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus). A few days later, I watched a dipper in the wooded ravine through which flows Hagg Beck near Yockenthwaite. The dipper grabbed larvae from the water and disappeared into a camouflaged nest on the side of the ravine to feed its young. It took ages to work out where she was going, even though I could hear the young chirping away. The ghyll was a little bit of wildness tucked away, a refuge of woodland wildflowers like sanicle (Sanicula europaea) and only safe because the sheep can’t get in – or at least if they fall in, they won’t get out. I feel like I want to take other people to places like this and show them how much richer our landscapes can be if we release them from the grip of agriculture.

A week or so later, and in spite of hail and rain, I searched out wildflowers in woodlands over limestone pavement near Grassington. There are two parts to the woodland: the Wildlife(?) Trust kills all the wildness in their piece by coppicing and clearing rides, but they have yet to destroy all the wonderful woodland flowers, especially the woodland lilies, that have probably been there for thousands of years, even though they insensitively dump their coppicing and clearings right on top of them. Then there is the privately-owned section above, which is unmanaged and much, much wilder, with very few non-native trees and many natural processes to observe – as well as masses of primroses, cowslips and oxslips to lift the soul. There is one woodland wildflower in both these woodlands, Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia) that just seems too exotic for Britain. When I see its drifts in these woodlands, I feel transported to other countries where I have seen it – to the forests of Slovenia, for one. It has cousins in N. America, the Trilliums, and so it also makes me long for the Great Smoky Mountains, where I first saw the red, white and yellow-flowered species (T. erectum, grandiflorum and luteum), or to the forests of Vancouver Island on the pacific coast that are full of Western White Trillium (Trillium ovatum).

Wild nature without our interference

These are places to return to in the UK, hopefully secure that they are too insignificant, at least in the case of the ghylls, to attract any attention and intervention, and will retain that wildness. I had hoped this would have been the case for one of the coastal locations whose wildness has inspired me over the years. I have been walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path since 1987, marvelling at the natural value of the coastal cliff-tops and slopes, the flowers and vegetation changing as the severity of exposure to wind, sun and salt water changes with the aspect and orientation of the cliffs. This is wild nature without our interference, and was wonderfully described and explained by the late John Barrett writing his guide to the coastal path back in 1974. I wonder how he would feel now that he would have to constantly avoid stepping on horse droppings and cow pats on the coastal path because of the nonsense dogma of the conservation industry that is grazing these headlands right up to the edge in the misguided objective of achieving a larger coverage of coastal heath.

I have written of this before (see in Heroes and Villains: Marine Conservation Society and the National Trust, Pembrokeshire (1), in Harting Down - obsession with conserving man-made landscapes (2) and in Rewilding - the moral obligation for ecological restoration (3)) but it is with some rage that I observed a couple of weeks ago how ubiquitous this scourge has become, and how soul destroying it is. I see now why someone from Pembrokeshire had signed the petition against grazing the coastal headlands on the Scilly Isles in empathy with the fact that the same despoliation was already happening on its coastal paths (see in The grazing war comes to Kingwood Common (4)).

That natural coastal heath exists on some of the cliff-tops and coastal slopes of Pembrokeshire is because of the natural forces that hold back the growth of gorse and blackthorn, allowing natural coastal grassland dotted with heather to flourish, but even then heather can grow up through the naturally attenuated growth of gorse in some areas. Recognition of this natural phasing is at least shown in the Pembrokeshire Habitat Action Plan for lowland heathland (5):
“On sea cliffs and coastal slopes, lowland heathland tends to grade into maritime grassland, both habitats contain maritime species such as spring squill, sea plantain and thrift”

However, while the imposition of grazing right up to the cliff edge, and the mechanical removal of gorse on the strips of land in from the edge, has opened up those areas so that heather can seed in, its presence there will not be based on natural forces and it will require constant interventionist management to maintain it.

Emperors with no clothes

More important is the damage that is being done. The grazing and mechanical clearance has removed shrubby cover from the landscape, and thus disrupted the habitat of mammals that resided in these natural coastal scrublands. The opening up is allowing bracken to thrive, where it was once held in check by the scrubby cover. It will spread. Worst of all is that horses only defecate where there is no grazing of use to them. This is at the cliff edge, subject to the highest natural exposure and thus suffering the greatest leaching of soil mineral. The grazing is thus of no value but the flora of coastal flowers there are exceptional. Horse droppings now line that cliff edge, and as they slowly rot in, they will alter the fertility and water retention of the soil, eventually affecting what will grow there.

In the few short lengths of coastal path where grazing has not been imposed, the obviously better wealth of coastal flowers is readily apparent. It should be unbelievable that the conservation industry is incapable of absorbing the evidence in front of their eyes, of the natural forces that shape the vegetation of the coast, and how their intervention is damaging it. It is their arrogance that they think they can “improve” on wild nature, when all they do is then dependant on them and kills all the wildness. They are truly “emperors without clothes”.

It left me in a rage many times as I walked and saw the despoliation that these people bring to a natural landscape. It means that I now have to be careful where I go if I am not to be confronted with this killing of wildness, and its replacement by the artificial. Deep cynicism has me pondering on the use of ropes by the conservation industry to lower livestock down the inaccessible cliff faces so that they too may “benefit” from this land management. Thus on the principle of having to seek out the wildness when so much else is trashed, I have begun exploring the narrow wooded streams dug down deep in to the bed rock in the landscape behind the cliffs, and the smaller of the sea caves at low tide at the base of the cliffs where I marvel at the spectacular colours of the encrusting animal species (sponges? (6)). Surely the conservation industry can have no reason to trash these caves?

While I was away in Pembrokeshire, the UN published a study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) that is building a case based on economic cost and benefit for the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity (7). Chris Thomas, professor of Conservation Biology at York University, made a stab in the Guardian at explaining the potential importance of the study, but had little to say about biodiversity other than give his support to financial incentivisation as a means to change the behaviour of those that put it most at threat. A comment though to the article by “enery” very much caught my attention (8):
“I'm afraid that the biodiversity agenda is not without problems. There's no disputing the high minded principles behind much of the talk, but conservation is now a major industry with needs of its own, courses providing a livelihood for certain groups and a professional career structure. This leads to scepticism among sections of the public and some of it is well justified. In parts of the world natural ecosystems may be in desperate danger, but in Britain some of our most dreary and artificial landscapes are being preserved in the name of biodiversity. Wildlife Trusts and others are spending most of their working hours applying for grants to meet biodiversity targets which do little for our natural world, simply privileging one or two species over others. Thus we've had grouse moors kept treeless by years of grazing with farm animals. The trouble is that much of this biodiversity management, in this country at least, is managed from above allowing no room for a new more imaginative and natural distinctiveness to develop”

Dogmas, old and new

The online comment displays a clarity of thought that is increasingly being expressed by those coming up against the sharp end of conservation dogma, and finding the experience debilitating. Many of the things I write about would suggest that the illogic and overweening influence of the conservation industry is a recent phenomena but, sad to say, there were portents to this years ago, which bewilderingly were never heeded. Late last year, I came across an article written in 1995 by two Oxford scientists. It was entirely disparaging of the conservation industry, which was surprising since it was published in one of their “house” magazines, British Wildlife. Less surprisingly, it attracted criticism from all its targets, such as letters from JNCC, BTO, RSPB etc. Clive Hambler and Martin Speight had poured whole lakes of cold water on what they saw as the “tradition” that dogs nature conservation (9):
“One of the most deeply held beliefs is that traditional management should be continued or re-instated…. How did this confidence in tradition come to be, and how is it being eroded? Conservationists have perhaps generally been more in favour of the status quo than the average member of the public or scientist. When they encounter a traditionally grazed, flower-rich calcareous grassland, they believe that the best way to preserve it is to maintain the grazing regime. Likewise, if a woodland was coppiced for centuries it may have attractive floral carpets in the spring, encouraging faith in tradition. These views are acted upon by 'conservation volunteers' and managers throughout the country, who enthusiastically coppice and 'tidy- up' woodland, graze grassland and cut reedbeds. What if they are wrong? Does abandonment of tradition always bring disaster?”

They were scathing at the use of tradition to characterise a supposedly commendable approach to nature conservation:
“Just as the 'Noble Savage' of the tropics has come to be seen as an environmental pillager, we should recognise that the simple traditional practices of Europeans abused habitats for millennia, and were certainly not designed to protect biodiversity. Traditional management developed solely to exploit wildlife, and has narrowly failed to exterminate many of our native species. If we continue with tradition some relatively tolerant species will survive; if we replace old methods with management designed to protect wildlife, then we have a better chance of helping our biodiversity into the hands of our grandchildren”

Their article went on to refute the logic and outcome of these traditions, and pretty much demolished the case for the priority given to species by the conservation industry, indicating that many were the trivial choices of the self-interested:
“Of course, the reasons sun-loving flowering plants and butterflies achieve disproportionate interest include their conspicuousness and their aesthetic appeal. These are hardly scientific criteria worthy of consideration in choosing management for conservation”

In a particularly satisfying pop at what is a contemporary bugbear of mine, they point out the ludicrous over-emphasis on butterfly conservation compared to the sum of British species and the niches they inhabit:
“We need to ask, however, if our mere 1,500 vascular plant species, or a trivial 58 species of butterfly, can indicate the requirements of over 28,500 invertebrate species, some 15,000 fungi, and the unknown diversity of British micro-organisms - including protozoa, bacteria and viruses? How many butterflies live under stones, in damp rank grass, in uncut reedbeds, in mud or rotting wood? Far too few to be taken seriously in all-out biodiversity conservation”

In their thinking, a more important emphasis was being overlooked, that there is more niche-space in late-successional habitats, with the damper and more structurally complex the habitat, the more biodiversity it can support, especially as succession proceeds:
“Late-successional and damp habitats are often heavily [over] exploited. Biodiversity conservation should emphasise these habitats, and although a case can of course be made for conservation of early-successional stages as well, we suggest the philosophy of conservation will be more consistent if we see a paradigm shift to give late-successional environments more emphasis”

The article was a masterwork in puncturing the nonsense of the conservation industry. After reading it, I contacted Clive Hambler and asked if he still maintained all the positions in the article 15 years on. He confirmed that he did, seeing only a very limited place for more traditional management in some areas. He had explained and expanded on the positions taken in the article much more fully in his book in 2004 (10) although he stressed that the book was in less controversial language! He noted that the 1995 article was intended to hasten a paradigm shift away from traditional management, and towards a more rational, scientific approach to diversity than the former represents. In particular, he advocates further efforts towards restoration management (as would be the case in rewilding) specifying his interest in the re-introduction of forest invertebrates.

So should we be polite to the ravagers of landscapes when they hold such sway and brook no criticism? Are conservation professionals open to gentle persuasion that they have built their industry on an edifice of illogic? It may be counterproductive to confront them, in the same way that children are not open to reason, but it does at least give emotional relief from the damage they bring to our natural world and the wildness that they kill.

Mark Fisher 31 May 2010

(1) Heroes and Villains: Marine Conservation Society and the National Trust, Pembrokeshire, Self-willed land, June 2007

(2) Harting Down - obsession with conserving man-made landscapes, Self-willed land, November 2007

(3) Rewilding - the moral obligation for ecological restoration, Self-willed land, May 2008

(4) The grazing war comes to Kingwood Common, Self-willed land, April 2010

(5) Habitat Action Plan: Lowland Heathland, Pembrokeshire County Council

(6) Submerged or partially submerged sea caves, JNCC

(7) The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), UNEP

(8) Why do we care about biodiversity? The UN's The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project shows us the real cost of damaging nature, Chris Thomas, Guardian 21 May 2010

(9) Biodiversity Conservation in Britain: science replacing tradition, Hambler C, Speight M R, 1995. British Wildlife 6: 137-147

(10) Conservation (Studies in Biology) Clive Hambler, 2004. Cambridge University Press ISBN-13: 978-0521000383