George Monbiot Taken To Task Over Controlled Burning

I feel that George Monbiot is falling into ‘a one size fits all’ scenario in attacking all burning and ‘swaling,’ carried out in the name of landscape and wildlife conservation. I will explain my criticism from my standpoint as a lowland-Britain habitat conservationist:

Man has so modified the landscape of the British Isles during the past seven thousand years or so, that we now the sole custodians and have to work with what we’ve now got left, not some utopian suite of habitats with their keystone species, that disappeared long, long ago. Man is arguably, now the keystone specie!

George lampoons ‘environmentally friendly burning’ it would seem, in all its guises. Yes it is environmentally friendly, if, carried out correctly, in moderation, at the right time of year.  What must be avoided are fires that are either accidental or deliberate arson during the dry spring and summer times of year.

George is probably delighted by the fact that over the past few decades, burning has become rather un-fashionable.  Burning together with the near complete demise of grazing on lowland heaths in Southern England over the past 70 years or so has allowed large build-ups of dead vegetation, or thatch, leading to specie elimination and extinction.  If this build-up of ‘fuel’ is then ignited for whatever reason, it can cause major losses for wildlife (and to the landscape).

Heathlands hold some unique assemblages of plants, invertebrates and birds. Should we allow these to disappear to be replaced by mainly species-poor secondary woodland?  In most cases I would say not.  Here in Sussex, conservation bodies – both local authority and charities, are struggling to conserve the little heathland that remains.  On some sites, there has been with the advent of modern powerful machinery, a move to mowing significant parts of these heaths.  The result is increasingly, a monoculture of coppiced gorse species smothering almost everything else.

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Traditionally, small areas of these heaths – which were then part of a wider, working landscape, were routinely burnt on a 5 – 7 year rotation, something that I would argue, should be judiciously brought back, accompanied by appropriate grazing.

Yes, grazing has a part to play if carried out sympathetically. To quote George again, “grazing livestock’: well that’s the nub of it.”  Here again there is a dilemma.  Without grazing, the 7% of remaining chalk grassland, most of which is found in southern England, would disappear under scrub and specie-poor woodland.  Again, it begs the question, should we allow these truly amazing assemblages of wildlife to totally disappear?  Ironically, swaling had been used in the past on some parts of the North and South Downs with the disastrous results, leading to the spread of the aggressive tor grass.

One should not forget one other important element that now exists and was not present when George’s ‘wildwoods’ existed, that of diverse nitrogen inputs from atmospheric pollution. This is making the work of conservationists even more difficult, as most wild plant communities are geared to low nutrient levels.

So come on George, one has to be a little more careful when banding about those broad-brush-stroke statements…

 

George Monbiot, Thursday 14 January 2016.

‘Meet the conservationists who believe that burning is good for wildlife.’  [Abridged] 

Our national park authorities are vandals and fabulists, inflicting mass destruction on wildlife and habitats, then calling it conservation…

“At one end of the country, conservation groups are doing all they can to stop the burning of moors. Challenging the grouse shooting estates, for example, the RSPB argues that “there is an urgent need to restore these landscapes by … bringing an end to burning.”

At the other end of the country, conservation groups are doing all they can to ensure that moors are burnt. Exmoor and Dartmoor, national parks covered by every possible conservation designation, are now in the middle of swaling season. Swaling is the term used in the West Country [and elsewhere; ML] for burning the land. And the national park authorities, supposedly responsible for conserving and enhancing natural beauty and wildlife, oversee and assist the process.

Here’s how the Dartmoor authority justifies the practice:

“Dartmoor has been going up in flames in recent days – in an environmentally friendly way and much to the delight of various ground-nesting birds like skylarks and grazing livestock.

It’s all part of the age-old art of swaling – the notified controlled burning of overgrown heathland and clearing the ground of dead vegetation so that new growth can appear.

This year swaling has been deemed more important than ever on the moors because fewer grazing animals have been released on the highland commons over recent years, resulting in the extra growth of plants such as gorse and bracken.”

Let’s take this step by step.

Environmentally friendly burning? Fossil fuel firms could take lessons in public relations from these people. Why is it that practices we recognise as destructive when we see them elsewhere in the world are judged “environmentally friendly” here? When we see land being burnt in Indonesia or Brazil, do we call it conservation, or do we call it destruction? Because it damages soil and hydrology, incinerates wildlife and simplifies ecosystems, destruction is the correct term. Burning on Dartmoor has the same impacts. It’s about as environmentally friendly as tipping bleach into a river.

But “grazing livestock”: well that’s the nub of it. This burning has sod all to do with protecting the natural world and everything to do with extracting as much grazing from the land as possible. It continues in direct contradiction of the Sandford principle, which is supposed to govern the management of national parks: that when there is a conflict between conservation and other uses, conservation should take priority.

As for “overgrown” heathland, “clearing the ground of dead vegetation” and “extra growth of plants such as gorse and bracken”, these are classic examples of the mortal fear of natural processes entertained by conservation bodies in this country.

An entirely treeless landscape, maintained this way by a savage regime of burning and grazing over many years, becomes “overgrown” the moment it starts to recover. The beginning of successional processes (“extra growth of plants such as gorse and bracken”) is regarded as a threat. We all know what happens next. Scrub grows and then, God help us, trees. Wildlife is returning: quick, fetch the matches!

The Exmoor national park authority uses a similar justification:

“Exmoor national park authority is particularly keen to support swaling on Exmoor. Swaling maintains the character of the landscape by rejuvenating moorland plants, which in turn provides grazing for livestock and habitats for wildlife.”

What do you see in the background? Miles and miles of bugger all, a treeless waste, kept in that state by a process the park is “particularly keen to support”.

This is not the only form of elective destruction in which Exmoor national park engages. It employs other methods to ensure that trees don’t grow and rich habitats can’t return. The local sheep farmers don’t put their animals on the highest land, known as The Chains. So the park authority contracts a grazier on an annual basis to keep it mown.

I understand that in some places there is a difficult balance to be struck between the demands of tenants and commoners who graze their animals on the moor and the conservation of wildlife. I happen to believe that too much weight is given to sheep farming, and too little to wildlife. But where there are no tenants and no grazing, instead of using this as an opportunity for ecological restoration, the Exmoor authority is bringing in its own sheep to ensure that seedlings can’t grow and wildlife can’t recover. It’s utter madness.

The places in which we are invited to escape the impacts of humanity’s assaults on the natural world are being destroyed with the active collusion of the authorities charged with protecting them.

Not only have they failed to discharge their role as guardians of our natural wonders, but they also systematically mislead people about what they are doing, describing destructive practices as beneficial to the natural world. Since when did the duties of our national park authorities extend to greenwashing?

And that’s not the worst of it, as the criteria they use are highly questionable in the first place. Why, for example, do we see moorland as the desirable ecosystem on our hilltops, rather than more advanced successional states, such as woodland? Upland woods are vanishingly rare in Britain, but they harbour a far greater range of wildlife than moors.

Because there are so few of them, comparative studies are scarce. But in the Cairngorms there is enough woodland to create a meaningful contrast. The results? Wooded habitats are 13 times richer in nationally important species than moorland*. There are 223 species on the massif which are found nowhere else in Britain. Of these, 100 are associated with woodland or trees. But just one – a fungus that lives on bilberry leaves – requires moorland for its survival.

So why is heather moorland, a highly impoverished habitat which results from repeated cutting and grazing, our conservation priority? When we see such degraded ecosystems elsewhere in the world, we recognise them for what they are: the products of deforestation.

In either case, both the Dartmoor and Exmoor national park authorities (in common with the bodies running most of Britain’s other national parks) are wide open to legal challenge under the European Habitats Directive, for failing to keep these supposed wildlife refuges in favourable conservation status. Such challenges require time and money. Does any conservation body have the nerve to take on the national parks?

In October (and fair play to them), I was invited to talk to the UK National Parks conference, on Dartmoor. I didn’t hold back. Among other things, I argued that our national parks should be reclassified as ecological disaster zones, pending a complete reassessment of the way they are managed. (You can watch the talk here, gallantly posted on YouTube by the Dartmoor national park).

While the talk generated controversy, to my astonishment I found that many of the park staff at the conference appeared sympathetic to my arguments. There is, I discovered, a widespread sense that we cannot go on like this, that we cannot keep destroying in the name of protection. Something has gone badly wrong here, and there is an urgent need for change.”

George’s article in full can be viewed at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2016/jan/14/swaling-is-causing-an-environmental-disaster-on-britains-moors?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Green+Light+main+150116&utm_term=151233&subid=13038048&CMP=EMCENVEML1631

 

See also my recent blog ‘The Taming Of Nature? How Should Conservationists Proceed?’ based on another interesting article by George.

 

The Taming Of Nature? How Should Conservationists Proceed?

 

Guest blog – The taming of nature by Steven Robinson

IMG_0861-e1450846405692-225x300This appeared on Mark Avery’s Twitter blog over Christmas and raised some very interesting question and drew some very interesting responses.  I have included the more pertinent of those at the end of Steven’s blog for those who have had their brain cells fired up on reading this important topic!  I have highlighted in bold, sections which I can empathise with.

Mark Avery (@MarkAvery)
The taming of nature ow.ly/Wpln8

I occasionally post on Mark’s blog as Apus Apus. I live in London and do not work in the conservation sector. I like swifts, birds of prey, trees, wolves, trophic cascades, LACS and Richard Mabey. I have written a guest blog, as I would like to see more naturalness in UK conservation. I have used the writing of Mark Fisher, Peter Rhind, and Clive Hambler and Martin Speight as a framework for this.

The taming of nature – why is naturalness undervalued in UK conservation?

Guest blog by Steven Robinson, December 29, 2015.

Steven Robinson: I occasionally post on Mark [Avery’s] blog as Apus Apus. I live in London and do not work in the conservation sector. I like swifts, birds of prey, trees, wolves, trophic cascades, LACS and Richard Mabey. I have written a guest blog, as I would like to see more naturalness in UK conservation. I have used the writing of Mark Fisher, Peter Rhind, and Clive Hambler and Martin Speight as a framework for this:

 

As a regular visitor to nature reserves in the UK, I often feel saddened by the way nature is controlled and what has been lost in terms of naturalness. I’ve come to the conclusion that nature conservation in the UK has badly lost its way.

Following the last ice age and before agriculture, Britain was largely a landscape of trees. The only open habitats would have been river valleys, fens, lake shores, areas above the tree-line and exposed coastal sites or appearing from natural disturbance, such as wind, fire and seasonal flooding. Gaps could then be maintained, but not created by herbivores (apart from beaver).

This wildwood was full of unimaginable life – an estimated 8 million wood warblers, 66,000 wildcats and 6,600 wolves lived there. Today, we have not only lost many of the mammals, birds and insects, but also the trees. In 2015, woodland covers only 11.8% of the UK, although it is increasing, with conifers making up nearly 50% of it. As woodland is the natural state of much of Britain and with such low coverage compared to historical times, why do conservation organisations cut down trees and use domestic livestock to maintain open landscapes?

Probably the most striking example of this is the creation or restoration of heathland (a more appropriate term would be deforestation), but it also occurs with the coppicing of trees, the clearing of scrub and the grazing of grasslands. For me this raises a number of questions. As these landscapes or practices resulted from agriculture or the extractive management of woodland, why are they being replicated on nature reserves? Why should one habitat or species be favoured over another? How can natural processes occur when an environment is controlled so intensively? Why should the needs of butterflies and sun-loving plants dominate the insects, birds, mammals, plants and fungi that require shade, moisture or a more complex, three-dimensional structure? How can habitats mature if they are constantly disturbed and degraded?

A recent example of heathland “restoration” has occurred on the National Trust’s Bickerton Hill site. This involved removing birch trees by felling or spraying saplings with herbicide to open up the area, but with the unwanted result that the spraying also affected the target species, heather, at the same time. This is what the manager responsible for the project had to say, “Our big issue here is regenerating birch, birch trees are things that threaten, they proliferate more readily than any other species and we have to control them. If we can control them, heathland vegetation has an opportunity to flourish. If in the process of eliminating birch trees there is a minor element of collateral, that’s unfortunate, but fine in that once the threat from the birch has gone, it will recover.”

From reading his words, you would think he was talking about a pernicious, alien invader, rather than a native tree that is one of the best for wildlife. To make matters worse the inevitable grazing animals were then brought in to eat the saplings with mixed success. First cattle, then ponies were tried and now sheep plus fencing should be in place. The response from the local community has unsurprisingly been one of opposition, with one member of the friends group saying “the trees have an aesthetic beauty, are good for the ecosystem but also provide shelter for walkers and stop the hill feeling bleak and barren”.

Woodland management involves creating or maintaining glades and rides or coppicing trees. The rational for coppicing is usually because it is traditional, it encourages butterflies, it benefits some species of birds (although nightingales have largely moved to scrub) and it varies the woodland structure, which increases habitat diversity.

Of course, coppicing may benefit butterflies, but it is often too rapid and drastic for many woodland species and creates more edges, which could be detrimental to woodland specialists. Also, coppicing hasn’t been around long enough or been consistently practised for species to have evolved dependency. And though it may give the impression of structural variety it may not have this effect for smaller organisms, as architectural diversity is scale dependent.

The current status quo encourages excessive management to benefit favoured species or habitats. For example, SSSI designation provides little room for natural succession. I believe conservation organisations have vested interests in this, since SSSI status can encourage intensive management and provides the opportunity to tap into significant income streams, such as agri-environmental schemes or funding from the likes of the SITA Trust.

Here’s two examples of funding provided for the type of conservation projects I’m referring to – £325,000 over 10 years through HLS for the National Trust at Bickerton Hill and nearly £1million for Surrey Wildlife Trust’s heathland restoration (tree felling, scrub clearance, turf stripping, controlled burning, grazing) of Chobham Common over 10 years also via HLS.

It’s also telling that an alternative to these highly managed landscapes – rewilding has not been promoted or embraced with any real enthusiasm by the main conservation organisations, but has been brought to the table by the likes of George Monbiot and smaller conservation organisations like Trees for Life.

Perhaps the tide is changing with the growing interest in rewilding, but even projects championed for their naturalness, have been diminished by the use of livestock grazing, as in the case of “Wild” Ennerdale where cattle are favoured over roe deer (around twenty roe are culled each year) or the Forestry Commission/Suffolk Wildlife Trust/RSPB’s version of “rewilding” at Dunwich Forest where secondary landscapes are restored with the use of Dartmoor ponies.

One solution to remedy the lack of naturalness in the UK is the idea of untamed nature reserves to complement species preservation reserves and traditional agricultural reserves; with the latter two accommodating managed nature. Untamed nature reserves, would ideally receive no management and the longer they were free from human intervention, then the more importance would be placed on them. For me this would create a wilder Britain and help nature conservation in the UK get back on track. The wildwood may be long gone, but some of its naturalness could live on.

Footnote: Steven Robinson/Apus Apus says: January 6, 2016 at 6:07 pm

I want to point out that the figure I used for woodland coverage in 2015 (11.8%) is inaccurate, as I mistakenly used information from 2010 (Sorry – not sure how that happened!). The most update figure I can see is from 2014. This says that woodland coverage in the UK is actually 13%. (http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/WAPR2014.pdf/$FILE/WAPR2014.pdf)

A 1.2 % increase in 4 years is pretty impressive, but does not diminish my point that there is a considerable lack of woodland compared to historical times, especially when half of it is made up of conifers. It also compares unfavourably to most other European countries (for example, Spain has 36%, Germany 32%, and France 29%). In addition, ancient woodland only covers 2% of the UK in 2014 with 400 sites under threat from development (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26340039).

Despite this increase, the Woodland Trust reports in 2014 that the number of trees being planted in the UK is falling far short of targets for creating new woodland.

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/forests/10896910/Too-few-trees-planted-to-protect-woodland.html)

The following are just some of the Comments that flowed out of Steven’s Blog:

Ian Carter says: December 29, 2015 at 8:26 am

I agree with much of what you say. It’s a difficult issue though because we have so few semi natural areas left that we have to make choices about the sorts of wildlife that we want to look after. If we don’t intervene to prevent natural succession then we will lose a lot of wildlife. Not just butterflies and plants but bitterns, bearded tits, marsh harriers, woodlark etc etc. Having said that I do think that naturalness should be valued more highly. Nature reserves can feel more like theme parks these days with their fences, walkways and information boards. When a new site is bought as a nature reserve the first thing that often happens is some of the wildlife habitat is destroyed in order to provide space for people. Boardwalks, hides and visitor centres all take up space and all detract from the ‘natural’ feel of the site. Even the wildlife is not expected to fend or itself. Often the birds are provided with limitless food and little man-made boxes for them to nest in. One of my favourite habitats to spend time in is woodland that is often described by wildlife bodies as ‘neglected’ which says a lot about our attitudes.

 

Andrew Lucas says: December 29, 2015 at 9:10 am

I very much enjoyed this blog, as a thoughtful and provocative contribution to the debate about the direction of nature conservation in Britain.

All conservation is about choices and, to quote Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. So what do we want? I’ve spent much of my career trying to conserve flower-rich marshy grasslands in south Wales. They are places of immense wildlife and cultural value; look at the number of Welsh place names with the element ‘Rhos’ in them. One threat, if you want to call it that, is the cessation of cattle grazing and succession to birch woodland. That woodland would be of value for wildlife, but then we don’t have a massive shortage of that in Wales. But we are down to our last marshy grasslands. Do we really want to lose them, in the name of some vague idea of naturalness?

I’d dispute that conservation organisations have not been open to allowing succession to take place. Look at the Cwm Idwal NNR project, where grazing was excluded in the late 90s, a visionary project by CCW staff long before ‘rewilding’ was heard of. But that was also a choice, in that case to try to extend the habitat for cliff plants and create woodland in exchange for upland acid grassland.

Untamed nature reserves are an idea I’d love to see tried. But we need to think about where we do it and what we want. Babies and bathwater and all that.

 

Jonathan Wallace says:  December 29, 2015 at 10:00 am

A well written and thought provoking piece. I think your last paragraph provides a sensible objective i.e. the creation of untamed nature reserves to complement more traditionally managed reserves. I think the latter will remain important because of just how unnatural our entire countryside has become – we are thousands of years away from the wildwood and the processes that then intervened to create habitat patches for non climax species have been largely tamed. I think it is important to intervene to ensure that such species continue to find a space to survive in our country and I would suggest that it is not just butterflies and a few wildflowers that need such help.

We do certainly need areas of wild high forest but even there it would be wise to accept that management may sometimes be necessary. I am thinking, for example, of the Caledonian Forest where control of deer is a management necessity if natural regeneration of the trees is to be possible (and I don’t believe there is any realistic likelihood of wolves being reintroduced any time soon to do the job more naturally). That said, it would be wonderful to have extensive areas of mature woodland with minimal intervention…

 

Roderick Leslie says: December 29, 2015 at 2:54 pm

Steven has done a good job of bringing out some the underlying fault lines in current conservation thinking. Yes, the worship of grazing (and one-size-fits all thinking of all sorts) has to be a concern. Of equal concern – and especially frustrating for anyone involved in woodland – is the perception of doing nothing as ‘naturalness’, especially as it tends to be attached to the widely held feeling that woods don’t change much. I’m afraid we really do have to take responsibility for our actions which have been spectacularly more dramatic than most conservationists realise: most spectacularly, in 1947 49% of our broadleaved woodland was coppice, scrub or bare. By 2002 97% was high forest. But if you ask most conservationists if there’d been much change they’d be rather vague. Then there is the issue of scale: were we looking at 90% of woodland in coppicing that would be one thing, but the opposite is the case with 500,000 hectares of unmanaged woodland in England (and that does not include woodland like the New Forest Ancient and Ornamental where a positive decision to minimise tree management has been taken). There is room for – and a need for – both re-wildling and more intensive management, including more restoration to heathland. And there most categorically is not some mythical return to a lost Eden that simply requires doing nothing: read George Peterken’s ‘Natural Woodland’.

 

jbc says: December 30, 2015 at 3:47 pm

… Also about 20 years ago I went to see Oostvaardesplassen in the Netherlands, an example of rewilding long before the term was invented. When I saw it in the early 90s it was fabulous, stuffed full of birds like marsh harriers with a superb emerging vegetation structure from all the unmanaged grazing from Heck Cattle and Konik ponies and red deer. Back then it was the 6000ha holy grail of non intervention nature reserve management. I saw it again in 2010 and was horrified. Without carnivores it was grazed to oblivion, an ugly barren mess of dead trees and starving or dead animals. The incipient floristic diversity seen 20 years before has gone. It is an object lesson in in the limits of rewilding even over such a large and completely undisturbed site (zero public access) without either carnivores or culling.

For rewilding to work we need both an understanding of the ecological processes that drive diversity (which is what I think is lacking in Steven’s piece) and a huge scale – that’s where Monbiot’s romantic vision fails for me. It’s certainly why I would disagree profoundly with Steven’s blanket criticism of UK nature conservation. I also think he’s being very unfair in ignoring the huge amount of work, both physical and intellectual, being done to explore rewildling as a practical proposition (see eg Sussex WT’s The Mens and Ebernoe/Butcherlands reserves). But you do need scale, and you do need a pragmatic approach. There won’t be wolves back in the SE of England this side of Armageddon.

There is another unmentioned aspect though; coppice and meadows and the like are highly valued and endangered cultural landscapes, in addition to their role for biodiversity. Replacing them with yet more commonplace low biodiversity secondary woodland would be a huge cultural loss as well as a loss for wildlife, a break with 6000 years of human involvement in the landscape. At what point between the invention of fire and the invention of the A bomb does Steven believe that humans ceased to be part of nature?

I’ve long had in interest in prehistoric landscapes, both from a romantic/scientific viewpoint and as a practical reserves manager. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that we have greatly underestimated the impact of our ancestors on prehistoric landscapes, right back into deep time. Completely ceasing to have any input now is probably the most unnatural thing we could do.

 

jbc says: December 31, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Steven, … OVP is an example of the “future natural” you want to see more of, ie starting from a very unnatural situation and then leaving it entirely alone to see what happens. Just like leaving an 8000 year old heathland to turn into birch forest, except that the heathland was an awful lot less unnatural to start with.

BTW, the discussion about what the mesolithic was like isn’t as nearly as closed as you seem to think, even if you have made your own mind up. Vera being challenged isn’t the same thing as there being 100% canopy cover, the debate is still about where reality might have sat between those two extremes. That’s partly what I meant about understanding how important our ancestors were, because I for one think that without them the modern biodiversity of the UK and Europe in general is inexplicable. Advocating a less biodiverse world in the name of naturalness is not, I think, what you intended.

I think we’ll have to differ about the importance of the ecological drivers of diversity(“processes”) in any future natural site if the aim is to conserve biodiversity. But in focusing on the very last fragments of biodiverse grasslands, managed coppice, and heathlands for your proposed abandonment, you’ve picked exactly the wrong target.

The vast majority of these ancient habitats have already gone; if 100% of flower rich grassland was lost, rather than 98%, would those last few scattered hectares of new low value secondary woodland to add to the 00,000s that already exist really make a big difference to Martin Speight’s beloved spiders? I don’t think he’d think so (he was one of my tutors at college – we argued about coppicing then!).

The uplands are a different story. Many are biologically degraded, not the species rich crown jewels of our ancient landscape like the meadows or downlands. They have the necessary scale, and have not on the whole been deforested for anything like as long. Maximum gain for lowest potential losses. Advocating for a radical change in how our uplands are managed, I think you’d be pushing at an open door with most conservation professionals. It’s winning the public round that is the hard part.

Woodlands are more mixed, but given how many unmanaged woods there are your ideas are being put into practice by default, even if the results are not labelled “nature reserve”. But you can also find excellent examples that are reserves, like The Mens which Sussex WT has left to non intervention since they acquired it in the 60s. There’s a lot more dead wood there than in most woodlands, and it’s all the better for it.

I don’t think that there is really any argument about principle here; it’s an argument about practicalities and priorities. I say start by conserving what’s left of the best of what we have, and then get ambitious about rewilding the rest wherever we can. But bringing back nature is a journey, not a fixed destination, and we have to bring enough of the public along on that journey if we’re even going to get to the next skyline. I think we have a lot of work to do on the way.

 

Mick Lacey says: December 29, 2015 at 9:58 pm

A provocative post and well put, but after consideration I cant really agree with too much of it. I speak only as an enthusiastic amateur Bird/Bugs and Botany man, although I am a member of the South Peak Raptor Study Group.There is certainly too little woodland in the UK, but heathland is far more threatened. What chance for the Silver studded Blue, Woodlark or Nightjar if we allow Birch encroachment on all of our lowland heaths? Unfortunately many of our reserves are tiny pockets of a once more widespread habitat, it wouldn’t make sense for an NGO to purchase a remnant heathland for instance and then allow it to revert to woodland. Replicating ancient management techniques as best possible seems reasonable to me,(at least if we want to protect some of our most loved flora and fauna).

I suppose there is the argument that if it cant survive in the modern world then it should be allowed to die out, perhaps you mean this? but what a dull world that would be.

No SSSI should have to pay lip service to dog walkers and day trippers (Bickerton Hill). Conservation techniques are often unpopular but it doesn’t mean that they are wrong.

The beauty and interest of a great Forrest is in its mosaic of habitats, would it really be improved if it was allowed to become a huge wood? I’m afraid the age of a genuine wildwood has gone for ever in the UK sadly.

With the exception of the Woodland Trust, which don’t seem to conduct reserve management I think the UK wildlife organisations do a decent enough job within their means.

To finish on the one point that I do agree with you on, some reserves do feel a little like theme parks with their boardwalks, interactive signposts etc.

 

jbc says: December 31, 2015 at 9:49 pm

The Sussex heaths were certainly (at least) open woodland back in the mesolithic, and I’d be amazed if there were not similarly old dates recorded for other heathland sites too.

But even more generally, and even if we accept your hypothesis that it’s all man made (which I don’t, but since neither of us was there at the time maybe you’re right and I’m wrong about this!) 1000BC is a very very late date to propose for the creation of extensive open woodland/open ground. All those stone circles weren’t built in dense woodland – 1000BC is quite late in the Bronze age – did you mean 3000 BC ie 5000 years ago?

6500 years ago, 4500BC, (UK) minimum (ie the start of the Neolithic) is more like it, and even older on the continent, getting older still as you head east. The time depth of these ancient biodiverse landscapes is one of the reasons that I disagree so profoundly with you about their value to nature conservation as habitats and as cultural connections in and of themselves. I love the romantic notion of returning wild nature too, but let’s get the facts right about where we’re starting from in this debate.

Oh dear that sounds more aggressive than I intended! But you see what I mean about baselines. Thanks for stimulating this debate, Steven. it’s a topic we need talk about more if we’re going to find ways to really make it happen.

 

David McGrath says: December 30, 2015 at 11:39 am

“Crucially, if we do it well, we might also begin to see a greater connection between local people and their environment and their food.

Here’s my dream, I walk into my local butchers, and there I see ‘surrey wildlife trust free range beef’ or ‘Hampshire wildlife trust wild venison’ – and I buy it because I know that it had a good life, and I know it was grazed sensitively to the local environment, and because I know that the money would be going back into doing more of the same -and we both know that it would absolutely sell.” – Absolutely, with the lack of large predators there needs to be population control of the grazers/browsers, provided copper rather than lead bullets/shot were used and the produce marketed at a reasonable price not a fancy ‘premium’ so as to be accessible to more people. Deer are such a problem in many ecosystems now that venison should be almost free! Locally sourced free range Wisent burgers one day?

 

Matt Shardlow says: December 30, 2015 at 4:43 pm

… One other point – nitrate deposition. However attractive the concept of naturalness, we are deluding ourselves if we believe that we can withdraw our influence. Not only are we slowly warming up all the habitats – well alarmingly so if today’s reports that the temperature at the North Pole is currently 1 degree centigrade – 30 degrees higher than it normally is – we are also changing habitat fertility.

Nitrates from burning fossil fuels and fertilizers are exceeding the critical limits of most habitats. This means that they are subtly but profoundly less ‘natural’ than they would once have been. This effects plant growth, competition, ground temperatures, bare ground and many other ecological processes. At one extreme we are losing the bare open ground that are entirely necessary for the continued existence of a wide range of endangered species – for instance sand lizards and heath tiger beetles on heathland – but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Steven Robinson/Apus apus says: December 30, 2015 at 8:56 pm

Matt – In my last paragraph I suggested a solution that should please everybody – untamed, species and agriculture reserves. I’m realistic to know that the cultural interventions used in UK conservation is not going to stop, so on the flipside why can’t areas be left as wildland?

 

– I believe that these areas can still be natural even though they will be very different to woodland 7000 years ago. It will be natural, as long as it is free from human influence. Ecosystems will simply accommodate the new conditions that they face.

– Why will species go extinct – when I am proposing three different categories of reserves? Rather than thinking what lives here, why not think what could live here? If the uplands experienced ecological restoration for example – if they went from degraded to an environment that contained more trees and scrub – how can that not be a good thing? You mentioned the fear within conservation of losing their pot of money to rewilding, but apart from initial land purchase, removing fencing etc it should not be a significant cost in the long-term, unless you wanted to reintroduce species as there will be little or no management.

 

Matt Shardlow says: December 31, 2015 at 12:11 am

Not a thing wrong with your vision of a spectrum of intervention levels across a series of wildlife sites. Indeed, if it delivers a much larger area of connected habitats and reduces the fragmentation of the most endangered habitats then it is not only sensible, it is also an essential progress towards a sustainably healthy natural environment in Western Europe.

The problem is the assumption that what we have achieved in terms of halting the declines in certain species, is firstly adequate to halt all extinctions and is secondly in a steady state.

When you look at the vast majority of species the declines are still widespread and rampant. Not only are invertebrate extinctions continuing, the amount of funding and level of activity by Government has dropped since the zenith of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan in the late 1990s. Funding for work conserving the less glamorous species has been slashed – Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund – gone, BBC Wildlife Fund – discontinued, Environment Agency species work – discontinued, Landfill Sustainability Fund – slashed by a third in the latest budget, etc. For more on the impacts of these cuts on the conservation of a globally endangered species see more here – https://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/matt-shardlow-ceo/britain-too-poor-wildlife

The work of the RSPB and others on a small number of our closest relatives may give the impression that UK extinction is yesterday’s problem, but for the 75% of declining butterflies and moths, the bevy of endangered bee species and the cornucopia of beetles on the brink this is not the case. Not only is their condition getting worse, the efforts to address this are in decline.

While you are right that in the long term rewilding should be cheaper per hectare than the retention of the more sensitive habitats and species, in the short term it will not be politically acceptable to simply turf people off the land, (can you imagine a modern day Enclosures Act in reverse?). Either attractive land purchase offers will have to be made, or more likely landowners will have to be supported financially to repurpose their land. This is expensive and probably not easily achieved through CAP, so that’s much more expensive than it is now. It would be good to think that rewilding would simply be taking the fences down, I am not sure it will be that simple, a lot of farmers will want more fences – ‘wild in there, but not amongst my lambs please’. In any case there will be really substantial set up costs, so you do come back to the question – where will this money come from?

You say that “It will be natural, as long as it is free from human influence.” we might want to look more closely at this statement. If we are heating it up with CO2, fertilising it with NOX, defining its boundaries, deciding when to intervene or not intervene, allowing a whole bunch of plant species we have gathered from every corner of the planet to run riot, introducing and managing big mammals, visiting, managing access and disturbing, then the idea that it is ‘free from human influence’ seems a little fanciful. Of course the alternative is to conclude that we evolved from other apes, we are part of nature, and the above activities are all perfectly natural things for us to do!

 

Matt Shardlow says: December 31, 2015 at 6:03 pm

My apologies if I leapt a couple of squares ahead re. turfing people off the land. It would be possible to do rewilding without significant land ownership reform, but we would have to find a way of maintaining the livelihoods that depend on the current management of the landscape, and as the areas would no longer be agricultural they would not qualify for agri-env payments – hence would need a new long term funding mechanism. The alternative is of course land purchase, which could be compulsory or voluntary, the first is cheaper, more effective, but not politically acceptable, the second is expensive and unreliable – the rewilded areas would be those where the land owner was willing to sell.

I caution against implying that conserving species in the UK may not be important because other countries have more endemic or globally threatened species, other countries also have more wilderness than we do; it’s just not an argument for leaving it to others to do what is right for a healthy planet.

You acknowledge rewilded areas will still require a considerable management effort to negate latent human impacts such as the invasion of non-native plant species and the effects of having removed the top predator (not quite sure what your justification for unblocking drains would be?).

Do you also think we need to take action in the same areas to strip soil nutrients and/or remove vegetation to mitigate the impacts of nitrate pollution? If not why not?

Do you think that we need to create bare ground to mitigate the loss of coastal and river bank erosion? If not why not?

Do you think we need to maintain open areas to mitigate the loss of circumlocutory herds of large grazing mammals? If not why not?

Why would we be free from responsibility to manage our impacts on succession?

Following the last ice age very large areas of the UK were bare ground, the uplands rubbed raw and rocks and parent material smeared over the landscape by glaciers. The colonisation of this desolation by trees would have taken centuries or millennia. We are now in control of the global thermostat, and hence the future of glaciation, so what does this mean for rewilding and vice versa.

In my view we have to take responsibility for our species and its impacts. We have to take positive action to help the other species that we are putting in danger, it is our duty to the wonder of life that we must acknowledge the huge harm that some of our actions cause and do our utmost to mitigate and remediate those impacts. Most nature conservation efforts have been back foot defensive measures – because this is all that can be afforded – they tend to be small scale and intensive, although there are of course great examples of large scale conservation with lower intensity management – the Abernethy reserve, the Great Fen Project, Knepp, etc. We will have to have more such projects in the future, but I think it would be a tragedy if we did not also do much more across the board to prevent the current declines and extinctions…

 

Matt Shardlow says: January 1, 2016 at 11:51 pm

I do like your blog Steven! And do think there is plenty of common ground on rewilding being a concept that could help us to achieve a range of objectives. I do think it is worth fully exploring our motivations, objectives and expectations.

The funding question may be difficult but it is important, currently as set out huge decline in investment in saving most species, how will rewilding be funded, and where will the money come from?

Nitrates come out of the air, not just via water, plants including trees can absorb them, but they are derived from fossil fuels and deposits and recirculating thousands of tons of them into ecosystems every year is having a profound effect. There has been a 6-fold increase in N deposition rates since 1860, and it is predicted to double again by 2050. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10021-014-9765-5#/page-1

We are literally fertilising the planet. There is more about what can be done at site level to mitigate global fertilisation here – http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/510481/1/Stevens%202013%20Site%20management%20to%20reduce%20N%20impacts%20CCW1037-1.pdf

But how what this means for rewilding is less clear.

It is also important that we are clear that nature can of course cope with everything, including being swallowed by a black hole, but life on Earth would not cope with this, and fertilisation of habitats at current rates is more than many species can cope with. Unless we take responsibility for this impact, then nature will of course adapt, but that may mean more nettle-beds and fewer species…

 

 

Today’s Cultural Desire For Love

YouGov, the global market research company has offices in 21 countries around the world in countries as diverse as China and Saudi Arabia finding out what people are really thinking.

Recently, they asked people across the world what they most wanted in life, and noticed a fascinating discrepancy. “Love” came top of the wish list in most Western countries including the UK – while in Asian and Middle Eastern countries it’s much further down the list, with good health and money more popular options. It’s a powerful reminder that the concept of romantic love that dominate pop songs, movies and our general understanding of what makes a good life is really a relatively recent Western invention.

The Anthropocene – Has a New Geological Epoch Arrived?

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/07/human-impact-has-pushed-earth-into-the-anthropocene-scientists-say?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Green+Light+main+080116&utm_term=148691&subid=13038048&CMP=EMCENVEML1631

Human impact has pushed Earth into the Anthropocene, scientists say

New study provides one of the strongest cases yet that the planet has entered a new geological epoch.

By Adam Vaughan, The Guardian, Thursday 7 January 2016.

There is now compelling evidence to show that humanity’s impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and wildlife has pushed the world into a new geological epoch, according to a group of scientists.  [Possibly – do read on though. ML].

The question of whether humans’ combined environmental impact has tipped the planet into an “Anthropocene” – ending the current Holocene which began around 12,000 years ago – will be put to the geological body that formally approves such time divisions later this year.

The new study provides one of the strongest cases yet that from the amount of concrete mankind uses in building to the amount of plastic rubbish dumped in the oceans, Earth has entered a new geological epoch.

“We could be looking here at a step-change from one world to another that justifies being called an epoch,” said Dr Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and an author on the study published in Science on Thursday.

“What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”

He said that the scale and rate of change on measures such as CO2 and methane concentrations in the atmosphere were much larger and faster than the changes that defined the start of the Holocene.

Humans have introduced entirely novel changes, geologically speaking, such as the roughly 300m metric tonnes of plastic produced annually. Concrete has become so prevalent in construction that more than half of all the concrete ever used was produced in the past 20 years.

Wildlife, meanwhile, is being pushed into an ever smaller area of the Earth, with just 25% of ice-free land considered wild now compared to 50% three centuries ago. As a result, rates of extinction of species are far above long-term averages.

But the study says perhaps the clearest fingerprint humans have left, in geological terms, is the presence of isotopes from nuclear weapons testing that took place in the 1950’s and 60’s.

“Potentially the most widespread and globally synchronous Anthropogenic signal is the fallout from nuclear weapons testing,” the paper says.

“It’s probably a good candidate [for a single line of evidence to justify a new epoch] … we can recognise it in glacial ice, so if an ice core was taken from Greenland, we could say that’s where it [the start of the Anthropocene] was defined,” Waters said.

The study says that accelerating technological change and a growth in population and consumption have driven the move into the Anthropocene, which advocates of the concept suggest started around the middle of the 20th century.

“We are becoming a major geological force, and that’s something that really has happened since we had that technological advance after the Second World War. Before that it was horse and cart transporting stuff around the planet, it was low key, nothing was happening particularly dramatically,” said Waters.

He added that the study should not be taken as “conclusive statement” that the Anthropocene had arrived, but as “another level of information” for the debate on whether it should be formally declared an epoch by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).

Waters said that if the ICS was to formally vote in favour of making the Anthropocene an official epoch, its significance to the wider world would be in conveying the scale of what humanity is doing to the Earth.

“We [the public] are well aware of the climate discussions that are going on. That’s one aspect of the changes happening to the entire planet. What this paper does, and the Anthropocene concept, is say that’s part of a whole set of changes to not just the atmosphere, but the oceans, the ice – the glaciers that we’re using for this project might not be here in 10,000 years.

“People are environmentally aware these days but maybe the information is not available to them to show the scale of changes that are happening.”

The international team behind the paper includes several other members of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s Anthropocene working group, which hopes to present a proposal to the ICS later this year. The upswing in usage of the Anthropocene term is credited to Paul Crutzen, the Dutch Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist, after he wrote about it in 2000.

Prof Phil Gibbard, a geologist at the University of Cambridge who initially set up the working group examining formalising the Anthropocene, said that while he respected the work of Waters and others on the subject, he questioned how useful it would be to declare a new epoch.

“It’s really rather too near the present-day for us to be really getting our teeth into this one. That’s not to say I or any of my colleagues are climate change deniers or anything of that kind, we fully recognise the points: the data and science is there.

“What we question is the philosophy, and usefulness. It’s like having a spanner but no use for it,” he said.

Gibbard suggested it might be better if the Anthropocene was seen as a cultural term – such as as the Neolithic era, the end of the stone age – rather than a geological one.

Evidence we’ve started an ‘Anthropocene.’

  • We’ve pushed extinction rates of flora and fauna far above the long-term average. The Earth is now on course for a sixth mass extinction which would see 75% of species extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue
  • Increased the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 120 parts per million since the industrial revolution because of fossil fuel-burning, leaving concentrations today at around 400ppm and rising
  • Nuclear weapon tests in the 1950’s and 60’s left traces of an isotope common in nature, 14C, and a naturally rare isotope, 293Pu, through the Earth’s mid-latitudes
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that micro-plastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with our fertiliser use. According to some research, we’ve had the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years
  • Left a permanent marker in sediment and glacial ice with airborne particulates such as black carbon from fossil fuel-burning

 

Energy Efficiency is Top Priority for Tenants In 2016

http://www.property118.com/energy-efficiency-is-a-top-priority-for-tenants-in-2016/83438/

Energy efficiency is a top priority for tenants in 2016.

Jason McClean – Published on 07/01/2016

As the winter weather worsens, it is not only home owners who are concerned about the increasing costs of keeping warm. Double glazing is seen as the top priority for the next rental home for 80% of tenants, research by PropertyLetByUs.com revealed.

An approximate 10 million British families live in a home with a leaking roof, damp walls or rotting windows, with damp, condensation and mould being a huge problem in many rental properties as a result of single glazed homes.

A spokesperson for Discount Landlord said: “It is clear that properly insulated and double-glazed properties are highly sought after by tenants as they enter 2016.This means that landlords offering accommodation which is not up to standard should begin improving their properties as soon as possible.”

“Landlords should look in to getting Rent and Legal insurance to protect themselves against any void periods that may occur as tenants move for new jobs at the start of the year,” added the spokesperson.

According to figures from the EU, UK homes are among the most expensive to heat in Europe as a result of poor maintenance and insulation.

 

Bird Brick Houses

A brilliant idea to help some of our declining bird populations and give an added enjoyment to your home!

The genesis of Bird Brick Houses can be traced back to 2001, when Duncan McCutchan (co-founder along with his wife Jenny) while rebuilding his parents’ home, incorporated nest holes in the flintwork walls. The nest holes were an immediate success, with birds proving keen to take up residence.

Duncan and Jenny’s farming background, passion for wildlife and the countryside, allied to Duncan’s building expertise (he still runs a longstanding building business alongside Bird Brick Houses), created the perfect synergy for taking this early, somewhat niche success and developing it for far wider use in brick walls. Brickwork presents entirely different issues when incorporating nesting boxes, but the realisation dawned that if a design could be found for an integral solution, the wildlife benefits would be endless, given the prevalence of brick usage in construction.

During 2002, when not working on building projects or installing and monitoring barn owl boxes in East Sussex, Duncan started work on a prototype bird brick house, which then collected dust on the bedroom floor for 6 years. No progress was made until 2008, which saw Duncan working on a barn conversion to be featured in the TV programme Restoration Man. He incorporated a nest hole in the structure and the subsequent airing of the show, in March 2010, gave him the impetus to see the bird brick house idea through to fruition.  After much trial and error, the design and the mould were finalised during 2012.

In 2013 Bird Brick Houses was formed and the first bird boxes were produced. The fledgling company constructed a stand for the Ecobuild 2014 exhibition at the Excel Centre, London. Duncan and Jenny were astounded by the extraordinary level of interest; Bird Brick Houses carried off two significant show awards and numerous other awards have followed.

Eco build 2014, Ian, Caroline, Jenny and Duncan.

Bird Brick Houses is proud to have supplied many construction companies including BAM, Barratt Homes, Berkeley Construction, Kier Group, Redrow, Telford Homes and Wates Construction.

Bird and bat boxes are manufactured at Bird Brick House’s premises in East Sussex. Variations on the basic design continue to evolve, as a result of bespoke requests for boxes to be used either in unusual applications or in conjunction with non-standard construction methods.

Duncan and Jenny’s aim is to make people aware that despite inhabiting a highly populated world, ways need to be found of nurturing and protecting wildlife for this and future generations. They strongly believe that bird and bat boxes are an excellent way of providing for wildlife in every building.

The founders would like to thank friends and family for all their support and belief in our venture to get us to where we are now. Thank you!

T:01323 488732 enquiries@birdbrickhouses.co.uk Follow us: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

Bird Brick Houses Ltd. The Old Parlour, Wilbees Farm, Arlington Nr Polegate East Sussex BN26 6RU Patented Product UK No: 1005180.3 Registration Community Design No’s: 001319065-0001/0013190650002

 

Rising UK Food Imports Burden Developing Countries

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14183616.Rising_UK_food_imports_burden_developing_countries_with_high_environmental_costs/

Rising UK food imports burden developing countries with high environmental costs

Ben Tufft. Wednesday 6 January 2016.

THE UK now imports more than half of its food, burdening poorer developing countries with the environmental costs, according to a new report. At least two-thirds of the land required for the UK’s food and feed for animals is in foreign countries – resulting in 64 per cent of the related greenhouse gases being emitted abroad.

It is claimed the damage done by the country’s agricultural requirements is being “outsourced” to areas such as South America and Southeast Asia, where the UK sources its food and feed for cattle. Since 1986, the area of land required for British food needs has grown by 23 per cent, matched by a 15 per cent rise in harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

A farming method that can appear relatively environmentally friendly from the UK perspective is often not from a global standpoint. Cattle can be intensively grazed in the UK for example, but the feed may have been grown on land that was formerly rainforest, causing huge ecological impacts.

Kath Dalmeny, coordinator at Sustain the alliance which campaigns for better food and farming policies, said: “It looks as if our carbon footprint from food production is going down, but a lot of it is external. It has made us complacent and we have to take responsibility.

“The biggest impact is the food we eat. It has by far the biggest footprint. If we moved our diets to a better balance with more plant-based foods we would reduce our impact massively. For those who can afford it, we are encouraging people to buy food grown more sustainably, such as by organic farming. Anyone who buys food could be using their money to encourage the better methods of farm production. There is far too much waste in the food chain – shockingly a third of food is thrown away. Things could be done to reduce food waste at all levels.”

The report, published in the Royal Society journal by academics from universities including Aberdeen, recognised the difficulty in effectively producing food for a growing global population sustainably, and called it one of the 21st century’s “major challenges”.

It said: “The UK is currently importing over 50 per cent of its food and feed, whereas 70 per cent and 64 per cent of the associated crop land and greenhouse gas impacts, respectively, are located abroad.

“These results imply that the UK is increasingly reliant on external resources and that the environmental impact of its food supply is increasingly displaced overseas.”

Despite this import trend saddling developing countries with environmental damage, the report noted it facilitated economic development through international trade and by providing jobs.

Professor Tim Benton, the UK champion for global food security and an expert in sustainable farming, said the issue concerned the production of food rather than the transport by air, ship or road to the UK.

“There is absolutely an issue of off-shoring the impacts of importing our food. The air miles of transporting a pack of butter from New Zealand say, are almost irrelevant. But the production side can have a huge footprint. A single green bean grown in Kenya, a drought-prone country, requires a gallon of water to be produced, so if someone throws away a pack that has gone slimy at the bottom of the fridge they are effectively throwing away a bathtub full of water from that country.”

DEFRA Proposals to Protect Farmland Could Make Flooding Worse.

http://www.anglingtrust.net/news.asp?itemid=2851&itemTitle=Defra+proposals+to+protect+farmland+could+make+flooding+worse+and+damage+wildlife&section=29&sectionTitle=Angling+Trust+News

DEFRA Proposals to Protect Farmland Could Make Flooding Worse and Damage Wildlife.

January 6 2016.

Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference today (Wednesday 6 January) announced a number of measures which could increase the risk of flooding in towns and cities and cause widespread damage to the environment, according to the Angling Trust.

Today’s announcement from Defra states that the department will be allowing farmers to dredge ‘ditches’ without seeking permission from the Environment Agency because they ‘know their land best’. This follows a series of pilot projects last year, the results of which failed to make the case for further deregulation of dredging (note 1).

In 2014 the Angling Trust, water engineers and wildlife groups expressed grave concern about any increase in wholesale dredging because the evidence from the Environment Agency shows that in many cases it simply increases the speed and volume of water heading into main rivers which will then flood more towns and cities. They commissioned a report from the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) entitled “Floods and Dredging – A Reality Check” which was presented as evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into the 2014 floods (note 2).

The Defra announcement goes on to say that investment in flood defences will protect a million acres of prime farmland from flooding. Once again, this proposal makes no sense; stopping rivers flooding fields upstream will only increase the discharge of water downstream where it will cause damaging flooding of homes and businesses.

The Angling Trust is writing to the Secretary of State calling on her to reconsider these proposals and to look not at how farmland can be protected from rivers, but how rivers can be better protected from unsustainable farming that is causing widespread soil erosion and massively increased levels of surface water run-off. Modern farming techniques using larger machinery, high stock densities and particularly the huge expansion of maize production (subsidised by tax payers to generate energy from anaerobic digesters) are responsible for depositing millions of tonnes of soil and billions of gallons of water into rivers every year, contributing to flooding and causing pollution of rivers and coastal waters with sediment, pathogens, pesticides and fertilisers.  This increases the cost of treating water for public supply which drives up water bills.

The press release mentions ‘efficiency’ cuts to the Environment Agency and Natural England, which have already lost many expert staff over the past 8 years in a series of cuts. They have also been banned by Defra from developing policy, which means that the evidence-based approach promised by the government has been replace by policies driven by politicians who don’t understand basic hydrology.  An EA report demonstrating that dredging does not reduce flooding was removed from all government web sites, but the Angling Trust is today re-publishing it in the interests of transparency (note 3).

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, who is speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on Thursday 7th of January said:

“Dredging to protect farmland was responsible for decimating wildlife in many rivers in the 1960s and 70s and it is unbelievable that the Secretary of State for the Environment is seeking to go back to those bad old days. It is scandalous that the Government has hidden from public view the advice of its own experts on the dangers of unregulated dredging and ignored the findings of the study into the pilot dredging projects.  The evidence shows that the best way to reduce the risk of flooding is to manage land upstream to reduce the flow of water and soil off fields, rather than pouring more concrete into flood defences and dredging small streams.  Furthermore, many ‘ditches’ are in fact important fish refuges and wildlife habitats; unregulated dredging could do great damage to these ecosystems and the economic benefits to rural communities arising from angling.”

Martin Salter, National Campaigns and Policy Coordinator for the Angling Trust, added:

“At a time when communities are mopping up after the floods which devastated the downstream areas of many river catchments it beggars belief that government ministers are even considering deregulating practices which their own experts have told them will move water downstream even faster. This is a policy that puts farmland above homes and they need to think again.”

Notes:

  1. EA Report into dredging pilots: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489751/LIT10356_River_Maintenance_Pilots_Findings_Report_Final.pdf
  2. Floods and Dredging – A Reality Check’: http://www.ciwem.org/media/1035043/floods_and_dredging_-_a_reality_check.pdf
  3. EA report on the impacts of dredging: EA Evidence Report on the Impact of Dredging.