Following a very critical letter in the British Wildlife journal from Sussex campaigner Dave Bangs, below is my response to BW on his views on Knepp, conservation funding, estates in general, land use and ownership:
I would like to respond to Sussex campaigner Dave Bangs letter (BW 27: 455) in response to Peter Marren’s inspiring article concerning rewilding on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex (BW27: 333-339).
Firstly, the comment DB makes about ecologists lecturing on behalf of wealthy estates and concurrently the loss of posts in public-sector conservation bodies are not directly connected. The withdrawal of Government monies from these bodies (and the NHS), is part of a much wider debate concerning this country living within its means and poorly considered political decisions made by the previous Government. Maybe the odd conservation body should reconsider how they spend their budget?
Sadly, the rosy days of funding for wildlife and conservation during the 1990’s now seem far behind… I feel quite angry when I see decades of my own work unravelling before my eyes! Chalk grassland ungrazed; rights of way now largely un-maintained; the loss of tens of thousands of elm trees – a speciality here in East Sussex. Then there is the neutering Natural England…
He argues that this and other lands should not be favoured with public monies. I feel that strategically placed, relatively modest-scale projects such as Knepp should be encouraged in the hope that they will provide oases for the more mobile wildlife species (and people). The small percentage of land involved in such schemes is on a world-scale, not worth even contemplating. I would be the first to agree that the current agri-environment scheme is not ideal but I disagree with DB’s left-wing, politically-tinged assault on the amazing work being carried out at Knepp. Also in Knepp’s defence, it does produce a quantity of excellent meat. As DB states, it is part of the somewhat “more resistant farmlands of the Weald,” land that often requires a great deal of effort, inputs and capital, to make a living from within these difficult times. Sadly, global food prices are a part of today’s modern world – farmers cannot exist within their own little economic bubbles.
The statement concerning Eastbourne Borough Council’s decision to “sell its iconic and wildlife-rich downland estate around Beachy Head” smells a little of red herrings. Admittedly not a decision I am happy with but the selling of four mainly ‘grassed-down’ arable farms (this sale being made incidentally with no public consultation input), does however, not include the “iconic” coastal chalk grasslands. The other estate referred to is presumably the Rathfinney Estate vinyard near Alfriston, which one has to say is a great improvement on the rolling, sterile acres of cereals that were its former use. Additionally, this Estate has made efforts to conserve scrubby, previously long un-grazed chalk downland and to encouraging wildlife elsewhere within its landholding.
I feel that sustainable food production should be concentrated on the good productive lands that (currently) have little wildlife interest, but, with a modest amount of tweaking based on work such as carried out at the RSPB’s Hope Farm. The current rewards for ‘lip-service’ to the current agri-environment scheme, that is often the case at the moment must be ended. Let us hope that post Brexit, we will gain a far more wildlife-friendly agri-environment scheme, fair to our wonderful landscapes, fair to farmers and sustainable – but I for one, will not be holding my breath for that!
Monty Larkin. (Has worked for the Sussex landscape and its wildlife for 40 years. Founder and until recently Grazing Co-ordinator of the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust. Visit www.sussexponygrazing.co.uk)