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.
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.