Some of Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust’s 27 ponies at Beachy Head working hard in the spring sunshine, removing tussocky grass and so allowing the anthills and flowers to thrive.
July 4. Flock of about 20 oystercatchers perched on one of the reefs that run out here and there along the beach at St.Leonards this afternoon.
July 8. Trained to Brighton… Beautiful show of hollyhocks at Berwick station, real cottage flowers! Scrub is still being allowed to increase in area at a number of locations along the Firle Escarpment Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is one of SE England’s major landscape features and if attitudes, government grants, and funding for Natural England staff do not change before too long, this majestic view will be lost to future generations. In a field near Firle, saw windrows of straw from an early combined crop of cereal. People who criticise on aesthetic grounds the Rampion wind farm some 10 miles seaward of Brighton, should turn their gaze 90 degrees and consider the factory chimney (aka i-360 attraction), parked on Brighton’s promenade! Evening withdrawal of some evening train services meant I was stuck on Lewes station for about an hour from 8-45pm but I was rewarded by one of Nature’s spectacles. I became aware of lots of jackdaw chatter emanating some 200m away in trees in Southover Road. Over the next hour, wave upon wave of jackdaws came in low over the station from the south-east, many beginning to chatter on their final approach to their companions already settled amongst the crowns of the tall trees. I was left wondering how they all managed to fit into the the available space. Home at 22-45!
July 9. Sensible dogs, and Englishmen go out in the midday sun! Why sit on baking-hot pebbles when you can lay on cool, damp ones or even better, in the water!
July 14. Buff-tailed bumble bees bottoms-up on artichokes on my allotment.
July 19. during the evening, I counted some 20-24 swifts over the centre of St.Leonards. Another couple of weeks and I guess they’ll have largely departed south.
June 17. A dear friend of mine went for a walk out from Alfriston today, in the heart of the South Downs and through the Cuckmere Valley. He was commenting on the “crops gently swaying in the breeze. How lucky we are to have such diligent farmers growing our fine food.” I don’t know about diligent, they and the agro-chemical industry have certainly messed-up the once wonderful balance that used to exist between farming and wildlife.
There is a middle way of doing things, note The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project is based at Loddington in Leicestershire – (https://www.gwct.org.uk/allerton/about-the-allerton-project/ ) Or the RSPB’s Hope Farm, a 181-hectare (450-acre) arable farm in Cambridgeshire (https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/farming/hopefarm/the_farm.aspx ) The government and public opinion just need to encourage and finance farming post Brexit along that route.
He wrote on: “The Cuckmere river is in a state, either side of white bridge it can’t be more than 6′ [feet] wide, strangled with weed & silt!” Man interferes with rivers at his peril – note all the Environment Agency schemes across the country reinstating river’s natural features and their courses, back to how they naturally once were in various places across the country. So maybe as it’s not built over, its time to consider breaching the Cuckmere’s banks and let the river re-connect with its floodplain?
I’ve been rather silent on the blogging front lately –
During mid-February I went down with what I term, the ‘flu bug from hell.’ It took me a month to recover from it, I not having been that ill for probably decades. Since October I have been in the process of purchasing a new property. What a long drawn-out, inefficient process! My own solicitor was brilliant but that can’t be said for the vendor’s solicitor or for a property management company involved. Finally during March, I handed over a large amout of money and the big day arrived and so I now reside in an urban environment – something I haven’t done for some 15 years, within the metropolis of Hastings and I’m really enjoying it! Seaside, gardening and when I find the time, new areas of countryside to explore.
The bout of illness brought about prematurely, my retirement, something I was intending to do when I moved. Having been involved with the ponies for some 17 years, the almost 24/7 responsibility was starting to become more and more a grind and I’m not getting any younger! I set up the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust back in 2005 following my departure from the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. It’s so great not to have any responsibility for livestock! That said I am servant to my wonderful 3-legged cat who’s also having to get used to a more urban and, a more restricted life-style.
So returning to blogging… I’m not sure how it will evolve. I certainly want to get back to publicising and promoting environmental and wildlife issues but it’s likely there will be items from other fields. So, watch this space…
The following article reflects concerns I have had for decades – the loss of soils by un-enlightened farming practices. Admittedly, some of the best – Walton’s at Alciston and Ellis’s of Litlington are making an effort now with methods involving no ploughing. In the 1980’s, I can recall soil, flint, seed corn, being washed for over a mile on the Downs!
We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it.
George Monbiot, Wednesday 25 March 2015.
Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.
It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.
Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction.
To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.
The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation. A paper just published in the journal Anthropocene analyses the undisturbed sediments in an 11th-century French lake. It reveals that the intensification of farming over the past century has increased the rate of soil erosion sixtyfold.
Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.
Whenever I mention this issue, people ask: “But surely farmers have an interest in looking after their soil?” They do, and there are many excellent cultivators who seek to keep their soil on the land. There are also some terrible farmers, often absentees, who allow contractors to rip their fields to shreds for the sake of a quick profit. Even the good ones are hampered by an economic and political system that could scarcely be better designed to frustrate them.
Why are organic farmers across Britain giving up?
This  is the International Year of Soils, but you wouldn’t know it. In January, the Westminster government published a new set of soil standards, marginally better than those they replaced, but wholly unmatched to the scale of the problem. There are no penalities for compromising our survival except a partial withholding of public subsidies. Yet even this pathetic guidance is considered intolerable by the National Farmers’ Union, which greeted them with bitter complaints. Sometimes the NFU seems to me to exist to champion bad practice and block any possibility of positive change.
Few sights are as gruesome as the glee with which the NFU celebrated the death last year of the European soil framework directive, the only measure with the potential to arrest our soil-erosion crisis. The NFU, supported by successive British governments, fought for eight years to destroy it, then crowed like a shedful of cockerels when it won. Looking back on this episode, we will see it as a parable of our times.
Soon after that, the [then] business minister, Matthew Hancock, announced that he was putting “business in charge of driving reform”: trade associations would be able “to review enforcement of regulation in their sectors.” The NFU was one the first two bodies granted this privilege. Hancock explained that this “is all part of our unambiguously pro-business agenda to increase the financial security of the British people.” But it doesn’t increase our security, financial or otherwise. It undermines it.
The government’s deregulation bill, which has now almost completed its passage through parliament, will force regulators – including those charged with protecting the fabric of the land – to “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. But short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival. This “unambiguously pro-business agenda” is deregulating us to death.
There’s no longer even an appetite for studying the problem. Just one university – Aberdeen – now offers a degree in soil science. All the rest have been closed down.
This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it. Now, globalisation ensures that this disaster is reproduced everywhere. In its early stages, globalisation enhances resilience: people are no longer dependent on the vagaries of local production. But as it proceeds, spreading the same destructive processes to all corners of the Earth, it undermines resilience, as it threatens to bring down systems everywhere.
Short-term growth at the expense of public protection compromises long-term survival
Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison. What appear to be great crises are slight and evanescent when held up against the steady trickling away of our subsistence. The avoidance of this issue is perhaps the greatest social silence of all. Our insulation from the forces of nature has encouraged a belief in the dematerialisation of our lives, as if we no longer subsist on food and water, but on bits and bytes. This is a belief that can be entertained only by people who have never experienced serious hardship, and who are therefore unaware of the contingency of existence.
It’s not as if we are short of solutions. While it now seems that ploughing of any kind is incompatible with the protection of the soil, there are plenty of means of farming without it. Independently, in several parts of the world, farmers have been experimenting with zero-tillage (also known as conservation agriculture), often with extraordinary results.
There are dozens of ways of doing it: we need never see bare soil again. But in the UK, as in most rich nations, we have scarcely begun to experiment with the technique, despite the best efforts of the magazine Practical Farm Ideas.
Even better are some of the methods that fall under the heading of permaculture – working with complex natural systems rather than seeking to simplify or replace them. Pioneers such as Sepp Holzer and Geoff Lawton have achieved remarkable yields of fruit and vegetables in places that seemed unfarmable: 1,100m above sea level in the Austrian alps, for example, or in the salt-shrivelled Jordanian desert.
But, though every year our government spends £450m on agricultural research and development – much of it on techniques that wreck our soils – there is no mention of permaculture either on the websites of the two main funding bodies (NERC and BBSRC) or in any other department.
The macho commitment to destructive short-termism appears to resist all evidence and all logic. Never mind life on Earth; we’ll plough on regardless.
- A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com
Storm Angus. Well, after a night of listening to the wind in the trees and the rain lashing down, I received text at 6-30am from my colleague Sally saying as she lives not too far away, she’d go and check the electric fencing on the 3 coastal pony grazing sites near Beachy Head. 7-30, she text to say she’d sorted the battered fences at Frances Bottom. 8-30am and another text, saying that the cliff top fence at Shooters Bottom towards Belle Tout was in one hell of a mess, so I phoned and said I’d set set-off immediately to assist her. This fence would have taken the full brunt of the storm.
When I arrived on site at 9-30, I’ve not seen electric fencing so blown about, some it in small heaps even with the odd metal stake still attached and within it! We basically had to untangle the three lines of wire and tape, and re-erect most of the 850 metres of the cliff facing fence, we finishing at about midday. Conditions were very windy at first and quite cold but at least it was dry.
These two pics I took just before 9-30, before starting work and showing the white surf on the rocks below Belle Tout and the fencing largely laying on the ground.
We then went on to Birling Gap and fortunately Nick the looker there for today is quite practical and he’d turned the power off and had just about finished re-ercting sections by the time we arrived. Fortunately, it usually works that the ponies move away from the wind thus retreating from where the fence is being damaged and where they could get out. Just for good measure, I then walked the 1700 metres of fencing at Ashdown Forest on the way home.
Statistics. The shipping forecast was for the possibility of a Force 10 Storm but out at the Greenwich Light Buoy, 20 miles out from the coast off Peacehaven, the maximum wind speed briefly recorded was at 7am and at 75mph, technically into the Force 12 Hurricane zone. (This, it has to be remembered is over open sea where wind speeds are a little higher).
Cosmic clue to UK coastal erosion
By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent
7 November 2016
Recent centuries have seen a big jump in the rates of erosion in the iconic chalk cliffs on England’s south coast. A new study finds that for thousands of years the rocks were being beaten back by the waves at perhaps 2-6cm a year. The past 150 years has seen this retreat accelerate 10-fold, to more than 20cm a year.
The speed-up was clocked with the aid of a smart technique that tracks changes induced in rocks when they are exposed to energetic space particles.
The research, led from the British Geological Survey and conducted by Martin Hurst and colleagues, is reported in the leading American journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The group believes the findings will help us understand some of the coming impacts of climate change. “Our coasts are going to change in the future as a result of sea-level rise and perhaps increased storminess, and we want this work to inform better forecasts of erosion,” Dr Hurst, currently affiliated to Glasgow University, told BBC News.
The research was centred on East Sussex and its towering cliffs at Beachy Head and Hope Gap.
Originally laid down 90 million years ago, these soft chalk faces are now being eaten away by the relentless pounding they get from the sea.Rood and Hurst on the platform. Image copyrightMARTIN HURST ET AL
Care is needed because the platform’s exposure can appear more recent than is really the case.
Dr Hurst’s team was able to estimate the pace of this reversal by examining the amount of beryllium-10 in nodules of flint embedded in the eroded platform in front of the cliffs. The radioactive element is produced when cosmic rays – that constantly shower the Earth – hit oxygen atoms in the flints’ quartz minerals. The longer the nodules have been exposed, the greater their build-up of beryllium-10.
At Beachy Head and Hope Gap, the gently sloping platform, which is only uncovered at low tide, extends seaward several hundred metres. It represents all that is left after millennia of cliff removal.
“The lower rates of erosion that we report – about 2.5cm at Hope Gap and around 6cm at Beachy Head – are averaged over that timeframe – through about the past 7,000 years of the Holocene,” explained Dr Hurst.
“But comparing that to observations based on topographic maps and aerial photography of the last 150 years – the difference is quite stark. These historical observations from 1870 to the present suggest erosion rates of 20-30cm a year at the two sites.”
Flint nodules. Image copyrightMARTIN HURST ET AL
The team removed flints for beryllium testing in a line perpendicular to the cliffs. The estimates of change in the deep past are tricky because the platform appears younger than it really is. This stems from the fact that its surface continues to erode downwards, removing its oldest exposed flints. The regular tidal covering of water also has to be considered because it will restrict the flux of cosmic rays reaching the platform, thus limiting the amount of beryllium that can be induced in the nodules.
But the team is confident in its analysis and puts forward some ideas to explain the recent big up-tick in erosion. These concern the available gravels at the foot of the cliffs that constitute the beach. Ordinarily, this material acts as a buffer, limiting the energy of crashing waves.
But there is good evidence that the beaches in this region of the south coast have got thinner through time and perhaps therefore offer less protection today than they once did. In the modern era, groynes and sea walls have been erected further down the coast and these may have interfered with the along-shore transport of gravels. And further back in time, several hundred years ago, it is possible also that there was a phase of more storms. These could have removed significant volumes of gravel and pushed the rates of erosion into a new, more aggressive regime that persists even now.
Co-author Dr Dylan Rood from Imperial College London told BBC News: “The coast is clearly eroding, and Britain has retreated fast. A nearly tenfold increase in retreat rates over a very short timescale, in geological terms, is remarkable.
“The UK cannot leave the issue of cliff erosion unresolved in the face of a warming world and rising sea levels. Cliff erosion is irreversible; once the cliffs retreat, they are gone for good.”