Plight of Our Chalk Grasslands

I feel that it’s now pertinent to reappraise, to question, why and how we move forward with conserving our iconic chalk grasslands.  So, two questions come to mind for me and I shall here attempt to answer them.

1)  Where does the conservation of chalk grassland fit into a much broader, evolving view of nature conservation in today’s Britain of the 21st century?

2)  Can we, and how do we justify the expenditure of the currently very limited amounts of funding and resources, in dealing with the threats to conserving our chalk grasslands?

To try and answer the first question we need to begin by looking backwards…  The latest cutting-edge research is very much pointing to the following scenario: that it was likely that the chalk grasslands of southern England following the retreat of the last Ice Age, were fairly open – perhaps a mosaic of grassland and scrub with occasional stands of woodland on the deeper soils. With the arrival of Man some 10,000 years ago, who practiced ‘intentional’ hunting, followed by approximately 5,000 years later the introduction of farming,  it was likely that this open, grassland habitat on these lighter soils of the chalk would have been encouraged by the increased grazing with the occasional breaking-up of relatively small areas of grassland by effectively shallow, ‘organic’ tillage, this soon being recolonised by the large wild seedbank, once cultivation had been moved on.  Chalk grassland was further enhanced over millennia peaking during the medieval period and again during the 18th and 19th centuries, with the arable element waxing and waning according to the demands of the market place.

Chalk grasslands are today, largely an inconvenience on most farms that include such areas; they are just somewhere to hold some livestock during the occasional pinch-point or in some cases, are simply disregarded, (several unacceptable examples to be found on the Firle Estate in the BoPeep area, pictures below).  However, chalk grassland forms one of this country’s great biodiversity assemblages, rich in both flora and fauna and comparable in this respect to tropical rain forests.  We have though, regrettably lost during the past century somewhere in the region of 97% of this treasured habitat.  (Incidentally, the UK ranks as 29th from the bottom out of 218 countries assessed upon their remaining richness of biodiversity!).

As to the answering of the second question…  We are now conditioned by some 70 years or more of interventionist conservation or ‘gardening,’ of our prize wildlife habitats including the one under discussion.  Oddly, nearly all our designated landscapes (National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are valued primarily for their cultural value and not for their true potential wildness.  Challenges faced by chalk grassland have been: the slump in agricultural production (grazing) during the first half of the twentieth century and following hard in its heels, the demise of the rabbit population and the fragmentation of farmland from the post-war industrialisation of farming.  Then more latterly there are the repercussions of bovine Tb restricting where cattle can safely graze.  All four challenges have led in general, to courser and ranker chalk grassland vegetation and also in places, to its loss.

But there are more recent, more sinister threats to chalk grassland which a century ago would have been virtually unheard of: nitrogen pollution; destruction from the use of pesticides and lastly, climate change.  To briefly explain: nitrogen compounds emanate from the various types of exhaust emissions released into the atmosphere.  These have almost certainly led to soil enrichment (most wild flora requiring nutrient-poor soils) aiding the spread of the rampant, native tor grass (Brachypodium rupestre) across much of the chalk grasslands and now possibly the increasing occurrence of soft brome grass (Brachypodium sylvaticum).  These grasses are of little use to modern breeds of farm livestock.  Then there has been the use, often indiscriminately, of artificial fertilizers.  Also affecting chalk grassland is the diffuse drift of spray from the widespread use of a whole host of chemicals.  Finally, there is the enormity of climate change which we’re increasingly being affected by and can only guess at what impact this will have in the future on this habitat.

So, we as a nation – national and local government (I castigate national government for their emasculation of Natural England!), NGO’s, (I here single out the National Trust’s achievements as being exemplary), with assistance and encouragement from the public, must continue to fight for and safeguard our chalk grasslands.  Continued, sympathetic grazing by farmers and land managers together with well-considered control of scrub where thought necessary, are vital to safeguarding this much threatened and very finite wonder of the natural world here in the UK.  Education too of course of our younger generations also has a vital part to play in the longer-term struggle.

 

A West Dean Garden and Elm Loss

Saturday, July 7th.  Had a beautiful, enjoyable afternoon, including a trip down Memory Lane!  Went to an Open Garden event in aid of the Family Support Group at The Long House in West Dean near Seaford.  The owners have over the past six years created an extensive, beautiful but compartmentalised cottage garden containing a wide variety of plants.

Part of the garden at The Long house.

After, we visited the nearby churchyard and church.  I used to know the village well and a number of its then inhabitants when I lived and worked over the hill at Exceat during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Upon leaving the village spotted one of the last fair-sized elms in the area starting to die from Dutch Elm Disease.  Further up the valley at Lullington and especially sad for me, one of the last sizable elms has at last surrendered to this dreadful disease. It is the only example in the area of a Smooth-leaved Elm of the variety diversafolia.

Variety ssp. diversafolia back in 2012.

I managed the East Sussex Dutch Elm Control project between 1997 and 2004.  Due to mis-management and cost-cutting, it unraveled two years later and failed, after a total of some 30 something years and the expenditure of millions of pounds of public money.

July Sightings

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.

Thoughts on Farming and Rivers

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.

Yellowhammer RSPB

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?

Return to Blogging


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…

Soil Erosion

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!

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/25/treating-soil-like-dirt-fatal-mistake-human-life

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 [2015] 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

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.

20161120_094656

20161120_094707

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).