I’ve just watched the first in the new series of the brilliant Peaky Blinders. If you’re not a fan, it’s a sort of historical drama set in the Black Country in the 1920s. “Sort of” because it does bend credibility in the service of a good yarn, but it’s a cracking piece of TV drama. The cast is fab and the production terrific; it has a real period feel to it.
The opening episode of Peaky Blinders series 4 finished with a cliffhanger. A bunch of Italian hitmen gun down two of the leading characters outside a farmhouse, seemingly fatally. It was a dramatic scene. Gunsmoke drifted over the bodies. The climbing rose on the farmhouse wall was in full flower. The hedges and trees were that bright green of midsummer.
Slightly confusingly, the hoods hid in a cart carrying hay bales. A bit early in the season, to be honest. No matter. Utterly bizarrely, though, was that the scene was specifically set on Christmas morning. And, apart from me, no-one seems to have noticed how strange that was. I guess the producers just didn’t realise. Or they thought viewers wouldn’t notice that Christmas in 1925 fell in June. Or there was some weird local climate change thing going on around 1920s Birmingham.
It’s another small but telling example of something I’ve been rattling on about for years. From the 2.3 million people who watched it there seems to have been nobody who noticed this bizarre lapse. Does this make me a sad freak? I can only guess the producers gambled that most of the folk who watched it don’t know what nature in England looks like in late December. They can’t have a clear mental image of what nature in England looks like at all.
How depressing that everyone is so disconnected from their natural environment.
I popped up to Windsor Great Park yesterday for the launch of a project called “Back From The Brink“, or BftB. What a fascinating time I had.
BftB is aiming to save 20 of our most threatened species from extinction. It’s going to run 19 projects across England and involves seven of the country’s leading wildlife conservation charities. This in itself is great news – this number of specialist NGOs working together is fantastic. Natural England are also involved, and the government seem keen too (it’s free!). I was there with my Bumblebee Conservation Trust hat on. Daisy from the Trust is running a project to help the Shrill Carder Bee, which by a happy accident can be found – if you’re very lucky – a few miles down the road from us in Somerset.
The day itself was very good fun. There were some excellent speeches, particularly by Sir Peter Luff, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who are the main funders of the project. The presentations and then tree planting in the Park with schoolchildren reinforced two key elements of what programmes like Back From The Brink have to do. They have to connect and engage. David Lindo, the urban birder, was very good on this. We must demystify nature and use social media more effectively to get people to understand it’s not something that just happens “in the country”. It’s all around them, and it’s fascinating.
The kids loved the planting. It was hard not to wonder whether any of the oak whips they were planting would live as long as the magnificent Signing Oak overseeing us like an ancient guardian. This wonderful tree, with all its social history, seemed to represent the kind of legacy we must not lose.
After lunch on the hoof we adjourned to the forest, where in a section of ancient beech the Violet Click Beetle is hanging on. It’s only found in three places in the UK, so “rare” would be an understatement. The Crown Estate is running a project to try to save it. It’s a classic illustration of how tricky some of BftB’s work is going to be. Violet click beetle larvae live inside the base of veteran beech and ash trees, of which there are very few left. Windsor forest has some lovely ancient beech, but there is a 50-100 year break in the continuity of trees. After the veterans then nothing until young, non-decaying trees. No decay, no Violet click beetle. What to do? Sarah Henshall explained two approaches – making an artificial decaying tree trunk, and for the longer term, fungal inoculation of younger trees to accelerate decay.
Back From The Brink’s work is going to be as difficult as it is important. I hope too that it will serve as a template for conservation NGOs to work together under the same umbrella. It’s so important that we don’t just save some of our flora and fauna from extinction, but that we tell their stories too.
Like 10.3 million other people I have been stunned by Blue Planet 2. In terms of ratings it has knocked the socks off Strictly and the ailing X Factor. It is just superb. Gorgeous, dramatic, authoritative. All our millennial children and their friends watch it. They have Blue Planet parties to watch it.
The sainted David Attenborough*, now an extraordinary 91, dodgy knees and all, has absolutely connected with this generation via the wonders of BBC production quality. It is an extraordinary feat. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
At a time when the under 30s seem so disconnected with the natural world, Blue Planet is a really important chink of light. There IS real interest in our environment and what is going wrong with it. We need to communicate this much, much more effectively and urgently.
Everywhere I look in the conservation world I find earnest middle aged (ok – late middle aged!) white men like me. We have a lot of good things to offer, but we don’t get that spark. Programmes like Springwatch don’t get it either. The lobbying organisations that ARE good at communication with under 30s are usually badly informed and/or crass. Everyone is under-financed.
How do we make green back gardens as sexy as the blue planet?
*without wanting to sound a major suck up, I met Sir David once at a Butterfly Conservation do. He was an absolute sweetie and despite me being rather star struck wrote me a very kind letter. This is pinned up in the office and we quote it shamelessly on the website.
An interesting day in London last week, at a meeting to discuss the decline in pollinating insects. There were some interesting and highly competent folk there and some interesting initiatives, although it seemed to be entirely bee related. Also, tellingly, I was the only person there from the commercial sector. Again. This lack of engagement between the commercial sector and NGOs and academics is hopeless.
Random take aways? Not too gloomy, as it turns out.
Pollinator numbers don’t seem to be as declining as fast as they were in the 1970s and 1980s – thank goodness. Declines then seem to be linked to pesticide use and collapse in wild red clover populations due to changing farm practices.
Weirdly, although we don’t know much about what is happening in the UK about pollinators, we know more than nearly everyone else about what’s happening in their own countries.
Managed honeybee numbers globally seem to be increasing, but in the UK reflect weather, disease, and the availability of forage.
Bumblebee survival seems to be directly related to quality of habitat.
Local councils could easily do a lot more to encourage biodiversity, reduce park management costs, reduce CO2 emissions and engage local communities. Good things happening here.
“Wild bees” seem to suffer from honeybee diseases related to varroa.
Yes, pesticides are a hell of a problem. 40% of honey at the recent Apimondia show was rejected because of impurities. Yuk.
I spent a fascinating day at Kew yesterday listening to lectures on wildflower seed. It was hosted by NASSTEC, a hopelessly complicated acronym for the even more complicated Native Seed Science Technology and Conservation Initial Training Network. This is an EU funded project to find out about who is doing what in the world of native plant seeds, and to share that information. Very worthwhile it has been too.
One of the interesting topics that came up yesterday was an old bugbear of mine – certification and seed quality. If you buy a wildflower seed mix you want to know:
1. That the seed in it is what it says on the packet
2. Where it’s from
3. That it can germinate
I don’t think this is unreasonable!
Weirdly, however, I don’t have to tell you any of that on the packet. The seed might be from Vladivostock, it could be 10 years old and might just be grass seed. I have my supplier’s assurance about its origin and quality, but that’s all. We randomly test some seed mixes ourselves, but it’s an expensive business and so we can only test a tiny number of batches.
Not declaring anything about seed origin and quality suits the less scrupulous. Producers can use non-viable seed bought in from outside the UK, or different species than are in the specification. Resellers can store seed in inadequate conditions for years until selling it to you. As incredibly, there’s no standard protocol that wildflower seed producers are obliged to follow. There are no guidelines about storage, for example – different producers use different regimes as to humidity and temperature.
Whatever the reasons, there’s clearly a problem with the germination rates and content of some seed mixes supplied by some folk. Sadly I think this situation might suit them; it was notable that in a room full of academics, ecologists and specialist seed producers that I was the only seed reseller.
I would guess that the overwhelming proportion of wildflower seed mixes sold to retail buyers are poor quality and of dodgy origin. They’re too cheap to suggest otherwise. They often look peculiar. They sometimes include agricultural cultivars and odd surprises. Specialist wildflower seed producers and harvesters only seem sell around 5% of their seed to individuals*, but it feels that the total amount of wildflower seed being produced by these guys is very small compared to the total volume sold. There are only around 10 specialist producers in the UK, and most of these are tiny.
The market is so opaque that some resellers don’t even tell customers that they’re not actually producing the seed they sell themselves.
It won’t surprise you that this state of affairs is unusual. They have well organised independent certification schemes in the U.S. and in Germany, and identify and audit seed origin and propagation in France.
There’s no point existing producers getting together here and producing some kind of quality assurance mark. It wouldn’t be seen as independent. If it were auditable it would be expensive. Consumers wouldn’t know to look for it and won’t know if it’s missing. It only suits a tiny number of producers who are trying to do the right thing. The government must legislate. It’s only with this that struggling small scale producers can be rewarded for doing the right thing, and that we can consistently create really high quality wildflower projects.
There wouldn’t be the money to create a testing framework but a move to the French system – so that you can see the origin of the seed and producers have some kind of protocol to follow in production techniques – would be a good start. I do hope organizations like Kew, Plantlife and perhaps even the RHS might understand this and lobby for it.
Meadow seed mixes come in several forms, but it had never struck me that hand collected mixes might be one of them. There are generally four types of meadow seed mixes; let’s call them generic, bespoke, direct harvest and green hay.
Generic meadow seed mixes are usually 80% grasses 20% wildflowers. They consist of seed harvested from plants usually grown in controlled environments, so that you can guarantee their exact composition. They consist of a limited number of common species but can provide a really good starting point to establish a meadow. This has obvious advantages; you know exactly what you’re getting and the seed mix should be pretty much bombproof. This approach can also be used to create bespoke mixes, which produce different visual or ecological results. You can create blue mixes or mixes for particular butterflies, for example.
We’re big fans of direct harvest mixes. These are seed mixes which you collect and clean from existing wildflower meadows. If produced carefully they provide a wide range of species with high floristic content – usually something like 50% wildflowers to 50% meadow grasses. They also have a specific geographic origin. This is important for many reasons; viability, local ecosystem, persistence, local distinctiveness. We’ve even set up a website promoting them.
I’ve also come across green hay, which sounds alluring but actually… isn’t. The idea is straightforward; take a hay cut from an existing meadow, collect the hay, strew the hay over the target site, remove. What could possibly go wrong? Well, actually, a lot. The logistics of this sort of operation are horrendous, as you can imagine. And hay from the donor site is only going to contain a small % of the species there, most of which won’t have set seed at the right moment. It’s also very difficult to find the right donor site.
Hand collected seed mixes were something new for me. Their advantages are obvious. Good and specific species representation, as they’re collected across a wide time window and combined after cleaning. Specific provenance. High floristic content. What’s not to like? Well, potentially, the cost! As you can imagine, per kg these mixes are much, much more expensive than their competition. Here’s an odd thing, though.
I’m writing from deepest Norfolk, where I’ve just been learning about what the folk at Abbey Farm in Flitcham have been up to. A dedicated team of harvesters has been hard at work collecting and processing seed for a large local project. It’s taking a while, as you can imagine, but the important thing is that it’s doable. Fantastic. There are simply fabulous wildflower meadows at the farm which supply most of their needs, and painstaking research gives them an appropriate species list.
I do have a reservation, though. This is an unbeatable approach if you have a wonderful source of seeds (which Abbey Farm is) and either deep pockets or very poor fertility soil. Let me explain. It’s obviously very labour intensive to hand pick individual seeds, clean them manually and combine them into a mix. Consequently, it’s expensive – very expensive. Having said that, the recommended seeding rate is the lowest I have ever seen – by factors. You seed “normal” meadow seed mixes at 3 to 4g per square metre, which seems ludicrously little to most people. These hand picked mixes are recommended to be sown at 0.5g. 0.5g! Even allowing for the very high proportion of wildflowers, this is very low. This rate means on a per square metre basis the different types of mixes are similar prices.
On any medium to high fertility soil this will be asking for trouble, however, as it will be rapidly overwhelmed by docks, thistles, and nettle – among other nasties.
So if you have a top donor site nearby and very low fertility soil or deep pockets, this is a great option…
Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
There’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
The kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.
Yesterday I saw two papers on neonicotinoids and bees. They are the first large scale look at how these systemic pesticides affect bees in the field. We’ve known for some time that neonicotinoids have bad effects on bees in the lab, which is hardly surprising. They are pesticides, after all. The big argument has been about how they affect bees in the real world.
The Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) looked at honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Their paper aimed “to quantify the impact… of two commercial neonicotinoid-based seed treatments in commercially grown crops of oilseed rape”. As usual, the results the results have thrown up more questions. People will continue to argue about methodology, I’m sure. In essence, however, the conclusion is that the neonicotinoids harmed both “wild bees” and honeybees.
Ironically, Syngenta and Bayer funded the study. It was their neonicotinoids which were used. Led by the unfortunately named Dr Schmuck, Bayer CropScience are now scrambling to re-interpret the results and are adamant they are not conclusive.
A second paper, however, published in Canada, reached similar conclusions. It looked at neonicotinoid treated maize and honeybees. It has more bad news, as Buglife point out:
The Canadian study also found that the common fungicide boscalid almost doubled the toxicity of neonicotinoids to bees. This is significant because a recent paper showed that 70% of the plants that people buy from garden centres to help garden bees contain neonicotinoids, and 48% also contain boscalid (Lentola et al. 2017). This suggests that gardeners may be unknowingly poisoning pollinators in their efforts to try to help them, a factor that may be associated with recent declines in numbers of urban butterflies (Dennis et al. 2017).
We knew how toxic the combination of insecticides and fungicides is to bee colonies. This first came up when scientists were looking at Colony Collapse Disorder in the U.S. Now we can worry about the scale of the problem.
Three things have continued to irk me throughout this shambles. Firstly, we still know nothing about how these pesticides affect other pollinators. Secondly, what are the less damaging alternatives to neonicotinoids? Farmers claim they would have to use lots more pyrethroid based pesticides to control, for example, flea beetle. Conservationists claim they wouldn’t.* Why is this debate STILL going on? Let’s have some fact based policy! And this take us to the third point. Why have we been using these pesticides for so long without knowing what damage they might be doing? We are supposed to follow the Precautionary Principle. Instead, we seem to chase short term financial gain. Our environment is too precious to turn it into a kind of giant chemical experiment.
*no prizes for guessing where I stand on this one.
Tree bumblebees, Bombus hypnorum, were the main topic of conversation on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust stand at RHS Chatsworth last week. I last blogged about them in 2013, but it seems there’s a need to get more information out!
Both the BBCT and the BBKA (the British Beekeepers’ Association) are swamped by people asking for help with honeybee swarms, which turn out to be Tree Bumblebee nests. I get calls here too as I’m on the local swarm collection list. As the name suggests, Tree Bumblebees nest… in trees. Failing that, birdboxes or small holes in eaves make lovely snug nests for them. This is unlike our other bumblebees, which nest underground. It’s also unlike honeybees, which need bigger spaces to make colonies in.
It’s unusual for a bumblebee, and its behaviour fools many. Tree bumblebees are new arrivals, driven here by climate change around 2000/2001. They’re thriving, and are now one of the “big eight” of common bumblebees in the UK. Combine this with the cloud of drones which whizz around outside the nest entrance, and their habit of nesting in more obvious locations, and lots of people reach for the phone.
Please don’t! A honeybee swarm is quite different. The bees look very distinctive and there will usually be many, many more of them. Tree Bumblebees might look black from a distance, but they are actually a very smart brown, black and white. Like all bumblebees, Tree Bumblebees will nest for a season, so they’ll only be a temporary nuisance if they’re in the way. And they’ll help pollinate your fruit and veg!
For my sins I have spent several hours recently tramping around local estates delivering election leaflets. This has provided a fascinating insight into the average local garden. The real ones – not like you see on Gardener’s World or the Chelsea Flower Show.
I make this distinction because gardening seems to be treated by the visual media like cooking. Millions of people love to watch cookery videos but live on take-aways and fish fingers. Millions love to watch Monty Don and his dog but have urban gardens full of rusting barbeques and decking.
So what does Monty think his typical viewer’s garden looks like? I assume he’s in the same bubble as the celebrity cooks, so he’s going to be well wide of the mark. Well, at least in this part of the world, they generally don’t look great.
They fall into four groups:
1. Immaculate. Unusual. Typically heavy on the veg and cut flowers, head gardener of pensionable age.
2. Struggling. Possibly aspiring to immaculate but time and knowledge poor. Some weird sights. Gnomes.
3. Jungle. Lost engine parts and bits of recycling the foxes have messed about with. The odd child’s toy.
4. Hard landscaping. Cars on breeze blocks. Marestail the only green thing.
In total, not very encouraging for Monty – or for wildlife.*
Firstly, jungle is – contrary to popular belief – not great for invertebrates. I aspire to a balance between 1 and 3. This combination was almost non-existent, interestingly. My favourite garden was one which had a kind of delicate urban meadow going on, with Fox and Cubs and Trefoil in the lawn. Judging by the veg, here was a competent gardener, but one who could give nature a nod with an aesthetically pleasing and time saving feature.
Secondly, jungle is mostly the look of rented houses and – consequently – becoming more and more prevalent. Why on earth should young renters bother?
Thirdly, the more modern the house the more miniscule the “garden” and the more aggressive the hard landscaping. This is appallingly obvious, not the least because of the almost complete absence of pollinators in recently built areas. And these are areas surrounded by “countryside”.
So I took myself off to the local meadow by way of an antidote. Even here there seemed to be fewer bees than there used to be. Maybe the cold spring has been hard for them. Oh well. Here’s a nice picture of an orchid from the meadow anyway; Monty – or Nigella for that matter – would be pleased.
*Talking of which – people! – go easy on the damn slug pellets!