The Ecological Apocalypse (Again)

Chris Packham hit the headlines this weekend by announcing that the UK was facing an ecological apocalypse. Yikes.

He’s right of course, but as apocalypses go it has been rather protracted. I wrote about a book called Silent Summer in 2010, which itself referenced an American book, Silent Spring (1962). Both featured similar conclusions. We have had over 50 years of ecological apocalypses.

And people don’t care about them.

They don’t care for three reasons.

Firstly, they are unaware they’re happening. This is partly a consequence of  Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Essentially,  new generations aren’t aware of the degradation of the natural environment because they’ve got nothing to compare it with. My mum had fond memories of country walks through clouds of butterflies. There were certainly reasonable numbers when I was small. Our children are delighted to see one. It’s also true that most people in the UK are now urban dwellers. To some degree or other they’re suffering from nature deficit disorder. They’re removed from the natural environment, physically and psychologically.

Secondly – perhaps as a consequence – people in the UK don’t really care about the natural world.  This might seem odd in a nation of Springwatch viewers, animal lovers etc etc but nature has never polled well here. Political parties of all colours have ignored it for years as a result. Voters vote for all sorts of reasons, but environmental policies ain’t one of them. Ask any Green Party activist.

Ecological Apocalypse
Not you again…

Lastly, those that are listening are suffering from apocalypse fatigue, as noted above. There are only so many apocalypses anyone can bear. One apocalypse is overwhelming enough, but when they come along one after the other you can only do one of two things. Hide under the sofa or convince yourself that the experts are all wrong and that things will get better. Tell anyone who will listen that around you the birds are doing well and the countryside looks lovely and green (etc. etc.).

What was so interesting about the Blue Planet effect is that, while the problems it portrayed are really massive (e.g. global warming, ocean acidification…), people felt they could do something to help. They could fight their own battles as individuals or groups against plastic.

And this is the answer. We don’t need apocalypses. We need to understand what is happening (in a hurry!) and communicate it effectively. Extinction is an ugly word and one people respond to. We need to feel we can do something ourselves that will have a material effect on the problem. If it actually does have a material effect that’s even better. As Chris Packham says, we can fix this.

Not an Ecological ApocalypseThere are projects that do this. I went to one yesterday, with a collection of very jolly mayors. Making a Buzz for the Coast is a great initiative*  helping bumblebees and other pollinators along 130 odd miles of Kent coast. It has partners across government, NGOs, corporates and communities and will very definitely make a difference.

*very kindly endorsed by Mr. Packham, too!

Birds In the Garden

I’m a terrible birder. I recently went out to buy boxes for the House Martins I saw around us, only to discover they were Swallows. If I’m being honest, I’m generally less obsessed by birds than by the stuff  they eat.

By that I don’t mean I have a weird fetish for bird food.

The bird population is a really good indicator of whether we’re doing the right things in our gardens. By creating and sympathetically managing (attractive and) varied habitats we can really make a difference to the volume and variety of seed and tasty morsels available for them.

And the birds hereabouts need a bit of help. Staying with friends in the South Downs National Park in Sussex last weekend we noticed how loud and varied the birdsong was compared with the surrounding countryside here.

Garden birds
Blimey – it’s a long way down!

Most of our boxes here are full though (including one which might have been taken over by dormice, excitingly). At this time of year there’s an excited yabbering coming from them all round the meadow.  Parent tits dash about frantically, carrying big juicy caterpillars. There’s a family of Swallows-not-House-Martins nesting under the eves next to the kitchen too. You get the picture. We have had an unremarkable roll call of bird species, though, but – interestingly – this is now changing.

Garden BirdsAlthough I was working hard in the office this morning (!), a pair of drab looking small birds caught my attention. Sitting on some garden furniture, they were sallying up to roof level to catch insects, then dropping back to their perches. My nice super switched on birding friend Fiona says Spotted Flycatchers.  I’ve heard them in our little forest garden, now I listen to the video on the RSPB site. They’re increasingly rare in the UK and Red Listed.

I guess they’re here because the habitat is right for them. Good nesting sites and lots of tasty big insects. Happy day.

Wildflower Seed Packets on Amazon and eBay

Wildflower seed packets sold on Amazon and Ebay are very symptomatic of some of the things going wrong in my world at the moment. There ARE some very good packets there – but – Jeez – there are some shockers.

"wildflower" seed packet contents
Shoot me now – species in “wildflower meadow” seed packet on Amazon

Some have wildly inappropriate species, including things like foxgloves in “meadow” mixes or aggressive agricultural grasses. Others consist of cornfield annuals and grasses. Many have incomprehensible or no species lists. My favourite horror mixes include things like lavender and a raft of either non-native plants or exotic cultivars. Goodness knows where the seed is from. Mars? Some punters comment their “wildflower seed” comes with Chinese packaging.

These mixes can’t possibly work beyond a year, even if the seeds are viable. It’s not physically possible. Quite apart from all the other obvious issues, when they fail the customers will never try “wildflowers” again. They will write them off as difficult or unattractive

As you can imagine – to declare my interest! – as an impecunious supplier of  pukka wildflower seed packets this completely does my head in. I’ve tried to contact some of the people selling the funny stuff, with varying degrees of success. Those I have managed to talk to express surprise or disinterest and… carry on selling the same mixes.

Weirdly, some of these folk are large seed companies and many enjoy really good seller ratings* on Ebay or Amazon. Or perhaps not weirdly. The packets apparently arrive super promptly and, presumably, well presented. Some of these seeds will germinate pretty quickly if all is well. This is what the buyers want and what the rating system is designed to measure.

You can’t blame people for not understanding that lavender isn’t from around here and can’t possibly exist in a meadow by definition – in the unlikely event it germinated it would get mown out pretty much instantly. Most folk just don’t know – they don’t know what wildflowers are and they certainly don’t know what a wildflower meadow is. It’s another symptom of nature deficit disorder.

These products succeed because they work really well in their unregulated  retail environment. They deliver what the punter is told they want – swift delivery, pretty pictures, instant effect.

This is the reality of how the commercial world works. We should wake up to this kind of thing, and not just turn a blind eye. So far as I can make out, these notional wildflower seed packets sell in pretty good volumes. It has a terribly corrosive effect. We all want to reconnect people with their natural environment, rather than see them drifting further away from understanding it.

*I would encourage you to leave some one star reviews!

Green Brexit Greenwash – and Some More Cheerful News

I have read a great deal about the government’s plans for the environment – a Green Brexit. I have heard Michael Gove speak about it, earlier this year. I read my notes from that Conference over the weekend, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from sudden onset early Alzheimers.

Yes, he did indeed promise  a “global gold standard” in “strengthened environmental protection measures”. He explicitly outlined the need for an environmental regulator “with teeth”, backed by legislation.  This Green Brexit was all somewhat unexpected but, on the face of it, rather exciting.

It turns out that after all these were – well – not promises. I’m not sure what they were. They actually… er… didn’t represent government policy, but were aspirations, whatever on earth that means. The government has announced plans for a new regulatory body for the environment which is purely advisory. It cannot prosecute. What the hell use is this? It’s like having a court which can’t send offenders to jail. Gove has apparently caved in to pressure from the Treasury, who have always seen green regulation as a form of tax on business. Hideously regressive thinking.

Even if this plan is overturned in the Lords – and the signs are encouraging that it might be – I found this news profoundly depressing. Firstly, the Green Brexit landscape Gove has been talking about – aspirationally – will involve significant short term cost, for the tax payer and the consumer (for long term gain). If the Treasury baulks at the first step in this process, what chance does this vision have of coming to fruition?  It has got two hopes, and Bob has just left the building.

Second off, Michael Gove presented his plans for the environment post Brexit as POLICY. It clearly wasn’t, and he is no position to deliver them.

Thirdly, this kind of thing massively undermines public trust in the political process. It seems to happen repeatedly these days. People are fed up with being treated with this sort of contempt. Too many of our politicians don’t seem to understand this, including, it seems, Michael Gove.

*Sigh*

Moving on to more positive news.

One of the reasons I haven’t written much recently is because I’ve been holding down two jobs. One for Habitat Aid, which pays the bills, and the other as a flag waver for the estimable Bumblebee Conservation Trust, for whom I’m a trustee. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bees generally, and I’m a big fan of the Trust for a variety of reasons. I’ve supported them through the business for 10 years now, and watched them do some really good things.

Cheerful News
Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Anyway, I have been organising some events to raise their profile and some money for a new long term investment fund. We’ve been talking about the project to save the Shrill carder bee too. These evenings have gone really well – due to the enthusiasm of the BBCT folk, those involved at the venues, the people who turned up and, most of all, those who signed the cheques.  We’ve had nice fuzzy noises from some great and good who couldn’t make the evenings but want to help. It has been tremendously heart warming and encouraging. Thank you all.

 

 

Which Wildflower Seed Do I Buy?

Where Should I Buy Wildflower Seed?

Here of course! It turns out there are relatively few suppliers of wildflower seed in the UK but a lot of resellers (more or less like us), and a lot of people claiming their mixes are UK wildflowers when they’re not. Be careful – it’s a very poorly regulated area.

Wildflower seedWhat is a wildflower here? I know this sounds like a daft question, but lots of seed packets are mislabelled. To my mind it’s a flower which occurs naturally in the UK and is grown from British seed, harvested in the UK. These are the first things to find out about your seed mix. You often find plants like Cosmos and Californian poppies in “wildflower” mixes sold on Amazon or Ebay.* They’re lovely and long living flowers, helpful to pollinators – but UK wildflowers they ain’t. One of the most attractive and nectar rich mixes we sell is made up of a really good mix of native and non-native species, but that’s what it says on the tin.

There are some very good suppliers out there though, most of whom we work with. Some are tiny, producing only 100kg of seed a year, so difficult to find online.

What Kind of Wildflower Seed Mix Should I Buy?

Essentially, you will find three different types of mixes available from reputable suppliers:

  • Cornfield Annuals: These are the wildflowers that used to be a common site in arable fields – cornflowers, poppies etc.. As they are annuals they need a different management technique and work to make sure they keep setting seed and producing flowers year after year. They have a relatively short flowering window and the assemblage of the standard mixes isn’t the sort of thing you’d see naturally, but they are incredibly easy and reliable and produce an amazing display of vibrant colour. They’re good for pollinators, but not for anything needing to over-winter.
  • Direct Harvest Mixes: These are seeds harvested from existing donor meadows. They’re a combination of grasses and perennial wildflowers. Experienced harvesters will take more than one sweep across a meadow during a season, usually using a brush harvester. Meadows aren’t harvested every year, and the process is fully sustainable. The mixes are cleaned up before sale. They are often only available in limited quantities or sometimes only to order. These are my favourite mixes; they usually have a high ratio of wildflowers to grasses at a sensible price, offer a massive diversity of species, and have precise provenance. If you can find a mix harvested in your area which will also do well on your site, bingo. There’s a case for buying a mix like this even if it is harvested a way away from you. Be wary of certain species, however! You don’t really want a significant rye grass element, for example, or high levels of aggressive grasses like cocksfoot and timothy. Some donor sites will have organic certification. All of them will have had either no pesticides at all used on them or very limited, targeted application of herbicide.
  • Generic Seed Mixes: These are mixes which have been artificially combined – put together species by species. You know exactly what you’re getting, and they can be constructed to give you the right species for your soil type or site. You will find a range of  these too on our website, which for larger projects can be produced to design. They’re really intended as a starting point; they have a relatively limited number of wildflower species included which occur naturally across the UK (at least from reputable suppliers!). This means you miss out on anything slightly unusual or particularly local. Generic mixes can be made up of wildflowers only or a meadow mix, which includes grasses. Usually the meadow mixes are supplied at a ratio of 80% grasses to 20% wildflowers. Don’t be tempted by cheaper mixes produced for agri-environmental schemes which only have 10% wildflowers; 10% is too low for most people. You might also find that the “wildflowers” in these mixes are in fact cultivars. Does this matter? You bet. “Wild red clover” is going to give pollinators better forage than “red clover”. Birdsfoot trefoil lasts much longer than its much bigger cultivars. The grass element should consist of certified meadow grasses. Suppliers may use herbicide in the preparation of seedbeds to produce this seed.

If you are buying meadow seed do please check it has been produced in the UK from UK stock. Knowing about where it’s from is a good way of guaranteeing how it has been produced – you might want to know about pesticide use or year of harvest, for example. There are other good ecological reasons for wanting UK seeds too, ideally the more local the better.

Do I Need Wildflower Seed At All?

To seed a wildflower area you need to clear the grasses and weeds from the area of your lawn / paddock / field before you start. Just a thought – do you really want to do this? If your lawn is anything like ours you’ve potentially got a mini-meadow in your garden already. I let areas of it get a bit higher in the summer to allow the daisies, self-heal, clovers, dandelions, black medick and ground ivy (etc!) to flower.

If you have a field or paddock the chances are it has aggressive modern grasses in it. If you’re very lucky and it doesn’t, you might be able just to add Yellow Rattle in the autumn. Sit back and see what comes up when it takes effect the following year, when the grasses get knocked back. You might not need any more seed at all.

*Some of this seed also has very low viability. Wildflower seed can have very limited shelf life if stored incorrectly.

 

 

Plantlife

Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Plantlife, the plant conservation charity. They do significant work around the country managing land and raising awareness of the importance of wildflowers and the crisis they are in. I’m grateful for their work. The senior people I’ve heard and met from Plantlife know their potatoes and are good communicators, charismatic and impressive.

In terms of the UK conservation world they’re a relatively large, well funded charity. Their turnover is around £3.5 million and their income is largely from government agencies and organisations like the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have over 50 people in their head office and many other volunteers and outreach officers. Their PR is fabulous; as a charity with Prince Charles as patron they are regularly on Radio 4, for example, as they were this morning talking about their Wildflower Hunt (an interesting project). They have over 28 thousand Twitter followers and specialists running their social media feeds. Their website SEO is professional and the site ranks well in searches. This is all great for wildflowers.

But…*

Plantlife don’t seem to like the wildflower seed business. Last year this became apparent in the McMeadows fiasco. They attacked the industry in a pretty ill-informed and unhelpful way. People – including me – were very upset. Essentially they don’t like “off the shelf” wildflower seed mixes of any sort, regardless of quality, origin or provenance. All suppliers, good, bad and ugly were lumped in together.

Wildflower seed harvesting
Encourage Wildflower Seed Producers!

At the time I made the point that we should encourage the development of an economically viable and responsible wildflower seed business, not undermine it. There are very few folk scratching a living out of wildflower seed at the moment, battling people selling imported seed, non-native species and agricultural cultivars as “UK wildflowers”.

NGOs don’t have the resources or incentives to do what the commercial sector can potentially contribute. On a practical basis, if 97% if your wildflower meadows have disappeared then it’s difficult to source local plant material in the way that Plantlife would like us to, in anything like the volume required. They should engage with the good guys and we can all work together.

We pay farmers to let us harvest seed from their meadows, for example, and then sell it. Guess what? They then seed more meadows as they can see a return from them. We have set up a website to enable small specialists to sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixes. It’s to our advantage to encourage people to buy them. These are simple instances of aligning commercial and ecological interests.

I understood Plantlife’s views might have changed since, as they learnt more about the business. I’d heard some encouraging things from them. Out of curiosity I checked their website this morning to see if that was reflected there. In fairness, there was no recent McMeadows stuff. I did find this in their policy document, though:

Planting wildflower seed mixes doesn’t conserve wild flowers or restore fragmented habitats. Worse, it could threaten the distinctiveness and natural genetic variation of our local flora. Our challenge is to conserve wild flowers whilst maintaining their essential wildness. Rather than reaching for a packet of wildflower seed, the Plantlife to-do list looks like this…

Well – yes, sort of. The plant material is often not available to do what they would like us to – that’s the point. You can, however, buy packets of some direct harvest local wildflower seed mixes. The more people we encourage to buy them the more there would be available. Local provenance is something we very much promote, although even the arguments about that are complicated – far, far over my head!

Anyway, although you can disagree with the message at least it’s consistent. But then – just as I was about to close my browser – I noticed that Plantlife now have a shop. I couldn’t believe what they were selling.

Wildflower seed mixes in packets.+

You can understand why I was so gobsmacked. These are the very wildflower seed mixes they disapprove of when sold by other people. This isn’t just unfair, it’s utter humbug.

Plantlife have a huge and obvious competitive advantage over someone trying to make a living out of selling wildflower seed. In some ways this is a good thing, of course – much better to buy Plantlife seed from John Chambers than some cr@p off Amazon or Ebay. In other ways it’s clearly not.

The RHS commercial arm ran into similar accusations of unfair advantage, which they at least partly resolved by promoting good quality UK nurseries and growers, through their Plant Finder scheme and magazine, for example. It would be really, really helpful if Plantlife did something similar.

 

*You knew there would be a but.

+AND sourced from one of our competitors – doh!

 

 

 

 

 

Weed or Wildflower? Which is Which?

I always tell punters one man’s weed is another one’s wildflower. I’m not sure that’s strictly true in most cases. Problematic plants? I know dandelions and plantains can be a struggle for some in the garden, for example, despite their – to my mind – obvious allure.

Wildflower meadow
I see no weeds

Bittercress, dock and nettle – weed, I think, while acknowledging that “weed” isn’t all bad. I have a designated nettle patch that caterpillars much through. And – really – what’s the difference between Rumex obtusifolius (bad), Rumex acetosa (good) and – my favourite dock – Rumex hydrolapathum (fantastic).

I guess it’s a question of degree. We have a little video about making wildflower meadows, in which I made the mistake of saying weed out any thistles. Well, I say a mistake – it’s not; thistles are very efficient colonisers and a real pain in a new wildflower meadow. That’s not to say they aren’t good plants for pollinators and can be very pretty – as was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms (!) – but they can take over. Diversity is what you’re aiming for, and a field full of thistles isn’t that.

Anyway, Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal would not even hit my top 50 of “difficult” plants. We must have sold hundreds of kilos of BFT and Self-heal seed over the years, and thousands of plug plants. They are pretty, small wildflowers. Self-heal is in our flowering lawn mix and Birdsfoot trefoil looks like a native snapdragon. Good plants for a variety of pollinators, BFT particularly good for some bumbles.

I digress.

The point is, according to Farmer’s Weekly, that these two plants are on the naughty step. They are, apparently, “unwanted weeds”, albeit good weeds insofar as they improve fat levels in the lambs that eat them. Hurrah!

This is really irking, but an interesting insight into the psyche of Farmer’s Weekly readers. Many farmers still treat anything not the right sort of grass as a weed.

This has got to stop. I can understand farmers antipathy towards species like black grass and dock. But Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal? For starters, plants like this are good for livestock. You can buy grazing grass mixes which include them. They also have really important ecological value and their numbers are declining.

Perhaps Farmer’s Weekly should start to call them herbs, if they can’t bear “wildflowers”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House Sparrows

For fellow baby boomers, the demise of house sparrows is an obvious and distressing sign of the crisis in nature around us. In a week when we celebrated World Sparrow Day, it was sad to also see a stunning survey from France, showing a collapse in bird numbers generally there.

House Sparrow
It’s cold out there…

Why have house sparrows, a ubiquitous and cheery part of my childhood, run into such hard times that they are now a “species of conservation concern” in the UK? Aspects of their story are entirely typical of many other species in trouble here.

The first common characteristic is that people don’t really know the answer. It’s difficult to research even house sparrows – a pretty charismatic and high profile species. There’s probably a combination of factors at work, so far as I can gather.

Maybe there are fewer nest sites. Availability of food seems to be a problem. It could be that pollution impacts on them, although numbers in town seem to be declining at the same rate as their country cousins. Maybe it’s rising numbers of predators. Disease might also be a factor.

I’ve heard the same answers as to why almost anything is disappearing- bees, bats, butterflies, hedgehogs, crickets…

There is rarely a smoking gun, that’s the point. The environment is much more complicated, to the irritation of many campaign groups. Even if you have a relatively clear cut case – like albatrosses and long line fishing – you won’t save them from extinction purely by banning it. There’s much more going wrong.

It’s impossible to weigh different factors or to isolate them, even if you had the funding to try to. In an area I know more about – honeybees – it’s tempting to point the finger exclusively at the ghastly neonicotinoids. However, honeybees are struggling for a variety of reasons, neonics among them. In no particular order and in combination there’s weather, climate change, varroa, habitat loss, monocultures, fungicide use, pesticide use…

Again typically, elements in the house sparrow story suggest we’re missing a key piece of interpretation. Numbers in the south east seem to be under more pressure than in the south west – why’s that?

As usual, when we don’t know, odder – and unproven – theories take hold. Apparently mobile phones – once held to be decimating honey bee populations – are now also potential culprits for falling sparrow numbers. Sigh.

So what can we do? What we can. Better and more plants, more seeds and bugs in our gardens. Nestboxes, nice thick hedges. Clean feeders. No pesticides. Cross our fingers.

Will We Get a Green Brexit?

Many years ago I failed Latin A Level. My friend Tim and I sat slumbering at the back of a set full of classicists who all – except for us – went on to Oxbridge and have had various and glittering careers. I still remember my sullen admiration at watching those big brains at work. How could they make this stuff seem so easy?

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I went to a conference on Green Brexit, organised by Prosperity UK. Sorry to use the B word – please do read on.

Prosperity UK seems like a very good idea. Remainer or Leaver, their idea is that we should all move on and work together in a post Brexit world to make the best of things. To this end they organised a Conference on “Green Brexit”, which featured a number of wildly impressive brains who would have more than graced my Classics Upper Sixth. It was absolutely fascinating.

Green BrexitMany of the great and good from the world I inhabit were there. Michael Gove, Sir Roger Scruton, Tony Juniper (WWT), Matt Ridley, Helen Browning  (Soil Association), Minette Batters (NFU), Tim Bonner (Countryside Alliance), Lord Glasman, Lord Hill, David Babbs (38 Degrees), Michael Liebreich (Bloomberg), the Goldsmith brothers, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Dieter Helm (Natural Capital Committee), George Freeman MP, Tim Breitmeyer (CLA), Alistair Driver (Rewilding UK). There are some people here whose views I generally don’t get on with, and some with whose I do.

My particular interest was farmland. On which they were all – pretty much – and somewhat to my surprise – singing off similar hymn sheets. There were, certainly, philosophical differences, but for such a Catholic Church there was a remarkable degree of agreement.

Everyone agreed the the Common Agricultural Policy has been hopeless, and that waving it goodbye will present us with some great opportunities. Everyone agreed that we needed to embrace the idea of using public money to pay for things that actually benefit the public – “ecosystem services”. This could include planting trees to reduce flooding, increase biodiversity and sequester carbon, seeding wildflower meadows, establishing wetlands, rotating crops to help soils, rewilding… A Green Brexit could include paying farmers not to use excessive fertilisers, which run off and pollute water courses. It could include managing landscapes for visitors. It might even go as far as including animal welfare. Some of these payments might even come from the private sector. You would think people might pay to stop their homes being flooded, for example.

Most people seemed to agree that this approach had to be based around the idea of Natural Capital. This places a notional value on natural assets – a complicated and somewhat arbitrary set of calculations.  The idea is that the cost to the environment of food production or development is compensated for, and that in the round we keep or add to the sum of natural capital, not diminish it. Natural Capital does hit the buffers in certain regards; how do you value ancient woodland or a medieval wildflower meadow?

An area of unequivocal agreement was that we need – as Michael Gove put it – “the highest environmental and ethical standards”. These would encapsulate some basic principles – such as polluter pays and the precautionary principle, for example – which require a regulator of some kind and legislative teeth. Guess what – in a room full of environmentalists there was ne’er a dissenting voice.

This all sounded pretty Utopian. It was enormously exciting to hear policy makers and movers and shakers talking in these terms. Bright Blue, the Conservative think tank, have already produced a detailed policy paper.

There are, however, obvious issues involved in translating these clever ideas into reality.

In theory the public will end up a massive winner from this kind of reform. The current system encourages waste and inefficiency. We’re largely just paying people to own farmland. Paying farmers to help stop flooding, improve water and soil quality, improve animal welfare, etc etc are all things that benefit the public. The problem is the electorate won’t understand “ecosystem services”, as they don’t translate into cheaper food prices in the shops.

In order for super duper new environmental controls to work, our trading partners importing food here would have to sign up to equivalent standards. Here’s where the politics comes in. One of the Brexit dividends was supposed to be cheaper food. Dropping import tariffs should lead to cheaper imported food, to the cost of our own farmers.

According to the brains, it seems unlikely. There will of course be individual examples where prices fall (like sugar), but overall the effect will be negligible compared to, for example, currency movements. We will not see cheaper food unless we relax regulation relating to things like animal welfare and pesticide use. There’s a real danger of a race to the bottom, featuring chlorinated chickens, beef stuffed with antibiotics, pigs in farrowing crates, cereals treated with neonicotinoids…. the list is endless.

What is going to happen to food production here if we start paying farmers to take tracts of land out of agricultural production? These will be more or less relatively unproductive, but output overall will still fall, even with technologically and ecologically driven improvements in yields in the areas which remain under plough and cow. This would mean higher dependence on food imports. Would we be happy with that?

If output falls, what effect is this going to have on food prices? Particularly in combination with higher environmental standards, it’s difficult to see them going down. This might seem like a great idea in a room full of economists, environmentalists and farmers. It’s difficult to see it going down so well in the House of Commons.

And how can any of the reforms of a Green Brexit not bring extra cost to administer? They will need regulation, guidance and monitoring. A system based on natural capital will be fiendishly difficult and complicated, as opposed to one which essentially consisted of lots of measuring. Who’s going to do this* and how much will it cost? This expense is – the economists will argue – a small price to pay for a much more cost effective and beneficial system. Will it seem that way to the politicians promising less red tape and more transparency after Brexit?

The electorate is wedded to its own idea of what constitutes an attractive and natural landscape. Ecologists might shudder at the denuded hillsides of the Lakes and the Yorkshire Dales, but tourists flock to them. Farmers have farmed these areas the same way for generations. They will all resist change.

To my mind these Green Brexit reforms should also be accompanied by reducing farmland’s tax breaks. Much of our farmland is owned by folk who are just using it as a way of avoiding IHT. Reduce this kind of tax break and farmland prices would fall to more sustainable levels, on which farmers could make commercial yields. They will also care more about qualifying for subsidies by doing the right thing for the environment.

Government intervention on this kind of scale in the countryside does not have a good track record. There always seem to be unintended consequences. Biogas seemed a great idea until we realised the consequences of growing tonnes and tonnes of maize – a terrible crop ecologically – to produce it.

There were many other discussions during the day, covering a variety of topics. They were remarkably amicable when they veered into areas where there was genuine and heartfelt disagreement. It’s going to take a lot more – and potentially less pleasant – labour to persuade politicians and the public to get behind some of the ideas behind Green Brexit, even if they are promoted by the big brains.

*Natural England, the obvious choice, has been gutted over the last few years.

 

Blacksmithing

I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .