A Trip to Japan

We’ve just got back from a wonderful trip to Japan*. Among the rugby and the sightseeing and the hiking we were caught in typhoon Hagibis last weekend in Tokyo. It was a reminder that Japan is a country almost uniquely vulnerable to natural disaster.

The majority of its 127 million population are crammed into coastal plains, while much of its increasingly depopulated interior is mountainous and beautiful but inaccessible. The country is a mess of tectonic plates, and the earthquakes and tsunami there can be devastating. Over 140,000 died in the 1923 Kanto earthquake and its subsequent firestorm. Typhoons barrel up from the Pacific with increasing violence, bringing storm surge and massive quantities of rainfall. Widespread flooding and landslides follow.

I visited Japan for many years, living there for a bit too, and it occurred to me as now that this vulnerability explained a lot about the people’s relationship with nature. Despite only 9% of the population – and a pretty ancient 9% – living outside urban areas, the Japanese are still pretty close to it. This is the country where Shinto shrines still prosper, celebrating local mountains, trees and rivers, and hosting local festivals. A rich Buddhist and Shinto mythology seems perhaps oddly alive and relevant in this highest of high tech societies. The natural world is mysterious and disordered, beautiful and threatening.

Virtual Koi Carp in Tokyo

The Japanese response to it seems complicated – and I’m not nearly informed enough to understand it. They venerate the natural world while seemingly wanting to concrete it over and network it with power lines. Japan is the nation which hunts Minke whales. On the other hand, Tokyo subway stations pipe birdsong to soothe stressed commuters, and cherry blossom parties – hanami – are one of the highlights of the year.

The sometimes astonishing gardens I have visited seem to be a pretty good expression of this close relation to the natural world and the need to control it. I’m no garden designer, but their form and rhythm seems simultaneously natural and tightly studied. They’re highly immersive, and their explicit purpose is often to encourage the viewer to contemplate his/her own relation to nature.  

Beware Bears!

Nature in the UK is, of course, relatively benign. By and large, we don’t have insects or snakes which can put you in hospital. There aren’t bears roaming the Lake District ready to pick off the odd unwary hiker. We don’t experience earthquakes and don’t regularly – haven’t regularly – experienced hurricanes or widescale flooding.

I’m sure this is one of the reasons why we’re suffering from what ecologists call “nature deficit disorder”. In Britain we haven’t had to understand nature in the same way because we aren’t threatened by it.

This issue was well illustrated over the weekend. Some England rugby fans were complaining about their game being cancelled ahead of the typhoon, which then hit as predicted pretty much at the time of the kick off and has killed over 70 people (as at the time of writing).  

I hope it was an experience they will not quickly forget.

*If you haven’t been do try to go!

Conservation And Conservatism

There was an article in the Sunday Times this morning by Eric Kaufmann which partly articulated something which has been troubling me for a while. It starts:

If Greta Thunberg wants to beat climate change by 2030, she needs to convince conservatives and the middle-aged, not young, metropolitan liberals. This is possible only if environmentalism sheds its exclusive association with the liberal left...

And concludes:

…For conservatives, ecologists must underscore the threat climate change poses to local and national ways of life.

This is demonstrably true across western democracies. Failure to engage swathes of – important – people is disastrous for the environmental cause, particularly in these days of polarised, tribal politics.

Most Republicans don’t even believe climate change is man made, whereas 66% of Democrats worry about it a “great deal”. It’s as if it has become a political belief rather than a scientific fact – part of a left leaning political ideology. There are even some on the Right here who still think climate change is a hoax. It’s a conspiracy to stop people having a good time, or to advance some kind of obscure economic or political agenda.

Why has this happened?

Firstly, as the article points out, it’s the environmentalists’ fault. They don’t know how to connect with Conservative voters and opinion formers, who mock them. Their earnestness and apparent unworldliness make them easy targets. Greta Thunberg goes to America by boat and it looks gimmicky and eccentric. She goes to America by plane and she is attacked for her hypocrisy. She can’t win. There is – of course – often a good dose of hypocrisy for the Press to focus on when the rich and famous get involved.

Only Connect

This is all ironic, because there are core shared ideas between conservation and conservatism. The name is a clue. Buying local, preserving local landscapes and local distinctiveness… Climate change and biodiversity loss are now having local impacts here. But, instead, environmental commentators on the Left and Right alienate people not of the same political tribe.

Secondly, the environmentalists’ message is essentially misanthropic and anti-capitalist. To save the planet we have to be fewer and/or consume less, and more responsibly. We have to stop doing things. Stop flying, stop driving, stop using plastic, stop shooting birds, stop buying palm oil products…

Lastly, most of the proposed or actual responses to issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution etc. include increased government oversight and/or intervention. And cost. Of this the Right is, understandably, suspicious – governments don’t have sparkling track records on this stuff.

What do I make of this? There’s much work to do. In the short term, I do hope the government will stay true to its conservative beliefs and treads carefully while negotiating post-Brexit trade deals. We must not sacrifice environmental ideals for short term economic / political gain.

Longer term, we must break down its exclusive link with the liberal left and understand how to link conservation and conservatism as well. Politicians may stumble into this because of the way the young vote. Environmentalists must find a way to work with people with power, whoever they are. Because they’re powerful/wealthy/landed doesn’t mean they’re automatically uncaring and aren’t receptive to ideas (some are, of course, and they need working on too!). They will not respond, however, if they are delivered in a political wrapper.

Responses to the crises we face should be pragmatic, ranging from the international and nationally led to the local and individual. We must reinforce local structures to enable this, and educate individuals to drive it.

The Garden Jungle (Dave Goulson)

I don’t think I’ve written a book review since third form, but felt moved to write briefly about Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle.

Spoiler alert: I would have been surprised if I didn’t like it. I’m familiar with Dave’s work as a scientist, author and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

OK, so the book’s not perfect. There are some things which didn’t quite work. The chapters are headed by recipes, which add to its charm, but which I’m not sure fit. It’s sometimes stylistically clunky. These are small things. This is a book I would love to have written, full of key ideas about fighting biodiversity loss and climate change. I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with either philosophically or in practical terms*, and came across many – possibly most – of the messages I’ve tried to communicate over the years.

Orchards, meadows, ponds, and – of course – a fantastical cast of small animals. These are some of my favourite things. How lovely to read about them and their importance here. And the section on chemicals deserves close attention too; Dave was one of the earliest to sound the alarm on the effects of neonicotinoids.

It is – of course – a book which is well informed and evidence based throughout. Concepts are delivered in an accessible, practical, non-preachy, and upbeat way. Dave’s enthusiasm for the subject drives the book on. He takes no prisoners; I loved the section on wildflower seed, for example.

I often – usually – almost always – have reservations about this sort of book. Last year we had “Rewilding”; I struggled to get past some odd misconceptions and to understand its broader relevance. “The Garden Jungle” is different. There are really empowering ideas here for us all, and the more of us who read this book the better. Let’s all get out in the garden and dig.

*although would probably buy my wildflower seed from… here!

Wildflowers In Your Garden

Malva moschata

Do you want a patch of wildflowers in your garden? The right answer! I think they can look lovely; some are long flowering too, like this mallow in the gravel by our back door, and of course they’re all good for wildlife.

I’m talking here about wildflowers on their own, not mixed with grasses, which will give you a wildflower meadow. This will require a different management regime. I’m also talking about British wildflowers.

Whether you’re growing a meadow or just wildflowers, you will need a nice clean seedbed before you start. Only sow onto bare earth, clear of weeds and grasses. I can’t stress how important this is! A little time preparing will save you hours of labour later. The wildflowers will spread out over time and suppress any weeds that try to get established.

Leucanthemum vulgare and lavender on a windy day!

They will do better in a low fertility growing medium. I know this sticks in the throat of some experienced gardeners, who have spent many hours improving their soil with manure and compost. It’s not that wildflowers don’t like high fertility soil; it’s just that everything else – dock, nettle, thistle etc etc – likes it more. Wildflowers are – by definition – very hardy, so don’t need a great deal of tender care. This all means that they will sit uneasily in your beautifully improved flowerbeds, and most likely need a spot of their own. Having said that, we use them in blocks in their own beds (Red campion is an easy favourite), and the wildflowers in your garden will provide a lovely contrast with the more “exotic”.

In practical terms, if your wildflower patch is small you can reduce the fertility of the soil by adding something like horticultural or sharp sand to it. If you’re sowing them onto a planter or raised bed, use sand and topsoil mixed together at a ratio of something around 1:3 (that’s not a scientific calculation, by the way!). I would also put some cardboard underneath a raised bed sitting on soil, which will rot away over time but prevent any really hardy weeds making a nuisance of themselves.

We talk elsewhere about the relative merits of seed, plugs and turf , but I’m concentrating here on the cheapest and most diverse approach – seed.

When you come to buy your seed we would of course prefer you to buy it from us (!). If you don’t, please make sure the species in the mix are sensible, are UK wildflower species (you laugh, but many seed mixes aren’t!), and that the seed comes from plants in the UK. If it’s not stated that it does, the chances are it hasn’t. This can be a problem in terms of biosecurity and hybridisation, among other things.

Echium vulgare: biennial king of bee plants

The wildflower only seed mixes we sell are generally perennials, but they do have some biennials and annuals in them too. The annuals will flower very quickly – around 60 days after seeding, if sown in spring – to give you a sense of achievement!

The optimum time for sowing is September – October. The books all say you can sow in spring too. Having said that, with the weather the way it is, the rule book is being reinvented – we have successfully seeded wildflower meadows from March until November. You just need warm moist soil. Conditions vary so much across the UK now it’s hard to generalise. I wouldn’t sow in spring in East Anglia, for example, whereas in Wales I might sow all the way through the summer, pretty much.

Anyway – where was I? – oh yes – seeding. Once you have your seed, pause. Your patch will only need seeding at a very low rate. It’s more like carrot seed than grass seed. We recommend our mixes are sown at 1g to 2g per square metre, which really is not a lot. Don’t chuck down loads of seed – the quicker growing species will just crowd out the others. Mix the seed with some of your sand if you’re nervous, which will bulk it out and make it easier to see where you’ve sown.

Don’t cover the seed once sown. Just lightly roll or tread in, and maybe water if it’s dry.

You will notice the annuals in the mix, like poppies and cornflowers, which germinate very quickly – that’s their strategy. The perennials will be much, much slower. If you sow wildflowers in your garden in September, some won’t even germinate until the following summer! They won’t generally flower in their first season.

Make sure you keep an eye on the seedlings as they do develop. Weed out anything you recognise that shouldn’t be there – take no prisoners! You may find thistles appearing, which are bad – not in themselves, but they can quickly take over. If you really can’t bear to hoick them out, then deadhead them before they set seed.

The timing of tidying up your wildflower area is less mission critical than it would be if you had a meadow. If it’s small you could deadhead individual plants, or leave seedheads on. Alternatively you could take a pair of shears to it in late summer/early autumn. Remember that all these plants will die back and would be perfectly happy if grazed all winter. You could do the equivalent if you wanted, but don’t once you notice new growth starting in March.

I think that’s about it. I hope you enjoy your new wildflowers in your garden – they’ll look good as well as do good!

Wildflower Meadows, Pictorial Meadows – who cares?

I went to a fascinating seminar given by Nigel Dunnett last week – he of pictorial meadows. Nigel is one of the leading influencers of landscape design in the UK. His shtick is “naturalistic planting” and – my – he is a very impressive bloke. I first came across him at Chelsea many years ago, and his star has risen steadily ever since. He seeded those amazing annuals at the London Olympics, for example. He’s lovely – a great communicator (as you’d expect from a Prof!) and hugely well informed and trained. A proper botanist. He’s also an enthusiast.

I picked up a lot of practical tips, but the day also provoked some bigger questions. Nigel’s BIG IDEA is creating landscapes that people can immerse themselves in and – consequently – respond to. He feels that we all have a visceral and uplifting response to nature, and flowers in particular. He spends his time trying to trigger that response. Fab. He has a tremendous understanding of his trade, and how to best do this. How we need this kind of reconnection, which can be the gateway to all sorts of other understanding.

I’m interested in how he does this. First of all, he’s a botanist. He draws people in exclusively through flowers – not fauna. He’s really, really good at this. He has a combination of a botanist’s knowledge and a designer’s eye, which means he can effortlessly combine plant combinations from all over the globe.

Regular readers of these pages will know that we try to engage peeps through flora AND their associated fauna. Plant Purging buckthorn and you will get Yellow Brimstones. That kind of thing. Many of our native animal species have intimate and fragile relationships with our native plant species. It turns out too that pollinators generally prefer native flowers for pollen and nectart when given the choice.

As Nigel points out, this distinction between native wildflowers and other flowers shouldn’t be as black and white as it is often portrayed. The world I inhabit splits into two warring camps; at their extremes the native plants from local sites only faction, and at the other whatever it takes to make people happy. I guess commercial pressures accentuate these two views. We promote native plants partly because that’s what we sell. We sell them because we think they are important.

In fact the distinction between “native” and “non-native” is more nuanced. It’s on a sliding scale between what Nigel calls “ecological” planting at one end and “horticultural” at the other. I like this idea. I guess I’m somewhere more towards the “ecological” end than him. In two and a half hours of slides in his presentation the only animals that appeared were dogs and yaks.

He points out – quite rightly – that “ecological” planting has never really caught on, even in today’s enlightened times. “Wildlife gardening” is too often associated with a visually unattractive and untidy mess, which many people don’t like. Sometimes it’s challenging too. Wildflower meadows, for example, many people find difficult. They’re not engaged with the fauna they bring either – or often don’t even notice what turns up. Flowers, that’s the thing; easy quick flowers, in naturalistic drifts.

Nigel promoted this key idea by coining the phrase “pictorial meadows”. I’m still not sure I forgive him. Pictorial Meadows is now a company which spun off from his work at the University of Sheffield.

I do understand his rationale, and I love the marketing idea, but it has created a deal of confusion among the punters, and not to say difficulty for those of us promoting… actual meadows. Meadows are things with grass and perennial wildflowers, in my book. They’re not swathes of non-native and native annual wildflowers on their own, lovely though they may be.

This sort of planting needs the same preparation as meadow establishment, incidentally; low fertility soils cleared of existing weeds and grasses. I guess they need the same kind of levels of management too. They’re definitely more horticultural than ecological, however, and despite his protestations he must know that.

What do I mean by that? Pictorial meadows look fab. They have lots of flowers, lots of colour, and a long flowering window. “Traditional” hay meadows have less colour and need more managing because they include grass. It’s absolutely true that gardeners don’t necessarily want the grass and all the messing around it involves.

Fauna and flora
Nothing to see here…

It’s also true though that a traditional meadow will have more biodiversity than a pictorial meadow. They have perennial grass and wildflower species which allow all sorts of invertebrates to overwinter and fee their larval stages. The grasses don’t just support the obvious species like grasshoppers, they’re also great habitat for voles (and hence owls) and other small mammals and ground nesting birds, for example. It’s this that draws people in as much as the flowers themselves – more so, in my experience.

The meadow seed mixes we sell vary according to the location of their donor site. Not just the soil type but also the area of the country, which will dictate the species mix and which subspecies of plant you will get. Old meadows have evolved naturally over hundreds of years. All quite different to a pictorial meadow.

Pictorial Meadows’ success has annoyed me from a commercial point of view, as you’ll understand. Customers expect something from a meadow I don’t. They’re not attuned to its subtleties and fauna. They don’t see the way that native plants associate and adapt to local conditions. As Nigel says, the pleasure taken from the minutiae of the natural world is no small thing itself.

He also says that traditional meadow making is about restoration rather than creation. I don’t agree. Why not start a traditional meadow, even thought you don’t want any hay? Isn’t it a thing of beauty as well as biodiversity? How can you keep the grass out of it anyway?

This has all troubled me. But I’ve reflected on it, and you know what? Perhaps it matters less than I think.

We need more flowers now, and we need lots of them. We need to get people to reconnect with nature as quickly as possible. Lots of flowers might be a great way to do that, at least initially. Let’s not make perfection the enemy of the good.

In The Meadow

We have a two acre plot in Somerset, much of it wildflower meadow. Our garden is driven by a simple principle; it has to look good and do good. Our little meadows are the embodiment of that; they keep giving.

Native Wildflower Meadows…

Common sorrel. Nothing to see here.

To a botanist they’re nothing special. We’ve created them over the last 4 years, so they’re still only half formed. Not surprisingly I haven’t seen anything wildly exotic, but that’s rather the point. I take huge pleasure in the beauty of the commonplace and the minutiae of the flora we have. We made a number of different areas with different soil treatments and drainage, which has resulted in a range of different vigour, colours and species. One strip is full of knapweed; the next, wetter but sown with the same seed mixture, has a patch dominated by meadow buttercup. Ragged robin has unexpectedly appeared in a remote damp corner. We have three different vetches all awash with bees, each with its own appointed place.

The grasses vary wildly, depending on the soil and earlier use. There’s knee high Timothy and Foxtail where once there was pasture, and the delicate Crested dogstail we sowed onto subsoil. Then there’s our meadow roof, with Kidney vetch, oregano, stonecrop, mallow and St John’s wort. A different thing again.

I’ve no idea how many plant species we have here, but the subtle effects they combine to make are enchanting (I’m not a good enough photographer to really get this across!). And they’re all native wildflowers. Not for me a sea of something Californian, I’m afraid.

Mostly Oxeye daisy and Common vetch

I love watching the meadow evolve through the season. From cowslip to knapweed it has its own rythmn. Over time it evolves too. Plant species disappear. Species arrive. Populations wax and wane. Different plants do well in different years – this year the vetches are going bonkers, and lend a wild look to things.

But are meadows messy? Absolutely not. Wildflower meadows are managed; they seem to me to be a perfect fusion of man and nature. We have a simple weeding (no longer really necessary) and cutting regime to make something very lovely.

… Great For Native Fauna

Common vetch and friend (male Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum)

And not just that. If you have a varied collection of native plants you will get… a varied collection of native animals. They continue to roll in, after 4 years. When we moved here the invertebrate population was pretty limited. We’ve done a fair amount meadows apart – ponds, a wildlife friendly formal garden as well – and in combination results are obvious and exciting.

Who put that butterfly there? (Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas)

We have a lot more buzzing, flying, crawling friends. I’m quite good at my bumblebee ID, and I can find all 7 of the most common species here now (originally just one).* More butterflies and moths, more hoverflies. Further up the foodchain, we now have bats and more – and rarer – birds.

Who are you and what on earth are you up to? (No idea – any ideas welcome!)

Many of the animals I find in the meadow are a mystery to me. Little solitary bees, beetles, micromoths, crickets. What are they? What are they doing? Which plants do they need? Why are they here? Up close it’s a wildly exotic jungle, inhabited by a matching cast of characters. Some are territorial and here to stay; others are passing through.

There are various morals to this story, I guess. Well informed but modest habitat creation can make a big difference. And good habitat can look gorgeous, which can help us relearn our connection with nature.

*Interestingly, incidentally, on a hot summer day the meadows are buzzing, but honeybees tend to hang out in the formal garden with its ornamental cultivars. It’s a good example of why variety is so important.

Understanding The Cost Of Plants

We had a lovely trip up to Yorkshire via East Anglia last week visiting some of our suppliers. And the odd pub, needless to say.

Hot Pipe Callusing – part of the grafting process

Whenever I visit any of the nurseries which supply us I’m always impressed. There’s so much expertise involved. Take fruit trees, for example. There’s a whole extra level of difficulty here because of the grafting process. Joining scion wood to rootstock on a commercial scale looks easy, but it’s time consuming and skilled work. Once the graft has taken the whips have to be grown on and pruned, before lifting in the winter.

I say “commercial scale”, but there’s not that much demand for many of the trees RV Roger sells. They’re lovely old heritage varieties, many pretty obscure, and they only graft and grow them in tiny numbers. The nursery is a plantsman’s delight and to my mind the cost of their plants is absurdly cheap.

Down the road, outside Norwich, we popped in to see British Wildflower Plants, our native plug plant supplier. They grow in bigger numbers, of course, but even after our mark up you can buy their 55cc plugs for under 50p each before carriage. They work hard for their share of that 50p. Their plug plants are propagated from seed, either collected or their own, and each species has different optimal germination conditions. Like RV Roger they are peat free, and they only use natural pest control. Stock control is a nightmare; they list a wide range of species, but are regularly cleared out by single large orders.

Newly planted coir rolls going to be grown on before sale.

We buy our aquatic plants and pre-planted coir rolls and mats from Salix Rivers and Wetlands in Thetford. They have similar stock control issues, as their coir products are in huge demand for large scale river and lake bio-engineering projects. Their business, too, is as complicated as it is ethically run. Lots of manual intervention in the fabrication and growing processes, and care over sourcing materials.

As usual, all three visits reinforced our understanding of the difficulty and cost of growing plants commercially. Very few people have ever made a fortune out of horticulture, but it would be nice if the good guys could make a good living out of it.

Much of that is up to resellers like us.

It’s a challenge. We don’t just need to get across to people the reasons for buying plants like these. We have to explain why sourcing them from the suppliers we use is a good option, and why it’s worth paying more for them. These issues are similar to the challenges facing the food industry, of course.

I tire of people boasting about the price of their latest purchase on online fora*. Wow! I’ve just bought three 5ft tall apple trees for under £5 each at Aldi/Tesco/B&Q/(delete as appropriate)!

Like food, we have forgotten the value of plants. Although ethical produce sales increased around 6 fold from 200 to 2015 (Source:
The Ethical Consumer Research Association), we still spend under half of what we did on food overall as a proportion of our income than we did in the 1950s (Source: ONS).

It’s not too fanciful to think that as we re-evaluate the economic importance of the natural world we might rethink our understanding of the cost of plants as well.

*fora? forums?

Notre Dame and the Great Yellow

Like you, I watched appalled as Notre Dame burned. It felt like a complicated metaphor for all sorts of things, and a crushing visceral wound. It was amazing but not so surprising then, the fire’s embers still warm, that people, government and businesses had already pledged $800 million towards its reconstruction.

Notre Dame is a thing that can be rebuilt. It won’t be the same, of course, but it can and will happen. Other cathedrals have been rebuilt. We can understand something of the complications of that, and the scale of the project. We can agree on the importance and scale of the work. It will cost a lot of money, but not an unimaginable amount. And at the end of it there will be a physical manifestation of the generosity of donors, private and public.

Fund raisers in the environmental world would chew their arms off to be working on a project like this.

The Great Yellow, Bombus distinguendus (Credit: BBCT & Nick Owens)

Understandably – to an extent – funders ask for “measurable outputs”. Like a cathedral. Doing genetic research into a bumblebee* that’s going extinct is less attractive. How do you value its results? Are they going to have a clear message (probably not)? It’s somewhat lower key in terms of PR, as well. Science doesn’t necessarily give “value for money” in terms of “outputs” – that’s kind of the point.

In my own efforts to raise money, however, this hasn’t been the main blockage. While it’s true that the wealthy in the UK are really bad at giving, there are other problems afoot.

We still seem to have an issue with valuing nature. Giving to environmental causes, even in an animal friendly country like the UK, is under 6% of the total. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of it. If a species is going extinct you can’t just throw a few million quid at it and then guarantee its survival (a few million quid! We just need £20,000 to have a proper look at dear old Bombus distinguendus.)

In my experience, people readily buy into the evidence supporting declines in invertebrate numbers, for example. More often than not they agree on the reasons for them. They might also like the work that the charity does that I’m shaking the tin for. BUT they feel it’s hopeless.

Faced with global biodiversity “apocalypse” or climate change “armageddon” they give up. Or, rather, they don’t even start.

And it’s really, really important that they do. That YOU do.

Because the only way we can tackle these vast, complicated, worrying issues is through individual actions, translated into collective will. Our responses to them won’t be ideal – haven’t been ideal. Our financial commitment won’t have clear outcomes. Let’s give it a go, though. Together we can do this.

*The Great Yellow, Bombus distinguendus , in this case.

Industrial Moonscape v. Green and Pleasant Land

Last week entomologist Liam Olds published a fascinating study on invertebrates living on colliery spoil heaps in the south Wales valleys. If you assumed this might have been a tough assignment, then think again. It turns out old slag heaps are insect nirvana.


Colliery Spoil Heaps (photo Liam Olds)

Liam found a whopping 901 invertebrate species on the 15 sites he investigated, of which over 20% are rare. Lots of exciting solitary bees, which caught my eye in particular.

This won’t come as a surprise to ecologists or botanists. Low nutrient soils are great for wildflowers, and the slower they grow the more diversity you get. Liam’s spoil heaps would have started off life looking like lunar landscapes, made up of barren crushed rock. Even as they develop, friable soils mean bare patches, colonised by lichen and mosses.

This diversity is further enhanced by the mixture of waste in the spoil heaps. It means their soils can be a mix of acidic and calcareous, which support different types of plants. Diverse native flora means diverse fauna.

Good for wildflowers… (photo Liam Olds)

While Liam says they now need managing, it’s also clear that biodiversity in these spoil heaps has benefited massively from lack of interventions in the past. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to a lot of farmland.

We still seem to think that many farm landscapes – particularly involving grass – are automatically good for wildlife. Some are, of course, and hats off to the farmers who work so hard – and often thanklessly – to achieve that. They’re not by definition, however. Green is not necessarily good. Farms are often terrible for wildlife. They are, or course, principally food production units, usually run by people who have to make money.

It might be counter-intuitive, but sometimes seemingly unpromising brown field sites can offer much, much more. They should be protected.

What’s Happening To Our Butterflies And Bees?

Insectageddon! scream the headlines. Really? And why should this be? The more bizarre claims on social media I’ve seen recently range from Electro Motive Force to chemtrails (again – groan). What is actually happening to our butterflies and bees here in the UK?

Bees
Bye-bye bumblebees?

Rather than just getting annoyed with people on Twitter, I thought it might be helpful to write a quick blog based on the most recent evidence update from the National Pollinator Strategy Plan.

This is a good thing. It’s a 10 year plan to protect our pollinators. It includes a range of government, commercial, academic and non-government organisations. Recently a group of involved scientists specialising in bees and other pollinators published an evidence update for it. There are several findings here which might surprise you.

The Big Picture

To start with, what are the pollinators we’re talking about? The main species are butterflies and bees, moths, hoverflies, and then there are others like wasps and beetles.

Very broadly speaking, most pollinators declined significantly from the 1950s – 1990. This is particularly true of less generalist species needing particular habitats and/or food. Take butterflies, for example; their numbers overall are down something like 40% from the mid seventies, but “habitat specialist” species are down by over 60%.

Since 1990 the trend has been down, but not so dramatically. In the short term a number of species actually seem to have stabilised. Phew!

This trend seems to be true of “wild” bees – that’s to say, solitary bees (we have around 250 different types!) and bumblebees. Two of our 24 bumblebee species are on the verge of extinction here, for example, although some of the more common bumblebees are doing ok. Wild bees exhibit the same trend we’re seeing in other invertebrates. The more common generalists are doing less badly than rarer specialist species.

Over the last decade the number of honeybees in the UK has gone UP – and by quite a lot, seemingly over 50% – as more people have taken up beekeeping and we’ve got better at disease control. This isn’t quite the great news it sounds like, as wild bees do the bulk of our pollinating and we’re only talking about one type of bee here.

Declines in nectar resources appear to have slowed since the 1970s and they actually increased from 1998 – 2007. They’re still estimated to be below prewar levels, and the diversity of nectar-producing plants has continued to decline.

We are beginning to see some shortfalls in production (e.g. in apples) as a possible consequence of falling pollinator numbers.

Causes of Declines

Habitat loss and fragmentation and intensive land management have reduced food and nesting resources. Not only has this lead to declines in overall numbers, but it has disproportionately affected rarer, specialist species.

Chemicals to control pests and weeds, including neonicotinoids, have had a range of direct and indirect affects on pollinators. Urban insect pollinator communities are dominated by common, generalist species; we can see this pretty clearly for butterflies and bees.

Climate change will (continue to) have a number of impacts. Species range has and will change further, as will seasonal activity. The threat from invasive alien plants and predators will also increase.

The impact of the varroa mite on honeybee colonies appears to have been lessened by effective management techniques. We import bumblebees to pollinate crops like tomatoes, which can bring pests and disease.

Solutions

Plant more flowers, and the right kind of flowers. This could include wildflower field margins and strips.

Protect and restore the flower rich semi-natural habitats we have – e.g. wildflower meadows, heathlands, broad leafed woodland.

Change the management of existing hedges, field margins, road verges, railway embankments, grassland, public green spaces, etc.. These are all potential sites for a wide range of wild pollinators.

Adopt more wildlife friendly land management practices, including organic farming and managing for ecosystem services. Hopefully we’ll start to pay farmers to do this.

Known Unknowns

A phrase which recurs in the evidence summary is “established but incomplete”. We spend so little on this kind of research it’s not surprising. And it’s complicated. We know a lot about honeybees, a reasonable amount about butterflies and moths, and less about bumblebees. Very little about other pollinators. The challenge is to have more “well established” facts. Let’s leave absolutely no doubt that some of the things you read about butterflies and bees are fake news. We’re working on it.

In the meantime, at the very least we can all plant or sow plants for pollinators – more of the right sort of flowers – and buy organic food as much as we can afford to. Plants are – as usual – the key.