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. Nigel uses native and non-native plants, so I guess this doesn’t quite fit his agenda.

As he points out, this distinction 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 dictates the species mix and which subspecies of plant you will get. 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. Then we need to create habitat and diversity.

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.

Plants For Bees In Late Winter

Climate change means that bees are struggling in late winter. Honeybees and bumblebee queens are out and about in the second half of February as I write, with the temperature getting up to the mid teens in Somerset. Honeybees will fly above 12 degrees, bumblebees in colder weather. The earliest solitary bees, like the gorgeous Hairy-footed flower bee* (Anthophora plumipes), are around too. And this is problematic. Bees need nectar (for sugars and water) and pollen (for protein). Particularly early in the season they need to collect this food for their developing larvae. But where can they find it? They’re in real danger of starving. Winter bee plants are essential – and let’s not forget for overwintering butterflies too.

Peacock Butterfly on Blackthorn

Blackthorn, traditionally the saviour of country beekeepers, is days away from flowering here. Most willows are in bud. There just aren’t many native flowers out. It’s a really critical time, particularly for bumblebee queens. This is a new phenomenon. The good guides, like Plants For Bees, aren’t confident about which plants work for all these bees in mid-February, because in the past it has been too early for them. The only bees you tended to see on the odd warm February day were honeybees out on a quick cleansing flight.

So how can you help? Here are five plant ideas for your garden.

Mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun)

You can plant several really good flowers and trees which aren’t just flowering now – some have already been out for weeks. Mahonia falls into this category. It’s an excellent winter bee plant, particularly a variety like ‘Winter Sun’. Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, now seems to have two generations in a year in some parts of the south, and this is a particularly important plant for it.

Crocuses

Crocus tommasinianus
Honeybee and crocus

The crocuses have been out for week or so, in contrast. They might not flower long, but – boy – they seem to be an excellent plant for a range of bees. They produce prolific amounts of yellow/orange pollen, and are also popular with hoverflies. Go for Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) or Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus).

Hellebore (Helleborus niger)

Bumblebee queen and hellebore
Bombus terrestris queen and hellebore


Our hellebores have been flowering for weeks. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is the first in flower. They have whitish pollen which doesn’t seem to be produced in vast quantities, but is invaluable at this time of year. Good winter bee plants.

Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera)

Honeybee and Cherry plum

We also have a couple of small trees which are highly decorative and early in blossom. The very first is Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), which is easily confused with Blackthorn as it’s often found in hedges and its flowers are similar. It’s not as spiny, however; the young growth is green, the flowers have stalks, and it flowers earlier. Cherry plum is in my top 10 of under-rated native plants (it was introduced here ages ago and is now fully naturalised). It’s tough – often used as a windbreak – and has this very early flowering period. It’s a good hedge plant and sometimes produces fruit which the birds like.

Almond (Prunus dulcis)

Almond blossom
Almond blossom

Cherry plum is regularly in flower in mid-February, and just beats our Almond trees(Prunus dulcis). It will have to get hotter yet for us to have nuts, but the fabulous delicate and early pink blossom is reason enough to grow them. Honeybees pollinate almond orchards in California (where they’re treated scandalously). Here they seem to like them too.

*If you’re a fan you should plant pulmonaria.

Where Have All The Hedgerows Gone?

What people need on Twitter is more education and less politics.

I had a classically nonsensical conversation with a couple of twitterati over the weekend. It followed an entirely predictable path and got no-one anywhere other than cross, but it was illustrative of a couple of significant issues which are holding us back in the fight against the crisis in nature here.

The exchange started when I responded to this tweet:

England loses 10,000 miles of hedges every year. With loss of every hedge, a precious piece of countryside disappears forever. If we can’t control borders, overpopulation/urban sprawl will turn this pleasant land into one beastly car park

Chocolates, anyone?

Everything here is wrong. The tweet was accompanied by a photo of supposedly bucolic bliss showing dry stone walls and flowerpots, which might not have inspired confidence to start with.

Why is it wrong? 10,000 miles was the guestimate Max Hooper came up with for maximum annual hedge loss in the 60s. I’m not saying things are ideal (!), but losses now are much smaller, particularly following legislation in 1997. Estimates vary as to exactly how many hedges we’re still losing. The vast majority of lost hedgerow, in those days and now, is/was the result of changing farming practice and/or poor management. It has indeed been a sad and devastating loss in the landscape, but not one caused by urban sprawl.*

Closing our borders isn’t an effective policy response to the collapse in global biodiversity which is – only now – making headlines. As the story behind our hedgerows actually shows, there is no silver bullet, no instant fix, to any of this. We’ve got to stop thinking there is. We need to make many changes to the way we live to tackle these enormous and complex problems. Some are already happening. These changes will have to be driven by education and science, not political agendas. This is what Michael Gove – incidentally – seems as if he might understand.

Pleasant Land?

Not so pleasant…

My twitter spat also illustrated another problem. 10,000 miles subsequently posted a photo showing the kind of “pristine” English countryside which we are concreting over. In this case his problem was the ghastly mooted housing development in the Cambridge-Oxford arc.

This isn’t pristine countryside. The woodland is in retreat. The hedges are heavily degraded (ironically!). There’s a monoculture of some kind of heavily fertilised fast growing grass, which will dominate any other species. This temporary ley will probably have been doused with selective broadleaf herbicides for good measure. Once it’s knackered it will be sprayed with herbicide and replaced. In other words, this pastoral scene is exactly the sort of thing we DON’T want.

We – collectively – seem to have a weird view of the countryside. Much of it is pretty much a green desert. The fields surrounding us here are pretty much as useless for wildlife as a housing estate. Further, the inhabitants of a housing estate don’t spend their time trying to slaughter all the insects thereabouts. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.

Producing a false narrative about the countryside is not going to help us. This has got specific historic precedent in the UK over hundreds of years – and it tends to end badly! Much, much more helpful is doing something practical in today’s world. What some farmers are trying to do now needs a lot more support from us as consumers, and the government. Many farmers are trying to help nature while making a living producing the food we don’t want to pay for. The cards are – currently – stacked against them.

Climate change, food production, consumption, the built environment… We need to action multiple practical solutions and fast, rather than just harkening back to a bucolic idyll we have misremembered and misrepresent. Oh, and get planting.

*The UK does sometimes feel very crowded, but in actual fact urban areas only cover something like a surprisingly low 6-8% of the country. This has been rising following recent planning policy changes, but city dwellers are pretty squished in.

The Green Blob Fights Back

I have avoided politics in my blog as much as I can over the last 10 years. So you can tell I’m pretty upset to break this cardinal rule. For the point of record, I’m one of the two thirds of people who feel that neither of the main parties represents my views. I’m that apparently currently invisible voter, a moderate. I’m a fan of various MPs from various parties. I admire the energy, honesty and bravery of people like Caroline Lucas, Sarah Wollaston, and Mary Creagh.

I have to spend a certain amount of time for work on social media, God help me. Apart from promoting the business, I also try and communicate good science and best practice to people. Sometimes a bit of a struggle, tbh! This also means keeping up with environmental policy. As it happens, this is an area where things might be looking up.

Happy Blob

I was suspicious of Michael Gove when he was appointed as DEFRA minister. What we’ve seen from him so far has been enormously encouraging, however. This week he has hired Tony Juniper – not a natural bedfellow politically – as head of Natural England. To an objective observer, this is a great appointment. He was the outstanding candidate for this currently besieged but potentially critical nonpolitical organisation. This is typical of Michael Gove’s approach; he seems to have taken on board a range of interesting ideas in a completely non-doctrinal way. Some I disagree with, many I don’t. Massive questions remain, but he’s coming up with some interesting stuff. I applaud him. It’s a far cry from Owen Paterson’s tirade against “the green blob”.

This started off as “the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape”. In certain quarters the green blob has come to include, apparently, the entire environmental lobby.

Interestingly, Michael Gove’s rapprochement with the extended blob has significantly irked some of his erstwhile allies.

I was moved to anger – and to write this – by a wildly intemperate and nonsensical article I stumbled across on Twitter: Michael Gove Has Sold Out Britain to the Green Blob. It was written by James Delingpole about Tony Juniper’s appointment.

Who is James Delingpole? He’s a kind of clever right wing shock jock of now depressingly familiar type, who drove me to cancel my subscription to The Spectator. He still writes for them, which irritatingly gives him a degree of credibility and – oddly – means he shares column inches with nice nature people Simon Barnes and Isabel Hardman. James is now editor of Breitbart in the UK, which is where the green blob article appeared. Occasionally you’ll see him on TV, where he performs with the kind of chutzpah you would imagine from a man who has raised £21,000 through a gofundme page to cure his Lyme disease, then sort his teeth out and buy his wife a holiday with anything left over.

I’m sorry about his illness*. Ironically, Lyme disease is on the rise because of global warming. “Ironically”, because James made his reputation as a “bad boy” climate change denier. He still has it in for renewables. The green blob.

Some of what he says I do have sympathy with. I have seen the solar industry up close, and there’s no doubt that it has had its fair share of charlatans and chancers. My business lost a lot of money from a horrendous bankruptcy in the U.S. involving criminal fraud. The subsidy system the government used here to catapult the UK into one of the world’s leading countries for renewable power was always going to be clunky, abused and inefficient. Government subsidies usually are. But it was a demonstrably effective means to an end.

James also dislikes the look of wind turbines, with which, again, I have some sympathy. It doesn’t exactly seem to be a big issue in the scheme of things but I imagine goes down well with his readers. He complains about birds and bats being chopped up. The green blob is actually destroying nature. In actual fact, perhaps counter-intuitively, the short term net gain to biodiversity from renewables has been significant. We have helped seed hundreds of acres of solar farms with wildflower meadows, planted with hedges and copses, etc. etc..

I really, really don’t agree at all with much else of what else he has to say, particularly in this Breitbart article. Nor the way he says it, which is patronising and offensive. I know it’s a living for him. I know it’s written to provoke and I shouldn’t get upset by it. But I do. It really poisons discourse in an area which should transcend dogma.

I don’t think James has much grasp of his subject matter generally. He has – a familiar bugbear – conflated climate change and other green issues. Tackling biodiversity loss, for example, while related, is a very different beast, requiring completely different responses from the green blob.

No matter.

What really gets me going is this kind of nonsense:

“Like most if not all Conservatives, I understand better than anyone the importance of conservation. Unfortunately, the cause of real environmentalism has long since been hijacked by hair-shirt ideologues in thrall to the religion of Gaia-worship, obsessed with (environmentally damaging) renewables, antipathetical to free markets or freedoms of any kind because essentially they’re all Malthusian misanthropes who want to bomb Western Industrial Civilisation back to the dark ages.”

Where to even start?

It has always been easy to label environmentalists as misanthropic and “antipathetical to free markets.” Is it any wonder that they have been in the past? I absolutely believe now that it’s possible to align our business customers’ commercial and ecological interests. We also work hard to get consumers to understand the actual costs and benefits of making the purchases they do. It’s a struggle but it’s possible with education. We’ll get there in the end, but this is relatively new ground and new thinking, of the kind Michael Gove seems to be promoting too.

No-one has a monopoly on wanting to conserve the planet. This isn’t an issue of competing ideologies. Nature isn’t just another political battleground. Conservatives no more understand the importance of conservation than Labour supporters.

I simply don’t accept the description of environmentalists as “hardcore left activists using environmentalism as a cloak for their ongoing mission to dismantle the capitalist system”. Yes, there are some, of course. My guess is there were more in the sixties. There are some left leaning campaign groups I’m wary of. And yes, of course there are “Gaia types” – more or less knowledgeable, but absolutely genuine.

Like the rest of the population, people interested in nature have their own political views. There are “watermelons”, as James would derisively describe them, and turquoise Tories. The overwhelming majority of environmental professionals I have met in the course of the last ten years have, however, been professional, objective, scientific.

As for “Eco charities which depend for their income on ramping up green hysteria” – this is laughable nonsense. The charities I work with spend a lot of their time doing the opposite. I’ve even objected in the past to phrases like “ecological apocalypse“; fundamentally true but presentationally unhelpful.

It would be really helpful if James switched to receive rather than broadcast mode for a bit, and moderated his language. Perhaps he could take up gardening. He can’t just characterise people who disagree with him as corrupt, feeble minded, lunatic or fanatical. Many of us are sensible, moderate and pretty well informed. Many of us feel deeply concerned about what we see going on around us. Many of us are trying in our own ways to do something about it.

We all share the same planet, and we all need to sit down like grownups to understand how best to conserve it. Not just how to make a few quid by shouting in the playground.

*If indeed he has it, which seems in doubt. Yes, the NHS does treat Lyme disease.

Best Trees For Windbreaks

Before we start, a little about what a windbreak actually is. What’s the difference between it and a shelterbelt or hedge? What are you looking for in a windbreak?

What Is A Windbreak?

To start with, what it’s not. It’s not a shelterbelt. A windbreak is a line or double line of trees and/or shrubs, whereas a shelterbelt consists of at least three lines of planting. I’d usually think of a shelterbelt as being planted at at least 1m spacings. To be honest, though, I’m not sure where “windbreak” stops and “large hedge” begins. A windbreak potentially has more large trees in it, I guess, and is not necessarily stock proof. A decent hedge has a good fat bottom to it. Native hedges are typically planted in double staggered rows up to 50cm apart, whereas windbreak rows will be planted wider.

All three – hedges, windbreaks and shelterbelts – provide semi-permeable barriers against the wind. The “semi” bit is important. You don’t want too solid a barrier, as might be created by fences or walls, or planting dense evergreens – you’ll have problems with wind turbulence.

Why Do I Need A Windbreak?

Too much wind in a garden or orchard has several effects. Most obviously, it creates structural damage to trees and plants. This isn’t just to stems, limbs, and fruit and flowers. Wind rock causes even worse problems. Wind also induces a chilling effect, which slows the metabolic activity of plants. On the other hand, you don’t want no air flow at all; this will mean pests and diseases.

What Trees Should I Use?

There are all sorts of odd trees for windbreaks used. To declare my interest, I think some of them look rather…peculiar. Eucalyptus, Lombardy poplars, various bamboos – they’re not really my thing. Most people planting windbreaks are in rural or semi-rural situations. If you are, have a look at what’s around you – use these species and they won’t look out of place later on. They’ll be good for local wildlife too. By the way, plant your trees as 60-90cm plants maximum size, or they won’t stand a chance! They will also need support.

You will need to work out how tall a windbreak you want. Here our prevailing winds are generally southwesterly or westerlies. This might produce problems; if your windbreak is too tall it will shade out some of the area you’re looking to shelter. According to the RHS, a windbreak is effective to 10 times its height – so if it’s 2m tall, it will shelter up to 20m of ground behind it. Typically this means that trees for windbreaks tend to be bigger than hedge species, or used in combination with them.

My short list might consist of the following:

Medium / Large Trees

Alder: There are three alders to consider as trees for windbreaks – Alnus glutinosa, which is the native one, A. cordata and A. incana. They have slightly different habits but the same helpful characteristics. They grow quickly (around 1m a year) in a wide range of conditions, including cold wet soils. Alders come into leaf early and hold their leaves relatively late, and you can mess about with them – they don’t mind drastic pruning. They were traditionally used to protect orchards as they don’t carry the same diseases that can afflict fruit trees.

Scots Pine and Friend

Scots Pine: You could think about a number of pines, but P. sylvestris is our native one. It will grow bigger than an Alder, but more slowly. It’s typical of heathland but is regularly seen planted next to isolated farmsteads.

Small Leafed Lime: Tilia cordata is a recent favourite, particularly for a more formal look. Very pretty conical habit, tolerant of a wide range of soils.

Small Trees & Shrubs

Windbreak trees
Damson

Prunus: I’m lumping several plants in here, with similar characteristics. P. cerasifera, Cherry plum, P. domestica subsp. insititia, Damsons, and
P. domestica subsp. insititia var. nigra, Bullace. I know – the botany is confusing. All are tough as old boots and excellent windbreak plants for a range of sites. Cherry plums flower very early and grow quickly, although rarely produce fruit (and when they do it’s inedible!). Traditional windbreak plant for orchards. A tough damson like ‘Westmorland’ will give you fruit as well as good performance, as will a bullace.

Hawthorn: Crataegus monogyna is your basic traditional hedge plant; tough, forgiving, fast growing (hence “Quickthorn”) and well behaved (unlike its unruly suckering friend Blackthorn). Good for wildlife, nice blossom.

Sea-buckthorn and Gorse: Not related, but both can be viewed with horror! Many folk spend their lives trying to get rid of them, as in the right conditions they can be invasive. Both Ulex Europaeus and Hippophae rhamnoides are very hardy, although they won’t grow very tall – gorse to say 2m and Sea-buckthorn rather taller. Sea-buckthorn is salt tolerant, as you might imagine.

Roses: R.canina and the non-native – but naturalised – R.rugosa might be favourite. They’re both vigorous, attractive and will tolerate pretty tough conditions. To something like 4m if left alone.