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.


Common Ground

Common Ground is a wonderfully slippery fish. It’s a charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, which according to its unique website “seek(s) imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment”. We’ve supported it for many years, and I very much share its philosophy and aims. I guess finding Common Ground was one of the reasons I had my conversion from City bloke to whatever the hell it is I do now.

Common GroundWhat do they do? All sorts. Art installations, practical guides, events… I first bumped into them in the early 2000s, when we set up an Apple Day in an old cider orchard in our village. Everyone gathered and harvested the apples, tea was taken, then the apples pressed and bottled to support the village church and hall.

It was Common Ground who started Apple Day and the idea of community orchards. They also worked hard to revive local varieties of fruit trees, but particularly apple trees. This fell neatly into Sue and Angela’s central objective. They want to get communities to understand and promote “local distinctiveness” through art and custom, landscape and architecture, history and environment.
Common GroundBang on message for Habitat Aid. We promote exactly the same values. I wish I had the imagination to come up with the kind of innovative ways Common Ground have done to promote them.

These days, you might associate this kind of philosophy with a small island mentality. Not at all with Common Ground. Their message is absolutely inclusive, promoting localism within a global community. The two can co-exist. And Common Ground have got things done, rather than just talk about them. Books, projects, artwork, landscape work – over a 35 year history they have produced a really significant and eclectic body of work. You can see their influence across a whole range of apparently unconnected areas, in urban and rural settings.

I heard Sue speak yesterday evening. Although these days they have handed the running of the charity on, her and Angela’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose is undimmed. Thanks both.

Green Crap Redux

David Cameron’s “green crap” moment was deeply depressing. Not just because of the policy change it indicated, but because it suggested the electorate didn’t care about it. The environment had never been a vote winner, and here in 2013 was proof the Conservatives realised it still wasn’t. Now it looks as if green crap is coming back, with a vengeance.

Green Crap
Thanks for everything, Dave.

Michael Gove’s startling speech on farm subsidies post Brexit was met with a cautious but universal welcome from the environmental lobby. Today we had the government’s 25 year environmental plan. There’s lots in it which is bang on in terms of aspiration, but as the Conservative chair of  the Environment Committee commented, desperately short on detail.

It begs far more questions than it answers, and its credibility, given the government’s track record in funding the Environment Agency, energy, pollution, etc. etc., is – well, let’s just say the jury is out. Theresa May’s own voting record is hardly suggestive of hidden eco-credentials. In fact, it’s a shocker.

There’s no joined up thinking in the plan either. Plastic waste in our oceans is a secondary threat after acidification and climate change – an area where UK policy has disintegrated.

In future times, if genuine, I suspect the government’s Damascene conversion will seem absurdly modest and overdue. On the other hand, it may just be political opportunism. Whichever, it is, however, a watershed moment.

It’s important because senior ministers suddenly seem to think the environment is a vote winner.* Let’s connect with millennials in an area where Labour, too, have been weak. Let’s convert all those millions of young Blue Planet watchers into turquoise Tories. Hugging a husky in 2006 looked like naive, off-script green wash. I have canvassed on environmental issues on the Somerset Levels. Even there – perhaps amazingly – issues like climate change didn’t seem to matter very much.

Today’s plan may or may not be green wash, but it’s calculated and very much on script. That’s what’s exciting about it.

*Credit for this seems to go to Conservative think tank Bright Blue.

Farmland – Does It Really Matter and What Should We Do With It?

Much interest in Michael Gove’s prognostications on farmland subsidies today. This is a really important issue for environmentalists – perhaps more important than you might think.

Oddly, most people in the UK think that the country is largely concreted over. How much of the UK’s land area do you think is densely* built on? According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, the average estimate is 47%. The actual number is… 0.1%. The younger people are, the more land they think is concrete. 47% is a vast over-estimation of the proportion of land built on at all, which is below 6%

UK farmlandAs the BBC’s Mark Easton pointed out in his excellent blog, this misconception has disastrous implications for debate about land use.

Oddly, folk living in rural locations had the same level of misconception as those in towns and cities. In other words, this is received rather than observed wisdom.

There’s a powerful historical narrative at work here which we need to unravel, and which has a direct bearing on what we do with our farmland. Although it takes up much more of our land than people think, farmland is far from the rural utopia that the same narrative suggests. It’s not the green and pleasant land threatened by the looming giants of the industrial revolution and – today – housing sprawl. Most farmers have to work their land very hard to make ends meet.

Farmland is very important for the natural environment. We must concentrate on getting the policies shaping it right. What happens on farmland is much, much more important for biodiversity than what happens in urban areas. It’s well over 50% of our land mass, massively more than natural land, and much of it is now very degraded.

The Common Agricultural Policy has done little to halt this degradation. It has probably made it worse. Mr Gove doesn’t like the CAP, and has perhaps been surprised to find allies in the environmental lobby. It’s expensive, inefficient and politically sensitive. Paying subsidies on the basis of land ownership – with no cap – is inevitably going to produce poor outcomes and promote grotesque income inequalities.

What Mr Gove proposes is a kind of expansion of countryside stewardship and agri-environmental schemes. We will pay farmers for the “public goods” they create rather than the acreage they farm. Mr. Gove mentioned planting woodland, creating new habitats for wildlife, helping improve water quality and recreating wildflower meadows. Potentially good news for Habitat Aid, incidentally, although I wonder where all the seed and plants for this will come from! I hope they will have the right provenance…

This dramatic and potentially really exciting switch in policy begs more questions than it answers. Presumably cost cutting is a rationale for doing it – how big would any new pot be? In order to be meaningful they will have to be landscape wide and administered by an expensive and well informed bureaucracy.

What would be the impact on food prices and how would the electorate react to that? We still produce 60% of the food we eat – what happens as that falls when intensive farming becomes less attractive? What would happen to activities like hill farming, which are fundamentally uneconomic?

I don’t see how we can end up with cheap food produced to today’s standards or better, an improved environment, and a saving to the public purse. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

  • i.e. over 80%+ covered by artificial surfaces like buildings and roads.


Neonicotinoids in Rivers

The neonicotinoids fiasco has so many familiar elements it’s turning into a classic of its kind. Widespread use of a largely untested pesticide has had consequences no-one in authority apparently anticipated.

Today’s news that our rivers are polluted with neonicotinoids is I suppose as unsurprising as it is depressing. These wonder pesticides were supposed to have no residual effect – that was the point of them. Instead, they will be present in our ecosystem for many years after they have been banned.

Please don’t use this product
They are turning up everywhere, even in remote mountain burns. Why? The best guess is that dogs dosed with neonicotinoid flea treatments brought them there. It’s a typical unintended consequence. Everything is connected. You can’t just use a chemical in a limited way.

Did those dogs have owners who would have thought for a second they might be damaging the environment? Of course not. They would be appalled. As appalled as the gardeners who recently discovered they have been buying neonicotinoid treated “bee friendly” plants. Many will still unknowingly be using neonicotinoids in their greenhouses.

Consumers have very little idea about the products they buy. The government is supposed to protect them and the environment by making sure they don’t contain anything problematic. But governments are slow to react, and in many cases just ignorant of the threats posed by new products. This is why they are supposed to follow the precautionary principle:

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

At the very least, consumers should expect accurate and explicit labelling about what they are buying.

By the way, as a footnote to this sorry tale, the only reason we know about it at all is because of the EU Water Framework Directive “watch list” initiative. The EU required the UK to undertake this monitoring. As yet, the environment agency is yet to comment.

Back From The Brink (“BftB”)

I popped up to Windsor Great Park yesterday for the launch of a project called “Back From The Brink“, or BftB. What a fascinating time I had.

Back from the Brink
Daisy and me and Stan the stag beetle

BftB is aiming to save 20 of our most threatened species from extinction. It’s going to run 19 projects across England and involves seven of the country’s leading wildlife conservation charities. This in itself is great news –  this number of specialist NGOs working together is fantastic. Natural England are also involved, and the government seem keen too (it’s free!). I was there with my Bumblebee Conservation Trust hat on. Daisy from the Trust is running a project to help the Shrill Carder Bee, which by a happy accident can be found – if you’re very lucky – a few miles down the road from us in Somerset.

Back from the Brink planting
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow…

The day itself was very good fun. There were some excellent speeches, particularly by Sir Peter Luff, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who are the main funders of the project. The presentations and then tree planting in the Park with schoolchildren reinforced two key elements of what programmes like Back From The Brink have to do. They have to connect and engage. David Lindo, the urban birder, was very good on this. We must demystify nature and use social media more effectively to get people to understand it’s not something that just happens “in the country”. It’s all around them, and it’s fascinating.

The kids loved the planting. It was hard not to wonder whether any of the oak whips they were planting would live as long as the magnificent Signing Oak overseeing us like an ancient guardian.  This wonderful tree, with all its social history, seemed to represent the kind of legacy we must not lose.

Back from the Brink
Violet Click Beetle home?

After lunch on the hoof we adjourned to the forest, where in a section of ancient beech the Violet Click Beetle is hanging on. It’s only found in three places in the UK, so “rare” would be an understatement. The Crown Estate is running a project to try to save it. It’s a classic illustration of how tricky some of BftB’s work is going to be. Violet click beetle larvae live inside the base of veteran beech and ash trees, of which there are very few left. Windsor forest has some lovely ancient beech, but there is a 50-100 year break in the continuity of trees. After the veterans then nothing until young, non-decaying trees. No decay, no Violet click beetle. What to do? Sarah Henshall explained two approaches – making an artificial decaying tree trunk, and for the longer term, fungal inoculation of younger trees to accelerate decay.

Back From The Brink’s work is going to be as difficult as it is important. I hope too that it will serve as a template for conservation NGOs to work together under the same umbrella. It’s so important that we don’t just save some of our flora and fauna from extinction, but that we tell their stories too.



Tackling Pollinator Declines

Pollinator Engagement
All About Bees

An interesting day in London last week, at a meeting to discuss the decline in pollinating insects. There were some interesting and highly competent folk there and some interesting initiatives, although it seemed to be entirely bee related. Also, tellingly, I was the only person there from the commercial sector. Again. This lack of engagement between the commercial sector and NGOs and academics is hopeless.


Random take aways? Not too gloomy, as it turns out.

  • Pollinator numbers don’t seem to be as declining as fast as they were in the 1970s and 1980s – thank goodness. Declines then seem to be linked to pesticide use and collapse in wild red clover populations due to changing farm practices.
  • Weirdly, although we don’t know much about what is happening in the UK about pollinators, we know more than nearly everyone else about what’s happening in their own countries.
  • Managed honeybee numbers globally seem to be increasing, but in the UK reflect weather, disease, and the availability of forage.
  • Bumblebee survival seems to be directly related to quality of habitat.
  • Local councils could easily do a lot more to encourage biodiversity, reduce park management costs, reduce CO2 emissions and engage local communities. Good things happening here.
  • “Wild bees” seem to suffer from honeybee diseases related to varroa.
  • Yes, pesticides are a hell of a problem. 40% of honey at the recent Apimondia show was rejected because of impurities. Yuk.

Nigella Lawson in The Garden

For my sins I have spent several hours recently tramping around local estates delivering election leaflets. This has provided a fascinating insight into the average local garden. The real ones – not like you see on Gardener’s World or the Chelsea Flower Show.

I make this distinction because gardening seems to be treated by the visual media like cooking. Millions of people love to watch cookery videos but live on take-aways and fish fingers. Millions love to watch Monty Don and his dog but have urban gardens full of rusting barbeques and decking.

So what does Monty think his typical viewer’s garden looks like? I assume he’s in the same bubble as the celebrity cooks, so he’s going to be well wide of the mark. Well, at least in this part of the world, they generally don’t look great.

They fall into four groups:

1. Immaculate. Unusual. Typically heavy on the veg and cut flowers, head gardener of pensionable age.

2. Struggling. Possibly aspiring to immaculate but time and knowledge poor. Some weird sights. Gnomes.

3. Jungle. Lost engine parts and bits of recycling the foxes have messed about with. The odd child’s toy.

4. Hard landscaping. Cars on breeze blocks. Marestail the only green thing.

In total, not very encouraging for Monty – or for wildlife.*

A balance between 1 and 3
Firstly, jungle is – contrary to popular belief – not great for invertebrates. I aspire to a balance between 1 and 3. This combination was almost non-existent, interestingly. My favourite garden was one which had a kind of delicate urban meadow going on, with Fox and Cubs and Trefoil in the lawn. Judging by the veg, here was a competent gardener, but one who could give nature a nod with an aesthetically pleasing and time saving feature.

Secondly, jungle is mostly the look of rented houses and – consequently – becoming more and more prevalent. Why on earth should young renters bother?

Somerset MeadowThirdly, the more modern the house the more miniscule the “garden” and the more aggressive the hard landscaping. This is appallingly obvious, not the least because of the almost complete absence of pollinators in recently built areas. And these are areas surrounded by “countryside”.

So I took myself off to the local meadow by way of an antidote. Even here there seemed to be fewer bees than there used to be. Maybe the cold spring has been hard for them. Oh well. Here’s a nice picture of an orchid from the meadow anyway; Monty – or Nigella for that matter – would be pleased.

*Talking of which – people! – go easy on the damn slug pellets!

Native And Exotic Plants In The Garden

Robin Lane-Fox wrote a bad tempered piece in last weekend’s FT about “exotic” v. “native” plants in the garden. He’s a respected plantsman, and so I wasn’t surprised to read he was against using native plants in the garden. I’m entirely sympathetic to this view; we are all masters and mistresses of our own gardens, and should do with them whatever we most enjoy. What did surprise me, however, is that he repeated the mantra that our wildlife was oblivious to the difference between (plain) native plants and attractive exotics. It’s true that disease threatens many of our “native” tree species. Sadly we would do well to think about alternatives for planting schemes. When we do, it would also be advisable to source them from UK nurseries so that a raft of new diseases doesn’t reach our shores. Improved biosecurity and more UK grown plants may be rare Brexit dividends.

Plants for Pollinators
It’s also right that “exotic” plants can be at least as beneficial to some wildlife as “native” plants – in some cases more so. Many bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the longer and different flowering periods. There’s also the heavy nectar production of some attractive exotic flowers. We sell a fantastic seed mix from Flowerscapes which illustrates this. However – and this is a big but – it’s wrong to think of plants purely as providers of pollen and nectar. Even if we did there are bee species which are oligoleges – i.e. they feed from a specific plant genus or even single plant species.

Plant Food
I imagine there are no Brimstone butterflies in the doubtlessly beautiful Lane-Fox garden. Brimstone larvae dine exclusively on the leaves of one of our dullest looking shrubs, Buckthorns*. Many moth and butterfly larvae have similarly exclusive or nearly exclusive relationships with other native plants as do many thousands of insects. This includes the Blackthorn so disliked by Mr Lane-Fox.  Quercus robur – that’s the English oak, not your imported tat – supports up to 400 different species of herbivore insects in the UK. This kind of dependence is true of amphibians and mammals – no boring old hazel, no boring old dormice.

My own garden is less ornamental and more nature reserve, but that’s what gives me pleasure. It’s a smorgasbord of natives and exotics, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s also full of the munching, buzzing, swimming things which can’t survive in the surrounding farmland.

*Our bees also seem very partial to Purging Buckthorn‘s inconspicuous little flowers.