Miles King is a well informed ecologist who I read for self-improvement – God knows I need it. His latest blog asks some uncomfortable questions about intensive farming. As he says:
We certainly do need to continue to challenge the propaganda that Guy Smith, Robin Page et al put out, that somehow nature has disappeared from the farmed landscape due to other reasons – predators for example, or urban development.
No-one has yet managed to explain to me how 97% of wildflower meadows, or 75% of chalk downland, has disappeared in 70 years thanks to predators. And urban development still only covers 12% of England.
Whatever words we use, the facts are the same. Modern farming methods, together and individually, have caused nature to disappear from the farmed countryside.
The % of the UK which has been urbanised is even lower; based on government population figures it is under 10%, of which the reckoning is that anything up to 50% might be green space. The idea that urban development is the biggest threat to biodiversity in the UK is one that needs squashing. It has become politically convenient for the farming lobby and handy for the anti-immigration lot, but is not based in fact. Rather, wildlife here is under threat from intensive farming practices. According to HMG, 69% of the UK is used for agriculture (although we only produce 60% of the food we eat).
I’m no expert, but there are seemingly only four outcomes to this battle between food and fauna:
1. We carry on as is.
2. We import more food and farm less intensively.
3. We eat less (and much less meat) and farm less intensively.
4. We farm even more intensively.
An unfortunate consequence of Sterling devaluation and a policy vacuum is that the most likely scenario is the last one. Bad news for wildlife.
It has been three years since we planted the green roof for our new house with wildflower plug plants, which has turned out to be a fabulous success. For many, “green roof” is synonymous with “sedum roof”, we started off by colour bombing it with annuals while the slower growing perennials developed.
This sense of progression and change – like a wildflower meadow – is part of its fascination. Fortunately I can see it from my office window on the first floor! Its colours change through the season and species come and go depending on the weather. It’s much past its best now, but still lovely.
Also like a wildflower meadow, the roof serves as a wonderful habitat for all sorts of invertebrates and birds as well. Our wagtails love it, and we see different finches on it regularly too. Fingers crossed we might even have something nest on it next year!
Conditions on the roof are almost opposite to the wet clay hereabouts, so we can create diversity as well as a very different look with it. Wild Thyme and Scabious (pictured) do very well on it, for example, which we would never see normally here. There are some areas where the growing substrate is evidently more fertile than in others and the moisture retention in the substrate also varies, which gives diversity to the flora and flora within the roof too. Some areas still have a lot of bare earth, whereas others have almost tussocky grass.
It can be pretty hostile for the plants on the roof, which means I don’t need to do much more than weed it a couple of times a year. Things don’t grow to great size, and annual weeds generally don’t survive at all. In the first year I watered it a couple of times but now I don’t bother. I’ve just sown some Yellow Rattle this year to keep the grasses down a bit in some sections, too. What’s not to like?
The latest State of Nature report is out and, predictably, it makes grim reading. There are some minor gains, but the overall picture is that habitat loss and climate change has meant that wildlife continues to decline. The UK is at least ahead of Hong Kong in terms of how damaged its nature is. Hurrah.
This report is a national scandal. 75% of the UK is managed for food production; this is by and large the bit of the UK people call “the countryside”. It is extraordinary that we do not specifically connect our loss of biodiversity to what is going on here. It is extraordinary that we know so little about how intensive agriculture is harming our wildlife and how little we are doing about it. It is extraordinary that we seem to have so little political will to tackle this issue, as we are supposedly a nation of nature lovers.
As worrying is that we are becoming so removed from nature. “The countryside” is rapidly becoming the preserve of retirees from the suburbs, whose vision of bucolic bliss is living next to the 18th green of Liam Fox’s favourite golf course. Over and over again I find myself arguing against different varieties of green desert. This is not rocket science, nor UK specific, of course. We were in Italy in the summer. Week one in the woods outside Perugia. All manner of buzzing flying things. Week two 50km down the road. Surrounded by picturesque vineyards and orchards, flying buzzing things nil.
Part of me hopes that Brexit will bring such horrendous problems for farmers that our preconceptions about food security and land use will be turned upside down. We cannot continue to pay absurdly low prices for food for which we are paying such a horrendous hidden cost in subsidy and environmental damage. We must change the way we use land or write off our environment completely.
It was disappointing but predictable that the environment didn’t feature in the Brexit debate. It’s just not seen as a vote winner – yet. The vast majority of environmentalists were “remainers”, including the Wildlife Trusts, who pointed to the raft of EU regulation which has protected endangered habitats and species, improved water and air quality, restricted planning consents, encouraged renewable energy, etc..There are also concerns that cuts in farming subsidies following Brexit might lead to lower benefits for farmers wanting to improve biodiversity on their patch.
We wait to see what a post Brexit world is going to look like, specifically a post Brexit world with Andrea Leadsom as Minister for the Environment. Commentators are studying the tea leaves. She seems to have been a climate change sceptic with an inconsistent voting record – mixed on fracking and fuel taxes. She voted for the sale of State owned forests and wants the fox hunting ban repealed.
While not wanting to pre-judge her, I’m rather gloomy. UK governments at both ends of the political spectrum have been poor on the environment, left to their own devices. As for the current administration, it’s clearly not a priority for them, as this week’s abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change suggests.
Agri-environment schemes will look like luscious low hanging fruit for a new administration keen to cut “red tape” and subsidies. Stand by for much talk about the New Zealand experience. My guess is that we will head towards even more intensive use of farmland with many small scale producers going bust, particularly if casual labour becomes more expensive. I just don’t see a willingness to embrace progressive ideas on land use either, to combat flooding, for example. Sadly, as usual, the environment looks set to become an ideological football.
I had the most depressing conversation about politics I have had for many a long year the other day.
I have been puzzled that the environment hasn’t had more airplay during the Brexit debate. There’s pretty much a consensus among environmental NGOs and conservation groups that being in Europe has been a good thing for the environment, so why haven’t the in crowd made a bigger song and dance about this aspect of the issue, rather than just repeating the same old vague platitudes?
Because, apparently, not only is the environment not important for voters, but it can lose you votes.
We had an old friend to stay the other weekend who is a long term Tory activist. She has been door stepping for Zac Goldsmith and is privately despairing of his chances in the London mayoral campaign. The Tory faithful aren’t going to turn out for him. This surprised me; I have heard a fair amount from Zac Goldsmith and found him well informed and lucid. Why didn’t people like him, I wondered. Too Eton? Too rich? Too young? No. It is because – despite being pro-Brexit – he is too green.
Let’s just get this straight, though. Most of the “wildflowers” they are sowing might be wildflowers, but they’re wild in places much more exotic than the principality. Like South America or California. I’m not going to get into any debate in this blog about the relative merits of this kind of planting as against using our own wildflowers – what I want to say is much more simple.
In the UK people understand “wildflowers” to be British wildflowers. Simple. Not Californian poppies or Gaillardia, but species naturally occurring here (no, I’m not going to get into the argument about how long a plant has to be here before it is “native”). I reckon they can also reasonably expect any “wildflower” seed they buy to be harvested here from plants grown here.
I pottered up to parliament yesterday to listen to the All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on natural flood defences, and very interesting it was too. I was there to listen to, among others, Jeremy Biggs of the Freshwater Habitats Trust, an excellent charity which we support. I’m the bald suit in the photo.
I’ve been to several parliamentary group and committee hearings and don’t understand why more folk don’t bother to (including, in this instance, any MPs from Somerset!). It’s a great opportunity to hear experts and meet interesting people, not least politicians, who, unfashionably, I generally find impressive. It also gives you a sense of the difficulty of establishing and implementing joined up policy in the environment.*
Natural flood defences, it turns out, are unsurprisingly complicated. It’s not just a question of paying hill farmers to plant trees in catchment areas.
There were three themes running through yesterday’s presentations and debate which were familiar from other environmental issues. Most obviously, there is no money available to action any new initiative, which will somehow have to be paid by the private sector. Secondly, there is limited available data to promote new schemes or help design them. Thirdly, policy has to be not just well informed but co-ordinated. I’m not convinced these things won’t happen in this instance, and the gains for biodiversity and the voters could be immense.
*This is one of the reasons I don’t subscribe to organizations like Avaaz and Change.org, which reduce issues to 140 characters and spew out tens of thousands of emails into MPs’ inboxes. Ironically, they increase a sense of alienation from the process of government which Americans are currently paying a heavy price for.
Happy New Year!
Thank you so much for your support in 2015, which has enabled us to donate £20,000 to small UK Conservation Charities.
2016 has started as wet and soggy as December, which broke all sorts of records for warmth and rainfall in the UK. Whatever the cause, weather patterns are changing and folk are having to adapt.
We are trying to plant hedges at a number of sites at the moment which are completely under water and likely to stay that way until April. We’ll probably have to use chilled stock to plant in spring, and hope we don’t have three months as dry as the winter has been wet. We’ve scarcely had a frost here this winter, so various seeds which need the cold to provoke germination are going to no show. Spring flowers are beginning to make unexpected appearances and the grass is still growing in our meadow, which needs more active management.
Perhaps some of these changes might help people notice their environment and particularly plants a little more. I often feel they view them as incidental background to “nature” on TV – i.e. cute mammals and birds. I hope too that our understanding of plants’ role in the landscape will come into sharper focus as we become more aware of land use in our search for more effective flood prevention.
When our native flora does register on our collective consciousness at the moment it’s generally because of its relationship with pollinators like bees (in the news again because of a rather gloomy study about neonicotinoids from our friends at Sussex University). I’m regularly asked for seed mixes for bees, even different types of bees, which we can happily supply but which seem to me to miss a trick. A typical wildflower meadow mix, for example, is brilliant for all sorts of invertebrates, but not optimal for honeybees. A brilliant honeybee mix is much less helpful for other species. Diversity, as ever, is the key, and something we can help you create.
What is a biosolar roof? Simple – it’s a green roof with solar panels.
I wish I’d known about biosolar roofs when we built our house; instead, we have a really nice green roof area and a smaller flat roof with solar panels on. We should have combined the two.
There are many benefits to green roofs, which I’ve written about before. They range from the obvious – their aesthetic appeal and the biodiversity they bring – to the more obscure. Their insulating properties are excellent and they protect the roofing membrane from getting photo degraded, extending its life. Urban planners are particularly excited about them as a way of controlling water run off and lowering temperatures in city centres.
Combining green roofs with solar panels gives you further benefits. Most obviously, solar is the coming renewable technology and will soon become an efficient way of generating electricity without subsidy, even this far north.* Our panels here worry me because they’re pretty exposed, and would be much better anchored by several tonnes of green roof substrate. It also turns out that mounting them on green roofs reduces their operating temperature and increases efficency. Like ground mounted panels, solar panels on flat roofs offer the potential for a tremendous variety of micro-habitats. Rainfall and light varies according to the position of the panel. At its leading edge there is water running off its face and sun. Underneath the panel it’s relatively dark and dry. It’s almost like a synthetic woodland, which lends itself to establishing a tremendous variety of plants. If these plants are native that will mean a tremendous variety of invertebrates.
My interest in biosolar roofs was piqued at a conference in London hosted by the indefatigable Dusty Gedge, doyen of green roofs, to whom my thanks for the use of this photo. His partner Gary Grant has suggested a species list for biosolar roof plants, which we’ve used as the basis for the plug plants for biosolar roofs selection on our website.
*Given the current regulatory environment, the only biosolar roofs being installed at the moment in the UK are sadly by those folk who already have solar, or by companies looking to brush up their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) credentials.
Rewilding seems to have started to gather momentum with the successful re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the 90s. This led to all sorts of unsuspected trickle down effects and a tremendous improvement in biodiversity. The Messiah of rewilding in the UK is George Monbiot, who wrote a book about it a couple of years ago and founded an organization called Rewilding Britain. I went to an interesting and whizzy panel discussion about it yesterday in Frome. There were a number of folk other than George there, including two landowners who are doing great things to their estates, The Knepp Estate and Alladale. These are brilliant projects run by interesting men, respectively Charlie Burrell and Paul Lister. Hats off to them. I’d love to be able to do something similar.
Rewilding seems to cover a multitude of things. For some, like Paul Lister, it is the re-introduction of apex predators like the wolf in Yellowstone. These are “keystone species”, also including animals like beavers, which have a disproportionate effect on their environment. His bugbear (and mine!) is deer, which wreck any chance of his replanting the kind of forest which used to cover the Highlands (they’re a damn nuisance down south too!). Some punchy predators would sort them out. Paul would love to re-introduce wolves, or perhaps less controversially the beautiful lynx. It makes a great deal of sense ecologically. For Charlie Burrell in Sussex lynx or wolves are rather tricky (!), but his pigs have been achieving interesting results. Another landowner local to us, Ben Goldsmith, has been doing similar things with boar.
It’s an interesting concept for me, because I’ve always thought the best way to change an ecosystem was from the bottom up; start with the plants. I can also now see you can achieve great things with the top down approach too.
Sadly I think the rewilding movement as it is in the UK will hit the buffers.
A clue as to why might lie in the backgrounds of Paul Lister and Charlie Burrell. Paul inherited the MFI fortune and Charlie is more properly Sir Charles Raymond Burrell, 10th Baronet. They’re not short of a few quid. They can afford to rewild like mad. You might be able to make some money out of folk paying to see your charismatic carnivores in the Highlands, but not as much as you can make by hosting stalking weekends or running grouse shoots, as Paul Lister acknowledged. Not even he can afford to ignore this current economic logic, unfortunately.
What is needed, as the panel said, is a root and branch change to our approach to land usage. Unless you’re proposing a massive forced redistribution of land, rewilding has to be able to pay people a living and/or give landowners a return – unless they happen to be philanthropists who have inherited/made vast amounts of money. In order to reforest our uplands, for example, we would need to pay hill farmers to plant and manage them. This would replace taxpayers’ agricultural subsidies to them with a different sort of subsidy.
This requires the rewilding movement to engage with people other than than the endearing earth mothers and princesses of Frome. In order to change perceptions going back to the Middle Ages it needs to engage with the EU, UK government, the farming lobby, media. It will also need the support of conservation groups. These are people George Monbiot makes a living out of antagonizing. It’s safe to say they are not comfortable bedfellows.
The next issue is one of definition. Is there a line in the sand we’re trying to work back towards? Much of England was deforested in the Iron Age, so far as I understand. Do we want to take it back to before this point and cover the country in wild wood? In which case what about the richly biodiverse features of managed landscapes like wildflower meadows or coppiced woodland?*
Lastly, I’m afraid these folk come across as pretty out of touch. Sorry guys, but you do. I understand what can be done with this approach and a lot of money, and why it could be a really good thing. Don’t tell me raising £50,000 for a village rewilding project is easy. Don’t tell me spending £6,000 per head on nationalizing British farmland is next to nothing or that Romania has “amazing farming techniques”. Most of all, don’t tell me that nobody else understands or cares about what you’re saying. We all need to find a realistic way to get rewilding projects into the mainstream.
*And talking about managed landscapes, please, PLEASE, don’t rewild your garden. Chances are you’ll lose biodiversity if you do, not gain it.