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.

Food or Fauna?

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.

intensive agricultureThe % 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.

The Magic of Green Roofs

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”, p1080079we 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.

Green Roof in 2014
Green Roof in 2014
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!
p1080073Conditions 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.
p1080085It 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?

State of Nature 2016: “the countryside” is broken

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.
state-of-natureThis 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.

The Environment and Brexit

andreaIt 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.

The Environment: A Toxic Political Issue

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.

Wrong Colour.
Wrong Colour.
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.

When is a Wildflower not a Wildflower?

I am happy to report that this year Swansea is going to be more colourful than ever, due to the council sowing over 40,000 square metres of flowers this spring. Well done Swansea Council.

Swansea roundaboutLet’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.

That’s it.

Natural Flood Defences and Biodiversity

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.APPG Biodiversity

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.