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.
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.
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.
The commercial world of native hedge plants is a funny one. There are a few hardy folk out there selling British hedge species which they themselves have grown. Things like Hawthorn and Blackthorn. As you can imagine, it’s not an obvious way to make a million. There’s quite lot of time and manual intervention involved and – like last summer – you’re dependent on the weather to a degree, even if you can afford glass (greenhouses) and water.
Worse, it’s quite difficult to persuade people to pay a lot for them. They look around and ask why they couldn’t just liberate the odd sapling, or at worst grow plants from seed. Some do.
Worse still, it’s much easier to grow them abroad. Most of the “native British” hedge plants planted here are in fact imports from Denmark, Holland, Italy… Our few remaining “forest nurseries” are mostly small and struggle to match the economies of scale of their continental competitors.
British Hedge Plants To Be More… British?
Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel for them. We’re beginning to be more picky about where we source our plant material. For good reason. Plants grown here from UK seed are going to be more helpful in UK ecosystems. They’re going to be better genetically equipped for life here. They also reduce biosecurity risk. Regulation is never going to be as effective at reducing the risk of imported plant disease as… not importing plants. Increased controls on imports may be part of horticultural life in post Brexit Britain.
We’re at an interesting moment of inflection, and seeing a change which will accelerate. And not just because of potential political changes.
It was a terrible growing season here because of the Beast from the East, which meant plants were knocked back, followed by the dry summer. Many plants which should have been saleable as “60-90cm” grade are only 40-60cm. Some plants aren’t saleable at all. There’s an acute shortage of stock.
This effect has been worsened by higher demand. That’s partly because people are choosing to use plants grown here – I think possibly in the wake of the Ash dieback fiasco. Landscape architects are asking for British grown plants for their projects – and there is some large infrastructure work about at the moment. Individuals are planting more hedges too.
So bear with us if we are struggling to find exactly the hedge plant you want. It’s actually a sign of exciting change.
Amazingly, Habitat Aid is 10 years old. It started off as what now looks like a lunatic plunge into the unknown. I’d had 30+years in the City and needed another career. I was a keen but strictly amateur naturalist and gardener/smallholder. I think people thought I was having a midlife crisis (probably) or that I’d made so much money it didn’t matter (weak laughter). We downsized dramatically. To the surprise of most the business has kept food on the table and, more importantly, done some good things. Anyway, our tenth anniversary has given me an excellent opportunity to go off on one…
I wish I’d kept tabs on what we’ve given away to charities and community projects, how many acres of wildflower meadows or orchards we’ve had a hand in, or seed packets, or numbers of ponds, or miles of hedges. Wildflower meadows are now particularly dear to my heart. Largely unprotected, almost completely destroyed, our most diverse and attractive habitat. I think the biggest meadow site we’ve seeded is over a hundred acres. Wildly exciting.
Most aspects of what we do have been very satisfying, not least helping our network of suppliers, many of whom have been with us since we started. We have made some modest progress in changing minds, like promoting local provenance meadow seed, for example. People have been very supportive, from David Attenborough to an appreciative pupil from a Primary school in County Durham (thank you for the letter, Lucy). Thanks everyone, not least my long suffering wife!
This keeps me going; sometimes, as you can imagine, it can be difficult. I do wish we were having a wider impact. The business is still pretty modest, and we find it difficult to be heard. Projects are complicated and can go wrong (don’t tell!). People don’t pay much for plants and seed, and can find them baffling. Selling online seems to be more and more difficult for small companies who don’t want to use Amazon. Social media audiences follow enthusiastic and luminous personalities. Folk have odd ideas. Things get weird very quickly. TBH I’m hopeless at it. One of the reasons we set up Habitat Aid was to get across sound information on how to try and improve our natural environment. Worthy but dull on Facebook. Hopeless.
Although we know more about what’s happening in our own back garden than we did 10 years ago, it’s still remarkably little. Some of the charities we support are working hard to change that, but we’re still blundering around in – at best – the twilight. Our understanding of what we’re doing to the natural environment here remains depressingly sketchy.
The conservation lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups. I’m delighted to see a new activism abroad, like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and various online petitions. I’m uncomfortable though about the confrontational element of some of this stuff, and the over-simplification and sensationalising (is that a word?) of complicated real world issues. For example, banning neonicotinoids on its own isn’t going to “save our bees”. Don’t get me wrong. I think banning them is a very good thing and was very overdue – but bees have other problems too. We continue to find out how many. We’re also finding out how many other impacts neonics have too. In the meantime farmers are flooding their oilseed rape fields with pyrethroid based pesticides instead. Specialist evidence based conservation charities really struggle to put across complicated messages without compromising them.”Personalities” or campaigning groups often eclipse them, too.
NGOs are, however, getting better at persuading people that wildlife friendly can also be people friendly. Most are also engaging better with the real world, although there are a couple of ivory towers out there which need to be bazooka-ed. It must be a concern to them, however, that their supporters continue to be overwhelmingly white middle class folk of a certain age, from outside urban areas. It’s a symptom of “nature deficit disorder”, I guess. There’s also shifting baseline syndrome to fight among the younger generation.
Lastly there’s the commercial sector. Retailers sell lots of THINGS to try replace degraded habitat. Bee boxes, bird boxes, hedgehog boxes, bat boxes, dormice boxes, hibernacula, bird feeders, even bumblebee colonies.* This all just widens people’s disconnectedness with nature. Together with the over-simplification of key messages they are encouraged to think that nature is easily and cheaply replaceable. They’re not looking at it either. Our efforts to get people to take pleasure in the small things – a new butterfly in the garden, a new plant in the meadow – generally fall on deaf ears. I still run into far too much greenwash in the corporate sector at large. Perhaps naively I think this is often down to ignorance.
I’ve become increasingly suspicious of government, although encouraged by the Blue Planet effect. This means that – for the first time ever – the environment will win votes. Best of all, it might win votes among the under 25s. This realisation just might drive a good environmental deal post Brexit, although as this will mean short term cost and higher food prices the jury is still firmly out. At the least, we should get improved biosecurity and wave goodbye to the Common Agricultural Policy.
This is apparently my 362nd blog. There does now seem to be a wider understanding that something is needed to reverse what Chris Packham calls an “ecological apocalypse” here. There are more active efforts being made to that end, like rewilding. Much hasn’t changed over the previous 361 blogs, though. We still worry about animals like hedgehogs much more than we do about the drivers behind their decline. These are common to many, many other species. Biodiversity loss is still the Cinderella of the Green movement, which is much more concerned about energy and sustainability. We still spend peanuts on it, least of all on the poor souls slaving away in this area – or in horticulture generally, come to that.
I’m still convinced that the way to improve biodiversity here is by recreating and rejoining (as best we can) destroyed and splintered natural habitats. This not only means huge changes to the way we use and value land here, but also getting people to see the benefits of habitat creation. It can be beautiful and wildly exciting (sorry! – Ed.).
*Plants and seed sellers often pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. “Wildflower seed” in particular could be anything from anywhere and often fails. Retailers seem to sometimes actively encourage people’s confusion; between actual and other sorts of “meadows”, and the provenance of plants, for example.
According to Wikipedia, the green economy is one which “aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and… aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment.” I went to a celebration of it this week, hosted by Business Green.
We’d been shortlisted for an award and I had a cracking night. The food was great and the wine flowed. Fab people and inspiring stories. Lots of enthusiastic young, and a lot of companies represented. There were 25 awards, and a short list of 136 finalists for them, ranging from large household names to small companies like us*. There was a real buzz and enthusiasm about the evening. We heard a lot about low carbon, zero emissions, renewable energy, battery storage, energy efficiency, clever building, recycling, and sustainability generally. Business Green is a good publication, and they’d taken a lot of care to host a very enjoyable event. They launched their Net Zero Now campaign on the night, which helps business and government develop net zero emission strategies.
There was, however, something missing.
It’s something which is generally missing from events like these. Given the rest of the evening it almost seems churlish to mention it, but I just have to. It’s the ecological scarcities bit of Wikipedia’s definition. Biodiversity loss didn’t get a look in.
In fairness, there was an award for Best Environmental Awareness Campaign. This did include one project which seemed to be about ecology. That meant that 2 out of the 136 finalists were directly concerned with reversing biodiversity loss – including us, who are so small we don’t really count!
This is entirely typical of the green economy in the UK. Reversing biodiversity loss just isn’t a priority; not for government, NGOs, policy wonks, business, and specialist media. Climate change and sustainability generally completely dominate their agendas. I suspect in years to come this will be as baffling to most people as it is to me now.
*no, of course we didn’t win. I was thrilled to be on a shortlist, though.
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%
As 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.
I tend to avoid social media these days. I don’t object to the polarisation of opinions that it creates so much as the post-factual nature of much of the debate. I first came across this with bees, about which I must have read hundreds of thousands of words of uninformed comment over the years. It’s not just bees though; it’s every issue I have an interest in. Meadows, fresh water habitats, butterflies and moths, orchards… invariably reasoned well informed voices are drowned out by folk with an agenda.
There’s generally no arguing with these points of view, based as they are on belief or misconception and expressed aggressively. All we can do is to help the under-funded and unheralded science based projects and NGOs who continue to work quietly away at improving our understanding of the natural world around us. This is part of the raison d’etre of Habitat Aid. I posted cheques for £14000 to some of my favourite charity partners today from our recent website sales, which will make a huge difference to some of the heroic small charities we work with. Good luck, and keep up the good work.
By my reckoning, this bare root planting season the Habitat Aid hedge elves will have planted something over 130,000 plants around the country. There’s some repairing of existing hedges but it’s mostly new planting – woodland areas and new hedges, often on the sites of old grubbed out hedgerows. This makes me happy, particularly as they’re all species native to Britain and plants grown from British stock by British growers. Great for the wildlife that depends on them, great for everybody. So long as they’re looked after (!?) in a modest way we will have left our mark on the landscape for many years.
This season hasn’t been without its troubles, however. Most folk use bare root hedge plants; they’re cheap, easy to handle, and have a good success rate. They’re planted when dormant, in ground that’s not frozen or waterlogged. Here are the two problems. First off, as the more observant of you might have noticed, some early blossom has already been out for a while and the first shimmers of green are apparent in the hedgerows. It looks more like mid-March than early February out there. This means that there’s a huge rush on to get plants in the ground before they break dormancy, in which case they react badly to being transplanted. Alternatively, if like us you have suppliers who can chill their stock, you can hold spring back.
We’ve needed to do this for a number of sites which are underwater. In my book it’s probably not terribly bright building a solar park on the Levels, in a site surrounded on all sides by rhynes (deep drainage ditches) and where the local botany consists exclusively of rushes and sedges. I’m surprised the arrays haven’t started to sink. Anyway, the chances of planting that particular site before April are zero.
Climate change is having an effect on how we’re planting these hedges and what they’ll look like. Sections of Hawthorn and Hazel will fail because they will rot in standing water. We’ll replace them with Willow and Dogwood. The hedge will look much redder in the winter and spring. We are slightly moving old hedgelines in order to avoid really wet areas and tweaking mixes for some sites, particularly in the wetter west, to include more water tolerant species. The look of the countryside will change.
The methodology of planting will alter too. Specifiers – typically in our case ecologists and landscape architects – will have to be more flexible when it comes to planting times and species. A site can’t be planted between November and end March if it’s typically submerged for that period. More hedge mixes need to include wet loving plants; without them there can be some real disasters as “extreme” weather creates impossible conditions for some species.
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.
Spring is springing all over the place at Habitat Aid’s Somerset HQ. I suddenly feel terribly behind in the garden. The veg is ok but everything else – eek! We have a party of beekeepers coming to look around in a month or so, then we have a family wedding at the beginning of August – I’m a man under pressure! I’m seeding the last of the cornfield annuals to make a splash for the wedding, and finally sorting out the pond (see below). Rattle seedlings are appearing and the meadows are almost visibly growing. Queen bumblebees are buzzing about looking for nest sites and enjoying early blossom on our Cherry Plum and Almond trees. It’s just about time for me to see how our honey bees have over wintered.
Our bare root plant suppliers and planters have put their feet up at the end of a frantic season and are looking forward to a well deserved rest. I don’t know how many kilometres of native hedging we’ve put in this year, but it feels like it has been enough to get to the moon and back. It has been great for the charities we support too. We’re increasingly funding them through benefits in kind where we can, which over the last few weeks have included seed and plants for Butterfly Conservation and a display stand for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Among smaller charities we’ve also helped out local environmental charity Carymoor and the Thorne and Hatfield Moors forum.
We’re now gearing up for seeding. April and May are good months to sow wildflowers, although try not to take any short cuts when it comes to prepping the seed bed. I’m always impatient in the garden, and it has disastrous consequences! If you run out of time, don’t be tempted. Keep working on the site and seed in September.
We have transformed our pond by planting the sides of the butyl liner with the pre-planted coir mats we sell. They’re a great answer to a perennial problem. Easy to install, and creating instant effect.
Pollen from crocuses is an important early food source for our honeybees in early spring. We’ve also planted hellebores and early flowering willow to help them at this critical time of year.
It’s here again – happy Christmas! The days are growing longer and spring suddenly seems much closer. Thank you everyone for helping to make this a great year.
The business is beginning to be of a size that’s making a material difference. We’ve sold enough wildflower and grass seed to sow over 500 acres and plants for over 20km of native hedge, for example. Most of this has gone towards habitat creation rather than restoration, which is particularly exciting.
We’ve been doing a lot of work with two solar developers, Good Energy and Solar Century. I know folk are divided over solar farms, but I am very bullish about the projects we are involved in. Our partners in this area needed to be chosen very carefully, and the work we’re doing for them constitutes much more than just visual mitigation. The solar farms we’ve been working on will be largely (if not totally) invisible biodiversity hot spots of between 10 and 80 acres. Next year we’re working on three sites of over 200 acres! They might not look like it, but these will effectively become nature reserves. Everyone gains from this kind of project – just the sort of thing Habitat Aid was set up to promote and facilitate.
What’s else is happening with us in 2015? We’re revamping the website, to be finished in January (maybe!). At the moment our business is nearly entirely non-retail, which makes me unhappy, so this should help to rebalance it. We’ll also be able to introduce regular offers for readers of our newsletter. I’ve got one or two other interesting ideas too.
At Hookgate Cottage our new garden is almost finished but there will doubtless be much more work to do before the current swamp out there turns to concrete in the summer. In the meantime I’m doing an RHS course, which is reinforcing my view that I know nothing about anything. The only way is up!