Planting or Not Planting Woodland

A little while ago I was involved in a great nonsense about wildflower seeds. Plantlife, the wildflower charity, essentially said all wildflower seed mixes were cr@p and should be avoided. OK, perhaps it was a slightly more nuanced message, but you get the gist. The idea underlying this was to get people to be more aware of their local botany, and that trying to replace lost wildflower areas could be done more sensitively and cheaply in some instances by using locally sourced seed.

This is a message I’m enormously sympathetic to, and which we actually do our best to promote ourselves. What I wasn’t at all sympathetic to is having the seed we sell – including seed with specific provenance – lumped in with the rubbish that the unwary can buy. It’s hard enough for responsible producers without this kind of misinformation.

Blow me down if a similar thing hasn’t just happened with native trees.

You can buy native species trees and shrubs as “whips” – these are small plants, usually graded between 40-60cm or 60-90cm. They’re used either for hedges or for woodland planting schemes. People like the Woodland Trust have done a huge number of schemes using them.

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
This kind of new planting is usually blighted by plastic spiral guards or larger tubular guards for trees. Unless the new plants are fenced off these guards are vital. We have so many deer running around the countryside now we would lose most of our new planting schemes to them if they weren’t protected. The guards are often not removed, however, and just photodegrade – i.e. get brittle and just break into smaller and smaller pieces. The industry has failed miserably to come up with a biodegradable alternative, which does my head in.

There are other issues too. Species selection can be wrong for the site. The species mix might be inappropriate. Plants might be imported, so bringing the risk of disease or non-native variation. Planting densities might stop the development of a healthy understorey. And, of course, natural regeneration is much cheaper.

In short – despite the fact we sell the plants! – I’m very sympathetic to the “rewilding” view that in some instances the best way to reforest areas is not to plant them, but to let them naturally regenerate. Thorny scrub can protect emerging broadleaf trees, which means no guards. The new woodland self selects. The understorey develops entirely naturally.

Let’s not, however, exaggerate the evils of whips, which suddenly seems the thing to do.

Without knowing enough about the ecological arguments, I understand that this way of establishing woodland might not work all the time. I can think of lots of instances when it wouldn’t work for practical reasons either.

Many whips ARE imported. Many aren’t, however, and are painstakingly grown from seed in British nurseries – so there’s no biosecurity risk. Rather than not using them at all, customers should be informed about their provenance.

Planting schemes using good quality whips usually establish very well. If grass is kept clear from the base of the plants, they’re planted correctly and don’t get whacked by deer, we only usually see around 5% failures.

It seems daft that in order to promote one’s own agenda, alternatives have to be demonised. Planters and regenerators, both sides want the same thing – more of the right kind of woodland in the landscape.

A Little Knowledge…

I had a great weekend, brushing up my little knowledge. On Saturday I was at the mighty Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s (BBCT) members’ day in Cardiff, then yesterday had an equally engaging time at the Tree Conference in Frome. I heard a range of presentations, all give by people doing invaluable – and often unheralded – work.

We had two fascinating external speakers at the BBCT do. Andy Salisbury is the head entomologist at the RHS, and Liam Olds is an ecologist working for Buglife. The Trust’s own science supremo, Richard Comont, also spoke.

BBCT Members' DayAndy is the brains behind the work the RHS has been doing on plants for pollinators, which is still a project in progress. We’re now getting an idea about which plants different pollinators like. Liam has been looking at old coal tips in the south Wales valleys. They turn out to be extraordinary biodiversity hotspots. We’ve only recently begun to understand how important brown field sites can be. Richard – among other things – gave us the preliminary results from this year’s Bee Walk. This is the only data set of its kind. Established in 2008, it gives us a pretty good picture of what is happening to bumblebee populations, relying on figures from a growing band of trained volunteers re-walking the same transects.

Frome tree conferenceThe Tree Conference got me thinking, too. I loved Dr Martin Bidartondo, engaging expert on (impossible to spell) mycorrhiza. These are the underground fungi which are essential to trees, effectively extending their root systems and swapping sugar for minerals. Martin has started to map them across Europe – a Herculean task. His initial results are fascinating, and reinforce our understanding of the damage pollution is doing to our forests.

Lastly, Isabella Tree recapped some of the key themes of her recent book, Wilding. Isabella was the least unheralded of all the speakers! I’m a big – although not unreserved – fan of rewilding*, and it has arrived at the perfect time to influence debate on land use post Brexit and the dreadful Common Agricultural Policy. The big idea at Knepp – Isabella’s estate – is wood pasture. It’s amazing that this – in retrospect – obvious idea was only recently posited at all. Less than 20 years ago everyone thought historically forests were thick, dark and impenetrable, with closed canopies. Now we understand they were much more likely to be open patches of broadleaf woodland punctuated with pasture and scrub. A range of herbivores grazed and rootled around in them. Hugely biodiverse, hugely attractive and instantly appealing. This is a key idea, not least because of various large scale planting initiatives going on at the moment.

There was a theme running through all these presentations. These are all really important topics and areas of discovery. Which plants do we plant for which pollinators? How important are brownfield sites for wildlife? What are bee numbers doing? What is going on with fungi? What should a forest be? We are only now just starting to grope our way towards these answers.

What little knowledge we have about what happens outside our own back doors. How poorly resourced such work as we are doing is. I’ve felt this again and again over the last ten years. Ironically, we used to know the answers to many of these issues, but we have forgotten or ignored them. We now promote and pay for schemes with quick and high visual impact, often based on the wrong premise and often influenced by self-interested lobby groups.

Time is running out. We simply must focus on the science and throw money at it. Now.

*More on this anon.

How Not To Plant “Woodland”

There’s a great and commendable enthusiasm about tree planting in the UK. We know the reasons why. Every year, especially when the floods come, people talk about the need for more trees. Tree planting might even be part of a new post Brexit agricultural settlement. We need to be careful about it, though.

There has been a great boom in tree planting in Ireland. Apparently forests covered less than 1% of the country a hundred years ago. That figure is now over 10% – still low. The government plans it to reach 18% by 2046. Hurrah! There’s a problem, though. This isn’t really woodland. The new planting consists of Sitka spruce plantations. Currently, only 2% of forest cover is mixed broadleaf woodland.

Is this an issue?

You bet.

plantation monocultureSitka spruce hails from the Pacific northwest. It’s not a great fit with local Irish ecology. It grows vigorously, and – as in the UK – advice is to plant at a tree per 2 square metres. Nothing grows beneath its dense stygian canopy. Unlike native broadleaf woodland, this monoculture needs fertilisers and pesticides. Plantations are springing up in bogs and across meadows. They might sequester carbon, they might have commercial value, but in biodiversity terms they’re… unhelpful.

Planting regimental ranks of broadleaf trees isn’t ideal either. Dense woodland, with no sense of the effects of what ecologists call succession, is sub-optimal. We need lower density mixed species planting, with gaps. This could be achieved by using a wider range of native species and by more extensive selective felling in any planting scheme’s formative stages.

woodland pastureContrary to earlier thinking, the chances are that dense forests didn’t cover Europe before iron age man started clearance work. More likely is that grazing livestock, like auroch and boar, chomped and rootled clear areas. These enabled much greater diversity of tree species, along with other flora and fauna. You can imagine Oaks establishing themselves among stands of Blackthorn, then spreading out. Wildflowers growing in sunnier meadows. Mottled sunlight through the canopy playing on a rich understory. More managed landscapes used to mirror this approach, which is becoming talked about again through the rewilding movement.

We’re surrounded by vestigial “wood pasture” in this pocket of Somerset. I’d love to see it restored. We should put a commercial value on that, payable from the public purse if necessary, as (I hope) we will – finally – do for planting for flood prevention.

I’m probably just cavilling about tree planting styles. Planting rates in England continue to be disappointing. Management of many schemes is poor and deer wreck others. England only has similar tree cover to Ireland. The government’s (unfunded) targets look like pie in the sky.

We need more trees, in a hurry. We should, nonetheless, get maximum value from them. They have to be the right trees, planted and managed in the right way.

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.

 

The Cricket Field Oak

In winter when I do the washing up I can see the Cricket Field Oak. It’s usually through Somerset rain which, as you can see, has left its mark over the last several hundred years. I had to dash out to take this photo when the sun appeared briefly! This wonderful English oak, Quercus robur, was there centuries before cricket was played next to it and will stand for centuries after the last ball was bowled there.

Ancient trees
The Cricket Field Oak

It’s officially an ancient tree, with its own reference in the ancient trees directory, 46732. A minor celebrity – not that the family of Little Owls who live there would know. And I didn’t know either. I had admired and wondered at this single oak, but I didn’t realise it had been officially recognised. I’m indebted to the Ancient Tree Forum for this. They record our ancient trees and advise on their upkeep – invaluable work.

Why are these trees important? They support extraordinary biodiversity – English oak trees support over 280 invertebrate species, together with lichens and fungi. The older it is, the more diverse a tree’s associated flora and fauna becomes.

I love their cultural significance. Many are named after people or events that happened in their shade. Last year I visited Windsor Great Park. There I saw the great Signing Oak (13623), whose 9.72m girth dwarfs our little Cricket Field Oak. South of us here is the equally enormous Wyndham Oak (6884), where Sir Hugh Wyndham took his ease in the 1650s. These trees are over 900 years old.

We are blessed with ancient oaks in this corner of Somerset. We live on what was the edge of the great royal Selwood forest, where Alfred gathered the fyrd before the battle of Edington*. Later, the land hereabouts was wood pasture, used in the middle ages for hunting deer, grazing domesticated animals and producing timber. This open environment is ideal for single oak trees, hungry for light, to flourish. Many of the oaks were managed carefully and pollarded, which has extended their lives.

It’s an accident of history that these trees weren’t felled. They would have been on mainland Europe. For this we can be grateful for the failure of the Commonwealth and – shortly after – John Evelyn’s Sylva. Deer parks were the preserve of the Crown and aristocracy, who came to appreciate the value of trees in the landscape.

Oaks are said to spend 300 years growing, 300 years maturing, and 300 years “veteranising”. There’s no hard and fast rule as to when a tree is a veteran and when it becomes “ancient”. Just down the road from us over the road from the pub is a fabulous ash tree (55789), which is officially a veteran; it’s a mere 5m round.

This ash is a big tree, but as it gets older, like an old man it will shrink. Its trunk will continue to thicken but its crown will reduce as a survival strategy to reduce the ravages of weather and decay.

These ancient trees are extraordinary. They are their own secret worlds, teeming with life. They have their own told and untold histories. Older and more mysterious than cathedrals or castles. Worth more pondering while doing the washing up.

*The night before the battle (in 878) Alfred stayed by the great Iley Oak, which was still used as a gathering point in the 1650s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Habitat Restoration

“Make it so”, booms Jean-Luc Picard. And snick snack snorum, it is made so. jean-luc picard If only life were as simple as it is aboard the USS Enterprise. And if only we had Patrick Stewart to guide us calmly* through everything the universe had to throw at us. The universe, it turns out, is fantastically complicated and – well – difficult. Even for Patrick Stewart. And nowhere is this clearer than on our own planet.

Here’s a good – and ultimately uplifting – example. This little video is about the efforts being made to reverse deforestation in Iceland. Habitat restoration is a real palaver! With my Habitat Aid hat on I was pleased to see the emphasis on local provenance and plant genetics… And all this caused by a few Viking sheep and the odd pig.

There are lots of obvious morals to this story, of course. For example, the government here has announced the creation of  a northern forest (largely funded by charities).  There will be 50 million trees planted  to cover a vast area. Potentially very exciting.  It will, however, take many years before it can provide the same kind of biodiversity as the ancient woodland under threat from HS2 and fracking.

Habitat restoration is very difficult, expensive, imperfect and slow. Far better to avoid destroying this stuff in the first place.

*or should that be “to calmly guide us”?

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.

 

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.

 

 

Hedge Planting In The Wet

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire.

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.

Hedge planting
There’s a pond in my hedge! Wiltshire.

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.

Flooding… Yet Again. Why Are We Ignoring Some Simple Answers?

It’s not surprising that flooding is an issue much discussed hereabouts. I’ve blogged about it in 2013 and 2014, so hey, why not now too. It is a problem which will not go away. The Somerset levels regularly cop it, so I’m particularly sorry for the folk in Cumbria as I’ve seen the distress and damage it can cause at close hand.

It’s time the government started thinking in a much more intelligent way about flooding. I’m not always a fan of George Monbiot, but he has got this issue completely right.

There is no point trying to deal with the walls of water which are going to increasingly come rushing into built up areas. The people of Carlisle are witness to that. However tall you make your expensive defences they will be over topped by flooding.

Rather than try to block it, why isn’t the government doing something about controlling the water WHEN IT HITS THE GROUND? There are two glaring examples of how this can be done.

One of the features of the Lake District are its hill farms. The lot of an upland sheep farmer is harder than it has ever been, and without heavy subsidies from the taxpayer this way of life would die completely. Fell farming in the Lakes is a centuries old tradition and gives the area its particular look, which goes a long way to explaining opposition to giving it up.

Oddly though, given how unproductive it is, the numbers of sheep grazing our hills and mountains are an estimated 500% higher than they were before the First World War*. Researchers have connected what’s happening in these catchment areas with the situation downstream when a lot of rain falls. The water just whizzes off grazed and compacted upland pasture, which has lost its ability to absorb it.

Rather than paying for this to happen by way of subsidies, the good people of Carlisle out to be lobbying to get trees planted in their river catchments. Research in Wales has suggested that rainwater’s infiltration rate into the soil is 67 times higher under trees than under sheep pasture. Tree planting might change the landscape (to how it used to look) but the economic argument for it is becoming increasingly urgent.

The second area of policy change relates to green roofs – another pet subject of mine. Green roofs in urban areas do a fantastic job in holding water from extreme weather events. Heavy rain pours off hard surfaces and overwhelms traditional drainage systems. Our wildflower roof, on the other hand, holds 1000s of litres of rainfall. Make them a standard requirement for the hundreds of thousands of new homes we have to build.

Like all environmental issues, government should abandon short term populist solutions and adopt a science driven long term approach. Given the financial incentives, in these two instances it just might. We cannot afford to continue to deal with increasingly extreme weather events in the way we have been.

*Armsworth, Paul et al. (2009). A Landscape-Scale Analysis of the Sustainability of the Hill Farming Economy and Impact of Farm Production Decisions on Upland Landscapes and Biodiversity