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.

The Ecological Apocalypse (Again)

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Chris Packham hit the headlines this weekend by announcing that the UK was facing an ecological apocalypse. Yikes.

He’s right of course, but as apocalypses go it has been rather protracted. I wrote about a book called Silent Summer in 2010, which itself referenced an American book, Silent Spring (1962). Both featured similar conclusions. We have had over 50 years of ecological apocalypses.

And people don’t care about them.

They don’t care for three reasons.

Firstly, they are unaware they’re happening. This is partly a consequence of  Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Essentially,  new generations aren’t aware of the degradation of the natural environment because they’ve got nothing to compare it with. My mum had fond memories of country walks through clouds of butterflies. There were certainly reasonable numbers when I was small. Our children are delighted to see one. It’s also true that most people in the UK are now urban dwellers. To some degree or other they’re suffering from nature deficit disorder. They’re removed from the natural environment, physically and psychologically.

Secondly – perhaps as a consequence – people in the UK don’t really care about the natural world.  This might seem odd in a nation of Springwatch viewers, animal lovers etc etc but nature has never polled well here. Political parties of all colours have ignored it for years as a result. Voters vote for all sorts of reasons, but environmental policies ain’t one of them. Ask any Green Party activist.

Ecological Apocalypse
Not you again…

Lastly, those that are listening are suffering from apocalypse fatigue, as noted above. There are only so many apocalypses anyone can bear. One apocalypse is overwhelming enough, but when they come along one after the other you can only do one of two things. Hide under the sofa or convince yourself that the experts are all wrong and that things will get better. Tell anyone who will listen that around you the birds are doing well and the countryside looks lovely and green (etc. etc.).

What was so interesting about the Blue Planet effect is that, while the problems it portrayed are really massive (e.g. global warming, ocean acidification…), people felt they could do something to help. They could fight their own battles as individuals or groups against plastic.

And this is the answer. We don’t need apocalypses. We need to understand what is happening (in a hurry!) and communicate it effectively. Extinction is an ugly word and one people respond to. We need to feel we can do something ourselves that will have a material effect on the problem. If it actually does have a material effect that’s even better. As Chris Packham says, we can fix this.

Not an Ecological ApocalypseThere are projects that do this. I went to one yesterday, with a collection of very jolly mayors. Making a Buzz for the Coast is a great initiative*  helping bumblebees and other pollinators along 130 odd miles of Kent coast. It has partners across government, NGOs, corporates and communities and will very definitely make a difference.

*very kindly endorsed by Mr. Packham, too!

Green Brexit Greenwash – and Some More Cheerful News

I have read a great deal about the government’s plans for the environment – a Green Brexit. I have heard Michael Gove speak about it, earlier this year. I read my notes from that Conference over the weekend, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from sudden onset early Alzheimers.

Yes, he did indeed promise  a “global gold standard” in “strengthened environmental protection measures”. He explicitly outlined the need for an environmental regulator “with teeth”, backed by legislation.  This Green Brexit was all somewhat unexpected but, on the face of it, rather exciting.

It turns out that after all these were – well – not promises. I’m not sure what they were. They actually… er… didn’t represent government policy, but were aspirations, whatever on earth that means. The government has announced plans for a new regulatory body for the environment which is purely advisory. It cannot prosecute. What the hell use is this? It’s like having a court which can’t send offenders to jail. Gove has apparently caved in to pressure from the Treasury, who have always seen green regulation as a form of tax on business. Hideously regressive thinking.

Even if this plan is overturned in the Lords – and the signs are encouraging that it might be – I found this news profoundly depressing. Firstly, the Green Brexit landscape Gove has been talking about – aspirationally – will involve significant short term cost, for the tax payer and the consumer (for long term gain). If the Treasury baulks at the first step in this process, what chance does this vision have of coming to fruition?  It has got two hopes, and Bob has just left the building.

Second off, Michael Gove presented his plans for the environment post Brexit as POLICY. It clearly wasn’t, and he is no position to deliver them.

Thirdly, this kind of thing massively undermines public trust in the political process. It seems to happen repeatedly these days. People are fed up with being treated with this sort of contempt. Too many of our politicians don’t seem to understand this, including, it seems, Michael Gove.

*Sigh*

Moving on to more positive news.

One of the reasons I haven’t written much recently is because I’ve been holding down two jobs. One for Habitat Aid, which pays the bills, and the other as a flag waver for the estimable Bumblebee Conservation Trust, for whom I’m a trustee. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bees generally, and I’m a big fan of the Trust for a variety of reasons. I’ve supported them through the business for 10 years now, and watched them do some really good things.

Cheerful News
Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Anyway, I have been organising some events to raise their profile and some money for a new long term investment fund. We’ve been talking about the project to save the Shrill carder bee too. These evenings have gone really well – due to the enthusiasm of the BBCT folk, those involved at the venues, the people who turned up and, most of all, those who signed the cheques.  We’ve had nice fuzzy noises from some great and good who couldn’t make the evenings but want to help. It has been tremendously heart warming and encouraging. Thank you all.

 

 

The Bath and West Show

I had a lovely time at the Bath and West show today. It’s 15 minutes down the road from us, so I’ve been a regular attendee as punter or exhibitor for the last 13 years. I’ve been down there this year putting up our new bumblarium in the Bee and Honey tent to help the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and had a lovely time this morning looking around the show with my mum. There’s a lot of tat at these big country shows now, but I love the heart of them; small local enterprises, livestock and old fashioned entertainment. I took my camera down there this year to catch a few friends and animals… Click on the pictures for bigger versions.

Silly duck
Silly duck
Superior Ruby Red Devons
Superior Ruby Red Devons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small horses!
Small horses!
Kunekunes - silly pigs but cute
Kunekunes – silly pigs but cute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather evocative
Rather evocative
Train man and apprentice
Train man and apprentice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernie and the bumblarium
Bernie and the bumblarium
Drinks with Jeremy at Mendip Fireplaces
Drinks at Mendip Fireplaces – thanks Jeremy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exmoor Horn rams judging
Judging the Exmoor Horn rams
Chris Hecks enjoys a joke
Chris Hecks enjoys a joke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aoife and the BBCT stand
Aoife and the BBCT stand

 

Andrew Moore concentrates
Andrew Moore concentrates
Christine busy on the Westcombe stand
Christine busy selling cheese

The Shock of the New: Contemporary Homes and Solar Farms

The Shock of the NewI bet that the majority of folk who stop in front of our new house* aren’t wondering how many architectural awards it might win. I bet they’re wondering why someone in planning didn’t stop it being built, because they think it’s gopping. Each to his own; we (obviously) think it looks great. There are a couple of morals to this story, however.

First off, it should strike the gawpers that they should be that someone in the planning process trying to ensure we carry on replicating 19th century houses. The Parish Council had two planning meetings to discuss the house, the first attended by one person (me) and the second by three.

Secondly, “the country” is an environment where people live. The more prosperous it is, the better those people will be able to look after it. “The country” isn’t the exclusive preserve of retirees from the suburbs or second homers, who would, typically, like to live in an Austenesque idyll (or Poundbury!). It has to move on. I’m absolutely not saying we should rip up the restrictions on development that we have in place and go all utilitarian. Our house is not only wonderful to live in but costs nothing to run. We generate more electricity than we use and heat it and cook with wood. This doesn’t mean it should automatically get planning permission. I am saying that when the CPRE objects to faster rural broadband on the basis of disfiguring “new overhead lines and broadband cabinets blotting our finest landscapes and villages” I get cross.

The explosion of solar farms that’s happening across our landscape at the moment is another case in point. The combination of government incentives and cheap photo voltaic panels means there will be thousands of acres of them put in over the next two years. There will be some appalling cases, but I hope the planning process will generally be robust enough to stop development where it is damaging or unsightly (if the gawpers get themselves along to the right meetings). In contrast to wind farms, solar farms can also offer a brilliant opportunity to create attractive and valuable new habitat.

We are working with Solar Century and – I hope – another large scale developer, who are determined to do just that. They are putting in wildflower meadow areas and new native hedges on a large scale, and going the extra mile to make sure they are establishing the right plant species and that they will be managed sensitively. We’ve hooked Solar Century up with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who will be helping them out.

*which is, frankly, getting a bit weird. Also, when I greet gawpers with a friendly hello I feel a bit miffed when they drive off at speed.

Hampton Court Flower Show

The great and good admire our bumblarium
I’m just back from a busy but fun three days at Hampton Court with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and our bumblarium. The bees behaved beautifully, and the only hitch was the wet, which gave us some problems with condensation. We had gazillions of folk through the bee tent, which we shared with the Beekeepers’ Association and the RHS, who were promoting their Plants for Pollinators campaign. It was handy to have a bumblebee colony and honeybee observation hive next to each other so people could appreciate the differences between them, and to have the balance of the native flowers in the bumblarium together with the list of traditional garden plants the RHS recommend. The punters’ increasing awareness of gardens as habitats was really encouraging, as was their evident pleasure in seeing the bees.
All good stuff, and much of the show was very on message this year. I was particularly pleased to see Mat Byway’s Applebee garden, which we’d supplied some flowers to and which had been put together at breakneck speed. The Floral marquee had the usual stunning display from one of our suppliers, Downderry Nursery, from whom I’m buying lavender for the landscaping project here. I think we might feature lavender in the bumblarium next year.
I also had a chance to wander around the roses by way of planning my rose bed at Hookgate, which will include some real beauties. I’ve got a lot of favourites to squeeze in, but I also wanted to include some less familiar, bee friendly single roses like Sweet Pretty and Dainty Bess, which I found at the Pococks Roses stand.
My only regret about the show was missing Mark “Otter Farm” Diacono’s offer of free bucolic cocktails, but if he doesn’t run out I’m sure he’ll be delighted to serve you at his stand in the GYO section. Cheers!

The Biggest Bumblarium in the World

Here is the biggest bumblarium in the world, shown at its inaugural outing at the Gardener’s World Show at the NEC. I borrowed the idea from those nice folk at Wildflower Turf, whose lovely product (sold by us!) the bumblarium features. They put me in touch with Robin Dean of Red Beehive who had made a version for them which was hugely successful at the Ecobuild Show. Robin knocked up this one for us, and it was brilliant in attracting people to the stand we shared with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The bumblarium is like a vivarium for bumblebees, with a little colony of Bombus terrestris spp. audax (Buff-tailed bumblebees) and a wildflower meadow floor for them to play in. It excited a fair amount of interest and the cost and palaver of putting it up was further justified by getting a “Highly Commended” for it. The wildflower turf looked brilliant. The diversity of species in it – over 25 – meant we could have a competition asking people to name five of them. So what did we learn?

Oldies know their wildflowers much better than the young, but that’s not saying much! One lady asked me to identify the plant taking over her front garden as she hadn’t seen it before and she wondered if it was something so rare she should leave it. She’d even brought a cutting along to show me. Creeping Buttercup.

Many gardeners have a “wild section” in their garden which they leave untended. All well and dandy, but I did wonder how much more helpful a regime of relaxed management might be for bees. Dock and nettle aren’t renowned for their qualities as bee plants.

Another oddity which keeps coming up is the way people buy wildflower seeds and sow them. Even careful gardeners, who might spend hours at a horticultural show finding exactly the cultivar they wanted, cheerfully buy an unidentified packet of wildflower seed and just fling it on the lawn. They’re then disappointed when it doesn’t work – perhaps it’s just as well! I kept on suggesting people look at our how to make a wildflower meadow area video.

My longer term worry about wildflowers is the way they are becoming exclusively identified with a particular look – i.e. hay meadow – and that people aren’t using them in combination with cultivars in more formal schemes. If I had a small urban garden I’m not sure I’d have a meadow area myself, to be honest.

Most people are profoundly in the dark about different types of bees. We spent ages explaining the differences between bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees.

The Tree Bee, a recent arrival from France, is turning into something of a nuisance. A lot of people had problems with them taking over nestboxes, and their behaviour and predilection for raised nest sites means they’re not just obvious but also more likely to be annoying.

I was saddened to meet people who had bought bumblebees off the internet to put in their gardens. There’s a lively trade in bumblebee colonies to pollinate fruit in greenhouses – it’s how we got our bumblarium bees – but to buy them at vast expense for your own garden seems very peculiar, quite apart from any bio-hazard they may bring in. These colonies should be sourced very carefully and not overseas. Plant the right plants and they will come.

Bee Love and Plant Wars

I’ve been to two bee campaign launches this week, and I’ll declare my interest early on; the Friends of the Earth (“The Bee Cause”) are a customer, buying seed packets from us, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (“Bees For Everyone”) are a partner charity.
Friends of The Earth hope their campaign will be an umbrella for the many fragmented and in some cases feuding bee groups out there, in order to lobby more effectively. It’s a good idea, and Tuesday’s publicity event was very encouraging. They’re basing their approach around a well-balanced and informed paper from Reading University’s Simon Potts, which seems a fair summary of the issues involved and includes some sensible action points relating to all 267 of our bee species. Presenting a complex issue is difficult though. The Times reported the meeting under the headline “Pesticides on verge of wiping out native wild honeybees”. Was their man at the same meeting? I’m not diminishing the impact systemic pesticides are having on honeybees (and other pollinators – let’s not forget the other 266 bee species there are out there, for a start) and continue to lobby against them myself, but, as I have written before, people seem to love to sensationalise and to focus on a single issue.

We Want Flowers and We Want Them Now!
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has always been ace at engaging their audience, and whatever they have to say is based on good science too. Their core message focuses on habitat loss, and their new website has a great practical gizmo which helps you make your garden more bee friendly. It might be less sexy than The Times would like, but they are making a real difference. Let’s hope that sooner rather than later people will start to grow the right flowers to feed bees in their back gardens in the same way they buy seed to feed birds now.
There’s a sense of fun about the new BBCT website too, which I’m sure is the way to go. I haven’t made it to Chelsea this year but my spies tell me it was full of very consciously worthy native meadow planting, enough to provoke Professor Hitchmough, a promoter of “prairie meadows” to say the use of native plants will kill the horticultural industry*.
You may be surprised to hear that if I had a small urban garden I don’t think I would have a “wildflower meadow” area. I’d love a bed of Prof. Hitchmough’s colourful, nectar rich and long flowering non-natives. You’ll be less surprised to hear that I would have loads of UK native species in my borders though, in formal planting designs, or that I might have “mini-meadows” in planters. Our gardeners need gardens which they can love and our invertebrates need our native perennials. This isn’t just about the nectar and pollen they can source from them, which they can find from carefully chosen non-native plants, but it’s also about their value for over-wintering animals and as food plants, for example; our butterfly and moth species rely on specific native plants to eat.
The BBCT have got this right too, bridging the gap between the warring native and non-native camps in a way we hope to illustrate with our new project at Hookgate Cottage. Perhaps people like Professor Hitchmough and the landscape design business will catch up with us some day.

*This probably deserves another blog. At this point, let’s just say his comments seem naïve/unhelpful/compromised/uninformed.

Photo: Bird Guides

A Functioning Coalition

Illustration: Hannah McVicar
I don’t think I’ve banged on nearly enough about the success of Meadow Anywhere, our packets of wildflower and grass seed mixes for urban gardeners. It’s such a good illustration of what we’re doing it’s irresistible.

Step 1: I have an idea for a new product, which I develop with one of our suppliers – in this case, Herbiseed. Having sorted out the right seed mix…
Step 2: I take the proposal to a small list of carefully vetted potential retailers, including the lovely Hillier Nurseries, who agree to sell it and promote it to other retailers.
Step 3: I confirm the involvement of a couple of our charity partners – in this case Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. For them it’s a no-brainer; they love the product, which is absolutely on message, and stand to make £1 from every packet sold. And it’s not just £1 – it’s £1 they can match with government funding, and which they can do anything they like with.
Step 4: We design and illustrate the packets, supply the seed and get the whole lot packaged, together with some lush Counter Top Units.
Step 5: Hilliers sell 8,000 packets – that’s £4,000 to each of BC and the BBCT – and we grow planters to feature at their Chelsea exhibit – more publicity for all.
Step 6: More sales, more money to charity, more products to roll out in the autumn.

There are two key points to make from all of this:
1. There’s a world of difference between this and just twittering on as an “environmental activist”.
2. Charity and commercial sectors can work very well in a symbiotic relationship, although they typically need someone in the middle to kick things off and make them happen.

Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside