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.
Andy 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.
The 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.
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?
Sitka 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.
Contrary 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.
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.
Many 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.
Rewilding seems to have started to gather momentum with the successful re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the 90s. This led to all sorts of unsuspected trickle down effects and a tremendous improvement in biodiversity. The Messiah of rewilding in the UK is George Monbiot, who wrote a book about it a couple of years ago and founded an organization called Rewilding Britain. I went to an interesting and whizzy panel discussion about it yesterday in Frome. There were a number of folk other than George there, including two landowners who are doing great things to their estates, The Knepp Estate and Alladale. These are brilliant projects run by interesting men, respectively Charlie Burrell and Paul Lister. Hats off to them. I’d love to be able to do something similar.
Rewilding seems to cover a multitude of things. For some, like Paul Lister, it is the re-introduction of apex predators like the wolf in Yellowstone. These are “keystone species”, also including animals like beavers, which have a disproportionate effect on their environment. His bugbear (and mine!) is deer, which wreck any chance of his replanting the kind of forest which used to cover the Highlands (they’re a damn nuisance down south too!). Some punchy predators would sort them out. Paul would love to re-introduce wolves, or perhaps less controversially the beautiful lynx. It makes a great deal of sense ecologically. For Charlie Burrell in Sussex lynx or wolves are rather tricky (!), but his pigs have been achieving interesting results. Another landowner local to us, Ben Goldsmith, has been doing similar things with boar.
It’s an interesting concept for me, because I’ve always thought the best way to change an ecosystem was from the bottom up; start with the plants. I can also now see you can achieve great things with the top down approach too.
Sadly I think the rewilding movement as it is in the UK will hit the buffers.
A clue as to why might lie in the backgrounds of Paul Lister and Charlie Burrell. Paul inherited the MFI fortune and Charlie is more properly Sir Charles Raymond Burrell, 10th Baronet. They’re not short of a few quid. They can afford to rewild like mad. You might be able to make some money out of folk paying to see your charismatic carnivores in the Highlands, but not as much as you can make by hosting stalking weekends or running grouse shoots, as Paul Lister acknowledged. Not even he can afford to ignore this current economic logic, unfortunately.
What is needed, as the panel said, is a root and branch change to our approach to land usage. Unless you’re proposing a massive forced redistribution of land, rewilding has to be able to pay people a living and/or give landowners a return – unless they happen to be philanthropists who have inherited/made vast amounts of money. In order to reforest our uplands, for example, we would need to pay hill farmers to plant and manage them. This would replace taxpayers’ agricultural subsidies to them with a different sort of subsidy.
This requires the rewilding movement to engage with people other than than the endearing earth mothers and princesses of Frome. In order to change perceptions going back to the Middle Ages it needs to engage with the EU, UK government, the farming lobby, media. It will also need the support of conservation groups. These are people George Monbiot makes a living out of antagonizing. It’s safe to say they are not comfortable bedfellows.
The next issue is one of definition. Is there a line in the sand we’re trying to work back towards? Much of England was deforested in the Iron Age, so far as I understand. Do we want to take it back to before this point and cover the country in wild wood? In which case what about the richly biodiverse features of managed landscapes like wildflower meadows or coppiced woodland?*
Lastly, I’m afraid these folk come across as pretty out of touch. Sorry guys, but you do. I understand what can be done with this approach and a lot of money, and why it could be a really good thing. Don’t tell me raising £50,000 for a village rewilding project is easy. Don’t tell me spending £6,000 per head on nationalizing British farmland is next to nothing or that Romania has “amazing farming techniques”. Most of all, don’t tell me that nobody else understands or cares about what you’re saying. We all need to find a realistic way to get rewilding projects into the mainstream.
*And talking about managed landscapes, please, PLEASE, don’t rewild your garden. Chances are you’ll lose biodiversity if you do, not gain it.