Alvecote Wood Magazine

I have recently started up a magazine about our woods. Entitled “Woodland Beauty” it contains a lot of photographs and articles about our woods, and also about photography. It is available as a free ebook from the iTunes store (a search for Alvecote Wood will find it if you want to download to iPhone), and also via Blurb as an ePub for Kindle and other devices. If you are interested, please take a look!

Trees and Remembrance

tree in black and white

I sat here and observed the armistice silence, and it got me thinking.

Yesterday was Armistice Day. The day the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and we fall silent in order to remember the victims of war, and the people who served in the military. I headed to the woods.

The beautiful old oak trees in our woods have seen a lot. The very oldest saw the rise of Napoleon and his march across Europe, his retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Waterloo. Most of our trees witnessed the rise of the canals and railways, and the might of the industrial revolution. They were present as young trees when the American Civil War was in full swing, and when the British invented concentration camps in the Boer War. They saw the rise of the British Empire, and the Raj in India. I’m sure some were cut down to provide pit props for the local coal mines, and sleepers for the railways.

Some of the trees were already quite old when a totally preventable war started in 1914, when some of my great uncles never came home from France, or from Iraq, or fell victim to zeppelin raids in London. And from that preventable war came another one – the rise of the Nazis in Europe. For it was the punitive settlement visited upon Germany at the end of the first war that led to the conditions in which the tyrant could rise to power. The trees saw it all.

In our woods we have a mysterious bunker lined and topped with concrete slabs – we think this was probably a weapons cache for the British Resistance, to be used in the case of an invasion. It makes the whole thing real. The trees were there when that pit was dug, the weapons cached and finally removed.

So I sat quietly under the tree and remembered. And I thought that the problem with the way we remember is our memories are too short. We remember only the soldiers who died, not the reasons why they went to war in the first place. We fail to learn from the same mistakes made time and time again. We fail to learn that if you leave people powerless, poor, disenfranchised and disillusions, you will create the conditions in which tyranny can take seed, grow and develop into a tree of its own. We fail to see that it is possible to have a win-win – that you don’t always have to have a competition in which there must be losers. We fail to control the grab for resources and grab for power. So we forget, and send more generations to war.

Remembrance is about much more than standing quietly, much more than the armed forces, much more than the victims of war. It is about making sure that war does not happen again. We forget that bit, and allow tyranny to rise by allowing people to be forgotten, their views to be ignored, and tyrants to take advantage of their dissatisfaction. We do a disservice to those who fought and died, and the civilians slaughtered in their millions, if we fail to learn, and forget the minute the poppy comes off our coat for another year. We talk about heroism all the time, but we forget why it was needed. We allow it to be needed again and again.

The trees have seen it all, the endless cycle repeating and repeating over and over. We have to take the long view, have to be more like the trees, and have to really remember. But we don’t. We never do.

Beautiful twisted tree in autumn colour

Beautiful twisted tree in autumn colours

The glade in autumn light on armistice day.

The glade in autumn light on armistice day.

Hopwas Woods Saved – Ancient Woodland Still Needs More Protection

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

A few days ago, I wrote a blog about why ancient woodland is special, and why Hopwas Woods need to be saved.

Well, people power has worked.  After a huge public outcry, a massive campaign on social media with over 10,000 followers on Facebook and a petition on, today we heard that Lafarge Tarmac have withdrawn their application to Staffordshire County Council to quarry under this beautiful ancient woodland.  The campaign attracted national media interest, the support of the Woodland Trust, and of the local MP, Christopher Pincher.

This is fantastic news, and a demonstration that if people club together, it is possible to overturn corporate decisions.

It does not, however, take away from the fact that ancient woodland is special, and that it needs to be protected.  This blog could have been written about any number of sites across England, Wales and Scotland that are threatened by development.  The fact is that protections for ancient woodland are very weak.  Ancient Woodland is one of a number of irreplaceable habitats that need additional protection under wildlife and environmental law.  Exactly what those in power don’t understand about the word “irreplaceable” I do not know.  Perhaps by reading the blog, they will gain some understanding.

Scrub is Special – Save our Scrub

Scrub habitat in Betty's Wood - home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub habitat in Betty’s Wood – home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub, as a habitat, is nearly always followed by the words “clearance” or “eradication”. How often do we read the words “it’s only scrub,” as if this is some kind of second-rate habitat to which we must do something.

A brief Google search reveals countless pages relating to wildlife groups, country parks and nature reserves, all talking about “scrub clearance”. Not to mention countless contractors offering their services, machinery, manpower and chemicals to clear scrub.

Scrub has a bad name. It has become something to be controlled, eliminated, pushed to the corners of our fields and woodlands. It doesn’t seem to be wanted, valued or loved.

Scrub is usually regenerating woodland, although in certain special situations, it may be the final, or climax, plant community. Woodland may be regenerating on a woodland site that has lost its trees, through felling, coppicing, or natural disaster, or on a previously open habitat which, for some reason or another, has ceased to be managed and is reverting to woodland. In pre-history, areas of woodland were cleared by humans, used for a while, then the people moved on, leaving the woodland to recover and regenerate via a scrub stage. Before humans made their mark, woodlands were cleared and reverted to scrub after grazing by large mammals, such as elephants. Wildwood has areas that become denuded of trees, and which regenerate. Scrub is always present, although not always in the same area, but there are always patches of scrub into which wildlife that prefers this habitat can move.

Regenerating scrub in Betty's Wood

Regenerating scrub in Betty’s Wood

Scrub will also form rapidly on almost any land that is left for any length of time: heathland, fen, coastal dunes, uplands, bogs, agricultural land and even on urban or rural habitation or industrial sites that have become abandoned.

The problem we have now is that people are not itinerant – they lived in fixed communities. Almost all land has an owner, and a defined use. Woodland is not free to regenerate where it will because land is almost always designated for a purpose – be it generation of timber in woodlands, or preservation as high forest as a nature reserve, or be it arable farmland, pasture, heathland, moorland, bog, fen, coastal dunes and other habitats deemed also to be of great value. There is precious little room for scrub to squeeze into, and people don’t want it. Because other habitats have become vanishingly rare, encroachment of scrub onto these habitats becomes something that threatens them. In towns and cities, we don’t want scrubby parkland, with ever-changing areas of wood, clearings and scrub – we want nice tidy places for people to walk, sit and play – manicured habitats, effectively over-sized gardens. Scrub is perceived as providing cover for anti-social behaviour. So it must be cleared. It doesn’t look pretty.

Even in woodland, there is little room for scrub. Coppicing produces a scrub-like regrowth from the cut stems, or stools, albeit with a more uniform height and species structure. Most of our woodland species are not species of the deep forest, they are species of the forest edge, and of scrub and coppice.   Our wildlife is adapted to the cycle of clearance and regrowth. But this is a cycle that we have broken. Coppice management has disappeared from many woodlands, leaving over-stood coppice and high forest – the familiar woodland that many of us visit and many think is the only way a woodland can or should be. We manage timber-producing woodland by clear-felling and re-planting in dense, ordered stands that produce a uniform structure. Scrub has barely a chance to grow before being overtaken by the faster-growing, more useful and more profitable softwood conifers. It is relegated to small strips around the edge and along woodland rides, if it is allowed to grow at all. Coppicing does survive, as does continuous cover forestry with natural regeneration, both of which help. But many woodlands are simply unmanaged.

Scrub in Betty's Wood

Scrub in Betty’s Wood

If this were wildwood, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Areas would naturally fall in high winds, succumb to fire or grazing, or be felled by itinerant humans or large animals. But it isn’t wildwood, and hasn’t been since humans appeared on the planet. Even worse, most areas of woodland are such small remnants of our forest cover that they are simply too small to support a mosaic of habitats, including scrub, as they stand. They are left to become high forest, with no mechanism to support regeneration, no mechanism to support a cycle of regrowth.

In addition, scrub is not allowed to develop anywhere else. Pieces of woodland are simply not allowed to “contaminate” farmland, river edges, heathland, moorland, fenland or urban and suburban parks and gardens. They are cleared up – sometimes with good justification but very often without. Agricultural stewardship schemes usually require the removal of scrub. Woodland schemes also fail to recognize the importance of scrub, or allow for its management.

So does this actually matter? Well, yes it does, because many important, declining species are actually species that prefer scrubland, and enjoy the variety of species, height of vegetation and density of vegetation that scrub can provide. These include plants themselves, lichens, bryophytes, insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, the adder and common toad, mammals such as dormice, and birds such as blackcap, bullfinch, linnet, reed bunting, song thrust, willow tit, yellowhammer, dunnock, goldcrest, nightingale, tree sparrow and turtle dove. Many of these are disappearing as we over-clear scrub habitats and under-manage woodland.

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

The problem is that scrub does need some kind of management, whether you want to keep it or not. This can include resumption of coppicing within woodlands or at the woodland edge to create scrub, cyclical cutting of scrub to ensure a steady supply for scrub species, selective conservation grazing of low intensity by relatively hardy livestock, or by leaving small areas of scrub to develop around the edges of other habitats. Keeping scrub as scrub, and developing a good mosaic requires management, or it will revert to woodland or coppice – so attention needs to be paid to ensure that a wide variety of species, density and height are achieved. This is not easy to do, and there is a lot of debate about how to do this, or whether to do it.

In our own woods, we have some good areas of regenerating scrub at the edge of Betty’s Wood. And into this scrub we have attracted willow tit, whitethroat, yellowhammer, bullfinch, linnet, song thrush, goldcrest, dunnock, woodcock and others. Coppicing will, in time, produce a rotation of scrubby habitats for species to move into, as well as allowing the next generation of mature trees to emerge, and producing a sustainable crop of wood for crafts and firewood.

Our Coppice - varying ages and densities

Our Coppice – varying ages and densities

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The problem is that management of scrub has been seen as synonymous with clearance or eradication, despite it being quite clear in the Scrub Management Handbook, and the JNCC Report, that this is only ONE option, and even then, where possible a patchwork of scrub areas should usually be allowed to remain. Maybe this is because the focus has been on removal of scrub, so there has been more research into, and thus the handbook provides more information on this aspect of management. Certainly the other options given in these documents – create, enhance, preserve – seem to have been forgotten.

In addition, on woodland nature reserves and other public wooded spaces, the public perception is that these should be left alone, and that high forest is best. There is undoubtedly an argument for leaving some areas wild, and ancient woodland and veteran trees undoubtedly support a very biodiverse ecosystem, but leaving everything alone will result in a closed canopy woodland with lower diversity than a managed woodland that includes ancient and veteran trees.

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring – ancient and diverse high forest habitat

People don’t like to see trees being cut down, so managers of public land don’t cut them down – it is the easiest option. It would be lovely if areas of woodland were extensive enough to allow natural processes of regeneration to take place – but few sites are large enough. The average size of a piece of woodland in England is about 8ha. So the management methods that create scrub are not being carried out, nor is scrub being created naturally. At the same time, people are receptive to the idea of clearing scrub – the combined effect is that scrub is reduced in extent and diversity, and often confined to margins of roads and railways, and to derelict urban sites awaiting development.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

High Forest – the popular perception of what woodland should be like

We hardly ever see the word “scrub” in management plans for nature reserves unless it is followed by the word “clearance”. There are clearly habitats where scrub needs to be cut, or it will overwhelm other valuable and vanishing habitats, but it is really important to ensure that an area of scrub is left, and managed on rotation, so there is always somewhere for scrub species to go. There is a need to question whether complete scrub removal is required. Areas of scrub also need to be left in urban and suburban green spaces. They are amazing places for children to explore, and learn, as well as being repositories of wildlife. They may not look tidy, but neither do uncut road verges – yet many councils are taking up Plantlife’s campaign to leave some area of verge to grow wildflowers, so why not take up the cause of scrub, and leave some areas of urban parks to develop as scrub habitat?

There seems to be a real need to educate people as to the value of scrub, and the related woodland coppice habitat, so that they can understand the need to keep some scrub, and to create coppice. To do this, the mindset that cutting down trees is “bad” and clearing scrub is “good” needs to be changed. In addition, there needs to be support for scrub habitat – not just the specialised communities in rare scrub habitats, but good old-fashioned lowland scrub – within stewardship schemes, woodland grant schemes and within urban and suburban green spaces.

Not all scrub is bad. A lot of species depend on scrub, and on an ever-changing and evolving patchwork of vegetation from open meadow to high forest, and everything in between. The in between bits are important. Scrub is important. Save our Scrub!

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species that depends on scrub habitat


JNCC Report 308: Mortimer, S.R., Turner, A.J., Brown, V.K., Fuller, R.J., Good, J.E.G., Bell, S.A. Stevens, P.A., Norris, D., Bayfield, N. and Ward, L.K. – (2000) – The Nature Conservation Value of Scrub in Britain – Available from

FACT in conjunction with English Nature (2003) The Scrub Management Handbook – ISBN 1 85716 745 7 – Available from

Fuller RJ and Warren MS (1995) – Management for Biodiversity in British Woodlands – Striking a Balance – from British Wildlife (1995): 7; 26-37 – Available from

Fuller RJ and Warren MS – Coppiced Woodlands: Their Management for Wildlife (1993) – available from

Gough SJ and Fuller RJ (1998) – Scrub Management for Conservation in Lowland England: Practices, Problems and Possibilities

BTO Research Report No. 194 ISBN 0 903793 96 2 – available from

See Also

A great album of photos of scrub regenerating on Exmoor – by Hen


Hopwas Woods – Ancient Woodland Under Threat

PAWS - regenerating broadleaf under conifer at Hopwas Woods

PAWS – regenerating broadleaf under conifer at Hopwas Woods

There are many misunderstandings around the phrase “ancient woodland”. But it is really quite simple: ancient woodland is a piece of land that has been wooded since 1600. The age of the current trees don’t matter, although ancient woodland is often home to special, ancient and craggy trees of great wildlife value. What matters is that the piece of land has had woodland on it for a very long time.

So, woodland that has been destroyed by fire but that is regrowing can still be ancient woodland, as can woodland that has been felled and planted with conifers – the soil is what matters, and that soil contains all the special organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria and slime moulds, as well as flatworms, insects and others. Once the planted woodland disappears, the soil will regenerate the special ancient woodland that was once on the site. Provided the soil is left undisturbed.

Ancient woodland is very special. It is a relic of ancient forests extending back in time to Domesday. It is not fossilized, or set in stone. It has been extensively managed and used by humans – indeed, many of the most wildlife-rich parts of ancient woodlands are in the areas that are sustainably managed using techniques that are centuries or even millennia old. The key thing is that it has been there a long time, with its unique and delicate ecosystem. As such, it supports a unique community of creatures. Once it is destroyed, this community is lost. Newly-planted woodland may develop over time to provide a good woodland habitat, but it will take centuries to become ancient, and we don’t know if it ever really acquires the richness of the relict ecosystem in our ancient woodlands.

Beautiful old oak tree at Hopwas Woods

Beautiful old oak tree at Hopwas Woods

Ancient woodland is thus irreplaceable: you cannot dig it up, replant it, move the soil and transfer it, or do anything to it. To remain as ancient woodland habitat, you have to leave it be. Only 2% of our land area remains as ancient woodland, fragmented, clinging on. Fragmentation makes every piece even more valuable – each ancient woodland ecological community is vulnerable to threats such as fire or disease and the seriously-fragmented remnants provide precious little resilience against these threats. Destruction of any ancient woodland is a disaster, particularly where fragmentation is so severe that there is nowhere for the woodland creatures to go. Each and every piece of remaining woodland is a vital lifeline for wildlife, not to mention the people who enjoy these pieces of woodland for recreation, education and health and well-being.

Woodland species are declining along with the loss of ancient woodland – and many of the species are associated with either ancient woodland itself, or regenerating woodland scrub in areas that have been coppiced or cleared – lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser whitethroat, redpoll, willow tit, bullfinch and others.

Hopwas Woods, to the west of Tamworth, is one of the few remaining fragments of ancient woodland left in the area, our own being the only other sizeable fragment, lying to the east of Tamworth. It is designated mostly as ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW), with a small fraction of it as plantation on ancient woodland site (PAWS). You can’t get away from it: the whole site is ancient woodland, and this can be confirmed using DEFRA’s own mapping system, MAGIC.

But now there is a threat thanks to Staffordshire County Council review of the Minerals Core Strategy and Local Minerals Plan, which is currently undergoing revision. Following a consultation on the draft plan in April 2014, which had already identified reserves of sand and gravel sufficient to meet statutory requirements, contributions were invited from developers for additional sites for sand and gravel extraction, and these include a proposal by Lafarge Tarmac to destroy a large proportion of Hopwas Woods for quarrying. Virtually all of the proposed affected area is ancient woodland or PAWS, despite the developer claiming that this designation affects only half the proposed site.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

Sadly, the protections for ASNW and PAWS are inadequate. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that:

“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”

The problem is that this leaves wriggle room for developers to justify development based upon economic criteria. Sadly, this works, as the fate of Oaken Wood has recently shown – permission was granted to quarry this ancient woodland on economic criteria after appeal to the Communities Secretary.

So what we have is a proposal for extraction of sand and gravel that is not actually needed, from an important ancient woodland site, that is widely valued and used by the local community, that is home to important wildlife including European Protected Species. Other sites for gravel extraction can clearly meet the economic need, so its destruction is not required. But it is still under threat.

Family enjoying Hopwas Woods

Family enjoying Hopwas Woods

More than that, it will rip out the heart of a wildlife and local community with knock-on effects for wildlife in the whole area. The Lawton Report (Making Space for Nature) clearly identified the need for landscape-scale conservation, a patchwork of habitats, and wildlife corridors. Conservation based upon reserves has failed to halt the decline in nature in the UK. Wildlife from the vanishingly-small pieces of ancient woodland in the Tamworth area has nowhere else to go. Lose Hopwas Woods and we lose far more than the woods alone – we lose an absolutely vital link in the local wildlife community.

And there are the people. People who grew up walking in the woods, enjoying the public rights of way therein. People who learned to love nature by spending time in the woods as children. People who enjoy walking, running, mountain biking, horse riding and other activities in the woods. People who connect with the local landscape, appreciate it, care for it, and who have taken it to their hearts.

Rider on Bridlepath

Rider on Bridlepath in Hopwas Woods

The local community is not taking this lightly. In 24 hours, a new Facebook page, Save Hopwas Woods, got 7000 followers, and has now passed 10,000. The Friends of Hopwas Woods have issued a document detailing the plans and how you can object. Objections can be lodged on the Staffordshire County Council web site. The campaign has engaged the local MP and local Mayor. An important petition is now online with

Woodland Path at Hopwas Woods

Woodland Path at Hopwas Woods

Ancient woodland is irreplaceable, and this campaign must succeed. The Woodland Trust have stated that the plan is the largest threat to ancient woodland they have seen in their 42 year history. The plan to tear up this ancient woodland is all about profit. It is about taking away a resource from local wildlife and community and putting it in the hands of developers. The consultation is open until December 5th. It needs to be stopped.

Please see:

Save Hopwas Woods on Facebook
Friends of Hopwas Woods web site
@savehopwaswoods on Twitter
}Lodge objections with Staffordshire County Council using their questionnaire
Sign the petition on and the petition on 38Degrees

And please read, share and reblog this blog and get this out to as many people as possible!

Hopwas Woods

Hopwas Woods – broadleaves and conifers

UPDATE 30/10/2014 – Lafarge Tarmac have withdrawn their application to quarry under Hopwas Woods.

Betty’s Wood – Three Years On

Young woodland path

Young woodland path – trees 2-3 metres tall

In October 2010, we bought a 9 acre field to add to our 11 acres of ancient woodland. During the early part of 2011, it was planted with 6500 little trees, and we carved out wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds in the wet areas, open areas, and areas for natural regeneration to take place. In summer 2011, it was a field populated by canes and tree-guarded, the little trees just peeking over the top of those guards in places.

Planting young trees

Planting young trees

Seasons came and went. The little trees were subjected to a drought during their first year, an extremely harsh winter in 2012-13 with a lot of snow and freezing weather, and floods earlier this year, during which you could paddle in the lower part of Betty’s Wood.

Betty's Wood from adjacent field

Betty’s Wood from adjacent field

We were very careful to choose our species mix well. We wanted to improve the site for wildlife, but could see no advantage in planting species that do not grow well in the local area. We also took account of the lie of the land and microclimate – one of the reasons why we didn’t plant trees immediately, but took a few months to get the feel of the place. Wet-tolerant species went in areas inclined to be damp. Species that like fertile soil nearer the top, where the former arable site is quite fertile. Cloning willow already growing on the site. Using self-set seedlings of birch, willow, oak and ash. But also choosing species that produce seeds and fruits for wildlife, good shelter for wildlife, and will produce a sustainable coppice and timber crop in future – hazel, willow, alder, oak, ash, cherry, rowan and others.

Mowing the meadow

Mowing the meadow during the first summer

It has not been all plain sailing, but the woods are really starting to shine now. Instead of walking in a field with sticks, we are now walking along young woodland paths. We can stand in the shade of our own little trees. We can sit with our backs against the trunks of these little trees and enjoy the view. The little trees offer shelter from the wind for insects and people alike. The ponds are really coming alive, with 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly seen here this year. Target species of butterflies have come into our meadows. Little birds are now perching in the young trees, particularly goldfinches and blue tits. Long-tailed tits and other birds are using our hedgerow as a pathway between our own woods and another piece of woodland, just as we hoped. We are producing an increasing quantity of hay for local horses. This year we harvested hazelnuts from our young trees for the first time. Leaf litter is starting to build up in places under the clumps of trees. In the wet areas, marsh orchids and cowslips are spreading and increasing in numbers.

Young trees in the landscape

Young trees in the landscape a few years on

It is not often that you get the opportunity to change the landscape, and make something that is both beautiful and functional. We were very privileged to be able to do this and it is very exciting. Every year turns up some surprises. What is particularly lovely is to see the self-set regeneration areas merging with the planted areas, possible because of what we think is a good choice of trees and careful attention to the landscape, soil and microclimate. It will not be long before we can take our first coppice cut in some places, nor will it be too many years before we can lay the hedge. It is truly becoming a woodland, as we hoped it would.

Young trees with woodland ride

Young trees with woodland ride – trees now over 2 metres tall

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Ponds are now vegetation rich

The value of ponds

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

If you want to improve the biodiversity of a piece of land, one of the best things you can do is put in a pond.  We are lucky that our woods are damp, there is water flowing through them, and they have a clay soil base which is eminently suitable for ponds.  We started out with one pond that was badly-designed and silted-up.  As part of our programme to improve the site for wildlife, and to rationalise the drainage, we put in three brand new ponds in the upper part of the woods, and divided the old pond into three new ponds, terraced along the ditch.  The first pond is a silt trap and the remaining ponds now keep free from silt, and drain properly back into the ditch.

Broad-bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

Female Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

When we had the opportunity to buy Betty’s Wood and plant it with trees, we also added ponds – it was a very suitable field, with lots of damp patches and a base of both red and white pottery clay.  There were already some natural ponds formed in tractor ruts, and we added 5 more ponds in a cluster.  This means we have 11 ponds on site, in three clusters.  There is another pond which is more of a pit that gets damp in winter – but these temporary ponds are also very valuable habitat.  All of them were put where a pond would naturally want to form, in areas that were already damp.  None of them are artificially lined – the clay keeps the water in place.  Some of them dry out in the summer, others stay wet.  All are connected so that wildlife has a refuge in the deeper water if needed.

Grass Snake

Grass Snake in our ponds

We were rewarded in the first year with a few dragonflies and damselflies.  As time has gone on, our ponds have brought more life to the woods.  The range of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, helped by the fact that we are adjacent to other pools and ponds, a canal and a river.  Birds regularly come and drink in the ponds.  We have a good population of toads and smooth newts, together with a few frogs.  We have some resident mallard who come back each year although are yet to breed successfully.  Last year we had a pair of lapwing in Betty’s Wood.  We have an increasing population of grass snakes who love to swim in the ponds and bask on their banks.  Swallows swoop down to feed on the insects that breed in the ponds.  Last year we had a Hobby, which likes to feed on dragonflies.  Mammal tracks show that all our resident mammals drink at the ponds – muntjac, badger, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, stoats.  Insects also come to drink at the ponds, particularly butterflies, bees and wasps.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Yellow flag-iris

Yellow flag-iris

Around the ponds are wet areas, in which we get wonderful plants – cowslip, buttercups, snakes head fritillary and a growing area with southern marsh orchid.  As well as the usual sedges, reeds, rushes, flag iris, ragged robin, teasel and figwort.

Ponds bring a place to life, and putting them in was one of the best things we have done for wildlife at the woods.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Hairy Dragonfly

Hairy Dragonfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

What is a photographer?

Soggy Blue-tit

Soggy Blue-tit

Just about everybody has a camera.  So almost everybody can take photographs.  But not everybody describes themselves as a photographer.  So what is a photographer, and why do some people call themselves photographers?

Google dictionary defines a photographer as somebody who takes photographs, especially as a job.  This definition seems to imply that a “photographer” is usually taking photos for money, and is therefore usually a professional.

So what is a professional photographer, and how do they differ from amateurs, exactly?  What are you paying for when you pay a “professional photographer” to take pictures for you, or of you?

There are a lot of definitions out there, but basically they revolve around the theme that a professional photographer takes pictures for a living – it is their main or even only job.  They are “creating a source of income from their photography” ( .  Ken Rockwell, on his excellent web site, reckons you need to be making 50% of your income from photography to be a “professional” (  Other people take a more liberal approach.  James Brandon, writing for The Digital Photography School says you are a professional

“When people love what you do and recognise you as a ‘photographer’, when you make any amount of money or business out of photography, then you are a ‘professional’”. (

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Are there any other characteristics of professional photographers?  Is it having a top-of-the-range camera?  Is it that they take better pictures than amateurs?  The answer to both of these questions seems to be “No”.  Anybody can buy a wizzy camera, set up a studio, put up a web page and describe themselves as being a “professional photographer”. It doesn’t mean anything that you have the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it.  Likewise, many professionals will take photos on lots of different cameras including compact cameras and mobile phones.  As Ken Rockwell says “It’s never about what’s the best camera, it’s about what camera makes it the easiest and fastest to create what we need to create. Artists like to make things; we could care less about buying more cameras.” (  The camera, in this situation, is the tool that lets you achieve your vision, rather than the be-all and end-all of photography.

And are the photos taken by a professional any better?  Well, that depends on the professional, and on the amateur with whom she or he is being compared, and also the subject area – it is difficult, for example, to make money from some types of photography, such as nature and wildlife photography, probably because there are so many talented amateurs out there.  A well-trained professional working in a commercial field will do a good job – photos that are technically proficient, correctly exposed, nicely-lit, in-focus, do what the client has asked for, well-processed and delivered in an appropriate and timely format.  Professionals may also take very beautiful, creative images in their own time.  But not all professional photographers take good photographs, either artistically or technically.  Not all professional photographers take time and trouble over their shots, or their processing. Take a good look at photographers’ web sites – how many of these honestly strike you as being creative, different, interesting, technically proficient, exciting or outstanding?  Some are, for sure, but many of the outstanding photographers web sites you see online are not professionals.

Common Blue in Meadow

Common Blue in Meadow

Amateur photographers take pictures because they love to do so, for the challenge, for the love of recording where the have been, what they have been doing, who they were with and what they were feeling.  Now, to me, that sounds like the definition of photography as “painting with light” ( – you see something you love, or feel strongly about, and you try to create a light painting of that scene.  I have seen many hauntingly beautiful images taken by people who would not call themselves photographers, often with very simple equipment or even with mobile phones that meet the definition of “light painting”.  I have also seen many images taken with top-of-the-range cameras and lenses that would not meet that definition.

Emerald Damselfly at Sunset

Emerald Damselfly at Sunset

To me the difference between a photographer and one who takes photographs is this:  A photographer, or “light-painter” will know the effect that they want to achieve, will know what the final image is going to look like before they even push the shutter button.  It is the act of pre-visualising, or seeing in your head, what the final picture will be that distinguishes a photographer from somebody who takes snapshots.  In short, it is the creation of art that makes a photographer, and a good photographer knows how to do this:  How to convey their emotions, feelings, thoughts, the glorious patterns of light and shade.  The truly exceptional photographers make you draw your breath, and make the hairs on your arms stand on end.  They are able to convey what is in their own brain, in their own eyes, and draw you in, and make you experience what they have experienced.  It is a very rare talent, and one to which I aspire, but most certainly have not risen.

As for me, well, I think it is up to others whether they consider me to be a photographer.  I take photographs because I love to, but would not presume that anybody would want to pay me to do this (although people have indeed paid me to take photographs and bought some of my work).  I wish I could improve such that one day I achieve this label, but for now, I just take pictures with my camera, enjoy doing so, and strive every day to improve what I do, learn from my mistakes and from others, and most of all, convey my love and respect for the natural world to others through my images. 

Further Reading:

Ken Rockwell distinguishes 7 levels of photographer (  This is definitely worth reading for anybody who wants to call themselves a “photographer” and you may well recognize yourself in there somewhere.  It is also worth reading his take on “what is photography?” (

Irreplaceable means just that…

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

The Government recently published its paper on Biodiversity Offsetting, a scheme whereby damage caused by development can be offset by creation or improvement of habitat elsewhere.  On the face of it, this seems very reasonable.  You build a supermarket on a meadow, and make another meadow elsewhere.  Simples!

The problem is that habitats are not simple things, and this simple scheme is fraught with hazards for our wonderful wildlife.  Look closely at the document and you will see not all is well with this proposal, which proceeds on the premise that a small amount of high distinctiveness (i.e. high quality) habitat can be replaced by a large amount of poorer distinctiveness habitat, that this can be done in an area remote from the community of people and wildlife affected by the development, that developers can in effect choose the type and location of “offsetting” that they provide, that habitats are assessed on their current, rather than potential value (laying them open to the risk of wilful neglect to reduce their value and offsetting costs), and that the distinctiveness and condition of a habitat can be assessed in 20 minutes.  It also supposes that the habitat created can be colonised by the displaced ecosystem, which does not take account of distances, ecological networks, the place of the ecosystem in the landscape and most important of all, the timescale over which such colonisation could take place.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

High value habitat can be replaced by a larger quantity of lower-value habitat

Ecosystems are complicated.  Even a very simple garden, brownfield site or arable site is a complex ecosystem, with archaea, bacteria, fungi, bryophytes, plants, insects, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds co-existing in an intricate network of food, prey and predators.  The higher the value (or distinctiveness, as it is called in the document) of the habitat, the more complex and rich the ecosystem is.  Many habitats are irreplaceable, having developed over many centuries into the rich ecological web that we see:  ancient woodlands, limestone pavements, lowland heath, wildflower meadows (particularly unimproved or semi-improved), ancient hedgerows and hedge-banks are examples of this.  The idea that you can simply assign a ratio of valuableness to habitats, and then replace something that is irreplaceable by a bit more of a lower value habitat is really very absurd.  Irreplaceable means just that…you cannot just dig it up and put it somewhere else.  Of course it is possible to develop new wildlife habitat, but you cannot develop new ancient woodland or lowland heath on a site where it has not existed before.  It doesn’t work that way.  As we have said before, it is like trying to replace the crown jewels with a skip-load of cheap costume jewellery.  These ancient habitats are our crown jewels and cannot be replaced.

In my view these high-value, irreplaceable habitats should be afforded a higher level of legal protection, equal at least to SSSI:  Ancient woodland, limestone pavement, lowland heath, wildflower meadows (unimproved or semi-improved), ancient hedgerows and hedge-banks.  In addition, local Wildlife Trusts and conservation organisations need to be able to designate habitats on a more local level to the same standard if they are locally rare, locally irreplaceable or have particular local value.  Any development on such sites (other than small tool stores, small visitor or community centres, or small scale permaculture based crafts and industries) should be subject to a full planning enquiry.

Offsetting can take place anywhere, with any habitat

Another flawed idea is that the offset provided for any development can be anywhere, and even of a different type to the one destroyed or compromised.  This ignores two fundamental things:  first of all, the habitat that will be destroyed is where it is because it is suited to the local landscape and the ecological connections within it, and second, that a wildlife habitat only has ecological value, and does not have a value to the local human community that live nearby, and may derive great benefit from it.  Habitats that provide exposure to wildlife in the urban and suburban environments are particularly valuable to that community, even though they may not be particularly distinctive in what they contain, or of high ecological value.  Likewise, an ecosystem exists where it does because it fits in with the local landscape, soils, and ecological connections:  destroy it, or move it, and you will not get the same thing back.  Even worse, destroy it and replace it with something else in another location, and you risk losing not only the human social benefits of that habitat, but knocking a piece out of the local ecological jigsaw that will impact not only on that site, but on others around it too.  The idea that you can replace lowland meadows with upland forests, say, is just wrong – they are different habitats, in different places, and will be accessible to different people, and different communities of flora and fauna.

Developers can bank habitat to be used when the need for offsetting arises

This proposal effectively allows developers to choose the type of habitat they provide, where they provide it, how they provide it, who they provide it for and at what cost.  It leaves the planning authority, the local ecologists and naturalists, and worse of all, the local community, with no say.  Developers will be able to choose cheap land, and cheap habitat creation (such as new woodland planting, planting of low-quality meadows, creation of low-value ponds) which may not be in a good area for the community, and not provide habitat that is a priority, nor support species that form part of local Biodiversity Action Plans.  It takes control of the process away from local planning authorities, and local people, and puts it in the hands of the developers, who will be seeking to maximise profit.  It does not seem to be a good way to ensure high quality, high priority habitat that is accessible to and wanted by the local people is created.

Habitats can be rapidly assessed on their current, not potential value

The document suggests that the distinctiveness (or value) of a habitat can be rapidly assessed in 20 minutes.  20 minutes to assess the complexity of centuries.  Even the most naïve ecologist would hesitate to think they could assess the value of a habitat in such a short time.  And who will do the assessment?  Will they be independent of both the local planning authority (who may be under pressure to agree developments to meet targets) and the developer (who wants as much habitat to be given a low a value as possible to reduce costs)?  And where is the requirement to consult both the Wildilfe Trusts (who will have Phase One survey data), the local Biological Records Office (which will have some, although not all, records of species sighted), and local naturalists and enthusiasts who may well be aware of important species on the site that cannot be uncovered in a single survey, taking minutes, and undertaken during a single season?

There is an additional worry here:  developers could buy up and then sit on land, allowing it to deteriorate through neglect or even wilful damage.  This would reduce its value and distinctiveness and allow it to be offset more cheaply.  Land needs to be assessed according to its potential value, not its current value to avoid this happening.  For example, they could neglect a coppice for 20 years until the important species move on, thus lowering its habitat value and distinctiveness and allowing for cheaper offsetting.  Assessment of potential value is the only way to prevent this.

New habitat in Betty's Wood

New habitat in Betty’s Wood

The displaced ecosystem can and will move into an offset area in a reasonable timescale

Can an ecosystem just move?  This is not going to be likely unless the habitat is of low distinctiveness, and the creatures within it are mobile, and it is provided close to the land being destroyed.  Ancient woodland, for example, colonises new adjacent woodland very slowly.  Obviously, habitat creation is possible, and can be very successful, provided it is done well, managed well, and appropriately placed. It can be more successful if adjacent to an existing high quality site, or when it caters for very mobile species, such as some birds or butterflies.  But this is not what is being proposed.  Move a habitat even a small distance and the conditions may be very different.  Some species, although seeming to be mobile, may actually move a very short distance – house sparrows are an example.  Some species may move in very quickly, but others may move slowly, or not at all.  If they can’t move in an appropriate time-frame or distance, then unless alternative habitat is available locally, they are likely to become locally extinct.  Build it and they will come?  Yes, but not all of them, and not necessarily straight away.  Our own woods have habitat for purple emperor butterflies, but they are not there.

The timescale is important – if a new habitat takes years to develop, where are the displaced plants and animals to go?  And how long is the offset agreement going to last?  If it is a short duration (and some existing agreements are), then the habitat may actually only just be getting to a stage where it can host a rich ecosystem when the agreement ends.  And of course the land can be vulnerable to development, or neglect.

An offsetting market is the way to deliver this programme

Markets tend to favour the large provider, who can provide large areas of habitat at a low cost.  Is this really the best way to manage valuable habitats?  Landscape-scale conservation relies on an ecological patchwork or networks, not huge swathes of monotonous habitat.  Small and local patches of wild land, managed to enhance diversity and promote access for people and wildlife, will produce not only the diversity of habitats that are needed, but also the networks that wildlife requires to move around, colonise new areas and be resilient to threats such as fire, disease and pests.  Managing small areas of land is more difficult, more costly, and more time-consuming – hardly something the market is likely to favour.  Of course there could be genuine partnerships that deliver high quality objectives, but that is not usually the way in which markets operate – they tend to high volume and low cost.

Any system that is put in place must have the following characteristics:

  1. Offsetting must be seen as absolutely the last resort and only used after it has been made clear that it is not possible to avoid or mitigate (rather than that it is uneconomic to do so).  It seems clear that already it is being used to justify developments that otherwise would not get planning permission.
  2. Any development that requires offsetting must have such offsetting agreed by, and done in agreement with, the local community, who need to be consulted at all stages, including the valuation of the habitat, the location and preferred type of offsetting schemes, and the monitoring of the scheme to ensure it is of high quality.
  3. All high value, high distinctiveness and high quality habitats must excluded from offsetting and afforded protection.
  4. All irreplaceable habitats must be given legal protection: Ancient semi-natural woodland, limestone pavements, lowland heath and unimproved or high quality semi-improved wildflower meadows and high-quality hedgerows. This legal protection cannot completely preclude development, but any significant development on such land must require a full public enquiry.
  5. The principle of offsetting the loss of high quality habitat by more low quality habitat is flawed: habitat does not work that way, and ecological networks take a long time to develop. Therefore the underlying principle is that offsetting can only be small scale, local, and replace low quality habitat by an equivalent amount of at least equivalent and preferably higher quality habitat. It also needs to be long-term, ideally covenanted to the local people in perpetuity. It must not be seen as a way to bank land for a few years before building on it and moving the habitat again.
  6. The measurement of habitat quality should consider the POTENTIAL MAXIMUM value of the ecosystem, not its value in the current condition. This is essential to stop the developers sitting on land and either actively damaging it, or allowing it to deteriorate by neglect, in order to place it into a low category and save money.
  7. The assessors need to be properly trained and independent (that is, not employed by either local authorities or developers), and they need to bring in experts on different ecosystems, and different species and species groups where required. They should also be obliged to consult with local people and local naturalists given full opportunity to contribute to discussions on the value of the habitat. Offsetting should be determined by the local people. It must be appropriate in scale and location, and take into account the ability of wildlife to re-colonise new areas and the community to benefit from it.
  8. The system comes from the local community upwards: they should be the ones who decide whether offsetting is appropriate, and if so, what is done, with the support of professionals, experts, local naturalists, local and regional wildlife organisations. The local community MUST be trusted to make this decision.

Will this make development uneconomic for developers?  In some places, yes, but this is a flawed economic model to begin with.  If nature is properly valued, then some developments will indeed be uneconomic.  However some will not be, particularly if the developer and the local community can work together.  Biodiversity offsetting has deep flaws, and betrays a lack of ecological understanding.  Worst of all, it ignores the value of habitat to the local community of wildlife, and people.

People enjoying Warwickshire Moor Local Nature Reserve

People enjoying Warwickshire Moor Local Nature Reserve


Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

I love birds.  And butterflies.  And dragonflies.  And reptiles.  And amphibians.  And wild flowers.  I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time.  Lots of people do this.  They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.

But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”.  My approach to wildlife watching is different.

Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there.  But I found this very unsatisfying.  There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived.  Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty.  So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what?  How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area?  Not a lot, really.

Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers.  They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed.  I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species.  I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live.  A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock butterfly – common butterfly, common ragwort, but very worth watching

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context.  Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there.  New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them.  They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.

I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure.  Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing.  I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys.  But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife.  It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.

This year we went to Doncaster for our business.  We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development.  And yet there was great wildlife there.  Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake.  Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined.  Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds.  Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common.  What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer.  I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else.  Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else.  For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful.  There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common.  I don’t.  I enjoy watching them all.