Butterflies Count

Common Blue

Common Blue

It is the time of year to count butterflies.  The Big Butterfly Count is a citizen science project, aiming to get people all over the UK counting butterflies so we can build up a picture of how butterfly numbers are doing for the commonest butterfly species.  Butterflies are great to count.  In general, they are easy to identify.  They are pretty and therefore popular insects.  And they depend on food sources being present for both adult and larva (caterpillar).  As such they are an excellent indicator of the health of ecosystems.  Plenty of butterflies, and plenty of butterfly diversity indicates that there is plenty of plant food, and a diversity of plant food.  It is also an indication that there is plenty of food available for birds, bats and other insectivores including reptiles, amphibia and mammals.

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

We have counted butterflies in our meadows for a number of years.  The numbers of different species do fluctuate from year to year, as weather and other conditions change.  What has been remarkable is the steady improvement in diversity of species and count within species, although there have been a few blips.  In the first year our meadow was planted, we saw quite a few brown argus;  this year we haven’t had any.  But last year we only saw one dingy skipper and this year we have seen several.  Common blue numbers have been quite constant, but six-spot burnet (day-flying moth), meadow brown, ringlet, gatekeeper, small skipper, large skipper and Essex skipper have all gone up.  The white butterflies are also doing well this year, as are speckled woods, which were almost totally absent last year.  Tantalising glimpses of the purple hairstreaks among the oak canopy also suggest their numbers are holding up.  Brimstones and orange-tips were present in relatively large numbers this spring, as were green-veined whites.  In general, the situation is improving in our meadow, and this is exciting.

It has not just been a good year for butterflies:  there have been good numbers of dragonflies and a good diversity of species too.  We have noted common blue, large red, azure, white-legged, blue-tailed, emerald and banded demoiselle damselflies, and common darter, four-spotted chaser, broad-bodied chaser, brown hawker, Southern hawker and emperor dragonflies.  And a hobby (falcon) has moved in to feed on them!

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

What this shows is that in spite of dreadful weather over the past two years (drought, washout summer last year, extremely cold and late spring this year), insect numbers can flourish provided the habitat is provided for them.  It doesn’t even need to be a huge amount of habitat, just a bit of connected habitat makes all the difference.  Butterflies abound in the hay field opposite our woods too.

The problem is that this good news is not typical.  Grassland butterflies have declined by 50% in Europe over the last 20 years.  This has been put down to intensification of agriculture in easy-to-farm areas and abandonment of areas that are not easy to farm.  Both result in degradation of grassland habitats, and in turn, the reduction in butterfly numbers and diversity.  Meadows need maintenance, be it by mowing for fodder, or by grazing, or both.  This strips off the grass that would otherwise dominate, allowing wildflowers to grow.  Abandon the meadows and they revert to grass.  Plough them up, and it is very hard, if not impossible to return them to their unimproved state.  Added to that, widespread use of insecticides reduce the opportunities for those butterflies that can find foodplants for their caterpillars and nectar for the adults.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

Meadows are very precious, but many butterflies can live on very common plants, and leaving a corner of the garden unimproved, letting it go over to nettles and wildflowers can really make a difference to nettle-feeding butterflies such as small tortoiseshell and peacock.  If we manicure our gardens, cover them in gravel and decking, squeeze productivity out of every inch of farmland, and stop mowing or grazing our meadows, we will lose butterflies, and with them, many other species.  We also mow our roadside verges short, several times a year.  Letting areas run to wildflowers would also make a massive difference, as the Plantlife roadside verge campaign points out.

Large White

Large White

Do we care?  I don’t know.  Almost everybody I know bemoans the loss of butterflies and birds over the last 50 years.  But whether they are able or willing to do so is another matter.  Are we willing to tolerate a bit less tidiness in our roadside verges and gardens?  Or will we complain to the Council the minute the grass gets longer than 3 inches?  Will we complain about our neighbours letting the garden run to weeds?  Are we willing to pay a bit more for good hay, for naturally-grazed animals, or to allow subsidies to go to those who uphold the most valuable habitats?  Or do we just want cheap food at any cost?



The fact is that the butterfly-filled meadows of my youth are rare and getting progressively rarer.  If children today don’t experience them, they won’t be able to appreciate their importance, won’t value them, and won’t protect them in future.  Butterflies DO count.  So, please, do count your butterflies this weekend, and contribute to the project.  And DO think of them and the habitat they need.  A little bit of untidiness won’t kill anybody, but too much tidiness will definitely kill off the butterflies.

Wildflower Meadows

Buttercup in evening sun

Buttercup in evening sun

Southern marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid

There has been a lot of publicity recently about the decline in wildflower meadows – we have lost 97% of our meadows in the last 80 years, thanks to changes in farming practice and use of herbicides.  But wildflower meadows provide a rich habitat with multiple ecological niches as well as an amazing experience for human visitors (See article in The Independent).  Wildflower meadows are a wonderful example of the impact of humans, domestic animals and natural processes to produce a very rich ecosystem.  Their richness depends upon management – upon mowing for hay, light grazing of the stubble and the wonderful natural process that creates a balance between many different plants and grasses.

Our own meadows have different origins:  those in Betty’s Wood are newly-established on a former arable field, and those in Alvecote Wood are a clearing that was heavily-grazed and unmanaged, resulting in very little diversity and loss of the wonderful mixture of wildflowers.  Both suffered from over-fertility – the former due to fertilisers, the latter due to animal dung.

What is wonderful now is the way in which they have responded to management, even though this has been suboptimal over the years, thanks to difficulties with weather and access for equipment.  The warm, wet June we have had so far has been paradise for so many species.  We have oxeye daisy, birdsfoot trefoil, yellow rattle (a marvellous plant that subdues the grass and makes for a better display of flowers), tufted vetch, sainfoin, medick, clover (white and red), yarrow, red campion, ragged robin, forget-me-not, meadow buttercup and creeping buttercup and others besides.  A few annuals thrive also, including cornflower and corncockle.  At the edge of the ponds, teasel is spreading, providing food for the birds.  In a damp patch, the southern marsh orchids which started off as a single plant are now multiplying and spreading too.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow rattle

All of this makes a brilliant source of food for insects and nectar for bees and other pollinators.  Dragonflies and damselflies hover over the meadow in the sunshine.  Butterflies seek places to lay eggs on a variety of foodplants.  Swallows and swifts swoop in to eat insects during the day, and bats feed at night-time.  Small mammals take shelter under the thatch of grass, providing food for foxes, badgers, owls, kestrels, buzzards and red kite.  The adjacent field of barley is devoid of life by comparison.

We still have a lot to learn about meadows.  Creating and maintaining them is not easy – it is not just a case of flinging a bit of seed on some soil and sitting back.  But it is extremelyrewarding to help reverse a widespread decline, even if our own meadows cover only about 4 acres (out of our 20 acre woodland site).  If you can create a meadow, it really is one of the most wonderful things you can do to help wildlife (planting trees and digging ponds being the others).  And join the Plantlife campaign to prevent councils from mowing wildflowers in grass verges until they have set seed, for this adds up to a massive wildflower meadow throughout our towns and villages, if only we could learn to value rich meadows over sterile short grass.

Meadows are brilliant.  If you can find one, please spend some time in one, enjoying what they have to offer.


Yellow – the colour of spring

Buttercup in evening sun

Buttercup in evening sun

Buttercups in the meadow

Buttercups in the meadow


Buttercups in the meadow

Spring has been very late this year, but is now here in glorious colour.  I got to thinking about the colours associated with different seasons.  Winter to me is white, or rather, monochrome.  Colours are very muted, there is snow, and any plants that struggle through, like snowdrops, are white.  To me, the excitement of spring starts in the woods when we see a tinge of yellow, from our daffodils, but also from our lesser celandine in the shade of the trees and on our woodland paths.  Lesser celandine is like a herald of the beauty to come in the form of the showy daffodils.



Lesser celandine

Lesser celandine


Primrose at Alvecote Wood

More spring yellowness comes from the primroses and cowslips that have been slowly and quietly spreading across our wet and shady areas in the woods, doing particularly well this year (and maybe producing oxlips in future – those showy primroses up on long stems that result from primrose/cowslip hybrids).  These little gems of brightness on cloudy and wet spring days are really cheering, particularly so this year after the dismal, long and dark winter.


White bluebell among blue

White among the blue

Then, ever so slowly, the palette changes.  Yellow stays with us, in the form of buttercups, but is joined, first by blue and then by white, pink and all the colours of the rainbow.  Blue is the complimentary colour of yellow, providing a wonderful counterpoint to the yellowness of the daffodils, buttercups and primroses.  We are so very lucky that our woods are full of bluebells, almost all of them blue, a few white and pink, and a stunning sight they make.  There is also a blue counterpoint in the meadow in the form of both germander speedwell, and forget-me-not – these two beautiful, complimentary colours enhancing each other.  Even the emerging leaves, acid-green with a strong yellow tone, and the yellow of the catkins and tree-flowers, add to this spring yellowness.  The first butterflies are also yellow – the brimstones that range along the woodland edge looking for buckthorn on which to lay their eggs.

Single bluebell

Single bluebell

The changing palette brings in purples and pinks (campion, snakeshead fritillary, early purple vetch) and white (greater and lesser stitchwort, Jack-under-the-hedge, early ox-eye daisy and mayweeds).  These are the colours of summer – along with the red of poppies, the blue of cornflower, the pink of corncockle, and a multitude of beautiful colours from clovers, vetches, sainfoin and our wonderful southern marsh orchids.  Summer to me is a rainbow, rather than one particular colour.

This year, spring has seemed the more spectacular because it has been compressed – coming late, and making up for that with a vengeance.  Let us hope it is a harbinger of a beautiful, colour-filled summer.

Heartbreaking – we must all act, now!

Red damselflyYesterday, a groundbreaking report was published as the result of a collaboration between all the major conservation organisations in the UK, entitled The State of Nature.

It is not a surprise to hear that wildlife in the UK is in a very bad way.  Over 60% of species are declining and over 30% are declining rapidly, and over 10% of species are in danger of extinction in the UK.  These declines have continued, more-or-less unabated, for the last 50 years and are still going.  There are isolated examples where species are bucking the trend because of conservation efforts, or by displaying flexibility over habitats – otters, cirl buntings, bitterns, Adonis blue butterflies – but the trend for the majority of species is inexorable decline.  Species that were common when I was younger, such as hedgehogs, small tortoiseshell butterflies and lapwings, are all plummeting.  Even those formerly seen as pests, present in abundance, are on the way out – house sparrows and starlings are examples.

What is alarming about this continued decline is that it is taking place in spite of us knowing all about it, in spite of the presence of legislations, regulations and designation of protected areas, and in spite of the efforts of a plethora of conservation organisations.

There are some fundamental problems here:  nature is seen as something to fit around the edges of human activity; nature is seen as something that hinders economic growth;  nature is seen as having a net cost and thus its preservation is a luxury we can’t afford ;  nature is treated with positive rhetoric and negative action.

Green-veined white butterflyThe fact is that we are fundamentally connected to nature.  Nature is part of human life and our experience.  It is absolutely essential to the economy and delivers benefits that far outweigh the costs – as outlined in the Government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment that places a high economic value on nature (http://sd.defra.gov.uk/2011/06/national-ecosystem-assessment-synthesis-report/ ) .  On the same day that The State of Nature was released, the Government outlined best practice in Payment for Ecosystem Services (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/payments-for-ecosystem-services-pes-best-practice-guide).

Yet we give with one hand and take with the other.  The Government commissions reports on woodlands and forests, ecosystems, best practice and the Lawton report Making Space for Nature, and this is good rhetoric.  The problem is that it is not being translated into practice.  Far from it – it is being undermined by initiatives such as HS2, fracking, updated planning regulations that make it much easier to build on green belt land and much harder to ensure that habitats are protected, and withdrawal of resources from police forces who are struggling A White Bluebellto prosecute those who flout existing laws.  Opportunities have been lost to extend statutory protection to ancient woodland, to green belt, to implement marine nature reserves.  We have biodiversity offsetting looming – a way of ensuring that development can occur on high-quality, irreplaceable habitat simply by putting in a larger area of lower-value habitat elsewhere.

The threats to nature are everywhere, but mainly come from reductions in the area, quality and connectivity of habitats.  There are other pressures too, including climate change, use of agricultural chemicals, and changes in patterns of grazing (largely due to economic pressures on farming).  These pressures come from trying to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of the smallest amount of land, and ultimately to ensure that large business interests are favoured at the expense of the small, the sustainable, the eco-friendly, the traditional, the high-quality and thoughtful approaches.

Ecosystems are complex.  Humans are part of them.  What humans are not are masters over ecosystems.  Exploit a system to the point of collapse, and it will have unintended consequences and ultimately, if that is your only consideration, it will cost money.

Why are we allowing this to happen?  However have we come to this?  There is a staggering amount of ignorance, resulting from the disconnection we have from nature.  We think it is nice to see pretty birds, but we really aren’t bothered what they are, and feel only a mild twinge when we notice that they aren’t there.  We favour conservation of the furry and feathery, but don’t care about the insects, plants, creepies and crawlies upon which our whole ecosystems are built (and the State of Nature report shows larger declines among invertebrates and plants).  We think it is nice to have nature reserves and nature parks, but don’t give a thought to the impact we have, every day, every waking hour, in our every action, on the wildlife around us.  We have lost the connection, and with it the respect that we should have.

What can we do?  What we cannot do any longer is deny responsibility for it.  By this I mean personal responsibility, as well as grumbling about what Governments and Corporations do, although this is also important.  We all have a responsibility to do all we can to halt this decline.  This means changing the way we live and the way we think, and most of all, it means we all need to act both individually in our own houses and gardens and parks, as well as acting to put pressure on Governments, Corporations and Businesses and the EU to change things.  Nature must not be seen as something that is in the way, but something that needs to be incorporated into our lives, as a blessing, not a curse.

A small spiderState of Nature is an indictment of our inaction – conservation organisations work hard, have a little success, but it is not enough.  If we want nature to be here, providing the benefits it does for society, then we must start caring for it, all of us, all over, in every part of the country.  Blame the Government? Maybe, but we elect the Governments, and are ultimately responsible for the way in which parties draw up policy and must lobby to get these policies changed.  We cannot brush this under the carpet.  Ultimately, our own survival depends upon it.

Governmment Forestry Policy Statement – What Does It Mean?

On Thursday 31st January 2013, the Government announced its long-awaited response to the Independent Forestry Panel (IFP) Report.  And with it came the good news that there would be no sell-off of the Public Forest Estate (PFE) in England, and that the Government accepted many of the recommendations of the (IFP).  But the devil is in the detail of this report, and after taking time to read it, a lot of questions remain, because it is not clear whether or not this response really is good news, nor is it clear what they are going to do, by when, and who is going to do it.
Reading the Executive Summary, it all looks very promising.  In particular, the Government agrees with the panel on
  • “The need to develop a new woodland culture and a resilient forestry and woodland sector
  • The importance of protecting our woodlands
  • The need to bring more woodland into active management and increase the extent of woodland cover in England
  • The need to help the sector to find its voice and improve its economic performance
  • The importance of preserving and maximising the social and environmental benefits provided by trees and woodlands, particularly in and around our towns a cities
  • The scope for developing new markets based around a better understanding of the value and potential of our trees, woods and forests
  • The value of retaining a skilled cadre of forestry experts within the public sector”.
But what are the Government actually saying, and what are they actually going to do?  I have drilled down into a few of the areas where I have concerns that this policy will deliver on the ground what the IFP proposed, and whether this policy document follows the spirit of the IFP report.
Ownership and Governance
The great news is that the PFE is going to remain in public ownership, overseen by a new body that will evolve from the commercial arm of the Forestry Commission, Forest Enterprise.  This will hold the public forests in trust for the nation and be charged with maximising the economic, societal and environmental benefits of the PFE.  It is also intended that the new body will not have to sell off land to balance the books, although it may buy and sell land as part of its role in maximising public forest benefit.  So far so good.  However there are some concerns over the way in which this will be implemented.
First, there is the language of the response.  Throughout the IFP report, the benefits of forests and woodlands have been listed in the following order – environment/biodiversity, societal/community, economic.  Throughout the response, the order has been reversed, giving economic benefits apparent priority, a feeling which is enhanced by the imperative for the new body to become more financially independent, and to develop new entrepreneurial ways of managing forests.  While this is not a bad thing, and in deed was mentioned in the report, it was not the first element of Recommendation 26, which included a provision for intervention in the event of market failure, something that the Government response has omitted in favour of a market-driven approach.
Recommendation 28 of the IFP report clearly stated that this new Public Forest Management body (PFM) would be independent from Government direction “except in matters where it delivers international obligations on behalf of the Government or in cases where Parliament feels the body is acting outside of, or failing to deliver its mandate.”  In the response, however, the Government intends to retain oversight of the new body and give it direction, making it more likely to be centrally directed than was the intention of the IFP.
The role of the PFM body was outlined in Recommendation 26, and this was a very strong recommendation which was very specific about the role.  However the response is that these recommendations are only a starting point for further discussion with stakeholders (without defining who those stakeholders are).  These are the nitty-gritty of the IFP report, and the Government response leaves us wondering which if any of these intended purposes the new PFM body will actually have.  The response tells us the PFM body couldhave these roles, but not that it willhave these roles.  Important roles, such as: Maximising public value in terms of wildlife, recreation, education and cultural heritage, exemplar of sustainable woodland management, exemplar of conservation of wildlife in woodlands and associated habitats, promoting quality access, managing market failure.  All these roles are up for negotiation.
There is also the issue of governance of this new body.  The intention was that this would be overseen by a panel of Guardians, and with stakeholder and community consultation at the heart.  The Guardians would be responsible for overseeing the new body, for ensuring that the public benefit and statutory duties are delivered via the Charter, and the Guardians (or Trustees) would be accountable to Parliament.  This isn’t what the Government says will happen.  The new body will have a Board that will report to the Secretary of State at DEFRA.  The Guardians are seen as an add-on, a sort of expert panel who will advise on and support the new PFM body remit.  Indeed, there is not a commitment to establishing Guardians in this review (if you read it carefully they are “exploring the scope for establishing a separate group of Guardians…”).  The role of Guardians seems to be substantially watered-down when compared with the intention of the IFP report.  And we don’t even know who they will be – what will be the balance between large and small, industry and community, environment and economics, and where will the involvement come for those at the grass roots who live and work in the woods themselves?
Then there is stakeholder consultation.  Recommendation 30 suggests that there should be stakeholder consultation on the annual corporate plan.  This should be at local level and in partnership with “friends’ groups, charities, businesses and others…”.  The response suggests that this consultation would not happen annually.  The Language is also interesting – although there is an expectation that the PFM body will engage with stakeholders and communities, the order is again reversed – “local businesses, charities and communities…this will involve working effectively with friends groups…”.  Again, the ordering of words puts businesses ahead of local friends’ groups and communities.  And they will only have a say in a rolling multi-year (not defined how many years) plan, rather than an annual say in the corporate plan, which gives the feel that this plan will become expert-led, rather than community-led, and consultation will lack teeth.
Protection and Conservation
Protection is very much seen in this response as being protection from threats to plant health.  This area of the response looks good.  Professor Boyd’s review of Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity, additional funding for research and a commitment to develop and maintain research in this field.  There is also mention of management of invasive plant species such as Rhododendronand management of species that harm regeneration including grey squirrel and wild deer, although the onus is placed on individual landowners and it is not clear how this will be co-ordinated.  There is also a commitment to research appropriate sustainable woodland creation in the light of climate change.
The IFP report stopped short of recommending that ancient woodland (ASNW) and plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) gain greater statutory protection under planning legislation, but the intention was there to ensure they have a high level of protection, and in Recommendation 15, that the national forest inventory should inform SSSI designation with the implication that this designation be extended to at least some ASNW.  The IFP report felt planning policy should “…refuse planning permission for developments that would have an adverse impact upon them…”, (where “them” is ASNW, veteran trees and other priority habitats).  But the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) carries the rider “…unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.”  The difficulty is in defining what clear needs and benefits are.  This is likely to come from case law and appeals – something for which developers have much greater available funding to take to appeal than councils have to defend decisions, with the inevitable consequence that some developments will proceed unchallenged.  Despite the rhetoric of putting a high priority on protection of ASNW, new infrastructure developments of roads and rail (including HS2) will result in destruction or adverse effects upon over 80 sites of precious, vanishing ASNW.  IFP clearly stated an adverse effect should result in refusal of planning permission, but these projects are going ahead despite this.  This does not bode well for existing levels of protection under the NPPF.
Recommendation 13 deals with landscape-scale conservation as envisaged by the Lawton Report (2010) and the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP).  It is clear that the intention was to put a new advisory body at the heart of delivering this via designation of new SSSI, pro-active identification and management of woodlands, greater connectivity between habitats, and restoration of nationally-important forest habitats.  The Government response devolves this all to Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), with a danger that landscape-scale is reduced again to local scale, and the potential benefits of the NEWP are lost, and woodlands are lost within many competing priorities for funding.
Future of the Forestry Commission
All of this brings us nicely to the future of the Forestry Commission (FC).  With Forest Enterprise becoming the PFM body, this leaves us with Forest Research (which is going to continue, at least in some form, possibly with increased resources), and Forest Services (FS) which is the branch of the FC with which many small woodland owners are familiar, being the body from whom they get grants and to which they go for advice, and to submit management plans, and to obtain felling licences.
Recommendation 23 was quite positive about a new, more robust, and expanded role for FS, which would take on the duties of the FC and the Forestry Commissioners.  It should “… become a public body, charged with championing, protecting and increasing benefits from trees, woodlands and forests that are good for people, good for nature and good for the green economy.”   It would have a pivotal role in developing ecosystem services, pulling in resources, working with land owners and Government, look at ways to develop profit from woodlands, and to enhance biodiversity and improve ecosystem services.  This looked like a robust recommendation and an enhanced and expanded role for FS.  Alarm bells ring for me at the response.  “The Government needs to retain a core of forestry expertise with the capacity to deliver a range of functions, duties and powers including, for example…”  and goes on to list some of the potential roles including “Enabling the sector to protect, improve and expand England’s trees woods and forests through light touch regulation, grants, other incentives and advice.”.  All well and good, except that no commitment is given to how and where this might be delivered.  Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) are undergoing a triennial review which will be published in Spring 2013, and the general vibes are that these bodies will both merge and subsume the new FS organisation.
The IFP wanted advice to be proactive – for this body to go out, look for under-managed woodlands, and offer advice and help and incentives proactively to manage them (Recommendation 11).  Currently, advice is available, as are grants, from the existing FS arm of the FC.  It is free to landowners.  However the Government response to Recommendation 11 commits only to making sure landowners know where to go for advice and help, not that this advice or help will continue to be impartial or free.  For small woodland owners, the requirement to pay for advice would preclude its uptake for many.
Even more worrying is the prospect that this remnant of the FC will be split into two – some functions being subsumed by DEFRA and some going to the new remnant body, wherever this sits.  Its future does not look like the new, robust, proactive public body envisaged by the IFP.
Improvement of existing woodlands – delivering the benefits
This section of the response covers economic, societal and environmental benefits.  This section starts with some good words, including the potential for realising environmental benefits, including ecosystem services, and the realisation that minimal management can be a positive decision for some woodlands.  The aim is to increase the proportion of woodlands in active management to two thirds, eventually to 80%.  However this depends on the provision of appropriate, timely, independent and expert advice and help – the Government have commissioned research on the best way to deliver this, but it remains to be seen whether this will continue to be free, an essential feature of current FC advice.
There is also a commitment to a review by Peter Bonfield of the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to develop a …”clear roadmap to a new and successful future for England’s forest-based supply chains.”  Looking at the CONFOR web site, through which this is to be delivered, the vast majority of stakeholders participating in this review are large and corporate, with The Small Woods Association being the only voice of those small woodland owners who, individually, do not and cannot produce sufficient to market their products individually.  The action-plan for developing markets is very industry-led, and market-led, and there is little evidence of what can or will be done in the event that the market fails to deliver.
There is a great deal here about developing wood fuel markets, and of bringing woodland products to market from publicly-owned woodlands not in FC ownership, including those in Councils and National Parks.  There is also a commitment to expand use of wood for construction, although the response falls short of the “wood first” principle envisaged in Recommendation 21 – rather that “..local planning authorities, developers and their architects should consider how locally-sourced materials can make a strong contribution to local character and distinctiveness”.  This is not “wood first”, rather “think about wood”.
Recommendation 5 stated that “Education authorities and early learning centres should ensure that every child has an element of woodland-based learning that will, for example, encourage woodland owners to form a partnership with a local school”.  This is not accepted, instead placing the onus on the school to decide what is right for their pupils, and no funding is provided other than the Pupil Premium, for which there are many competing demands, including Forest Schools.  The response also appears to equate visits to woodlands with Forest Schools – clearly the two are very different.
Community involvement appears to be limited to the Localism Act, and the designation of Local Green Space “which could include woodlands”.  But these are limited in size, and to urban areas, towns and villages, not rural areas, and offer limited scope for protection of larger areas.  Recommendation 8 is robust, and envisages woodland strategies being integrated into Local Plans, as well as encouraging tourism and leisure based businesses.  The response is more along the lines that these plans could include woodlands, rather than should.  It is very watered-down.
Access is also a major strand of this response, as expected, given the strong recommendations surrounding access in the IFP Report (Recommendations 4, 5, 6 and 7, plus elements of others).  The Woodland Trust Access Standard, and the VisitWoods gateway is seen as the way in which people can find out which woodlands are open to public visits.  But many woodlands that are open to the public some of the time are not included on this database.  There is a great deal about planting trees close to people and incentivising access, but this is based around encouragement, rather than funding.  Opening to the public costs money in insurance premiums, staffing, maintenance, damage repair and tree-safety among other things, and there is nothing in the response about how anything other than encouragement will be used, despite these costs being prohibitive to small woodland owners.
Potential for nature is left until last, and will be delivered via Local Nature Partnerships and Nature Improvement Areas outlined in the NEWP.  A new, welcome, Open Habitats policy is to be introduced to protect lowland heath where woodland is encroaching.  A commitment to use of biodiversity offsetting is again given:  the idea that if a development damages habitat, this can be offset by investment in habitat elsewhere.  This opens the way for trading in habitats, including ancient woodland – offsetting loss of valuable habitat in one area by creation of more, lower quality habitat in another makes no ecological sense, since this is like selling the crown jewels for a skip-load of cheap jewellery.
What is good is the acknowledgement that the priorities of economics, community and wildlife can work together by sustainable woodland management that can produce both good wood and timber, and good habitat, and potentially also provide for public access.  However where the balance will lie is yet to be determined.
Woodland Expansion and Realising Value
There is a commitment to accelerate the creation of woodland that has been happening through the 20th Century.  The response makes much of partnerships, such as those developed in the National Forest.  The principle of the right tree in the right place is reiterated.  So far so good.
However, the key for privately-owned land, which is the majority of land, is to get landowners to plant trees where it suits them and their local conditions and priorities.  Such a laissez-faireapproach is unlikely to deliver the ecosystem and biodiversity benefits that can come from a planned landscape-scale approach.  And there is an imperative to make this woodland economically viable as possible.  There is virtually no mention of finance other than via private finance, the woodland carbon code, ecosystem services, biodiversity offsetting and philanthropic investment for the purposes of public relations and business image.
In order to get funding for projects that recognise the value that woodlands provide to the ecosystem, we need to be able to value these services properly.  This process is in its infancy, and best developed in carbon offsetting.  Carbon capture is most prominent in young, fast-growing woodlands such as new plantations, rapid-growth timber and coppice re-growth, and if not carefully managed, this could lead to inappropriate management plans centred around carbon capture that could disadvantage mature and ancient woodlands.  Coppicing is not appropriate everywhere.  Other services are being developed, such as flood management, but there is a risk that if investment in expansion is market-driven, it will be weighted towards services that can be easily valued, such as carbon offsetting, and thus towards rapidly-growing woodlands.
Markets are essential for woodland owners to offset the costs of running their woods, and to develop viable businesses.  What is worrying is that the whole approach is market-driven, and there are no checks and balances built in when and if the market fails to deliver balanced expansion of woodland that meets multiple priorities for people and nature, as well as business.  In addition, market development may favour larger producers at the expense of smaller ones, yet these are the ones in whose hands much of the privately-owned woodlands rest.  Woodlands do need to create produce, and markets are needed for this produce, but the markets need to serve all woodland owners, not just the larger estates.
The document is, as expected, not explicit on commitments to this except in small areas such as Forest Research.  It is hard to blame the Government here, as the amount of money available under the next Rural Development Plan for England (RDPE) will not be known until the outcome of negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is known.  What appears to be clear is there will be less money in 2014-2020 than before, and thus the availability of help, advice, grants and incentives that are free to landowners is likely to be reduced.  Indeed, the PFM body will see funding progressively reduced as their commercial activities ramp up.  Funding for the PFM body will be maintained in the current spending review period to avoid the need to sell off assets and maintain high levels of benefit.  But what about the rest?  The IFP Report was ambitious in that many other landowners and other sectors would be engaged in maximising public benefits from woodlands and forests, but for many this would be dependent on grants and free advice.  Partnerships can boost this funding, but will it boost it to the level required to maintain and build on what the FC currently deliver?  Particularly if it is cut under the CAP review.
The major triumph of the public outcry over the plans to sell off our woodlands and forests, and the IFP Report, is that the PFE will remain in public hands, held in trust for the nation.  There are also good elements in this response:  looking at ways to bring money in to woodlands, looking at ways to involve communities, looking at ways to improve access, looking at ways to protect trees against diseases and climate change.  The commitment to develop and open habitats strategy is also good.  It is perhaps understandable that the Government cannot commit to funding when the outcome of CAP reform is not known.  But there is a worrying dependence on a market-driven mechanism for delivering this policy. The roles of the Guardians of the PFE, and of stakeholder consultation have been watered-down.  A stated commitment to protection of ancient woodlands is not backed-up by the NPPF, and nothing here is changing that.  The role of the new PFM body is very much up for discussion.  From the point of view of a small woodland owner, how can an owner with few resources of his or her own get access to free advice, to grants, to support for tapping in to local markets and local partnership funding?  And how are public voices to continue to be heard?  Stakeholder input to the PFM body is watered-down, and there is limited scope for communities to influence local plans, particularly where they involve woodlands and forests not currently in public ownership.  It all looks like a top-down, rather than grass-roots solution.  Perhaps most worrying is the failure to commit to woodland-based education for all children.  Without a next generation of children who understand woodlands, their value, their management, and their contribution to the ecosystem, the future of our forests and woodlands remains uncertain.

HS2 – Selling the Crown Jewels

HS2 will pass along the horizon as seen from Betty’s Wood
This week the northern route of High Speed Rail 2 to Manchester and Leeds was announced.  HS2 is, apparently, going to bring about an economic miracle, creating jobs, slashing journey times and cascading prosperity out from London to the North.  But in the process, it is going to blight the lives of many individuals and communities for many years to come, destroy many jobs and businesses with knock-on effects to the local community and it is going to cut through priceless, irreplaceable wildlife habitats and countryside.
HS2 to the North is going to go through 17 ancient woodlands, one SSSI and up to 30 biodiversity action plan sites.  It is going to cut through two of the three country parks used by people in North Warwickshire (Pooley and Kingsbury Water Park).  It is going to cut the National Forest in two.  It is going to destroy businesses and severely impact upon farms en route.
HS2 will cut through the trees in this picture
Transport corridors are important habitats for wildlife – we know this and the Natural England White Paper acknowledges it.  Trees and plants alongside road and rail provide refuge for many birds, plants and animals.  So what is the big deal?  Surely a new railway line will actually provide a lot of wildlife habitat?  Well, yes.  The problem is that most of this habitat is relatively low-grade, and supports relatively few species, and is of relatively low quality.  High quality habitats, such as lowland heath in Staffordshire, or ancient woodland, or SSSI, take many years to develop.  These habitats may be small in area but they are high in quality, with many ecological niches that support a wide diversity of plants and animals.  You cannot recreate this – once it is gone, it is gone forever.  And little by little we are destroying ancient woodland, justifying it by the benefit to the economy, and by the fact that it is only a little bit we are destroying.
But the fact is you cannot replace the crown jewels with a skipload of cheap jewellery, which is effectively what we are doing here – destroying beautiful, high quality, rich habitat and replacing it with a lot of low-grade habitat.  In doing so we do two things:  first, we diminish the available ecological niches and reduce diversity and second, we reduce the connectivity between remnants of the ancient habitats and thus reduce its resilience to insult.  And insults come, either from construction of the railway itself, or from natural events such as fire, flood, drought, chemical incidents and so on.
HS2 to the North will pave over an area of countryside the size of the City of Manchester.  It will also open the way to construction on open countryside for housing and businesses associated with the railway.
HS2 will cross the Coventry Canal
The fact is we cannot continue to consume the countryside.  But what about the economy?!  Well, what about it?  The business case for HS2 is built on some quite heroic assumptions – that new jobs will be created (other than in the construction of the railway itself), that increased capacity is required, that the railway is carbon friendly and sustainable.  All of these can and have been challenged.  The Public Accounts Committee has already amber/red-flagged the project from the economic viability viewpoint.  The fact is that in other countries where high speed rail has been built, some communities have been winners and some losers, but the issue of whether jobs have actually been created, as opposed to moved around is very unclear.  The benefits of the railway have been valued to include knock-on jobs such as catering, but the costs have not included knock-on losses of jobs which either move (relocate towards the new stations), or are lost (if, for example, people switch from flying and existing slower trains, with loss of jobs, catering and so on, not to mention businesses destroyed by the line itself).
HS2 will pass behind this mound and through visitor centre
Nowhere in the economic case is the opportunity cost mentioned:  that is, the cost of what is lost if you spend the money on HS2 as opposed to something else e.g. local transport links and hubs, proper freight connectivity from East to West coasts, schools, hospitals and so on.  Alternatives to HS2 have been considered in terms of different types of transport links, but no full opportunity cost appraisal has been carried out.
And worst of all, nature and ancient woodlands are not valued at all, other than at the value of the land.  Yet woodlands and forests can in themselves benefit economy, wildlife and community in a sustainable way, and in a way that rail links cannot.  Land is valued just at market value, not at its potential economic value, be that in farming, business, sustainable forestry or from the ecosystem and services that it provides.  Even if the principle of reducing everything to a monetary cost is uncomfortable, the fact is that nature provides economic benefits of a huge amount already, and has the potential to deliver a lot more.
Alvecote Wood – ancient woodland habitat
The railway will not go through our woods or our house, although it will pass close to the woods – indeed, our woods are one of the closest ancient woodlands to the line apart from those through which it will pass.  But it will affect our wildlife. Our landscape-scale conservation project is under threat as the railway cuts through and potentially cuts off some of our partners, and makes it harder for wildlife to move freely along the Anker Valley corridor.  It will compromise the very thing that we have been urged to do by the Government in the Natural Environment White Paper, underpinned by the Lawton Report.  Shy wildlife is likely to retreat from the construction, perhaps never to return. Already-tenuous connections will be severed.  A local Forest School base is now threatened, and children may lose the ability to learn in a natural woodland environment.  Communities who have invested time, effort and money in the wildlife parks on their doorstep will now lose out.
And homes and communities will be blighted.  Is this NIMBYism?  Suppose you had struggled all your life to pay for a house, or to build up a business in rented property.  And suddenly you find your house cannot be sold to pay for your long-term residential care.  Or your business will be bulldozed, leaving you to move, and lose the goodwill and clientele you have built up.  Farmers can’t move easily, be they tenants or landowners, yet many face their land being cut through, buildings and businesses on the site destroyed, and links between fields and farm buildings severed.  This is not NIMBYism, it is about real suffering caused to real people, many of whom cannot get compensation in the time-frame within which it is required – indeed, some can’t get compensation at all.  It is about fairness – it is about making sure that advantage for some is not gained at the expense of disadvantage to others. It is about fair treatment for communities and people wherever they happen to live.
But mostly it is about the destruction of wildlife and habitats – habitats that are, by the Government’s own admission, valuable.  Habitats that have been supported by public money and community goodwill.  Habitats which have taken thousands of years to develop will be destroyed by drawing a line on a map.  It is about selling the crown jewels for a skipload of plastic.  A few people will undoubtedly gain from HS2, but everybody will lose.  Just how much longer can we go on chipping away at the crown jewels of our countryside?

Who will fight for nature in future?

The woods look fantastic in the snow – a world transformed by snow and ice into a fairyland of wonder.  All around us are the signs of the struggle nature has at this time of year – the busy seed feeders, tracks in the snow, food caches being dug up and consumed, the occasional evidence of predation.  It is a hard time of year.

It is perhaps easier to appreciate an acute threat, such as snow and ice, than an insidious threat, but it is there, nonetheless.  The renowned writer on management, Charles Handy, used a metaphor in his books about the boiling frog.  If you put a frog into hot water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water and heat it gradually, it will be boiled to death (I believe this is not true, but it is a good metaphor).  Not a nice thing to happen to a frog, but the same thing is in danger of happening to our natural environment.  We can appreciate, worry about, and try to solve an acute crisis, but we become habituated to the gradual loss and erosion of biodiversity and environment until we become aware it has gone, and gone for good.

What are these threats?  They are so common and ubiquitous that we don’t even see or appreciate them happening.  But they are there, and it all boils (pardon the pun) down to policy.  And we have a lot of new policies kicking in at present.  Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (including farm subsidies), the Natural Environment White Paper (failure to protect ancient woodland), the National Planning Policy Framework (failure to explicity protect anything other than species and habitats protected under European legislation).  Then there is Biodiversity Offsetting – the idea that you can rip up habitat in one place, and replace it in another – the more valuable the habitat, the higher it scores, but you can replace a little high-scoring habitat with a lot of low-scoring less-valuable habitat.  But nature doesn’t work that way.  There is the drive to industrialise agriculture, with the threat of mega-farms and mega-dairies, and the loss of hedgerows and habitats that this involves to provide fodder crops.  Ownership of land is concentrated in ever-fewer hands, and subsidies frequently go not to those who farm and care for the land, but large landowners.  Councils are selling off their farms – one of the few routes into farming for the non-wealthy.  People are progressively distanced from the countryside, and the land, and farming, and forests – it is a place to visit, not a place to live, and breathe, and experience.

Then there are pests and diseases, some imported (Chalara fraxinea for example) and some of our own.  And there are the neonicotinoid pesticides that have devastated our pollinators, and that most other countries have banned, but not the UK.  The Localism Bill has the potential for local people to say where they want development and of what type, but only if they are aware of what is going on, and are empowered to have a say.  And they are not actually going to be allowed to say no – only to say what and where.  There is a big difference.

Finally, there is the threat from global warming and the dash to squeeze the last fossil fuels from the Earth at a time when we should be moving rapidly away from them – fracking, shale oil – widespread and large scale habitat destruction that damages the environment twice – once when extracting and again when the greenhouse gases are generated.

So who is going to stand up for nature?  Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission used to have the power to advise on policy – but are now restricted to commenting on how to implement it.  So we don’t have an official advocate for the environment, providing checks and balances to Government whims.

But we still have the charities, right?  Well…yes, but many of these charities are already working in partnership with Government and its agencies, and are coming to depend on them for money.  They are responsible for managing public land and resources, and for taking over the running of initiatives, programmes and courses.  So, the Ramblers and McMillan have taken over Natural England’s Walking for Health.  Fine – but these are charities with their own membership, and agenda, and are not independent bodies charged with protecting the environment.  And even where involvement is not direct, charities make use of the Government subsidies and grants to which they are entitled as landowners.  The imperative is not to rock the boat.  How dependent have charities such as the Woodland Trust and Wildlife Trusts become?  How willing would they be to stand up against harmful policy initiatives if, for example, it put their income at risk?  Why was it that the policy to sell off the public forest estate nearly succeeded?  Perhaps because some of the charities involved stood to gain financially?  The Independent Forestry Panel was a result of campaigning not by the major bodies, but a widespread and fierce campaign from the public, headed up by a number of new campaigning groups such as Save our Woods

A report was launched today (1) that looked at the role of independence in the charitable sector.  This was from the perspective of charities that provide services for disadvantaged populations, but the findings are completely applicable here, too.  Independence is falling, and charities are unwilling to speak out when policies, or the way they are being implemented, produce harmful effects for those whom they serve or represent. Charities desperate for money will find it very tempting to sieze on any funds they can get – that is what makes policies like biodiversity offsetting so appealing, but so frightening too.

Who IS going to fight for nature?  Do people even know we have a fight on our hands?  The level of knowledge is frighteningly poor, not just among those who set policy, but among the generations of people failed by the system that has distanced them from nature, failed to teach them about it, failed to immerse them in the experience, and failed to produce a new generation of advocates.  Why are there so few angry young people now?  Where are the protests?  I see few, or none – nothing like the student protests of the 1960’s and 70’s, nothing like Woodstock, nothing like Greenham Common, the Vietnam War protests.  There should have been millions of students protesting about tuition fees – not a few hundred thousand.  There should be millions of people protesting against the policies that are threatening our environment, and with it, the future of this planet and of the human species.  There are a few shining lights, but mostly people sit and take it.

We are sitting in the pot and the heat is on.  Who is going to speak up and protest?  Who is going to jump out and sing before the water boils?  Or will it just boil away, and we will wake up one morning to find it has all gone?

(1) Independence Review

Changing the world a bit at a time

I’ve been reading a very good book called “So Shall We Reap” by Colin Tudge (http://www.amazon.co.uk/So-Shall-We-Reap-Worlds/dp/0141009500).  It really is an excellent book, and everybody needs to read it and think carefully about what he says.
In a nutshell, he is saying that agriculture has lost its way.  If we are to feed the large and growing population of the planet, then we cannot do it by means of industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture, but have to do it by a modern agrarian economy in which food is grown carefully, by good husbandry, by people who live on and know the land, who are able to grow food suitable to the local cuisine, and who exercise good husbandry over the land and the livestock.
What does this actually mean?  First of all, it means that we have to improve the yield of our land, and the best yield (as opposed to maximum profitability) comes from mixed farming in which livestock, arable and horticulture are carefully managed in rotation.  Second, it means that science needs to be applied to improving yields rather than improving profitability – this may go hand in hand, but often does not, since the profit is often taken not by the farmer, but by either the wholesaler or the biotech and agrichemicals companies.   Third, it means that more people need to work in agriculture, so that the principles of good husbandry can be applied, and animals, humans, crops and people can live in harmony with nature, rather than by trying to control and subdue it.
But surely the largest cost for farmers (and foresters) is labour?  What he says is this:  we only need to produce food at ever-reducing cost because the goal is not to maximise production of food, but to maximise profit.  So we produce raw ingredients at rock-bottom prices using industrialised methods of farming – these are then bought by a small number of globalised food companies who dictate the price, “add value” to them by processing them into ready meals, prepared vegetables or whatever, and then sell them to the consumer.  The consumer does not pay less for their food – often they pay more for food of lower quality.  If they bought food locally directly from the producers, then they could produce food in a much more environmentally-friendly way, take better care of their animals and land, provide more employment for people who desperately need the work, and it wouldn’t cost the consumer any more, although they would have to be prepared to cook things from raw ingredients, just as humans have done for thousands of years until ready meals took over in the last 40 or so years.  We must also be prepared to eat less meat – meat is seen as a garnish and flavouring in many traditional cuisines, rather than the centre of the meal.  We need to return to seeing it that way, eating mainly vegetables, roots, pulses, tubers, nuts, grains and seeds, with a little meat for flavour.
So what does it mean for us?  We already try to support good husbandry by buying local produce, and making our own food from raw ingredients, cooking our own pizza, pasta, bread, curries, and growing our own where we can.  But we need to go further.  So my resolution for this year is this – we will seek out those local producers who operate on sound principles of good husbandry and try and buy from them.  Where we can’t do that, we will buy from ethical stores, and if we have to buy from supermarkets, buy from those with a good environmental record, and buy organic where possible.  We will avoid buying fruits and vegetables from the other side of the world out of season, and instead buy local, seasonal produce.  It will involve more effort, but I am prepared to make that effort.  I’m sure that at times I will fail – and end up buying something that isn’t produced sustainably.  But the point is I’m thinking more and more about it, and trying more and more to support local production.
If everybody thought just a little bit about where their food comes from, and how it is produced, and how the prices are manipulated so that both consumer and farmer lose out, and the middlemen and big superstores take all the profit, then this would seem a logical choice.  Politicians are not going to change the way in which agriculture and the food business operate because there are far too many vested interests at stake.  The only way in which the world can change is if people start to think more carefully, and buy only those products produced sustainably.  Changing the world a bit at a time.

Ash dieback and Alvecote Wood

An ironic twist, that ash dieback should rear its head in the UK just as all trees are dying back for the winter, making it much harder to detect.  It was with a heavy heart that we realised that we, like all small woodland owners, were vulnerable to this new disease which has made its way across the channel to the UK.  Betty’s Wood is particularly vulnerable, because we have planted a significant number of ash trees (about 10% of the trees are ash), and because Chalara dieback affects young trees more severely, and because the nursery from which we got them has had an outbreak of Chalara this year (although, thankfully, none of the batches we bought from them were affected).
We were extraordinarily careful with the provenance of our trees:  not just UK provenance, but we were careful to ensure that they were UK grown too.  It is very easy to cast blame on people planting trees for not checking the provenance, but it is also very easy to be misled into thinking that trees come from the UK when they don’t.  More needs to be done to ensure that the provenance of each tree is clear, via a passporting system to ensure we know where the seed came from and where it has been grown at each stage of development.
It is also easy to blame politicians of all parties for failing to take action:  the fact is that blame will not solve the problem we have now, of dying ash trees, spreading disease, and the prospect that ash trees will all but disappear from the UK until trees that are resistant to the fungus emerge.  I am sure in hindsight, many people could and would have acted differently – politicians may have taken action to ban imports sooner, movement of ash trees around the country could have been stopped sooner, the wider countryside could have been surveyed sooner, people planting trees could have asked more questions about where they came from, and those supplying trees could have been more open about where they came from too.  Lots of people made mistakes.  What is not needed is a lot of mud-slinging and blame-casting.  Instead what we need is a real, considered, careful plan so that this issue does not arise again with another species of tree.
This has led many to ask whether tree-planting is needed at all.  Can’t we leave it all to natural regeneration?  In many cases, yes, and perhaps there will now be more support and grants for people who wish to allow woodland to generate naturally, rather than plant, and also for those who wish to collect and sow natural tree seed and allow it to grow in situ.  At present the grant system is skewed towards planting.  But there are clearly places where planting is needed.  Like it or not, trees are a crop, and planting will help to produce a crop that is in heavy demand for wood-fuel and wood products.  There is also a need to improve habitat connectivity, and this cannot always wait for natural regeneration, which may take decades.  Then there is the need for landscaping along our infrastructure and in urban areas and building developments – trees are good for health, and they won’t just happen in many of these areas unless they are planted.
But there are messages from the crisis.  First of all, it is very important not to plant huge stands of one species.  Yes, we planted a lot of ash (and also have a lot of ash regenerating naturally around the edge of Betty’s Wood), but we planted a whole range of species.  This means Betty’s Wood will be resilient, and should we lose the ash trees it will not be a disaster (except for ash-specific species).  Second, it is important not to go round destroying ALL ash trees in the vicinity of an infected one – a few of those trees will show an innate level of resistance.  In countries affected by Chalara for a number of years, some trees have survived.  We need to look at the diversity of the trees, young and old, and work out why they are surviving, and preserve those genetically resistant to the fungus.  We cannot do this if we kill all the ash trees.  Third, we need to stop cutting back the expertise we have in plant pathology, mycology, arboriculture and tree disease research – cuts will not solve this problem, nor will contracting out to the private sector.  This is an activity of national importance that needs public funding, and needs to remain in the public sector, with support from the taxpayer.  The expertise is already at a critically low level – it needs to be retained, nurtured and developed to address the issues of future plant diseases.  Or we run the risk of failing to learn from this crisis, and of the same thing happening again, but to a different species of tree.
If 90% of our 700 or so ash trees die, then we will still have 70 ash trees that do not die from which to repopulate our site.  That is a good number of trees which will show genetic diversity, and from which a resistant population can emerge.  We just hope that Chalara dieback can keep away until these little trees are old enough to produce seed, so we have a seed bank in the ground.
At present there is no sign of Chalara in any of our little trees, or in any of our few mature ash trees, but that may change.  Like it or not, Chalara will spread on the wind, on the feet of birds, on the feet of animals.  That cannot be changed.  Chalara is a crisis, but also an opportunity.  An opportunity to get the resources that are needed into plant research, changing nursery practices, dealing with biosecurity, looking at ways to raise a diverse and resilient tree population.
In the end, most of our ash trees are likely to be lost.  We hope not all of them.  In the meantime, we will do our best to keep them healthy, free from disease, growing and producing seed.  The seed is the future.

Natural Balance

It struck me last night, as I was watching the new BBC programme that reconstructs our human ancestors, just how precarious our situation is.  We were once one of several species of hominids co-existing on Earth, but recently, very recently, all the others died out, except for Homo sapiens.  We are not the climax of evolution on this planet.  We are a tenuous final relic of an evolutionary grouping that has all-but died out, or, in the case of the Neanderthals, been incorporated into our North European DNA.
What I found disturbing about this was that the assumption is that we are better, and will adapt better and survive because we are cleverer than those hominids that died out.  But are we?
How do we interact with our environment?  Do we use our intelligence to learn about what is out there, study it, listen to it, value our time in the environment and what the environment gives to us, nurture the environment, preserve its resources, work with it so that every species can prosper?  Or do we seek to modify, dominate, apply technological fixes, eliminate those things that don’t suit us, marginalise species to the ever-diminishing bits of the planet that people don’t want to exploit?
There are many, many people out there who would like to live in the former way – in harmony, in natural balance with the environment.  But there seem to be many more who want to exploit and control it.
Agriculture used to be about working with the land – using the right bits of land to grow the right bits of food.  Now global markets determine what is grown where for maximum profit, regardless of whether the land is suitable.  So we modify, drain, irrigate, apply chemicals, cut down trees, clear scrub, create terraces, canalise rivers, remove hedgerows and wildflower margins.  In doing so we upset the natural balance created over millions of years.  Our interventions in turn upset the ecosystems, and lead to certain species that are tolerant of our activities dominating – only to be condemned as pests and attacked again with chemicals, with culling, with shooting, poisoning, trapping.
There seems to be a great deal of thought and technology applied to the mechanics of agriculture and environmental management, but not a great deal of strategic intelligence.  It does not take a great deal of intelligence to realise that if we upset the natural balance too much, we will suddenly find ourselves in a crisis of our own making.  We were never given “dominion over all the creatures on the Earth”.  We are just another one of them – a perilous relic of a group of species, all of which, apart from us, have failed.  We absolutely rely on the natural balance for the production of our food, for materials for our housing, for our energy, for our medicines, and for our lives.
Humans seem to think that we can simply force the world to our will.  We cannot.  Sooner or later the natural balance will tip against us, and none of our intelligence or technology will be able to cope.  We are the last of the hominids.  We have to wake up and think about what this means and how we can get back into balance with nature.
At the woods, we try to keep things in balance.  It is not easy, and we have made mistakes.  But if you respect the cycles of life, and seek to help them achieve balance, rather than constantly throwing them into disarray, it is remarkable what a difference you can make to the wildlife, and the richness of the environment.
Most people love the countryside, and enjoy being there.  Very few see the complexity of what is around them, and even fewer understand the key processes that go into making it the wonderful place it is.  If Homo sapiens is to avoid the fate of other hominds, then we have to re-acquire this understanding quickly, and learn that if we work with nature, it will help us many times over, but if we try and fight it, the battle is already lost.  Ecological processes are beautiful – few human interventions are, and they are mostly those interventions that work closely with nature – windmills, solar panels, water-wheels.
So here is a message for those in charge:  stop destroying the countryside.  Stop shooting things that happen to be in the “wrong” place.  Stop spraying “weeds” but start encouraging wild flowers that in turn will bring beneficial insects that themselves control the “pests” that we encourage by our hundred-acre monoculture crops.  Start managing forests and woodlands sustainably.  Stop building on valuable habitat just because the land is cheaper.  Stop tidying up the countryside.  Put the hedgerows back and sell the huge machinery – go to a smaller scale.  Look at the principles of permaculture, and learn to make the land a great place for every creature, including humans.  Stop seeing nature as something that is OK provided it doesn’t cause any inconvenience for anybody.  Stop denying the human contribution to global warming and start doing something about it, rather than paying lip-service and carrying on as before.  Stop pandering to globalised vested interests, corporate greed, corruption and cover-ups, and start being open and honest.  Value every living thing, including humans who don’t come from the same country, background, religion or point of view as yourself.
Or lose the natural balance, and lose out.  Other creatures will come along and take our place.  We are not God’s anointed and never were.  We are just another endangered species, the difference being that we are endangering ourselves.  We must acknowledge this quickly, and do something about it, before it is too late.