Big Corporations or Little Butterflies

Yesterday, the Chancellor announced that he was seeking to review the way in which EU Directives on Birds and Habitats are enforced in this country.  Apparently, the protections that these afford to our natural habitats are an intolerable burden on economic development, and need to be watered-down, so that development becomes easier.  Along with that, organisations previously charged with protecting our habitats and environments (Natural England and Environment Agency) have been charged with promoting “sustainable” development instead.

But these Directives have already been subject to review, with the conclusion that we do not “gold plate” their implementation in the UK.  These Directives provide the strongest possible protection to wildlife in the UK, and apply to habitats and species of Europe-wide importance.  But the vast majority of sites of great value to wildlife in the UK do not contain species of Europe-wide, or even national importance.  They are simply important for what they are – habitats in which wildlife can thrive and grow and be nurtured.  National Parks, SSSI’s, AONB’s – all have imperfect protection, for it is still possible to develop in these areas if the benefits outweigh the environmental costs.  But even these do not embrace most of the wildlife sites in the UK, many of which are completely un-protected, or carry the lowest level of protection, Local Wildlife Site.  Alvecote Wood is a Local Wildlife Site.  Stripping away protection in favour of development means that some of our most important habitats and coastlines can be built upon, made easier by stripping Natural England and the Environment Agency of their regulatory powers and placing the obligation to promote development upon them.

What is of more concern is that this watering-down of protection will cascade down the protection heirarchy and result in almost un-restrained development.  Local Authorities can, and many will, do all they can to designate important areas and exclude these from their development plans.  However national infrastructure projects can simply ignore these plans.  Some ancient woodlands are already in the way of road-building projects announced this week.  No longer can these be held up by important habitats, or by bat-roosts, great crested newt colonies or islands of species that should not be rare, but are, desperately clinging on to their ever-shrinking sanctuaries that are now “in the way” of economic development.

The fact is that the land to which wildlife sanctuaries cling is often the cheapest land – that is why wildlife, pushed out and marginalised, is allowed to remain on this land, because it is of low value.  Protected status is all that prevents much of this land from the bulldozer.  Now that protection is to be reduced, so that developers can build on cheap land and increase profit margins.

What is even more frightening is that so few people actually care.  They may be a bit sad when a loved piece of scrub land is turned into a car park, or supermarket, or affordable housing.  They may wonder why there are no longer any sparrows to visit their bird feeders.  They may reminisce about how there were more butterflies when they were children.  But ultimately, they don’t really care.

But they should care.  This geological era is known as the anthropocene, the era of humans.  We are extinguishing species at an alarming rate – globally and in the UK.  All life depends on the rich web of species on our planet.  We are part of that web, we do not control it.  Fail to look after our beetles, worms, amphipods, crustacea, fungi, amphibia, and the feathery and furries that attract so much attention, and it is ultimately us, and our precious economy, that will suffer.  If we keep thinking that supermarkets, executive housing, roads, airports, marinas and industrial estates are worth more than a few newts, or bats, or beetles, or bees, and we will one day wake up to find that we can no longer feed ourselves because all the pollinators have gone, and with them our ability to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, make medicines, purify water and all the other things that nature does for us and goes completely un-valued.  Ignore our wildlife and we won’t have an economy, because we will have destroyed the foundation upon which it is based.

Meanwhile, we will take care of the little butterflies, and try and keep the big corporations at bay.

What do poppies mean to you?

Poppies.  We had thousands of them in Betty’s Wood this summer.  The newly-disturbed ground was a carpet of poppies, mayweed and, a little later, the lovely blue cornflower.  A few days ago we still had one persistent little poppy in flower.  With all the debate in the press this morning about poppies, I took some tome to think what poppies mean to me.

First and foremost, they remind me of my Mum, because they were her favourite flower.  How apt, then, that Betty’s Wood, named after my wonderful Mum, should be full of them, as if she is communicating her delight at our creation of a new woodland and wildlife site in her name, in her memory, and with her help.

Then, of course, they remind me of people in my family who fought or otherwise served their country in the 20th Century wars.  My father and uncle who served in the army in World War Two, and my mother’s brother whose bomber was shot down over Germany and who spent much of the war as a PoW.  My other uncles who mined coal in South Wales.  My great uncle, a policeman, who died in the first zeppelin attack on London in the Great War. My grandfather, who thankfully returned from the trenches of the Great War, only to serve again in the Home Guard during the blitz.  My aunts who served as nurses and dispatch riders.  Other members of my family who served, and continue to serve, in the armed forces today, as well as the son of my closest childhood friend.  Acts of self-sacrifice and bravery that we cannot comprehend in these days of luxury, plenty and easy living.

But why should remebrance stop there?  You see, for me, the poppy, as well as being a beautiful flower, is a poignant reminder of all who died, and continue to die in wars throughout the World.  I cannot see a field of poppies without thinking of not just our servicemen and women, but of all those who died, or whose lives were and continue to be affected by war and conflict.  I think of the Germans, French, Belgians, Dutch, Austrians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Japanese, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Italians, Greeks, Koreans, Vietnamese, and more recently the Bosnians, Kosovans, Argentinians, Iraquis, Libyans and Afghans.  And those affected by conflicts, both external and internal, in which the UK forces have played no part – in Palestine and Israel, in Somalia and Ethiopia, in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Kashmir…the list is endless.

Why should I remember, and think about these people, people I do not know, who don’t come from my own country, who are complete strangers to me?   Because they are people.  Every single one, a precious individual person.  Poppies, to me, are about all of these people who have been affected by, and continue to be affected by conflict, largely pointless, largely irrelevant, but terribly, terribly destructive. 

Is it any wonder we do not respect our beautiful world, and all the other precious living things, when we can’t even respect the other members of our own species?  Even if all conflict between people were to stop, we are continually at war with our own planet and its rapidly-diminishing resources.  All of us are responsible for the plunder and destruction that goes on every day, without cease.  Plunder of the rainforests, of land for growth of biofuels, of rivers, valleys, seas, estuaries, mountains – priceless and irreplaceable habitats for other creatures that we sweep aside and condemn to extinction, many of them before we even knew they existed.

When I see a field of poppies, I think of this too.  With sadness, but also with hope.  Because above all, the poppy is a beautiful and hopeful flower.  Growing in the disturbed fields of France and Flanders, it signalled the hope that things would get better.  In Betty’s Wood, it signals hope that this once ecologically barren field will return to be a haven for wildlife.  We need to remember, and look forward with hope.  Remember our family, friends, strangers, and all creatures that suffer because of the destructive nature of the human species, including our fellow humans.  Look forward with hope that we will one day learn to live with each other in peace, and treat our planet and the species upon it with the respect they deserve.

Familiarity breeds contempt

We hear a lot on the news, and read a lot in magazines and newspapers, about rare and endangered species.  We may even be tempted to give money to save a rare tiger in Asia, elephants on the plains of Africa, or protect a vanishing butterfly in the UK.  We are worried about these rare and endangered species, but very often, attempts to conserve and protect them come too late:  the damage to their habitat has become irreversible, or the needs of local people conflict too much with their needs, or their genetic diversity has dwindled below the point of survival.

But why did these species become endangered in the first place?  In the vast majority of cases, these species weren’t even noticed until they did become endangered.  Many species are undoubtedly becoming extinct every year without ever being catalogued and noticed by science – a few local people briefly musing on where they have gone is their only memorial. 

The problem is that we are indifferent.  Birdwatchers are not interested in common birds, but flock in their thousands to see a rare visitor lost on these shores.  Habitats are only designated for protection if they are rare, or support rare or endangered species.  A little bit of scrub or woodland that supports relatively common species is not seen as valuable, and is not protected, and the species therein are greeted with indifference, or worse, in some cases, contempt.  Little by little, these habitats, and the species they contain, are whittled away until somebody notices a decline, and action is taken.  The problem is, we simply don’t value the common, until it becomes uncommon, endangered, critically endangered or extinct.

People spend less and less time with nature:  I don’t mean that they spend less time in the countryside, because the evidence is that people visit the countryside or urban parks quite a lot.  But these areas are increasingly becoming “experiences” which are packaged, with guided tours, interpretation boards, indoor exhibitions and multimedia shows, walks round manicured grounds and well-kept paths.  People do not spend time in the wild, nor are they willing to spend time watching and learning about creatures great and small, common and rare.  If you spend little time with nature, you see less, and are aware of less.  You do not appreciate the wonders of the common creatures all around you.

And slowly, those common creatures become less common until they are gone.  This isn’t just something that has happened in other countries – the passenger pigeon, the dodo – but something that is happening right in front of our eyes.  House sparrows and starlings have declined enormously in this country.  We are losing our bees and butterflies – several species of the latter have become extinct in this country in my lifetime.  They are declining through indifference, and a failure to appreciate that all wildlife and all wild habitats have value, not just those housing a species that has made it to our list of endangered species that we need to protect.  We take everything for granted until it is too late.

Our woods are not home to any special rarities.  All the trees are common.  Most of the birds are very common, some even increasing in numbers, such as blue tits (although we host four red listed species:  the cuckoo, lesser-spotted woodpecker, willow tit and yellowhammer).  Most of the wildflowers are common, all the dragonflies are common, the bats are common, the mammals are common.  But this does not make them less than precious.  If we don’t learn to notice, appreciate and value the common, we run the risk of losing them all.  All wild habitats need to be seen as precious, and important, not just those which are rare, or decreasing, or which host endangered species.  Familiarity breeds contempt – and we must learn to watch, look at, appreciate and love the familiar before we lose it.

In memory of our sycamore

This weekend we killed a tree.  It isn’t something we are proud of, or even happy about.  I don’t mean we cut it down, I mean we deliberately tried to kill it and leave it standing.  Why?  Why on Earth would somebody who loves trees, who is a guardian to our beautiful woods, do something like this?

The answer is that the tree is a sycamore.  What is wrong with sycamore?  Well, sycamore is non-native – it was introduced some time in the 16th Century.  It is a lovely tree:  beautiful leaves that turn a glorious colour in winter and those lovely little helicopter seeds that we all played with as children.  The wood is beautiful – hard, even-grained, nice to work and reasonable as firewood too.  It grows quickly and can act as a good nurse tree for other species including oak.  However, sycamore in the wrong place can be very destructive.  And our beautiful, magnificent sycamore is in the wrong place.

In an ancient woodland, sycamore can invade.  It grows more quickly than oak and shades out the oak seedlings.  It is also against the southern boundary of the wood, which aids spread of seed through the wood.  If we left it, in 100 or 200 or 300 years, we would have a sycamore woodland, rather than an oak woodland.  And all the species that depend on oak would also be lost.  We will have to deal with the seedlings for many years to come:  the daughter trees are being coppiced, and we aim to cut them for wood before they are producing seed.  This will give a chance for new oaks to start growing too.

Why did we leave it standing?  Well, this is actually quite an old tree – could be up to 100 years old, but more likely about 60-70 years.  It has lots of little crevices and a few lovely holes for nesting birds.  The standing dead wood will continue to provide a habitat, and a feature in the woods too.  As it gradually rots, it will be home to insects, mosses and lichens and become a small ecosystem in itself.

Was there an alternative?  This is something we have asked ourselves many times.  It pains us to kill a beautiful mature tree, and we have taken 4 years to reach this decision.  However the problem of sycamore invasion needs tackling and we could no longer put it off.  This tree is the source of the seed, and the source of our invasion problem.

Woodland management is essential in a wood like ours.  It is lovely to leave woods wild, and we do this as much as possible – there are areas we are not touching as nature is doing very well.  In a large wildwood, trees live, grow, die and fall, and the regeneration process moves around from place to place:  a clearing appears, new trees start to grow, and finally it reverts to high forest, only for another clearing to open up elsewhere.  Deer browsing new trees create natural coppice of multi-stemmed trees.  A wide variety of self-sustaining habitats.  A lovely, natural cycle.  But these woods were huge.  Ours is small, long and narrow.  It is the only island of ancient woodland left over a huge area of North Warwickshire.  The rest of the ancient forest around it has been cut down, leaving it without the capacity to self-heal.  We have to intervene to produce a coppice habitat.  We have to thin trees to give them the space to grow.  Failing to make provision for regeneration of the oak trees will mean this resource is lost for all time, something we cannot let happen.

The right tree in the right place.  The sycamore, a beautiful tree, was not in the right place.  As it dies, it will provide new habitat and new life, and allow new life to emerge in its shadow.  We give thanks to this beautiful tree, and for the pleasure it has given us.  It is now time to move on.


Lovers’ Bridge at Dunster Castle

After the last photography workshop of the year at Alvecote Wood, I was prompted to think about why I take the images I do, and present them in the way that I do.  The workshops split photography into two halves:  taking the right picture and taking the picture right.  The first deals with artistic and compositional elements, the second with the technical elements, such as exposure, depth of field and shutter speed.  To me, the latter are the easy bit:  it only takes a little bit of learning and practice to become familiar with these, and with your camera, and to take technically good images.  The difficult bit is the first bit.

So, how do you decide what image to take?  In many cases it is reasonably straightforward:  you want a technical record of something or somewhere.  The holiday snap, the picture postcard, the picture of a bird or butterfly showing its identifying features, a simple product photo for the web site.  Again, that is relatively easy.  What is much harder, and what motivates me, is taking an image that conveys a mood, or feeling, or vision that you had when you were in a place, or looking at something or somebody.

A feather pointing the way at Alvecote Wood

These are the images that really speak to the heart, but will rarely be published, or win competitions.  Why?  Because everybody has a different perception:  in the same situation, your brain will concentrate on different elements of what you are seeing, you will see a different pattern of light and shade, different amounts of contrast between colours and light and dark, even a different colour cast.  To some, the colours are important, to others it is the patterns of light and shade that matter – for the first, a colour image is key, for the second, black and white might convey your feelings better.

There is a lot of debate about whether you should manipulate your images using an editing programme such as Photoshop.  In the old days, I used to process my own films and make my own prints in a darkroom.  You used to be able to do lots of the same things:  crop images, burn or dodge (darken or lighten) parts of an individual image, impart a colour cast, create a monochrome image from colour, tone or split-tone a black and white image, combine images, airbrush features out of prints, add a vignette or frame to your image, process to enhance grain or reduce grain…it just used to take a bit longer than it does now.  Why did we do these things?  Usually there were two reasons:  either the image the camera took didn’t correspond, for whatever reason, to the image the eye took, or we deliberately want to make the image into something the eye didn’t see, but that conveys an emotion or feeling your experienced when you were there.

A magical woodland in Devon

It is lovely if you can take an image that is exactly what your eye has seen, and conveys immediately the emotions and feelings that you were experiencing, and thus that needs no processing.  However a camera is not an eye.  It records, literally, the colour and tone of the light coming into the camera on a sensor that converts it into pixels.  However our eye does much more, because we don’t ever see the raw image coming into our eye:  it is processed by our brain well before we can see the image.  And the brain does amazing things.  It adjusts the colour (try looking through yellow sunglasses – you’ll soon see white as white, not yellow), and allows you to see a full dynamic range.  In a woodland scene, you can see the detail in the shadows and the dappled light patches simultaneously in a way that a camera cannot.  The brain can even invert images.  How you see something may be coloured by your previous experience, your mood on the day, what you want to see or expect to see.

So to me, there is no right or wrong way to see a scene, thing or place.  We are all individual, and we all see things in an individual way.  Therefore, I am content to process images to convey either what I have seen, or alternatively, what I was feeling.  This is not “false” or “wrong” – it is simply personal:  many may not like, or “get” some of the images, but as I improve, I hope to help people to experience the world through my eyes, as opposed to my camera.  Many images need little adjustment, but some need a lot.  What I try to do is adjust the images immediately so that I can recall what I was seeing at the time, or alternatively what my pre-visualisation was.

Dunster Beach in the rain

Previsualisation: when you take the picture you see the final print in your mind’s eye.  This helps you to get the technical aspects of your shot right in order to get that final image, and also to think more closely about how you are composing and taking the image.  You will take a very different picture of a tree if you are trying to convey a technical image of tree structure, an abstract pattern of light and shade, or a feeling of “age”, for example.

Photography is personal:  it is a record of the world through your eyes, as well as through your lens.  Getting others to share your creative eye is the challenge for photographers.  I have only just begun on that journey, but I hope I can also inspire others to take up that challenge.

Please note:  only one of the images here was taken at Alvecote Wood – I’ve used others as an example!

Who is the land for?

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation is currently underway.  The outcome of this consultation will determine the balance between the needs of business, communities and wildlife and natural spaces.  There clearly has to be a balance:  some people wish for no development and some wish for unrestrained development but the fact is that this does need to be balanced.  Some people will be disappointed that they can’t build wher they want, and some sites that are currently green will ultimately be built upon.

But…where should that balance lie?  The NPPF is quite clear – the balance should be in favour of “sustainable development”.  There are many faults with this premise, not the least of which is the lack of a definition of “sustainable” – this leaves it open to interpretation, and in many places the words “sustainable” and “economic” are almost interchangeable.  The message is clear:  businesses must be allowed to expand and nothing should deter the building of houses.  The assumption is that planning will be pro-growth. 

Local Authorities can put plans in place, and they are obliged to identify land for different kinds of development, including housing, economic activity and for community use, as well as sites for mineral extraction.  They can also identify Designated Green Spaces the definition of which is relatively loose, but could be spaces for either recreation or wildlife sites.  All sounds good so far…but there are a lot of buts.

First of all, local businesses will be allowed to bring forward neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders.  Businesses, but not other local community groups.  They can put together their own development plans free from constraints of additional permission.  Local communities can comment but cannot block such development.  They must consult with local businesses in producing a local plan, but cannot overrule them – business development takes precedence.

Second, at present there is a target for re-development of pre-used land.  This will be removed.  This land is expensive to both buy and develop, and with the incentive removed to do it, developers will inevitably and understandably favour green-field sites that are cheaper to buy and build on.

They also plan to exempt certain changes of use from planning constraints, including industrial, storage and business to residential.  Now, flexibility is a good thing, but leaves the door open to justify building a business site on economic grounds only to see it changed to residential in future.

Green space designation looks fine and good – but it is strictly limited in scope.  Essentially it refers to green spaces that are urban or peri-urban and of limited size, and which are not already included in green belt or other designated land.  It really means parks, recreation grounds and small wild spaces – immensely valuable in themselves but not sufficient to protect the needs of wildlife in the wider landscape.

What about protection for wildlife?  Well, it is very limited.  The presumption will be against development in those areas with statutory protection under EU Biodiversity legislation, and in National Parks, AONB’s and SSSI – but always with the proviso that development can happen if the benefit outweighs the cost.  Ancient Woodland is promised protection, but what kind of protection, and what strength it will have, are not defined.  And there is no protection at all for the immensely valuable Local Wildlife Sites – small sites such as our own which provide refuge and habitat for wildlife but which do not meet the criteria for SSSI because their value is local, not national or regional.  There is no mention either of the Nature Improvement Areas – landscape-scale conservation areas envisaged in the Natural Environment White Paper as a result of collaboration between neighbouring landowners in the private, public and charitable sector.  They do not have to be incorporated into the local plan, and the local plan is very much open to challenge – it is up to the Local Authority to show that a development is not sustainable before permission can be denied.  Challenges are already coming in, even though this is only at the consultation stage.  It seems this plan will deliver growth, if only for lawyers, as challenge seems the most likely outcome of any refusal.

Major infrastructure will also be treated differently, with the presumption that these developments will go ahead.  HS2, for example, a development that is likely to affect many irreplaceable ancient woodlands, including, possibly, our own.

What will this mean for wildlife protection?  The future does not look bright. Minimum statutory standards, and wildlife squeezed progressively into smaller and smaller designated areas, progressively further removed from local communities.  Small, fragmented Green Spaces serving mixed purposes of recreation and wildlife conservation, with wildlife squeezed to the margins, the road and rail corridors and ever-reducing Local Wildlife Sites.

We think this needs to change.  We think that there need to be key changes in the underpinning philosophy that will allow everybody to benefit:  businesses, communities and wildlife.  In particular

  1. The presumption in favour of development and growth should be removed:  instead, there should be a presumption only that development will be sustainable, and will balance the need of communities, business and wildlife.  And sustainable should have a well-recognised definition.
  2. Statutory protections should have teeth:  there should be an extremely high threshold for building on or developing in areas with current statutory protection.  There should be new statutory protection of equivalent to SSSI awarded to ancient woodland, Local Wildlife Sites and other key habitats.  Nature Improvement Areas should also have such protection:  development within these should be carefully considered and wildlife needs to take priority here.
  3. Development of brownfield sites should also take priority, but with careful caveats:  where such sites themselves have become valuable wildlife habitats, and with clear consideration of the need to provide green space and wild areas within cities and towns.

Nobody denies that things need to be built, and nobody wants a NIMBY charter.  But unless such building is controlled, we will see wildlife, and local people, pushed to one side, marginalised, ignored, forgotten and degraded.  We need a strong campaign to stand up for little wildlife areas that are so valuable.  Withouth strong advocacy they will be lost forever.  How tragic would that be?

For more information please see

National Planning Policy Framework
Campaign Against Sprawl
The National Trust
Sussex Wildlife Trust
Save our Woods

Why do I like Autumn?

Autumn.  It is definitely here, with trees changing colour, the mornings and evenings becoming chilly, the nights drawing in and the fruit ripening on the trees.  A lot of people don’t like Autumn and see it as a sad time.  Summer is over.  The weather is getting colder and wetter.  Everything is dying.  Life is preparing to sleep for the winter.  But, here’s a thing:  I love Autumn.  Ever since I was a child, Autumn has been my favourite time of year.  This may well be connected to my birthday in Autumn, but it has always been more than that.  It is at  this time of year, more than any other, that I feel most connected to the natural world.  So, birthday aside, why do I love Autumn so much?

First of all, there are the colours:  glowing reds, oranges, yellows and browns.  The warm colours of the spectrum suddenly erupt.  A huge scream of colour not seen at any other time of year.  My favourite colours, the warm, happy colours.  In dying, leaves reveal their outstanding beauty, hidden in life by chlorophyll.

Then there is the frantic activity:  little creatures bustling and hustling to store up food for the winter.  The birds emerge from their late summer eclipse with new feathers, and a new purpose.  Many are stocking up on food for a long migration.  Swallows swoop low over our meadow, collecting the last few insects before making their way over thousands of miles, some for the first time in their lives.  Fat pheasant and partridge are seen in increasing flocks.  And there are arrivals too:  at the seaside, the waders arrive from the artctic, in the woods, we see the first fieldfares of the season, and the finches arrive to eat thistle seeds in large numbers.  Little rodents make their nests and hibernate: indeed, a little field vole made a lovely nest from chewed cardboard inside the radiator grille of our tractor!

Then there is the harvest:  as a child I absolutely loved “nature study” as it was then called.  Every week we had to find something to take into school to draw, and study.  Autumn was the very best time of year because there was so much to see:  acorns, conkers, sweet chestnuts, beech mast, sycamore seeds, ripe crab apples, rosehips and hawthorn berries, blackberries, the fruit of alder, and a never-ending supply of colourful leaves, as well as the wonderful toadstools that grew in the woods.  Growing up in London, there was little evidence of the agricultural harvest, but that natural harvest was all around.  Now, there is the agricultural harvest to add excitement with tractors, combines, cultivators, balers and other pieces of machinery transforming the countryside in a matter of hours.  It is a very exciting time.  Christmas, Easter…all very nice, but Harvest Festival was always my favourite time of year, even though we didn’t get any presents.

Finally, there are the hints of renewal.  Autumn is not about death, it is a celebration of life, and an abundant life that can find time and energy to make beautiful colours, create delicious fruit for humans and other animals to eat, and best of all, renew itself fresh the following year.  In Autumn we see the beautiful black ash buds forming, and hazel catkins are already forming, as well as the wonderful sticky buds on horse chestnut trees.

It seems to me that Autumn is saying “this has been a great year, but just look what I’m going to do next year!”  To me, Autumn is a time of great bounty, great beauty and great hope.  That is probably why I love it so much.

Nature’s Harvest

The price of food has gone up:  not just the monetary price, but the price that is paid by the planet for its ever-intensive production, and the price paid by farmers who often grow at a loss so that big buyers can make an ever-increasing profit.  But this time of year is a reminder of what is provided by nature, free of charge, if we are willing to take the time to learn what is there, and how to use it.  As well as that, any food that we grow for ourselves is a massive bonus:  fresh, local and free.

So few people seem to be aware that this bounty exists, much less be willing to forage, harvest, preserve and enjoy.  On our last open day, we offered free containers to visitors so that they could pick the huge crop of blackberries at the woods:  there were no takers.  Blackberries are ripening in the hedgerows along the road, along footpaths, by schools and churches, and in waste ground.  In the small park near our house the brambles are heaving with berries, but there is no evidence that any have been picked.  Apples in the community orchard fall to the floor, uneaten.

I have spent the last few weeks digging and foraging and picking.  We have racks of apples grown at the woods.  We have many jars of bramble, crab apple and hedgerow jelly.  Sloes are due to be picked for sloe gin.  I have over 30 jars of tomato chutney on the shelf for our own use, as well as for gifts, and there is more to come.  I have sacks of potatoes.  I have large pumpkins ready to eat and for making jam.  Our crab apple tree is being raided for their brilliant properties in making jams and jellies.  We look forward to the forthcoming crop of parasol mushrooms.  We are preparing to plant some of our garlic to give another crop next year.

The sad fact is that many people really don’t know where food comes from, and are suspicious of any food that doesn’t come with a label telling us what it is, and a use-by date.  Do people eat toast and jam any more?  Do people really prefer eating chemical-laden ketchup in favour of fresh, unadulterated and much-more-delicious chutney?  Are people unsure of their ability to identify a blackberry, never mind what to do with it once picked?  Do people know how to make jam or preserve fruit to last the year round?  Do they need to, given that we can get any fruit all year round, freighted in from around the World.

Nature’s harvest is an annual miracle.  Most of it is a matter of life and death for the birds, insects, spiders and mammals who depend on it, and we leave most of it for them to enjoy.  But we also rejoice in taking a small, sustainable quantity for ourselves.  This food IS free – no price has been paid by farmers forced to sell at a loss, by workers in developing counties living on subsistence wages, or by the environment suffering intensive use of chemicals to allow intensive cultivation.  It is free and it is beautiful.  We hope we are not the last generation to enjoy it.

Stuff, Tribalism and Nature

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We didn’t have any riots at Alvecote Wood, but we all watched them on TV.  Since then there has been a great deal of theory floating around as to why they happened, and a lot of unpleasant language too, full of hate.
So how could people want to destroy their own neighbourhoods, and take stuff from shops?

First of all, there is stuff.  People from all walks of life are brought up with the mindset that stuff is what they should have, is what will make them happy, and is what they are in some way entitled to.  The way in which people acquire stuff varies.  Some people work hard to get money to pay for stuff.  Others make money by illegal means, such as dealing drugs.  Others steal stuff directly, or steal the money to buy it.  Yet others acquire money without working for it, using the money markets which have long since ceased to be the means of raising money to back a business.
And along with the imperative to get more stuff comes the feeling that your stuff must be better than anybody else’s, and thus there is an element of competition:  you are entitled to have more, better stuff than anybody else.  And of course, when you don’t you are disappointed, and tempted to use slightly less than honest means to acquire it:  fiddling expenses, short-selling on stock markets, scamming people by e-mail, shoplifting, picking pockets.  They all amount to the same thing: needing to have more and better stuff than anybody else, and using any means at your disposal to get it.
Then there is language.  The language that has been used in recent days is that of tribalism:  gangs, chavs, looters, thugs on the one hand, and out-of-touch Etonian toffs on the other.  None of these terms is helpful.  None is healing.  None is constructive.  Tribalism manifests itself in many ways in society:  supporting or joining a sports club is one way of expressing the need to belong to a group, or tribe, but there are others, one of which is joining a gang, or the Masons, or any number of other organisations with reputations for good, or bad.  But in joining, and becoming more connected with, one group of people, everybody else in some way becomes an “outsider”.  We all do this.  We all have our own social circle, but it is easy to see in some situations how outsiders can become isolated, hated and reviled.  Gangs hate other gangs, gangs all hate the police, working people hate those on benefits; there is hate between ethnic groups, between different religions, between residents and immigrants, between the haves and have-nots.  And with hate comes blame:  other people, or groups of people, are to blame for the fact that we can’t get better stuff – we hate people who have more stuff than us, while despising those with less.  Disadvantage is an excuse for stealing because it is everybody’s right to have more stuff.
So, we become disconnected from each other and ceased to care about each other.  Blame is contagious.  Everybody wants more at the expense of everybody else.
But of course we haven’t just become disconnected from each other, we have become disconnected from stuff too.  And this is the heart of the problem.  We get stuff without understanding where it comes from, and even more importantly, we get stuff without any consequence other than, perhaps, having to part with some money.  Stuff has become almost effort-free.  We no longer know where our food comes from, our clothes come from, how our homes are built, where our electricity comes from.  Traders on the stock markets no longer invest in companies and then see how they perform: investments are now bets on the future value of something without actually owning anything, or money changing hands, or anybody having an interest in seeing the people behind ventures succeed.  Disconnection from each other, and from where stuff comes from, is a fundamental problem, so how do we start to tackle it?
Well, the woods are a great place to start (I bet you were wondering when I’d get round to mentioning woods!).  In the woods you have almost everything you need to live.  You have materials to make a shelter or home.  You have materials to make fire and cook.  You have materials to hunt your supper.  You have food available to forage.  Everything you do has a consequence:  if you cut down too much wood one year, you won’t have enough the next, if you harvest too much of one thing it won’t set seed and won’t be there next year, if you kill too many rabbits one year, you won’t have enough left to eat the next, if you fail to save seed from your plants, you won’t have a harvest next year.  Nature’s cycles are obvious and apparent, something from which we are now completely divorced in our quest for stuff.
Getting back to the woods and the land is key:  learning where things come from, how they are made, how we ensure there is enough for next year, and years to come; learning about ecology, how living things mesh together in complex inter-dependent webs; learning about where food comes from and how it gets to where we buy it; learning about how clothing is made.  It is not just children who need to learn this – everybody needs to see nature in a new light, and by doing so, will see each other in a new light too.  We are part of nature, and by wanting stuff at the expense of everybody, and everything else, we are ultimately destroying our means of acquiring that same stuff that we scramble to get.  Everybody, from all backgrounds, and all walks of life needs to understand this.  We don’t all have to grow food, or live on the land, or become hunter-gatherers again.  But learning to live by our own efforts, and see the consequences of our actions is vital.
Change won’t happen overnight.  But if we all grew a bit, just a bit, of our own food, and if we all had the chance to learn in a natural environment, then maybe, just maybe, change will happen.  Forest Schools, the Access to Farms initiative, Outward Bounds courses, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, Scouts, Guides, city farms, community food-growing schemes, school farms and gardens all have a part to play and everybody needs to have the opportunity to participate in these initiatives.  Connecting to nature, and through that to each other.  Then, maybe, we can stop hating each other, no matter how much, or how little stuff we have, and start to care about each other, and start to care about nature too.


This year has been an amazing year for butterflies.  I have to confess to being a butterfly enthusiast, bordering on a butterfly nerd.  Growing up, as I did, in the South East of England, I was spoilt during my formative years.  Trips to Box Hill in Surrey gave us the most diverse range of butterflies seen almost anywhere in the UK.  Moving to the midlands, the variety seemed rather limited.

When we got the opportunity to buy our field and create Betty’s Wood, butterflies were very much on our mind.  We were careful to plant butterfly-friendly plants (for nectar but also for the caterpillars), put in bare patches of earth on which butterflies could bask, and try and provide a new site for local butterflies seeking to expand their range.

What we did not expect was for everything to change so quickly.  Almost before any significant plants had emerged on our site, we got brown argus butterflies moving in.  Common blues and brown argus are now present in profusion in our new meadow.  On most warm evenings, there are clouds of butterflies over the meadow:  common blue, brown argus, small copper, meadow brown, gatekeeper, ringlet, small white, large white, green-veined white, brimstone, small tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral, comma, painted lady and speckled wood are seen in the woods and meadow, and the delightful little purple hairstreak stick tantalisingly to the treetops.  Holly blues emerge two or three times a year.  Large, small and Essex skippers are seen, well, skipping across the meadow.  Day-flying burnet and cinnabar moths are also in evidence.

Although we have not yet seen dingy skipper on our meadow, we are hopeful of attracting it, and other species to our site.  If we can make so much progress in a single year, we are pretty confident that in years to come, as trees mature, we will attract other species and add to those recorded on site.

Butterflies are pretty, nobody really doubts that.  But they are also an indicator of the diversity and health of the ecosystem.  Even in this parched year, the diversity of butterflies gives us a clue that we are on the right track with our woods.  More habitats means more species of butterfly, but this means we have more species of plants, and more insects of other types too.  On the basis of those plants and insects come other species too:  birds, bats, and the predators that feed on them.

Pretty butterflies to see and a healthy and diverse ecosystem.  If we have managed to go some way to creating that at Alvecote Wood, we will be pleased.