Visit to a Special Meadow

Burnet in the Meadow

We are working hard to develop our wildflower meadows at Alvecote Wood, but they are immature, and have a long way to go.  Just three years ago the meadow in Betty’s Wood was a field of wheat, and the meadow in the main clearing at Alvecote Wood had not been managed, and had deteriorated to just a few species of grass and wildflowers.  We have an idea what we would like to achieve, but there are very few local examples that we can visit to see what we are aiming for.

So we were very privileged to visit some special meadows this week, courtesy of Richard White from Swan Farm at Grendon, Warwickshire.  We know the farm itself because we purchase our wild bird seed (and bedding for our chickens) from their very good pet and equestrian supplies business.  It is a rare example in this day and age of a mixed farm – livestock (cattle, sheep, geese, turkeys) plus meadows and grain crops for supplementary feed.

Softness of the meadow

What we went to see, though, were the meadows.  These are unimproved meadows, by which I mean that they are not managed by cutting for silage twice yearly, nor are they fertilised.  Instead they are managed in a traditional way, by cutting hay in late summer when the yellow rattle starts to rattle signifying the seeds are mature.  The hay it generates is rich, full of wildflowers, and much sought-after locally as feed for animals.  It is then grazed by cattle, followed by sheep on a low-intensity basis to avoid damage to the ground, and for short periods to avoid build-up of parasites and reducing the need for medication to the animals.  It is a traditional hay meadow, managed in the traditional way, the knowledge of which is sadly dying out as generations of farmers are brought up to think the only way is chemicals, intensive and industrial.

The meadows stretch down between the Coventry Canal and River Anker, and they are unbelievably beautiful places.  First of all, it is obvious that the place is a paradise for wildlife – there are signs all around.  Swallows swooping around the buildings, yellowhammer singing in the hedgerows, skylarks in the air in full song all around, flocks of lapwing wheeling in the sky, small animal tracks through and under the grass, clouds of moths, butterflies and dragon and damselflies.  This is living countryside.

Meadow cranesbill

Some of the plants we recognise from our own meadows, such as yellow rattle, knapweed and birdsfoot trefoil, but others, such as the wonderful patches of burnet (also known as salad burnet, deliciously edible), and meadow cranesbill with their nodding blue heads and glorious luminosity.  The variety of grasses is also significantly higher than ours, and well distributed throughout the meadow in contrast with ours, which seems to be more patchy.

Down by the river, there were literally clouds of banded demoiselle damselflies emerging – all too active to photograph well – and it is clear that the river and its banks are healthy, the river at this point being little more than a stream.  The meadow is so dense it is difficult to walk through, particularly if you are on the short side like me – I had to resort to a kind of goose-step to get around, and that was pretty tiring.  But it was so worth it.

Meadow cransebill

Visiting a place like this is totally inspirational because it shows us where we want to get, and gives us at least an idea of what to aim for, and how to go about it.  At the moment we can’t graze our meadows because the trees are too young and vulnerable, but grazing is obviously the way to go when they get larger.  The habitat is quite similar, and we are hopeful, although it is unlikely that our recently-sown meadows will reach the same level of lush diversity that these meadows, managed traditionally for generations, have done.  That is why these old meadows need to be protected and nurtured – because the replacements are not the same.  We also need to nurture the knowledge of the farmers who can do this, and pass it on, before it has all gone.  It became quite clear while talking to the farmer that this form of traditional farming is economically viable – less intensive, but just as profitable, because careful management of animals and land reduce costs.  Our meadows are for wildlife, and meadows on nature reserves are too.  But what we actually need are more of these working meadows, manged sympathetically and sustainably.  It was a privilege to go there.  I just hope that our great nieces and nephews will, in the fullness of time, be able to visit such places too.  They cannot be allowed to disappear.

Female banded demoiselle

All the photos in this post are available for purchase via SmugMug – just click on the link here.

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?