Irreplaceable means just that…

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

Irreplaceable ancient woodland

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

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

Let’s look at these in more detail.

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

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

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

Offsetting can take place anywhere, with any habitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

New habitat in Betty's Wood

New habitat in Betty’s Wood

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

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

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

An offsetting market is the way to deliver this programme

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

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

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

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

People enjoying Warwickshire Moor Local Nature Reserve

People enjoying Warwickshire Moor Local Nature Reserve


Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

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

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

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

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

Peacock Butterfly

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

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

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

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

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

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

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

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

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.