The value of ponds

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

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

Broad-bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

Female Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

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

Grass Snake

Grass Snake in our ponds

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

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Yellow flag-iris

Yellow flag-iris

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

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

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Hairy Dragonfly

Hairy Dragonfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Cute Coots

Tiny coot chick begging for food

Feed me Mum!

We don’t yet have any coots nesting in our ponds, which are a little bit small for them, so I went for a walk around our local lakes in Stonydelph to see if there were any little coots or ducklings to photograph.  I was lucky.  As well as some coot chicks that are a few days old, a very kind lady pointed me in the direction of some chicks that were newly-hatched.  They were so new that they struggled to stand up.  I watched as they fell over, got up again, and struggled to gain the attention of their parents.  I watched them beg for food, and watched both parents feeding the two chicks with their huge, ungainly feet, and very alternative hairstyles!  They were still drying their little winglets, and using them for balance as they ran along.  It was heartrendingly cute, and it was all I could do to keep quiet and just keep taking the photos.

Here are some amazing family moments with these tiny little chicks.

Tiny coot chick chasing after parent

Wait for me!

Tiny coot chick with huge feet

Seriously big feet

Two tiny coot chicks

Two tiny coot chicks

Two tiny coots

Two tiny coots

Coot chick begging for food

Begging for food

Coot chick begging for food from both parents

Coot chick begging for food from both parents

Tiny little coot chick

Tiny little coot chick

Coot chick

Learning to dance!

Murmurations

Murmuration

Murmuration

As a child, every night, I was able to watch a murmuration of starlings gathering over our local park and coming down to roost in the trees.  Starlings have declined in number to an almost catastrophic extent since then.  They are now a red-listed species – a species of bird that was once considered to be a pest when they gathered in huge numbers in our cities.  And what a wonderful word “murmuration” is!  A perfect description of the wonderful phenomenon of mass flight of starlings at dusk.  I have not seen a murmuration of starlings for many years.

Late afternoon at Middleton Lakes

Late afternoon at Middleton Lakes

Dusk at Middleton Lakes

Dusk at Middleton Lakes

So it was that I set out with my friend yesterday to the RSPB reserve at Middleton Lakes to follow up a report of a murmuration of starlings seen there the night before.  The weather was quite cold, but mercifully dry and relatively sunny with beautiful light over the wetland pools and reed beds.  There were plenty of mallard, black-headed gull and pheasant, and smaller numbers of teal, coot, heron, egret and tufted duck.  Small birds seen included the great tit, blue tit, coal tit, chaffinch, robin, wren and blackbird.

The murmuration starts to form..

The murmuration starts to form..

As dusk approached a few starlings would begin to fly over.  Groups of four or six, sometimes ten, and then thirty starlings would wheel over and disappear.  A larger group then arrived, joined with another group to make a formation of about 300 starlings, which then disappeared towards Kingsbury Water Park to our south.  We wondered if that was it, when a haze started to appear on the horizon and a much larger group arrived.  More groups, large and small, came in from all directions.  Suddenly there were about 3000 starlings, wheeling and swooping close to us, then peeling off and crossing the water towards the reed beds.  We thought they were going to roost, but they rose up again, and the display continued.

Murmuration

Murmuration

Murmuration

Murmuration starts to roost

Then, as suddenly as it started, a small strand of starlings began to fall down from the base of the flock, and in a few seconds they had all disappeared to roost in the reed beds.  A few stragglers came in and went straight to roost.  And it was over.  The first murmuration I have seen in years.  It was not the huge gathering of hundreds of thousands of birds sometimes seen at the coast, or the Somerset Levels, but it was impressive, beautiful and wild.  It is definitely worth visiting RSPB Middleton Lakes, be it to see the murmuration of starlings or simply to enjoy the scenery and the birds.  I will definitely be going back there.

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