Who will fight for nature in future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Independence Review

Ash dieback and Alvecote Wood

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