Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

Fertility – Less or More?

June 22, 2012

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:

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I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.

Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock

March 5, 2012

(#1)

It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures who lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet. I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story. Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally ID’d the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Oh shit… Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours so I didn’t have to get too worried in the end, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson #1 - Respect the plants! Spend enough time to be able to ID them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out Burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out 2nd year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. (The plant is biennial – forming a rosette and taproot in the first year, hibernating through the winter, then lunging back upwards in its second summer with huge leaves and flowerstalk before going to seed and dying back in the autumn – and the best time to harvest the root is during the first autumn or second spring when most of the energy is still underground.) It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in that second image, my sometime banner photo for this site), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places, especially along roads for some reason (probably having to do with water run-off and heat absorption by the dark tarmac). My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. Even if some degree of respect lay in the simple, very personal act of expending work calories in exchange for the carb storehouses they had established (which would then fuel more work calories…) – couldn’t a bankrobber make the same claim in defense of his actions? Just because you could do something, it didn’t necessarily follow that you should. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson #2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily. Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance† and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct. Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen (has anybody else come across this? I did find it on youtube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me) Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson #3 - Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die and the loan these others have given to you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, Sarah has suggested making a tincture or vinegar from Burdock and Mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel & fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early Ramsons and baby Nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

(Note the shiny, darker green leaves of Lords and Ladies in the top right of the picture.) I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench.

The digging stick did most of the work in loosening the soil for me to scoop out with my hands, but there were several tree roots that impeded my progress and the hole started to get too deep for convenience. I think a long-handled fork would have sped things up considerably. In the end I think it took me 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to get more-or-less to the bottom of the three roots and pull up the best part of them.

It was hard, sweaty work! A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up after. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers Burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? Hopefully the above writing should make it clear why I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

(Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡) Anyway, luckily they didn’t seem to mind, and appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank Burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future:

Can you tell anyone’s been there? It occurred to me that loosening the soil in this way would ease the growth of any new plants germinating either from the seeds or the remaining chunks of root. In time, if I continued to frequent the patch, digging up a few plants here & there maybe every other year, my activities would change the growing conditions for that whole plant community, perhaps leading to larger, fatter roots or more vigorous above-ground growth. A low-key form of cultivation that would truly tie my well being to the plant’s existence (as Kat Anderson would have it), taking the form of a mutually beneficial longterm relationship. Anti-social, my arse!

Back home, after a couple of days I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so:

(Note the dark ‘ring’ in the cross-section, which I’m guessing marks the end of the first year’s growth as it does in trees.) The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…) The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell at the same time earthy and musty that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. Like it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, more bland when cooked. I slice it at an angle to get bigger chunks and make chewing easier, as the fibres get tough and stringy length-wise, given half a chance (although I’ve seen a recipe that called for ‘julienne’-style matchsticks).

There’s a fourth lesson Burdock has played a part in teaching me, having to do with those greed-swollen eyes I was talking about, but I’ll tell you about that some other time. It has to do with Civilisation’s love affair with carbs and the kind of work they, uniquely, can provide the fuel for. Suffice it to say I’ve grown disenchanted with simply attempting to find alternative kinds of food to feed the slave classes…

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. I’ll report back in a month or so about how I get on with the vinegar infusion. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.

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* – Psalm 73

† – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references are springing to mind – maybe because it’s Lent?)

‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’ See also Banksy’s comments on advertising, where he writes:

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

(which strikes me as an appropriate attitude towards most landowners) … and finally Umair Haque’s handy little saying: ‘If you want to live an empty life, follow the rules.’ (thanks Vanessa)

Forests Revisited

April 22, 2011

I’ve been reading Marion Shoard’s excellent 1987 offering, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for Britain’s Countryside, and thought I would share a few passages that particularly struck me as part of a broader effort to find out where I stand on the issue of preserving and/or expanding woodland cover on the British Isles and, presuming the desirability of this outcome, how best to go about this. I’m not sure how much of the information she provides applies directly to the present situation (for example, I get the impression the Forestry Commission isn’t as keen on pine plantations now as she makes out they were back then) but the analysis still seems largely relevant and, for me, it provided a useful and interesting historical perspective on how these issues have developed over the decades.

After criticising 38 Degrees for their lack of ‘nuance’, it seems my plea of basically indiscriminate expansion of forest cover (as I put it to the local MP: ‘It seems insane to allow +any+ possibility of renewed impoverishment in this regard’ – ibid.) failed to take longstanding politics of land ownership into account. I was surprised and chastened to read Shoard’s description of afforestation as a disaster for both human and non-human communities, at least the way it has been carried out over the past century. It didn’t occur to me that my entirely reasonable desire to reverse the drastic deforestation of this land over the centuries and millennia might play further into the hands of those primarily responsible for the damage:

[I]f agriculture does at some stage in the future prove less profitable than it is now, landowners can be expected to switch their effort deftly into another sphere which will allow them to secure their age-old goals. One such sphere already suggests itself. This is forestry. Minister of Agriculture Michael Jopling prophesied in 1986, ‘If surplus agricultural production throughout the European Community is to be reduced – as it must – then I see forestry as offering perhaps the most promising alternative use for land which may no longer be required for agricultural production.’69 The NFU proposed in 1986 that one and a quarter million acres of farmland in England and Wales – 4.6 per cent of the total – should be turned over to forestry during a twenty-five year period through annual income supplements from the taxpayer of £50 million.70 At the same time, the organisations that lobby on behalf of forestry have been energetically considering the various forms which lowland forestry might take and calling for an array of new government grants to support it. For instance, farmers might sell some of their land to forestry companies. Or, they might retain ownership and shift production from crops to trees concentrated in plantations. Or, they could combine forestry with cash-cropping of cereals and livestock on the same establishment. If forestry does come to play a bigger role in the lowlands it will bring with it an array of implications for the rest of the community which upland Britain already knows all too well. (p.205)

[...]

Altogether, 90 square miles of the land of Great Britain, much of it bare moor and glen like Glen Ample, were afforested in the year ending 31 March 1986.71 Four per cent of this new planting consisted of broad-leafed trees; the remaining 96 per cent conifers. While the government agency for forestry, the Forestry Commission, carried out one fifth of the new planting, the private sector was responsible for the remaining eighty-one square miles of new planting. During the sixty years up to 1986, the planting of new forests in Britain proceeded at the average rate of about 41,000 acres a year; the result is new planting of around 2.7 million acres, the vast amount of it coniferous.72 And there is much, much more to come.

Imagine an area the size of Kent, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire combined: 3 million acres in all. This is the area that will be covered in new plantations by the middle of the next century if the plans of the Government and the Forestry Commission are fulfilled. In 1980, the Government gave an essentially open-ended commitment to the expansion of forestry. The then Secretary of State for Scotland and Forestry Minister, George Younger MP, told the House of Commons that new planting (as opposed to the restocking of existing forests) should continue at broadly the rate of the past quarter century, but with the private sector playing a greater part than hitherto.73 On this basis an extra 3 million acres of Britain’s land will be under forest by the year 2031. As no absolute limit has been set on the ultimate target area for planting, and as applications for grants from the private sector for new planting have essentially been given on demand, the figure could rise higher still. If past trends are anything to go by, the vast forest that will blanket most of Britain’s uplands by the middle of the next century will not have room for many broad-leafed trees. Britain’s foresters prefer to plant conifers because they grow quicker and provide faster returns than the traditional broad-leafed species of Britain like oak, beech, birch, hornbeam, ash, maple and lime. The species most often planted over the past half-century have been Norway and Sitka spruce, larch, Scots, Corsican and Lodgepole pine. Eighty-five per cent of the Commission’s own forests are conifer; and in 1986, more than 95 per cent of the area of private planting in Great Britain consisted of conifers. An appealing prospect for our grandchildren? Certainly an appealing financial prospect for the men, women and companies engaged in a mad scramble to afforest what remains of Britain’s wild country outside the food factories. (pp.207-9)

It might also lead to more ecological destruction and loss of biodiversity:

Apart from sharing a common reliance on photosynthesis, modern forestry has little to do with the ancient practice of harvesting naturally growing trees as they reach maturity. Like modern agriculture, modern forestry takes little more account of the natural environment than does an engineering factory on an industrial estate.

In the past, woodland was not cleared and replanted wholesale every few decades. Nature’s bounty was literally plucked from the forest. Foresters took advantage of the ability of trees to live for ever. Normally, they coppiced or pollarded trees, only occasionally felling them whole. This meant that the ground vegetation of the woods was never radically disturbed. The coppicing and pollarding actually increased the diversity of the wild plants and minibeasts of the woodland floor by letting in more light. What is more, since traditional woodland management relied on nature, it revolved around naturally-occurring tree species. In one area maple would dominate, in another lime, in others elm, hazel, oak, beech or ash, or, in the highest mountains of Scotland and Wales, Scots pine.

Modern forestry, by contrast, imposes its own environment. First, the trees of any existing deciduous wood are felled and the stumps bulldozed out or poisoned to prevent regeneration. The ground is then usually ploughed to a depth of eighteen to twenty-nine inches and the new crop, which is almost always a conifer species, planted. Herbicides suppress any plants that might compete with the saplings while fertilizers force the speed of tree growth to the maximum possible rate. The impact of all this on the ecosystem not only of what was once an upland hillside but also of what was once a deciduous wood is almost as devastating as if the land had been cleared to make way for a barley field or a motorway. (p.216)

To my credit, I did make the point in my original analysis that ‘we still have to ask what kind of woodland’ gets introduced through the process of afforestation. Be careful what you ask for… Shoard continues on the subject of ancient woodland:

Many of the woods that have been the subject of post-war coniferization have been not simply old-established deciduous woods but woods whose origins go back thousands of years to the time before Man himself appeared in Britain. They are the remnants of the post-Ice-Age forest cover – the ancient woodlands. One result of the gradual evolution of these woods over thousands of years is that the mixture of tree species varies even from one part of the wood to another. An expert on ancient woodlands Dr Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University explained the unique value of ancient woodlands to a Commons Committee in 1980:

Ancient woods are of value not only for their tree assemblages but also for their communities of herbaceous plants … In Eastern England more than fifty such species have been listed, including Primula elatior (the oxlip), Anemone nemorosa (the wood anemone), Euphorbia amygdaloides (wood spurge) and Carex pallescens (pale sedge), besides trees and shrubs such as Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime) and Crataegus laevigata (two-styled hawthorn). These are a characteristic and irreplaceable part of ancient woodland. Woods are part of our cultural history as well as of our native vegetation. A medieval wood, with its boundary bank and other earthworks, ancient coppice stools, and soil profiles and landforms undisturbed by cultivation, is a record of our environment and civilization as complex and as irreplaceable as a medieval church.79

Leicestershire and Pembrokeshire, Lincolnshire and Gwynedd, Somerset, Clywd and Cornwall – all these counties share the tragic distinction of having lost around half their ancient woodland over the last fifty years according to Nature Conservancy Council figures.80 Cropland or conifer plantation has been the most common fate of the land involved. While Surrey, north Cumbria, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire have lost slightly less of their ancient woodland – around 40 per cent each – in several counties, notably Gwent, Shropshire and Northamptonshire, landowners have seen fit to clear away well over 60 per cent of the county’s ancient woodland during the last fifty years.

Though conifers may yield financial dividends, they spell wholesale losses for wildlife. Fir is the food plant for only sixteen different insect species – compared to the 284 that live on the bountiful oak. The range of creatures that prey on insects – and of the creatures that prey on them – is similarly denuded. It is not only the conifers themselves which are less attractive to wildlife. They shelter far fewer secondary plants, like hazel, holly, rowan, elder, willow, spindle, dogwood or guelder rose. There are usually fewer climbers such as ivy, clematis and honeysuckle, and the trunks and branches are home to few mosses and lichens. (pp.216-8)

So in principle I still see the value in protecting & preserving ancient woodlands into perpetuity, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever been in one of these designated woodlands, so have no direct experience of their quality when compared to, say, the wooded areas of a nearby common which was largely treeless grazing/quarry/barren scrub land until midway through the last century. On that note, our friend Mark Fisher wrote the most ‘nuanced’ piece I’ve yet seen on this subject back in February: ‘England’s Public Forest Estate – public ownership now and for future generations‘. Apparently the government line (and mine – oops!) that the Forestry Commission only ‘own’ 18% of UK woodland doesn’t tell the whole story:

While it is reasonably common knowledge that the forest cover in continental Europe is much higher than the 8.7% of England, I think many will be surprised at the high extent of public ownership in Europe compared to the 30.8% in public ownership in England (6). There may even be surprise at that percentage in England, because the figure most bandied about of late is just the 18% that is owned by the Forestry Commission (FC). As I know to my benefit, because they give me great pleasure where I live, 6% of England’s woodlands are owned by local authorities and the balance of the difference is owned by other public bodies.

In contrast to Shoard’s complaints about ‘dark and forbidding timber factor[ies]‘ which ‘strike a chill into lowland landscapes’ and, in ‘impenetrable blocks [...] continue to march over Britain’s hills and moors, obliterating their wild, open character’ Fisher emphasises the importance that even ‘low-grade’ plantations can have to local people with no other options for woodland access:

Working with Forest Neighbours to defend Gibb Torr from deforestation by the local Wildlife Trust, I came to understand why people liked this conifer plantation woodland awash in a massive sea of moorland in Staffordshire (The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr (10). They could see unambiguously the wildlife value it has, especially birdlife, and which the Wildlife Trust ignores for its own choice of creating even more moorland! I saw the wildlife tracks myself, and stumbled over an astonishing drift of orchids deep in its centre. What would happen to these? It is one of those situations where a conifer plantation is the only woodland that local people have, and thus also the only woodland available for woodland wildlife in the area.

He notes the failure of charities and established environmental groups, including the Woodland Trust, to meaningfully oppose the FC sell-off, suggesting they may be out of touch with the causes of public concern:

Save Our Woods, one of the many national campaign groups that have blossomed, pointed to the lack of integration across the broad spectrum of land based interests by those that were meant to be representative of the public voice (27):
“…the large NGOs were very slow to publish their stance or even realise their stance, thus showing a lack of knowledge and certainly a loss of touch with the public and even their members which was quickly criticised by several within and on the periphery of landscape and natural heritage issues”

I would just highlight a few as they relate to Hurn’s forests, and Chopwell Wood.

Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, wrote in the Guardian (28):
“I can’t honestly get really worked up about who owns the small wood down the road from me whose main function is to grow trees for the timber market”

Many of those “ugly industrial conifer forests” that Avery would sell off (29) are what local people are attached to, because that is what is in many cases the local woodland with open access that they have come to enjoy, and it is often the only woodland in the landscape for woodland species. They don’t want to be patronised by Avery or the RSPB in what they should value about their woodland, especially when the prejudice against them is mostly about their undoubted wildlife not being what is valued by organisations like RSPB or Avery. Moreover, the RSPB/Avery would exert their usual pressure for deforestation to open heathland habitat if there was the slightest chance of just one more Dartford warbler (30). This is not what the people of Hurn want to hear.

It seems clear to me that a local relationship of human communities to the ecology – whether forest, heath, moor or any other landscape type – should be the primary locus of decision-making and the starting point for any discussion of the loaded and potentially dangerous question of how to ‘improve’ the environment.


(Bluebells in Glovers Wood, Charlwood, ‘owned’ by the Woodland Trust – their page of info)

Mark Well – The State, The Forests, & The State Of The Forests

December 4, 2010

So, the Con-Dems have announced that they are going to sell the forests they ‘own’* (through the Forestry Commission) to private, I assume mostly profit-making, companies. To get you up to speed:

Info that stood out to me from the above:

1) – 72% of UK woodland is already in private ownership – the FC only ‘own’ 18%.

2) – Total UK woodland cover has gotten more extensive over the last century – from 4% in 1919 to 12% currently. This compares to 33% (EcoEarth ibid.) – 44% (Woodland Trust) for the European average†. However, we still have to ask what kind of woodland…

[...] only a small proportion of [the UK landscape's 12% woodland cover], around 40 per cent, is native woodland.

Ancient woodland, land which has been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD and is our closest link with the original wildwood, now covers only 2 per cent* of the UK’s land area.

(*This varies from 4.2 per cent in Scotland to 3.2 per cent in Wales, 2.45 per cent in England and less than 0.1 per cent in Northern Ireland.)

Sadly, nearly 50 per cent of the ancient woodland that survived until the 1930s has since been lost or damaged by agriculture, development or planting by non-native conifers for commercial forestry. (Woodland Trust, ‘Why has woodland in the UK declined?’ – ibid.)

Further, the 2% of ancient woodland land area splits into the categories of ‘Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland’ (ASNW) which ‘is composed of native tree species that have not obviously been planted’ and ‘Planted Ancient Woodland Sites’ (PAWS) – ‘ancient woods in which the former tree cover has been replaced, often with non-native trees’ (Wikipedia). So it isn’t clear how much – if any – woodland has survived the onslaught of the agricultural/industrial culture in this country over the last 6,000 years; how much of it in any way resembles its previous form.

3) – 75% of wood used (‘consumed’) in the UK is imported from abroad.

On 1) I suppose the issue is that, in theory, the public can exercise rights of access on government-owned land, whereas doing so on private land would involve jumping a few fences and operating outside the law (policemen backing up property ‘rights’ with force). I’m waiting to hear back from the FC about what percentage of their land is actually open to the public. This snippet suggests not all of it, but that there might at least be the possibility of some legal redress:

The commission, says Lees ['recreation and public affairs manager' for the FC in SW England], now aims to make as much of its woodland accessible to the public as possible. In fact, it is obliged to; the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 ensures the public can walk freely on mapped areas. (link)

(Of course, if you consider the law unjust or that those dictating its terms have no legitimacy, then you can declare it irrelevant and go about your business as you please. However, I would advise you to do so either invisibly or in numbers substantial enough to ward off attacks from dedicated enforcers…‡)

2) feels like waters receding before a tidal wave, explained by 3) – as I guessed before timber companies currently find it more economical to operate abroad for the usual reasons of lax regulations, greater abundance of exploitable ‘resources’, and the cheap energy (oil) which allows them to ship their products (the carcasses of trees) to any receptive market, no matter how far away. Another Guardian article informs us that ‘[b]oth the Thatcher and Major governments tried to privatise the Forestry Commission in the 1980s and 1990s but failed following intense pressure from conservation groups and lack of interest by industry’ – funny how the successes of environmentalists always seem to coincide with industry disinterest in this way… How long are things going to stay that way though? The article mentions that:

[...]land has become more valuable, not just for timber but for providing “environmental services” such as flood control, climate change measures and amenity.

In England the commission is subsidised by £30m a year, but generates an additional £63m a year in income. A government economic study released earlier this year calculated that it provides £2,100 in value per hectare per year if benefits such as erosion protection, pollution absorption, carbon sequestration, health provision are included. (ibid.)

… and we have similar barf-inducement from the RSPB spokesman talking about ‘our natural capital’ – all of which views the environment as a subsidiary of the capitalist economy (it’s the other way round), and assumes that the best way to preserve something is to put a price tag on it. For the moment the industrialists aren’t acting too impressed:

Prices today reflect a very different market, says Clegg ['senior partner at John Clegg that handles the sale of about two-thirds of the woods sold in the UK each year']: “High-quality broadleaf woodland is the most valuable. A small, southern England wood costs about £10,000 an acre. Whereas, in Northumberland, a large commercial forest larger than 100 acres might expect to fetch £1,750-£3,000 an acre. Consider that farmland is currently worth £4,000-£6,000 an acre and many might see planting trees as a way to devalue your land, even with the subsidies available. It’s very hard work to make a forest commercially viable. And, perversely, it’s a real struggle to get planning permission to plant a new forest.

“Back in the 1980s when the tax relief was available, we had about 23,000 acres being planted a year. So the idea – as has been suggested this week – that someone will want to buy, say, the New Forest for commercial reasons just isn’t viable. It’s just not a commercial proposition. And even the major overseas buyers are not going to be interested, because our forests are just too small for them to consider. The biggest forests that typically come on the market today are worth no more than £500,000. Even talk of their future value as ‘carbon sinks’ [forests commercially maintained due to their tradable worth as absorbers of carbon dioxide] is hugely overrated. There is lots of talk at the moment about the ‘carbon rights’ of forests, but it is still a really undefined market in this country. I can’t think of a sale yet where we’ve put a value on the carbon rights.” (ibid.)

… but give it a few years and they might be talking differently, especially if, by then, the land is already out of notional public ownership, and higher import prices start to make ‘indigenous resources’ look more attractive…

Meanwhile, I read in last week’s SchNEWS an example of what happens to Our Precious Ancient Woodland even before the proposed sell-off:

In 2009, West Sussex County Council granted permission to Northern Petroleum to test drill for oil in the ancient woodland at Markwells Wood, near Chichester (see SchNEWS 631).

The firm reckons it has uncovered a stash of between 35 and 61 million barrels of joy beneath the wood and has now decided to start bringing in heavy equipment and begin drilling.

The firm’s boss announced: “The commercial case for drilling Markwells Wood is compelling when the price level of oil is above $80 per barrel.” i.e. At $80 a pop that’s some haul with a street value in the billions. Yee-haw!

My rule: Ignore what they say; look at what they do and the priorities become clear. Some more media reports:

And more take-away info:

1) Northern Petroleum plan to fell 1 hectare (approx. 2.5 acres) of PAWS woodland in an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and ‘England’s newest National Park’ – the South Downs.

2) Onshore drilling in the UK is becoming more ‘commercially viable’ (ie: attractively profitable) since North Sea oil passed its peak in 2009 and imports are getting more expensive. Only 1.5% of the 1.6 million barrels of oil extracted every day from UK territory comes from onshore wells, but 97 new licences for oil/gas exploration were granted in 2008, compared to just 8 five years previously.

3) The council doesn’t even own the land, and, unless there are undisclosed kickbacks (Daily Mail commenter ‘Pete, UK’ has a ‘good friend who works for a council planning department’ who says that ‘back handers are rife in the planning process’ – good enough for me ;) ), the profits get split 50:50 between the oil company and the central government treasury, leaving locals with the questionable benefits of  temporary, transient ‘jobs in the haulage and service maintenance sector’ (the best NP could come up with).

I followed the link in the second BBC article to the Chichester District Council Planning Commitee Report of May ’08 (PDF) which declares a ‘clear and overriding need for oil exploration’, backing this up with referrals to the ‘National Minerals Policy’ and their own ‘Development Plan Policies’ (1 – ‘Promote competitive markets in the UK and beyond’, 2 – ‘Maximise the potential of the UK’s conventional oil and gas reserves in an environmentally acceptable manner’ and 3 – ‘Maintain the reliability of energy supplies’) before quoting this piss-weak justification repeatedly in the subsequent text, as if they’ve made an adequate case.

See if you can make sense of this paragraph:

The loss of ancient woodland should not be permitted unless the need for, and benefits of the development in that location outweigh the loss of the woodland habitat also taking into account the habitat/amenity value of that woodland. The need for the development is clear. [Because we say so.] The benefits of the development in this location are two fold; achieving acceptable noise levels at sensitive receptors and excellent natural screening. Although there is a clear desire to retain ancient woodland it is considered that, given the visual/amenity benefits of siting the development therein, measures proposed to retain ancient features where possible, restoration to structured woodland, substantial compensatory woodland/hedgerow planting, and the relatively limited quality of the woodland, its loss is acceptable. (p.3)

Have they really decided to cut down an ancient woodland because it is surrounded by trees?? Also, ‘its loss is acceptable’ – disturbing, huh? Acceptable to you, maybe…

Point 8.3 really scrapes the barrel:

Exploration wells are an invaluable source of data on the sub-surface geological structure of Britain and greatly extend our knowledge of the nation’s resources.

A knowledge which will be used … to extract more resources!

Neither Natural England or the Environment Agency raised any objections to these plans, only ‘conditions’ about groundwater pollution (4.8), ‘mitigation measures’ for ‘badger protection, reptile relocation and bat boxes’ (11.6) and soil and subsoil being ‘permanently retained on site and used in restoration’ (Appendix 1.18).  Objections to the loss of ancient woodland were raised by the Woodland Trust (4.20), the South Downs Joint Committee (4.22) and the West Sussex County Council ‘Landscape’ (who also raised concerns about ‘setting a precedent’ – 4.12) and ‘Ecology’ (4.14) consultees, but it’s not clear if they plan to do anything about it after having their views noted and ignored. Like Jeff Buckley sang: ‘We know you’re useless like cops at the scene of the crime’. Practically the first thing you learn about ancient woodland is that it takes centuries to mature, and you can’t kill the trees, scoop out the soil and expect it to grow back the way it was before.

I find it all very depressing. The word ‘need’ or ‘needs’ comes up 46 times in the 32-page document, most of which instances refer at base to the ‘need’ of the agrarian/industrial/capitalist/civilised economy to bleed the Earth dry of all materials useful for its project of neverending expansion. You could more honestly substitute the word with ‘want(s)’, ‘desire(s)’ or ‘demand(s)’. I’m reminded of the husband’s traditional ‘need’ (in patriarchal societies) for sexual gratification, with or without his wife’s consent. Lianne at ‘We Left Marks’ points out that the estimated 35 million barrels of oil under Markwells Wood ‘would only last the country just over three weeks at our current rate of consumption’, and puts the news in the context of Peak Oil (crucial background which mainstream media still don’t provide), asking the multi-billion-dollar question:

Is it worth destroying a hectare of ancient woodland to get at? Well Northern Petroleum says it is. But I would question the long-term usefulness of energy companies (though admittedly their long-term logic tends to defer to short-term profitability) and government continuing to focus upon energy-intensive and harder-to-acquire sources, like tar sands or Iraq’s oil fields, when we could be getting ahead of the game.

‘Northern Petroleum says it is’ – quite. Do we** agree with them? Do we agree with the law which ‘allows exploration for valuable minerals such as oil even in national parks if the potential benefits outweigh the destruction caused’ (Daily Mail, ibid.) – a totally subjective judgement? I for one don’t buy the argument that ‘they’re just giving us what we want’; I think the Resource Extractors in effect force us into dependency on their products through the large scale of their operations, which rapidly inundate any alternatives. Refusal to buy the product (eg: trains, roads/cars, computers, mobile phones, and the raw materials from which these are built) becomes a tactic relegated to ‘eccentrics’ and ‘misanthropes’ on the margins of society, once the product is common enough to form a social ‘expectation’. And if it’s there, you may as well use it, right? Or, as George Monbiot put it: ‘if fossil fuels are extracted, they will be used’ – supply generates demand. His solution? ‘Leave [them] in the ground’.

The SchNEWS crew hope for ‘a Sussex rabble yet to make the whole project go a little less smoothly’ (ibid.), and that’s something I’d like to see too. However, to really ignite opposition I think we need better reasons than the ones given by conservationists. It comes back to the fundamental problem: we don’t depend on the forests for our survival. Therefore you can talk all you want about recreation, environmental ‘services’, mental health benefits, etc. – ultimately we’re farming people: our (not-so-)livelihoods come from cutting the trees down and planting rows of grain where they once stood. The ‘natural capitalists’ have a point in a way – our culture perceives value in terms of £££s, so if we see no value in the woods; if we prize the minerals underneath them more than the living communities on the surface, then they are doomed. It’s an old, sad story which Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (PDF):

Like most indigenous cultures, theirs [the 'Gaelic speaking Celts''] developed through a long and close connection to land. The early Scots saw the lives of trees interlocked with their own. Whether innate or hard-won, they perfected a balanced, reciprocal relationship with forest, and took from it knowing their own health depended on its preservation. Highland historian James Hunter believes their environmental awareness was unique, predating any other in Europe by hundreds of years.

With the coming of the English and the Industrial Revolution everything changed. Sixteenth century England was hungry for wood. Empire building had depleted their forests, and as English woodsmen worked their way north, into the Highlands, they brought with them not only axes, but a profoundly different philosophy of nature—a view aggressively and breathtakingly anthropomorphic, a view that pictured everything on earth as intended for “the benefit and pleasure of man,” and untamed woodland as something to be feared, exploited, and, if necessary, erased. Literature of the time bristled with references to “degenerated nature,” the “deformed chaos” of woodland, and odes to trees far different from those of the Celts:

…haughty trees, that sour
The shaded grass, that weaken thorn-set mounds
And harbour villain crows…

The English saw, in the Highlands, not only land darkened with trees, but incivility. They called the native Highlanders “savages” (from the Latin root silva, meaning forest), and their trees “an excrescence of the earth, provided by God for the payment of debts.” Through the axe, the Highlands and its people were to be cleansed of chaos and shown the path to culture. (via)

We know the corporate/government priorities – what will we allow to shape ours? I’m going to direct my energies toward developing a co-dependent relationship (based variously on food, medicine, fuel & building materials, as well as space to walk, recuperate and ‘commune’) with the woods that remain. For your own good I suggest you do the same.

My comment on the ‘save our forests’ petition (which I signed, with a few misgivings):

Nobody can ‘own’ land, but some peoples’ delusions that they do can bring about more destruction than others’. Especially the psycopaths (whose ‘personhood’ the law recognises) we know as corporations.

The land gives us life. Kill it and we kill ourselves.

————————-

* – of course nobody can ‘own’ land. I remember this quote from Crocodile Dundee:

Well, you see, Aborigines don’t own the land.They belong to it. It’s like their mother. See those rocks? Been standing there for 600 million years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns them is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on. (link)

Also, another Jensenism: land ownership exists only as a collective delusion, backed up by force and/or the threat of force. Nobody really owns any land, just pieces of paper which we all agree means they do.

† – the FC’s ‘Forestry Facts & Figures 2010‘ (PDF) give 37% for the EU, which goes up to 45% if Russia’s 49% forest coverage is included (Table 14). They agree on the UK’s 12% overall coverage.

**Update** – the FC’s David Edwards pointed me to these pages which refer to total accessible woodland in the UK, regardless of ownership (figures gathered by ‘Woods For People‘, a Woodland Trust project). The 73% ‘accessibility for recreation’ in the UK’s ‘total forest area’ (2005) from the first page appears to have been revised downwards to 49% (2004, 2009) because the results ‘were based in part on total land areas, rather than woodland areas’ (link – table, note 2). So about half, then. The second page provides an interesting footnote to the CRoW issue:

Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, most state woodland in England and Wales has been dedicated, but access to private woodland is permissive, not a legal right. In Scotland, the Land Reform Act 2003 gives a statutory right of responsible access, which in principle applies to almost all woodland [...] even if there are considerable access difficulties in practice.

For FC-owned woodland, I eventually tracked down these informative paragraphs from the results (PDF) to  the Woodland Trust’s 2004 ‘Space For People‘ report:

Role of the public forest estate

The public forest estate, owned and/or managed by the Forestry Commission in Great Britain and Forest Service in Northern Ireland, is crucially important for access across the UK. The Forestry Commission’s estate (by area) as a proportion of all accessible woodland is: England 66 per cent, Scotland 86 per cent and Wales 91 per cent. In Northern Ireland over 90 per cent of accessible woodland (by area) is Forest Service estate. Any proposed rationalisation of, or changes to, the status of the public forest estate could be potentially disastrous unless it is recognised that existing access should be protected, through binding agreements.

Role of the private woodland owner

Space for People demonstrates the deficit in accessible woods near to where people live and the extent to which this deficit can be offset by opening existing woods to the public. There is clearly a need to look more widely than publicly owned woods. Much of the available woodland is privately owned and is not currently permissively open to the public. If it were, the situation would be transformed. For example, if all privately owned woodland in England were accessible, the percentage of the population with access to a 20-hectare wood within 4 kilometres would increase from 55 per cent to 82 per cent. The corresponding figures for the other countries are: Wales 72 per cent to 98 per cent, Scotland 54 per cent to 95 per cent and Northern Ireland 50 per cent to 66 per cent. (p.22)

Phew! So I think I’m right in saying that if the FC sell off half of their land as proposed, and assuming all the private buyers put up fences and signs saying ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’, We The Public could lose legal access to between 33 (England) and 45.5 per cent (Wales) of the already minimal woodland coverage which landowners have granted us permission to visit.

** – sorry about all the ‘we’s – my inner propagandist wants to spread his views & attitudes!

‘Austerity Countryside’ – Correspondence with Mark Fisher

September 14, 2010

Looking back at the various things I’ve written over the years I notice that a lot of the best stuff went into email and other written conversations with other people; the ideas discussed often never making it into public expression in these soapbox blogposts. The style of writing is also somehow freer, more direct and easy-flowing, even though I still spend lengthy periods preparing and crafting my responses. You also get a truer snapshot into whatever processes the correspondents were going through at the time, without the fear of making embarrassing trip-ups in the public eye… At least until some shmuck decides to publish them ;) At least until recently didn’t people pay good money to read the letters of men & women they admired? Put your deep conversations up into the public sphere!

Recently I’ve been corresponding with Mark Fisher, who has a website called ‘Self-Willed Land: Advocacy for Wild Land and Nature‘. I got in touch originally because I was looking for a sane analysis of the implications of the UK government’s proposed 40% cuts to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which threaten to sell off some of the National Nature Reserves (NNRs) to private, profit-oriented companies. I thought his response merited a wider audience, so I reproduce it here with his permission. Check out the Guardian link first if you haven’t already heard the story.

*****

Hello Mark

Long-time-reader-first-time-writer. I’m struggling with what to make of these new ‘budget cuts for the environment’. Here’s the Guardian article a friend showed to me with the warning ‘prepare to be outraged’, but I found myself strangely unmoved by the mainstream Greens quoted in the text. Sample from the statement sent to the government by ’25 leading conservation groups’:

Reedbeds are dry and clogged with brambles; heathlands have vanished as scrub begins to take over. Wetlands have dwindled and rivers and canals have become clogged by invasive plants which threaten native species. The loss of money for wildlife-friendly farming has seen farmland birds resume their slide into extinction.

Then there was the usual bullshit towards the end about why we should care for the environment because it’s good for the economy (failing to recognise that an agricultural society is diametrically opposed to biodiversity practically by definition)… ‘You may well save a few pounds now but you will lose billions later’ – don’t these people know there’s a war on?? Don’t they understand the first thing about extractive ‘civilised’ economies? Pick a side already, Ahmed Djoghlaf!

I guess I’m fairly ignorant of the work these groups have done in the past and of the ‘successes’ they had thanks to their funding. I remembered you writing about the maintenance of heathland as an irrational, destructive process in some areas, and wondered whether other aspects of this kind of ‘conservation’ would be missed. I understand that privatisation has been a nightmare in every sector the Thatcherites and Blairites have introduced it over the last few decades. I just don’t bridle the way I’m supposed to when hearing about the Nightmare Takeover of brambles, scrub and invasive species. Can you help me articulate this different perspective?

Finally, assuming you do see a problem with these cuts, can you suggest a good way to fight them or point me toward any groups doing so in a non-capitulatory/compromising manner? The Guardian has been characteristically unhelpful in this regard (!) and none of my usual non-mainstream sources seem to be addressing the problem yet.

Yours sincerely, with thanks for all the great writing over the years
Ian

———

Hallo Ian

The key issue for me is the loss of opportunity if NNRs and the FC estate is sold off. It is not that I think they have any particular worth in terms of natural values at the moment, it is the fact that the kind of area protection of wildland that I would wish to see in Britain is much more easily realised if the land is in public ownership.

I have just finished a report for the Scottish Government on a review of the status and conservation of wildland in Europe. Everything I ever suspected about the crappiness of nature conservation in Britain is confirmed by contrast with the rest of Europe. I already knew it was crappy in comparison to N. America.

The basis of national protected area legislation across Europe is restriction on extractive activity, as well as public ownership. It is the difference between Primary, wild habitats that need no management intervention, and Secondary habitats that are only maintained through management intervention. It thus is about a separation of natural values from cultural values because the latter is inimical to the former. Public ownership takes away the burden on the land of having to give a monetary return. In Britain, the policy is maintenance of secondary habitats in multiple use areas, and the legislation – which is blind to ownership – is designed to ensure that happens, as is the UKBAP by the very choices for priorities within it that derive from Secondary habitats. A heath is a secondary habitat, and so is the other cherished landscape of the conservation industry – chalk grassland.

If we are ever to have substantial areas of Primary habitat other than the few scraps currently outside of extractive activity, then we need that public land as the land bank where the necessary ecological restoration can take place. Private ownership of land, even when supposedly in the benefical ownership of NGOs, always puts demands on it that cut cross non-intervention. Thus a private landowner will always want to make money out of their land, putting pressures on it that inevitably detract from wildness (even if it is just visitor services as a means of generating income), and the NGOs will want to “manage” the land for their single interest eg. birds, butterflies etc.

It is argued that ecological restoration will reduce biodiversity and make landscapes inaccessible – the Nightmare Takeover of brambles, scrub and invasive species. These critcisms are firmly rooted in the ideology of the conservation industry and the expoiters of land. That some other reality can exist is never allowed as it cuts across their vested interests. This is the dead hand that holds back any better prospect for wild nature in Britain. The fact that it is just prejudice is never pointed out. I will be writing shortly about the locations in England I have been to recently where human intervention was withdrawn or has not been a factor. They give the lie to this prejudice. It is of course, not in the interests of private land owners or the conservation industry for this other reality to be acknowledge because it will reduce their incomes – Higher Level Stewardship subsidy for private landowners, and all the public funding that the conservation industry hoovers in each year. For the latter, it also takes away their reason for being. Personally, I believe any funding cuts to the conservation industry can only be goods news. As to the farmers, there is no evidence of the rate of compliance with stewardship schemes, and so the funding they get doesn’t achieve what it is supposed to do anyway.

There is no coalition of people supporting the realisation of Primary habitats in Britain. I wish there was. That there are people with similar views is shown by some of the comments on articles in the Guardian. A Wildland Network was set up in 2005, but it fizzled out because it was split between those that wanted to take an uncompromising stand, and those that that didn’t really have any comitment to change. There are individual projects where there are people with some inspiring vision, such as Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood in Scotland. There are individual action groups who are fed up with the way the conservation industry is destroying their local wild nature. One of the most articulate is the Blacka Blogger (see http://theblackamoorsite.blogspot.com/). I helped set up a Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University as the means to do the work to provide evidence for a policy base for wildland in Britain. The Scottish Gov. report and its recommendations for Scotland is the first major outcome from that, and we will be bringing out a second report with a greater European focus. The latter has got us an invite to talk to the Environment Directorate in Brussels, which confirms what other people in Britain have recently found that continental Europe is a much more fertile ground for wildland policy.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in any of that which has sufficient edge for it to forestall an impending sell-off. But then again, there is no guarantee that there will be a change in nature policy that will seize the opportunity provided by public land for a national system of protected areas that is worth its name.

Hope this helps.

Cheers

Mark

*****

continued in the comments…


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