‘Austerity Countryside’ – Correspondence with Mark Fisher

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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6 Responses to “‘Austerity Countryside’ – Correspondence with Mark Fisher”

  1. Ian M Says:

    Message sent August 25th:

    ‘Hello Mark

    Thanks for the super-informative and thought-provoking response. I see now that you commented several times with a few of the same points and some others (loved the parable of grouse vs. hen harriers) – I originally only got so far as the first fifty comments. Anyway, after mulling it over, I only have a few things to say.

    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.

    I found this particularly useful – why do we never hear this argument? It’s so obvious! I play a rather depressing game sometimes while walking through landscapes which consists of the question: ‘is there any way that people could have drawn (extracted) a greater economic productivity from this land?’ – the answer has been ‘no’ almost everywhere I’ve been. I feel best walking through land that has been left to ‘go to waste’ – most recently the The Undercliff on the Devon coast, which the farmers finally left to its own devices after a series of landslides (not before they harvested ‘an area of sown wheatfield which remained sufficiently undamaged […] in 1840, when the slip was a popular visitor attraction.’) I don’t think I’ve ever seen an area so vibrantly throbbing with life in so many diverse forms… Certainly not in the UK. The land doesn’t need this heavy-handed kind of ‘management’ – it got along just fine without humans for, what, 3 billion years?

    It thus is about a separation of natural values from cultural values because the latter is inimical to the former.

    Yes, this states the problem fairly succinctly. I wonder, though, does ‘set-aside’ of wildlands ‘unspoiled’ by human intervention have a future? I remember Alistair McIntosh making a point at the end of a BBC programme on crofters in Scotland to the effect of ‘the best way to conserve this land is for people to have an active engagement with it’. This idea struck me again when reading about the ‘Oostvaardersplassen‘ in the Netherlands. This seems like it would fall under the ‘Primary’ designation. I didn’t like the way the author suggested that forest might not be the ‘climax ecosystem’ for Europe, so I chewed over the whole article for a while and came up with this response, which finished:

    Anyway, the ‘Ark In Space’ author notes that ‘people think of dense forestation when they think of wildness’. I would go on to say that ‘wilderness’, in the minds of those who pit their lives against it (or rather, their ideas about it), also implies an absence of human beings. The first commenter writes about the lack of predatory species in the Oostvaardersplassen as an impediment to its longterm viability, but somehow I don’t think he sees humans on that list.

    I think this set-aside, preservation, look-but-don’t-touch approach is doomed to failure. We need to engage & relate to the rest of the community if we are to find a way to live on this planet – as inlaws rather than outlaws.

    If we don’t depend on the wildlands for our sustenance – or indeed, our survival – what hope is there that we will see them as worth preserving? This is one thing I’ve been getting out of wild food/medicine foraging lately – I feel more inclined to fight for land that … I was going to say ‘provides me a service’ (yuk), but really it’s a will to save a being you have a relationship with.

    Ideas, ideas, ideas… I would support any ‘coalition of people’ fighting these cuts, even if ‘only’ as a pragmatic first step.

    Yours,
    Ian’

  2. Ian M Says:

    Message received August 26th:

    ‘Hi Ian

    While camping on the Dorset coast a few weeks ago, I had a walk along the Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs NNR. It was an incredible experience, an immense learning point, and one of the places that I hope to write about shortly. It is one of the wildest places I’ve been to recently, even more so than Scar Close (it will be in the article) as it has 70 or so more years on it of being wild! I love the very rich diversity of woodland (predominantly ash) and scrub, and with superb examples of how climbers such as ivy and traveller’s joy can clothe vertical surfaces. And it is because of its isolation from the top of the cliff that plant and animal communities have developed there virtually untouched. I noticed that minor land slips were still happening, especially where there are seeping water courses, and this produces more variation and fresh areas for colonisation by wildlife. And I expect there are frequent damp mists enveloping the landslip area, which show up in the profuse and vigorous growth of ferns and the climbers.

    You can see the “problem” that people cause, the incorrigible behaviour that has to “improve” on wild nature. In some of the more accessible parts of the NNR, mainly in the middle section, exotic non-native species have been planted, such as the evergreen holm oak, western red cedar, and sycamore. The oak and sycamore have seeded around and produce a bare ground layer because of the density of shade. There were also a couple of bizarre cleared areas that presumably are supposed to be the calcareous grass land shown on the BAP priority habitat mapping of the NNR area. Waste of effort when the coastal headlands provide this, and they will just fill with ruderals.

    There were other vegetated landslip areas nearer to where we camped, along the coast at Eype to Seatown. However, this landslip area had sheep invading from off the headlands as the land was so overgrazed up there (the lack of rain hadn’t helped). These wandering sheep risked death as they wandered onto the landslip slopes. Two animals were already dead from falling – and should have been cleared by the farmer but instead lay smelling royally by the edge of the landslip. Farmers are such sh*ts! This one is of course getting both Organic Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship funding and should be seen to be doing something for that money. As he is a tenant of the NT, I will be emailing David Bullock, Head of Conservation at the NT about it. I wonder also how Natural England are able to include part of that landslip area within the boundary of the stewardship scheme!

    I have decided that the article will be about the potential sell-off of NNRs. Thus to gather more observations, I went for a walk in Scoska Wood NNR near Arnecliffe in the Yorkshire Dales on Saturday. The wood part of the NNR is only 4.3ha, but it clings to a limestone scar and rocky slopes, and is the central part of a much longer band of woodland on this scar. The other half of the NNR at the base of the scar is is grazed pasture where the claim is made that the meadow flowers are able to flourish, but of course they were more in evidence on the woodland side of the fence. I took my usual circuitous approach as the NNR is “no access” without a permit. Thus I sneaked up on it from above, through open access land. Except that I couldn’t venture in to the NNR as there was an immediate steep drop down a scar just over the boundary. So I kept going along the top until the contour entered woodland, and I followed critter trails that eventually took me down while avoiding the big drop. Back along the path and then snuck up into the NNR woodland.

    It would not be everyone’s favourite woodland. A sparse cover of ash and birch, with cherry, hazel and hawthorn under. A few sycamore and larch. Not a lot of high canopy shade that creates the usual easily navigable understorey in most woodlands as it restricts scrub. Thus the understorey herb growth was a bit tall, and tgheer was a lot of scrubby growth, but there were lovely ferns and other stuff. I just blundered along more critter trails, negotiating up three terraces until I got to the base of the highest scar at the top, and dumb luck – I found the only crevice that would get me up the scar!! Scoffed a lot of wild raspberries on the way. Where it was wetter and shadier, there was a fabuolus amount of woodruff. Other places were covered with sanicle, but the main ground cover was ferns, dogs mercury, meadow sweet and raspberry. Came across one diffuse beck that was fabulously dark, wet and very green from masses of mosses. I found baneberry, but none of the globeflower that is supposed to be there. It would be difficult to find in that undergrowth unless it was in flower.

    OK – so while this wood doesn’t leap off the page (it was hard work!) its importance is that it is another one of the “awkward squad” – being in a place that due to its topography is hard to exploit. Thus the NNR wood goes into my box of examples of non-intervention due to its inaccessibility. The woodland at the western end of the scar was more easier terrain and there was much evidence of past coppicing, and now it is used for pheasant rearing. .

    Does ‘set-aside’ of wildlands ‘unspoiled’ by human intervention have a future?

    I’m a Permaculturist. I believe that we have to set aside land for wild natures use – our Zone 5. Permaculture is the marrying of natural ecology with our cultivated ecology, but ensuring the continued existence of that natural ecology, for it is from there that our cultivated ecology is benefited and could be replenished. It’s about having zones of differing activity, thoughtful use of resources, and a less dominant integration of people with their landscape. Consider this – would you prefer to have a Permacultural land use backing onto wildlands or mainstream land use. A Permaculture approach to land use offers I think the best protective buffer for wildland. You might like to have a look at the ideas in Jeff Vail’s article –

    Creating Resiliency & Stability in Horticulture. He combines cultivated ecology with forest gardening, hunter-gathering and a hamlet approach to settlement.
    http://www.jeffvail.net/2006/04/creating-resiliency-stability-in.html

    The much touted OVP is a diversion, a plaything. It plays into the herbivore driven conservation approach for secondary habitats. The “theory” is that wild forest regeneration happens in an open matrix when tree seedlings that by fortune start to grow within the protection of thorny shrubs, can then avoid being grazed by herbivores and thus get away. It is a nonsense. It totally ignores the Green World Hypothesis – that predators limit the influence of herbivores, allowing vegetation to flourish. Have a look at this
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/03/wolf-wars/wolf-illustration

    Also, beware firestick fantasies. Environmental management of landscapes for what or for whom? Fire as a natural phenomenon, as spontaneous ignition – or fire as created by humans, and humans alone? I just don’t buy this argument about aboriginal land management as it relates to fire. In N American prairies, the argument goes that “managed” fire cleared woodland for more grass, and that burning prairies produced fresh growth that attracted or caused the bison to stay in one place. Did the bison need this to survive themselves, because they couldn’t set fires? Or was it a convenience for humans in increasing their survivability above all else? Do you think that the native American or native Australian with a firestick had any conception of what they were doing other than for their own, very local, interest? Did Australian vegationhevolve with human management by fire, or are we just seeing a selection of fire-dependant species driven by the setting of fires.

    As to carbon balance, its a nonsense to say that landscape fire management practices can offset the huge inroad into archaeological carbon that human society has plundered, by itself, on its own. See the nonsense we have know in Britain of vast areas of sloppy peat in the uplands, and the even newer nonsense of heathland restoration in the lowlands, in some deluded view that this offsets our continuing use of archaeological carbon. Instead, we get landscapes only barely suited to the livestock of humans, and a limited range of species, rather than the rich trophic cascades that existed before we dominated the landscape.

    I see you are a fan of Urban Scout. His advocacy of a rewilding community would be similar in many ways, if realized, to an ethnological (reserve) approach to living. A re-vision of the hunter-gather life as a choice instead of civilization. Scout likely has a better chance in N America than we do of making that a reality. Firstly, there is a first nation history that is very close in timeframe to today, and the lands of N. America retain so much more of their wild complement. Compare that to the situation in the UK where the remnants of first nation life were lost over 4,000 years ago and our wildlife resource has been screwed. Only sheep can subsist off our landscapes as there is little or nothing for human sustenance. As Fraser Darling concluded, the Highlands and Islands were “a devastated landscape”, and that there was an urgent need for restoration before humans could sustainably use the land.

    As a nation, we are as individuals land poor. I have long supported The Land is Ours, Chapter 7, and any other grouping that enables people to breakthrough the stranglehold that mainstream, broadscale farming has on our land. As many have found before, this is the biggest barrier to any hope both for wildland and for our cultivated ecology.

    Thus we “do” what we think adds to the sum total of persuasive thought – such as with your Frequently found………

    Cheers for now

    Mark’

  3. Ian M Says:

    Message sent September 7th:

    ‘Hi Mark

    Ugh, 12 days to respond… I’m getting worse at this email malarky…

    Thanks for describing your experiences – can’t wait to read more about the wild places you’ve found! I should’ve specified – I think that was the very stretch of Undercliff I walked through back in May (I think). Back then me & my companion were struck by the profusion of wild garlic carpeting the forest floor and making an incredible smell. Plus the general feel of the place – open, relaxed, friendly, welcoming (although we didn’t stray much beyond the path). Settled, or at least well on its way there.

    And yes, it got me thinking about hunter-gatherer cultures – how archaeologists say they mostly hugged the coasts and waterways in Britain, due to the coming together and interaction of many different habitats and ecological communities. Plus everything grows better and more abundantly with lots of water nearby… I’ve read a lot by a guy called Jason Godesky, creator of the Anthropik Network (now known as ‘Toby’s People‘) and another ‘rewilder’ in the US. He writes about a phenomenon we can expect to see called ‘The Opening Of The Map’ where:

    The areas most difficult and marginal for civilization to exploit will become increasingly free of civilized influence, as the energy to exert power there will cease to exist. (link, see also)

    The Undercliff put me in mind of that – super-marginal land where it’d be just too expensive to ‘develop’ for ‘productive use’, and so it reverts to the kind of ‘waste’ land where hunter-gatherer cultures could maybe get a foothold in this country after their brief 4,000-or-so year absence (what are the latest fossil records for Homo Britannicus? I heard 700,000 years of successful inhabitation, give or take the odd ice-age). But yeah, the whole population can’t just walk straight into that like after the maya collapse – like you say, the devastated land needs restoration. I think, though, that the human species is like any other – we originally got our evolutionary ‘license to live’ because we discovered a way of doing so which actually improved the environment for the totality of life around us. I’m convinced we still have that heritage somewhere deep inside us, and I think it’ll be possible to find ways to make a living from the fruits of the land while actively contributing to soil fertility, biodiversity etc. Permaculture looks like a good first step in that direction 🙂

    Thanks for the Jeff Vail and NatGeo links. The former sounds pretty good, though I wonder how many of those words he’s managed to put into practice… With the latter, of course! The ecology needs predators – that’s why they evolved. I think humans are needed in a similar way. Derrick Jensen has a moving poem which he says came from a stream and woodland by his home. It concludes ‘you miss the human beings … you need them back or you will die’, which to me speaks a profound truth. Without predators, without human beings, the OVP, Europe, the world will die.

    Not sure I fully understand your criticism of my ‘firestick fantasies’. I didn’t mean to advocate an immediate return to that kind of hunting / ‘land-management’ strategy – something for councils and arsonists alike to emulate around the country (!) I would guess that aboriginals / native americans set fires absolutely ‘for their own, very local, interest’ – an interest which eventually came to coincide with that of the rest of the surrounding biological community. Isn’t this what all species do – shift things around to get more comfortable in their evolutionary niche? As I see it Bison might not originally have depended on human fire-setting (over & above ‘naturally occurring’ fires) but their increased numbers – as promoted by human hunters looking after their food supply – may have done. Yes/no?

    Yes I’m a fan of Urban Scout – actually I discovered your site through his after you commented on his slightly half-baked (but interesting) permaculture vs. rewilding post. Weird how I find myself going through American writers to get to my own countrymen touching on the same issues. I guess it’s the excitement of that ‘frontier mentality’ which I find useful as an antidote to the sleepy life here in the Old Country, where the empire culture has been kicking around for so much longer.

    Right, wrapping this up… One implication of my land-use observation game which applies to the original question about the cuts/sell-offs: If, country-wide, the land is already being used to its full extractive potential, how exactly will different ownership make things worse? For instance, it seems to me the only reason we have any trees left in this country is because the transnational companies currently find it more profitable to cut them down in other faraway countries (god, that’s depressing…) Not sure what my point is. Maybe something about having to do away with this culture which mines resources as quickly and comprehensively as it can until there’s nothing left, before the needed restoration work has a snowball’s chance.

    That’ll do. I was thinking other people might benefit from seeing this exchange. Would you mind if I put some – or all – of it up on my blog? I can edit out any bits you want to hang onto for your own work if you’d prefer.

    Thanks again for the in-depth, thought provoking response.
    Ian’

  4. Ian M Says:

    Message received September 12th:

    ‘Hallo Ian

    On Wednesday, I was walking in the Lagodekhi State Nature Reserve in Georgia, close to the border with Russia and Azerbaijan. That’s not something I thought I would be able to write! But the significance of it for me is such, that it puts many things into place. Firstly, it is a fabulously beautiful woodland wilderness amongst the higher Caucasus mountains. It made me think that this is what a wilderness in Britain would be if any of our landscape had survived such massive over exploitation. It supported large carnivores such as bear, lynx, wolf as well as a species of mountain antelope locally known as tur. Hunting was forbidden. Its ground flora was rich in colourful wildflowers, and its waterfalls and streams ran clear and very drinkable. The strict nature reserve part of the reserve (most of its area) is classified IUCN category Ia, and the light touch of trail management by the ranger staff perfectly fitted the spirit of this high designation – the butchering over management of Axmouth to Lyme Undercliff could learn a lot from this. The much smaller managed reserve area along the southern boundary acted as a buffer that allowed local people to graze a few livestock, harvest berries and take a few trees for firewood that had been carefully selected by the rangers . The reserve provides employment in what is a pretty poor country.

    Secondly, the reserve was designated in 1912. This predates the Gila wilderness in America that was set aside by their Forest Service in 1924. The importance of this for me is that it takes away the predominance of the American situation in contemporary discussion on wilderness. As it was, one of the other walkers was Ralph Swain of the US Forest Service, who is Wilderness Program Manager responsible for designated wilderness on National Forests in Colorado, Wyoming, S Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Ralph’s team cover most of the wilderness I’ve walked in the Rocky Mountains. We had a lot to talk about.

    In Permaculture terms, the Lagodekhi State Nature Reserve is the essential Zone 5 area that we must preserve if we are to retain the natural ecology that is such an important inspiration for our cultivated ecology, as well as the fount or means from which our cultivated ecology can be restored if we screw up!

    Help yourself to this discussion. I never know where my writing will go until it gets there, even when I make plans!

    Cheers for now

    Mark’

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