Monday, 14 April 2014

The reducing colour in our countryside.

Native, species-rich grasslands have suffered around a 97% loss since the 1940s – a staggering rate of loss for any habitat so why have we not heard more about it?

Perhaps one reason might be our reducing expectations.

Look out of the window and you would be forgiven for thinking that there is grassland everywhere –  so what is the fuss about!  Well, it seems that we have forgotten what grasslands can actually be like.  A good “unimproved” grassland can be a riot of colour – all sorts of species existing together in intimate mixtures.  Literally dozens of flower species can exist in an area that today might hold just two (perennial ryegrass and white clover).  Look at grasslands today and, usually, the colour has gone.  We see an expanse of green, imagine that is all it can be and don’t expect to see anything else.  We don’t imagine better so we don’t see the loss.  This narrowing of our horizons is perhaps more depressing than the actual loss.

Indeed calling these habitats “grasslands” at all is a misnomer.  There is not much grass in a good ancient grassland – a better name would be pasture or meadow.  We do however call them “unimproved” meadows because they have not been re-seeded, fertilised or sprayed with pesticide.  This means that a wider range of native plants are able to survive.

Meadows, alive with colour, cut for hay and then grazed by sheep or cattle, were a mainstay of mixed farming for centuries.  You could argue that these habitats are just not relevant to modern agriculture so perhaps they are just a relic of a bygone age.  This is certainly not a criticism of farmers or farming, but the world has moved on.

I do not hold with this view, however, and perhaps the world should move on again.

These habitats are now so rare that even if we offered a very lucrative incentive scheme to farmers for each surviving fragment just to save threatened meadow flowers it would be a small price to pay.

But flower-rich meadows do much more than just sit there and look pretty! 

Bees and wild pollinators are really suffering at present.  And if we loose pollinators then much agricultural productivity (and many other benefits we get from nature) will be threatened.  Unimproved pastures provided an expanse of nectar sources in the middle of summer, a time when nectar sources are otherwise limited.  So wild flower meadows keep our pollinators going.

Many of our unimproved grasslands sit on top of water resources – water percolates through these habitats into the underground aquifer, purifying as it goes and giving us clean drinking water.  Permanent grassland also holds the soil together preventing erosion, reducing run-off, stops silt building up in rivers and reduces flood risk.

Soils under unimproved meadows are also rich in carbon – they lock-up carbon that would otherwise contribute to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, adding to climate change.  Expanding the area of flower-rich meadow could therefore be a contribution to climate change mitigation.

If all that is not enough then it also seems that these unimproved grasslands could have great health benefits to people.  Animals that graze on these grasslands have a better fat balance to those that are grain fed.  If we eat the beef or chicken that grazes outdoors then we benefit from a healthier diet.

Flower rich meadows are therefore not just a relic of a bygone age.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to those landowners who have maintained them so far, and we are now moving into a new age where we can restore these important habitats to something of their former glory. 

We can’t rebuild a habitat that has taken centuries to evolve.  We may, however, be able to make a moderately rich new meadow which delivers some of the benefits of genuine old grassland.  We may not get the orchids, round-headed rampion or bastard toadflax, but we could get yellow rattle, ox-eye daisy and cats-ear.   

Techniques have improved over the last few years and many people are starting to make wild-flower meadows where once a green desert stood.  As well as a new form of flower-rich meadow, grazed by cattle, such an approach is also being picked up in amenity grassland, under orchards in urban gardens, school fields and even under solar farms.

But essential to all of this is keeping what remains – hence The Wildlife Trusts “Save our Vanishing Grasslands” e-petition.

We don’t need to look at flower-rich meadows through the rose-tinted spectacles of an imagined rural golden age; we need to see them for what they offer us for the present and the future – which is plenty.

Monday, 7 April 2014

What has Europe done for nature conservation in the UK?

Wildlife and natural processes do not recognise administrative boundaries.  It is therefore logical that countries need to co-ordinate in their efforts to conserve the environment on which everyone depends. 

In this respect the UK has worked through Europe in much of its environmental legislation.  Today European environmental legislation has become the core framework in most areas of environmental policy.  Pro or anti European arguments rarely seem to recognise the international nature of the environment and rarely come up with alternative strategies for delivering nature conservation in the absence of the European context.  Indeed, more worryingly, arguments seem to focus more on removing commitments to nature rather than proposing alternative ways of improving them.  This race to the bottom seems linked to a mistaken belief that it is something to do with removing blocks on so-called economic growth.  This is all the more incredible against the good work being done all over the world to show how fundamentally important investing in nature is to the economy (as well as to our very existence).

Joan Edwards, Director of Living Seas for the Wildlife Trusts, has written more on this theme in this blog on the Wildlife Trusts web site.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Malta – Massacre on migration

Conservation in this country will be permanently at a disadvantage if migrating species; birds in particular, are killed on their way through other countries.  I am therefore delighted that Chris Packham is shining a spotlight on this issue. 

His mission is to generate wider awareness of this practice, with factual reports on the huge numbers of our migrant birds that are being shot.  He will be showing this on a nightly YouTube video between 21st and 26th April.

Please support this by clicking on to this link and sending it to all your contacts.  It will not be pretty and will be depressing, but essential viewing!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Publication of the IPCC report on Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on climate Change (IPCC) published its report “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” on 31st March.  This is a critically important document and Steve Trotter in The Wildlife Trusts National Office has done an excellent blog about it.

The report is consistent with all the IPCCs previous reports and in line with the vast majority of scientific evidence on climate change.  Climate change deniers really have contributed nothing to the debate for the last 20 years and need concern us no further.

More worrying, however, is the point that our economy seems to be going in completely the wrong direction.  Indeed the disconnect is incredible.  Last month BBC news reports linking the floods to climate change often were presented back to back with items on government plans to support fracking – with no sense of conflict or irony!  We know we must reduce carbon emissions by 80% yet we are in the midst of a renewed push for new roads, more air travel and an extra runway at Gatwick.  It is difficult to see how the current approach to economic development is anything other than massively conflicted.  There are answers to the question of how to develop in an environmentally acceptable way – but we won’t find them if we don’t look for them.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sussex Wildlife Trust urges MPs in the County to make the case to work with nature rather than fight against it in a forthcoming parliamentary debate on flooding, on 3rd March.

There is a parliamentary debate on flood risk preceded by a parliamentary briefing chaired by Richard Benyon MP on 3rd March.  It is important that all our Sussex MPs go there and make a strong case for working with nature to improve our resilience to a changing climate.  We are writing to all our MPs to encourage them to do so.  A little extra lobbying from readers of this article would also help!

The impacts of the recent floods mean that there has never been a stronger incentive to re-think our relationship with water, and how we use and manage urban and rural land.  The floods have tended to stimulate knee-jerk reactions in some but the answer to reduced flood risk is not simple.  Indeed it maybe that it is the simplistic answers of the past that have caused much of the problem.

Key measures to reduce flood risk involve looking at the whole catchment, rather than focusing on one perceived solution, such as dredging.  Whilst sensitive dredging, as part of a package of measures, can help in some circumstances, it can also be counter-productive; adding to flood risk downstream, risking damage to river banks, reducing water quality and damaging wildlife habitats.  Imagining that dredging is the soul solution is to offer cruel false hope to those who suffered in the floods.

Water issues need to be addressed in a holistic way, across whole river catchments with nature is a major, cost-efficient ally in helping us manage flood risk.  This is the message in a recent CIWEM report and on The Wildlife Trusts web page.  The management of our landscape needs a fundamental shift in thinking towards the large scale restoration and creation of networks of healthy habitats that will increase our resilience to extreme weather events.

Working with nature, not against it, is the key.

Whole catchment measures should involve managing land so it can more effectively absorb and store rainwater.  This can be done by encouraging tree growth in river headwaters, by developing buffer strips of natural vegetation along watercourses and by restoring grasslands to help soak up water.

More places should be created where water can be held back and stored – washlands of natural wetland habitats which absorb water in peak times and slowly release it between rainstorms.

We should manage our rivers themselves so they function more naturally.  Instead of treating them as pipes through which we attempt to force water quickly out to sea, we should allow room for rivers to take their natural course.  River water would then be slowed down so peaks do not build up quickly and flood-waters do not rush as quickly on to the next pinch-point.

These approaches would mean that some areas, flood plains, would be encouraged to act as flood plains – absorbing flood waters that would otherwise damage people’s houses and inundate valuable areas for food production.

Key to all of this, however, is the provision of financial mechanisms to enable this to happen.  Allowing room for flood water involves working with farmers on farmed land.  By helping to manage flood water, farmers are providing an enormous and cost-effective public service in reducing flood risk and should be paid handsomely for it.  Even a highly lucrative package of incentives to farmers would be far less costly to the public purse than allowing our towns and cities to flood.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Roads – back to the same old future

With its draft National Policy Statement on roads and rail, the Government seems to be lurching back to a road building approach, already out of date in the 1990’s when it last raised its head. 

We are told that road building is needed as an engine for growth, that there will be almost a 40% increase in traffic, and that we must tarmac over the countryside in order to stay competitive.  Forgotten are all the lessons about how more roads generate more traffic, increase congestion by moving it from one place to another, damage the economy through reliance on an insecure resource, not to mention all the ecological, social and climate change issues.

The consultation, needing responses by 26th Feb, is carefully framed to steer people away from the important questions, guiding you towards making comments on how to limit the damage from decisions that seem to have already been made.  Nowhere is this more outrageous than in the approach to climate change.  The statement simply takes the impact of new road development on climate change out of the process altogether.  Thus one of the most damaging aspects of transport strategy is specifically removed from consideration.  The justification given is that other Government policies will 'offset' the increase in carbon from new roads.  Given that the country has to deliver 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions (on 1990 levels) by 2050, what area of economic activity is going to deliver far more than 80% reduction in order to offset the environmental failure of road travel?  

The disconnect in government at present seems incredible.  At a time when extreme weather events, driven by climate change, are hitting the country more and more frequently, government still seems immersed in second level issues like road building rather than addressing the real issues affecting people and their environment.

The consultation on the National Road and Rail Networks National Policy Statement ends on 26 Feb (next Wednesday) and I would encourage people to take a look and express their views.  The whole philosophy behind this document is really bad news for the environment and will allow a massive increase in roadbuilding while virtually removing our ability to challenge any new proposals.  Please see the Campaign for Better Transport's web site and use the CBT's form to send in an objection - it only takes a minute to do.  Also, a letter can be sent via the CPRE's website.  Both websites have pre-drafted words for you to use which you can alter as you see fit if you want to.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Flooding - Working with nature not against it.

The Wildlife Trusts around the country have, for many years, been promoting an approach to flood risk management that works with nature rather than fights against it.  For our most recent 5-point plan follow this link to the Wildlife Trusts web site.  Further to this the "Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management", the leading chartered professional body covering water and environmental management, recently published this report as a reality check on floods and dredging.  The report outlines how  widespread dredging could make flooding in some communities worse in future- not better. It concludes that changes in land management should be central to the  flood risk management strategies of the future.