The enormous grass snake muddle

Yesterday a paper was published in Scientific Reports – one of the journals of the prestigious Nature brand which revealed a new species of grass snake in Europe. You can read the original paper here: Carolin Kindler et al. Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-07847-9. (free download – it’s an open access paper).

This paper was quickly picked up by the BBC and many other news outlets (see here, here and here for example).

The sub-species of grass snake Natrix natrix helvetica therefore became a species in its own right Natrix helvetica. So far so good.

The media then made the jump – therefore there is a new species of grass snake in Britain bringing our snake fauna up to 4 species i.e. two species of grass snake, smooth snake and adder – wrong!

The grass snake found in the UK is Natrix natrix helvetica and so our existing species of grass snake now becomes Natrix helvetica – there are no Natrix natrix grass snakes in Britain now so the snake count remains at 3.

What a glorious cock-up!

Were it not for this rather underplayed Tweet from Barry Kemp (a reptile expert) I would have carried on in my unbridled euphoria.

 

 

 

Farming Tomorrow?

On the 1st August this week a think tank, Policy Exchange, published a report entitled Farming Tomorrow: British agriculture after Brexit.  You can download the report from here.

Policy Exchange describe themselves as follows:-

‘Policy Exchange is the UK’s leading think tank. We are an educational charity whose mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas that will deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy. Registered charity no: 1096300.

Policy Exchange is committed to an evidence-based approach to policy development. We work in partnership with academics and other experts and commission major studies involving thorough empirical research of alternative policy outcomes. We believe that the policy experience of other countries offers important lessons for government in the UK. We also believe that government has much to learn from business and the voluntary sector.’

According to Wikipedia Policy Exchange is a British centre-right think tank, created in 2002 and based in London. It has been variously described as, “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right”, in the Daily Telegraph, and as, “a neo liberal lobby group funded by dark money”, in The Guardian.

Interestingly Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for the Environment was instrumental in setting up Policy Exchange in 2002 and was its first chairman. Even more interestingly Michael Gove’s recent speech on environmental policy ‘The Unfrozen Moment – delivering a green Brexit’ (download here) practically mirrors the ethos of the Environment section of the Policy Exchange document.

Gove has been more circumspect about exactly what Brexit might mean for agriculture other than saying that in the future ‘support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear’.

Perhaps the Policy Exchange document gives us an insight into what Farming and Food Green paper might contain?

The document contains 6  chapters and an Executive summary. In the Introduction the authors argue against a British Food Policy based on Food Security and self-sufficiency, arguing that World free trade will provide us with our needs and suggesting that a policy of self-sufficiency would lead to even greater environmental damage.

Such views are not uncontested. Jay Rayner in his 2013 book ‘A greedy man in a hungry world’ argues that with the rise of the middles classes in China, India and Indonesia many of the markets that would have traditionally supplied British supermarkets are turning their attention to these new emerging markets which will make it potentially more difficult for Britain to source its food at low prices.

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London tweeted the following yesterday which highlights his concerns of the proposed strategy.

The Policy Exchange position certainly seems to support the views of the previous Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom when she spoke to the NFU in February this year (see here).

There is a full chapter in the report on agriculture in Britain from the ‘Corns Laws to the CAP’, of course repealing the Corns Laws in 1846 opened up tariff free trade and British agriculture acted as a free market with little government intervention, subsidy or protection. It would appear that we are heading back at least metaphorically to 1846 but on this occasion without an Empire or a navy that ruled the waves.

The final four chapters cover consumers, producers, the rural economy and the environment.

Consumers
Policy Exchange state that the most important stakeholder in food and farming is the consumer and that they want inexpensive, high quality, safe food which is available in the right quantity at the most convenient time and place.

This chapter also addresses the issue of food standards and discusses the controversies around chlorinated chicken, hormone-treated beef and Genetically Modified and genetically edited food. The authors seem to be suggesting that there is no evidence that these practices threaten human health but have been banned by the EU on the grounds of the ‘Precautionary Principle’. The Consumers chapters ends with the following two recommendations, you can make of the second one what you want!

  • After leaving the EU Customs Union, the UK should unilaterally phase out tariffs that increase consumer food prices and complicate new trade deals.
  • The Food Standards Agency should be given new powers and resources to collate, commission, and review scientific evidence on food safety and animal welfare.

Producers
This is a brutal section as it discusses the decline of British farming over the years, it takes no prisoners and offers no solace.

The chapter suggests that UK farming income in 2016 was £3.6b which included £3.1b in subsidies so actually farming only made a profit of £500m. Indeed they also suggest that between 1997 and 2007 farming profit was below the subsidy level so in effect agriculture produced a negative effect on the economy overall. The recommendations from this chapter puts much of British agriculture to the sword.

  • The UK should work to phase out direct subsidies for agricultural production and income support. This will free up Government revenue to fund other taxpayer priorities, such as the NHS.
  • Any remaining subsides should be redirected towards protection for natural and public goods, and increasing R&D to boost innovation and the sector’s long-term productivity.
  • The Government should work to identify environmentally suitable freed-up land that can be used for housing or commercial development, sharing the planning uplift with the original farmer.
  • Subsidies should be phased out gradually over a five-year period from 2020, with farmers given the option of receiving a final payment as a single one-off payment instead.
  • Seeking self-sufficiency in food should not be a goal of agricultural policy.

Rural Economy
This section challenges the accepted wisdom that agriculture is a core part of the rural economy. The authors state that in terms Gross Value Added agriculture, forestry and fishing represent just 2% of the rural economy.

The chapter begins to discuss the environment and highlights the importance of natural capital,

Conventional economic statistics only capture a limited proportion of the value created by rural areas, much of which takes the form of positive externalities. The ONS’s preliminary work on natural capital identifies as many as 29 separate mechanisms by which the natural environment can create value, including: agricultural production, timber, wind power, wildlife, air pollution removal, waste water cleaning, flood protection, scientific, and scientific and educational interactions. The recreational value of day trips alone to the natural environment was estimated to be £6.5 billion — not far below the entire GVA of agriculture.

In other words, nobody really expects areas like Dartmoor, the Lake District, or the New Forest to be highly productive from a narrow economic point of view. Greater productivity of agriculture allows it to operate in a more intensive fashion, freeing up significant land areas for managed re-wilding, increasing biodiversity, and preserving many of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes. As science writer Matt Ridley has argued:

Post-Brexit environment policy should be one of gardening: managing for a diversity of outcomes in different places. Productive farms here, deep forests there, wild moorlands elsewhere. Freed from the one-size-fits-all shackles of the EU, we should localise our policies, and host as many habitats and species as the climate will support.

The text suggests that many current agricultural workers could in effect become ‘gardeners’ tending natural capital via payments for ecosystem services.

But in a world such as this what about farming?

Here the authors argue that British agricultural should move away from its productionist past and through innovation become a world leader in AgriTech (Tim Lang and Michael Heasman in their 2015 book Food Wars call this the Life Science Integrated paradigm). This is the world of biotechnology, GM and the use of enzymes, robot driven tractors, precision drilling, fertilising and pesticide application , the use of ‘big’ data and drones. Some will be able to go down this route but not everyone …….

Here are the recommendations from the Rural economy chapter.

  • Environment: preserve and enhance the UK’s Natural Capital
  • Connectivity: enable rural workers and businesses to integrate withthe wider economy
  • Innovation: use the opportunities from Brexit to become a world leader in AgriTech

Environment
This section sets out that agriculture dominates land use and the current model of exploitation is simply unsustainable.

It goes on to talk about water pollution, air pollution and climate change, soil degradation and the impacts on biodiversity. It states that reform should focus on the ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ model and that this should be integrated with biodiversity offsetting. It argues that forestry and agriculture need to be much more integrated. The recommendations include:-

  • Rather than giving production subsidies to farmers under the CAP, all remaining public support should go towards public goods, such as preserving and enhancing the natural environment and the environmental and aesthetic benefits that derive from it.
  • This should be achieved using a ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ approach, linked to the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan and the work of the Natural Capital Committee. Payments should be available both to farms and other landowners, creating a competitive market for the provision of ecosystem services.
  • As part of Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, Government should consult on the most appropriate mechanisms for commissioning ecosystem services (including consideration of the optimal scale), and explore how they could work alongside tools such as regulation and biodiversity offsetting.
  • Develop an integrated land management policy framework, which facilitates the deeper integration of forestry and agriculture. Explore the potential of re-forestation as a cost-effective approach to mitigating carbon emissions.
  • Perverse EU rules such as the crop diversification rule should be reformed or abandoned.
  • Transpose the key environmental directives that govern the environment — notably the Water Framework Directive, and the Habitats Directives — so that there is no post-Brexit period in which no laws apply.

The report finishes as follows.

As described above, Payments for Ecosystem Services can be used to achieve a range of environmental benefits, such as carbon sequestration, improving water quality, reducing flood risk, or improving the landscape. For other goals, where valuation is harder, regulation may be more efficient. In this context, who will decide what outcomes are desired, and in which locations? Will different locations pursue different objectives? What is the approach scale to make these decisions?

As a practical example, consider the Lake District — recently identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Lake District is regarded as having a landscape of great beauty, in particular its cultural landscape. The current landscape is the product of centuries of human management, in particular of upland sheep farming, which has resulted in deforestation and relatively low levels of biodiversity. In the post-Brexit farming policy framework described in this report, should this landscape be preserved as it is to maximise its cultural and heritage benefit? Or conversely should it be ‘re-wilded’, as suggested by some commentators, and returned to nature to maximise its biodiversity and wider environmental benefit?

These are the sorts of difficult decisions that will need to be made in the creation of Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

So does this document contain the blue print for the Defra 25 Year Plans for Farming and the Environment? Of course we will have to wait and see. This neoliberal future certainly appears to offer huge opportunities for the environment but at what price to farming? The report openly talks about re-structuring the industry – this means forcing uneconomic businesses off  the land freeing it up for other uses such as housing and re-wilding.

What does it mean for Dartmoor? It would appear that the money will be there for hill-farmers but will this be for livestock production or their potential future new role as ‘gardeners’?

 Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian (see here) has said ‘no wonder farmers fear the Brexit wolf in sheep’s clothing. Most farmers voted leave. Now they are beginning to dread the withdrawal of EU subsidy and see their traditional protectors in the Tory party as enemies’.

The vision set out in this report shares little common ground with the NFU’s  ‘recipe’ for success post-Brexit which consisted of the following three ‘ingredients’

  • Access to the Single Market
  • Access to labour
  • A new agricultural policy which facilitated productive, progressive and profitable farming
The National Trust’s Director General has also joined in the debate saying that the ‘countryside faces damaging uncertainty unless the current level of subsidies are maintained for farmers. The Trust said affordable, high-quality food and wildlife-friendly farming can be secured for the current subsidy of £3bn a year (see here).
Finally, Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Kings College London has raised the prospect of the need for a second referendum (see here)  ‘Brexit after all raises fundamental, indeed existential, issues for the future of the country. That is why the final deal needs the consent not only of parliament, but of a sovereign people’.

So much up in the air, so many lives in limbo, one person’s threat is another’s opportunity.

The Rippon Tor Rifle Range

Around a mile to the south of Rippon Tor lies a Second World War Rifle Range on Halshanger Common. I have seen it from afar on a number of occasions but never visited it – that is until last weekend. It was rather a gloomy day and eventually the rain came in. The range was set up in 1942 and eventually closed in the 1960s. Legendary Dartmoor gives a detailed account of its use and history – see here.

It is best accessed from SX752733 – have wandered around in circles I think this might be the only way in and out …..

It is a huge striking structure which divides opinion – eyesore and an interesting relic four military history

There are 19 buttresses on the back of it

And six on the side

This slope is the place where the bullet’s travel would end

In this protected trench soldiers would use these pulley systems to raise and lower the targets which the shooters who were located in butts to the south would aim at.

Definitely worth a visit and easy to combine with a trip to the 10 Commandments Stones (see here) which are nearby at SX733731. I will be going back at some point now that I know a bit more about how it operated having read the Legendary Dartmoor piece.

10 Commandments Stones – restored

I went to Buckland Beacon over the weekend to see the newly restored Ten Commandment Stones. I last went there in 2014 and commented then that the writing was becoming illegible (see here) and I am pleased to say that the Moor than Meets the Eye Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and managed by Dartmoor National Park Authority have restored the lettering.

The two 10 commandment stones  were carved  by WA Clement in 1928 – see here for the full story

Giant Horsefly in Exeter

Last night I found a Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus sudeticus) on the wall of the Devon and Exeter Squash Club. This is the largest horsefly in Britain and they don’t get any bigger anywhere else in the world including the tropics.

The body is 24mm long – the orange base to the antennae and dark markings on the abdomen are diagnostic. This is a female – they have gaps between their eyes. In the males their eyes touch.

I’m not sure what it was doing at the Squash Club, I’ve normally seen this species in wild remote places like the Highlands, the Lake District and Dartmoor. I wonder whether it had been affected by yesterday’s heavy rain and took shelter before setting off again in search of cattle and horses.

Here is a photograph of the same species – one I took on Dartmoor a few years ago with a pound coin for scale

This is the same individual showing its mouthparts – it is only the females that bite – little reassurance though as this is a female!

This is the national distribution of the Dark Giant Horsefly – not very common

Four-spotted Footman – female and male

This is a Nationally Scarce A species of moth which means it lives in less than 100 ten kilometre squares in the UK. I have trapped the male of the species several times before but have never seen a female – I have two in the trap the other night.

The female has four spots on her wings (one is hidden under a wing)

Here is a close up

Here is the male for comparison – no spots!