A Western Bee-fly in my garden in Exeter

Yesterday in the warm sunshine I came across a very small bee-fly in my garden. I have regularly seen the larger Dark-edged Bee-fly (Bombylius major) but I have never seen a Western Bee-fly (Bombylius canescens) in the garden before. If I want to see one of these I normally go to Hembury Woods on Dartmoor.

Distinctive bee-fly with its long proboscis – the animal was around 8mm long

Feeding on Germander Speedwell flowers – gives a good indication of the size of the bee-fly

The dark core with the lighter fringing hairs is distinctive.

As you can see from this distribution map (courtesy of the NBN) it is not a common animal

The problem with Heather Beetles

The Heather Beetle (Lochmaea suturalis) is a native Chrysomelid leaf beetle which feeds almost exclusively on heather (Calluna vulgaris). It is common in areas whether heather grows from the south of England to Orkney in the north (Duff 2016).

Heather beetle populations are well known to fluctuate greatly from low numbers which have little over impact on heather plants to very high numbers which can lead to the widespread defoliation of heather and can cause its death.


Heather Beetle damage on Ryders Hill March 2016

Heather beetle outbreaks have historically been problematic for grouse moor owners and the issue of heather beetle and its control has been championed by the Heather Trust who have produced a short document on the species (Heather Trust undated).

In addition the Heather Trust commissioned a literature review of the species (Rosenburgh & Marrs 2010) which summarises the ecology of the beetle, its impact as a pest and strategies for control. This work has been updated (Gillingham et al 2015a and 2015b) and published as Natural England Evidence Reviews on its ecology and its management.

These reviews state the following regarding heather beetle outbreaks:-

  • ‘Considerable damage to heather can occur with complete death in the worst cases’.
  • ‘Large scale vegetation change can follow’ (heather outcompeted by invasive grass species).
  • ‘The occurrence and severity of heather beetle attacks appears to be made worse by increased levels of nitrogen in the soil and plant tissues, which has been blamed on high nitrogen pollutant inputs from the atmosphere in recent years’.
  • ‘The high nitrogen in the leaves provides the beetles with more high quality food to consume’
  • ‘Climate change is expected to lead to increased winter survival of heather beetles’

On Exmoor heather beetle is considered a major problem, and the National Park Authority report that outbreaks are common and are spreading from the south to the north of Park. They also suggest that in areas where Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) is absent the heather plants recover fully and rapidly but where Molinia is present this quickly swamps the heather and replaces it (ENPA 2015).

I have written before about the loss of heather that had occurred on the National Trust’s land in the Upper Plym valley on Dartmoor (see here). In 1995 there was a serious outbreak of heather beetle which killed off the heather in the area known as Hen Tor Fields. At the time it was assumed that overgrazing was the cause although no increase in stocking levels had taken place for a number of years.  In this specific instance the heathland communities (H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus) were replaced by upland grass communities (U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile) which do not naturally contain Molinia. On the wet heaths of the Upper Plym Estate there were numerous other outbreaks on heather beetle during the 1990s and 2000s (Helen Radmore NT tenant pers comm) and in these habitats Molinia now dominates (my observations).

There has been no systematic survey of heather beetle on Dartmoor and Goodfellow et al (1997) only briefly mention it “Outbreaks of heather beetle cause local declines in heather”, however my recent observations on the moor suggest that heather beetle damage is very widespread and extensive.


Heather Beetle damage on Ryders Hill – March 2016

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with information about heather beetles on Dartmoor in recent years – it is an issue which is begging for more research.

References
Duff A.G. (2016) Beetles of Britain and Ireland. Volume 4 Cerambycidae to Curculionidae. A.G. Duff (Publishing) West Runton.
ENPA (2015) Exmoor Swaling Review 2014/15. Seminar Notes ENPA. Dulverton. http://www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/583454/Exmoor-Swaling-Review-2014-15.pdf
Gillingham P., Diaz A., Stillman R. & Pinder A.C. (2015a) A desk review of the ecology of the heather beetle. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 008. http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6386866406293504
Gillingham P., Diaz A., Stillman R. & Pinder A.C. (2015b) Desk review of burning and other management options for the control for heather beetle. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 009. http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/4817807814426624
Goodfellow S., Wolton R. & Baldock N. (1997) The Nature of Dartmoor: a biodiversity profile. English Nature / Dartmoor National Park Authority publication. http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/42701/au-natureodp2.pdf
Heather Trust (undated) Heather Beetle. Download from Heather Trust Website http://media.wix.com/ugd/fdc287_2b9ec8fa073d4ca38baf4a754d7a77f4.pdf
Rosenburgh A. & Marrs R. (2010) The Heather Beetle: a review. Report to the Heather Trust. http://media.wix.com/ugd/111722_4370d9fb976442b2af6e678aa83c3663.pdf

Some different sheep at the magical Challacombe

I was up at Challacombe Farm yesterday afternoon for a site visit to see and discuss the work of Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen who farm this Duchy Farm. It was a field visit which was part of a 2 day workshop entitled ‘Locally led agri-environment schemes – from a farmer’s perspective.’ I’ll report back on the workshop at a later date – in the meanwhile here are a few photos I took at Challacombe.


Naomi showing the extent of her farm and its large number of associated archaeological features.


Reporting back on the bracken management project


The slopes of the valley showing the Mediaeval lynchets – see here for more details on these.


From the barn up the valley to Hameldown Tor


In the barn Naomi shows of three different breeds of sheep which are being kept for their wool – the little dark one at the front is a Black Wensleydale – a very rare breed – see here. The white sheep at the back are Wensleydales – see here.


The sheep with the black and white faces are Zwartbles – famous for producing  an excellent fleece – really good to see wool coming back into profitability again (assuming you use the correct breeds) – see here for more details.


Here are a few Wensleydales out on an in-bye pasture.And this a hardy Welsh Black Mountain Sheep – small but very efficient at grazing around the Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

We also visited the amazing Rhos pastures at Challacombe –  wet valley mires – in the summer they are buzzing with life – I’ve written about these before – see here and here.

 

Finally …. can really recommend this book – tells the amazing story of sheep in Britain – from the times when wool created the country’s wealth right through to the dominance of sheep for lamb. The last chapter won’t be to everyone’s taste as Philip Walling is clearly very angry of the recent controversies regarding ‘overgrazing’ and the subsequent reduction in the national sheep flock. The book though does give a wonderful introduction to sheep breeds, where they came from and where they now survive.

A great afternoon at a magical place.

Managing Purple Moor Grass

According to Ian Mercer (in his Dartmoor New Naturalist book pp118-120) around 35% of Dartmoor’s Commons are now dominated by Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – now often just referred to as Molinia. It is considered to be a major problem for the Commoners as it shades out the more nutritious grasses and a major problem for conservationists as it dominates habitats and reduces the dwarf shrub communities such as heather.

The reasons behind the increase in Molinia are contested and unclear. Overgrazing and over burning have been blamed as has the increase in sheep grazing as opposed to summer cattle grazing. The conservation agenda as articulated and prescribed by Natural England has been to promote increased spring grazing by cattle and reduced burning (swaling). Mercer telling says the following ‘the system that allows a hill-farmer to maintain a good enough herd of the hardy stock and of the right number all year round to be profitable and to follow current nature conservation thinking about a regime for blanket bog vegetation management has yet to be devised.’

This conundrum is at the heart of the debate on Dartmoor about favourable condition and the extent / decline of heather on the moor.

Last September the National Trust team based at Marsden Moor in Yorkshire organised a three day conference on this very topic (it is a major issue for all upland areas in the UK not just Dartmoor). I unfortunately was unable to attend the conference but fortunately the proceeding have now been published.

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-22-14-02

You can download this 200+ page document here.

If you are interested in the quality of our habitats in the uplands then this document is essential reading. The report consists of a number of scientific presentations from the country’s leading experts along with a series of case studies describing the actions and outcomes of a number of site managers.

This is a major contribution to understanding the management of our uplands and it shows how complex the problem is.

For example, Rob Marr and his team from Liverpool University replay their research from the early 2000s which told us that grazing and burning regimes in isolation will not solve the problem, they only got reductions in Molinia when they also used herbicides.

Simon Caporn’s team explain the role played by atmospheric pollution and tell us that whilst sulphur dioxide pollution is now a thing of the past, nitrogen deposition is definitely on the increase and that this along with rising carbon dioxide levels (as a result of climate change) and ozone may very well be promoting the growth and spread of Molinia.

These presentations (and all the others) are well worth reading and mulling over as they explain why the quest for ‘favourable condition’ in the uplands is currently so elusive.

A day with the Uplands Alliance

Yesterday I spent the day in London at an Uplands  Alliance meeting which was hosted by DEFRA at their Smith Square headquarters. The Uplands Alliance is a loose coalition of all those organisations, individuals and academics with an interest in the uplands of the UK. It is a forum which facilitates discussion and communication rather than a body which produces position statements – see here.

noble-house
Noble House, Smith Square, Westminster – DEFRA’s home

Following the vote to leave the European Union a huge cloud of uncertainty now hangs over the Uplands – the Uplands Alliance suggest that 31% of upland farm incomes are derived from the Basic Payment Scheme and Countryside Stewardship – without these subsidies many if not most upland farmers would not be able to survive. Following Brexit the Basic Payment Scheme is only guaranteed until 2020 and there is currently a hiatus around new Countryside Stewardship schemes.

upland-alliance-poster
The Uplands Alliance’s draft poster detailing the public benefits and issues in the uplands

Prior to the EU referendum two ministers now in DEFRA (Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice) set out their views on agricultural subsidies via their thinktank ‘Fresh Start Project’ (see here). They alluded to the end of Pillar 1 payments (the Basic Payment Scheme) and Pillar 2 monies (Countryside Stewardship) should be focused more on the marginal land to deliver environmental benefits.

I suspect it will be many months before public announcements are made to even indicate options but I think a direction of travel is becoming clearer. At the State of Nature report launch (see here) Andrea Leadsom stated that the current Government wanted to leave the environment and nature in a better state than the ones they inherited. In addition Dieter Helm, the Chair of the Natural Capital Committee has produced a paper on where he thinks agricultural policy should go (see here) – “A third option is to do away with all the subsidies, and instead concentrate any spending on directly purchasing the public goods that public money is paying for. This approach would sort out what the public goods from the land are, and how the natural capital embedded in the landscape could be enhanced.

Agricultural subsidies are going to change maybe radically and it is therefore against this backdrop that the Uplands Alliance met yesterday. There is  real fear in the uplands about the future due to the changes and the uncertainty but there are also real opportunities and if you like reading smoke signals or listening to the jungle drums the wind might be blowing favourably towards the uplands.

londonA room with a view

The meeting was oversubscribed and many who wanted to attend were unable to. We received a short briefing from Professor Mark Reed of Newcastle University who suggested that the uplands needed to take a precautionary approach, that is using the ‘strong evidence that paying for restoration and active management for conservation could provide benefits for wildlife, water quality, reduced flooding and climate. Meanwhile we know little about the effects of large-scale withdrawal of management from peatlands.’

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-10-21-48
He later tweeted this and note the phrase public money for public goods appearing again.

Minette Batters, the NFU’s Deputy President very articulately made the case for maintaining and supporting farmers in the uplands but didn’t use the phrase public money for public goods.

After lunch Sonia Phippard, the Director General of the Environment and Rural Group at DEFRA spoke, she suggested ‘it will take some time‘ to present new policy and that it was ‘too early to speculate what comes next‘ but nevertheless ‘we need to be radical in our thinking but realistic in our delivery’. She also did say that the hiatus around Countryside Stewardship needed to be sorted out in discussion with the Treasury.

The remainder of the day was spend in 8 breakout groups looking at four different scenarios.

  1. Resilient Land-based Businesses
  2. Vibrant Cultural Landscapes
  3. Local Schemes for Local Outcomes
  4. Outcomes rather than Actions

Each group  considered the impact of their scenario on upland outcomes over the next 25 years from the perspective of scale of both a farm and the landscape. Then each group identified:

  • What are the three most significant human Responses to the scenario and three most significant environmental Results of the scenario?
  • What are the three biggest Risks resulting from the scenario?
  • What are the three most important evidence gaps emerging from the scenario that need to be filled by Research?

It is important to note that these scenarios were not consultation options they were more ‘straw men’ to elicit debate and discussion. I am not going to attempt to summarise these workshop as I only attended one of the 8 but a couple of key messages came out.

The amount of money required in the uplands to keep farming in the hills to farm and deliver with others the public goods is actually much less than many would have thought. Of the £3bn of current CAP money paid to farmers in the UK (via Pillar 1 and Pillar 2) £231m goes to the uplands (around 7.7%). More will be needed to deliver many of the environmental improvements but £231m will keep the hills in active management and therefore support upland farmers and rural communities.

The next key task therefore is engaging with the public to ensure they are aware of the ‘public goods and benefits’ in the uplands i.e. wildlife, water, carbon storage, access, landscape, historic environment etc etc so that when the crunch comes the public are prepared to allow their money to be used to deliver them.

The other noticeable feature of the day was the large amount of consensus between all the participants. This is perhaps not unprecedented but it is unusual as stakeholders in the Uplands have plenty of history when it comes to disagreement and conflict on a number of topics! But at this high level strategic approach there was much agreement, of course the devil will be in the detail and inevitably there will be difficult days ahead.

The meeting was chaired by Michael Winter (from Exeter University) and Julia Aglionby (Foundation for Common Land). At the beginning of the meeting Michael paid tribute to Ian Mercer who died a couple of days ago (see here) and dedicated the meeting to him – most appropriate and I am sure Ian would have been delighted with the outcome.

parliament
Parliament where ultimately the fate of the Uplands will be decided