The Lake District – World Heritage Site

On Sunday 9th July 2017 UNESCO announced that the Lake District had been awarded the ‘inscription’ as a World Heritage Site (WHS) on account of its cultural landscape. I suspect that the vast majority of the 17 million visitors to the Lake District last year will not be surprised by the new designation and will welcome it. It is the culmination of 31 years of hard work by a consortium of people and organisations led by the National Park Authority.

The Lake District is loved and visited by so many people because it is spectacular and beautiful – a mix of lakes, mountains, fells, small walled fields and woodlands. A landscape moulded by thousands of years of man’s grazing animals – thus its designation as a ‘cultural landscape’. A landscape is the interface where nature and people meet, the people in this case are the hill-farmers of the Lake District.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Lake District but I do know another cultural landscape pretty well – Dartmoor and the two places have much in common.

A Herdwick on Dartmoor!

I imagine that hill-farmers across the whole country will be celebrating the Lake District’s designation as a cultural landscape WHS as it officially recognises their role along with their forebears in creating what is now considered so special. Dartmoor may not have the ‘designation’ but hill-farmers on the moor will rightly make the connection that they and those that went before them are responsible for another National Park which is treasured by the public at large.

The WHS designation therefore cements in place the notion that the Lake District is an open grazed landscape managed by hill-farmers to produce a wide range of public goods such as public access, biodiversity, conservation of key archaeological features, water and carbon management and high quality food production.

It is perhaps strange that it appears to have taken a decision by UNESCO to arrive at this point – the 1995 Environment Act re-defined the role of National Park Authorities and charged them with the conservation and enhancement of the cultural heritage in addition to their other duties. National Parks’ cultural heritage includes for example their archaeology and buildings but also includes the distinctive customs and traditions of the people who have created the landscape.

For decades though hill-farmers have felt an endangered species as they perceived that the statutory bodies cared more about nature than them and their traditions, customs and livelihoods. The 1995 Act, despite much effort has only made modest progress in making hill-farmers believe that people are as important as nature. The WHS designation embodies this notion further.

This is not the end of the story, rather the opening of a new chapter as there is still much to do and resolve. Perhaps, two of the central issues at stake in the Lake District and our other upland areas are how do we support hill-farmers who are unprofitable without subsidies (especially now as we are leaving the European Union) and how do we restore ecological habitats following decades of unsustainable, but highly contested, sheep grazing practices.

However, the celebrations of the Lake District’s new status have not been universal. George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner and journalist has campaigned against the WHS designation (see here), reacted furiously to the news (see here), calling it ‘a betrayal to the living world’ and he lambasted the conservation organisations which had supported the bid. Monbiot believes that sheep are the root cause of the problems in the Lake District (and elsewhere), that they should be removed and that the hills be allowed to re-wild. He considers that now the Lake District has been designated as a cultural landscape any prospect of improving habitats for nature have been lost.

Is he right and should the conservation bodies such as the National Trust, RSPB and Cumbria Wildlife Trust have campaigned against the designation?

I don’t think Monbiot is right and I do think that the conservation bodies were right to support the bid.

I don’t think that the designation of the Lake District as a cultural landscape is an impediment to ecological restoration. The upland habitats which existed before the Second World War which are so cherished by conservationists were of course created in the first place by extensive upland grazing. Yes of course following the War UK / EU Agricultural Policy encouraged increased stocking densities to unsustainable levels and the subsequent agri-environmental schemes are attempting to redress the balance but the traditional narrative that overgrazing by sheep is the reason for the ‘unfavourable condition’ of our upland habitats is over simplistic and misleading.

Ecologists and conservationists have consistently failed to take into account the role played atmospheric pollution particularly nitrogen deposition (see here and here) and ozone concentrations (see here) along with the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change.

Atmospheric pollution and climate change are not simply obstacles to be navigated around as part of the restoration process they are instead responsible for driving the changes in upland habitats and help to explain why the detailed ecological prescriptions put forward, in good faith by English Nature and then Natural England, failed to deliver ‘favourable condition’. As a result, upland habitats have changed and will continue to change.

And that is why the conservation bodies needed to be involved in the WHS consortium. Hill-farmers, conservationists and the statutory bodies need to work much more closely together to understand where they now find themselves and how to devise solutions to move forwards. That is not a comment aimed solely at the Lake District it applies to the uplands everywhere.

Then comes the massively important matter of the economics of hill-farming post Brexit. The Government by supporting the WHS bid have signalled that they want to see farming in the hills. Again hill-farmers, conservationists and the statutory bodies need to work together to enable the best deal for hill-farmers and other land managers to be struck in the ‘public money for public goods’ debate. For without that settlement being financially viable there will be no hill-farmers in the future.

Monbiot may argue that is desirable but I disagree. I have been re-reading James Rebanks’ book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ which details beautifully the culture and traditions of the Lake District hill-farmer. To me these cultures and traditions along with the Herdwick sheep, the intricacies of their breeding regimes and the agricultural shows where successes are valued and celebrated are as important a part of our history as heather, peregrines and stone circles and as such it would be a tragedy if any of them were lost.

So, what of re-wilding? I have spent much of my former careers involved with re-wilding projects but they have been conducted where there has been consent, nothing I have been involved with has been imposed on unwilling landowners or occupiers. I wrote the following in October 2016 about re-wilding on Dartmoor

So how does this debate on rewilding fit into the Dartmoor landscape? There are of course some who specifically advocate a full blown rewilding approach with re-introduced herbivores and carnivores.

I, however, do not support such an approach here as it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s historic landscapes (its reeves, hut circles, standing stones, stone circles, pillow mounds, tin mining artefacts, medieval farms etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s cultural landscapes (the Commoners, the Commons and the tenements etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s existing and ecologically important habitats and species and it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s landscape  with its ‘long views for which Dartmoor is renowned‘ (Ian Mercer’s words in his 2009 Dartmoor Collins New Naturalist, page 27).

That is not to say that everything should remain as it is. Matthew Kelly writing in the updated paperback edition of Quartz and Feldspar (2016) perhaps makes the best case for what could happen in the future. This is where he introduces his phrase ‘soft rewilding’.

Those awakened to the issues by winter flooding should need little persuading of the pragmatic reasons for one what might call soft rewilding. Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands. Monbiot, Colston and others argue—with varying degrees of emphasis—that the water storage capacity of the uplands should be increased by creating hydraulic roughness through more trees, more scrub and gully reforestation, as well as less dredging of rivers and, most excitingly, the re-introduction of beavers, water engineers par excellence. All of which would produce richer wildlife habitats. The government should be lobbying the EU, seeking changes to rules which makes agricultural land eligible for financial support only when ‘permanent ineligible features’ like trees, scrub and ponds are removed in order to create land in ‘agricultural condition’; farmers will need to be compensated, but that would be much cheaper than the huge clean-up operations and insurance costs currently faced by lowland communities.

I agree with Matthew – I would like to see a bit of soft re-wilding in the uplands.

Gaining consensus in the uplands, especially in National Parks will always be challenging as there are so many different groups all wanting  different things. As the century unfolds it will become more difficult as the climate changes and reconfigures the landscape.

Globally peatlands and blanket bogs are threatened by climate change and Dartmoor is one of the most vulnerable peatlands in the northern hemisphere on account of it latitude and relatively low altitude. The climate on Dartmoor may have already shifted enough so that the bioclimatic envelope required for the formation of peat is no longer available, except at the highest altitudes, as the peat formation process requires a cool and wet climate. By the end of the century the bioclimatic envelope in the Lake District will also be unsuitable.  (Gellego-Sala et al 2010).

By 2100 there is the potential for much change in the uplands, many of the bird species which are today considered to be iconic of National Parks are predicted to disappear, for the moors these are dunlin, golden plover, ring ouzel, curlew, raven, peregrine, hen harrier, red grouse, black grouse and whinchat (Huntley et al 2007).

These challenges all need to be addressed, for example whither ‘favourable condition’?,  but progress will only be made if everyone works together. This includes fighting atmospheric pollution – the scourge of our cities as well as our countryside along with climate change. Of course atmospheric pollution and climate change are different sides of the same coin and are the biggest challenges we now face.

By a fortunate co-incidence this week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’ John Clare – I’ll leave the last word to James Rebanks @herdyshepherd1

References

Gallego-Sala A.V., Clark J.M., House J.I., Orr H.G., Prentice I.C., Smith P., Farewell T. & Chapman S.J. (2010) Bioclimatic envelope model of climate change impacts on blanket peat distribution in Great Britain. Climate Research 45: 151-162. (Open Access)

Huntley B., Green R.E., Collingham Y.C. & Willis S.G. (2007) A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds. Durham University, The RSPB & Lynx Edicions. Barcelona.

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London.

Mercer I. (2009) Dartmoor: a statement of its time. Collins. HarperCollins. London.

A curious row about trees in Scotland

A story appeared in the Guardian (here) and on the BBC website (here) about a joint campaign/press release by Mountaineering Scottish and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association regarding the Scottish government’s plans to increase forest cover in Scotland from 17% today to 25% by 2050.

The joint press release (here) contained the following:-

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Mountaineering Scotland have written a joint letter to Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham MSP, concerned at the potential impacts fragmented policy may have on Scotland’s rare open landscapes.

Both organisations fear a lack of joined up thinking could see the loss of internationally rare landscapes as Scottish Government pursues a policy of large scale afforestation without a blueprint to preserve its celebrated vistas.

In my view the reporting both by the Guardian and the BBC didn’t do the story justice. It led to many people interested in the environment wondering what on the earth Mountaineering Scottish were up to and what were they doing teaming up with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association?

The respected Guardian correspondent tweeted this:-

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-15-37-44

(no it doesn’t)

and the CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust said this.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-15-16-57

However nearly everyone got the wrong end of the stick.

Mountaineering Scottish and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association were talking about the afforestation of the hills with commercial conifer plantations, they were not talking about allowing the Caledonian Pine Forest to re-wild or be replanted.

As a result Mountaineering Scottish issued a clarification – see here. It includes the following:-

In calling for an upland landscape vision and policy, we have highlighted one aspect of land use that we feel needs consideration at a strategic or policy level – the growth of commercial forestry. This does not mean we are against new planting, and we are in favour of native species. This reflects the views of our members as 94% who responded to a survey said we should campaign for the growth of native woodland and conservation of Scotland’s iconic Caledonian pine forests. 

OK that was in Scotland, but here in England we are awaiting Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment – I will bet you that has something on ‘tree planting’ in it as well.

In a Dartmoor context increasing the cover of broadleaved trees in places where it doesn’t impact on the historic environment and helps reduce flooding will be largely welcomed but any plans for extensive afforestation with conifers will cause uproar (again).

More conifers will undoubtedly be planted but the debate is where and where not – that is what MS and the SGA were actually saying their campaign.

 

 

The politics of rewilding on Dartmoor

Mention the word ‘wild’ or any of its derivatives in connection with Dartmoor and conflict and argument will swiftly follow.  An oft – used phrase ‘Dartmoor – the last Wilderness’ is such an example as the farming community will quickly remind you that Dartmoor is not a wilderness or wild – it is in fact a man created landscape. The use the term ‘rewilding’ is currently entirely divisive, almost entirely as a result of the environmental journalist George Monbiot.

The first modern initiative to rewild Dartmoor began in the early 1990s by a small community group called Moor Trees [1] who wanted to see more deciduous woodland on Dartmoor. Their approach was generally inclusive, participatory and non-confrontational.

The next proposal came from Taylor (2005) where in his book Beyond Conservation he proposed that the south west corner of Dartmoor would make an ideal area where rewilding could take place.

beyond-conservation

He suggested that as the land was in part owned by the National Trust this would help get the project going. He also suggested that this ‘rewilded’ corner of Dartmoor would be able to support a viable population of lynx. This proposal remained solely as an idea in a book, the practical complexities, obstacles and social implications were never explored or discussed with any local stakeholders including the National Trust. Indeed at the recent Dartmoor Society conference on rewilding Taylor said that the Dartmoor proposal had been abandoned  due to the complexity of the Commons legislation (Kevin Cox pers comm).

lynx_lynx2
Lynx By mpiet (http://www.mindbox.at/gallery/) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These two examples of rewilding perhaps indicate why the term is so misunderstood and so contentious. On one hand rewilding can be small scale, participatory and non-threatening whilst on the other it can be seen as imposed, far reaching and threatening. As a result many definitions of rewilding exist and the concept means many different things to different audiences.

Monbiot (2013) in his book Feral provided his definition ‘The rewilding of natural ecosystems which fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume. ….. Over the past few decades, ecologists have discovered  the existence of widespread trophic cascades. These are processes caused by animals at the top of the food chain, which tumble all the way to the bottom. Predators and large herbivores can transform the places in which they live. …. They make a powerful case for the re-introduction of large predators and other missing species.’ (Pages 8-9).

feral2

As POSTnote (2016) points out there is no single definition of rewilding ‘but it generally refers to reinstating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human processes. With this definition it is clear to see why the Hill Farming community on Dartmoor has been so outraged and opposed to the idea of rewilding on the moor.

It was therefore surprising when in October 2015, the Dartmoor National Park Authority invited Monbiot to come and speak on rewilding to the biennial National Parks Conference [2]. His used of words such as ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘the white plague’ to describe his views of the sheep grazing regimes on Dartmoor caused widespread offence amongst the farming community [3] but won him many supporters from elsewhere [4].

Monbiot has back on Dartmoor (and Exmoor) in January 2016 and this time he was lambasting conservationists for permitting, encouraging and engaging in swaling activities on the Moor [5]. As mentioned in section 3.3 swaling is the deliberate burning of gorse, heather and grasses (particularly Molinia) on a rotational basis to produce new palatable grazing for stock. Monbiot considered this activity to be entirely inappropriate as it encouraged additional ‘sheepwrecking’ and stopped the natural process of grass developing into scrub and finally onto woodland.

Perhaps more remarkably, Monbiot ended up being quoted in a Royal Society review paper on fire management for his remarks on Dartmoor swaling (Davies et al 2016a) which provoked a furious response from Monbiot in an article entitled ‘Bonfire of the Verities’ [6]. This in turn led the authors of the Royal Society paper to publish a further paper (Davies et al 2016b) where they specifically address Monbiot’s concerns. I have critiqued this rather extraordinary situation and the original Royal Society paper as it focuses almost  exclusively on burning to manage heather and ignores Molinia which as we have seen earlier (section 6.3.) is encouraged under some circumstances by burning [7].

screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-14-37-53

I have concluded previously [8] that Monbiot deliberately provokes controversy to make his point and by doing so creates a space where more measured debate can occur. Prior to his interventions this space did not exist.

On the surface of this controversy it would appear that nothing is going to change, the occupiers of the land on Dartmoor have no intention of vacating it and Monbiot and his followers have no mechanism to enforce what they wish to see. To be fair to Monbiot he does suggest that the farming community could be retrained as ‘rewilders’ and therefore skill remain active on the Moor (Kelly 2015). However the arguments in favour of some form of rewilding are perhaps more nuanced. Monbiot has often talked about ‘ineligible features’ [9] (and see his DNPA presentation for example), these are ponds, clumps of scrub and small groves of trees which if present on land where Basic Payment Scheme subsidy is being claimed means that the land in question has to be removed from the claim as the features in question are ineligible for subsidy payments. This has led to the wholescale removal of such features from large tracts of farmland. To many including some Hill Farmers this has been a step too far, an unnecessary removal of interesting and important habitat and landscape features. Kelly (2016) for example acknowledges that whilst a full blown form of rewilding may be undesirable and unimplementable perhaps something which he terms ‘soft rewilding’ might be possible. He suggests ‘Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands.’ I have written about the differences between ‘hard rewilding’ and ‘soft rewilding’ and have argued that the latter has a role to play  in future management scenarios in the uplands by providing additional wildlife habitat and reducing the threat of flooding[10].

Quartz and Feldspar 2

These ideas have grown in attractiveness since the winter floods of 2015 and 2016 when the research in such places as Pontbren (Keenleyside 2013) demonstrated that uplands with tree cover absorbed 60x the amount of water than the adjacent pasture land. Natural Flood Management is being seen now as a useful option to deploy in the fight against flooding (EFRA 2016) and the uplands are seen as a key place where measures need to be taken.

The ‘ineligible features’ regulations make it difficult to enact Natural Flood Management Schemes unless farmers are willing to forego some subsidy payments. It is possible to get a derogation to allow scrub to grow but this is a complex and time consuming process as Sir Charles Burrell explained to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC 2016 p31) when describing his own experiences on his Knepp Estate.

Now that Government Funding is becoming available for Natural Flood Management via the new Countryside Stewardship options the resolution of these issues become more necessary from the farmer’s perspective. Indeed Andrea Leadsom, the Defra Secretary of State made reference to ‘ineligible features’ in her key note speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on the 4th January 2017 when talking about cutting EU ‘red tape’, ‘No more existential debates to determine what counts as a bush, a hedge, or a tree’ [11].

The decision to leave the EU is likely to have profound effects on Dartmoor and the uplands elsewhere. As mentioned in section 5, the economics of farming in the uplands (and elsewhere) are entirely dependent on the subsidies from the Basic Payment Scheme and the agri-environment funds. After 2020 future funding is not guaranteed. It has generally been signalled by Defra Ministers that in future public funding will  be for the provision of ‘public goods’. Indeed George Eustice said on the 4th January 2017 at the Oxford Farming Conference that ‘UK farmers should expect support payments post 2020 for providing ecosystem services, but not subsidies’.

There will have been few people who would have thought that it might become Government policy to rewild large parts of the uplands, however this is not impossible – the Western Morning News and the BBC on the 4th January 2017 both ran a story which suggested that a leaked draft of the Defra 25 Year Nature Plan which they had seen included the idea that large parts of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor could be allowed to rewild. Defra did not deny these reports and said they would be consulting in due course on proposals for the future of the uplands in the southwest.

It is difficult to imagine how such a programme might be enacted without causing serious damage to local farming communities, issues of access, landscape characteristics, existing wildlife habitats and the historic landscape of Dartmoor which initiatives such as Premium Archaeological Landscapes  aim to protect. There will be those who support such a move irrespective of the human and environmental costs as they will perceive that the wider gains outweigh the losses.

Rewilding on Dartmoor which started off an abstract concept with no implementation mechanism has become a spectre which now can’t be ignored. Hill Farmers and others will now have to wait until Defra publishes its consultation Green Paper on the future of farming later in the year which will hopefully cover rewilding and Dartmoor.

[1] see http://www.moortrees.org

[2] You Tube video of his presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYdm6k1tg3Y

[3] See here for example https://thefarmingforum.co.uk/index.php?threads/anton-coaker-george-monbiot-again.90582/

[4] For example his talk at Exeter University entitled Rewilding Well on 14th January 2016 was packed with enthusiastic supporters https://echo360.exeter.ac.uk:8443/ess/echo/presentation/c0868e98-0601-4f3a-a94c-3a9ad24d51f3

[5] Scorched Earth Conservation http://www.monbiot.com/2016/01/14/scorched-earth-conservation/

[6] Bonfire of the Verities http://www.monbiot.com/2016/03/10/bonfire-of-the-verities/

[7] Burning peatland and the complexity of socio-ecological systems. https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/burning-peatland-and-the-complexity-socio-ecological-systems/

[8] A day with George Monbiot https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/a-day-of-george-monbiot/

[9] https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/george-monbiot-at-the-commons-environmental-audit-committee/

[10] https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/rewilding-and-soft-rewilding/

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/environment-secretary-sets-out-ambition-for-food-and-farming-industry

Davies G.M., Kettridge N., Stoof C.R., Gray A., Ascoli D., Fernandes, Marrs R., Allen K. A., Doerr S. H.,Clay G., McMorrow J. & Vandvik V. (2016a) The role of fire in UK Upland peatland and moorland management; the need for informed, unbiased debate. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371: 1-17. See

Davies G.M., Kettridge N., Stoof C.R., Gray A., Marrs R., Ascoli D., Fernandes, Allen K. A., Doerr S. H.,Clay G., McMorrow J. & Vandvik V. (2016b) Informed debate on the use of fire for peatland management means acknowledging the complexity of socio-ecological systems. Nature Conservation 16: 59-77.

EFRA (2016) Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. Future Flood Prevention. House of Commons.

EAC (2016) Environmental Audit Committee. The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum. House of Commons.

Keenleyside C. (2013) The Pontbren Project – a farmer led approach to sustainable land management in the Uplands.  Woodland Trust and Coed Cymru.

Kelly M. (2015) The Future of Britain’s Uplands: Thinking through History. Solutions July-August 2015.

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London.

Monbiot G. (2013) Feral – searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane. London.

POSTnote (2016) Rewilding and ecosystem services. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. No 537. Houses of Parliament

Taylor P. (2005) Beyond Conservation – a wildland strategy. Earthscan. London.

Rewilding and ‘soft’ rewilding

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology  which in its own words ‘produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology‘has produced a briefing on rewilding. The POSTnoteexplores the consequences of increasing the role of natural processes within landscapes. Evidence from the UK and abroad suggests that rewilding can benefit both wildlife and local people, but animal reintroductions could adversely affect some land-users‘.

Its summary states:-

There is no single definition of rewilding, but it generally refers to reinstating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human activity. In the long term, self regulating natural processes may reduce the need for human management, but in some circumstances human interventions may be needed to kick-start natural processes, such as tree planting, drainage blocking and reintroducing “keystone species” like beavers.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Rewilding aims to restore natural processes that are self-regulating, reducing the need for human management of land.
  • Few rewilding projects are underway, and there is limited evidence on their impacts.
  • Rewilding may provide ecosystem services such as flood prevention, carbon storage and recreation. It often has low input costs, but can still benefit biodiversity.
  • Some valued and protected priority habitats such as chalk grassland currently depend on agricultural practices like grazing. Rewilding may not result in such habitats.
  • No government policy refers explicitly to rewilding, but it has the potential to complement existing approaches to meet commitments on habitat restoration.

You can download the full POST report on rewilding here. It is a good independent, well referenced account which includes a number of mini cases studies (e.g. Knepp in Sussex and beavers in Devon). It also makes reference to the Great Fen project which I helped initiate in the 1990s and to the National Trust’s Wild Ennerdale Project in the Lake District.

The report doesn’t specifically mention the Wicken Fen Vision which I set up in 1999 but you can read about that project here in Decolonising Nature: Beyond preservation – the challenge of ecological restoration  see pages 247-267. This project shows how rewilding or ecological restoration if you prefer can enhance and protect a core area of high nature conservation value (and landscape and cultural value) as well as creating new wetland habitats along with a range of other social benefits such as access, flood protection, carbon storage and recreation.

Wicken Fen Highland Cattle 3

One of the key principles behind the Wicken Fen Vision and other rewilding projects is allowing natural processes to determine the outcomes. This means setting some parameters (the kick-starting referred to in the POST review), at Wicken these were water table levels and a low level grazing regime using konik ponies and Highland cattle and then letting nature determine the resulting habitats and species. This is a different approach to say the bittern recovery work which RSPB led on in the 1990s where habitats were specifically manipulated to be attractive to bitterns. The latter technique  is the one that nature conservation organisations have traditionally followed in the past. The former approach is more novel and as the outcomes are unknown is perhaps less attractive to those who want to ‘control’ habitats and species.

You can read more about this approach in Restoring Riparian Ecosystems: The Challenge of Accommodating Variability and Designing Restoration Trajectories, work carried out at Wicken Fen and led by Dr Francine Hughes and Dr Owen Mountford.

So how does this debate on rewilding fit into the Dartmoor landscape? There are of course some (for example George Monbiot – see here and Peter Taylor in Beyond Conservation) who specifically advocate a full blown rewilding approach with re-introduced herbivores and carnivores.

I, however, do not support such an approach here as it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s historic landscapes (its reeves, hut circles, standing stones, stone circles, pillow mounds, tin mining artefacts, medieval farms etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s cultural landscapes (the Commoners, the Commons and the tenements etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s existing and ecologically important habitats and species and it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s landscape  with its ‘long views for which Dartmoor is renowned‘ (Ian Mercer’s words in his Collins New Naturalist page 27).

That is not to say that everything should remain as it is. Matthew Kelly writing in the updated paperback edition of Quartz and Feldspar perhaps makes the best case for what could happen in the future. This is where he introduces his phrase ‘soft rewilding’.

Those awakened to the issues by winter flooding should need little persuading of the pragmatic reasons for one what might call soft rewilding. Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands. Monbiot, Colston and others argue—with varying degrees of emphasis—that the water storage capacity of the uplands should be increased by creating hydraulic roughness through more trees, more scrub and gully reforestation, as well as less dredging of rivers and, most excitingly, the re-introduction of beavers, water engineers par excellence. All of which would produce richer wildlife habitats. The government should be lobbying the EU, seeking changes to rules which makes agricultural land eligible for financial support only when ‘permanent ineligible features’ like trees, scrub and ponds are removed in order to create land in ‘agricultural condition’; farmers will need to be compensated, but that would be much cheaper than the huge clean-up operations and insurance costs currently faced by lowland communities.

O Brook 3

Such ideas are ‘of the moment’ as they chime well with the current debate about what should happen to agricultural subsides following our vote to leave the European Union – the ‘public money for public goods’ expression. The recent report from the National Trust ‘New Markets for Land and Nature’ (see here) shows how ‘soft re-wilding’ could provide a series of public and environmental benefits and improvements whilst still offering the opportunity to look after the existing historic, cultural, ecological and visual landscapes of Dartmoor.

Of course if Government fail to come up with a timely new settlement to replace the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies which is sufficiently funded and attractive to the various stakeholders then a much harder rewilding of the moor may take place by default.

O Brook 2

Return to the Wildwood?

This year’s annual Dartmoor Society public debate is entitled ‘Return to the Wildwood? Is rewilding the future for Dartmoor?’ It will be held  on Saturday 29 October 2016 10am­-5pm at Melton Village Hall. Unfortunately I will be on the Isles of Scilly so am unable to attend. Nevertheless I would urge anyone interested in this topic to attend. I suspect that the debate at times will be rather heated as for some of the players there is a great deal at stake.

Wistman's 1

Matthew Kelly, Professor of History at Northumbria University, and author of Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor ­ A British Landscape in Modern Times will chair the day and he has written about the topic here where he coined the phrase that I use a lot ‘soft rewilding’.

Other speakers include Robert Cook; Lecturer in Education for Sustainability, Plymouth University ‘Just How Wild Should We Be?’; Ann Willcocks; Dartmoor Farmer and Commoner ‘Why Bother?’; Miles King; Environmentalist “Rewilding: scary monsters and fairy tales? Or nature and people.” and Tom Greeves; Cultural Environmentalist ‘8000 years of culture in an upland environment ­ the elephant in the room?’.

You can download the flyer here and book for the event which costs £20 here.

In our post Brexit world the fate of subsidies for Upland farmers is a huge topic for debate and a massive concern for many. I am attending a meeting of the Upland Alliance on this on Thursday and it will undoubtedly feature a great deal in my PhD research. There are huge opportunities and huge threats depending on where you are standing and this conference will no doubt unpick some of this.

Rewilding means many things to many different people and it is a very loaded expression. The conference on the 29th October is therefore an important contribution to the debate.

 

The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan

I like to think I know what is going on, on Dartmoor but sometimes I really don’t. The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan is one such occasion. The Forestry Commission issued a consultation document in March on how it intended to manage its forest estate (Fernworthy, Bellever, Soussans and Brimpts) into the future. Comments had to be submitted by April.

You can download and read the Plan here – part 1here – part 2here – part 3here – part 4 and here – part 5. There are also 4 appendices which you can read here for 1here for 2here for 3 and here for 4 – the consultation comments and replies.

I only found out about it a couple of weeks ago after being contacted by Matthew Kelly, the historian and author of Quartz and Feldspar who has written a blog about it (see here) and was seeking my view on it.

I think it must have been a pretty low profile consultation – nothing has appeared on my social media feeds about it for three months and it is often by that route I discover what is going on. I suspect that the FC sent consultation documents to their formal consultees and a select band of NGOs.

In essence the documents set out the FC’s plans up to 2046. Greater thought will be given to wildlife and archaeology, access will be encouraged  but the primary plans centre on the Forests as places where commercial timber will be grown predominantly from conifer crops. There is a small increase of broadleaved species especially around the edges and there is a diversification of the species of conifer that will be planted.

From BelleverBellever
Bellever Forest from Bellever Tor

The coming years will see the current crop (predominantly Sitka Spruce) mature and be clear felled. At Fernworthy for example 40% of the forest will be clear felled by 2031. Sitka Spruce monocultures will not be replanted as it is now considered that due to climate change the Forests need to be diversified to make them more resilient. Instead a mix of Sitka Spruce, Noble Fir, Pacific Silver Fir, Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce and Wellingtonia, plus in a few places Willow, Birch,  Alder, Wych Elm, Swamp Cypress and Sycamore will be planted.

The 4 Dartmoor Forests in question were planted up (largely) in the 19th and early 20th centuries and managed by the FC (it is a complicated story which I have simplified here – see Quartz and Feldspar pp244-265 in the paperback edition for the full details). As well as being productive forests they have also become important places for wildlife in their own right harbouring a number of rare species such as goshawk, hobby, nightjar and for a short period of time Britain’s only breeding location for the red-backed shrike.

The FC acknowledges (and is indeed proud) of this wildlife asset and the plan addresses it. The Plan also takes steps to undo some of the brutalism of their earlier plantings where conifers were grown on top of Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs). Once the trees have been felled the SAMs will be left open and managed for their archaeology. This is a step forward but isolated SAMs within a forest environment is not the same as an open historic landscape from whence they came.

Sousson's Stone Circle
A stone circle adjacent to Soussans Forest.

The Plan also acknowledges the impact that forestry has on water quality. Conifers acidify the soil and therefore the water and when fellings occur sediment / soil ends up in the water courses and ultimately in the rivers. Acidified waters with a peaty sediment load are not good for river wildlife such as salmon, dippers and grey wagtails along with their invertebrate prey.

These issues are potentially significant at Fernworthy with its adjacent reservoir which many of us rely on for our own drinking water. There are lengthy comments from the Environment Agency and the Devon Wildlife Trust on this topic (in appendix 4) which the FC have taken on board in addition to their own initial mitigation plan.

The other comments from the conservation bodies (RSPB, DWT and DNPA) largely consist of advice around how the existing Forest based wildlife can be enhanced along with a few words urging a higher proportion of broadleaved plantings.

Interestingly the comments don’t include anything about the potential species the FC are proposing to plant. The FC have invested a lot of time and money into producing a database which enables foresters to select suitable species to plant against the backdrop of a changing climate – see here. You simply type in a number of site variables and the database provides you with a long list of suitable exotic trees to plant to make the forest / woodland more resilient to climate change.

I have been a long time sceptic of this approach. The FC (and the rest of Government) use the UK Climate Prediction 09 dataset (produced by the scientists at the Hadley Centre and the Met Office in Exeter) – see here. This model compared to the previous version acknowledges the considerable uncertainties and as a result provides a probabilistic approach to future climate scenarios. Firstly there are 3 emission scenarios Low, Medium and High – which one of these is the Earth currently embarking on regarding its emission of greenhouse gases? You have to choose one. You then choose a climate variable e.g. Summer Mean Maximum Temperature.

Sum_Tmax_Med_2080s_large
© UK Climate Projections 2009
And this is the outcome – so on Dartmoor under the medium emissions scenario by 2080 the change in maximum summer temperature is very unlikely to be less than 3 degree C and very unlikely to be more than 9 degrees C. That is quite a range!

The maps also come with a health warning from the Met Office. “These maps are useful to communicate the main results of UKCP09 and raise awareness about climate change. When presenting UKCP09 projections using maps you should use a series of maps to show the range of possible outcomes. Here we have put together maps in series of 3 (showing the 10%, 50 % and 90% probability levels) for a range of climate variables. They are available for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s and for low, medium and high emissions scenarios.”

DEFRA however in their document ‘Adapting to Climate Change – UK Climate predictions’, download here, present the data in a very different way which gives the outcome a much more predictable fate.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.15.31
They have decided to use the 50% probability estimates (calling them ‘central estimates’) i.e. there is a 50% chance they will be lower than this and a 50% chance they will be higher.

This data is what is used in the FC tree species selection database which could be interpreted as meaning there is a 50% chance the right species have been selected and 50% chance they might be wrong! Foresters from the FC have got ‘previous’ on this – during their fanatical campaign to plant up the Flow Country in northern Scotland Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine were planted over tens of thousands of acres damaging internationally important peatlands until it was discovered that it was too wet and the tree wouldn’t grow. Conservationists make fun of foresters by saying they don’t need to be accountable for their decisions because by the time it is discovered that a mistake has been made they will have either retired or died. The question for me therefore remains have the FC chosen the right species?

Another curious thing about the Dartmoor Forest Plan in addition to the fact that very few people have heard about is who wasn’t formally consulted. On the surface this may seem a very innocuous matter – the FC is consulting with its close band of stakeholders to sharpen up its thinking. However the history of forestry on Dartmoor tells a very different story which is beautifully described by Matthew Kelly in Quartz and Feldspar. In essence decades of the 20th century saw huge battles between the FC and various preservationists led by the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Had it not been for their efforts the conifer plantations may have stretched continuously from Bellever to Fernworthy! It was really only in the 1980s that things calmed down as the FC metamorphosed into a more environmentally friendly organisation.

I have looked at the websites of the Dartmoor Preservation Association’s and the Dartmoor Society and can find no reference to the Dartmoor Forest Plan. I get the feeling that like me they missed the consultation because I am certain that if they had been consulted they would have had something to say!

I am also surprised that Chagford Parish Council didn’t respond to their formal consultation – over the next 15 years 40% of Fernworthy will be clear felled – that is around 570 acres of conifer plantation and all of the vehicle movements will go through Chagford……. It isn’t easy negotiating Chagford and the subsequent road up to Fernworthy in a VW Golf let along a double six wheel forestry wagon.

I am also intrigued by the DNPA’s position. The comments from them in appendix 4 are from their Senior Ecologist and are specific technical issues relating to nature conservation but the section starts “our Senior ecologist has some additional comments to add”. However the DNPA’s comments which apparently precede this are not published! I wonder what their view is? A previous head of the DNPA Ian Mercer in his Collins New Naturalist book ‘Dartmoor’ said the following regarding Hawns and Dandles conifers – “wholesale removal of a living eyesore (to moorland devotees) has happened at public expense…..“. The DNPA as an organisation don’t like the conifers on the high moor!

I wonder whether the DNPA urged the FC either to not replant or replant with broadleaved trees opposed to alien conifers?

It is also interesting that no comments were received from the Woodland Trust or the National Trust – their partnership project at Fingle Woods would surely have been relevant?

As a result the FC have managed to carry out a very low profile consultation on how they should replant and manage their Forest Estate on Dartmoor without stirring up a debate about whether there should indeed be conifer plantations on the high moor in a National Park, the conservation bodies appear also to have been compliant to this by sticking to their consultation brief.

A couple of months before the consultation George Monbiot was on Dartmoor proselytising about re-wilding. I’m sure if George or Rewilding Britain (the charity he helped form) had known about the Dartmoor Forest Plan they too would have had something to say.

Ironically, whilst the conservationists have been compliant or caught napping or living in blissful ignorance it has taken a historian to come up with a more exciting future vision. In his blog entitled The Dartmoor Forestry Plan. Questioning Conventional Thinking he says:-

This is a moment of opportunity for Dartmoor. The Dartmoor Forestry Plan, despite its progressive gestures, suggests this will be missed. When conventional thinking no longer chimes with the public mood it should be challenged.

Could not at least one of the FC’s Dartmoor holdings be dedicated solely to native broadleaf planting? It is hard to exaggerate what an exciting development this would be for Dartmoor nature. My vote goes to Fernworthy.

The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan indeed!

 

 

 

 

The Oak Brook – a place of mutual satisfaction?

The O Brook is a small tributary of the River Dart near to Combestone Tor, it is a very beautiful little valley. The ‘O’ for some reason is an abbreviation of Oke, Ock or Oak and therefore we might speculate that before the valley came to the attention of Mediaeval tinners it would have been another high level oak wood like Wistman’s Wood, Black a Tor  and Piles Copses.

William  Crossing in his 1909 classic Guide to Dartmoor said “The rambler should on no account omit to visit this spot. It is one of the most delightful little nooks on the moor. Dwarf trees, ferns, moss and heather, grey boulders and rippling water all combine to form a charming picture.” Today whilst a few people do go there, the majority of Dartmoor’s visitors and residents have never heard of it.

O Brook 2
The O Brook valley flowing north towards the Dart.

O Brook 3It is no longer a wooded valley but it does contain a lot of individual trees and shrubs

O Brook 1So many of the high moor stream valleys are now tree free so the O Brook stands out, catches your eye and gives a brief view of what once was and perhaps what might be again one day.

Matthew Kelly has coined the term ‘soft re-wilding‘ – a state of nature in between George Monbiot’s full bore re-wilding (see here) and the current fully grazed  moorscape. The O Brook (which I think from now on ought be called the Oak Brook) is a classic example of what ‘soft re-wilding could achieve. With a little extra tinkering the Brook could also play a bigger role in ‘slowing the flow’ into the Dart and help alleviate flooding down stream as has so successfully been achieved by the National Trust on the Holnicote Estate in Somerset – see here.

As mentioned above the land along and beside the Oak Brook has a rich archaeological history – the area has been worked for tin since Mediaeval times and maybe before.

O Brook tin streaming
Our wild camping site last Saturday clearly shows the remains of tin streaming (the longitudinal ‘ridge and furrow’ around the isolated tent).

Hooten WhealThis is Hooten Wheals beside the Oak Brook which was a very productive tin mine.

Tin mining in the area is first known to have commenced in 1240 and the last tin was extracted in 1920. There is an excellent detailed account of the mining activity around Hooten Wheal (aka Hexworthy Mine) here – it is an account of an Open University Geology Society field trip to the area. It contains a full history along with some excellent maps and illustrations which explain what has gone on.

All in all, the Oak Brook seems to be a great case study which demonstrates how the interests of the Commoners, the historic landscape, the landscape and the natural environment can be blended together to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.