The 25 year Environment Plan – the wait is over

After months of waiting the Plan has finally been published and launched by the Prime Minister. So ….. has the wait been worth it? Of course this is just a plan BUT if it is delivered an awful lot to do with the environment will change for the better. There will of course be those who say it doesn’t go far enough here and opportunities have been missed there – they will probably be right too. BUT, my goodness who would have thought a plan such as this would have been published during the Paterson or Leadsom eras? I’m not going to systematically review the document I’m just going to pull out a few bits and pieces that caught my attention and made me smile.

You can download and the the 25 year plan here and I recommend you do 

To start with I wonder whether the cover of the report contains a Defra joke? This is Mam Tor in the Peak District with the sun rising in the background (at least I assume it is rising). It is owned by the National Trust who are developing plans to encourage hen harriers and peregrines back into the area. A new dawn is breaking …. hang on …. that was somebody else.

Back to Gove, he repeats in his introduction this –

We will support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife back. We will ensure broader landscapes are transformed by connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife, as recommended by Sir John Lawton in his official review.

In the main report we are told again that subsidies are on the way out.

£3.2bn is spent in the UK under the CAP. £2.59bn of this is spent under ‘Pillar 1’ – the ‘basic payment scheme’ (BPS). This pays farmers according to the amount of land they own, rather than the outcomes they achieve. It concentrates money in the hands of those who already have significant private wealth, without improving environmental outcomes.

And that the ‘greening’ measures have failed and that only a fraction of the money has been spent on things that make a difference.

There have been efforts to improve this by ‘greening’ one third of BPS payments – but scholars have recently found these to be largely ineffective. Just £0.64bn – 20% of the total – is spent on environmental stewardship programmes under ‘Pillar 2’.

The principle public good ….. that is progress!!

After a period of stability to ensure a smooth transition, we will move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods. The principal public good we want to invest in is environmental enhancement.

OK nothing specifically about uplands, hill-farmers or Commons but Gove covered them in his OFC speech last week – see here. These topics will be specially covered in the Agriculture Command paper due in the Spring and all will be well! Hill-farmers will be supported and the uplands will be restored.

Incentives ….. and ….. the ‘polluter pays’ – I never thought that I would read that regarding fertiliser and pesticide usage

We will introduce a new environmental land management system to deliver this. It will incentivise and reward land managers to restore and improve our natural capital and rural heritage. It will also provide support for farmers and land managers as we move towards a more effective application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle (whereby for costs of pollution lie with those responsible for it).

Here is the strong influence on Government that the Natural Capital Committee has had. Before the NCC ‘externalities’ were just jargon from economists but now it looks like we will all be using the word to reduce pollution.

Farming can be a powerful force for environmental enhancement but it currently generates too many externalities such as emissions from livestock and pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK. It accounts for 25% phosphate, 50% nitrate and 75% sediment loadings in the water environment, which harms ecosystems.

Finally a clear and not tacit admission that atmospheric pollution harms soils and alters vegetation.

By ensuring fertilisers are used efficiently, we can cut the air and water pollution that harms public health and the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Poor storage of manure and slurry can lead to the release of harmful chemicals and gases such as ammonia (in 2015, more than four-fifths of ammonia emissions in the UK stemmed from agriculture). This can cause acid rain, combine with pollution from traffic and industry to form smog, and harm soils and vegetation.

A clear indication that peat bogs will be conserved and managed better in the future.

Our peat bogs and fens are important habitats that provide food and shelter for wildlife, help with flood management, improve water quality and play a part in climate regulation. Most peat soils support ecosystems that are sensitive to human activities including drainage, grazing, liming and afforestation. This makes them susceptible to degradation if poorly managed.

If I were still working at Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s Vision or the Wildlife Trust’s Great Fen project I would be very excited about this – opportunities, opportunities, opportunities.

Over the last 200 years, we have lost 84% of our fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia. The fens there could lose the remainder in just 30-60 years given current land management practices and a changing climate. In view of this, we intend to create and deliver a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.

Habitat creation on a grand scale …

Through changes in the way we manage our land, we will develop a Nature Recovery Network providing 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat, more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure.

Five years ago commissioning a review into National Parks would have been a recipe for their further emasculation – this can only mean they are going to be strengthened and properly funded! Who to chair the review? Dame Fiona Reynolds would be a good choice in my view.

The UK’s first National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament in 1949 following the government’s 1947 Hobhouse Report, which remains the basis for most protected landscape designation in England today.

Now, 70 years on, the Government will commission a review for the 21st Century. This will consider coverage of designations, how designated areas deliver their responsibilities, how designated areas are financed, and whether there is scope for expansion. It will also consider opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations, and expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment.

To my eyes much of this plan looks excellent, of course it will only be effective if things happen – that is the next stage.

This tweet which I posted earlier sums up my feelings

There is also an annex which was published alongside the main report – this is also very good – it is full of useful data with url links to the sources. You can download the annex here.

I can’t see the Defra joke though in this image – can you?

Gove’s Age of Acceleration

Michael Gove spoke yesterday at the Oxford Farming Conference -the Age of Acceleration. The general consensus from those interested in the environment is that Gove is the best Defra Secretary of State for years. He has a clear understanding of the issues involved and he seems to really get it! You can read his full speech here.

 

Gove highlighted the priority areas for the forthcoming White Paper on Agriculture and the Environment: driving change in 4 ways

  1. Develop a coherent food policy
  2. Give farmers the tools to adapt to the future
  3. Move away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods
  4. Ensure we build natural capital thinking into our approach for all land use and management

I’ve picked out a few sections which caught my eye.

Gove – the deep green!

Without action we face the progressive loss of the natural capital on which all growth – natural, human and economic – ultimately depends.

Because we cannot expect to live prosperous and civilised lives in the future unless we recognise that we have to care for that which gives us all life – our planet.

Gove on changes to the subsidy system

Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes. It gives the most from the public purse to those who have the most private wealth.

The principal public good we will invest in is of course environmental enhancement.

Gove on tackling the power of the supermarkets and processors

Government can also intervene closer to home where there is market failure. When, for example some powerful players in the food chain use the scale of their market presence to demand low prices from primary producers who are much smaller and dis-aggregated. That is why my colleague George Eustice is looking now at overall fairness in the supply chain.

And indeed I also have a responsibility to ask if all the incentives and Government interventions everywhere in the food chain work towards economic justice and social inclusion.

On hill-farmers

So that does mean …. asking how we can support those farmers, for example upland sheep farmers, whose profit margins are more likely to be small but whose contribution to rural life and the maintenance of iconic landscapes is immense.

Rural resilience as a public good

Finally there is rural resilience. There are any number of smaller farm and rural businesses which help keep communities coherent and ensure the culture in agriculture is kept healthy. Whether it’s upland farmers in Wales or Cumbria, crofters in Scotland or small livestock farmers in Northern Ireland, we need to ensure support is there for those who keep rural life vital. The work of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been invaluable here and the kind of enterprises that it supports are, I believe, worthy of public support.

And finally, a message to the NFU?

And there are huge opportunities for those in agriculture to play the leading role in shaping this strategy. Rather than devoting intellectual energy and political capital to campaigning for policy interventions designed to insulate farming from change, agriculture’s leaders can respond to growing public interest in debates about food, animal welfare, the environment, health and economic justice by demonstrating, as so many in this room are doing, how their innovative and dynamic approaches are enhancing the environment, safeguarding animal welfare, producing food of the highest quality, improving public health and contributing to a fairer society.

OK we are going to have to wait until 2022 for some of this to fully appear but it really does seem that change is on the way.

Or does it?

Gove’s leadership at Defra has been immense and shows what an individual in Government can achieve. But what would happen to all of this if there is a Cabinet re-shuffle and the ambitious Gove ends up in say, the Foreign Office?

Would his successor have the same zeal? The previous two Secretaries of State at Defra certainly didn’t.

Restoring Dartmoor’s blanket bogs

The Background
Peatlands across the UK have experienced historic human impacts such drainage, peat cutting, unsustainable grazing and burning pressures along with acidification and damage from atmospheric pollution. These pressures are well known to limit the capacity of peatlands to carry out their natural regulatory functions. These include their ability to sequester and store carbon, store and deliver potable drinking water and support animal and plant communities which are of European importance.

The Dartmoor Mires project which ran from 2010 to 2015 piloted peat restoration works on the north moor to assess their feasibility, desirability and potential for success. Work was carried out at three sites: Winneys Down, South Tavy Heads and Flat Tor Pan. Interventions, which have included blocking gulleys, were carried out which aimed to raise the water tables in the pilot areas. The project involved extensive pre- and post-project hydrological monitoring carried out by the University of Exeter. This work demonstrated that prior to the restoration works the water table was dropping to an average of 30cm below the surface. Once the works had been carried out the water table had risen by an average of 9cm.

Pre-works monitoring also showed that high levels of dissolved organic carbon (i.e. peat) was being lost in water flowing from the blanket bog as a result of exposed and unvegetated peat erosion. Monitoring work is currently being carried out by the University of Exeter to determine whether the restoration works have reduced this.

In the areas where the wetting occurred breeding dunlin numbers increased by 38% and vegetation surveys showed that bog plants such as Sphagnum mosses returned to areas where they had previously been absent.

South West Water have funded the bulk of this work as 40% of their (our) water comes from Dartmoor and if peatlands are degraded the dissolved organic carbon has to be expensively removed at a Water Treatment Works.

The Dartmoor Peatland Investigation and Mapping Project
In November 2016 the Dartmoor National Park Authority commissioned the University of Exeter’s Mire Research Team to produce a GIS resource of peatlands on Dartmoor to include bare peat areas, gullies and erosion features, areas of peat cutting and previously unmapped archaeological features. These impacted areas were included as they are known to affect ecological and hydrological processes operating in peatlands.

Various datasets were used in the analysis including LIDAR, infrared analysis and soil maps. In May 2017 two outputs were delivered to the DNPA: a technical report ‘Dartmoor Peatland Investigation and Mapping Project Report’ and an on-line summary of the features mapped. This can be viewed at https://maps.dartmoor.gov.uk/peatland.html.

The table below summaries the extent of the peatland resource and the extent of damaged areas.

The on-line GIS map produces outputs such as this.

This shows the extent of peat less than 40cm deep and more than 40cm deep based around the National Trust land in the Plym Valley with an OS map base.

This is the same area and features but with an aerial photo base.

This map is of the same area but shows areas of bare peat, drains, peat cutting along with gulley areas where erosion is possible.

The same area and features but with an aerial base – this interpretation highlights the gulley erosion areas more clearly (yellow and red markings).

This on-line resource is very flexible and can be manipulated and zoomed to highlight specific features in specific locations.

 DPIM Supplementary Report
Following on from this report the DNPA asked the University of Exeter team to undertake a further piece of work to

  • Estimate the extent of eco-hydrologically damaged areas of peatland within Dartmoor National Park.
  • Estimate and map the area/s of functionally intact bog.
  • Identify the best candidate sites for future restoration based on ecohydrological analysis.

This work was completed during 2017  and can be summarised as follows.

The report also includes a map displaying these features across Dartmoor.

I was very surprised at the low area of intact bog (3.6km2) – perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as Dartmoor has clearly had a great deal of human manipulation since the Mesolithic.

Defra Fund to restore peatlands
The DNPA used this new information to make a bid to Defra’s new peatland restoration fund which was launched in July 2017 (see here). This DNPA bid (submitted along with projects on Bodmin and Exmoor) includes completion of works started during the pilot re-wetting project at Flat Tor Pan along with new restoration schemes at Red Lake, Hangingstone Hill and Amicombe / Rattlebrook. The Dartmoor element is costed at £1.68m. Members of the DNPA approved the project on the 1st December 2017 and Defra will announce who has been successful on the 22nd December 2017.

The dominant narrative is that peatlands need to be restored (as they have been damaged by anthropogenic activities over the millennia) in order to ensure they effectively deliver their ‘ecosystem services’ e.g. carbon capture and storage, drinking water provision, biodiversity conservation and flood prevention. The need and benefits of such an approach are set out in the British Ecological Society’s Review volume ‘Peatland Restoration and Ecosystem Services’ see here.

However there are some that disagree and later in the week I will set out the position held by the Dartmoor Society who believe that such an approach unduly favours nature at the expense of the cultural landscape.

 

 

 

 

The mystery of Vancouver’s sheep figures on Dartmoor in 1808

Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon [1] written in 1808 is a widely cited source with regards to grazing and potential agricultural improvements on the Dartmoor Commons.

Vancouver’s book is an amazing treatise on the state of agriculture across Devon in the early 19th century and while much of its focus was on agricultural improvement it contains several sections about the grazing potential of the Dartmoor Commons.

Vancouver described Dartmoor as follows

The whole surface of Dartmoor, including the rocks, consists of two characters, the one a wet peaty moor, or vegetable mould, but affording good sheep and bullock pasture, during the summer season. The other an inveterate swamp, absolutely inaccessible to the lightest and most active quadruped that may traverse the sounder parts of the forest. P281

He then goes on to recommend that the ‘inveterate swamp’ is drained and improved but defends the ‘wet peaty moor’ as follows:

The depasturable parts of the forest, consist of a black moory soil, from eighteen inches to two feet in thickness, generally forming peat below, always highly charged with moisture, and ultimately resting upon a reddish-coloured argillaceous loam, called fox-mould, and which is also retentive of water in a very high degree. The spontaneous vegetation of this part of the forest, among many other herbs and grasses, consisted of purple melic grass, mat grass, downy oat grass, bristle-leaved bent, eye-bright, bulbous rooted rush, common termentel, smooth heath-bed straw, common bone binder, cross-leaved heath, common heath or ling (dwarf), milk-wort, dwarf dock and agrostis vulgaris in very large quantities. The disturbing of this herbage, however inferior it may appear in the eye of the refined agriculturalist, is on no account whatever to be recommended to permitted.

Vancouver goes on to describe the importance of the ‘wet peaty moors’ for grazing by sheep and cattle.

“The importance of the first description of these wastes (referring to his earlier writing on the boggy character of Dartmoor), can in no way be so fully shewn as by stating the stock feeding upon them. The Commons belonging to the parish of Widdecombe [and Buckland in the Moor] will furnish a sufficient example, when in the month of October last, there were estimated by gentlemen residing in the neighbourhood, to be no less than 14,000 sheep, besides the usual proportion of horned cattle.” p228

 

Mercer (2009) comments on these high sheep numbers suggesting that the Commons of Widecombe and Buckland today amount to 1032 ha. and therefore in 1808 were subject to a grazing pressure of over 2 sheep per ha. My own research concludes that the two Commons amount to 1940ha., nearly twice the area Mercer states. With regard to the cattle we are left unclear on their stocking density but Mercer (p292) states that Vancouver described them as standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’. These two Commons account for around 5% of Dartmoor’s Commons, so if we take an estimate that there were 10,000 cattle on the Commons of Dartmoor in the early 19th century we could speculate that there were 500 (5%) on these two Commons.

By doing this we are then able to construct some grazing pressures, measured in Livestock Unit (LSU) where 0.15 sheep equates to 1 bovine, which we can then compare to those seen in the modern era.

14,000 sheep May to Oct       =          2100 LSU

500 cattle May – Oct              =          500 LSU

Total                                                       2600 LSU

over 1940 ha of Common       =          1.34 LSU / ha / year.

Many studies have been published which seek to recommend appropriate grazing levels on upland grasslands and heaths. The majority of these have been carried out either in Scotland, the Peak District and the Pennines.

In north-east Scotland a grazing pressure of 0.2 cattle and 2.7 sheep / ha (this equates to 0.605 LSU / ha [2]) caused damage to heather communities. Additionally, with cattle at 1.2 / ha (1.2 LSU / ha) there was a 32% decline in 4 years and a decline from 80% to 5% heather cover in 10 years. With 5 sheep / ha (0.75 LSU / ha) there was a 9% decline in heather cover over 4 years (Welch 1984).

A grazing pressure of 2 sheep / ha (0.3 LSU / ha) on heather moorland and 0.37 sheep / ha (0.055 LSU / ha) on blanket bog was considered to be compatible with nature conservation objectives. Whilst 0.5 sheep / ha (0.075 LSU / ha) on heather moorland and 0.1 sheep / ha (0.015 LSU / ha) on blanket bog was required for heather to regenerate (Evans & Felton 1987).

On the face of it the grazing pressure reported by Vancouver is in excess of that which modern research found that habitat damage would occur. However Vancouver reported both cross-leaved heather and ling as being notable in these pastures.

The situation is further complicated as Vancouver also reports the following.

“From the number of sheep annually summered upon Dartmoor and Exmoor forests, the ewes and lambs of which are always brought down into the country on the approach of winter, it will be readily supposed, that a large proportion of sheep stock is always found to occupy the surrounding districts during the winter season. The greater part of these flocks, however being wethers (castrated rams), and chiefly preserved for their wool are left upon the forests during winter.” P345

The sheep in question here are White-faced Dartmoors, these sheep were being raised to produce wool and mutton. The wethers were the principle producer of wool fleeces and may have been kept for up to 6 years. The key factor in the above text is that they were being overwintered on the moor. It is widely assumed that all-year round grazing on Dartmoor did not occur until the late 19th century and the early 20th century when Scotch Black-faced sheep and the Galloway cattle arrived. It would appear that the practices of transhumance (summer grazing and winter resting) along with levancy and couchancy – the rule that determined the number of grazing stock that could be summered on the Common by reference to the capacity of the land to which the rights were associated to feed stock over the winter months, i.e. all stock on the Common in the summer had to be accommodated and fed on the farm in the winter months were already breaking down.

If we assume that that the wethers accounted for 8000 of the 14,000 sheep (‘the greater part’) then we need to add an additional 1200 LSUs in to the calculation.

14,000 sheep May to Oct       =          2100 LSU

8000 wethers Nov to Apr       =          1200 LSU

500 cattle May – Oct              =          500 LSU

Total                                                        3800 LSU

over 1940 ha of Common       =          1.96 LSU / ha / year.

Grazing pressures at these levels, according to the recent research would cause serious problems of overgrazing and habitat degradation. However this would appear not to be the case in 1808 as Vancouver goes on to report:

“The number of sheep thus summered and kept the year round upon the forest of Dartmoor, the depasturable parts of which, in a dry summer, is one of the best sheep-walks in the kingdom, is not easy to ascertain; but if any inference can be drawn from the returns made from Widdicombe and Buckland in the Moor, their numbers must necessarily be very considerable indeed. A dry summer (as just observed), is always the most favourable for these sheep walk. These afforded in the months of August and September last, flocks were more numerous, and in much higher condition, than has ever been observed by the surveyor in any other part of England, when such have not been aided by access to the enclosures or artificial food. Yet the grass of the sheep-walks upon the forest of Dartmoor, in the beginning of November was scarcely half consumed.” P346-347

Additionally Mercer (p303) quotes Vancouver who reported seeing ‘knee high grass’ on the Widecombe Commons in May. Ample grazing at the beginning of the growing season and scarcely half consumed in November.

Vancouver’s 1808 account of sheep on Dartmoor contrasts markedly with that of Robert Frazer who in 1794 published a ‘General View of the county of Devon with observations on the means of its improvement’[3]. On page 53 he states

The south and east quarter are the driest and best for sheep, and from the most accurate information I could obtain, there are not five thousand sheep kept on both these quarters. Certainly not so many on the north and west. So that if we say 10,000 sheep for the whole of Dartmore, we shall be beyond the mark. I think there are not 8,000 in the whole forest in any summer.

However, Fogwill (1954) in his essay on Pastoralism on Dartmoor stated that in Annals of Agriculture there is a footnote stating that ‘this a great error’.

It is difficult to unravel this mystery and we may never be able to do so: perhaps the gentlemen of the parish miscalculated the number of sheep; perhaps the 14,000 sheep were not solely on the Commons or perhaps the breeds of animals involved i.e. the White-faced Dartmoor sheep and the Ruby Red Devon cattle impacted less severely on the vegetation than Scotch Blackfaces and Galloways.

Or maybe, just maybe, in the time before the Industrial Revolution began, before the era of atmospheric pollution and climate change, the hill-farmers of Dartmoor had perfected a system of pastoralism which allowed them to graze the Commons with great numbers of animals without damaging the vegetation.

A mystery indeed.

[1] The entire manuscript can be downloaded here free of charge https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/General_View_of_the_Agriculture_of_the_C.html?id=BwhLAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y

[2] LSU is known as a livestock unit Cattle = 1LSU, Ponies = 1 LSU & Sheep = 0.15 LSU

[3] Download free of charge here https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/General_View_of_the_County_of_Devon.html?id=-H5bAAAAQAAJ

Evans S. & Felton M. (1987) Hill livestock compensatory allowances and upland management. In Bell and Bunce (1987) pp66-72.

Fogwill E. (1954) Pastoralism on Dartmoor. Transactions of the Devonshire Association 86: 89-114.

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

Welch D. (1984) Studies in the grazing of heather moorland in North-East Scotland. II. Response of heather. Journal of Ecology 21: 197-207.

Have we reached ‘peak’ maize?

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have written a lot in the past about maize and its potential and real environmental impacts e.g. exaserbates flooding and soil erosion – see here for previous blogs.

The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the area of countryside devoted to maize. In 1985, 25,000 hectares grew maize, today it is over 180,000 hectares. The majority of maize is grow as cattle fodder and as a result the south west of England has extensive areas devoted to it. Additionally around 10 years ago maize was also specifically grown so that it could used in anaerobic digestion (AD) plants to produce electricity. The growing of this maize is subsidised and it is therefore an attractive crop for farmers.

Between 2015 and 2016 the area of maize grown for AD plants increased by 55%. Last year the government reduced the subsidy for AD maize by 50%. Defra have just published their annual cropping figures.

2015 2016 2017 % change 2016-2017
All Maize 173 182 183 0.8
of which grain maize 8 8 8 2.2
of which fodder maize 132 122 118 -3.1
of which maize for anaerobic digestion 35 52 57 9.8

As can be seen the overall area of maize is the same in 2017 when compared to 2016. The area of maize grown for fodder has decreased by by 3.1% and the area of for AD has increased by 9.8%.

The reduction in maize for fodder is occurring as cattle are being returned to pastures to feed on grass and perhaps because there is a concern that cattle areas where there is a high incidence of maize cultivation have higher outbreaks of bovine TB than areas with little maize (see here).

Whilst the area of AD maize has increased the rate of increase has declined dramatically (9.8% cf 55%). I welcome this and I suspect that this is a direct result of the subsidy decrease.

Nevertheless there are still over 180k hectares of maize in England. It is a plant which is harvested late in the year (October) and requires a lot of heavy machinery to achieve this which compacts the soil. Due to the lateness of the season and the wet soil conditions maize fields are usually left bare for the winter. Bare and compacted soils can lead to high incidences of runoff during storms which can flood nearby villages and result in high levels of soil erosion.

This can be a common sight in Devon during the winter months

 

This was next to my garden in Exton when I lived there in January 2016 – muddy flood water from the maize fields upstream

Which led to flooding in the village

Attempts are being made by maize growers to grow varieties which can be cultivated earlier in the year so a cover crop can then be sown but maize grown in the wrong place e.g. on slopes next to watercourses (a common field arrangement in Devon!) is still a big problem.

The Defra figures may indicate that we have reached ‘peak’ maize thanks to more cattle eating grass and a cut in the subsidy regime. Let’s hope so.

Already looking forward to next years’ figures!

 

 

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.