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.

 

 

 

The Rippon Tor Rifle Range

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

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

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

There are 19 buttresses on the back of it

And six on the side

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

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

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

Ely Cathedral

I was up in Cambridgeshire for a few days last week and one evening I went in to Ely to see the magnificent Norman Cathedral

Amazing to think that this was built nearly 1000 years ago

The sun lighting the stonework

The lantern

When you are in the Cambridgeshire Fens you can often see Ely Cathedral – sitting high on the hill that Ely is built upon – local the Cathedral is known as the ‘Ship of the Fens’.

 

A couple of new moth books for me

I recently bought a couple of ‘new’ moth books.

The book on the left British Moths was new to me whilst the one on the right is the re-written 3rd edition of the book I always use to identify moths.

The British Moths book by Manley is a photographic guide to all of the UK’s moths – micros and macros and the second edition was published in 2015. Comprehensive and a series of great photos.

The new 3rd edition of the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Waring, Townsend and Lewington has been completely re-written and now contains maps for all the species (only the 800+ species of macro moths). It also contains 72 plates of of all the species painted in their natural postures by Richard Lewington. It also contains some additional species compared to the 2nd edition as these have now been recorded in the country.

So I generally start off using the Field Guide to identify a species and then confirm the ID using the Manley photographic guide.

If you only get on book it has to be the Waring, Townsend and Lewington Field Guide.

 

Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste and what might have been

A couple of days ago I visited Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste with a few fellow Dartmoor enthusiasts. These places are near to Cornwood in the south of the moor. In the sunshine they appeared blissful, in reality it is a miracle that they still exist at all. If events had panned out differently they would now be a large commercial conifer plantation.

Conifer afforestation has long been a controversial issue on Dartmoor. The first plantings occurred around Brimpts, by the Dart in 1862 and following World War One the major plantations at Fernworthy and Bellever were commenced in 1920 and 1921 respectively.

After the Second World War Soussons was afforested between 1945 – 9. These major land use changes were high contested on Dartmoor and the fight against them was led by the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Matthew Kelly (2015), in his excellent ‘Quartz and Feldspar’ provides a detailed historic account – see pages 244 – 266.

Dendles Wood National Nature Reserve

It was partly through re-reading this account and then trawling the internet (particularly information from the DPA) that I have been able to piece together the troubled pasts of Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste. The word ‘Waste’ is a south Dartmoor term for a New Take i.e. moorland that has been enclosed and is no longer Common Land.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were a number of efforts made to increase the area of conifers on Dartmoor. In some cases it was proposed that deciduous woodland (in many cases Ancient Woodlands) should be converted to conifers whilst in other places it was proposed that open moorland should be planted up.

In 1959 Wing Commander Cyril Wolrick Passy, a decorated World War Two Hurricane fighter pilot and the owner of the Blanchford Estate (which consisted of Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste) proposed that it should planted up with conifers. Dendles Wood, an Ancient Woodland would be converted whilst the open moorland Wastes would be planted up.

This caused great controversy and protest (see Kelly p256), led by the Dartmoor and DPA campaigner Lady Sayer, it was debated in Whitehall and led to discussions around the future direction of the Forestry Commission.

Eventually permission was granted to allow planting on Hawns and Dendles Waste but permission was refused with respect to High House Waste. The land was acquired by the Economic Forestry Group and Hawns and Dendles Waste were ploughed and planted up in 1960.

The controversy continued and in 1961 the Economic Forestry Group offered to sell the entire site to Devon County Council. Legal complications meant that this failed but in 1964 High House Waste was acquired by the DPA and 1965 Dendles Wood was acquired by the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England).

Stream In Dendles Wood

The DPA appeared not to have a constitution which allowed them to acquire land so a Trust was set up to hold the land. It was originally their intention to pass the site onto the National Trust or a similar body. In 1980 the land was held by four Trustees of the DPA and the organisation decided to not pass on the land to another body.

In 1997 the Dartmoor National Park Authority acquired Hawns and Dendles Wastes following the clear felling and removal of all the conifers.

Dendles Wood in the background with High House Waste on the right and Hawns on the left

The plan since then has been to plant broadleaved trees within deer proof enclosures on the southern end of Hawns and the south east corner of Dendles Waste. At the northern end of Hawns and Dendles Waste it was proposed that the former conifer plantation should be allowed to revert back to moorland.

Moorland restoration – regenerating heather and bilberry

This is largely what has happened but it is also clear that the enormous funding cuts that the DNPA has suffered in recent years has meant that they haven’t be able to follow their plans as vigorously as they had originally intended.

Interestingly this has meant that the moorland restoration on Hawns and Dendles Waste has a feel of rewilding about it and as a result a very interesting and diverse set of habitats have developed. This area contrasts remarkably with the adjacent areas of sheep grazed moorland.

Dendles Wood (green), High House Waste (blue), Hawns and Dendles Waste (red), red hatched area = moorland restoration.

I don’t know if this area is being ecologically monitored (I can’t find anything on the DNPA website about Hawns and Dendles Wastes) but it would make a very interesting case study and demonstration site.

Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles and High House Wastes is now owned by Natural England, DNPA and the DPA. It is a very rich site for wildlife and it is all part of the South Dartmoor Special Area of Conservation (except for Hawns and Dendles Waste).

It might have been so different.

Enclosure Wall at High House Waste – the builders of this wall built around a hut circle settlement – thus the wiggly wall.

The area has open access except for Dendles Wood where a permit from Natural England is required.

If you wish to visit – be warned, the nearest parking is in Cornwood so it is a long old trek just to get to the area before you even start to explore.

One step backwards but two steps forward

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