Theresa Villiers’ acres, Rishi Sunak’s ‘taking back control’, Zac Goldsmith’s ‘ramp up’, the very real problem of Teesside International Airport, and the meaning of words.

I noticed recently https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/a-vision-for-future-farming that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and MP Theresa Villiers delivered the government’s target for tree planting in the imperial unit of acres,  a measurement once described by an infamous English wit as a measurement of three rods, 9 perches, two pecks and a bushel by two cubits, seven chains and the length of your neighbour’s largest oxen (for nerds…that was a yoke). By contrast, in the 21st Century, a hectare is 100 metres by 100 metres. Obviously 75,000 acres sounds a lot more than approx. 30,000 hectares given most people can’t envisage either area, but nevertheless I’ve written a Freedom Of Information Request to find out what the government’s official unit of area measurement actually is, and whether Defra uses a different one.

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A small part of the common bird’s-foot-trefoil studded grassland adjacent to the Airport.   Meadow barley can be found nearby.

In my local area the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen campaigned on the importance of using public money to buy the local airport and indeed managed to do so when elected. When I was younger buying privately-owned businesses with public money was called nationalization, but I noticed that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP Rishi Sunak called it ‘taking back control’ in his latest Darlington and Stockton Times column https://www.rishisunak.com/news/ds-column-back-work-and-delivering-north so perhaps the meaning of the word nationalization has been rebranded as ‘taking back control’ and we can expect buses, railways, etc. to be taken back into control in future; this does rather seem at odds with the Prime Minister’s recent comments about how the UK was made great through championing Free Trade https://twitter.com/trussliz/status/1217064284607451136?s=20  . Counterpoint; it was made great by putting the word Great in front of the word Britain possibly because it was the largest Isle of many – but always tricky to be sure when words have different meanings.

The idea of control is an interesting one. Now that Teesside International Airport is in public ownership then the information about the wildflowers that grow there should be in the public domain. Having good survey data of the botanical composition of the 100 ha of semi-natural lowland grassland within its boundaries would help to see to see how it relates to the other similar grasslands in the Tees Valley. It could even be ancient grassland as some parts are clearly ridge and furrow – I know because I pointed to the evidence needed to have it included on the local Historic Environment Records database. The grassland is important nationally too, being in the top 10 % in terms of size in England, though when I emailed Natural England they said they have insufficient funding to survey it – it wasn’t even on their radar though it is now.

In a Tweet the unpaid and unelected Minister of State Zac Goldsmith asked us all to ‘ramp up our efforts’ in support of Nature https://twitter.com/ZacGoldsmith/status/1179883606606569475 (although at the time of the Tweet he was paid, elected, and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State) and so I did. I emailed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for Natural England and MP Rebecca Pow and asked if the Government were intending to increase the funding for Natural England back to the 2010 level. She didn’t reply, but I was informed by the person who did reply (after the 15 day target but they did apologise) that “grant-in-aid allocated to Natural England from Defra has reduced from £121.1 million in 2014/15 to £85.7 million in 2019/20” and “…overall funding position is close to the Defra group average [decrease] of 23% across the same period”. Sadly, it didn’t really answer my question which is one of the disadvantages of not using a Freedom of Information Request. In fact Natural England’s funding has been reduced to 2/5 of the 2009-10 total  https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2019/07/22/year-of-green-action/ . Perhaps Minister of State Zac Goldsmith’s ‘ramp up our efforts’ means reduce to 2/5 of your effort in 2009-10; maybe I’m being a bit mean there and should say ‘reduce by 23% of 2014/15’s effort’ but, more seriously, the main limiting factor in the protection of biodiversity in the Tees Valley is the lack of resources for Natural England to carry out their statutory function under Section 2 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006

ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development.https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/647574/natural-england-framework-document.pdf

Anyway, back to the airport, I wrote to the Tees Valley Combined Authority (who are the Public Body that own most of the airport) to ask about what information was available on the composition of the grassland within the airport boundary on the 16th July 2019. My email wasn’t answered so I have just written it again as a Freedom Of Information Request and look forward to actually receiving an answer. The Tees Valley Combined Authority commissioned a report costing £17,719 in January 2019 to see if it was viable to sell the site for housing if the airport became financially nonviable in say 20 years and it said the site is worth about £42 million to create a ‘Garden Village’ style housing development  https://teesvalley-ca.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Appendix-2-DTVA.pdf (starts at p171 of 225) . There are also new plans to put an industrial park on part of the airport land (270 acres – the 21st Century waves “Hi”)  https://teesvalley-ca.gov.uk/23-6million-agreed-to-kick-start-teesside-airport-international-airport-business-park/ .

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All our public grasslands could easily be as rich in locally-native wildflowers as this one adjacent to the Airport

Meanwhile, the Local Nature Partnership have asked through the appropriately agreed procedure that the Teesside International Airport site be designated a Local Wildlife Site as it meets the qualifying criteria for locally important grassland within the Lower Tees Valley; the Unitary Borough having the airport’s main area within its boundaries refused to do so, with the support of the heads of all the other councils. I wrote to my MP about it on the 7th March 2019 but have not heard back – I actually wrote to all the MPs in the area because I thought they might work together as a team on behalf of the Tees Valley – apparently not, only your own MP can respond or not respond as the case may be. Recently I emailed a Freedom Of Information Request to the Unitary Authority to find out more details concerning why they refused to designate it as it was an unprecedented decision locally, and to ask for a copy of the report that mentioned the decision (it is no longer present at the same address on their website). I’m shall write it all up in my book ‘Finding England’s Ancient Grasslands’ with a chapter all to itself because I think the problems involved in finding out biodiversity information from people who don’t want you to know biodiversity information are pretty much universal in England.

And before I finish, one mention for what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP Rishi Sunak suggests to be a future “key to re-balancing the North-South divide” which is the concept of Free Ports – two words that, as he points out, really mean Tax-Free Ports for Business, but then that doesn’t sound as good does it, not when we hear so much in the news about big companies avoiding paying tax?

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Mis-reporting of the data in England biodiversity indicators Priority Habitats 2018

Summary

Way back in January 2019 I wrote to the Office for Statistics Regulation about the inaccuracies I thought were present within the Defra statistics for Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat; they agreed with my points and wrote to Defra asking them to make changes to their presentation of their statistics.

Defra wrote back to me at the end of September 2019 as they had promised (I’ve just not had time to write it up as a blog until now) to explain the source of their statistics more clearly and to say that they had added in extra information to the presentation of their statistics. (I’ve had this information before from them through previous email exchanges, but I wanted it stated in official documents because that is the official reference point for everyone quoting or using the statistics).

“The process of mapping inventories in England rounds areas up to parcel level, is based on old survey data so doesn’t reflect recent changes, and takes a broader definition of ‘grassland’ – including partially degraded and less species rich grassland than would be considered for designation. Overall, this leads to an overestimate of Priority Habitat cover in England.”

It was that “overestimate” that I was concerned about; the official government figure for Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat 36,129 ha, the reality is probably closer to 8000 ha and I say probably because no-one actually knows.

Why does this matter? If we are to conserve the genetic depth and breadth of our native grassland species, we must use seed from these sites and not from seed packets/commercial seed outlets in order to create new grasslands. Species-rich grassland acts like a glue that holds all the other habitats together to form a functioning ecosystem – destroy the glue and your ecosystem will function badly.

No doubt you will have noticed all the concern about the amount of ancient woodland the HS2 project will destroy. There is over 300,000 ha of ancient woodland in England but under 8000 ha of Lowland Meadow of which HS2 will destroy 1% or 80 ha (HS2 figures); of that Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat we don’t know how much is ancient grassland because there is no official definition of ancient grassland to assess it by.

The government has no plans in the future to map the extent of either known Lowland Meadow sites or to look for currently unknown sites other than a vague promise to improve the quantity and quality of the data, but I have been informed that they are developing drone technology. Currently Natural England have insufficient financial resources to check existing grassland SSSIs (I’ve asked and have local evidence) and the ministers at Defra have no plans to increase Natural England’s funding (I’ve asked that too). The government has no other public servants with sufficient expertise and experience to assess the most important parts of our shared natural heritage other than those employed within Natural England.

My thanks to Ed Humpherson and other team members at the Office for Statistics Regulation for their help with making government statistics more accurate.

 

Full details as below

This all grew out of my inability to understand government statistics for the extent of the Priority Habitat Lowland Meadows and I wrote about previous replies to my questions in this blog https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/04/26/estimates/

The response from Ed Humpherson, Office for Statistics Regulation to my email regarding the Defra statistics can be found published here https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/correspondence/response-to-england-biodiversity-indicators-statistics/

And there is a link to my original email questioning the quality of the data Defra were producing at the end of his response.

 

Email from Defra received 30/9/2019

“Thank you for getting in touch with us last year to highlight the differences that exist in the reported areas of lowland meadow grassland across England, and for giving us the opportunity to improve the quality of our priority habitats indicator.

I am aware that the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) have been in touch with you regarding your concerns and I can confirm that we have implemented the recommendations they made to us during the 2019 update of our Biodiversity Indicators. These indicators were published on 5 September and can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/england-biodiversity-indicators

I am sorry for the time it has taken for me to write to you about the differences in the reported areas of lowland meadow grassland having committed to do so earlier in the year. We have been working closely with colleagues in Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to address the issues you raised, and I am now in a position to update you on the outcomes of this work.

As you know, there are several sources of published data for the extent of priority habitats in England, including: (i) those data based on the Biodiversity Action Reporting System (BARS); (ii) those in the 2013 priority habitats inventory, published by Natural England and used in the England Biodiversity Indicators (2a – Extent and condition of priority habitats); and (iii) those used for the selection of biological SSSIs. Given that BARS has now been archived, we have focused our efforts on providing additional clarity for the latter 2 sources of data.

In summary, the 2013 priority habitats’ inventory published by Natural England and used in the England Biodiversity Indicators covers 24 priority habitats. It addresses problems with the original Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority habitat inventories by moving from multiple habitat layers to a single layer based on Rural Land Registry polygons (derived from OS MasterMap). In bringing the existing inventories into a single layer with no overlaps, a set of criteria were used to assign one main habitat (or no main habitat) to each polygon. Where other habitats may be present in the polygon, e.g. as part of a mosaic, these are attributed as ‘attribution habitats’. The process of mapping inventories in England is also based on old survey data so doesn’t reflect recent changes; it also takes a broader definition of ‘grassland’ that includes partially degraded and less species rich grassland than would be considered for designation. Overall, this leads to an overestimation of Priority Habitat cover in England, especially for MG5 communities (unimproved neutral grassland, including hay meadows) that are a subset of the Lowland Meadows Priority Habitat. Despite this overestimation, the 2013 priority habitats inventory map is still considered to be the best available national source of extent data for indicator 2a as it is the only one that allows for an assessment of how the condition of these priority habitats has changed over time.

The England Biodiversity Indicators (2a – Extent and condition of priority habitats)

Additional text based on the above has been added to the fiche for indicator 2a in order to explain why the areas of priority habitat in this indicator differ from those found in other sources.

The extent measure for indicator 2a shows that there are 1.87 million hectares of terrestrial and coastal priority habitats recorded in the 2013 priority habitats’ inventory for England; they represent around 14% of the total land area of the country. The 2013 inventory does not allow for assessing changes to the extent of these habitats, as changes to the inventory itself would represent improvements in current knowledge of the extent of priority habitats, rather than actual changes in the extent of those habitats. Furthermore, although there have been subsequent revisions to the priority habitats’ inventory, indicator 2a consistently assesses changes in the condition of habitats reported in the 2013 inventory.

This condition assessment is used to measure progress towards one of the higher-level outcomes from ‘Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services’ – to achieve “… 90% of priority habitats in favourable or recovering condition”. The most recent assessment shows that as of 31 March 2019, a little over 1.25 million hectares of priority habitats were in target condition. This equates to 66.9% of all priority habitats in a favourable or unfavourable recovering condition. Two of the 24 habitat types achieved or exceeded 90% of their area in favourable or unfavourable recovering condition, with a further 10 achieving or exceeding 80%, the target value for each individual habitat.

SSSI Guidelines

The following paragraph has been added to the guidelines for the selection of SSSIs. It has been linked to sections 4.10 and Annex 1 of chapter 3 of the report. The additional text explains why the areas of priority habitat in the SSSI guidelines are less than those reported in the England Biodiversity Indicators (2a).

“These areas are a subset of the national Priority Habitat areas used for England Biodiversity Indicator Report (Indicator 2A- Extent and condition of priority habitats). The process of mapping inventories in England rounds areas up to parcel level, is based on old survey data so doesn’t reflect recent changes, and takes a broader definition of ‘grassland’ – including partially degraded and less species rich grassland than would be considered for designation. Overall, this leads to an overestimate of Priority Habitat cover in England. This is particularly apparent for MG5 communities that are a subset of the Lowland Meadows Priority Habitat. While extent may differ, the England national inventory maps (used in England Biodiversity Indicator reporting) are a good indication of the location of known high quality sites.”

I hope this provides the additional clarity you were looking for.”

 

My reply on 8/10/19

“Thank you for taking the time to write to me on this issue.

I try very hard to understand and to consider what is written to me in reply to my questions and I fully appreciate the financial restrictions that you must work within, especially given the current political situation.

I have summarized what I think you have written to me:-

36,129 ha is the official government record of the extent of Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat in 2019; it is known to be an overestimate and to have been out of date since 2013 as the information it was based upon was out-of-date when the digital layer was created.

BARS has been archived and so data associated with BARS in regard to Lowland Meadows is no longer used in an official government capacity.

Defra uses the 2013 data set because it enables a condition assessment for Lowland Meadow over time and it is the best data set available for accurate location of the habitat.

The data that Natural England use regarding the extent of MG5 in England as evidence within a SSSI designation is a subset of Defra’s 2013 dataset [this bit is a puzzle as if Natural England have access to data at a higher resolution, then presumably they could share it with Defra, so I am assuming that it can’t be used because the condition assessment would not apply, except if a condition assessment applied to a larger area then it would surely apply to the smaller area within the larger area too? It may be that as I research further I will uncover the answer to that one] and I am inferring that the MG5 data is accurate because it is used as evidence in a legal situation.

I have noted that written within the 2a document it says that work is being carried out on improving the “quantity and quality of data on threatened habitats” and that this will be introduced at some unspecified date in the future.

I’m sorry that I have kept pressing you on this matter when I am sure you have little time available, but I do think it is important to have a clear government record on the state of our shared cultural heritage habitats, particularly given the Government’s continual reduction in funding for biodiversity and biodiversity expertise. I’m currently writing a book on England’s ancient grassland and in it feel I need to be able to explain clearly how the government officially records the Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat (within which some ancient grassland is a subset) and I don’t want to misunderstand or misrepresent the government’s official position, though obviously I will discuss how confusing it has been to understand it.

Many thanks for making the changes to the official record”

 

For further information on the SSSI problem see https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/09/10/struggling/

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How much can we influence the future we want?

I wrote this piece in April 1997 for a local environmental residents group of which I was part. After a wide-ranging discussion about the future we wanted to aim for this was a way of imagining how we thought that future would turn out … a way of setting ourselves local goals to achieve. The group has indeed achieved much from wildflower and tree planting, investigating local heritage, adding public art, improving routes to local schools, and the ever-ubiquitous litter-picking (and much more!).

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Acklam 2020

The year is 2020. Mrs Jones is looking after her grandson, George, for the week. We catch her mid-conversation with the home computer …

“… put in our regular order for fruit and veg. I think. Is there anything new in stock?”

“New variety of coloured leaf lettuce and the first of the local new potatoes.” Replies the home computer in a pleasant neutral voice.

“Hmm, well I’ll have a look when I get there. Ask for the order to be ready by ten thirty, I’ll pick them up then, please. Order to the supermarket …two energy-saving lightbulbs. Again I’ll pick them up at ten thirty. Automatic payment of both orders.”

“Transaction complete”

Mrs Jones goes out into the back garden and spies George sitting quietly, apparently transfixed by something in the garden pond. “Come on George, lets go to the Resource Centre now, you can watch the frogs later. They won’t run away.”

“It was watching me, Gran, and blinking. Why do frogs blink, Gran? And sit in ponds all day watching people?

“Er … perhaps we can find out at the Resource Centre. Would you like to go for a walk by the beck to see the birds and wildflowers?”

George looks thoughtful and chews on his bottom lip. “Yes but can we go to the playground too Gran?”

“The adventure playground by the Scout hut, or the swings and slides at the Sports Centre.”

“George’s eyes light up. “Where we went on the evening and saw the hedgehog?”

“Sports Centre it is. Before we go, come and help me put the bottles and jars in the wheelie bin because the bin men are collecting glass to recycle this week. Paper is next week, then plastic. It’s so we can help the environment and save money too, George.”

George nods in understanding whilst putting a bottle on the right side of the bin. They had talked about this at school and he knew all about it, though was a little unsure quite who Mr Environment was and why he controls the world.

Mrs Jones shouts that they expect to be back by one-ish to the home computer, which locks the door as they leave. George holds his Grandma’s hand and they set off down the road.

“Oh look!, wave George: it’s Paul and Susan with the new baby on the bus, those new electric buses are so quiet I never heard it. Would you like to go down town this week, George? Ever since someone redesigned the buses you can get on with a pushchair and don’t have to climb those steps … how we all put up with it before, I don’t know. It’s not often we use the car now that buses are so convenient and cheap.

“Tut, tut, someone’s dropped a sweet wrapper. We don’t get that happening much nowadays. I’ll pop it in the bin at the shops, won’t take a minute. Yes I know all packaging is biodegradable now, but it doesn’t look nice and we can’t have that, can we?”

George shakes his head and starts hopping up and down on one foot, as you do.

They pick up some books and a computer disc at the Resource Centre and set off towards the shops. The street approaching the shops is lined with trees, giving an attractive dappled shade underneath. George jumps from one sunny patch of pavement to another. Mrs Jones waves to a friend.

“Hello David. How are you? Don’t the shops look attractive? Covering them with climbers and putting up some lovely hanging baskets was such a good idea. And thank goodness we don’t need those metal shutters now, they made it look really grim, didn’t they? We’re just off to collect our shopping. Did you have yours delivered today? I thought so. See you later.”

The shopping is all ready to collect and Mrs Jones decides to have some new potatoes as well.

On the way to the playground they see the local policeman, Mr Wilkinson, on his bike and wave. At the Sports centre George rushes to the slide climbing with great glee, and Mrs Jones spots Mrs Thompson, child-minding for one of her neighbours, sitting on one of the benches, and settles down for a chat.

Do you know I was just thinking how little dog dirt you see nowadays. The times when I had to clean our Annie’s shoes when she was young. It’s so much nicer now dog owners are more responsible.”

“Funny you should say that Mrs Jones, because I’ve been sitting here admiring the wildflowers around the edge of the field and thinking you never saw that thirty years ago. And I hear the council save money by having the grass cut just once a year, which can’t be bad? Oh and that reminds me, the home computer tells me Mr and Mrs Peters are having a Garden Open Day. They never seem to do any work in their garden and it always looks interesting. Apparently it’s all down to choosing the right plants and using homemade compost. Everyone is copying because it’s so much easier and cheaper. I’m definitely going, anything that saves time in the garden has to be a good thing as far as I’m concerned.”

They continue, deep in conversation, but each with half an eye on their respective charges.

Meanwhile, George is busy propelling himself as fast as possible, down the slide on his stomach. Acklam is a happy place to be.

Our vision of Acklam in 2020 is of a place where individuals make small, easy changes to their lifestyles, to a more sustainable way of living, and it becomes so comfortable we can’t imagine how we managed any other way.

*****

Looking back, it’s interesting to see the things I got right – the easy access buses, computer speech recognition, ordering shopping online, home delivery of food shopping as well as self-collect, more stocking of local produce (though not as local as I was envisaging), recycling collection on different weeks, environmental education at schools. The Resource Centre in the scene is the local library – it is still open, well used, and has a separate computer room for those without access to the online world; I guess if I were writing the piece now Mrs Jones would have used a search engine of her choice on her phone to find out about the blinking frogs.

Things that will be here soon are electric buses, and biodegradable packaging for sweets.

I didn’t realise that computer information would be delivered through fibre-optics, we did have a police support officer in the area who used to ride around on a bike, but he has long since gone with all the cutbacks due to poor government regulation of the financial services industry leading to austerity. Car use has increased, and the buses are not cheap to use.

Where I think we’ve failed so far have been; attitudes to dropping litter remain unchanged, dog-dirt is still a problem although often now packaged in a small black plastic bag and many more people keep dogs now, the standard of gardening has not improved, and lack of wildflowers in urban areas. And I like to think that now the other childminder could have been Mr Thompson, but I doubt there is a fifty:fifty chance that a childminder would be male.

The shops fell into disrepair and are due be demolished. There is no local playground, but the beck is still there with areas of uncut grass more trees and a few more wildflowers; it’s a much more interesting place to play, though perhaps for children older than George.

 

 

 

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The Glover report on national Landscapes, a brief review

The Glover report on National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) (see terms and refs here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/designated-landscapes-national-parks-and-aonbs-2018-review/terms-of-reference ) was published today https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/833163/landscapes-review-final-report.pdf .

Right near the start of the report is a quote “The United Kingdom is now among the most nature‑depleted nations in the world” by the last Secretary of State for Defra and a member of the government of the fifth largest economy in the world that reduced the amount of money to our national nature experts (Natural England) by 3/5 in the last ten years. So within this context, the report is pretty much about how to refurbish the deckchairs as cheaply as possible, re-arrange them to make them look nice and possibly repurpose them as nature appreciation opportunities. A bit flippant as a summary perhaps, but fair.

I was taken aback when I read “There is much debate, and not enough data to say for certain, whether the state of nature in national landscapes is better, or no better, or even worse than it is elsewhere. In the end, this is a fruitless discussion.” – an astonishing point to make if the function of National Parks is to protect their nature … and bluntly, if it’s not monitored or obviously better, then National Parks have failed in their statutory duties and our legislators have failed too in holding them to account or funding them sufficiently. That should be said in bold not dismissed as a fruitless discussion.

To recommend setting up a new “National Landscapes Service” to monitor their nature when we already have an existing independent national nature-monitoring service seems somewhat lacking in knowledge of how to obtain best value for money. And I do wish reports would stop talking about tree planting…trees do not have to be planted. If the required result is increased tree cover (as mentioned in the detail of the report) then say so in the summary because language leads our expectations and tree planting is rarely good conservation. (see https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2019/08/15/sow-trees-for-conservation-plant-trees-for-timber/ ). For nature recovery we need to increase species-rich grasslands and nutrient-poor wetlands, not trees; increasing tree cover is a climate change issue not a biodiversity one.

 

The perennial issue of the conflict between Natural Beauty and nature conservation was not really tackled but perhaps is not within the remit. Our current cultural preference for neatness, bleakness, or hedges/trees everywhere is not good for nature conservation. The much ignored habitat of coppiced scrub on species-rich grassland or heathland needs a return too. The focus on SSSI monitoring was odd given we also have data on Local Wildlife Sites and could not some existing measures of recording change in biodiversity that are occurring nationally be used (the subset belonging within National Parks and ANOBs) rather than asking for another set to be created that won’t be funded properly by government? There is so little money the requirement to monitor SSSIs every 6 years has had to be dropped.

 

It’s a long report which I doubt many will read fully (I skimmed only, but it has still taken me most of the day to write this although I did do the ironing at one point) and for the most part it seems fine, thorough, detailed and with interesting case studies, wanting things more joined up, more investment, more ‘more’ generally, etc. all things that will need paying for, although some of the ideas are extremely subversive –  “Proposal 8: A night under the stars…” because briefly taking a child somewhere beautiful where richer people live and then dumping them back into a poor polluted urban environment afterwards is pretty much like saying “society doesn’t care about where you live but we care you should know how lovely other areas where people live are”. Coolcoolcool. What could possibly be wrong there? Though the report gave only positive feedback examples so perhaps poor urban citizens are suitably grateful and clutch their forelock appropriately or children are not cynical. And some are surprisingly new age “Proposal 17: National landscapes working for vibrant communities”…there is no more…that is the proposal – anyone have a vibrancy scale we can borrow? That is perhaps unfair, but I think in the detail I would have liked to see some analysis of the expected large numbers of soon-to-be-retired/job changing farmers and their uneconomic farms as a result of EU Exit (that Defra has written about and is expecting) on national landscapes, and how that farmland is to develop in future given the huge influence it will have on those national landscapes. And in the same section I was much amused at the need for the Conservative government to recognise the importance of council housing or, as it is re-termed “National Landscapes Affordable Rural Housing Association”. There is a similar ideological anomaly proposed in having a centralised body to coordinate seeking funding with commercial sponsors rather than letting all the individual national landscapes compete and innovate in the market-place so people can choose which one they want to visit…like schools do, right? Welcome to the North York Moors, sponsored by INEOS…hmmm not sure that’s going to work.

And finally, I struggled to work out what was being described in the report until I looked at the glossary

  • “national landscapes” – used to refer to National Parks and AONBs together
  • “National Landscapes” – the term we recommend is used for AONBs in the future. We continue to refer to AONBs as AONBs in this report to avoid confusion.

And also talk of “our landscapes” which is possibly a shortened version of ‘national landscapes’, though this is not glosserized. I think we can be sure though that it is not the same as national landscape in the singular which clearly would refer to the whole of the different landscape types within England, right? And obviously not to be confused with National Landscape Character Areas (NLCA).

Although putting “areas” at the end, such that we would have “National Landscape Areas” so we know we are referring to an area in England designated as important in regard to the nature of the landscape or landscapes within that area may have helped;  I am still not convinced it is the right term. In the past I would have commented that scientists wouldn’t have made such a mess of using or choosing a designated term, but since finding Defra, Natural England and the JNCC all have different working definitions to record ‘Lowland Meadow’ I think the issue is one of the inherent difficulties of thinking of wider implications of language use. Conservationists will be well aware of the confusion that occurs when one meaning of a word is rebranded and repurposed for a completely different thing that looks similar and subsequently confuses the general public, of which “Pictorial Meadow” is the classic modern case.

 

As always with government reviews of this sort the massive extinct auroch in the room is money. None of the new proposals are costed, even a vague yearly cost, though we find that the total amount of money spent yearly is £55.4m to which the national lottery adds approx. £16m for projects. Context; Natural England get <£100m to cover the whole country, the Arts Council distributes £576.5m.

The conclusion to the report felt rather more like a relentlessly positive postcard comment from someone who has met some really nice people on holiday than say, a conclusion to the report. The scarcity of funding being crucial, against a background of biodiversity loss, was evidently not something to conclude – perhaps it just went without saying.

So, fitted within a context of relentless cutbacks in nature conservation, because that is what the present government sees as the most appropriate response to facing an environmental and biodiversity crisis in one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world, I can see little hope of anything happening but a confusing name change for our n(N)ational l(L)andscapes (previously partly known as the artist ANOB) within our national landscape.

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Sow trees for Conservation: Plant trees for Timber

In Conservation our goal is primarily about conserving the widest range of genetic diversity within each species in a given area. If each area conserves their local genetic diversity of a native species then we will end up with the most diverse/robust option across the country, given our current starting point. We need to conserve that breadth of genetic variation and then create an abundance of that breadth to put us in the most resilient position possible to face a future of climate change and the new pests/diseases that may appear in a given area in the UK.

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Natural regeneration of Oak and Birch on heathland.

The best-practice way to achieve that with trees is through natural regeneration of locally native trees i.e. the trees naturally produce seed and that seed germinates nearby and grows to produce new trees. In many places the site where trees are wanted can be too far away from a seed source to be reached under current conditions and so the best option here is to hand-collect seed from the nearest ecologically similar source of locally native trees and hand sow it in the appropriate place on the new site. Not all genotypes within a tree species produce enough seed to collect in any given year and so ideally collection (and sowing) should be over several years so as to maximize the genetic variation possible in the new area of trees. Collecting seeds from an established habitat over a few years helps build local knowledge, particularly expertise in identification and local species location. As trees have such a long life-span, investing time in creating new woodlands or groups of trees makes sense, as does encouraging and developing local knowledge and expertise.

Sowing in this way gives genetic diversity, but also structural diversity (some trees may be grazed as seedlings making them multi-trunked in future, others may have branches that sweep down to the ground), building a more varied habitat than trees closely planted with tree guard protection and made to have neat single straight trunks.

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Naturally regenerated Oak with low branching

In the future we will need to make the UK economy more resilient to changes in world politics and increasing timber production for home use is one of the ways in which we can do that. It can also have the benefit of carbon capture, and if planned correctly, slow the speed at which water runs off the land into streams and rivers.

When growing timber as a crop it is important to look for certain characteristics, for e.g. quick growth, rot resistant wood, a straight easily-harvestable trunk, and so it is logical to select a species that has the desirable characteristics and then to select the most appropriate ecotypes from that species to grow your timber…much in the same way a farmer would select a particular variety of wheat to grow on their farm. It need not be native species and there is a viewpoint that planting native species with genetics not from the local area could be harmful (see later). As the timber can be a high-value crop it makes economic sense to sow the high-value seeds in a nursery, grow them on, plant them out with rabbit/grazing protection and generally give them sufficient TLC so that they grow in the desired way producing a crop as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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approx 30 year-old Birch regeneration suppressing bracken growth compared to no trees (right)

The latest report on “Genetic considerations for provenance choice of native trees under climate change in England” was published this year  https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/documents/7110/FCRP030.pdf and it makes for uncomfortable reading with regard to what we don’t know about our native trees. “no investigations into provenance variation among British populations of alder, aspen, elm, hazel, yew, willows, bird and wild cherry, juniper, limes or hornbeam, have been conducted.” And the ones on “silver birch, ash, Scots pine and oak,” are primarily related to how well they survive when planted in a different area and how quickly they grow…nothing about effect on the web of native insect/fungi species etc. that might rely on the trees as a habitat.

The Forest Research report discusses a way of preparing for a climate change scenario in England of an increase in 4 deg C by the 2050s by using tree genetic material from further south that already grows in a warmer climate…but there are drawbacks – one hard frost and the southern material is knocked back…and then it’s possible that there is sufficient adaptability within existing local populations to cope with the change, they don’t know. In summary; it’s complicated and we haven’t carried out enough research, and the research that has been carried out relates mainly to timber production.

There are also possible disadvantages to creating large areas of native species of non-local provenance within an area as this report points out https://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/report/11496  (it’s the only one I can find that assesses the issue although it is about wildflower/grasses). Using trees of non-local provenance can swamp areas with non-local genes and so affect smaller local populations – how adverse the effect is we don’t know. According to Defra, there are no scientific studies commissioned by government into the effect of the widespread planting of trees of native species of non-native genetic origin has had/could have on genetic variation within our native tree species (I asked in an FOI). If anyone knows of any do let me know please.

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Planted trees – many being native species, but from where did they originate genetically?

There is also no requirement to record where seed comes from for trees planted and Defra have not done so (the same FOI). And whilst the Forestry Commission may keep some records of the genetic source of plantings (the Forest Research report calls for more of this, which rather suggests it doesn’t happen much  – see page 35) I very much doubt private individuals, local authorities, charities, or the Department for Transport who have all planted vast amounts of trees keep such records.

Many nurseries in the recent past used seed from the continent as it was cheaper and some didn’t even use native species hence the random assortment of Italian alder and suckering grey alder and that can be found amongst plantings of “mixed native species” trees from the 80s and 90s. And we know that pests and diseases have been imported this way (Ash Dieback) and on importation of larger trees for amenity planting (ref. Hartlepool, Oak Processionary Moth https://www.hartlepool.gov.uk/news/article/1643/caterpillar-infested_oak_trees_removed ).

Using tree saplings sourced from large national nurseries for conservation purposes can mean that the trees planted throughout the country come from the same narrow genetic base – inevitably any tree nursery supplying the whole country cannot supply as genetically diverse a tree as could collecting seed locally.

Planting trees goes against what the government’s 25-year environment plan asks Conservationists to do, i.e. conserve the genetic range within each species.

You can of course throw your hands up in the air and say it’s all a big mess and too complicated and so it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as we plant trees and as quickly as possible. Against that position is the example Ash Dieback sets us…we don’t know what is coming our way in the future; planting any old thing may just cause future problems if we narrow the genetic base of our native tree species too much. And if the fifth (or are we sixth now?) largest economy in the world can’t research and conserve its own native trees properly, what chance has the rest of the world got?

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Year of Green Action

Defra are running a promotion to try and get everyone to take action for the environment, so I thought I would try and see how well it worked. ( https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2019/02/01/environment-secretary-launches-year-of-green-action/  )

The biggest limit to how well native wildflowers in England are conserved is Natural England having too little money to operate in the manner that would enable conserving all English ancient/heritage habitats and the full remaining genetic variation within each wildflower species. If we are to be successful in delivering the ambitious 25-year Environment Plan Natural England must have a greater budget or the plan cannot be delivered as written. So the best way I can make an impact into improving the environment is to ask for Natural England to have a larger Budget so they can be more effective. I emailed my usual evidenced-backed comments and the end result is reproduced below, but first the executive summary…

Summary.

The politician responsible for Natural England’s funding is the MP who holds the office Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs*.

Natural England “…receives a budget to carry out its duties and responsibilities in line with what is affordable and the Government’s priorities for the natural environment.” In 2009/10 its budget was approx. £250 million** and in 2019 its budget will be approx. £100 million***

Conclusion: The work of Natural England is only 2/5 as important to the present government than it was to the government in 2009/10.

It is frustrating, to put it mildly, for a government to state it is concerned about biodiversity loss when the evidence shows it is less willing to fund biodiversity protection now than it was 10 years ago.

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*it may not necessarily be the present MP as sometimes actions by prior holders affect current budgets.

** https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/247387/1131.pdf

*** could well be smaller than this figure by now according to this  https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/environment-food-rural-affairs/Estimates/2018-19-Main-Estimate-Memorandum-for-Select-Committee.pdf  [and I’m not taking into account the effect of inflation].

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The whole sequence of Tweets and emails relating to the pledge Tweet was as follows:-

My Tweet 22 April

I’m going to ask Defra UK to fund a national survey, and keep an accurate register, of England’s Ancient Grasslands & to ask Defra UK to reinstate @NaturalEngland ‘s funding to >2010 levels so that they can effectively monitor all of our heritage habitats. #YearOfGreenAction

In response to a @DefraUK tweet of the same day

We’re calling on all our followers to make a pledge for nature this #EarthDay! What will yours be? Make your pledge and support the #YearOfGreenAction now: https://www.yearofgreenaction.org/make-a-pledge

 

My Email Sent 24 April

Hello

You were encouraging people to make a pledge for nature on Twitter so I did. As part of that pledge I said I would ask Defra UK if Natural England’s budget could be returned to greater than 2010 levels so that Natural England could once again effectively monitor England’s heritage habitats.

As background to this, the previous Natural England Chairman said they didn’t have enough money to carry out their statutory duties http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/chair-of-natural-england/oral/92782.html  , this article pointed out that all SSSI’s were not being visited https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/09/07/half-england-sssi-sites-not-monitored/  , this letter from the UK Statistics Authority questions Natural England/Defra’s differing priority habitat extent statistics https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/correspondence/response-to-england-biodiversity-indicators-statistics/   and this newspaper report summarises the financial situation https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/29/agency-protecting-english-environment-reaches-crisis-point  .

I can’t find any government commissioned evidence that states the cuts to the Natural England budget have had a positive or even neutral effect on our heritage habitats.

I can see that allocation of funding is a political decision i.e. a matter of political priorities, but as there is money available to carry out the increased administrative procedures that arises from the EU Exit https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-than-2-billion-brexit-preparation-funding-awarded-to-departments-for-a-successful-eu-exit  and the Prime Minister has said Austerity is over https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-45733098/theresa-may-people-need-to-know-austerity-is-over  then I as far as I can see, funding for Natural England can be reinstated.

Can you inform me please who is the politician responsible for Natural England’s funding, so I can contact them directly about increasing the budget to Natural England?

 

Received from Defra 17 May

Thank you for your email of 24 April about Natural England’s budget. I have been asked to reply.

Defra and Natural England have responded to the need to balance public spending and to manage resources rigorously. Natural England has prioritised and maintained outcomes through transforming the way it does business and strategically deploying its resources to where they will have the greatest impact.

Natural England, like many other bodies, has been developing alternative income streams, for example through charging for services. This has already helped to offset reductions in grant funding. Defra will be considering further funding options, as well as exploring new investment mechanisms for green finance.

Regarding the monitoring of habitats, positive steps have been made. For example, Natural England is developing an approach to the monitoring of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) which will make better use of new technologies, such as remote sensing, and greater partnership involvement. These are intended to improve efficiency of SSSI monitoring in view of competing priorities.

Finally, to answer your other question, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall ministerial oversight for Natural England.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact Defra about Natural England.

 

My Email Sent 3rd June

Thank you very much for your reply which I read with great interest. I have written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regarding Natural England’s funding (I rather doubt there will be a reply, but am always hopeful, and at least I have responded to the Defra initiative in a positive manner).

With regard to your sentence that starts “Natural England has prioritised and maintained outcomes…” my understanding was that it hadn’t maintained outcomes and that was what the previous chairman had stated as he was leaving. Can you please inform me which statistics/metrics you are using to support that statement?

 

Received from Defra 18 June

Thank you for your further email of 3 June about Natural England’s performance.

Natural England’s Annual Report for 2018/19 is currently being finalised for publication and will soon be available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/natural-england. This will provide a summary of the organisation’s performance in the past year to answer your question.

 

My Email Sent 26 June

Thank you for your reply

I will read the report with interest

 

Email to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Email Sent June 1st

Dear Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,

Defra were encouraging people to make a ‘pledge for nature’ on Twitter so I did. As part of that pledge I said I would ask Defra UK if Natural England’s budget could be returned to greater than 2010 levels so that Natural England could once again effectively monitor England’s heritage habitats. I wrote to Defra and they said you were the person responsible for setting budget levels so I am writing to ask if you would do this and could you please send me a timetable for when this will occur so that I can monitor it.

As background to this question/issue, the previous Natural England Chairman said they didn’t have enough money to carry out their statutory duties http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/chair-of-natural-england/oral/92782.html   , this article pointed out that all SSSI’s were not being visited https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/09/07/half-england-sssi-sites-not-monitored/   , this letter from the UK Statistics Authority questions Natural England/Defra’s differing priority habitat extent statistics https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/correspondence/response-to-england-biodiversity-indicators-statistics/    and this newspaper report summarises the financial situation https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/29/agency-protecting-english-environment-reaches-crisis-point   .

I can’t find any government commissioned evidence that states the cuts to the Natural England budget have had a positive or even neutral effect on our heritage habitats.

I can see that allocation of funding is a political decision i.e. a matter of political priorities, but as there is money available to carry out the increased administrative procedures that arises from the EU Exit https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-than-2-billion-brexit-preparation-funding-awarded-to-departments-for-a-successful-eu-exit   and the Prime Minister has said Austerity is over https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-45733098/theresa-may-people-need-to-know-austerity-is-over  then I as far as I can see, funding for Natural England can be reinstated.

The second part of my pledge for nature is to ask Defra to fund a national survey, and keep an accurate register, of England’s Ancient Grasslands and as I assume you have the authority to initiate that, then I am asking you to undertake that as well please.

As background to the request you will be aware that ancient grasslands can be as old as medieval churches and yet they have no protection in law unless they have been designated a SSSI: Phase one and Phase 2a of HS2 will destroy 1% of England’s Lowland Meadow (according to HS2’s figures https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/09/13/keeping-count/  ) and Lowland Meadow is classed by Natural England as mainly ancient grassland (page 4 of this .pdf download http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/file/6496007  ). Ancient Grasslands are integral to the ability of the Government’s new 25-year environmental plan to meet the target for conserving the full range of genetic variation within species and yet Natural England and Defra still do not know where they all exist or their current condition in England.

I look forward to hearing your response on these two matters prompted by a Defra initiative

 

Received from Defra 17 July 2019

Thank you for your email of 1 June to the Secretary of State about Natural England funding and ancient grassland. I have been asked to reply and apologise for the delay.

Natural England has a key role to play in protecting and enhancing the natural environment in England and in delivering the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

Like all other Defra sponsored bodies, it receives a budget to carry out its duties and responsibilities in line with what is affordable and the Government’s priorities for the natural environment. Natural England receives income from a diverse range of sources, although the vast majority of its work is funded from core Grant in Aid, which has seen some cuts. However, in order to offset this loss, Natural England is looking to expand its income further through fees and charges, commercial activities and external grant funding whilst also exploring new investment mechanisms for green finance.

Natural England has responded to the need to balance public spending and to deploy resources to best effect. This is reflected in its ‘Conservation 21’ strategy, which sets out how it will work with local area-based partners to deliver its core purpose.

Natural England’s interim Chief Executive is working closely with its board and Defra to agree its priorities in light of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and its statutory duties as stated in the Natural Environmental and Rural Communities Act 2006.

 

My Email Sent 18 June

Thank you very much for replying – I don’t envy you your task in having to explain the decisions of politicians.

“…it receives a budget to carry out its duties and responsibilities in line with what is affordable and the Government’s priorities for the natural environment.” I think is nicely put, in that it states clearly what is happening, that politicians are aware of that, and of the subsequent consequences of the change of funding; I appreciate that. I will infer that the priorities of the present government towards our cultural heritage are 2/5 what they were to the government in 2010 given the change in funding (I should really work out the change relating to inflation too).

I will be investigating how Natural England receives income from other sources and how this affects their work and how this affects the number of prosecutions they undertake. I rather suspect it is almost impossible to get a criminal conviction for damaging our natural heritage because landowners are rich enough to pay fines or for ‘emergency advice’ from Natural England, whereas it is very easy to get a criminal conviction for shoplifting especially if you are poor.

Very best of luck in the civil service with surviving the immediate-future changes in politicians.

Please keep trying to do the right thing.

 

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Collect and sow the same day

Having previously grown native wildflower plants in pots from locally-collected seed for restoration and remediation projects often for use with local community groups, I am conscious of the time and resources this takes and that the educational options are usually limited to ensuring that everyone manages to put the brown bit in the hole and keep the green bits in the air when planting.

Not having a nursery anymore I needed to try something different and so trialled a collect-locally-and-sow-the-same-day approach – here a brief account.

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We stripped topsoil for three weeks and made a string of ponds in June 2018 at a site next to Hartburn in Stockton-on-Tees in order to create water dependent habitat that also will act as a temporary reservoir when the adjacent beck floods. A recent flood in the town centre prompted a search for ways to slow the flow, this being one of many different interventions. The project was funded by the Environment Agency and managed by Stockton-on-Tees Council; I’m supplying the knowledge.

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The ponds were left roughly finished which I think better for creating micro-habitats and hence more diversity – it’s also quicker and so saves money (though the digger drivers always prefer smooth ‘tidy’ finishes).

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A year later the lumpy bits are softened by the winter & the large pond has filled (it’s the same photo viewpoint…look at the shape of the trees in the background).

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Despite being driven over by heavy construction vehicles the site was not ploughed or rotovated – I simply asked for one driver just to use the teeth of his digger bucket like a rake to create low furrows as this creates micro-scale different conditions for germination – damper in the lower bits. I think he enjoyed the challenge – it helped that he was a gardener when I was trying to explain why I wanted it carried out..

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Photo by Keith Mathews

Then on the morning of 27 July 2018 a group of local people and some staff from the local council (doing a volunteer day) went seed collecting with me to a nearby ancient Floodplain Meadow site. This has several advantages over asking people to simply plant plug plants at a new site; they get to visit an established ancient grassland community that is usually inaccessible and so can see what we are aiming to create at the new site. I asked them to collect seeds of certain plants, so there are identification skills to learn, as well as the seed collecting – learning and understanding how the seeds differ through active participation. It was also a peaceful and meditative process.

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Also Keith 

After a break for lunch, we sowed the seeds on the new site. I gave people a bag and asked them to scatter particular seeds in certain areas. They did that and nothing else was done…the site was just left to its own devices.

The green plant growing in the photo is creeping thistle sprouting from the severed roots – I thought it might act as a windbreak and so allow seeds to germinate better in damper soil. Not sure it made much difference to be honest – I’ll decide later when the other plants grow larger if there is too much of it and some needs removing.

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This year (2019) by 5 July – some of the meadow buttercups and common knapweed we sowed had flowered and were also present as younger plants, and many seedlings of great burnet were spotted, often in the lower, damper bit of the raked soil.

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I chose not to collect and sow grasses with the more decorative floodplain wildflower seeds as I wanted the flowers to be able to establish first without much competition, though in some places marsh foxtail germinated from the soil seed-bank.

You might think local people would complain about the bare soil and the amount of creeping thistle (which is incidentally one of the best flowers for nectar quantity (they did not measure quality) in a recent study https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0158117 ) but I’ve given two talks, one to a fledgling ‘Friends of ‘ group and another to the local WI, and then a guided tour around the site in early June to explain what is happening and to help identify some of the plants. Everyone seems happy to be patient.

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We’ll be collecting from this ancient floodplain meadow and sowing again, all in a day, at the end of July this year. It’ll take a while before the new project looks similar and it may never look the same but we’ll get close, slowly but surely.

Notes

I think this approach works well with common species and is excellent for engaging with the local community, increasing skills and plant identification knowledge.

I also supplemented the amount of seed collected on the day with a few extra species collected previously…just in case there weren’t enough ripe seeds to collect on the day. This is an issue as we have to organise the day well ahead to inform people but for e.g. this year the season is about ten days behind so there may not be much to collect.

The new site acts as a living gene bank and a genetic replica of the existing site, helping to conserve local diversity within species, and safeguard against any disasters that might occur at the original site.

You can hand-collect a surprising amount of seed in a few hours if you have five or ten people helping.

We will be adding a few plants from seed raised in pots (by Barry in his garden) of locally collected globeflower and marsh marigold. That approach can work better for rarer species where the seed is more precious.

Yes it’s the same principle as using green hay, but substituting people for farm machinery.

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A ‘Mona Lisa’ Duck with family, which took up residence in the ponds this year

 

 

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