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].

—————

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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Lots, the gardening trend we just can’t get enough of.

 

You’ve all seen it in public gardens and open spaces

that big colourful dramatic wow! of Lots

IMG_2779Like these cowslips in Albert Park, Middlesbrough

IMG_8850-001Or these Scilla at Kew Gardens, London, in March

IMG_6286-002Or Camassia at the Royal Horticultural Society garden, Wisley, in May

Bulbs are often used because they’re relatively cheap, quick to plant, and have an almost immediate effect. Especially useful are the spring-flowering ones because by the summer the leaves have died down and you can use the lawn for other things…

IMG_0533-001like tents-for-events if you are the Scilla lawn at Kew Gardens, and yes it really is the same bit of lawn, but at home you could use for e.g. a deckchair instead.

Lots is, in part, a showbiz tip-of-the-hat for the garden-visitor-who-doesn’t-know-anything-about-plants to admire (because public gardens need to welcome everyone) and part a wish to emulate that look of plants growing in their natural habitat.

IMG_0716Like native bluebells in Wensleydale

IMG_3392Or French Lavender growing wild in Portugal

IMG_4938Or frothy white meadowsweet and dark red bobbles of great burnet in a Tees Valley floodplain meadow

IMG_2641-001or harebells on the sand dunes at South Gare, at the River Tees estuary

But how do you get Lots into a small garden? Well …

IMG_9412Scatter many thin plants through a small space so they take up more visual attention when flowering, than space in the soil they’re planted in…like these pale purple globes of Allium hollandicum in late May, which almost disappear as seed heads later as the herbaceous plants start to flower.

IMG_6896-001and a couple of weeks later

IMG_0413-001Or use a few plants which have many tall flowers which take up Lots of visual space above – here three Stipa gigantea grasses in early July

IMG_2909-001Or have Lots of plants tucked to one side like this purple honesty in early May

IMG_7471And again as papery-white seed heads in early November

IMG_1250Or on a very much smaller scale, a continuous carpet of creeping thyme, almost in flower in early JuneIMG_2020and here as an effective greeny-grey foliage backdrop in September working as a foil for the other plants in the gravel garden, after the thyme has had its ‘moment in the spotlight’ of flower (that I don’t have a photo of, so you will just have to imagine that one then)

IMG_0963-001And you can also try getting Lots with the same plant, but in slightly different colours like herbaceous phlox, here in August with pink, mauve, purple and white – a look that would also work with Michaelmas daisies too.

Lots is not as formal as regular repetition of plants along a border

Cool border 2like this cool border at a Community Orchard in the Yorkshire Dales

IMG_0106or as controlled as the big blocks of planting we often see with heathers, like here at the Royal Horticultural Society garden Harlow Carr, in Harrogate

But is a softer way to have a seasonal wow! of your own, no matter what the size of your garden.

IMG_6220-002Lots of the grass Stipa tenuissima catching the light, early September, in my mum’s tiny garden in the Yorkshire Dales.

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Collecting Data

Summary:

  • The Priority Habitats Inventory data on MAGIC is not definitive.
  • They have a lot more data still on paper that they can’t afford to digitize.
  • Some of the data is obviously crap or out of date, but they can’t afford to check it and change it.
  • Other organisations have better data, at a local level, that may not be on the MAGIC site.
  • The data is so poor that it is impossible to check whether Priority Habitats are being destroyed.

Let’s run that last one again…there is no way of knowing at a national level whether National Priority Habitats are being destroyed year on year.

I asked the responsible politician to investigate a specific legal issue involving the supporting information for creating a SSSI, the National Statistics mark, and the England Biodiversity Figures.

IMG_7587Example of the Coastal and Floodplain Grazing Marsh layer being obviously crap. The layer is information from 1976 before the shopping centre was created but ‘fitted’ to the modern map. Ironically there is some saltmarsh adjacent to the brown markings (mudflats); it’s not present on the database layer for saltmarsh but it is a Local Wildlife Site.

Back in early August I contacted the environmental statistics department at Defra because I felt that they hadn’t actually understood what their data was revealing about Priority Habitats.

I wrote …”on page  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/england-biodiversity-indicators and the section 2a on Priority habitats. You have included a caveat in the Background section to 2a.1. Extent of priority habitats for the Indicator Assessment on Extent of Priority habitats, saying that (to paraphrase) due to the way the data is recorded that you don’t actually know the extent of the habitat and so can’t assess any change in extent.

Logically, if this is the case, you can’t actually say the extent of each priority habitat because you don’t measure it, you only measure the area within which there is priority habitat present. So at the beginning of the document the first sentence “There are 1.87 million hectares of terrestrial and coastal priority habitats across England, representing around 14% of the total land area (Figure 2a.1).”  is incorrect and should say ‘There are 1.87 million hectares of land within which terrestrial and coastal priority habitats can be found, but we don’t know the extent of the priority habitats because we don’t actually record that data.’ “

I then questioned how they could state the Priority habitats were in favourable condition if they didn’t know their extent; measuring the extent would be necessary for the condition assessment. I also made a point of saying I was aware of the lack of funding to carry out their statutory duties, something the Chair of Natural England confirmed on 21 Nov 2018 http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/chair-of-natural-england/oral/92782.html

IMG_7589IMG_7590

Example of data being out of date; what was apparently Lowland Meadow in 1991 but you can see clearly from the photo has since been ploughed up.

The answer (28 August) from the technical person (in charge of the Priority Habitat layer for the MAGIC website) was:-

“1) There have been three published versions of the Priority Habitats Inventory which represent improvements in our mapping of the extent of priority habitats in England.  In order to provide a consistent baseline for reporting on the condition of priority habitats (Biodiversity 2020 indicator 2a.2) version (1) of the inventory has been used each time.  The figure of 1.87 million hectares reflects this baseline extent and, as per indicator 2a.2, the condition of this overall area of priority habitat is improving.

2) There are uncertainties over calculating the exact extent of priority habitat in England, which are reflected in the caveats outlined below.  This does however include elements of under-reporting (where areas of priority habitat have yet to been included in the national inventory) as well as over-reporting (where the exact extent of the habitat within a land management unit has not been mapped).

3) Caveats: The Priority Habitats Inventory represents the best available information on priority habitats at an England-wide level; it is not and will never be a definitive dataset for priority habitats across England.  Users of the Priority Habitats Inventory should take into account:

  • For parts of the country, or for specific habitats, there may be more recent or better quality data available, such as that held by local partners, which Natural England has either not had access to or permission to publish.  We also still hold datasets that have not yet been processed for inclusion in the Priority Habitats Inventory and which will be included in future updates.
  • The quality of the inventory is variable: some polygons are derived from recent survey with habitat boundaries mapped accurately and high confidence in the determination of the habitat.  However, for other polygons the information available may be insufficient to confidently confirm the presence of priority habitats.
  • In some cases habitats may not have been mapped in the original data, such as where the original inventory polygons originate from a point dataset, database or from local wildlife site citations (see Table 2 and Table 4 for information on sources), so the site boundary or land parcel has been used as a proxy for the extent of the habitat.

4) To summarise: The new priority habitats’ inventory does not allow for assessing changes to the extent of 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 habitats. As a result, no assessment of change has been made. Defra, Natural England and JNCC are working to improve the quantity and quality of data on priority habitats, for example by improving standards for habitat mapping, and by investing in research that is developing new methods that combine satellite, remote sensing and field data to provide better information on the stock and change in habitats.

5) We plan to publish the Priority Habitats Inventory methodology/user guide on our website alongside the Open Data download, but we have attached a copy to this email for your information.”

[they did attach a copy – I haven’t read it yet; some more blogs to do be fore there is time for that]

IMG_7594IMG_7595

Not Lowland Meadow, but “good quality semi-improved grassland”… except that was in 1991…Natural England’s own photos show it’s been ploughed up and is now arable land.

Given the caveats mentioned above, and that recently the Natural England board have taken the legal step to designate Malvern Common as a Site of Special Scientific Interest using supporting evidence (scroll down for a .pdf here   https://consult.defra.gov.uk/natural-england/malvern-common/ ) stating there is less than 10,000 ha of Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat in existence in England, then the data published by Defra must be wrong because it differs from the Natural England figure which has been used in a legal manner. There is also a National Statistics mark on the Defra web page, so it calls into question Defra’s use of that mark or alternatively the quality of National Statistics as a whole.[I suspect the issue is one of people not understanding precisely what the statistics relate to rather than anything Machiavellian, but we’ll see in time]

I’ve written (26 Nov) to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment – who is, at present, Thérèse Coffey MP – and asked that the matter be investigated and that I am informed of the outcome. (I actually used the defrahelpline email rather than the MP email as I thought the email should be in the Defra capacity rather than their MP capacity so hopefully someone will forward it on). I copied in the National Statistics people and they have already replied and are investigating.

NOTES

Don’t get me wrong here, the MAGIC site is really amazing – it’s only because it is there and easy for me to use that I can point to evidence of lack for funding in mapping the extent of our shared national cultural heritage of Lowland Meadow plant communities. It just needs better funding.

And if you are wondering why I write such long technical blogs…

IMG_7628

This is their map of how much Lowland Meadow there is in my area (the small green bits)

IMG_7629

And by way of comparison, this is the extent of Ancient Woodland in my area.

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Keeping Count

HS2 Phase One and 2a will destroy about 1% of England’s National Priority Habitat Lowland Meadow and there will be more destroyed when figures for Phase 2b are confirmed. That’s 80 ha (the second information request, when I basically asked “are you really sure about those figures?”, said 79.8 ha) and the national estimate for the Priority Habitat is around 8000* ha.

Yes, they are going to create** some new Lowland Meadow as mitigation. As far as I can make out it will be 165 ha at Phase One and the rather vague 478.8ha of “habitats of principal importance” “which will include mainly lowland mixed deciduous woodland and lowland meadow.” for Phase 2a apparently following Ecological Principles of Mitigation (EPoM), although both the links given in answers to my questions are to survey methods. They did refuse to commit to best practice for the habitat creation on the grounds of cost “Where reasonable and worthwhile to do so, the collection of seed and/or plants from suitable donor sites will be considered.” (best practice is to use seed/plants from the habitat that is to be destroyed in order to conserve local genetic diversity) and yet when I asked how much money had been set aside “It is not currently possible to provide a ring-fenced figure for ecological habitat creation, monitoring and maintenance. HS2 has been designed, and therefore costed, as an integrated railway, of which ‘environment’ is not seen as an ‘add on’.” <puzzled, thinking-person scratching-their-head emoji>

Natural England and Defra have presumably agreed to this approach. After a bit of internet searching I found there is an “independent Ecology Review Group (ERG)” although I can’t find any contact details…so if anyone knows, then please pass the info on and I’ll check with them when I have time. I’d be particularly interested if they are taking into account the new SSSI guidelines for Lowland Grassland because obviously for something as prestigious as HS2 they will want to be using the latest ecological information. Obviously.

 

NOTES

*”…between 7, 282 ha which is cited in the UK BAP targets from 2006 archived on the JNCC website and English Nature Research Report 2000 ‘Monitoring the condition of lowland grassland SSSIs’ No. 315 gives a similar estimate of lowland meadows of 8,400 ha” – pers. comm. Request for information from Defra – Ref: TO2018/07235. So I took 8000 ha as a round number, but basically Defra do not know and haven’t mapped or surveyed it all and that means Natural England don’t know either: See https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/04/26/estimates/

** do bear in mind that new habitat is not the same as old habitat for Lowland Meadow. Most examples of Lowland Meadow are likely to be Ancient Grasslands see https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/defining-ancient-grassland/

Broadly, all Lowland Meadow over 0.5 ha in extent is now defined as being of SSSI quality, see https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/all-examples-of-mg5-over-0-5-ha-can-now-be-designated-as-sites-of-special-scientific-interest-sssi-so-why-hasnt-that-happened/

Info. on what constitutes a Lowland Meadow is downloadable from here http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5706

To give you an example of how difficult it is to get a clear answer when asking questions about specific environmental matters; my question (from my second information request from HS2) is in bold below and the answer is given afterwards…

“My understanding regarding the extent of destruction during the creation of HS2 of the National Priority Habitat Lowland Meadow puts it (80 ha) at nearer 1% of the English total (between 7, 282 ha which is cited in the UK BAP targets from 2006 archived on the JNCC website and English Nature Research Report 2000 ‘Monitoring the condition of lowland grassland SSSIs’ No. 315 gives a similar estimate of lowland meadows of 8,400 ha – pers. comm. “Request for information – Ref: TO2018/07235”) – can you please check and confirm this information of the destruction being at around 1%? I presume that total amount destroyed will be greater when the data for Phase 2b are known.”

 “Route-wide combined impacts from Phase One, Phase 2a and Phase 2b are stated in Volume 3 of the Phase 2a Supplementary Environmental Statement and Additional Provision Environmental Statement. Habitats of principal importance directly affected are reported as the number of distinct areas of habitat of principal importance that are within, or partially within, the land required for the Phase One and Phase 2a AP revised scheme. This is reported as 124 instances combined, noting that there are currently no figures provided for Phase 2b.”

Links to those scoping and survey documents I mentioned are below though I can’t find anything about the mitigation except a short slide show to the CIEEM.

  • Phase One Scope and Methodology Addendum (CT-001-00/2)

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/260153/Vol5_Scope_and_methodology_report_addendum_CT-001-000.2.pdf

  • Phase 2a Scope and Methodology Addendum (CT- 001-002) Part 1 –

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627188/E24A_CT-001-002_Part_1_WEB.pdf

 

This is a short blog because I’m busy at the moment, but if you want to follow it up:

From HS2, the information requests I made have the reference numbers FOI18-2056 and FOI18-2072

and from Defra the Request for information – Ref: TO2018/07235

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