A decline in insect numbers, children losing touch with nature, adults in total ignorance of their local cultural heritage, and local government cutbacks. What can we do to help?
In 2016 Natural England published its Conservation 21 strategy (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/conservation-21-natural-englands-conservation-strategy-for-the-21st-century ) which proposes a future based around the following three guiding principles
• creating resilient landscapes and seas
• putting people at the heart of the environment
• growing natural capital
An efficient and sensible way to solve all of the above problems is to bring our rural ancient grasslands into the heart of our urban areas: Cowslip, bird’s-foot trefoil, autumn hawkbit growing on our urban road verges so they can be seen during the year by every child as they walk to school, every adult as they drive* to work, and also used as food plants by the plethora of insects and associated creatures that we could have in our lives again. Get the plants right and pretty much the rest of the wildlife turns up on its own.
It can start immediately**. In the build specifications for every new housing estate, road verge, or public space the default option should be to use locally-collected ancient grassland seed sown on subsoil. Local to keep a sense of local character and distinctiveness, subsoil to slow the growth of the plants so they don’t need mowing as frequently…something that would save a lot of money over the 50-100 year lifespan of the new urban or suburban grassland.
A developer would need a really good reason (a rugby or football pitch) for the local authority to allow the current system of high cost, high maintenance, low biodiversity grassland of rye-grass sown on expensive topsoil (I do rather wonder if planners think this sort of thing through properly).
The existing street verges/urban open spaces can be enhanced with ancient grassland seed or turf removed and seed sown. There isn’t enough local ancient meadow seeds to do it all at once, but a rolling program of culturally important biodiversity change is easily possible and not expensive.
If you want to start straight away, then there is an idea for funding at the end of the blog.
Reasons why people might not want this to happen.
“We can’t collect the hay as we don’t have the equipment and it is too expensive to do”. This isn’t about recreating hay meadows, this is about creating the modern equivalent of medieval wildflower-rich grazed pastures (which once covered about a third of England) although instead of being irregularly grazed by oxen we use a lawnmower 3 to 5 times a year. No hay to remove. Current high-cost low-biodiversity system is to mow 10 to 12 times a year.
“It won’t work”. It does, what did you think the photos I’m using were of?
“It will look messy”. How many people will really complain? Ten, fifteen? More than 50% or less than 50% of the population living in the area? And why don’t those complainers want to celebrate their local cultural heritage? And why do they hate children so much that they think children shouldn’t be allowed to see cowslips or bird’s-foot trefoil? And are they going to pay the extra for neatly mown ryegrass?
“It costs more”. Show me your costings; please include maintenance cost estimates for the next 50 years and 100 years because this is the likely road verge plant-community life-span and include the biodiversity costs of the two different systems, then tell me it costs more because I simply cannot see on the evidence in front of me that it costs more.
“I get hayfever”. Me too – at present the drugs I take are excellent (thank you to my NHS doctor for prescribing them), but yes I too would like more research into why the body’s immune system reacts in this way and think it will yield important insights into how our bodies fight infections. Also, as a nation of very skilled horticulturists, we can time the cutting to minimise the amount of grass flowers (and pollen) that are produced and maximise the amount of wildflowers (we really can).
“We will have to change”. Yes; yes you will – we all will. And so we should.
If you have a local community/horticultural group with its own bank account, then the Heritage Lottery Fund is perfect https://www.hlf.org.uk/looking-funding/our-grant-programmes . You might be able to pick up a few extra local small grants to supplement it. Your project would study your local heritage through maps and field names, study the plants in your local ancient grasslands, engage the local people with their floral heritage and then bring that heritage to a more accessible place into the urban/suburban road verges for everyone to celebrate and enjoy. You will need your local councillors to agree to saving money on future maintenance of the areas first. Otherwise the grant is to raise enough money to pay someone to survey the road verges you want to change first to see if the right plants are there anyway (you’d be surprised what can be there), pay someone else to do all the heavy lifting if turves or soil needs to be removed/replaced, pay someone to help you celebrate the local heritage (archaeology group? Heritage officer?), and to pay for any other advice you receive. If possible always use your grant to pay local people. Talk to your local wildlife trust, county ecologist, or similar custodian of ancient grassland about your project and see how they can help.
If there is house-building occurring in your neighbourhood, money may be available through your council as a result of the house-building. If in doubt ask your local councillor they are only an email away.
*Obviously, please walk or ride a bike at least some of the way to work if you are physically able to do so.
** Technically it should already have started; Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, places a duty on all public authorities in England and Wales to have regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that pursuing sustainable development includes moving from a net loss of biodiversity to achieving net gains for nature. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/natural-environment
Collecting seed or green hay from local ancient grasslands means that those grasslands gain monetary value for what they are – a source of biodiversity. If you are a local council owner of said grassland then it is also a useful way to get someone else (i.e. a housing developer) to help contribute towards the costs of its upkeep.
I get sick to my heart of adults bemoaning the fact that children can’t name wildflowers/don’t connect with nature when adults have deliberately removed virtually all chance of any child meeting most of our wildflowers on a daily basis and most adults are themselves so very ignorant they could not recognize native wildflowers if they fell over head first into a patch of them. Writing books about all the lovely nature that children do not have opportunity to see seems to me either vindictive in the extreme or subversive, hoping for a revolution (fingers crossed for the latter). We should reframe the point. Children should not be blamed for things adults have gone out of their way to relentlessly and systematically eradicate from a child’s everyday existence. Please always frame the argument about the damage done by the adult, not the lack of connection by the child.
We need an Ancient Grassland Inventory https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/we-should-talk-of-ancient-grassland/ so that everyone would know where native grassland seed could be taken from. At present there is no such inventory, the unimproved grassland layer on the MAGIC website is wrong/out of date, Defra have been misreporting the amount of national priority habitat Lowland Meadow both to parliament and to the nation https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2018/04/26/estimates/ , and as a habitat Lowland Meadow is so endangered and there is so little left nationally that any piece over 0.5 ha in size can now be designated a SSSI if the opinion of Natural England is such that it should be 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/ . Scandal is too mild a word for the deliberate eradication of wildflower-rich grassland from our cultural and physical landscape.
Defra have recently appointed a “Tree Champion to drive forward planting rates” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/tree-champion-to-expand-englands-woodland . Native trees and tree planting are one of the biggest conservation success stories of the last Century; there are more mature native trees alive today than there have been for over a thousand years and the amount of woodland in the UK has increased from 5% to 12% of land area, of which about half is broad-leaved woodland https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/habitats/woodland . Biodiversity is still declining, so on the evidence, if I wanted to increase biodiversity, I wouldn’t put my limited money*** into tree planting…I’d put it into replacing a habitat that we have lost a lot of – the biggest example being species-rich grassland. Also, all of this is so obvious that I can’t actually believe I’m having to politely spell it out for all those who work at Defra to read (to be fair the scientists already know so maybe they can pass this blog on to their managers and they can pass it on to their political managers. I still have some more technical data to collect before I start writing about the political and management decisions that took us to where we are and yes I won’t forget about the loss of staff, expertise and etc from the cutbacks that resulted from the government not having fit and proper regulations for the banking sector).
***A bit of checking and I find that the government are relying on money from HS2 Ltd “It will be a further 11 million trees by 2022—in this Parliament. I believe we will do that comfortably, not least because HS2 Ltd is setting aside money, £5 million, for schemes and will plant trees over the next few years, so I am confident that we will go past that target. “ see Column 186WH https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-01-11/debates/58783B31-7C4A-431A-BF43-4259F9FA92A2/ForestryInEngland . Oh wait! As you were; it turns out HS2 is funded by the government https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/high-speed-two-limited