I can trace my interest in nature back to childhood walks in the 1960s with my grandparents and their whippet Rip, to West Meadow and Lord’s Ground near the fenland village of Willingham in Cambridgeshire. With their tall hedgerow elms and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers, these ancient pastures, teeming with rabbits for Rip to chase, were magical to me and a stark contrast to the surrounding arable fenland and market gardening. Three years ago when my Grandma died I inherited her family photo albums. In them I found pictures of her as a child with her sisters and brothers clutching small bunches of cowslips and other wildflowers. I have tried to revisit these childhood haunts, but as far as I can tell this part of my family’s history has all but gone.
Sadly, disappearance is a familiar story when it comes to wildlife-rich grasslands. Recently The Wildlife Trusts have been gathering information on the state of locally important grasslands in England – sites like ancient meadows, traditional pastures and road verges – all of which provide vital space for nature. The snapshot of information we have collected so far makes depressing reading and so today we are launching a new e-petition and campaign to ‘Save our Vanishing Grasslands’.
This is not a new problem. By 1980 97% of all traditionally managed lowland meadows had gone. Losses to other semi-natural grasslands were almost as great. Charities such as The Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife, the Grasslands Trust (like many grasslands, now sadly gone) have long highlighted the loss of our beautiful meadows and pastures. It’s proving difficult to outpace the rate of attrition. Despite our best efforts, grassland habitat is still disappearing. Wildlife -rich grasslands are fading away, and because the overall remaining area of habitat is so small, every single site that is lost or damaged now is a real tragedy.
There are so many reasons why our wildlife-rich grasslands are worth protecting: precious soils and seed-banks, wildlife habitat, carbon and water storage, hotspots for pollinators, living museums of farming and social history. In my own patch in Worcestershire, as elsewhere, much has been done to protect grasslands, mainly by the acquisition of nature reserves, and through working with farmers and landowners to manage and create grassland habitats. Add to this the fact that land prices, particularly in the lowlands, have risen to such an extent that land acquisition can no longer be the sole strategy for protecting wildlife-rich grasslands – and it’s clear we have to work at a larger scale and use a range of approaches.
Worcestershire – renowned for its classic lowland hay meadows – is a good example of the challenges we face. Here we estimate that 48 out of a total of 200 grassland Local Wildlife Sites have either been lost, damaged or reduced to sub-optimal condition since 2005. That’s around 240 hectares of diverse, interesting, beautiful habitat lost. And that’s just in one county, measuring only Local Wildlife Sites, since 2005. Furthermore a report on the condition of important grasslands in the county published in 2009 found that less than half of the sites sampled were in favourable condition.
Some sites have been lost to development or through ploughing. Some precious grasslands have been converted to gardens or overgrazed by horses or livestock. Others have been planted over with trees. But many more have simply deteriorated to such an extent that the plants and animals that make them special have disappeared. This leads to “de-selection” as a Local Wildlife Site (there is simply not enough good habitat left to justify keeping the Local Wildlife Site designation) and, with this a loss of any protection the site had – however meagre – via the local planning system. So not only are we losing (bio)diversity and beauty from our countryside – our overall area of protected land is being eroded away. It’s the story of what is happening to nature across the country. The precious wildlife sites we have saved will remain isolated and vulnerable without concerted efforts to connect and extend them where we can.
An additional factor is agricultural change and what this could mean for wildlife. Natural England estimate a loss of 288, 960ha of permanent pasture since 2005 (1). This is a complex statistic to analyse in terms of impacts on wildlife but in some places it will reflect a continual intensification of land management and pressure on wildlife and ecosystems.
Grasslands don’t occupy the same place in our psyche as ancient woodland but in my view they should. Traditional and wildlife-rich grasslands are seriously undervalued. They’re easily overlooked and, sadly, all too easily destroyed. They are probably the most vulnerable of habitats – even slight exposure to artificial fertiliser, for example, can cause serious damage. Yet grasslands, along with woodland, open water, heaths, uplands, bogs, parks and gardens are an essential part of our network of spaces for nature.
So what do we need to do, and why now?
Government is in the process of making decisions about the final stages of implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England – specifically on revised cross compliance rules and new greening measures. Both are linked to direct payments made to farmers. We are lobbying Government on both issues and the next few weeks are critical. But there is a need and an opportunity to call for other mechanisms to be used to strengthen grassland protection.
Wildlife-rich grassland used to be a common sight in the countryside. If we don’t wake up to this decline, John Clare’s “wild flowers studding every inch of ground” or “the field flowers free for all” will only exist in a few protected nature reserves. If you agree that something urgently needs to be done to save our vanishing grasslands please sign our e-petition.
We’re asking the Government to:
1 Improve existing laws and policies and effectively enforce them – Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations need to be strengthened and grasslands should be given better protection through planning policy.
2 Support wildlife-rich grasslands on farmland – Farmers should be fully rewarded for managing important grasslands (e.g. through farm environment schemes) and stronger requirements for protection should be attached to the direct payments all farmers receive from the public purse.
3 Award statutory protection to more grassland sites that deserve it – Species-rich grassland sites that qualify should become protected SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) as quickly as possible.
4 Set up a national grasslandinventory – A new national inventory of important grasslands in England needs to be established with sustained monitoring of sites in the future.
5 Restore more wildlife-richgrasslands – Grassland restoration projects delivered in partnership with landowners by local Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and others should be encouraged and sustained..
Colin Raven is Director of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust
(1) Permanent pasture assessed here is ‘land used to grow grasses or other herbaceous forage either self seeded or sown that has not been included in the crop rotation for 5 years or longer’. In the absence of official figures for 2012 and 2013, an average annual loss rate of 0.92% derived from the 2005 -2011 period has been applied to derive losses for 2012 and 2013.
The last part of the letter I received from Defra, via my MP Andy Sawford, was as follows:
’4. Dr Avery asks about the main animal welfare concerns surrounding the rearing and release of pheasants and red-legged partridges. It is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal or to fail to provide for its welfare needs, as required by the AWA. In addition, the rearing of gamebirds for sporting purposes is subject to a statutory code of practice, made under the AWA, which explains what owners/keepers should do in order to meet the welfare needs of their gamebirds. If anyone has concerns about the welfare of gamebirds on a particular farm, reared for sporting purposes, they should contact the relevant local authority, which has powers under the AWA to investigate such complaints, or the RSPCA, which will also investigate complaints of this nature.’
- isn’t this result on whaling absolutely fantastic (see also here, here, here)?
- I heard my first Blackcap this spring at Stanwick Lakes on Monday – a March Blackcap
- IPCC - we’re doomed, but not if we do something (lots, soon)
- BGBW results
- I was distracted a few times in a meeting the other day by a high-flying male Brimstone whizzzzing past the window
- some nice positive feedback from the talk I gave on Saturday (here)
- I’m hoping to see a Hen Harrier tomorrow…
- I was impressed that one of my MEPs, Bill Newton Dunn, contacted me about vultures and diclofenac
I’m not very good on flowers – but I know what I like.
I like the spring and I have noticed, at least I think I have noticed, that there are lots of yellow flowers around at this time of year. As well as the daffodils and primroses, there are aconites and celandines, and I have seen my first coltsfoot, marsh marigold and cowslips.
Why so much yellow? Tell me that! I’m just a poor bird guy, after all.
Since it is a new month I have decided to turn over a new leaf.
From now on I will:
- take up game shooting
- vote Conservative
- enjoy Flat racing more than National Hunt racing
- give up going to Stanwick Lakes
- take up botany
- give up birding
- stop being vegetarian four days a week
- give up writing
- promote the use of lead ammunition
- prefer Beaujolais to Bordeaux
- like sultanas added to apple pies and crumbles
- prefer Birdwatching to Birdwatch
- prefer the NT to the RSPB
…I will. Well, maybe until midday.
Following this morning’s blog…
I also asked:
2. What are the economic costs of road traffic accidents caused by Pheasants?
and here is Defra’s reply:
’2. Defra does not currently hold information relating to the economic costs of road traffic accidents caused by pheasants or red-legged partridge and is not aware that such information is recorded by government.’
Fair enough. But that, of course, is not to say that there are no accidents and there is no cost. So how, again, did Defra decide to say that ‘The overall environmental and economic impact of game bird shooting is therefore a positive one…’. So that includes the road accidents that haven’t been costed or included does it? Obviously not. How much would you assess a single road fatality to be ‘worth’ in economic terms? No, it’s not a very tasteful question but it clearly is relevant to assessing the costs and benefits of releasing 45 million pheasants into the UK each year given that such accidents do occur and simple damaging road accidents are quite common (see here, here, here).
and I asked:
3. How many Pheasant poults are imported into England each year from the continent and what regulations govern their transport? What are the implications of importing live pheasant poults for the transmission of avian diseases into the UK?
Defra’s response sets out the following figures for the UK:
Alectoris [ie red-legged partridges, but could include some other species too](from EU): 1,872,948
Phasianus [ie pheasants](from EU): 5,075,125
Phasianus (from outside EU): 12,600
Galliformes [ie not recorded which gamebird it was](from EU): 989,134
Galliformes (from outside EU): 6,331
With regard to the implications of importing live pheasant poults for the transmission of avian diseases into the UK, the avian notifiable diseases are avian influenza caused by H5 or H7 virus subtypes and Newcastle Disease (ND)(infection with highly virulent paramyxovirus). Pheasants are not generally considered a risk of transmission of avian influenza: these viruses are usually found in wildfowl and it is contact with wild or farmed ducks, geese etc that is high risk. However, pheasants and other game birds can carry paramyxovirus, which may be highly virulent and therefore lead to outbreaks of ND. This has happened before in 2006 in Scotland in grey partridges and in 2005 in England in pheasants. However, vaccination against ND is available for poultry and gamebirds.’
Nigh on eight million birds are imported into the UK each year for shooting. That’s a lot isn’t it? Did you realise that? I didn’t – the figure quite surprised me.
I wonder what the carbon, welfare and disease implications of all that are?
Eight million! Did you know that?
Back in January I wrote to my (excellent) MP, Andy Sawford, and asked him to write to Defra on my behalf on the subject of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges. I’ve recently received a reply from Defra via Andy Sawford.
My first question to Defra was: ‘What research has been done that addresses the range of ecological costs and benefits of rearing and releasing Pheasants for shooting? Does native wildlife benefit or is it harmed by Pheasant shooting? Does Defra have plans to do any such research?‘
Defra’s answer: ‘Defra has not assessed the impact of releasing pheasants or red-legged partridges on biodiversity and is not currently planning any research in this area due to other biodiversity research priorities.‘ The response continues (see below) but I just want to deal with this first.
That’s interesting isn’t it? It’s fair enough that Defra says, here, that it doesn’t know and doesn’t really care about this issue but in Defra’s awful response to John Armitage’s e-petition they state that ‘The overall environmental and economic impact of game bird shooting is therefore a positive one…’. Hang on! Here Defra states that they have not assessed the impact of releasing pheasants and red-legged partridges on biodiversity. So the previous statement was based on…? Blind prejudice perhaps? Maybe wishful thinking? Maybe both, but it appears not, as far as we can tell, to be based on any data at all. This is very poor.
This is not science-based policy -making; it’s not even policy-based science; it’s relying on myth, hearsay and prejudice.
It’s also pretty poor that Defra civil servants can’t spot the fact that their Ministers have made contradictory statements in the same week. What is happening inside Defra these days?
The response goes on: ‘It is estimated that pheasants have been present in the UK for at least 400 years, and possibly as long as 1000 years, following introduction by humans for the purposes of sport and sustenance. Management of game birds and the habitats they occupy can create benefits for farmland birds and other wildlife through the provision of food, shelter and nesting sites. Woodlands used for gamebird rearing also tend to have a more open aspect, which can benefit other woodland species such as ground flora, birds and invertebrates. It has been estimated by the industry that £250 million per year is spent on management activities that provide benefits for conservation.
Research carried out for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) in 2006 shows that the management of land for the purposes of shooting increases biodiversity. Two key findings were that ‘shooting is involved in the management of two-thirds of the rural land area‘. and ‘two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting‘. This same report estimated that the game shooting industry contributes approximately £1.6 billion to the UK economy. BASC is currently involved in updating this research with new data.
Certain species of animals and birds may have declined in the last 50 years, but there are many reasons for this including changes to farming practices, weather and habitat loss, which in most cases are likely to be greater factors then the impacts caused by the release of a single species such as the pheasant. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s document Guidelines for sustainable gamebird releasing has been published to inform game keepers of good practice to ensure any potential impacts on local biodiversity are minimised.’
Animals and birds – duhhh!? May have declined – duhhh!?
It appears that the game industry is the main source of information for Defra’s pronouncements these days. That tells us a lot. What is the Defra Chief Scientist doing to ensure that Defra talks some sense on ecological matters – not enough it seems? It’s probably quite a hard job, I must admit.
‘Research carried out by BASC’ is being ‘updated’ – we’ll come back to that too. And we haven’t even got to questions 2-4 in my original letter yet.
Mark writes: in some parts of Europe the return of the White Stork is what signifies that spring really has arrived. There are a few (dodgy?) very old breeding records for the UK, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they arrived in this country and started nesting on roofs in Kent and Sussex?
Yesterday was a busy day in a busy week. A consequence of giving a talk to the Hampshire Ornithological Society on 29 March is that, if you are me, over 300 people sing Happy Birthday! to you – which was highly embarrassing and very sweet of them.
I had stayed with friends and I took my slightly fuzzy head (up late talking, with a glass in hand), and the rest of me, off to north Hampshire, in bright sunshine, to meet a landowner who is doing wonderful work for nature on his land. Chiffchaffs were singing and Brimstones were along the hedges as I arrived. I spent a couple of hours in his company, talking about politics, where we agreed to differ, and about wildlife, where we were very much on the same wavelength. Two large plots had been prepared for nesting Lapwings and Stone Curlews and I was hoping to see the latter. But as we looked for the Stone Curlews we saw Red Kites and Buzzards, talked about legal predator control, touched on lead ammunition, saw Hares, talked of butterfly reintroductions, moaned about ‘modern’ farming and mentioned a few mutual acquaintances. And throughout there were Lapwings tumbling and ‘peewitting’ in numbers that I can’t remember seeing (or hearing) for years except on nature reserves. More of the countryside used to be like this.
A pair of Stone Curlews did put in an appearance which was wonderful. They were a bit elusive but we saw them a couple of times and heard their Curlew-like call. Later in the day I listened to Charlotte Bruce-White talk about the successful work of the RSPB with landowners greatly to the numbers of this declining bird – a success story. And founded on a mixture of excellent RSPB science, enthusiastic landowners, RSPB investment for many, many years and funding from you and me through grants that encourage the right practices.
We also heard at the HOS Open Day in Winchester, from Keith Betton, about the return of Peregrines to nest in this part of the world. Another success story.
And we must remember and celebrate those successes but at the same time realise that they are islands set in a sea of decline. I was surprised to hear that, as far as we know, Tree Sparrows no longer nest in Hampshire. How amazing and how sad!
Chris Packham is the President of the HOS and I always enjoy hearing him talk about nature. He was excellent again – not only when he said nice things about me and Fighting for Birds, but when he talked about heading off to Malta with a film crew, about being in Ghana recently, about how dolphins have names, about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly and much else – oh, he mentioned badgers, too.
I don’t know Chris that well but he inspires me each time I do see him. And I don’t agree with him 100% about everything, but the overlap of what we care about is so large that small differences in the chosen means to achieving our aims really don’t matter.
My talk went pretty well – it got laughs in the right places and stimulated lots of excellent questions. I hope that the audience will now be set on a course of writing to their MPs about nature. Funnily enough, when I returned home I had a letter from my MP – more of that next week.
The world is a fascinatingly connected place. In the HOS audience there were birders whom I’ve met before over the years, people who introduced themselves as readers of this blog whom I had never previously met, former RSPB colleagues whom I might have expected to be in that audience and another former colleague who I would never have guessed would be present.
Those 300+ of us in a lecture theatre in Winchester University yesterday afternoon are connected with the rest of the world in so many ways; through our friendships, through our workplaces, through our spending power, through our voting and through social media. I wonder, if we had stayed together for a week and hatched a plan, how much we could do for wildlife over the next year through making our voices heard?