The Hendry review is due to be published tomorrow and is expected to recommend the go-ahead for a tidal lagoon project in Swansea Bay.
This has been the subject of a variety of posts on this blog: Guest blog – Time for tidal power by Sian John, 15 July 2016; NGO reaction to Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, 22 April 2014; Time to be in favour of something…, 15 April 2014.
My own position is that a tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay is worth the gamble – we need more renewable energy and this location seems a good place to start (and the company involved have put a lot of effort into addressing the environmental issues).
But one of the reasons for saying ‘yes’ to Swansea Bay would be to learn, and although future projects, almost certainly in more controversial locations, would have to stand or fall on their own merits, it is also the case that lessons would have to be learned from Swansea Bay, and that can’t be done until a lagoon is built.
It seems to me that, so far, the developers and the conservation organisations have behaved very sensibly and that must be a good sign for the future. But if there is to be trouble ahead it might arise in at least two different ways.
If the developer acted as though a green light for Swansea Bay really means a green light for every other more contentious project that they might have at the back of their minds then that will cause problems. The developer knew that Swansea Bay was the least contentious potential project, though contentious enough, and that gaining approval for it (if that happens) would not necessarily mean getting approval for other tidal lagoon projects in the Severn. If the financial viability of the work were dependent on there being several lagoons than the developer should have put the most contentious one forward straight away to test the system. But they didn’t, so presumably they will be chuffed to bits with an eventual go-ahead for Swansea Bay.
On the other hand, there might be a temptation for conservation organisations to try to halt any further proposals until a Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is built and up-and-running for many years on the basis of learning from this example. Sounds sensible but the developer should ask what exactly will be learned from Swansea Bay and are there other ways of getting a handle on similar information more quickly. And certainly environmental assessment of other projects should begin sooner rather than later, if only to flag up issues that need solutions.
Steve Jones has worked in conservation in the UK and overseas for two decades, promoting wildlife-friendly farming and designated site conservation in the UK, and large mammal conservation in the tropics. He writes on wildlife-friendly farming, land sparing and rewilding at https://naturalareasblog.wordpress.com
Making space for wild nature in England’s wheat belt
Rewilding advocates searching the UK for places to host a pilot or two are unlikely to settle long upon the endless wheat deserts of Wiltshire. Indeed, advocates of land sparing will probably look at Wiltshire as the sort of place where very high-yield farming should continue, to allow land to be spared for nature elsewhere.
But examine central Wiltshire in Google Earth and one is struck by the existence of an extensive landscape of relatively flat grassy plains, sitting directly north of Stonehenge and the A303. Here, in one of southern England’s most productive arable landscapes, is one of the north-west Europe’s earliest, largest, inadvertent rewilding areas.
The hidden 28,000 hectares
At around 28,000ha, the core chalk grassland plains of the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) are the largest ‘surviving’, intact example of this habitat anywhere. ‘Surviving’ is probably not the correct term, because a fair proportion of what is now a large military training area has been cultivated in the past, only reverting to grassland upon acquisition by the state. The MoD continue to revert arable to grassland here, and parts of the adjacent Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS) are the subject of more recent arable reversion.
The first phase of rewilding on a grand scale?
If one includes the publicly-owned arable bordering the SPTA grassland, the nearby Porton Down, and the parts of the WHS in conservation ownership, we find around 40,000 hectares (400 square kilometres) of land potentially available for trophic rewilding.
Essentially, the first stage of inadvertent rewilding has already taken place, partly to protect sub-surface archaeological remains and create a more sympathetic setting for Stonehenge, and partly to serve the current needs of the military.
Not surprisingly, SPTA has retained extraordinary biodiversity value, and part of its value is the product of its sheer scale, and of disturbance. Parts of what is now SPTA and the WHS have never been ploughed, and these old chalk grassland patches have provided a source of plants and animals to colonise areas reverted from arable. This process of grassland habitat defragmentation, consolidation and enlargement is on-going with the potential for even more grassland creation on publicly-owned arable controlled by the MoD.
Military training with a metallic-megafauna of tanks currently creates and maintains a patchy disturbance regime upon which so much biodiversity depends. Tanks churn the chalky substrate, creating germination patches for ‘arable’ flora and parched crumbly soil for invertebrates. Tank-track puddles support a thriving fairy shrimp population. The impact area has frequent fires, whilst very light, rotational grazing by domestic stock maintain a mosaic of sward heights and densities. This mix of metallic, pyric and domestic herbivory and disturbance greatly influences the patterns of settlement by ground-nesters like skylarks, patchy marsh fritillary distributions and patterns of species-rich chalk scrub expansion and recession.
Bringing back the aurochs
So, we have here something that’s quite difficult to achieve in the English lowlands – habitat at scale. Can we foresee a future in which, as one alights to view Stonehenge, one is also treated to the spectacle of a landscape rich in wild megafauna?
Imagine the ecotourism potential here! People drive from all across the country – and fly from across the world – to see Stonehenge. Imagine the added attraction of hikes across rewilded plains full of grazing and browsing megafauna and, if we can modestly increase the extent of chalk scrub and copses, their predators too. If we can accommodate domestic cattle at Stonehenge and the huge training area to the north, why not their wilder counterparts?
What sorts of wild megafauna might be appropriate? The status of European bison in the UK is passionately contested, and the European wild horse and aurochs are, of course, extinct. Efforts are being made to back-breed into extant cattle the traits which were assumed to characterise wild aurochs. Of course, we can’t know the precise ecological traits of aurochs, but we can make well-informed inferences, and groups are doing just that. We will very likely soon have available animals that are, ecologically, very much more like aurochs than the domestic ‘rare and hardy breeds’ we currently use for grazing conservation landscaped, including those at Stonehenge and on the Salisbury Plain Training Area and Porton Down. If we’re happy using domestic livestock, and celebrate the ecological benefits of metallic-megafauna (tanks), how could we logically object to things back-bred to behave more like aurochs? The same with horses: why would rewilded feral horses behaving much like their wild ancestors be so objectionable to anyone (other than the MoD!)?
Some argue in favour of Pleistocene rewilding – introducing what they assume to be wild ecological surrogates for extinct species like elephants and rhinos. I’ll leave that open, saying merely that it needs a lot more thought and debate, and it’s not something I’d advocate.
But what about the ecological risks? Surely the core chalk grasslands of SPTA are of substantial biodiversity value which could be damaged by a revved-up rewilding programme?
Well, yes, the SPTA core grassland is a SAC and SSSI, and this and a larger arable area is also an SPA and SSSI. But the SAC value is really a function of the fact that it’s massive and open, and its ecology is largely driven by disturbance and patch dynamics – it’s not the sort of place where the precise ecological attributes of every square metre can be usefully defined. I’d argue that the careful reintroduction of wild and wild-type megafauna will not adversely alter the ecology of the area. How about the SPA? Well, stone curlews are a key interest here, and much of the population nests on specially cultivated plots in grassland and arable, or other heavily disturbed areas, with adult birds foraging for food on the bare ground of tank tracks and tilled areas – much of the grassland is too tall in summer for feeding stone curlews. The mosaic of sward heights created by mixed grazing and browsing herbivores – aurochs and wild horse surrogates breaking up scrubby areas and thick upright brome swards and creating grazing lawns – could well benefit stone curlews. And where tanks create water-filled ruts and churned pits of loose soil, could aurochs create water-filled wallows and sandy bathing pits? Tanks plough through scrubby patches, just as aurochs surely once did.
More specifically – where to start?
Notwithstanding the need to protect archaeological remains, it’s not unreasonable to say that the Stonehenge World Heritage Site area north of the A303 is already available for megafauna reintroductions. This could be the first phase. One would then need to negotiate with the MoD to revert arable land between this NT-owned area and The Packway, the road dividing the WHS from the larger SPTA. This MoD arable is public land, all-be-it leased to tenants. Incorporation to create a grassy corridor to SPTA is therefore feasible. But what of The Packway itself? It’s not a particularly busy road: one could foresee a mix of cattle grids and traffic calming, creating a megafauna crossing stretch along say 100 m of the carriageway. Of course, any other State would fund a wildlife tunnel or green bridge. This would give megafauna access to a relatively quiet part of southern SPTA west of Larkfield. If even a small area of MoD grassland here is opened-up for megafauna – say 4 square kilometres – it would be a start.
The big constraint here is not land ownership – much of the 400 square kilometres is publicly owned; it’s not human population density – the core 28,000 ha is of course unoccupied; it’s not existing ecological value – wild herbivores and their predators would compliment existing drivers of biodiversity value here; it’s not cost, notwithstanding some infrastructure tweaks and arable reversion. The real constraint upon the bigger part of the area is of course current use for military training. Carefully managed domestic stock are completely different beasts to free-ranging herds of essentially wild cattle and horses. Could such populations be managed so as not to pose an insurmountable constraint on military training requirements?
If the government and others were to be persuaded to consider accommodating relatively free-ranging herds of wild bovids and equids at Stonehenge and parts of SPTA, we’d have the core of an impressive rewilding project in southern England, through which passes a major transport corridor, and at the core of which already exists the major global tourist attraction of Stonehenge.
I very rarely listen to Radio2 – I am so firmly a Radio4 stick-in-the-mud – so I am grateful to a reader of this blog for pointing me in the direction of the Jeremy Vine show this lunch time (although I feel rather bad about temporarily deserting Martha Kearney) where there was what passes for a discussion about farm subsidies on that channel (click here 35 mins into programme) .
It was very short, it was rather shallow, but it was very welcome although it should ring loud warning bells in the ears of the NFU.
George Monbiot was very accomplished and pointed out grouse moors receiving agricultural subsidies as a glaring fault of the current system. George was, as almost always, excellent.
Minette Batters, the NFU Deputy President, was pretty good too. She was reasonable and calm and did a good job but the NFU should be worried about what their strategy should be. Batters was put in the position of having to choose whether or not to defend massive payments to massively rich landowners and ended up almost defending them. That’s not going to work. If every time the NFU talks about subsidies it argues for the status quo, or merely defends it, then it will not only look like the dinosaur that many of us think that it is, but also like a foolish dinosaur.
It is not the job of the NFU to defend the unfairness of the current system – instead they should be proposing a better one. But that better one will have to be better for the consumer and taxpayer and environment, as well as a fair one for farmers. NFU members, real farmers, are not going to do well out of a new English agricultural policy unless their union chooses to join forces with the public and the environment rather than the richest landowners and the slipper farmers of the upland grouse moors.
Everyone expects money to be tight after 2020 and farmers have no entitlement to public subsidy after that date unless they can justify it. Their allies should be the environmental NGOs who can do some of their PR for them with the general public rather than the likes of the Conservative MPs who spoke up for grouse shooting. `
There are several ways of cutting the money going into agriculture (and that should be an aim in the age of austerity) and they include across-the-board cuts (which would hurt NFU members more than CLA members to be blunt), capping of subsidy levels for individual farms (a good idea in my opinion but not the whole solution – and unlikely to be promoted by large NGOs who also benefit from those payments) and restricting access to the money to ‘real farmers’ and cutting out many other current recipients.
The more often that these issues are aired, the more difficult it will be for the agricultural industry to maintain a unified front in the hope that reform will go away. It most certainly won’t go away and the NFU need something good to put on the table. They also need to look around the table and see where their real friends are sitting.
It didn’t take a lot ornithological nous to realise that nine Mute Swans with H5N8 bird flu virus in Dorset were quite likely to have come from Abbotsbury Swannery – as surmised in this blog on Saturday and trumpetted by the national press yesterday (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC). Defra doesn’t test additional birds from a location once the virus is confirmed so there may be many more Abbotsbury Mute Swans which have died from bird flu over and above the nine carcasses which contained the virus (and are assumed to have died because of it). About twice as many Mute Swans have died at Abbotsbury this winter (c80) compared with a normal winter. Interestingly it appears that young birds (hatched this year) make up most of the birds which have died.
There continues to be speculation on Twitter about Pheasants and bird flu. This is hardly surprising since the Pheasant is the UK’s most numerous ‘wild, but not really wild’ bird because 35 million (or 45 million, or 50+ million depending on who you believe) Pheasants are released into the countryside every year for ‘sporting’ purposes. If you have an exceptionally good memory of this blog, then you will recall that nearly three years ago I asked my then MP, Andy Sawford, to ask Defra some questions about Pheasant and Partridge imports (see here, here and here).
The second of those posts sets out the official figures on numbers of Pheasant, partridge and ‘galliform’ poults imported into the UK each year – almost 8 million. That is a lot of birds, hatched abroad, transported to the UK, kept in pens and then they become, as if by magic, wild birds when released to be shot. But from the point of view of bird flu I assume that most of these birds are imported in the summer and not at this time of year – is that right does anyone know?
Defra also wrote at that time: 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.
Of course you will find more bird flu in waterfowl if those nice people at Abbotsbury, WWT and RSPB send in lots of dead ducks, geese and swans for analysis and Pheasant shooters don’t, so on the face of it we shouldn’t give too much weight to the reported number of positive cases in particular species or groups of species. There may be a danger of confirmation bias here. It’s not clear that Defra records the number of negative cases by species so it may not be possible to compare the percentages of positive and negative tests by species.
I’ve asked the Defra Chief Vet, Nigel Gibbens, on Twitter (@ChiefVetUK) about whether any Pheasants have been tested for H5N8 but he hasn’t replied. This is fair enough as I am sure he has a lot on his plate. But an FoI will be heading his way once we get past this outbreak of H5N8.
It’s all very rudimentary stuff, and I fear that useful information on wild birds and H5N8 isn’t being collected. All too often in my past dealings with Defra vets it seemed that a wild bird was a wild bird was a wild bird, rather than them being different species with different ecologies and movement patterns which would affect their likelihood of transmitting avian flu viruses.
When Keith Betton interviewed the late, great Phil Hollom in Behind the Binoculars, Hollom said that when he was at school at Cockfosters in the 1920s he had looked out of the window during a school exam and seen a Red-backed Shrike. This would have been regarded as a mere distraction, though a pleasant one, in those days, but if Mary Colwell gets her way, and I hope she does, then it might be seen as inspiration for one’s studies.
In the latest eminently supportable e-petition on the Westminster government website Mary Colwell proposes that Natural History should be a GCSE subject.
This is a theme that Mary developed in a Guest Blog here in November 2012 and the idea still seems a good one to me. In fact, I think it must stand a chance of catching the attention of our politicians for at least three reasons: it’s a good idea, it’s not a very contentious idea and it would be good to show that the petition system sometimes delivers change in the world otherwise people will lose interest in it.
Of course this will only happen if the petition gets a reasonable amount of public support, and that’s up to you (because I’ve already signed it – I was the 41st person to sign it yesterday). Sign here.