Guest blog – Disturbing for Nature by Miles King

Miles photoMiles King is Chief Executive of People Need Nature a new charity working to highlight the sensory, emotional and spiritual values of nature. He has worked in nature conservation for 30 years, leading the conservation work at Plantlife, The Grasslands Trust and Buglife. He has also worked for English Nature, Natural England and as a consultant. He is co-author of Arable Plants: A Field Guide (2003), and The Nature of God’s Acre (2014). He blogs at and is writing this in a personal capacity.


Disturbing for Nature

Is intensive farming to blame for the loss of nature from the British landscape? Guy Smith vice president of the NFU thinks not. When the finger of blame was pointed at intensive farming in the latest “state of nature” report, Smith was reported to have spluttered into his cornflakes at the very thought of it. As a winner of the Pesticide Action Network’s bee-friendly farmer of the year (albeit back in 2011 – the only year it was awarded) Smith feels entitled to claim that things are now only getting better.

Perhaps he is right. The darkest days of farm intensification were from the 50s to the 70s, after the all-out mission to grow as much food as possible during the “Great Harvest” of the Second World War, when U-Boats sunk ships bringing food to Britain from across the Empire (and beyond). The late great Oliver Rackham coined the phrase “the locust years” to describe the assault on the landscape that took place then – an assault encouraged by politicians and funded by taxpayers.

By the 1980s, the damage had been done in most places (though intensification continued in the further reaches of Britain – Dorset for example lost much species-rich grassland in the 80s). Smith’s own farm apparently had lost several hundred acres of Coastal Grazing Marsh during the 70s, though this was before his family had purchased the farm. This photo shows the extent of marsh in the 1930s.


Extensive areas of Coastal Grazing Marsh to the south of Guy Smith’s Wigboro Wick Farm (top left hand corner), south of St Osyth, 1935. All converted to arable land.

Smith farms on the extreme east of England, near Clacton. His farm receives a lot of funding for environmental work as well as for farming. Smith received £41000 last year from Entry Level and Higher Level schemes of Environmental Stewardship, on top of the £115000 farm subsidy payment he received just for owning the land. I wanted to tell you what Smith is doing for his money, but strangely his farm is missing from the stewardship spreadsheet. According to Natural England, he does have breeding Lapwing and water voles, and there is a reintroduction of the very rare Fisher’s Estuarine moth near to or on his land.

And herein lies the problem. From Smith’s perspective things really are getting better – he’s spending a lot of time and effort and taxpayers’ money doing things for nature, so it surely must be getting better. While nature might be improving on individual farms, The data in State of Nature suggest otherwise. And of course Smith is ignoring the fact that 50 years ago those arable fields he has known all his working life were coastal grazing marsh. It’s the shifting baseline syndrome.

There’s a bigger question; what have all the billions spent on agri-environment schemes over the past 30 years actually delivered? There are some high profile good news stories – the Cirl Bunting is but one of many birds, which have benefitted from much agri-environment funding – and there are butterflies and mammals, and perhaps even a few plants that have directly benefitted. But for most of the 70,000 or so species native to the UK, we can confidently say that those agri-environment scheme billions have done little or nothing to alter their trajectories. We could be more confident if Natural England had measured the impact of agri-environment schemes on species and habitats, rather than deciding to mostly measure process ie outputs (scheme delivered) rather than outcomes (more nature).

This trajectory of decline has been going on for a long time. It’s not a recent thing. The spectrum of habitats available for species (or niches if you want to be technical) has narrowed, and continues to narrow. A recent interesting paper by Rob Fuller, Tom Williamson, Gerry Barnes and Paul Dolman at UEA charts the loss of habitats/niches that used to be provided by agriculture – before the advent of mechanization and synthetic chemicals in the 1800s. Previous farming, including the widespread use of common grazing and common-field arable farming, created a far wider range of habitats which gradually disappeared as farming became more homogenous and mechanized. Dolman and Fuller are describing a system, which created disturbance at a range of scales in both time and space. Disturbance is key to providing opportunities for many species which are now rapidly disappearing from our ever more homogenized landscapes.

We cannot go back to a time when peasants eked out a living, herding geese feeding on the village green, creating muddy pond-edges for plants, insects and amphibian. Would anyone choose to reintroduce the toxic Corncockle into wheat-fields. What future is there for nature in the farmed landscape?

Some suggest that farmland is the wrong place to be even thinking about nature and that we must look to rewilding as the answer and the future. Leaving aside the challenges of growing insect-pollinated crops without insects, will rewilding provide the places that our nature needs? Though there now appears to be a turf war going on over who has the right to define rewilding, the common ground seems to focus mostly on one or two natural processes – succession ie the growth of woody shrubs and trees; and the introduction of extinct mammals, especially predators, though some herbivores are encouraged (beavers, but not bison).

But replacing open landscapes with closed canopy woodland or scrub, whether it be in the uplands or lowlands, will not provide the conditions to sustain all, or even most, of our native wildlife. The argument goes that the Holocene wildwood which returned after the last Ice age, was mostly closed canopy and that is what we should aspire to produce again. But the Holocene wildwood had already lost the agents that created that wide spectrum of niches through disturbance, through the reverse of succession.

The Elephant in the room, as always with rewilding (or wilding if you like) discussions is …yes, the Elephant: The Straight-tusked Elephant to be exact; and the associated mega grazers of the late Pleistocene – the rhinos and giant deer.

Giant Elk. Photo: Miles King
Giant Elk. Photo: Miles King

Our fauna and flora, at least those that have survived through the Holocene until now, evolved over a period of millions, in some cases tens of millions of years. They evolved to occupy the niches created by the interaction between these megafauna, their predators, the smaller fauna of herbivores and their predators, and the flora/fungi communities that evolved during that time. Even today’s smaller elephants provide vital niches  – an African elephant (half the weight of the Straight-tusked)’ footprint creates an amazing resource for all manner of species.

This could explain why the Holocene fauna of Aurochsen, Tarpan/Przewalski’s horse, Bison etc could not create the open spaces/disturbance patches that are the habitat of so many of our native plants, fungi, lichens, mosses, invertebrates and vertebrates. They survived, clinging on, through the abnormally closed forests of the early Holocene, until Mesolithic, then Neolithic peoples started re-creating the open spaces that were there in the Eemian and previous interglacials, thank to the mega grazers and other sources of disturbance such as fire.

No doubt there was a landscape of fear created by the mega predators of the mega grazers. And it would make sense that some clearings were more temporary than others. But the idea that these animals did not create large clearings, that would last long enough to provide ample habitat for species of open sunny grassland, seems pretty implausible to me.

Of course we don’t have the opportunity to reintroduce the straight-tusked elephant or the rhinos, and even if we did, some people might be quite concerned as to whether it would be a good idea or not. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the vital role they played in providing niches for the surviving species that we consider valuable, native or otherwise.

Our landscapes are full of the ghosts of disturbance – going back to the mega herbivores of the Eemian interglacial and previous interglacials. The older farming practices described in detail by Dolman and Fuller – which includes transhumance – the movement of stock onto summer pastures (Somerset means Summer grazing). Subsistence farming created messy corners, headlands sometimes grazed, sometimes not, mud-fringed ponds and sloughs.

As well as farming, small-scale “cottage” industries created pits and heaps, which while initially bare, slowly developed their vegetation. Peat-cutting was common on heath and moor, creating a series of different-aged pools full of wildlife. Gorse was allowed to grow on heaths, then cut to fire ovens.

The ghosts of these sources of disturbance can still be seen on downland, heath and moor.  In more recent times the Industrial Revolution created a different set of disturbances, often at much larger scales. We now value these sites as brownfield nature sites, and they support at least some of the species that would previously have been associated with the older agricultural practices, now long gone. Now it seems military activity is the only thing even remotely creating the conditions needed by nature that depends on disturbance, at least without specific conservation intent.

What can be done to provide the different levels and scales of disturbance that so much of our wildlife needs. It seems unlikely that they will return to the farmed landscape, certainly not the intensively farmed ones. Fuller and Dolman make a strong case for introducing more imaginative approaches to managing nature reserves, to incorporate practices that better reflect the types of things that happened in the long distant past. And if rewilding is going to have a real part to play in the future of nature in the UK, then one way or another, nature in its widest sense, is going to need disturbance to thrive.

This is all academic though. That trajectory of decline will continue, unless we can persuade the public to care about nature, beyond paying their RSPB or National Trust subscriptions.




41 Replies to “Guest blog – Disturbing for Nature by Miles King”

  1. Miles – many thanks, that’s spot on.
    Love the phrase, ‘ghosts of disturbance’. I think those ghosts are telling us to reverse the edict: ‘when in a hole stop digging’. No, we must start having many more holes in the countryside, especially quarries (we need more houses FFS). How about starting with third rate, inherently infertile, lowland arable fields which produce little other than animal feed and massive carbon footprints re huge nitrate inputs?
    Nature adores a bit of rough and geological nudity – especially when the planners and landscapers, with their prettifying makeovers and tick-box management plans, are prevented from looking on.
    A prime example here, is Midhurst Common in West Sussex, where there is a sandpit that has been abandoned for 30 years. Rare arable weeds like Smooth Cat’s Ear grow here but they are potentially under ‘threat’ from ecological succession. So be it – that’s nature. But don’t worry, there’s something called youth and wild behaviour: the occasional (and illegal) dirt-biking activity. Result? Those open ground plants are actually spreading from one glade to another. Are these lads a natural analogue for something?
    Even better examples occur on the chalk where some old pits have been let to scrambling clubs. Again, the resulting habitats are botanical and entomological gems in a boring and depleted countryside.
    I’m not an advocate for the dirt-bike fraternity but I am a lover of wild boars, be they real or by proxy. (by the way those chalkpits that have been left completely alone are filled with impenetrable scrub – perfect dormitories for boar which are slowly spreading from East Sussex. All terribly unplanned for.)

  2. Excellent Miles – as ever! Perhaps it would help if we started treating nature more seriously. For example it seems to be de rigueur to have schoolkids doing some activity when talking about nature on tv. It just reinforces the impression in peoples minds that nature is for kids. We need to start talking about nature in a grown up manner. Nature is not just for kids, it is not all cute and fluffy, there is more to life than just large mammals (ironic I know coming from the bloke who used to run WWF’s species programme!) and we need to show that nature affects everything we do. It’s the bottom line. Everything we have ever used, or will ever use, has come from, and will go back into, our environment. Nature affects everything. Also the old model of paying our subs to the wildlife NGO’s is, I think, becoming more and more outdated. They are clearly ineffective. Partly this is because they are up against forces much larger than themselves and partly because they cant upset too many applecarts or their funding will be at risk. We need a new approach. And we need it now!

  3. Hi Miles,
    Good blog (as ever). The elephant in the room is an interesting argument that I’ve heard before but agree we can’t go back there, hence why I prefer the term “wilding” (dropping the “re”) or “nature-led ecosystems” (After Diana Lambert).. see for more on the whole rewilding/wilding debate. But to cut to the point, I think we need to look forward towards “future natural” learning the lessons of the past and work within the confines of what is possible, exploiting opportunities as they arise and acting in nature’s favour as and when we can. The other elephant in the room is population growth and food security as proven during and after WWII when the country was virtually on its knees and having to turn every scrap of productive land over to food production. This I worry about though hopefully continued advances in agriculture and changes to patterns of human consumption will mean that there will be space for nature in our future landscapes. See for an interesting future-view post-sea level rise.
    Oh.. and an interesting little story about Guy. I shared the BBC Breakfast Show’s famous red sofa with him last year which had been set up in a farmer’s field near Preston for a piece on farming, food and nature. After a pathetically short opportunity to discuss farming and rewilding (I think they gave us 30secs!) Guy and I chatted for a while before leaving the set. He admitted that he personally wouldn’t be adverse to, say, lynx reintroduction, but that there was no way he was going to admit that on camera because he had to represent his NFU membership. The other NFU rep that I’ve recently had cause to chat to was Andrew Critchlow (NFU Derbyshire) who basically said “We’ll do anything you like as long as you pay us”. I often make the argument that wilder landscapes provide better total ecosystem services on a £ per £ basis than human modified/controlled ones and across the full range of services too. So, since it is (as Andy Critchlow maintains) all about the money, we need to get the PES formula right and measure delivery effectively so that nature isn’t squeezed out of our countryside in favour of maximising economic returns from production..

  4. Miles, your last line cuts right to the heart of the matter. The first hurdle, I’d suggest, is to explain to the public why it matters. Planet Earth II continues to marvel and I can’t think of anybody who has done more to explain than Sir David. It’s a big job and I think it’d be momentous if all those of us who do understand why it matters could give him more of a helping hand.

  5. That is a brilliant link to the Corncockle blogpage.
    I have just made a couple of ‘weed’ beds in our garden. ‘Weeds’ that I find nearby but struggle because of competition with grasses and sheep grazing on a non-arable farm. I tried with rough stony areas in our garden but they just love arable land. I couldn’t believe the difference when they got into my vegetable beds so i thought, sod off, they are going to get it, a bed for themselves.
    So far just White Ramping-fumitory and Parsley-piert but anything i find which can be categorised as an native arable ‘weed’ will go in there.
    Trouble is there is no where else for them to expand.

  6. We live in a strange world.
    – we have more and better data about the state of nature than ever before.
    – we understand how to address many of the problems facing nature.
    – the wildlife NGOs have more members and more resources than ever before.
    – the first episode of Planet Earth lI was the most watched tv programme this year.
    – audiences for other wildlife & countryside programmes are at or near record levels.

    And yet:
    – our wildlife and countryside continue to disappear.
    – most people seem unaware or indifferent.
    – NGOs appear unable or unwilling to work together to address this effectively.

    If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll continue to get what we’ve always got – some commendable wins, some holding the line and much continued decline. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know there needs to be more fresh thinking. Credit to Miles King for exploring a different approach.

  7. thanks for all the comments.

    Murray – yes trailbikes can be a useful source of ecological disturbance, or just damage. It depends on frequency and intensity of use.

    Callum and Rowan. Thanks – this is the thinking behind People Need Nature.

    Steve – thanks very much. But what about disturbance?

    Anand – I also had corncockle in my veg patch! It’s gone now. Native arable weeds is a bit of a contradiction though. Most are ancient introductions.

    Paul – many thanks. We love watching Planet Earth – but perhaps it’s part of the problem, not the solution.

    1. Miles, I wish you all the luck in the world with “People Need Nature”. I agree with Callum, the tension between funding preservation and real action for nature has become decidedly unhelpful. As a new approach this looks very exciting and if it can reach the wider public, in a language that everybody can understand, things will start to look up.

    2. Yes, there’s the disturbance issue but I think we’ll just have to accept that our future wild ecosystems will have to get along without hefalumps. Large herbivores will have to do, but please, please not in the “viewable” numbers that Rewilding Europe espouse in the safari park vision of rewilding. We also have the problem of the English Channel in that large carnivores are not going to come back here without direct intervention by us, and I just don’t see the landed interests allow that to happen (at least in my life time).

  8. One big problem conveniently missed out always by conservationists that lots of other birds have decreased just as much that have nothing to do with farmland.
    Another problem is those same conservationists cannot agree between themselves what they want farmers to do that will help and be a reasonable ask.
    Another big problem never mentioned is the colossal growth of places like Poundbury which even now I believe not content with killing lots of wildlife on previous farmland now expanding killing more with hundreds of other instances all over the country where conservationists can live in comfort while moaning about farmers.
    Look on the bright side,Guy Smith has helped feed you and your family and lots of people in the world would be pleased of that.
    Please take note Guy Smith and thousands like him to claim this money you hate others to have they have to meet the criteria set out for the schemes and if you hate it as much as it appears from how you write get you and your friends to put your effort into getting the schemes set up to produce better nature results.

    1. Did you read the piece Dennis?

      From your comment, it seems like you’ve seen the first sentence and then just decided what the rest of it said, before writing a “conservationists hate farmers” rant.

      1. Miles,it is nowhere near as simple as blaming intensification of farming and farmers cashing in on grants.
        Without belittling everyone else in regard to Cir Bunting that project shows exactly what farmers will do if asked in the right way and told exactly what conservationists would like them to do.
        Without doubt without that type of advice from mostly RSPB I would guess and the farmers happy to do what was asked that project would either never got off the ground or been a total failure.
        Whereas it is perhaps the biggest success of all projects.
        Even if I look all over the internet and also ask questions there seems a total absence of what conservationists would like ordinary farmers to do that is fairly simple and until the schemes reward farmers for efforts that will rectify the decrease in wildlife then just like everyone else in society they will comply with scheme rules and collect what is offered.I do wonder if it is there but not easy to find.
        The only answer is for scheme rules change but blaming NFU and moaning about what money is on offer I would suggest is pointless and conservationists doing so would use their efforts better to put pressure on scheme change.
        I would suggest as the RSPB has over a million members and I think the NFU has something like 55,000 members it is a bit pointless lots of conservationists blaming the NFU for the schemes being farmer friendly.
        It does seem pointless blaming farmers for belonging to schemes and collecting what is due to them as it has been and will be for some time yet the EU who sets the rules and conservationists seem to think that leaving the EU will be bad for wildlife,to me that seems to contradict themselves.

      2. I have to agree about Poundbury though but. I drove past on the A35 earlier in the month and thought how it looked like a monstrous carbuncle on the arse of a pleasant country town. Mrs C thought it looked like Toytown. It should have a “Twinned with Deadwood” sign.

          1. Poundbury is our local “suburb”, though of course the people who live there wouldn’t see it that way. It was built on some of the best agricultural land in Dorset, but the planning layout produces very little benefit for nature. Still, the revised Local Plan (soon to be revealed) apparently has more urban extensions proposed, beyond the bypass. Of course it has benefited one individual greatly – the original owner of that agricultural land.

          2. Dead describes Poundbury perfectly,I have never in my several visits seen one bird.
            Maybe some would look on the bright?side and say well we are saving on the subsidies now it is not good agricultural land with some birds on it.
            Whereas that area did look nice as farmland each Saturday we used to drive through it then it now looks just about as bad as anywhere in UK.If anyone can see any possible benefit there for nature they are certainly biased,for sure even the local feral pigeons that might like to go on Queen Mothers statue are driven off of Poundbury by hiring a falconer once every week.
            The person making all the money there is one of the noisiest conservationists which seems a disgrace.

  9. I have been warden of an ex gravel pit reserve for many years. I cannot agree more about the need for disturbance to the structure of the site It is so labour intensive doing what we do. 1987 brought some great opportunities great root plates in the air sported orchids and there were new glades and hollows filled with water. More heaps and mounds for a time.

    But mostly we can only emulate the agricultural and forestry management systems of grazing, mowing, coopicing and thinning.

    We have occasionally paid for a digger, and I have used such means for a limited research project to try to find ways to address such points as those in the article.

    1. Thanks Rob. I think diggers, or tracked vehicles in general are vastly under-used as a force for nature. Military sites show this very clearly.

  10. I’m afraid you may be a bit optimistic in suggesting the era of intensification is over, Miles – a friend who advises farmers on barn Owls told me recently that a new wave of intensification is impacting the West Country, and whilst ex-crop intensification may have slowed, in crop continues. Over it all looms GM and the spectre that resistance could become part of the business model rather than the solution, as it locks farming in to their developing products.

    With Guy there are two issues – firstly, scale – lots of farmers doing good things, but a miniscule proportion of the whole. Second, what farmers (especially senior elected NFU officers) say in public and think & do are two quite separate things. We all believe in food security in public, in private lots and lots of farmers just wish they could build some houses on their land.

    And the disturbance issue isn’t just about farming – conservation has a big problem, too – after all, having saved the heath how on earth can you justify trashing it ? Which is why forestry clearfells and tanks have played such a significant part in the recovery of Nightjars, Woodlarks and Sand Lizards. And we don’t need more young, closed canopy woodland the c 500,000 has of stood over coppice & woods untouched since 1945 are endangering a smaller but hugely important group of species every bit as much as farming.

    I’d much rather look to the future, using the past as a guide, and let the species we value give a lead in how we manage – and, again bearing in mind scale, welcome the range of different approaches rather than micro examining every new rewildling idea until it sinks under the weight of purist disapproval.

    1. “Welcome the range of different approaches rather than micro examining every new rewilding idea until it sinks under the weight of purist disproval”.

      If only that was the case! Apart from people like Mark Fisher and Steve Carver at the Wildland Research Institute, I’ve seen very little critical writing on the state of rewilding in the UK. Much more is needed in my opinion, especially of those projects that favour domestic livestock – I really do not want to see any more puffery written about OVP, Knepp or Ennerdale. After all, this is meant to be wildland, not farmland.

      I also think it’s telling that some of the people who advocate for wildness are so concerned about the devaluing of the term, rewilding that they are no longer using it. I guess they will be labelled as “purists”. I see ecological understanding.

      1. I’m sorry, Apus – I really enjoyed your blog piece (and this one by Miles), but I just don’t get this. I don’t think many people with an interest in ‘wilding’ would disagree that, given a suitable site, we should aim for the highest level of ‘wildness’ that we can – full range of predators, re-introduction of missing species to fill ecological gaps, no domesticated species, minimal human interference and so on. The snag is that such sites may be few and far between – with the possibility that none are available in this country.
        The issue is what to do on sites that are too small, too populated, too close to towns and cities to allow full-on wilding to be achieved. One possibility is to take the ‘all or nothing’ view and simply forget about the whole concept. Another is the intensively managed approach, typical of many existing small nature reserves. However, for me, there might be value in some situations in trying a more hands-off style of management, incorporating as many ‘wild’ options as are feasible for a given site (or part of it). I don’t see this as ecologically illiterate; it could be done with eyes wide open to the limitations and compromises involved.
        People who visit Knepp nearly all say that it feels much ‘wilder’ than the surrounding countryside. We all know it’s not the full nine yards, but it’s certainly not typical farmland either. And it’s actually happening, now, here in England, not in some far-off wonderland. And it just might have something to offer (especially if you’re a Turtle Dove).

        1. Hi AlanTwo

          As I pointed out in my blog and in some of my comments I recognise that having a large area of land for wild nature is going to be challenging for the UK, but this should be the goal. Surely, it’s not too much to ask to have a core area free from human control with ideally a functioning ecosystem.

          I have never said that it is all or nothing, as I admire the work of a number of smaller projects, such as Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood. Additionally, I have never said that everywhere should be wilded and have actually suggested a model that could be adopted in a previous blog.

          There is a place for managed reserves, but I struggle to see how these can be called nature reserves due to the emphasis placed on favoured species and the excessive management often deployed. I would prefer to see them designated as either species or agricultural reserves.

          I also find it really sad that Knepp describes its work as the Wildland Project, as it is nothing of the sort. It is a farm, albeit a “wild” one compared to other farms. Much is made of the use of its farm animals, but I understand that a lot of its gain in biodiversity has occurred in areas that have not been grazed.

          1. Thanks, Steve – two really interesting articles. I guess I was bound to enjoy reading them, because the viewpoint you express in them seems very close to my own! I was purring out loud when I read phrases like ‘the wilderness continuum’, ‘rewilding-lite’ and ‘rewilding-max’. For me, it’s a given that we should adopt a variety of approaches, informed and inspired by a drive towards greater ‘wildness’, but not enslaved by it.
            My disagreement with Apus (on this occasion – I usually agree with what he writes) is that I don’t much care precisely what we call things. We live in an age of hype; if Knepp want to call themselves a wildland project, my eyebrows might go up a millimetre but I’m not going to lose sleep. Doing something interesting and different is much more important.
            I think Roderick Leslie put it beautifully ‘… rather than micro examining every new rewilding idea until it sinks under the weight of purist disapproval.’ I don’t see this as a lack of ecological understanding, more a healthy grasp of practicality. Babies and bath water spring to mind.

  11. Miles. Another good blog. But I do wonder how much disturbance is needed to create wildlife-rich habitats? I recently went back to some limestone grassland sites that had been unmanaged for 25 years. I was astonished to rack up over 150 plants in about 2ha, including some nationally rare ones. Actually much richer at the macro-scale than the adjacent moderately-grazed limestone grassland. Albeit with slightly less species/quadrat (ie micro-scale). It was slightly scrubbier but not much. I do agree that perhaps we shouldn’t be relying on farming so much to save wildlife. And perhaps its unfair to place that burden there. After all, as Steve Carver illustrated, the role of farmers is to produce food, not wildlife, and the altruism in agriculture appears to be dissipating each year. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as increasing production is the norm. Of course there are farmers that will always go the extra mile in terms of maintaining nature on their farm, but I seem to meet less of them these days. And wherever there is a trade-off between nature and production, we know who wins, so I think there is something in this wilding debate that is worth exploring. And it seems to be of the zeitgeist at the moment, and perhaps should be capitalised on.

    All the best

    1. Peakaboo… I don’t think I quite put it like that but yes, the primary role of farming is to produce food, but then they are also the self-proclaimed creators and guardians of the British landscape, so secondary responsibilities are “farming the view” and protecting/promoting wildlife. This is where we need to get the PES equation right… and it will inevitably involve tough compromises between cheap and plentiful high quality food, the other ecosystem services sustainable wildlife-friendly farming can promote and our willingness to pay. Consumer behaviour and demands will be part of this. I’m not veggie but am cutting back on meat intake as I know that we’ll all have to do this eventually if we are to “have our cake and eat it”

  12. Peakaboo, a very exciting project on the Breckland led by the Paul Dolman of the paper quoted by Miles suggested that a lot of the Breckland rareities (both plants and animals) depended on disturbance WITHOUT grazing.

    1. Quite keen to see this if you’ve got a link! I studied under Paul Dolman and I find his work to be generally very interesting. I suspect you are talking about the project that is discussed in “Securing Biodiversity in Breckland: Guidance for Conservation and Research” which can be found here:

      In relation to the grazing discussion the interesting thing about this report is that it (quite rightly in my opinion) points out that grazing is useful in some places and not in others. As with so many things in conservation, and indeed life generally, nuance is needed when discussing these issues. I don’t think anyone should be trying to make hard and fast statements about the importance of grazing across the whole of the UK, it depends quite heavily on the habitat you are trying to conserve/create.

      So if you are trying to create a Breckland style grass heath then grazing is a vital component. I know that some organisations believe (and are study whether) rabbit grazing in the Brecks is a vital part of maintaining the stone-curlew population out there.

      If on the other hand you are looking to create the ancient woodlands of the year 3500 then you don’t want to have too much, or too heavy grazing/disturbance. That said, in order to maximise diversity within a woodland you do want some amount of disturbance to create small patches without canopy cover and allow species that rely on these spaces to thrive. This is where we could really use some elephants!

      As I said above, nuance is the key, and something that all to often gets lost in these kind of discussions (though I do think this was an excellent blog).

  13. Peakaboo, I agree! There is a limestone grassland near me and it it grazed to the bone every winter! Even though many plants benefit from this, some plants and many insects don’t. There Is another limestone grassland nearby and this is roughly split into 4 sections so one section is completely left untouched while the other sections are on a four year rotation of – cut first year, grazed second year, left untouched third year. The difference is staggering with many more plant species, and insects galore!

    Miles, great blog. Some important points discussed!

    1. …same with the now well cited Scar Close vs. Southerscales limestone pavements. Both NNRs, both same area, altitude and next door to each other, but the former kept stock proof and without grazing for 40yrs by NE, the latter managed by YWT with “conservation” grazing (i.e. maintaining a domestic grazing pressure). 243 species of plant found on Scar Close to only 50 on Southerscales. Scar Close is no longer a limestone pavement but a “LIVEstone” pavement. Magical. I tried to engage with Sir John Lawton about this so he could explain the difference and YWTs management plan but he didn’t have “time to engage” with me on this. Pah!

  14. Good stuff Miles.

    Not only the elephants that have gone of course, we have enfeebled and tamed our rivers, set our coastline in stone and groynes, and there are not going to be any glaciers for a while.

    Disturbance is indeed the most endangered ecosystem component.

    Of course ‘colossal’ housing and other developments also create colossal holes in the ground, and these are the greatest hope for the future of many of the disturbance refugees.

    P.S. I know I say this every time, NGOs do work together.



  15. Great blog, I agree with nearly all of it. I do think there is a difference between productive habitats, where disturbance is important and unproductive ones (e.g. blanket bog, high mountain and very rocky habitats) where it isn’t and where natural processes like frost heave and erosion are all that are required. Some of these unproductive habitats are best left alone.

    I agree with your comment about agri-environment. The problem is that many farmers have regarded it (and been allowed to regard it) as just another form of income support. It is time we – as a nation – insisted on proper environmental results in all cases where money is paid….but NE will need a lot of vocal support (and its independence back) if it is to suddenly change into an organisation that does this on our behalf. At the moment it appears to be firmly under the government thumb and being told to dish out the cash and be the farmers’ friend.

  16. Superb post Miles, glad that the role of our missing megafauna is starting to get the recognition it deserves. Remember from around 1995 the time Team did a dig i Oxfordshire from an interglacial that was several hundred thousand years old where it seemed we had straight tusked elephant AND mammoth. Pollen etc indicated there were trees, but also fairly open habitat. What should the UK really be like? A few years ago the local wildlife group asked a Ukrainian paleo artist to put in an image of a Straight tusked elephant against a backdrop of a local waterfall to try and raise awareness of what we are missing – it’s on the back page of this newsletter – thanks again excellent comment!

  17. Ezra – I’m pretty sure I read Dolman in British Wildlife – but, sorry, don’t have it immediately to hand.

    I very much agree with your broader comments – there is far too much willingness to first lay down the law, then everyone pursue that one prescription. The very intense rabbit grazing of the Stanford battle area in the Brecks may have been great for Stone Curlew, but was pretty disastrous for Woodlark and Nightjar.

    One of my fears, especially with regards to the New Forest, is we are going to get so good at recording and management that we halt (semi) natural processes in the few places they survive in any shape or form – I wait with bated breath & horror for the time a conservationist says ‘you can’t allow that scrub to invade that internationally important heath’. One positive is that George Peterken’s brilliant work persuaded everyone from FoE to the FC that despite appearances the pasture woodlands of the New Forest are not in terminal decline – they may be moving about in a way that can seem alarming, but left to it are likely to still be there in 500 years time.

  18. Thanks everyone for your comments. I have read them all but please accept my apologies for not being able to respond to them all individually.

      1. thanks very much Mark. I am really looking forward to Guy’s blog and in particular to find out how I got things so badly wrong about his farm. I thought I was being quite generous.

  19. The conservationist framework is seemingly locked into a hopelessly Romantic world view. For years we have been trying to preserve peasant landscapes that really disappeared with the enclosure movement. Now we are trying to embrace the other romantic concept of wilderness when as Richard Smyth ably argued it cannot really exist in Britain outside of the Edgelands. In the meantime we refuse to accept that the environment we have is a true reflection of our values.
    We have to accept modern farming in much of lowland Britain, is really heavy industry with massive machines and complex technologies. Farming is about the production of commodities out of living beings. No amount of regulation or grant giving is going to change the economic direction behind this. There is no room for Nature here.
    If we accept this then we also have to accept the already designated conservation sites are the living equivalents of our built heritage.
    Now if you don’t like this world view then the only sensible thing to do is to campaign for a less consumerist, less industrial future. This probably means redistribution of land to create smaller landholdings and a more extensive approach, with all its knock on effects for the food distribution and processing industries.
    I for one think this is not going to happen without some sort of revolution or brain washing. So where should the limited resources of conservationists be concentrated? I think we need to spend more time where people actually live and work, the towns, cities, suburbs and hinterlands. After all if we also want people to be more connected with nature then it has to be the nature they experience. Unfortunately this bring us to the unglamorous world of litter, fly tipping and dog poo, because this is the reality of the outside world for most people in this country.
    We also need to think about the contradictory messages we send out, such as campaigning for pollinators while pulling up Japanese knotweed, culling grey squirrels and deer because they eat trees while seeking to introduce beavers because they do just that.
    So forget notions of elephants or diversifying industrial farms, celebrate the edge lands that are the by-product of our economic system, and dust off those litter pickers so more of us want to get out there.

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