Guest blog – Pheasant or Pheasant’s-eye? by Miles King

Easily overlooked, this diminutive Subterranean Clover grows on an urban road verge. Photo: Miles King
Pheasant or Pheasant’s-eye? Nature Connection and Conservation

What’s important about nature? I’m not talking about however many tonnes of Carbon a Sitka spruce tree locks up during its short life, or whether a Beaver stops a town flooding.  I mean what is important to you, as a person. Why do you care about nature?

A recent study by Natural England found that when asked 87% agreed with the statement “Being in nature makes me very happy” with nearly half agreeing strongly.

So perhaps nature is important to people because it makes them feel happy. But what does that mean? Were the respondents asked to describe the nature of the nature that makes them feel very happy? Unlike the previous MENE survey which used face to face interviews (468000 over a 10 year period), this new survey is performed online using the Kantar Profiles Network.The opportunity to explore nuance is limited. Then again the MENE surveys never actually asked people which parts of nature made them happy or sad, aside from some very broad categories.

Some might ask whether it matters what aspects of nature makes people very happy, as long as they are happy, that’s what counts. It’s an important question. If people are made very happy watching Grey Squirrels cavorting in the park, or Pheasants strutting their stuff in the countryside, aren’t we being elitist telling them ‘No, you must not gain any happiness from watching these creatures, they are introduced, they do a lot of damage to our native wildlife. You are doing it wrong!

Then again we are approaching Ragwort Time. Yes it’s that time of year when Council phones ring red hot, as people complain about Ragwort. Even when most of the time it’s not Ragwort. And they don’t own horses. And it isn’t in a hay meadow. Because there aren’t any left.

https://twitter.com/ChrisGPackham/status/1270283326700617728

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the topic of this blog – the fallout from what could be termed Chris Packham’s Roundabout Tweet. Now I can hear the groans – it’s time to move on, we’ve been around this roundabout too many times already and Kevin Walker has explained very clearly why road verges are very important. 

What I’m interested in is how this whole sorry episode illustrates why we are failing to make any headway in trying to reverse the general decline in nature across the UK.

The roundabout had lots of pretty flowers on it. OK, so some of them were from elsewhere in the world, and some of them were formerly known as arable weeds, but they were pretty. Oh hold on, no they were there for pollinators – part of a B-line. So their prettiness was actually aimed at bees. But it was really important showing a local council doing something for nature. Hooray! 

When I suggested to Chris that this was an expensive wildflower mix, pretty but of limited value for wildlife, and perhaps they should be being encouraged to spend their meagre resources on road verges his response was;

“Let’s just get them started Miles eh ? Maybe deal with the detail when they are on board . . .”

Pheasants and Grey Squirrels.

These are perhaps the most commonly seen bird and mammal in England. Having been on about Pheasants for some time now, I am still surprised to hear people are surprised that not only are they not wild and of this country, but have to be released in their 10s of millions every year. It’s the same with Grey Squirrels. People assume, quite reasonably, that they are an integral part of nature here.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who feel very happy when in nature, would be just as happy in an environment where everything had either arrived at some point from elsewhere on the planet, or was being constantly released into that environment for whatever, but usually economic, reasons. And it would be very easy from this, dare I say populist perspective, to attack anyone who seeks to place native wildlife on a higher level of importance than the introduced or released, as elitist. On my daily lockdown route around an arable field on the outskirts of Dorchester, I meet a variety of people, not all of them walking their dogs. As far as I can tell I am the only one looking at the ground to see what arable weeds have popped up. Others will no doubt be taking pleasure in nature, from the swish of the wind as it moves through the crop of Rye, or the recently planted trees growing on part of the field. Or the clouds in the sky. It’s all nature.

This is confirmed by nature connection research, carried out for example by my namesake Miles Richardson at Derby University. His and other’ work show that for nature connection to work it doesn’t matter whether that nature is a Pheasant of Pheasant’s-eye.

What’s important is engaging through all our senses; reflecting on the positive feelings nature engenders; looking after nature in some way; finding meaning in nature and appreciating the beauty of nature. None of this is predicated on differentiating between native and non-native nature. If joining the Local Wildlife Trust is a way of strengthening the feeling that we are looking after nature, their work conserving native species and habitats would be an incidental benefit of that activity. But its purpose is to make that individual feel happier, more content and have a more meaningful life.

Returning to Chris’s suggestion that the important thing is to encourage councils to get started, by whatever means, and the detail can then follow. For some reason this has stuck in my head and it’s the real reason why I felt the need to write this piece. It reminded me of something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a few days, until I remembered. Its exactly the same argument put forward to promote the natural capital approach. Get the Treasury interested in nature for its economic value, then once they’re hooked, we’ll be able to talk to them about all the other things nature does for us.

I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. The Treasury and the equity industry see nature as just another asset to be valued, bought and sold, commodified. The councils see a pretty flowery roundabout – the seed paid for by someone else – of course they are happy to agree to it. They won’t then magically jump from this to understanding the particular habitat requirements of a rare moss that occurs on some land that they are either planning to sell off, or considering whether to give planning permission for a housing development. But they are more likely to see nature as needing to satisfy aesthetic appeal.

Of course it’s vitally important that people care about nature, in its widest sense. But perhaps they always did. Does that translate into caring for, or taking action to conserve native wildlife? And if it did, why is our native wildlife continuing to decline. Perhaps everyone caring about nature in its broadest sense has little impact on the fate of our native species and habitats.

The two may not be particularly connected after all. Does that matter?

I happen to think it does. It’s hard work advocating for the slightly scruffy, the diminutive and the little brown jobs that lurk in all corners of nature in these islands. It is more difficult to tell the story to Councillors or Council officials, about why a perennial wildflower meadow is better than an annual mix of pretty plants from all over the world.

And it’s challenging to explain why it’s not ok to introduce Hen Harriers to Southern England, while they are being persecuted in the uplands; or why 50 million Pheasants released into the countryside every year isn’t that good an idea.  But it still needs to be done.

Miles King is Chief Executive of People Need Nature a charity working to highlight the sensory, emotional and spiritual values of nature whose Twitter handle is @PeoplNeedNature.

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). Miles writes at www.anewnatureblog.com and is on Twitter as @MilesKing10. This blog represents Miles’s own views.

Previous blogs here from Miles can be found here.

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11 Replies to “Guest blog – Pheasant or Pheasant’s-eye? by Miles King”

  1. I agree with Miles.

    Chris' tweet was clearly well intentioned but am afraid poorly judged. And nothing can better illustrate this than a very pollinator these artificial non-native meadows aim to enhance.

    Let me introduce you to Melitta tricincta. This is a solitary bee, flying in high summer, in south-east England. In order for it to exist, it needs one flowering plant. It is not a showy plant, but it is widespread.

    The plant is red bartsia (Odontites vernus). Its national (British & Irish) distribution can be seen here: https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/Odontites-vernus.

    Red bartsia is a small plant, found in grasslands including urban areas. It is probably, or almost certainly, on roundabouts.

    And Melitta tricincta depends on this plant as it only collects its pollen and from no other (see https://www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/albums/72157633102876299/ for images).

    So, whilst red bartsia is not aesthetically pleasing, and can typically found in places not particularly overwhelming on the humans' visual senses, it is a vital plant for this species of bee. Well actually, it's essential.

    So, when Councils replace the underwhelming red bartsia with these visually stupendous (and stupid) meadows, they may well be unwittingly pushing Melitta tricincta closer to extinction/ extirpation in Britain.

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    1. Nice one Richard.
      Melitta tricinta and red bartsia -- a virtuous roundabout of co-evolution.

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  2. These things are highly personal but I think pleasure from nature is often about escapism – a form of mindfulness if you like. At a simple level it’s about taking time out from daily lives that are usually dominated by humanity – the buildings, the roads, the noise etc.

    I think that starting point, allied to a general lack of knowledge about natural history in most of the population, helps to explain why people are happy to watch parakeets, Canada geese, pheasants and grey squirrels. They are simply unaware of the history. These are just nice ‘wild’ birds and mammals to look at. It’s much the same with land-use in our national parks. Without knowledge and understanding, the bare green fields and overgrazed, overburnt moors look just fine and provide the escapism and mindfulness so badly needed.

    But take a birdwatcher or a botanist with you and the reactions are different. Pheasants no longer provide the escapism required when you know the backstory. In fact, the opposite is true - these birds become vivid reminders of human intervention and all the associated problems it brings. And with knowledge, a botanist can picture what the meadows and moors should really look like and that direct human intervention is the reason they don’t look like that anymore.

    I think that’s why keen birdwatchers are more likely to cringe at the White Storks in southern England. Some of the escapism and mindfulness vanishes when you know the backstory, and are aware that the birds have probably never been here as established breeders. Some of the magic vanishes if you know that birds have been reared in a cage rather than arrived under their own stream. Far from escaping humanity, it’s a reminder that humans have been directly involved. That thought simply doesn’t occur to the more casual admirers, and flamingos or roseate spoonbills would serve the purpose just as well.

    This is all very depressing and it’s tricky to know what can be done about it. The new GCSE might help a bit, and the sort of debate that has taken place in recent days about wild-flowers might change a few minds, but it’s only really scratching the surface.

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    1. My sister who I talked to on the phone last night thinks I'm some sort of unpleasant purist when it comes to Parakeets, Canada Geese, Grey Squirrels, Muntjac, Egyptian Geese, Rainbow Trout or indeed White Storks but that I feel differently about Cranes, Red Kites or White Tailed Eagles. She does see the difference but doesn't think it important, whereas I've always said that we would be better off or our native wildlife would be better off without these aliens that simply shouldn't be here.

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    2. I think that's spot on - I hadn't thought about it in these terms before. Perhaps we really need things to be truly wild and free, in origin too, to feel the happiness, the magic - if they are not, it’s just a jolt, "a reminder that humans have been directly involved".

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  3. Good blog,good replies (possibly apart from mine)
    The botany idea doesn't work well with mammals - as in introduce grey squirrels first for people to look at now and we'll sort out the reds later.
    Also what was pheasant's eye called before pheasants were introduced.
    The Natural History GCSE looks like a good idea ,then we might get more taxonomists , it's difficult to conserve it if you don't know what's there.
    I wondered why red things were named Adonis (i was thinking of the scarlet bonnet fungus Mycena adonis as well as the Pheasant's eye and i'm sure there's others).
    According to Wikipedia ,Adonis bled to death in the arms of his lover Aphrodite after being gored by a wild boar (her tears combining with his blood to produce the anemone ). Also he is the god of beauty,desire and vegetation as are botanists everywhere.

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  4. “Let’s just get them started ... deal with the detail when they are on board . . .”

    People don't like being sucked into a hidden agenda and will react accordingly by shutting the door - especially if their default costs less

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  5. My immediate thought was of these public consultation exercises to see how peoples' experiences of woodlands can be improved and which often lead to dead wood being extracted because some don't like the look of it - this is of course disastrous for wildlife including some such as woodpeckers and bats that the public love (see how excited they become when they realise it's bats they see flitting about). Absolutely no substitute for education which dramatically increases the pleasure you get out of nature - you take delight in things which are unremarkable to others, and get more out of everything you see and hear. I don't believe there are shortcuts and fear a garish 'wild'flower meadow that includes Californian poppies (but personally I can handle Austrian chamomile or fox and cubs, near(ish) native European species) is more likely to encourage those who already want to stick ornamental plants in our woodlands than go on to truly develop proper wildlife habitats.

    We should be at the stage where we're telling people why a bit of scrub, patch of brambles, pile of deadwood and even a little pond are useful additions to the 'standard' wildlife meadow, but instead that explosion in a paint factory mix has as much chance of being used to replace a 'scruffy' patch of docks, nettles and other 'weeds' as it has of usurping close mown grass. Read up accounts of how these meadows have been created and it will make your heart sink after a while, a lot of times they obliterated spots that were good for wildlife. For once I'm not quite on the same page as Chris P, I think this is going down the wrong path and it's education we need to draw people in not baiting them with something that more find acceptable because it looks as if you could have it in a traditional garden.

    Incidentally the meadows outside the Scottish Parliament are the best example I've ever seen in terms of being natural/realistic, public information availability and being as accessible as and proportionate to more formal recreational space - close mown and wild areas intermixed and about 50/50. They aren't marginalised to a far corner mostly out of sight, and they're unashamedly about long grass and other plants intermixed with some flowers, not a glorified ornamental bed. If we treat more people as responsible adults that need to be informed as to the real need for deadwood, patches of bramble, plenty of ivy and long grass is good even without loads of flowers in it, then just maybe we'll be rewarded with more people acting like responsible adults who get on board with conservation.

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  6. That’s just about the perfect description of why our natural landscape is a total manmade disaster. I don’t agree that Packham is not on the same page though; that clown isn’t in the same book. What with his other comment last week that trees should not be planted in hedgerows and the evidence is clear why the UK natural environment is a shambles and people are still gullible to believe his every word.
    Packham, Monbiot and the others have a lot to learn about land management in conjunction with the connectivity relationship of plants within habitats. Renting a 20ft square patch of grass meadow in the New Forest doesn't make anybody an expert.

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    1. Note to self - next time read the two words in bold at the top of the post, then stop.

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  7. Overlooked, possibly while dodging the swinging handbags, is the fact that some drivers are easily distracted from the task in hand, namely piloting a vehicle from somewhere to somewhere else without hitting anything. My Dad was one such, to the degree that the first Mrs Cobb refused to allow the Cobblets to be driven anywhere by him, following a terrifying drive through Manchester. To put such goodies as a prettified roundabout in his way, prompting his pointing out the Eschscholzia like what we used to have in the sunken garden, do you remember, Kitty? before he rear-ended a truck and decapitated everybody in the jamjar except the little Cobbs, wouldn't seem to justify the decision to create such a florally chaotic roundabout. Thanks be that he never went to Swindon.

    So - if an authority deliberately constructs an artifice that it knows is going to be a visual attraction for people to gawp at what liability does it have for the unintended but entirely foreseeable consequences of its decision? In some real cases , M'Lud has determined that they should have known and are liable to an extent.

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