Tag Archives: Politics

The National Pollinator Strategy – some reflections

Moth in hand 2014-08-25 19.47.20

After many months of consultation and workshops, the National Pollinator Strategy for England has finally been released by Defra, and can be downloaded from this website.  It reflects an important, wider change in societal attitudes to nature, and specifically the ecosystem services it provides, though the strategy itself is by no means perfect.  I rather wish that it had been a UK-wide strategy, as biodiversity does not respect political boundaries, but such is a the nature of our partly-devolved political system. Wales already has an Action Plan for Pollinators and I hope that the rest of the UK follows, though a strategy for Northern Ireland would surely have to include the Republic of Ireland?

In the following sections I’ve quoted liberally from the summary section of the National Pollinator Strategy, and added a few comments and reflections of my own in italics.  As always, your views and comments would be very welcome.

The 10 year National Pollinator Strategy aims to deliver across five key areas:

1. Supporting pollinators on farmland

  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the Common Agricultural Policy and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Comment: at the moment many farmers are already pro-actively encouraging pollinators and other wildlife, but most are not.  Will “voluntary initiatives“, including encouraging Integrated Pest Management, be sufficient?  About 70% of the country is farmed and any wildlife conservation strategy has got to include agricultural stakeholders.  But the influence of large agro-chemical businesses should not be under-estimated.  I’ve seen figures suggesting that fields of oil seed rape in this country receive applications of up to 20 different chemicals (biocides and fertilisers) each year.  That represents a significant profit for these companies, who will not want to change the status quo.  Data showing a slow down in the rate of decline of  plants and pollinators in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium may be evidence that CAP agri-environmental schemes have had a positive impact, but I’d like to see more data addressing that question (and not just for pollinators – farmland birds are doing worse than any other category of birds in the UK).

2. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

Comment:  “simple changes to land management” can do a lot for supporting local biodiversity, even in the most unlikely, urban settings, which is the underlying philosophy behind our award-winning Biodiversity Index tool.  Quite a number of local authorities are getting the message that it’s A Good Thing to reduce the frequency of cutting amenity grasslands, both for pollinators and for budgets.  But local authorities are also taking foolish decisions with regard to developing sites that should be protected, and brownfield areas are being specifically targeted for building urban housing, despite the fact that we have long known that they are some of our best sites for pollinators.  How do we reconcile these different priorities?  Brownfield sites by their nature are transitory, early successional habitats, so perhaps local authorities should be encouraged (made?) to have a rolling stock of a minimum proportion of undeveloped brownfield sites as part of their portfolio of land holdings?  Or how about a requirement that all developed areas of brownfield land are replaced by an equivalent area of brown roofs?

3. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks

  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies.
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.

Comment:  interestingly there’s no mention of disease risks to non-managed pollinators, yet we know that honey bee diseases can be passed to bumblebees, for instance.

 Actions to support these priority areas:

4. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive

  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.

Comment: yes, dissemination of sound, evidence-based knowledge has got to be a priority.

5. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide

  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

Comment: monitoring of pollinators is a real sticking point in the strategy, as there’s still no consensus on what should be monitored, how, where, and how frequently.  This was the subject of a workshop at the Natural History Museum in London that I attended about a year ago, and there’s still much that is undecided.  I know that a partnership led by CEH Wallingford is working on this at the moment, and hopefully a scheme will be in place by next year.  Let’s see what they come up with.

In taking action across these five areas, the National Pollinator Strategy wants to achieve the following outcomes:

  • More, bigger, better, joined-up, diverse and high-quality flower-rich habitats (including nesting places and shelter) supporting our pollinators across the country.
  • Healthy bees and other pollinators which are more resilient to climate change and severe weather events.
  • No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species.
  • Enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators.
  • Evidence of actions taken to support pollinators.

Comment:  “More, bigger, better, joined up…” has been the buzz phrase in British conservation since at least the Lawton Report.  One of the outcomes of that report was the setting up of twelve flagship Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), one of which is the Nene Valley NIA, a project on which my research group has been working.  The Strategy mentions the NIAs several times and states that “extending the monitoring and evaluation framework for Nature Improvement Areas to include pollinators” is one of its interim aims.  But as I recently mentioned, funding for the NIAs finishes at the end of March 2015 and Defra has indicated that there will be no additional government money.  How will this aim be met?  I’d be very interested to know as the Nene Valley NIA is one of the few which specifically focused on pollinators as part of our remit.  It would be a terrible shame to lose the expertise and momentum that we’ve built up when funding stops next year.  As regards “No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species“, the talk I gave at SCAPE 2014 was on that very topic and a paper outlining our results is currently in press.  I hope to be able to share those findings with the broad readership of this blog very shortly.

A Westminster pollinator seminar and The Great British Big Bee Count


In the run up to Defra’s publication of a National Pollinator Strategy, due for release some time before Christmas, the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology yesterday ran a two hour seminar at Westminster.  It was a full meeting in one of the small rooms, and apparently over-subscribed which doesn’t surprise me: there’s huge interest in pollinator conservation in the UK at the moment.  So it would have been better moved to a larger room to allow more scientists, practitioners, MPs, civil servants and other interested parties to attend.  In any case it was a useful couple of hours, with some interesting updates on what’s happening in relation to British pollinators.

The event was chaired by Sarah Newton MP and was kicked off by Adam Vanbergen from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who got everyone up to speed by giving an overview of the science of pollination, pollinator diversity, and the issues affecting pollinator populations.  In the process he cited our “How many flowering plants are animal pollinated?” paper which has fast become the default citation to use as evidence to support the ecological importance of biotic pollen transfer.  That’s hugely gratifying and is what it was designed to do.  We now have additional data with wider geographical coverage and I hope to update that analysis in the near future.  A lot of the information Adam was using can be found on the Insect Pollinators Initiative website.

Adam’s talk was followed by a presentation by Simon Potts from the University of Reading who discussed how we value pollination as an ecosystem service and how we can safeguard pollinator abundance and diversity.  There were some stark statistics on the economic contribution of pollinators to crops such as apples, including data from a study by Garratt et al. (2014) which suggests that both quality and quantity of apples could be improved by having more pollinators in British orchards.  Perhaps another way of viewing those data is that the UK apple industry is already experiencing the kind of pollinator deficit that conservationists have predicted?

Jane Memmott from Bristol University was next, presenting the preliminary results of the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is the first comprehensive study of the distribution of pollinators in large British cities.  The data look really exciting and it will be great to see the results finally published as it will make for an interesting comparison with Muzafar’s data on solitary bees in Northampton, the first manuscript from which has recently been submitted to a journal.

Finally Chris Connolly from Dundee University talked about pesticides in a presentation entitled “Why pick on the neonicotinoids?” and provided some disturbing statistics on how little we really know about what happens when the c. 350 types of pesticides (plus about 700 herbicides and fungicides) that we use in modern British agriculture combine in the environment to produce synergistic effects.  It’s also worrying that there is little understanding of the amounts of pesticides being applied because systematic data are not collated.  Chris is a neuroscientist working mainly in a medical context and gave the analogy of how combinations of therapeutic drugs can have unforeseen (even deadly) side effects.  Chris also used an image of Nigel Farage to illustrate a point which was a brave thing to do in the Houses of Parliament in the current political climate, but which got him a big laugh.

There followed 30 minutes of questions and discussion, and I managed to get in a plug for the Biodiversity Index when making a point of how difficult it is to get business to engage with biodiversity.  That led to an interesting conversation afterwards with a consultant that I need to follow up later today.

Out into the unseasonably warm London air by about 6.30pm, there were people standing outside pubs and sitting at cafe tables, as if we were in southern Europe rather than England in late October.  It reinforced some of the things I discussed in a post earlier this summer about climate change and current weather patterns.

Coincidentally (or not) Friends of the Earth released the results of their Great British Bee Count, a Citizen Science project designed to augment the monitoring work being done by specialist groups such as the Bees, Ants and Wasps Recording Society (BWARS).  I have mixed feelings about the Great British Bee Count.  On the one hand it’s great to engage the public in campaigns that raise the awareness of the importance of pollinators, and to get them out looking at bees.  But the reality is that the 832,110 records submitted to the count have very limited scientific value, despite what Friends of the Earth might claim.  That’s because it is very, very difficult to identify bees to even broad groups unless you’ve had some training, and (apart from some distinctive species) impossible to identify to species level unless you are a specialist.  I’ve been studying pollinators for 25 years and there are whole groups within our c. 250 native species that I have great problems identifying, and defer to the opinion of real specialists such as Stuart Roberts, chair of BWARS.

Stuart has made public his concerns at the quality of the data being submitted to the Great British Bee Count, and the fact that records cannot be checked because no photograph was taken and (worse) there are no specimens to compare.  The issues are neatly embodied in the fact that four species which were  recorded from Northern Ireland (Tawny mining bee, Hairy-footed flower bee, Red mason bee, and Tree bumblebee) have never previously been seen in Ireland and can all be confused with other similar species.  Of particular concern is the fact that Friends of the Earth expects the National Biodiversity Network Gateway to archive the data.  If that happens the Great British Bee Count data MUST be kept separate from the high quality, verified data on bee distributions that NBN already possesses, otherwise it will completely devalue the latter.  By all means let’s get the public engaged with pollinators and biodiversity more broadly, which is one of the purposes of this blog after all!  But let’s also be realistic about what can be achieved by these kinds of campaigns.



Nature Improvement Area Annual Forum 2014 – influencing the future of conservation in England

NIA Forum - Sept 2014

The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre.  It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.

The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape.  Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there?  All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money.  I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.

John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc.  There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.

There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs.  All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities.  That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.

The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment.  But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over.  A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley.  Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:

  • Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
  • Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
  • Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
  • Thousands of  people participating in educational visits.
  • Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA.  The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.

Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs.  With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA).  This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable.  I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!

And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London.  Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day.  One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum.  As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles.  Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.  And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).

Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing.  And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.



Bad news for British biodiversity and a comment on ecosystem services

2014-08-16 15.36.53

Two related things have caught my eye this morning that I think deserve a quick blog entry.  The first is that Julia Leventon has posted an interesting piece on her frustrations with the ecosystem services concept over on the Ideas for Sustainability blog.  Go and read it – Julia raises some important points about the mismatch between our ever-more sophisticated concepts of ecosystem services and what it means to actually manage/support them within our society.  One of the things she said really struck me as it chimes with what I feel is a weakness of the current ecosystem services research agenda.  Julia says that:

I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits.”

This I completely agree with. The underlying science (ecology/biodiversity/natural history/call it what you will) of ecosystem services is hugely complex, even for a reasonably well defined service such as crop pollination. As someone who has studied pollination ecology for 25 years I know how little we truly understand – yet this is supposed to be one of the more “straightforward” ecosystem services!

But to implement the ecosystem services concept within society we don’t need to know the finer details and dynamics of the species/communities/ecosystems involved (as interesting as they are). What we require is as much natural and semi-natural habitat within a landscape as is possible, appropriately managed (or left alone), and with as few anthropogenic stressors on it as possible (e.g. pesticides and other pollutants).  And we’ve known that for many years, long before ecosystem services was coined as a term in the 1980s.

Yet governments and agri-business consistently fail to deliver this basic requirement and our natural environment is becoming ever-less diverse and hospitable to the biodiversity that sustains ecosystem services.  See for example the latest bit of bad news regarding species-rich meadows in the UK, which are still declining long after it was pointed out that over 90% had disappeared: legislation designed to protect these grasslands seems to have had the opposite effect.  These are exactly the same kinds of habitats that are considered most important for the pollinators that agriculture relies upon!

The concept of ecosystem services, in my opinion, is a valuable one for focusing attention on the importance of the natural world, though there are others who disagree.  But the concept does not have to become mired down in the “ever more complex physical constructs” that Julia describes in her post. Let’s keep it simple and focus on what’s important rather than disappearing into a conceptual black hole that excludes practitioners, government, business and the public*.


*The photograph above was taken a couple of weeks ago at Northampton’s Umbrella Fair, where I presented an over view of the importance of pollinators, and the idea of ecosystem services, to a small, [ahem] “mixed” audience, which included restless kids and incomprehensible drunks, in a marquee which was too light for the laptop projector to work.  But if even one of those who attended “got” the idea of ecosystem services I consider my job well done!

Who protects our biodiversity? The public does!

2013-10-21 09.55.39

In a post back in February I asked the question “Who protects our biodiversity?” and highlighted the disgraceful behaviour of Derby Council in wanting to build a cycle track that would destroy a large proportion of The Sanctuary Local Nature Reserve.  Despite petitions and strong public protest, the Council voted to go ahead with the development and site clearance work quickly began.  However a High Court injunction was taken out, forcing them to pause the work until the legal ramifications of using Lottery funding for such a project were investigated.

Well, despite the odds and a seemingly bloody minded council determined to push ahead with the project, all of these efforts have worked:  Derby Council has abandoned its plans for the site – it’s been saved!  I learned the good news this morning in an email from Nick Moyes from the Save Our Sanctuary coalition. Nick writes:

“I am delighted to tell you that very late yesterday afternoon we were stunned and delighted to learn that Derby City Council had announced it was abandoning plans to build a cycle race track on top of The Sanctuary Bird Reserve and LNR at Pride Park in Derby.

This vindicates all the reasoned arguments and effort that everyone in our coalition of wildlife groups has put in over the last few months, and shows we can all work together to make a difference, and affect decisions that harm the environment. It’s just such a shame that a lot of damage has already been done to the LNR, though this should recover in time, if managed correctly.

I think we all believed this was a flawed project from the start. Well, everyone that is, except for one deputy chief executive and one councillor responsible for Leisure who made it their objective to push through this ill-conceived scheme at almost any cost (plus a Labour leader who publicly gave his support, too).  In statements in the press, Derby Council now appears to be trying to blame its sudden decision to pull out on the delays and additional costs caused by the successful granting of a Judicial Review following brave action in the High Court by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Perhaps this is to be expected – it’s easier than admitting it was a flawed project with dubious funding sources which could so easily have been built elsewhere in the city. But they only have themselves to blame for creating this mess by choosing to ignore all the advice and objections offered to them right from 2011 – with inevitable consequences.

It would be a shame if Derby Council cannot admit it simply ‘got it wrong’. It certainly needs to quickly put right the damage it has already done to the LNR. There are so many people to thank, as everyone played their part in one way or another. Over 1000 people wrote letters and lodged online objections, lobbied councillors, flew aerial drones, published blog posts, wrote to the papers, emailed people, wrote press releases, sent tweets, attended consultation events, made placards, organised demonstrations, lobbied people in the streets, joined a coalition, wrote to the papers and so very much more.

No doubt there is still much more of this story to play out. But for now we can all celebrate the fact that a coalition of wildlife groups came together for the first time in this way, mobilised its arguments and its supporters, and collectively managed to defeat a Labour-controlled local authority which was determined to go back on its public commitment to protect a Local Nature Reserve that it once declared as of great importance to biodiversity. Not only that – but there are no doubt many other LNR support groups around the country that will now breathe a collective sigh of relief that this terrible precedent of a council so easily choosing to vote itself powers to destroy and develop a large part of its own LNR has been lifted.”

This is such good news to receive on a beautiful early spring morning!  I’d like to think that Tony Benn, who died this week, would have approved of this example of people power in action.

Who protects our biodiversity?

2012-10-29 15.37.10

Our elected politicians and councillors regularly pay lip service to the environment, to the need to be “sustainable”, and to the importance of conserving biodiversity. How many of them really believe this?

Fewer than half, if Derby Council is a representative sample.  Last night they decided (by one vote) to destroy almost fifty percent of The Sanctuary Local Nature Reserve, to build a cycle track.  Whilst not the most critical area for nature conservation in the country, The Sanctuary is nonetheless an important local urban site for a wide range of nesting birds, some of them rare and declining in the UK.  There’s a great video from a drone flight over the Reserve that gives a sense of the place, which I’ve never visited but nonetheless feel aggrieved at losing.  It diminishes us all when decisions such as this are made.

The fact that this was designated as a Local Nature Reserve by Derby Council in 2006, following a much-trumpeted opening ceremony, presided over by the then-Home Secretary Margaret Beckett MP in 2004, shows what a shower of hypocrites some of our local politicians really are.  I was first made aware of the campaign to save The Sanctuary by a guest post over on Mark Avery’s blog.  As requested, I wrote to Derby Council as follows:

To whom it may concern,

Following recent national publicity about the proposed development of The Sanctuary Local Nature Reserve (LNR) at Pride Park in Derby, I wish to object in the strongest possible terms about this initiative.

The Sanctuary LNR is a site of county-level importance for nature conservation and its disturbance would be a sad indictment of the council’s attitude towards the environment. It would also set a disturbing precedent for other councils to ignore nature conservation designations purely for economic development.

I look forward to hearing in the national media that this development will not go ahead.

I also posted links on all of the Facebook groups of which I’m a member, sent it to students, and so on. And despite strong objections to the Council from local and national sources, councillors decided that it was better to follow the money rather than listen to the people.

So much for democracy.  But as I said above, it also sets a precedent for the loss of Local Nature Reserves nationally: apparently they are dispensable.  In a recent post I gave an indication of how I feel about biodiversity offsetting and the mind set of politicians who support it.  The events of Derby don’t give me any more confidence that our elected representatives really care about nature, beyond sound bites and posturing.  Protection of sites for nature conservation seems to be as much a throw of the dice as any rational strategy in the UK.   


Ordinary by Choice

August 2009 - including Gardeners World shoot 029

Until the system changed a few years ago it was a requirement of all course leaders at the University of Northampton to attend Award Boards at which the students graduating that year were named and their degree classification confirmed.  It was not popular with academics, as you can imagine, as we spent half a day waiting for the turn of “our” course.  Typically we would take manuscripts to revise or crosswords to complete, or a good book to read, until such time as it came to our own students.  As each student’s name was read aloud, their degree classification was confirmed:  “First Class Honours”, “Two-One” (Upper Second Class Honours), “Third” (Third Class Honours), and so forth.

One category was rarely used:  “Ordinary by Choice”, meaning that the student had not completed a final year dissertation and had opted to take an Ordinary, as opposed to Honours, degree.  It is a phrase that I was always struck by: except for a (perfectly respectable) Higher Education qualification, would anyone elect to be “Ordinary by Choice”?  Do we want that for our lives, our country, our society,  or even our environment: Ordinary by Choice?

The phrase came to mind last week when I heard about an interview with Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the current British Government.  Paterson, who coincidently studied at the precursor to the British School of Leather Technology here at Northampton, said that in the future it might be perfectly acceptable to build on ancient woodland if the destruction of that site was offset by planting trees elsewhere.  A spokesperson for his department later said that it was “highly unlikely” that such development would ever occur on ancient woodland, but that’s not the same as “never”.

In fact such destruction of ancient woodlands is currently being proposed by the development of the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) line from London to points north.  An analysis by the Wildlife Trusts of the currently proposed HS2 route shows that it will pass through “10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), more than 50 ancient woodlands and numerous local wildlife sites”.  Important wildlife sites are perhaps not as safe as government would have us believe.

From the outset let me say that in my opinion this notion of “biodiversity offsetting“, in which one can apparently trade like-for-like in the destruction and recreation of natural habitats, putting back or even enhancing the biodiversity of a region, is pure fantasy dreamt up by government.  It can’t be done.  It’s not possible.  The reason?  There are no complete inventories of the biodiversity of any patch of planet earth.  None.  Not even of a few square metres of arable grassland in rural England, a simple habitat in comparison to the fantastically complex biodiversity of an ancient woodland.  Such All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs) have been proposed in the past, but never completed.

Now I am using a strict definition of biodiversity to include all of the diversity of life within an area, including not only plants, birds, mammals, and large insects, but also the many smaller insects and other invertebrates, algae, protists, fungi, and bacteria.  But that’s not what the proponents of “biodiversity offsetting” such as Owen Paterson have in mind when they champion the system.  What they really mean is “species offsetting”: for example cutting down an oak forest and replacing it with young oak trees planted some distance way; or destroying a wetland used by over-wintering birds and creating an artificial wetland at another locality.  In both cases the species in question will persist: oaks will grow and birds will over-winter.  The assumption is that the other elements of biodiversity, the neglected micr0-invertebrates, bacteria, lichens, fungi, and so on, will also return.  It may take some time, perhaps hundreds of years, but (goes the logic) they will eventually come back and the habitat will contain the richness of species that there was previously.

This may happen, but not for all species, particularly naturally rare organisms with small populations and low dispersal abilities.  The fact that (as I’ve noted) we have no complete inventories of biodiversity for anywhere on the planet means that we currently cannot be certain about how “biodiversity”, as opposed to “some of the larger and obvious elements of biodiversity”, can spread and re-establish.  In contrast, all of the available evidence suggests that the historical continuity of a site is vital to its current biodiversity.  Let me give you an example, in fact from a data set that I’ve never published.

About the time I arrived in Northampton (in 1995) I started to develop a more serious interest in fungi – moulds, mushrooms, and toadstools.  Together with colleagues in the department and some of my students I began to systematically identify the fungi in a long, narrow patch of woodland (the “Shelter Belt”) on Park Campus.  Early on I set out a series of 1m x 1m quadrats and every week for two months I recorded which fungi appeared.  It was a short survey but very revealing because it was clear that there were differences in the diversity of fungi in different parts of the Shelter Belt, and that some areas had much richer diversity than others, even over a distance of a few tens of metres.

In fact the western side of the Shelter Belt contained almost twice as many species of fungi as the eastern side.  In addition there were few species on the eastern side that were unique to that area: most species were also found in the western portion.  This is despite the fact that the woodland appeared very homogenous: a linear strip dominated mainly by the non-native Black Pine (Pinus nigra) with an under-storey of common small trees such as Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Elder (Sambucus nigra) and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

A likely reason for this difference was revealed when we studied some old maps of the area; a sixteenth century map showed that there was a hedgerow on the site of the western part of the Shelter Belt from at least Tudor times, and probably much earlier.  This hedgerow may have been planted as a boundary for livestock, or may have been a remnant of an even older patch of woodland that was felled and managed to partition agricultural fields.  The presence of plants which are known ancient woodland indicator species, such as Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) was further evidence.

So an ancient hedgerow, now erased and replaced by later planting that was at least 50 years old (it appears on Google Earth historical imagery for 1945), was continuing to influence the biodiversity of a site long after it was gone.  But that influence was subtle and involved a neglected element of wildlife that is nonetheless vital to the natural world: fungi, which act as decomposers, consumers and recyclers, and without which a woodland could not function.

The definition of “ancient woodland” in England and Wales is an area of woodland that existed prior to 1600 and the Shelter Belt example shows why this definition is important: the history of a site has a huge impact on its biodiversity.  Simply planting a new woodland of young trees will not replace what is lost by the destruction of a site with historical continuity of habitat which is supporting slow-spreading species.

Government and the public have a choice: we can sanction the destruction of truly biodiverse sites such as ancient woodland and replace them with ordinary ones, such as new planting of trees on farmland.  Is that what we want, an environment in Britain that is Ordinary by Choice?