Guest blog by Vicki Hird: Horticulture Strategy Ditched: a Massive Backward Step for the Fruit and Veg We need

The Farm Minister Mark Spencer MP recently announced that the Government will not produce the Horticulture Strategy, promised in the Government’s food strategy. Sustain’s Head of Farming Vicki Hird vents her huge frustration at this backwards step and sets out why and how such a strategy, a coherent policy package, could deliver so much.

I can’t pretend I’m not hopping mad. I’ve been here before so I should know better than to be surprised. Promises of food strategies often end up as vague nothings, or weak consultations with little sign of actual action, joined up thinking or new resources.

Visiting our local farmers market this weekend (see photo) reminds me how good it can be but such fresh produce should be available for everyone, everywhere all the time.

But the recent announcement by Farm Minister Mark Spencer MP is one disappointment too many. He announced that a new Horticulture Strategy – promised last year in response to the Dimbleby National Food Strategy demand for a ‘world-leading horticulture strategy for England’- will not actually happen.

I’m angry for the lost opportunities but also on behalf of the great growers I meet who do so much to deliver healthy products and address environmental and other issues. But they are under such huge stress – from labour shortages, energy prices and punishing contracts with the supermarkets.

Why a horticulture strategy is not a top governmental priority baffles me given the shelves empty of veg earlier this year and the very high probability that this will reoccur, and with greater frequency, as climate instability starts to play havoc with our supplies here and overseas.

Why a strategy makes sense

It’s perfectly possible to see how a joined-up strategy – with a vision for growth in the sector – to ensure a well-managed increase in both production and consumption of sustainably produced fruit and veg would be beneficial. Doing piecemeal bits of policy and support is useful but we had that already and it’s not enough. As Defra even notes, in its response to the current House of Lords Horticulture Inquiry, the huge range of challenges and how this needs collaborative policymaking..

To clarify just a few of the benefits of a joined-up strategy:

Enterprise and economy – Horticulture is worth over £5 billion, far more per hectare than other farm sectors and employes over 50,000. UK horticulture and potatoes account for less than 2% of farmed land but delivers nearly 20% of the farmgate value according to the NFU. Yet we import so much we could produce here. That enterprise and wealth could be circulating locally.

Jobs – Horticulture has high labour demands so a growth in production and supply could boost local job opportunities provided these come with good working conditions and wages, and family-friendly work hours – not often possible in the ‘just in time’, low price system currently dominating retail.

Public health – Fruit and vegetables are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals – vital micronutrients we all need – making them a key part of a healthy diet. The UK produces 35% of the total supply of fruit and vegetables. To meet dietary recommendations, promote health, and prevent disease, we need to increase massively the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat (by 86%). The UKs many studies show the UK’s supply of fruit and vegetables and the quantity being eaten is far below the requirements needed to be healthy.

Environment – horticulture has a tiny land take so its impact on nature is overall small, but it does use a large volume of water, energy and chemicals so could have a positive impact with reducing these and focusing on highly productive agroecological systems. Defra has funded trials on how to support this transition – they need to be implemented. More fruit hedges can also create great wildlife habitats and help retain soils. And we NEED MORE TREES – sustainable orchards and agroforestry can deliver many more trees as well as fruit, nuts and fodder and carbon sequestered and stored, soil saved and more.

Urban renewal – Sustain coordinate the Fringe Farming campaign – all about growing peri-urban market gardens enterprises. There’s much appetite in communities and even local authorities for this given the proximity to markets needing fresh produce and the opportunity to build skills and enterprise and create new jobs. They also deliver natural capital benefits such as water storage, nature refuges and city cooling. It could have been a core part of the new strategy.

A sector ignored

I’ve been a member of the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance – a diverse group of producer organisations and charities unified by a desire to get the nation eating much more fruit and vegetables – for several years now. We’ve been regularly meeting government in roundtables over that period with Defra teams and sometimes with Ministers.

We’ve all worked hard to show how we could do more as industry, as civil society and as government. All need to play a role but with such poor returns from the marketplace, as our Unpicking Food Prices report indicated less than 1% profit and British Apples and Pears recent research showed just how little producers make. And despite costs rising they are not getting a fair response from their buyers. Government action on fair dealing is needed urgently.

And the sector gets little public support (horticulture doesn’t benefit as other farm sectors from a major subsidy regime – on average only £3,900 in basic payments, compared to an all-farm type average of £28,400).

The F&V Alliance recently made huge efforts in developing and presenting short and long terms actions to inform the Horticulture Strategy they’d been promised last year. All that time and effort appears to have been wasted.

It feels like the much-praised independent National Food Strategy process is almost dead and this is one of the final death throes.

What we need now

We need to have a clear, urgent strategy – joined up between relevant government departments. The paper developed by the broad Fruit and Veg Alliance has a great wealth of ideas and suggestions, urgent and longer term. Labour, energy, fair dealing, environment support, sustainable productivity and healthy consumption policies and more are needed. We will continue to press for its recommendations to be adopted in full.

Posted in Food, food security, fruit and veg, guest blogs, Vicki Hird | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Ten Years of A New Nature Blog

It was ten years ago today that I started this blog. And for me, at the time, it was new, it was about nature, and it was a blog. You can see I put zero effort into thinking up a snazzy title.

In that first year, all the way back in the unimaginably deep past of 2013, I wrote 93 posts. I was really enjoying writing a lot, for the first time. I had written blogs previously for The Grasslands Trust (RIP), but naturally they were more constrained (though not that constrained) by topic and the need to fit into Charity rules. The number of readers was inevitably small back at the beginning but even so I was pleased to have finished that year with 15000 views from just over 7000 visits.

2014 and 2015 were also very productive years, in terms of how much I wrote and the topics broadened out as well. Both years saw about 60k page views and around 30k visits. I wrote about 100 posts in each of those years. I was enjoying doing a bit of campaigning (Maize and the Rampisham solar farm) plus poking around in the odder corners of politics, and my post on the bizarre world of the then UKIP environment spokesman was top of the table in 2014 with 4000 views. In 2015 I wrote more about the impending dominance of the Natural Capital agenda, and it’s fair to say that Natural Capital is here to stay, whatever I may feel about it.

Back in 2016 (before The Vote) I first wrote about the abuse Chris Packham was facing on social media. Seven years later Chris is now in court suing those individuals for defamation.

And then we come to the Referendum, Brexit. I wrote a lot about the EU in the run up to the referendum, and its aftermath. Far and away my most popular post ever was the day after the Referendum, when we were all in shock. The Turkeys have voted for Christmas received about 20,000 views on that day and in large part thanks to some high profile social media accounts giving it wide coverage (Thom Yorke of Radiohead tweeted about it to his million followers). I remember dealing with all the comments both on the blog and on twitter helped to distract me from the awful sense of doom which pervaded that day.

By 2017 I was doing some writing for Lush Times as well as running the blog and trying to get People Need Nature off the ground. This screenshot of the most popular posts gives you an idea of the type of things I was writing about.

Michael Gove, The Lake District, damage to downland from farming, Michael Gove, Michael Gove, hunting, the People Need Nature report on the future of agriculture post Brexit, and glyphosate. I was also getting more people to write guest posts, because I was getting busier with PNN and also the Lush work. I only wrote about 25 posts that year.

During 2018 my writing for Lush Times really took off and I was writing an article a week for them. I think all of them are now on here, as Lush Times has disappeared off the internet (though it is still available on the wayback machine. A strange thing happened during 2018. I noticed a couple of posts (articles I’d written for Lush Times) were getting a lot of views, a lot more than they should have been. In the end I concluded that some malware had been delivered, possibly in a comment, and that traffic was being redirected to my site, for some unknown, but presumably nefarious reason. I deleted the posts and the comments but also decided to pay wordpress so the blog wasn’t a .wordpress. address, instead I have my own domain. This has definitely done the trick and I haven’t had another problem like that.

My Lush writing continued into 2019 and Lush also funded my PNN Farmland Tax Breaks report. Sadly Lush Times and the whole eco activism aspect of the business finished that September. But that did force me to refocus my efforts on PMM and writing the blog. But I think even by then my health problem (Chronic Vestibular Migraine) was making things more difficult. I still wrote a screed of eight posts in the run up to the fateful 2019 election.

2020 started with a lot of coverage for the tree planting disaster at Berrier End Farm, Cumbria, although it was a Covid related article that was the most popular post of that year. But I was finding it more difficult to write, and especially do all the research that goes into writing an article. By 2021 I wrote only 13 articles including this one where I was relieved to write that my long standing mysterious ailment had been given a name.

Despite being on medication to tackle the symptoms of CVM for the last 20 months the symptoms have gradually returned making writing of any kind difficult, let alone switching between 10 different tabs to find the relevant quote of hyperlink. Last year I managed four articles, including, weirdly, the one I received most flak for, ever. It was about the 75th anniversary of VE day and all the street parties that took place, just after the end of the first Covid lockdown.

Since then I have written a couple of book reviews (because I had promised the authors I would) and just one this year (aside from a request for help with the PNN website.)

Who knows whether I will still be writing this blog in a year’s time let alone ten. Have I exhausted my drive to write? After the first year or so I really did feel like I had to write something, regularly, every week, or even twice a week. I enjoyed the process and of course I enjoyed the feedback (mostly) from all of you regular readers.

At the moment though it’s just not possible. I do have a neurology appointment in July and there’s this whizzy new monoclonal antibody treatment for chronic migraine which I hope to be able to try. So we’ll see.

Signing off, I just want to thank everyone who has read anything on here over the last decade, special thanks to all those who’ve left comments, and in particular I am very grateful for the guest bloggers who have contributed so much.

Posted in blogging | Tagged | 18 Comments

Dartmoor’s Blanket Bogs

Reading Tony Whitehead’s piece in West Country Voices today, exploring some of the realities behind the outpouring of protest from the farming industry; and lurid claims that Natural England has a secret (and no doubt cunning) plan to “rewild” Dartmoor, has enthused me sufficiently to write a blog.

I don’t intend for this to be a long a discursive blog (of the kind I used to enjoy churning out) as I am still struggling with chronic migraine and I just won’t be able to do so. Another annoying thing is that it has affected my typing. So apologies in advance if you spot any typos, or more likely, weird autocorrect errors.

Tony set out very eloquently what the issues are with Dartmoor, the SSSI, and grazing. I see no point in going over the same ground. But I did think it was worth just expanding a bit on Dartmoor’s blanket bogs. Dartmoor is very unusual in supporting a substantial area of blanket bog, due to the very high annual rainfall amounts that it receives – and its topography.

Those of you who are big fans of English Temperate Rainforest, will note that the same combination of climate and topography leads to either Atlantic Forest or Blanket Bog. I digress.

Blanket Bog is a habitat which comprises different layers of peat, with a vegetated surface. By definition, Blanket Bog only occurs where there is more than 40cm of peat below the surface vegetation. If there is peat, but less than 40cm, the habitat is, again by definition, called Wet Heath. I had an interesting visit to Dartmoor about 10 years ago, where I met a number of Dartmoor commoners, and they were all surprised to discover that this was the only way of differentiating (at the margins) Wet Heath from Blanket Bog.

Of course healthy actively growing Blanket Bog supports a different set of plant species from Wet Heath. This includes different species of Sphagnum moss, also known as Bog Moss. Various different kinds of Cotton-Grasses are also more likely to occur on Blanket Bog than Wet Heath, as well as a range of other plants. But at the transition between the two – and, especially important for Dartmoor, where Blanket Bog and Wet Heath have been damaged by a range of human activities, it does get messy. But the simple task of sticking a pole into the peat and measuring its depth, provides a simple solution to where the Blanket Bog is, and where the Wet Heath is.

This may all seem quite esoteric and far removed from the realities of agriculture on Dartmoor.

But believe me it is very important.

The image at the top of the page is a vegetation map of Unit 87 of Dartmoor North SSSI (from the Dartmoor Farming Futures document, produced to support the implementation of the Forest of Dartmoor HLS agreement).

Here it is again, showing the SSSI units and their condition (courtesy of MAGIC).

As you can see it’s coloured Orange, which stands for “unfavourable no change.” This is the heart of the northern section of the Common known as “the Forest of Dartmoor” and it’s the Forest of Dartmoor and the HLS agreement with its circa 80 active commoners, which has been in the news so much. If you want to read more about The Forest of Dartmoor and Dartmoor’s other commons, take a look at Guy Shrubsole’s blog on the matter.

Most of Unit 87 is Blanket Bog (blue on the first map). In fact the majority of the Forest of Dartmoor is Blanket Bog. According to the HLS agreement the figure is ca 6850ha, or around 61% of the total area (11200ha).

This is not pristine Blanket Bog, far from it. Dartmoor’s Blanket Bogs have been very badly damaged over a long time period. Peat Cutting started in Mediaeval times and was only halted in the 1950s. Peat was cut to heat domestic houses, but in the main it was cut to provide fuel for the Tin industry. Industrial quantities of peat were cut and transported to Cornwall where the Tin smelting has happened back into pre-history. Dartmoor also had its own Tin industry and peat was cut to fuel this industry.

To fuel the Tin industry peat was converted into charcoal, after it had been dried. This was done on the high moor next to the Tin smelters. It was a skilled enterprise undertaken by those who became known as the Carbonarii, and records of their activities go back to the 13th century, including a Charter by King John in 1201, though the activity may go back some way further.

In more recent times, speculative peat extraction reached a zenith in Victorian times, when naive investors could be quickly parted from their money by shysters.

Dartmoor’s massive peat accumulations (some of which are at least 4000 years old) have been mined and exploited for well nigh a thousand years just for the Tin industry. In more recent times efforts have been made to drain the wetter areas to enable more grazing to be created, often with Government subsidies. So the Blanket Bog has dried out destroying the valuable wildlife habitats. Drying peat also releases greenhouse gases like Methane and Carbon Dioxide; and it only creates poor quality grazing. As it dries it’s also vulnerable to further damage by wild fires or controlled burning called Swaling. The consequence of this is that most of the damaged peat is now covered by Purple Moor-Grass, which Tony talked about in his article.

Restoration of Dartmoor’s Blanket Bogs is essential, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an internationally important habitat currently protected under the EU Habitats Directive. Secondly it has the capacity to sequester a truly mind blowing amount of Carbon Dioxide. Perhaps most importantly though is that this incredible wild landscape will be restored, for wildlife and people alike.

But what about grazing and the commoners? Blanket Bog is very sensitive to grazing and active Blanket Bog actually doesn’t need grazing at all, but even light amounts of grazing, at the wrong time of year, can damage it. Restoration of Blanket Bog is really all about restoring its hydrology, by blocking up drains and reprofiling (with diggers) areas which have been left badly damaged by past peat extraction. There’s a very exciting project already happening on Dartmoor led by the South West Peatland Partnership, using timber cut from The Woodland Trust’s Fingle Woods project. The current plan is to restore 1000ha but it really needs to encompass all of the Blanket Bog.

The controversial proposal to reduce commoners’ stock on the Forest of Dartmoor isn’t controversial when you realise just how much of the Forest of Dartmoor is Blanket Bog (albeit damaged) and how few stock it should be supporting. The figures that Natural England are working from are 0.035 livestock units/ha/year for maintaining health blanket bog, but only 0.018 LU/ha/yr for restoration.

A Dartmoor Pony might be 0.75 of an LU, so the 2000-2100ha of blanket bog in unit 87might only sustain 48 ponies all year round, or 25 ponies all year round and plus 34 cattle from march to August. These figures do sound tiny, but they do reflect the fact that so much of the High Moor is blanket bog; and is not suitable for grazing. Or at least not the levels of grazing which the Commoners have come to be used to turning out on the commons.

The question is how does society value Dartmoor: as a resource to be cherished and protected, providing benefits like storing carbon, having thriving populations of wildlife, providing clean water, but also more intangible things like wonder and relaxation.

Or do we just see it as somewhere to be exploited and damaged, as it has been for millennia.

Posted in Dartmoor, peat bog | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Update and Request

I very rarely cross post between this blog and the People Need Nature website, for obvious reasons. I don’t want to tangle up my personal views about things, with what can and cannot be said on behalf of a charity.

As this blog gets a wider audience than the People Need Nature one, I thought it would be good to put this update on here as well. For some unknown reason wordpress isn;’t allowing me to copy/paste the text from the PNN blog so I have saved it as an image.

Alternatively you can read it on the PNN website here


Posted in People Need Nature, personal health | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Truss and the Attack on Nature

How long ago it seems when I was writing my last blog considering what impact a Liz Truss prime ministerial reign might look like.

Now, just a few weeks later we have a clearer idea – and the vision is an apocalyptic one for the environment.

The Truss plan is radical, and, as a number of commentators have noted, it’s come straight out of the “Tufton Street” Neoliberal libertarian think tanks, about which I have written many times over the last ten years of blogging (12 if you include my Grasslands Trust blogs). I don’t particularly want to go over that ground again, suffice to say the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Taxpayer’s Alliance, to name but a few from that stable, are now very much embedded in Number 10 and ruling the roost.

We had already seen inklings of what was to come with the proposals for Freeports which had been trailed for some time. Now we can add Investment Zones, to Freeports – and these will essentially be regulation free zones, where planning rules are ignored – as well as low tax regimes. It’s not at all clear how big or small these Investment Zones will be. Our local MP the ignorant and arrogant Chris Loder, has suggested that one may cover parts of Weymouth and Portland. Note these are not Charter Cities, which are not being created in the UK, whatever conspiracy theorists believe. There is no need to creat Charter Cities, when Freeports and Investment Zones will do the job.

As long predicted, Truss’ plan includes sweeping away all EU laws. And many of these are about environmental protection and enhancement. The Bill now known as REULS – Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) will excise all UK laws which are derived from EU law – these are the ones that were rolled over more or less unchanged during the chaos of the May Government. Now Jacob Rees-Mogg plans to get rid of them all, by December 2023. This is the Sunset Clause. Ministers will have to come up with a really really good argument as to why an EU law is retained after that date. Even then they will most likely disappear in time for Brexit’s 10th Birthday – June 2026.

Aside from the sheer vandalism of wrenching 40+ years of established law from our statute book, without any consideration that these things might be doing good, it’s also just infantile behaviour. Firstly that all EU law has to be slashed, simply because it came from the EU. And secondly this obsession with symbols – who cares if it’s the 10th anniversary since the Referendum – what has that got to do with the law?

There’s a further point about REULS – it drives a cart and horses through the devolution settlement. The Environment has been a devolved matter since the devolved Parliaments were created and each country has gone their own way since then. But REULS will sweep away those devolved laws too. The Welsh Parliament response has so far been measured, but in Scotland ministers are incandescent. I honestly have never seen such a letter as this one, from the Scottish Government to Westminster.

This was in part a response to the plans set out in the “fiscal event” aka the mini budget: Kwasi Kwarteng’s blitzkrieg attack on some of the foundations of society. The mini budget report known as “The Growth Plan”, included the REULS proposals already published, plus some other pointers towards a broader deregulation agenda, including for Agriculture. The Growth Plan includes proposals for infrastructure projects: to “reduce the burden of environmental assessments; reduce the bureaucracy in the consultation process; reform the habitats regulations.”

What exactly is happening with Agriculture policy is still pretty unclear, but the Growth Plan included pointers towards less regulation, and more productivity – and included the announcement of a “rapid review” of the new post-Brexit agricultural reform process (called ELMS), which is supposed to be replacing the old CAP-based area payments with “public money for public goods. This is a concept I am sure everyone reading this will already be familiar with. Accusations that the NFU has persuaded Defra to return to area subsidies – or even worse, production subsidies, have been flying around this week. I think this is partly the fog of war. Defra has since been desperately trying to reassure everyone that ELMS is not being abandoned. Many are not reassured, not least because new farm minister Mark Spencer is so close to the NFU; and new Defra secretary of State Ranil Jayawardena seems to have no clue what is going on.

One good thing that has come from all this frenzy is a united front being presented by the environment NGOs, with RSPB and the National Trust pushing back very hard. The Attack on Nature campaign is already making a lot of waves – and the fact that the Scottish Government has effectively joined it, by using the slogan in their letter, speaks volumes. While RSPB’s million members (and highly effective Parliamentary lobbying team) will have created some worry in Defra and more broadly, The National Trust, with its Five Million members is another dimension of pain for the Government. If the NT can mobilise its members to cajole and pressure their MPs, or even start attending actions, this spells disaster for the Govt. I don’t know whether the NT has this level of detail on its membership, but I would expect a majority of them normally vote Conservative. So it’s not so surprising that the Govt and its outriders are actively attacking the NT and RSPB in its MP’s responses to campaign letters. This is going to get pretty nasty pretty quickly.

Of course all of this has been overshadowed by the other consequences of KamiKwasi’s mini budget. The pound has taken a pounding, Stock markets have crashed, Government borrowing costs have ballooned, and now Mortgage interest rates are skyrocketing. Just a perfect storm for Truss and Kwarteng to head off to the Tory party conference. I predict blood on the floor, possibly actual blood.

Now we have to wait for more detail on exactly what is being planned for the Freeports and Investment Zones.

[ Things move so quickly at the moment that a blog written at lunchtime can be out of date by teatime on the same day. My good friend Guy Shrubsole has just posted this on twitter, from today’s published Government guidance for Local Authorities submitting Expressions of Interest for Investments Zones]

We are also told that there will be a new Planning Reform plan coming out soon (remember the radical Jenrick Plan was thrown out by Michael Gove).

Plus there’s the ELMS Rapid Review.

Towering over all of these are planned spending cuts – perhaps as much as £40Bn worth. This sort of money means whole sections of the public sector will be axed. It will make the deregulatory turmoil and “bonfire of the quangos” of 2010 and 2011 look like a picnic.

Posted in deregulation, Liz Truss | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Will Prime Minister Truss abandon Johnson’s Green Legacy

It’s a long time since I’ve written anything remotely long form – as opposed to the extremely short form of a tweet, occasionally extending to a thread, which might add up to 3000 characters, perhaps 300 words. This has been in large part down to my ongoing health problems, which I wrote about, coming up to a year ago now. Since that formal diagnosis of chronic vestibular migraine, I’ve been on a fairly powerful medication amitriptyline. I went up to the maximum daily dose recommended by my neurologist, of 100mg a day. Then I gradually came off it. And all the familiar symptoms flooded back. So I went back on it again back up to 100mg a day, which is what I’m now taking for the foreseeable future. More recently I’ve seen a cranial osteopath, as recommended by several people. She pointed out some very interesting things which I hadn’t really noticed before but made perfect sense. And she’s recommended I give the 4 7 8 breathing exercise a go.

I realised that one of the things the Amitriptyline was doing was making me binge eat, so I have tried to be conscious of that. Also since giving up caffeine I’ve really noticed that having dark chocolate in the evening is a bad idea. Avoiding doing that also helps minimise the risk of me binge eating chocolate while watching tv. I do have a sweet tooth though, so I’m now partial to a piece of baklava instead. Telling you all about my eating habits isn’t exactly why I thought I would write something today, but there you go. It’s a thing. I do get out for a reasonably long walk every afternoon (though I did miss a few during the exceptionally hot days), so I burn off what I eat.

Another reason for me writing today is because I want to know how long I can write for before my symptoms appear. I’ve done a couple of pieces of writing over the last few months, including quite a large report (15000 words) and reading through a 80,000 word manuscript. The report was a struggle, I have to be honest. Reading through the manuscript was easier, as I could do it in chunks of an hour or an hour and a half. Both made me realise that although the medication helps, it hasn’t resolved the problem, just put a lid on it.

What I had intended to write about today was the impending demise of Boris Johnson and his replacement with, we must reasonably assume, Liz Truss. There will be a very remote chance that all the polls are wildly wrong and Rishi Sunak will get in, but it seems unlikely now.

What might a Liz Truss era mean for the environment?

We’ve already seen that both contenders have committed to wiping away all of the retained EU legislation, that was, for the most part, left unchanged during that era of chaos after the Referendum. This includes UK laws that transposed EU Directives for application in the UK (and often transposed these laws differently for each UK country).

I mean things like the Bathing Waters Directive, the Urban Waste Water Directive, the Water Framework Directive, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive, The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, or rather multiple EIA Directives. I’m sure there are many more, because the EU created an opportunity for laws to be written to protect the environment that transcended national borders, just as the environment transcends borders.

And just because we have now left the EU, the environment will continue to transcend borders.

As these laws are wiped from the UK statute book – or rather the four UK country statute books, there’s is a further serious implication for the environment, which is that EU Case Law, which has built up around all these environmental directives during the last nearly 50 years, will also no long apply.

Liz Truss recently announced that she would abandon “nutrient neutrality” rules that affect housing building. These rules arise from the damage caused by excess nutrients – Nitrogen and Phosphates, to European Sites (SACs or SPAs) designated as a result of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. This meant that any new housing development, where the “nutrients” flowing from that development (sewage) entered a European Site, would have to show that there were no additional nutrients being deposited in that site, compared to when the housing development didn’t exist.

Thanks to a series of European Court judgements, this nutrient neutrality approach is being adopted right across the EU. And in the UK that has meant that housing developments that were not able to show that they were nutrient neutral, were not allowed to proceed. This has caused a great deal of anger and consternation, not least from house builders and conservative politicians, wondering why we are still following the EU rule book.

Recently Natural England announced that it had come up with a bespoke England-only alternative solution to nutrient neutrality, whereby housing developers could buy nutrient credits from landowners who would be paid to reduce the amount of nitrogen (or phosphate) leaving their land, to counterbalance the additional stuff coming from the housing developments.

Now Truss has been reported as saying she would just do away with this “red tape” altogether. At which point, as you can imagine, the eutrophication levels, which had been damaging all these top wildlife sites, would return to where it was before.

It’s an indication of Truss’ intention to “get rid of all the green crap” as a previous Prime Minister once said. She’s also expressed her intention to stop solar farms being built on farmland.

“Our fields should be filled of our fantastic produce – whether it’s the great livestock, the great arable farms. It shouldn’t be full of solar panels and I will change the rules…. to make sure we use our high value agricultural land for farming.”

Actually Liz Truss has disliked solar farms for a very long time. I wrote about her dislike for them, while being silent about the much much larger area of farmland used to grow crops for biogas, back in 2014. It’s interesting (well it is for me) to note that in 2014 only 29000ha of farmland was used for biogas crops, although the NFU had a target to get 100,000ha under biogas crops by 2020.

Guess what? As of 2022 something like 120,000ha of England is now under biogas crops. Well done NFU!

Liz Truss remains silent about all that farmland not being used for great livestock or great arable crops. Unless biogas crops are great arable crops.

Leaving aside her desire for a Great British Nature Survey perhaps the great threat of her deliberate pivot to the extreme right of the Tory party, is that she will abandon the 2050 Net Zero target, and open the doors for fracking. She’s already committed to abandoning the Green Levy on electricity bills.

In her speech to the Conservative Environment Network she went further:

“In these tough economic times, I will put the interests of people and businesses at the heart of our Net Zero agenda and harness the full power of free enterprise as a clean, green jobs-creating machine.

We can only succeed by taking bold action to get our economy and our country back on track. That is why I will act swiftly to tackle the cost of living. Suspending green energy levies, in line with the Conservative Environment Network’s recommendation, will save families an average of £153 a year.

During this time, we would conduct a review of our policies to ensure we are meeting our climate commitments in the most economically efficient way, which does not pile unnecessary costs onto consumers.”

It sounds to me as if what she’s saying is that we will only be able to take climate action if the economy is growing sufficiently quickly, and that would certainly tie in with her economic ideology. It’s economy before environment – and environmental action only if we can afford it.

I think I’ve probably written as much as I can now, other than one last point.

Boris Johnson’s rule, chaotic and corrupt as it was, will be seen as an era when there was a considerable amount of attention applied to “green” issues. Johnson was influenced by his wife Carrie and close friend Zac Goldsmith – and there may have even been some tiny vestige of his own interest in environmental matters, not least resulting from his father’s career. Michael Gove’s time at Defra was also characterised by a flurry of new policy announcements and plans – although now it appears he set many hares running, but how many actually came to anything? Reforming farm support, replacing area payments with payments for public goods will probably be his greatest legacy – if it can survive.

That Johnson failed to achieve anything of note from an environmental perspective, while waving goodbye to the environmental protections that being in the EU afforded, is only one part of that legacy. I fear the other one is that, once Johnson is prised out of Number 10, Green issues (in the broadest sense) will be soft targets vulnerable to attack and derision – especially from the contrarian right ( eg the Net Zero Scrutiny Group), because they will be associated with his time in office.

I hope I’m wrong.

Posted in Liz Truss, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

Book Review – Wild Fell by Lee Schofield

This review has been rather long in gestation. Lee originally sent me a copy in early February. I started reading it in March, then had to stop half way through. My Migraines (which I wrote about here) were returning as I started to reduce the medication I’ve been on. After a few weeks I was able to return to it and finished off the book quite quickly. So apologies if this review is a bit disjointed! I think I am now realising that the medication, while helpful, has also affected my capacity to write. Whereas before the creative juices would flow freely, now it feels much more like an effort. More apologies needed.

I enjoyed reading Lee’s book. He brings to life the work he and his colleagues have been doing in the Haweswater valley, in the Lake District. This is the upland equivalent of Hope Farm – the farm RSPB bought to illustrate (and experiment with) how a lowland farm can be run in a way that both produces food and also benefits nature. The difference is that the RSPB did not buy Haweswater but rather leased it from United Utilities, the water company serving the north-west of England.

The book is split into three sections – basically the first section illustrates the problems that wildlife faces in the uplands of Britain, using the Lake District as a specific example. Then Lee explores his own personal experiences of searching for and finding inspiration for how the Lake District fells and valleys could become, under different circumstances – and with a particular focus on one circumstance – the enormous numbers of sheep which occupy the Lake District. Finally Lee looks at a variety of examples of how the RSPB is making changes to the way they are managing the 1000 odd hectares of enclosed land in the valley, plus a stake in three much larger unenclosed Commons covering 3000ha.

Achieving any sort of change on these Commons is immensely difficult because of the commoners associations and their tendency towards inertia – and indeed believing that what has been the case for the past 70 years (loads of sheep all year round) is what has always been there. However, it is extraordinary to read about the achievements on Mardale Common, where there has been a real success, reducing Sheep numbers, while increasing Cattle and Pony numbers, to reflect how these Commons actually were managed for thousands of years up until 1946 (when the Hill Farming Act was made law).

Some readers will recall I wrote about the impact of sheep on the Lake District back in 2017 and these issues have been well rehearsed over the years. Almost everyone (dare I say even James Rebanks?) now accepts that there are too many sheep in the Lake District, and that has been the case for many decades. So it’s very inspiring to read about a large scale project where reducing the sheep numbers (and also changing the times they are out on the commons) is actually happening – and how quickly the land and its nature is responding..

One big surprise – and a very pleasant one – for me was that so much of Lee’s book is about the flowers (and even the “lower” plants) of the Lake District and the wider Uplands. I suppose I had a preconception that the main focus would be on birds, as it’s an RSPB project and Lee works for the RSPB. I was delighted to have those preconceptions shattered, joining Lee on his expeditions to Norway to discover proper Montane Scrub; and to the Alps, their magical meadows and bejewelled mountain tops. I was lucky enough to go along on a couple of Mike Scott’s mountain flowers courses about 20 years ago and it was sufficient to spark an interest which I have occasionally followed up on family holidays in the mountains. When you see how flowery uplands can be, and then look at how flowerless most of our own uplands are, it’s a terrible shock. We join Lee in the company of local botanists searching the most remote crags of Haweswater in search of these Arctic/Alpine plants, and find them hanging on by their fingertips in the most inaccessible spots where sheep cannot safely graze.

Naturally a fair amount of the book focusses on Birds and the story is the same. Particularly poignant is the story of the Golden Eagles that hung on in Haweswater long after agrochemicals and persecution had driven them from the rest of England, but finally lost the struggle in 2015. But this was the way that RSPB got a toe-hold in Haweswater and led to the creation of this inspirational project, so some good has come from this desperately sad story.

Lee has a great skill in storytelling. He has a gentle writing style which draws the reader in, and is unafraid of using his own personal experiences (including some comic ones) to bring excitement and a sense of wonder and joy, to what could otherwise be a depressing litany of declines and extinctions. When he encounters some (I would like to believe atypical) anti-conservation upland farmers who express their views in blunt and sometimes very unpleasant ways, the contrast with his own evidently gentle, friendly and non-combative nature is stark, even shocking.

There is also a great deal of information in the book, which is interweaved between his personal story, the projects he’s involved with, and his adventures exploring what might still be hanging on in Haweswater, and what Haweswater, the Lakes and indeed the British Uplands could become, if we change the way they are managed. If I had one suggestion it would be to include references for that information. It’s a lot of extra work, but it does neutralise the critics who will say “that’s not right” or “I’ve never seen that happen” because it doesn’t fit with their own experience or world view.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the natural history of the Lake District, the challenges of nature conservation (and the overlap with rewilding) and also anyone who perhaps, like me, is a little jaded and wondering what conservation has achieved over the past 40 years. Lee’s book is showing us that things really are changing, that it’s hard work and can take a long time, but to believe that there will be a future where wildlife thrives alongside farming.

Posted in books, Common Agricultural Policy, Lake District, rewilding, RSPB | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging

As I have mentioned recently, I’ve had a long standing health problem which has stopped me from doing much work, and even less writing. Reading became difficult to the point where I had to stop after about half an hour. I’m still having some of the symptoms, but I am glad to say that things have gradually been improving (thanks Amitryptyline) and I felt well enough to read a book from cover to cover. It has taken me a while but I was glad to have done it.

The book is On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester, published last October by Chelsea Green publishing. The subtitle has changed since the proof copy, to “Place, protest and belonging”. It’s a deeply personal book, a nature memoir, recounting Nicola’s own history and relationship with the nature around her.

Nicola’s patch is relatively small; West Berkshire, including Newbury and Greenham Common, then Inkpen and the eponymous Gallows Down. She recounts a deeply rural life, of tied cottages on large estates, horse-riding and nature-watching. But of course the places her personal story travels through are resonant with other larger events. Greenham Common – where the cruise missiles were based during the latter years of the cold war – and the famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) Greenham Womens’ Peace Camps. The nearby town of Newbury – a pretty market town, but also the place of famous battles – two in the English Civil War, and more recently the conflict over the Newbury Bypass. Nicola recounts some amusing, and uncomfortable, experiences as a teenager curious and not a little frightened by the armed troops defending the base and its missiles – and later took part in that campaign to resist the bulldozers and tree-choppers in the late 90s.

Her story continues to marriage and children, as well as her growing love of nature and her evident talent for writing about nature. She starts writing a regular column for RSPB magazine, and then writes a also writes a book for them – though of course this isn’t enough to live on and she becomes a school librarian. The latter part of the book explores her brave attempts to work with the estate gamekeeper, to improve the lot of the very rich and diverse wildlife the estate supports, but finally her desperation when she realises she has been misled, perhaps betrayed.

The book is suffused with her profound love of nature and place. There is plenty of really interesting local history too and she often returns to the work of the peasant poet John Clare, as a touchstone. I think Nicola identifies very much with Clare’s experience, watching the nature and the places he loved being destroyed by Enclosure, while Nicola has watched a similar thing happen in her life-time, the expulsion of nature – and people – from the modern industrial countryside.

I found myself reflecting on similar experiences in my own life, and there was a particular moment when I realised it was quite possible that I had been standing next to Nicola, 25 years ago, when she was flattened by a galloping Police horse during the Newbury Bypass protests. I still haven’t found the photo I took, but I will try and find it.

Nicola has written a remarkable book, very personal but also addressing all the larger themes of rural life in late 20th and early 21st century England. Land ownership: as Guy Shrubsole has noted, half of West Berkshire is owned by just 30 families. The largely hidden but massively influential role of the field sports industry, on both our human experience of the countryside; and the wildlife that survives there. Poverty and the very poor quality of housing in rural England. The relationship between farm tenants and the estates on which they live. Bringing up children in rural England and the challenges of getting them to school many miles away, but also the fantastic opportunities they have to grow up within a landscape where nature can still flourish (in places). It may come as a surprise to some that West Berkshire can still be so deeply rural.

If I had one suggestion it would be that the text would benefit from some photos or drawings of the places Nicola writes about, in addition to her hand-drawn map.

Posted in nature writing, road protests | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Eat wilder meat for the climate

White Park Cattle, Dinefwr Park ©Miles King

Meat is on the agenda at the Glasgow Climate Conference. Meat and its climate impact is now at the forefront of public debate about how we the people can do our bit to Stop Climate Chaos. Naturally everybody is claiming that their answer is the right one. The Sheep lobby is putting up a stout defence for lamb – claiming it’s the most climate friendly food. The Beef and Dairy industry are doing the same, in the teeth of claims from the vegetarian and vegan lobby that meat is climate enemy Number One.

Claims and counterclaims fly around like the flies that land on your nose, but are too fast to be swatted. Spoiler alert: I am not going to be able to resolve all of these contradictory standpoints and claims, in 800 words today. As someone who has been immersed in conservation, grazing, agricultural policy, their effect on wildlife and the climate for over 30 years, I do not claim to have any answers. All I can offer are a few thoughts.

Most of the meat that we consume in this country is not produced sustainably and yes it does have an impact on the climate. Agriculture in the UK contributes about 10% of our overall climate impact (depending on how you define both). The fact that around 60% of the food we consume (and 75% of indigenous foods is produced in the UK, means that 40% is produced elsewhere, and we are importing a climate footprint from somewhere else with that food. For meat, most of what we consume is produced domestically – and the more intensively it’s produced, the larger the footprint, based on things like the amount of artificial fertiliser used to produce the feed, that constitutes a large part of the food used at the intensive end of the meat industry. Surprisingly therefore Chickens and Pigs, which are mainly fed concentrates, produced from arable fields here – and elsewhere in the world, have a significant climate footprint, even though they are not belching out Methane. Methane, the incredibly powerful but short-lived climate forcing gas – produced by ruminants like cattle and sheep.

In case you weren’t aware, there’s an almighty row going on over Methane, and in particular Methane that’s produced from natural sources (biogenic Methane) as opposed to fossil Methane, which for some unknown reason we still call “Natural Gas”. Researchers have concluded that Methane from biogenic sources – specifically ruminants, should be treated differently from fossil methane. This is because of the fact that Methane breaks down quickly in the atmosphere, so effectively the Methane produced from one cow only replaces the Methane produced from its grandmother – so there is no net additional climate forcing, as long as the herd stays at the same size. Inevitably the industry has leapt on these findings and championed them as supporting their claims that Beef and Dairy are the most climate-friendly foods.

Given how quickly Methane breaks down – the counter argument is that if we reduce our ruminant meat intake, we can have a significant and quick impact on the climate – much quicker than, say, watching trees grow for 50 years. Other factors come into play, such as how much carbon is locked up in grazing pastures – if we stopped eating Beef and cheese, or drinking milk what would happen to all those pastures? Would they get ploughed up – releasing all their carbon? Would they become intensive conifer plantations, perhaps storing a tiny bit of carbon? Would they be rewarded, covered in pheasants, or new houses? These questions are unanswerable.

Leaving climate to one side for a moment, how would our decisions on what we eat affect wild nature. Many, arguably most, of our wildlife depends on some kind of grazing to maintain the ecosystems we value, cherish and love. What would happen to them if all the grazing animals disappeared. Almost all of the formerly common habitats of wildlife-rich grassland, heathland and wood pasture have already gone from the UK. Together they add up to perhaps a few percent of the country. They depend on grazing animals to exist. Some are also incredibly important carbon stores – mires and wet heaths with their peaty soils, long-established grasslands with mineral soils storing over 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Eating meat from animals that roam across these cherished habitats is perhaps the best approach if you want to help nature and the climate. At the moment farmers offering this are few and far between – often only available direct from the farm. If we all started asking our butchers, or even supermarkets, to stock wildlife-friendly meat, we could create the market to encourage other producers to join in. Much less would be available nationally and that means we all eat much less meat. But that would be no bad thing, as much for our health as for the planet.

Realistically of course, shifting our diet to one with much less meat, and only from truly sustainable sources, is only going to make a small difference to our overall climate impact. Far and away the most important thing we can all do, is continue to press our politicians to take the really big decisions.

(A slightly edited version of this blog appeared on the Green Alliance website )

PS Here’s the first blog I wrote about meat and wildlife, from October 2010

Posted in climate action, climate change, COP26, grasslands, grazing, Green Alliance | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Poetry for Climate Action at COP26

Poet Louisa Adjoa Parker in the climate poetry workshop at Damers School ©Damers School

I’ve mentioned before about People Need Nature’s work with The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network. We’ve been working together for five years now, getting poets to write challenges that inspire young poets (across the world) to write about different aspects of nature and what it means to them in their own lives. You can see the challenges and read the winning and commended poems on the PNN website.

This year, in the run up to COP26, the big climate conference, we set a challenge written by Devon poet Louisa Adjoa Parker. At the same time we bid to the COP26 organisers, to take the winning poets to Glasgow so they could perform their poems and show how young people are feeling about the climate, and the lack of climate action. I’ve already written about those poems and how powerful they are – you can see or hear some of the winning poets performing their poems on the Poetry Society website.

The COP26 organisers liked our proposal and have given us an hour to showcase the poets and their work – and that’s happening tomorrow at 12pm.

You can watch the performances live on Youtube using this link .

Just in case it doesn’t work, search for COP26 Green Zone Tower Base North, which is the name of the venue.

This year, I’ve also been working with Damers First School in Poundbury (Prince Charles’ new urbanism experiment), which uses the Harmony Curriculum, placing nature at the heart of the children’s learning. The first project was to collect wildflower seeds from local places, propagate the seeds in school and plant them out on Poundbury’s Great Field, where I’ve been working with the Duchy of Cornwall to create new areas of Wildflower Meadow and other wildflower habitats. This has been immensely rewarding for me, and the children (and teachers) really enjoy it. Taking some of the classes out to collect seed, I was told that it was the first visit beyond the school gates for well over a year – and the children revelled in being outside in nature.

Following on from this project, I was talking to the school about the climate poet challenge, and we thought it would be great to bring a poet into the school to work with small groups of children to inspire them to write about nature and the climate. This has come to fruition and Louisa Adjoa Parker has come into the school and run four half day workshops in October and November. I’ve played a supporting role and encouraged the children to think about how nature, people and climate are linked together. We made use of the School’s small but excellent wildlife garden, to inspire the children to think about nature and the climate, and Louisa led a short mindfulness exercise, where the children focus their attention on a flower, or a seedhead. In the workshop earlier this week a couple of the boys were looking at a reedmace spike and decided it looked like a poo on a stick, which was accurate and poetic!

Louisa working with the children in Damers wildlife garden ©Damers School

I mentioned to the school that it would be amazing if we could somehow link the school climate poetry workshops with the Glasgow event and wondered if we could make a film of the children in their workshops, and a few of them reciting their poems. By amazing coincidence, the school IT officer is a trained tv producer, and she spent the day filming the children at their workshops, then organised filming of the children performing their poems, and edited it all together, all in time to get it over to the COP26 people.

me talking to the children about a flower ©Damers School

So tomorrow as well as the winners of the challenge, we will show the film of the Damers Children being inspired and performing their poems about nature and the climate. Remember these are years 3 and 4 – seven to nine year olds. I was really struck by how aware they were (and I think most of that is down to Damers School and the way they encourage their students to be curious and enquiring) and how powerful their poems are.

If you aren’t able to watch it live (and I realise that it clashes with tomorrow’s big climate action event), I imagine that there will be an opportunity to watch it on catch up and I’ll let you know the link to that once I know it myself.

Posted in climate action, People Need Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments