Time in Nature helps our children’s mental health & wellbeing

It’s fair to say that as a society we are only just waking up to the problems our children and young adults face. To what extent the mental health crisis facing children is linked to increasing social media use is debatable, though some evidence does point towards its damaging effect – particularly on those who may already be vulnerable to the insidious features deliberately designed into some platforms, with Instagram coming under special scrutiny recently. With this in mind, it’s incumbent on us all to consider what we can do, both individually and as a society.

We know, both instinctively, and from scientific evidence, that there are things which improve wellbeing, and therefore mental health. These include taking part in group activities – whether be sport or drama and the arts. But what about being in Nature? We tend to assume that being in nature will be good for everyone’s well-being and recent evidence looking specifically at Children and Young Adults is showing how important this is.

Monitoring Engagement in the Natural Environment  – or MENE as it’s known, is a project which has been running for exactly 10 years now – it’s unusual as a survivor from before the Tory government took over in 2010, when everything changed, as I explored in a previous piece (link to NE article). The MENE project does something very simple, but also quite radical – it uses standard market research techniques (face to face surveys) to find out the general public’s perceptions of nature and the natural environment, asking people how often they visit places where they will find some aspect of nature, why they make those visits, and how it makes them feel. Read more about the 10 years of work here. This is a significant piece of work, and after 10 years it’s possible to see how people’s attitudes towards and time spent in nature is changing.

The recent MENE report exploring young people’s attitudes towards nature and the natural environment throws up some results which should surprise no-one, but also some unexpected and perhaps worrying signals, particularly in relation to the benefits being in nature provides for young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Nearly three quarters of children experience nature (beyond their gardens, which are excluded from the survey) in urban parks and other kinds of green space, mostly in the company of adults. The number of children who are playing or being outdoors without adults has declined dramatically over the past 50 years and this is reflected in the MENE results which found only 18% of children (under 16) were outdoors in a natural environment without adults, and only 6% on their own. Being in nature clearly improves children and young people’s wellbeing, and two thirds of children under 16 agreed with the phrase that “being in nature makes me very happy”. Interestingly this figure dropped to 56% for teenagers and young adults  – and this ties in with a general perception that teenagers become more removed from an interest in nature as other pressures crowd in on their time, focus and energy.

With a large sample of carefully selected contributors, the MENE researchers were able to explore social and ethnic differences – for example finding that children in poorer neighbourhoods were spending significantly less time in urban green spaces, as were children from BAME communities, especially those from Asian backgrounds – 73% of children from white British backgrounds were spending once a week outside in nature, compared with only 51% from Asian backgrounds – a startling difference. In households with dogs, children were consistently spending more time outside without an adult, than children in households without dogs, as you would expect. The difference is most marked for 13 year old children where 42% were making visits walking the dog, compared with 32% without dogs. At the same time the MENE survey is finding that visits by older children (aged 10-15) to nature, without adults, are decreasing at a surprising rate – down from 45% in 2013-14 to 39% in 2017-18. This may be partly due to parents’ concerns about safety, for example having to cross busy roads to get to the park. However it may also be due to children spending more time indoors, for example gaming or on social media.

What MENE does not do is really tease apart the different elements of nature in urban green spaces, to identify which particular attributes make the most contribution towards children’s wellbeing. Is it, for example, the opportunity to watch that ubiquitous but unloved (by Defra) urban mammal, the Grey squirrel?  Or is it related to the number and size of trees, as I expect the Woodland Trust would want us to believe – or is it something more complex related to the structural complexity provided by a range of different features including large trees, shrubs and areas with flowers and butterflies – or some other factor such as opportunities to climb trees or build dens. While I’m not suggesting we engineer every greenspace to maximise children’s wellbeing, it would certainly be useful to know how these  different factors inter-relate to each other.

The other question it raises is whether there is enough greenery in our cities and towns. The MENE results showing that children spend less time in nature in poorer areas may simply reflect the fact that there are fewer green areas in poorer neighbourhoods – and that Councils have less money to spend managing them  – for example in ways which encourage more nature. Cash strapped councils are being forced to sell off more and more land and buildings to make up for the Central Government funding which has been withdrawn over the last 10 years – meaning that, at least in some areas, there are now fewer green areas for children to visit, or those that are available are neglected, making them less attractive. A similar impact is produced by schools being forced to sell off playing fields to pay for new buildings or cover budget deficits.

One thing seems certain – getting children out into nature is good for their mental health and their overall wellbeing – and we can all do our bit to encourage this. Ultimately though, if the parks and greenspaces aren’t there, or are not welcoming, then our children will not be able to benefit from the experiences with nature they provide.

This article first appeared in Lush Times

 

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Squirrels, Pheasants and Beavers: the confusing world of animal releases

Defra minister Therese Coffey has decided to stop anyone from releasing rehabilitated Grey Squirrels – even into gardens.

 

Scotland is once again ahead of the game (or at least ahead of England) as far as legal protection for wildlife is concerned.

Scottish Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, announced recently that Beavers would be given the strict protection afforded other European Protected Species (EPS), under the EU Habitats Directive.

These species are mostly those for which the UK has particular, international responsibility, and include everything from Bats to Harbour Porpoises; the Large Blue butterfly to the Lady’s-slipper orchid.

Having EPS status means that the individuals are legally protected from persecution or killing; and their habitats are also protected, to a greater or lesser extent.

This means that Beavers and their habitats will receive legal protection too – although newly-built dams (less than two weeks old) can still be legally dismantled, without a licence. And capturing or, in the last resort, killing Beavers will still be allowed, under licence.

Now, of course, there’s a certain irony that Beavers will become a European Protected Species in the UK on the 1st May 2019 – which will either be a month after the UK formally leaves the EU, or perhaps 4 weeks beforehand, depending on whether a short delay to Brexit day is confirmed (I still have my doubts). Because of course the legal protection they will receive is based on EU law and that EU law is ultimately founded on the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union – something which Brexites have been obsessed with and enraged by, for years.

Once we leave the EU, there will still be domestic laws (known as the Habitat Regulations) which provide legal protection for EPS, at least for a year or two.

A most peculiar argument

During our time as an EU member state, if an EPS was being persecuted, or its habitat being destroyed, the UK Government could be taken to the EU court, which could impose very heavy fines, until the persecution or damage was remedied. This acted as a very effective backstop (in that the court’s decision was final) and a deterrent.

Once outside the EU, that backstop disappears along with the deterrent effect. So conferring the status of EPS on the Beaver may not be, in reality, quite as strong a signal that the animals will be given protection as it would have been, had we continued to be an EU country.

Now that Scotland has decided that its Beavers are a proper native mammal, it’s going to be pretty difficult for officials in England and Wales (where they have also been reintroduced) to argue that Beavers are not native there. After all, they were native across Great Britain until about 1600, and for the previous 7 million years or so.

While the benefits of beavers are well established, there are still plenty of beaver naysayers. Some in the farming community argue that the landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the past 400 years and there is now no room for Beavers. This is a most peculiar argument since it implies that everything that is here now in Britain is as good as it can be and nothing must change. In that case, should all new land-uses be stopped? Maize grown purely to feed the biogas industry didn’t exist 10 years ago and now covers 60,000ha of England’s farmland. Did anyone say: “there’s no room for that biogas Maize, we need that land to grow food?

If they did, I didn’t hear them. And of course the anglers – ah the anglers. Many (not all) don’t want Beavers back because they are worried that Beavers will affect Salmon and Trout populations. They don’t seem quite so bothered about other fish species, or fish diversity in general. That smells a bit fishy to me – it may even qualify as being ‘fishist.’

Secret Squirrels

While the return of a native animal and legal protection being conferred upon it is generally welcomed (with notable exceptions), at the same time some people are up in arms over plans to stop a very popular, cute and cuddly, but exotic invader from being released into the countryside. This is the Grey squirrel.

Introduced into Britain in the 1870s, the Greys have been relentlessly spreading across Britain and have been blamed for the near extinction of the native Red squirrel – by acting as a host for a virus which kills the Reds, but leaves the Greys untouched. They also damage trees, especially planted ones – and are thus hated by foresters.

But most people (who aren’t foresters) enjoy seeing the Greys – in the local park or in their gardens. And in urban environments, Grey squirrels might be the only wild mammal, people ever see.

Compassion for any suffering animal is natural, and has led to injured or orphaned Grey squirrels being rescued and taken to special Grey squirrel rehabilitation centres. Here, the Greys are restored to health and then released back into the wild, where it’s considered they belong, despite having been introduced – and having caused the problems I mention above.

Now, the Government has decided that the law needs to change, making it an offence to return a captive Grey Squirrel back to the wild. The Sunday Times newspaper created a bit of a stir by claiming that Environment Minister Michael Gove’s department was going to force rehabilitation centres to kill all of their captive Grey squirrels, which, in turn, forced Defra to issue a rebuttal. It does feel like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut though – there are around three million Grey squirrels wild in the UK – how many do rehabilitation centres release every year – a few thousand at most?

As the secretary of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, Samantha Chandler, said: “Surely even invasive species deserve the right to humane treatment if they are sick or injured?”

Well yes. And here’s the rub.

Allowing a few hundred Beavers in Scotland (and a few tens in England) to return to the wild has caused huge controversy – remember this is an animal which lived here for millions of years and is an essential component of our wetland ecosystems.

Changing the law to prevent a few thousand (at most) non-native squirrels go free when there are three million already out there, seems to me to be a bit of overkill.

But allowing 35 million non-native Pheasants to be released every year without any licencing requirement…

Pheasant which cause significant environmental damage, road traffic accidents, disease  – never mind the birds’ own welfare.

Released just so they can be shot, for fun or profit?

Yes, of course, that’s fine, go ahead. No problem.

this article first appeared on Lush Times

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School Strike for the Climate

Hazel leaves emerge in late February ©Miles King

It’s still February but already feeling warm (update: winter temperatures records smashed) Thirty or forty years ago, the middle of February would normally have been the depths of winter in England, but no more: Buds are breaking, the grass is growing enthusiastically, and there have even been sightings of Swallows and Sand Martins flying up from the South.

Has anyone else who suffers from hayfever also had a few sneezes or runny eyes? Welcome to the new climate. Of course we were in the same position last year, before the Beast from the East arrived, but despite its dramatic impact, England had its hottest year on record last year.

Winter is being squeezed – by autumn running into December, and spring starting in February. Elsewhere in the world, Australia has just had its hottest January on record. Normally, this would only happen in an El Nino year, when warm water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean push temperatures up in Australia, and worldwide. This year there has been no El Nino (although one may just be starting up now), which makes the antipodean heatwave all the more alarming.

For those few people clinging on to denial and a desperate desire to find alternative ‘natural’ reasons behind our Climate Crisis, the Sun’s behaviour is not helping. Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers, for example, believes the climate is driven by the sun’s activity.  We are now in a period called the ‘Solar Minimum’ when solar activity declines (and sunspots disappear from the surface of the sun). If the sun is driving the climate, solar minima should see global temperatures fall, yet they continue to climb.

While some efforts are being made to reduce the inexorable increase in greenhouse gases emitted from human activities, climate science continues to throw up surprises. Concentrations of  Methane – one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – had plateaued until 2014. Then, inexplicably it started to increase again, and not just a bit but by a lot.

Dramatic increases in methane have been recorded over the past four years, but it’s not at all clear from where the Methane is being emitted. Methane from different sources has different chemical signatures, and these point towards a biological source accounting for the dramatic increase in recent years, rather than, say, gas leakages from the fossil fuel industry. Local monitoring also suggests the emissions are from tropical areas  – which rules out methane leaking for Arctic tundra or Methane hydrates trapped in the sea bed. But whether the increased level of Methane is produced by rice fields or by cattle is unclear. There is still so much we do not understand; for example, it’s possible that a rise in atmospheric methane may be due to climate-change induced chemical changes which are slowing the natural processes which cause methane (which is short-lived, disappearing after about 10 years) to break down.

While scenes of mass cattle die-off in Australia may elicit compassion here, it’s the impact of climate chaos on the farmers who produce our food which will really bring the reality home to people. A recent report from the Climate Coalition neatly summarises what is already happening and how much more dramatic the changes in the near future will be.

You may be surprised to discover that the UK is more or less self-sufficient in carrots and peas. Last year’s extraordinary heat and drought made a big dent in both these crops – carrots were down 25-30% last year. The pea beetle is heading north as the climate warms and if (when) it arrives in Britain, will affect Pea yields. As we are being told to eat more fruit and vegetables, not least because it is better for the environment, there is a certain irony that climate chaos is going to make it more difficult for us to grow them, and the last thing we want is to be more dependent on imports, regardless of chaos around Brexit day.

Nor does it make any sense for the Government to be talking about the UK helping to ‘feed the world’ as Michael Gove said to the National Farmers’ Union conference last week. Exporting lamb and beef to the EU (exports of which are now at risk of total collapse if we crash out of the EU without a deal) is not going to help subsistence farmers in the tropics who produce most of the world’s food. Better that we support research into developing better agro-ecological farming techniques, or use our global influence to help farmers share best practice where it already exists.

All of these things are inevitably creating a collective sense of anxiety and perhaps despair that the damage has already been done and there’s nothing that can be done. So, it’s particularly inspirational to see young people demanding urgent action – a movement which continues to build.

Last week saw the first school strike for climate in the UK – inspired by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, who has been on strike from school for months. Thunberg’s inspiration led to around ten thousand UK students walking out of school on the February 15 to protest that the Climate Crisis was only being given lip service by this government, and governments in general.

The Government’s response can only be described as crass; both House of Commons leader’s Andrea Leadsom’s dismissal of the action as ‘truancy’ and the Prime Minister complaining that they had wasted their teacher’s efforts in preparing lessons that they were not attending. Theresa May is notorious for ignoring how her reactions are perceived (the optics) beyond the Westminster Bubble, and she surpassed herself with this reaction. Thankfully other politicians reacted with interest and respect, not least former biodiversity minister Richard Benyon, who met local school students to listen to, and discuss their demands. And let’s not forget that born-again environmentalist Michael Gove sought to remove climate chaos from the curriculum during his tenure as Education Secretary, and it only remained after a major campaign – even now it’s treated as a sideshow.

It’s understandable that the generation at school at the moment feel frustrated and angry that their future is being put on the line by the people currently in charge, especially after the Brexit vote took away their future choices to live and work elsewhere in the EU.

Let’s hope these protests build and build over the next months (the next big one is planned for March 15) and grow to the point where they simply cannot be ignored by the politicians, media and the public. This would be a very healthy antidote to the act of national self-harm that is Brexit.

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40 days to a crash-out Brexit (well….35 now).

will we all be eating Lamb come Brexit day?

To me, forty days is a nice round number. It doesn’t fit in well with our time cycles of days, weeks and months, but it undoubtedly has great symbolic meaning, the  most famous of which, perhaps, is the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that caused Noah’s Flood – and transformed the world, cleaning away all of the old sinful ways. But the biblical references don’t stop there. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert and was subject to all manner of temptations, including the temptation to use his divine superpowers to turn stones into bread, in order to overcome his hunger. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandering in the desert for 40 years; and then fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.

Today (Monday, February 18) marks 40 days until Brexit day. And like Noah’s Flood, at least for true believers, Brexit will clean away all of the old sinful EU ways, leaving a bright clean sunlit future. Whether we will also need to ask for divine intervention to provide our daily bread through the conversion of stones, remains to be seen. But there really is something akin to a ‘Milliennial Cult’ about Brexit.

Millennial cults – so named because they have a habit of springing up around each Millennium – generally believe that there will be some apocalyptic event and that either the world will end, or there will be a new beginning, or both. Apocalypse literally means revelation or uncovering and our Millennial Brexit cult is now preparing for the great reveal – of a new Britain. This is nothing new. William Blake wrote Jerusalem as a way of describing his belief that a new Heaven could be created, on Earth, in England.

Leaving aside the religious connotations, it may be worth spending a few minutes thinking about what is actually likely to happen on and around Brexit Day on March 29th. If only for practical everyday reasons. To do that, it’s necessary to decide what kind of Brexit is now most likely to occur. There are a number of possibilities: it might be postponed, if Theresa May’s Government decides to ask the EU to approve a delay. May’s deal, which the EU has signed off but Parliament has rejected, might scrape through. Or, a revised version of that deal, such as one that includes Labour’s demands that the UK enter into a Customs Union with the EU, might make it through Parliament and be signed off by the EU. Or the Malthouse Compromise, which means ditching the Irish border backstop and replacing it with unspecified new technology, might be signed off by Ireland and the EU, in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement.

All of these are possible, but unlikely – arguably very unlikely. We have reached an impasse. There is a large enough group – mainly the ultra-hardline Brexit Millenialists of the European Research Group, who will not support May’s deal, let alone anything that’s got a sniff of Labour about it. The EU will not sign off any weakening of the backstop, let alone some unspecified techno-fix. Labour won’t support May’s deal as it stands. And so the existing Parliamentary process leads inexorably to a no-deal Brexit. It’s the default. Unless something miraculous happens, this is where we are heading. In 40 days’ time.

So let’s start with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter. All of our drinking water in the UK is supplied domestically, either from reservoirs or aquifers (underground wells). So these supplies will continue whatever happens with Brexit. While leading Brexit prophet Dan Hannan was rightly mocked for attacking suggestions that the UK would run out of drinking water (nobody suggested that), there are certain chemicals which are imported from the EU, and used in purifying water to make it safe for drinking. But let’s assume that there is already a stockpile of these in the UK, or that they could be brought in by boat. British houses are also unlikely to collapse on Brexit day, though the hostile environment that EU nationals are already being subject to is hardly likely to help with shortages of key trades in the UK construction industry. Homelessness and the housing crisis will still be with us after Brexit day. Those houses will continue to receive gas and electricity.

Gas supplies come into the UK via pipelines from the North Sea (domestic production) the EU and Norway; and via giant container ships full of Liquefied Natural Gas. Nearly half of the UK’s gas supplies comes from or via the EU. You can see one reason why the Brexites are so keen on fracking. As the Russians showed with Ukraine in 2006, cutting off a country’s gas supplies can have pretty profound consequences. Electricity is mainly produced domestically, with a small amount imported when necessary via one of several interconnectors, including from France. So we wouldn’t want to really annoy the French, for example by refusing to pay what we already owe to the EU for previous commitments to the EU budget – the £39 billion or whatever the final amount will be. And we certainly would not want to annoy the Norwegians, by trampling on their arrangements with the EU, via the European Free Trade Area. This seems pretty unlikely to happen in the next 40 days.

Impending crisis

Of the three essentials for life, food is the one upon which Brexit day could have a dramatic impact, (although Brexists will continue to shout “project fear” until the cows come home). The simple reason for this is that around half of our food comes from the EU, either directly or indirectly. And it wouldn’t take much of a delay at the border for perishable food such as fresh fruit and vegetables to be rendered unusable. It’s a pity nobody thought about this at the time they decided to make Brexit day at the end of March. It’s just about the worst possible time of the year if we were having to fall back on domestically-produced fruit and veg. Last year’s stocks are running down, but little is coming in from the farms. I guess nobody thought about this as an important consideration at the time, when we were going to have all of our new trade agreements signed on day one. Nevertheless, we will probably still have plenty of potatoes, turnips, cabbages, carrots and Brussel sprouts. But if imports from the Netherlands and Spain (where most of our imports originate) are held up, then that means shortages of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lettuce, courgettes and cucumbers. Popular exotic veg and fruit (Avocado Toast anyone?) arrives in Europe at Rotterdam, not directly into the UK.

You might also be surprised at how much chicken we import. As a country (obviously not including the vegetarians/vegans) the UK prefers white chicken meat, rather than brown meat. So we export most of the brown meat and import white meat to compensate. Most of the imported white meat comes from The Netherlands, then Poland. Conversely, if exports of UK food produce to the EU are held up (and face high tariffs), as seems inevitable with a crash-out Brexit, that will lead to a glut of some things. Something like 25% of UK lamb is exported, mostly to the EU. UK beef and pork exports will also be hit. And as for taking back control over our fishing industry…. 75% of the fish that are caught in UK waters are exported – to the EU. Any delays in lorry movements through Dover will spell disaster for the fishing industry.

Without going into massive detail, the picture I am trying to draw is one where things we are used to eating will be harder to find, while food exporters are stuck with products where there is low domestic demand. Will sheep farmers take lambs to market and accept a lower price which means they are out of pocket – or leave them in the fields where there is insufficient grazing to go round? Will the Government step in and start buying produce as used to happen in the bad old days of milk mountains and butter lakes. Even if they did, there is nowhere to store the surplus.

The pound will plummet

While some supermarket shelves will be empty or at least sporadically filled, for other products, gluts may well mean prices are dropped, just to shift food out of warehouses and into homes. But there’s a catch. Because one thing that seems certain is that a crash-out Brexit will cause the value of the pound to plummet. I’m not going to make any predictions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one Pound equals one Euro. And that means prices are going to increase across the board. Combine that with job insecurity, and it’s no surprise that the Government has just issued new guidance on ‘riot compensation.’

Of course, this impending crisis will not continue forever, perhaps only for a few weeks. After a few weeks of chaos, the tectonic political plates will shift again. Perhaps we’ll be heading into another general election, with one, possibly two new party leaders – perhaps even some new political parties. Is this really what the country wanted? Of course not. Brexit was always a political project – an unholy alliance of the hard right and the far-right.

The hard right are those, like the European Research Group and their constellation of corporate lobby groups masquerading as charities or think-tanks, who want to shrink the state, privatise everything, do away with as many regulations and laws as possible and let loose the unbridled forces of the free market. The far-right are the xenophobes, the bigots, the racists, the white supremacists – some who want to return to the days of the Empire; look down on “foreigners”, see women back in their place (the home); and who attack social justice as ‘cultural marxism’.

That’s not to say all those who voted for Brexit are hard-right or far-right. Many had their own valid reasons for doing so, though the fact that both Vote Leave campaigns cheated brazenly did not help. But who among them would ever have dreamed we would be where we are now, facing food and medicine shortages, with the Army reserve having been called up to deal with anticipated civil unrest?

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Put a Beaver in your River

Summer, nearly six years ago, and I was doing a lot of walking. That day, Chesil beach, with the long thin lake of the Fleet behind, was sunny and I found myself thoughtlessly kicking a large lump of peat. Peat? What was that doing on the beach? As I looked more closely, I noticed that there were some bits of wood sticking out. I prised the wood out and looked at them. They were thoroughly squashed, like a bit of old leather, but distinctly woody – the largest was a couple of inches in diameter. Curious as to where the peat had come from, I put them in my pocket and took them home.

The internet revealed that these lumps of peat had been washed up by the sea – and that the peat had been created five or six thousand years ago when the Fleet was larger; and there were beavers present. A beaver skull had been found in one peat block nearly 20 years ago. Looking again at my pieces of peat-interred wood I realised they were the young stems of an Alder tree, a tree that was growing, perhaps having been chopped down by some very sharp, yellow incisor teeth. It almost looked as though one had a very clean cut across one end. Had I stumbled on those tree remains, the ghost of a beaver’s activity, left from the very long distant past?

Eurasian beavers – Castor Fiber – have been around for millions of years. That means that they were here, in Britain, the whole time (except when we were under an ice sheet). During that time they made a big impact on how our Islands would have looked, before we transformed everything.

Beavers chop down trees (which grow again). They make dams, and the dams form pools behind them. beavers also make burrows – and their excavations move earth around. beavers literally transform landscapes. But their influence on our landscapes disappeared when they became extinct, around 400 years ago. They were certainly hunted, for their pelts and their glands, from which a highly prized waxy material called Castoreum was extracted. Castoreum was used in the making of perfumes, as well as Salicylic acid (for pain relief). But also, perhaps, they were finding it more difficult to survive, as humans slowly infringed on their wetland homes.

Back from extinction

And now they are back – first in Scotland, and now in England. The first beavers appeared on the River Tay in Scotland nearly 20 years ago, thanks to an unauthorised release. That population has continued to grow, and now numbers perhaps four hundred. Not everyone is happy, but the general view is that it is good that Scotland has one of its native mammals back, from extinction.

Similar things are happening in England. Another unauthorised release saw beavers appear on Devon’s River Otter in 2013. Although the Government originally planned to catch these beavers, a successful campaign, by Devon Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Earth, led to their being allowed to stay on in the wild, at least temporarily. Since then, further authorised Beaver introductions have taken place in Cornwall, Devon, the Forest of Dean and Essex; as well as a long-established population in Kent, which appears to be spreading. There may be others.

It is undoubtedly a good thing that beavers are returning to Britain – we should welcome back species which were here and should be here again; this is a basic tenet of rewilding, and while controversy may surround bringing back Lynx or Wolf, beavers are relatively benign, since as vegetarians there is no risk of them eating livestock for example.

Beavers also do all manner of beneficial things – as well as creating the conditions for a myriad other species to thrive. They can help reduce water pollution and downstream flooding. And they can provide the conditions for fish to spawn, potentially helping threatened fish populations to recover – fish that some people enjoy trying to catch which makes it something of a mystery as to why the Angling Trust became so agitated about beavers returning.

So far all the proposed and active reintroductions have taken place in wetlands or on rivers. But perhaps we are missing a trick. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that, at least as far as our Beaver’s American cousin is concerned, beavers are just as happy in coastal habitats, like salt marshes and grazing marsh, as they are inland.

Think of Poole Harbour, a jewel in Dorset’s natural treasury. Poole Harbour is internationally important for wildlife, but is suffering from various problems, not least too much sediment and Nitrogen flowing into it, primarily as a result of intensive agriculture in the catchment. Could free-living beavers in the harbour itself help to capture that sediment and Nitrogen before it enters the waters of the harbour? Could beaver-created pools along the edge of the harbour help fish to spawn, and birds to feed?

Could beavers help our beleaguered estuaries and coastal wetlands? These would be places where there were far fewer conflicts with other land-uses, such as agriculture. Indeed, in some places, like coastal grazing marshes, agricultural management is becoming increasingly unrealistic. These could be given over to the beaver to transform, to rewild.

Perhaps even the Fleet, where this story started, might benefit from a family of beavers, living contentedly behind Chesil Beach. That would certainly surprise the holiday makers.

this article first appeared in Lush Times

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Natural England uses its legal powers to protect our best grasslands

 

This Natural England press release has just been published:

 Some of the country’s rarest and most threatened fungi will be better protected after Natural England announced the notification of two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). 2019 marks the Government’s Year of Green Action, a year-long drive to help people to connect with, protect and enhance nature. This doubles the number of sites chosen for designations specifically for their fungi. These two new SSSIs provide protection for over 70 additional hectares for important and spectacular fungi, as well as nationally important grasslands and meadows.

The first site is Dorset’s Down Farm, an eight hectares site near Beaminster and home to a nationally important assemblage of grassland fungi, in particular a rich variety of waxcaps and clubs, corals and spindles. These fungi thrive in traditionally managed grasslands and Down Farm’s richness is testament to the careful stewardship by the land owner.

Andrew Smith, Natural England’s area manager for Dorset said: “This Site of Special Scientific Interest designation is a reflection of how rare and special Down Farm is as a place for nature. “The traditionally managed hay meadows support a rich flora. In spring there are thousands of the much declined green-winged orchid. In autumn, the grasslands are equally colourful and spectacular with waxcaps, corals, spindles and club fungi. “This ‘waxcap’ grassland in west Dorset is now recognised as being of national importance.

Notifying the meadow helps safeguard these important natural features that the land owner has nurtured and cared for so well through traditional hay meadow management. Natural England is delighted to recognise the owner’s good work and looks forward to this spectacular place being cherished long into the future. “Natural England, and the many people and organisations we work with, are so pleased we can take this important step to ensuring this site has a secure and healthy future. We are grateful to the owner of the meadows and to our partners who have worked with us to establish this designation.”

The second notification is The Leasowes in Halesowen, an area of 63 hectares in the borough of Dudley near Birmingham and one of the best sites in England for its spectacular displays of grassland fungi, including an amazing 28 species of the brightly coloured waxcap mushrooms. The citrine waxcap, which is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s global red data list – a list of species at threat of extinction – was recorded at The Leasowes in 2017. Pink, golden and parrot waxcaps are amongst the other species spotted at the site off Mucklow Hill.

Emma Johnson, Natural England’s area manager for West Midlands said: “England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest are essential to look after the very best examples of our precious natural heritage and wildlife for generations to come. We are delighted to designate the rare species-rich pastures and grassland fungi at The Leasowes. “It is a great example of how urban sites can hold nationally significant habitats, providing a wonderful place for both people and nature. The designation is a timely recognition of all of the management and conservation work that has gone into the site by wardens, golf course managers, volunteers and community groups over many years. “We see the designation as an important step in making sure the place is enjoyed and thrives well into the future.”

SSSIs protect the very best examples of our precious natural heritage and wildlife for the future. Natural England plays a pivotal role in designating these sites, monitoring and reporting their condition and advising landowners on their management. These notifications take the total number of English grassland SSSIs selected for fungi up to four. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee has recently published new guidelines for the selection of SSSIs for fungi which were used for the first time in the selection of these sites.

Tim Wilkins, Natural England’s Senior Specialist in fungi, said: “There are very few grasslands in the whole of England that support such a spectacular array of fungi. This reflects the great antiquity of the grassland at The Leasowes, all the more remarkable for its proximity to the Birmingham conurbation. “As well as the colourful waxcap mushrooms, the site is also important for its fairy club fungi and earth-tongues. It’s great to know that this site and its wonderful fungi will be preserved for current and future generations to enjoy.”

Dr Martyn Ainsworth, Research Leader in Mycology, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and co-author of the new guidelines for the selection of fungal SSSIs, said: “It is just brilliant to see two more English SSSIs notified for their spectacular and enigmatic waxcap grassland fungi, which are in general decline right across Europe. “It is especially encouraging and uplifting to note that these designations have occurred so soon after the publication of the new guidelines for selecting such important fungal sites.”

I am often quite critical of Natural England – but this is news that is worth celebrating. It shows what Natural England can do, and that protecting nature with the laws that we already have, can be done successfully, working with landowners.

 

Posted in grasslands, Natural England, SSSis, waxcap grasslands | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

further thoughts on the Net Gain consultation


Following on from my general critique of the Net Gain proposals, here are a few specific comments in case anyone is thinking about responding to the consultation before the deadline of the 10th February.

1. On page 6 of the consultation Defra proposes populating the standard biodiversity metric using surveys from consultants working for the developer. Can anyone see a problem here? Who checks whether the consultants have accurately and objectively mapped the resource? Call me a cynic but I would have thought it’s in their and their clients interests to minimise the existing value of the resource – saves on time and money.

2. As soon as I saw mention of “Habitat Creation Markets” (Page 35) my heart sank and I was reminded of George Eustice’s dream of tradeable biodiversity credits. Let that dream go, Minister. It also reminded me that the Environment Bank was merrily proposing biodiversity offsetting at Lodge Hill, even while it was being designated as a SSSI.

3. I thought this quote (page 10) was quite telling:

The government will only mandate biodiversity net get if it is satisfied that it will deliver benefits for development, including greater certainty and process cost savings

I wonder whether this is really the right place to start thinking about the principles for Net Gain. Had one started from the position of “how can we end up with more wildlife than we started with”, rather than “how can we make it easier for developer to build market housing”, I might be prepared to be more positive about it.

4. Might funding via the tariff only be channelled into replacing other sources of public funding which have been cut? What about funding for existing local parks and other open spaces where LA funding has been starved? Would this be real net gain or merely robbing peter to pay Paul.

5. There are plenty of nods to the mitigation hierarchy, which were welcome. But I did wonder to what extent these were providing cover for the more hard-core natural capital approaches being advocated.

6. The Natural Capital Committee was very critical of the Net Gain proposals, in particular querying why only Biodiversity was being considered, and not other aspects, such as water quality, carbon sequestration etc. One reason may be because biodiversity is, even in Natural Capital Accounting, often assigned a zero value (thus blowing a massive hole in the NC philosophy), whereas economists have found it easier to price the value of flood reduction or carbon. I’m not making any comment as to whether I agree with the approaches they have taken to create these prices.

7. In this context I was interested to read that Natural England is developing an “eco-metric” designed to show how much value a wildlife habitat delivers to society in terms of its ecostystem services (page 18). To which my responses is…. arghhh.

8. Another interesting point made in the Natural Capital Committee response was that they questioned why Net Gain was only measured from a base-line of what the current value of a site was; and why there was no consideration of potential value of a site. It also occurred to me that if business as usual land-use practices were contributing to ongoing net loss of wildlife from eg farmland, how this would be factored in. When and how is the base-line to be set, using what data?

9. It’s not as though the base-line is level at the moment. Net gain has to be set against ongoing net losses. So part of the net gain only really addresses the continuing declines. That’s a big hurdle to get over in the first place. Also historic activities which have stopped, are continuing to have an impact eg historic Nitrate fertiliser use causing water quality pollution decades later.

10. Defra’s ambition is for a 10% gain (in terms of Biodiversity Units). Would this even be enough to address the ongoing declines?

11. The Net Gain consultation proposes excluding alterations to buildings – what about roof-dwelling bats?

12. There is also a proposal to exclude developments of less than 10 homes or 0.5ha. Given how small some surviving wildife sites are, there should at least be some mechanism to check whether a small site is nevertheless valuable.

13. The Proposal to exclude all brownfield sites from the Net Gain requirement really does seem like madness to me. Both Lodge Hill SSSI and Rampisham Down SSSI were brownfield sites when they were designated. And Brownfield sites often have far more wildlife value than farmland, precisely because they have not been soused in Nitrogen and Phosphorus for the past 50 years.

14. The proposals include excluding any consideration of species interest on a site, other than Great Crested Newts (which are to be dealt with using the area licence approach.)

15. Why put a time limit (eg 25 years) on Net Gain? How does this make any ecological sense?

16. There is no effort to resolve the conundrum of “irreplaceable habitats” in the consultation. At present there is a definition of irreplaceable habitats in the NPPF.

Irreplaceable habitat: Habitats which would be technically very difficult (or take a very significant time) to restore, recreate or replace once destroyed, taking into account their age, uniqueness, species diversity or rarity. They include ancient woodland, ancient and veteran trees, blanket bog, limestone pavement, sand dunes, salt marsh and lowland fen.

within the Net Gain consultation only Ancient Woodland (which is not a habitat but a historical category) is mentioned. Lowland heathland or ancient pastures like chalk downlands are not mentioned, although they would fit the broader definition in the NPPF.

 

Posted in biodiversity offsetting, housing, Natural Capital, net gain, NPPF, planning | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Accountancy will not save nature: the problems with “Net Gain”

How many biodiversity metric credits are these plants worth? ©Miles King

It’s difficult to believe that while we watch – ok, there are probably only a few of us now hanging on to the bitter end, as most will have given up and gone off to do something more sensible – a series of Parliamentary cans being kicked down the road towards a no-deal Brexit, that there might still be some other things happening; new ideas being developed, new policies being proposed etc. to improve our collective lot.

One such idea is called ‘Net Gain.’ It doesn’t sound very promising does it? But I doubt the best minds of Defra were called into action to work on an exciting title for this project since they have all been seconded onto the team planning how to use the army to distribute food to the masses, without using the gridlocked motorway network, if we do crash out of Europe without a deal.

Net Gain is an idea that’s been around for a while, but has re-emerged with a new name. The old name was Biodiversity Offsetting which became tarnished, by association with Owen Paterson, the ardent ‘Brexist’ and former Environment Secretary, who enthused over how ancient woodland could be easily replaced with new trees.

The premise laid out in Defra’s consultation on how Net Gain would work, is that when new houses are built, wildlife is lost from the land – usually farmland – where the houses are built. Normally, there would be a collective shrug and “oh dear how sad, never mind” before the Council leader ceremonially cut the ribbon on the latest shiny new housing project (which of course won’t solve the housing crisis anyway – as I explained before) and the caravan would move on.

Net Gain seeks to not only address the loss, but to actively create more wildlife than was lost – hence “net gain” – it’s a type of environmental accounting.

A calculation is made. The losses – which could range from Badgers and Great Crested Newts being evicted, hedges full of songbirds or butterflies being destroyed, ancient soil under wildflower meadow or heathland being dug up and shifted elsewhere – are totted up. And the totting is converted into a number – technically called a metric (let’s call these metric A). Then the replacements – ranging from a bird box on the side of a building, a new amenity pond in a housing estate, some urban green space where trees are planted and seeds of flowers sown, right through to the creation of large new plantations or wetlands  – are also converted into a number; another metric (yes, you’ve guessed it – Metric B) and the final calculation is done. Is Metric A more or less than Metric B (gains)? If B is greater than A then a Net Gain has been achieved and, as Charles Dickens said, “result – happiness.”

Those of you who have read some of my writing, here and elsewhere, will know that I am not enthusiastic about this accountancy approach to wildlife or Nature – it’s the natural capital approach; the idea that the extraordinary, wondrous and infinite value of Nature to people (quite apart from to itself) can be boiled down to a few numbers, for the purpose of converting that value into financial value. Because, despite the new terminology, this is what lies underneath Net Gain.

On the surface the idea of ending up with more wildlife after a housing development than was there before it was developed, seems intrinsically appealing. Who could argue that this would be a bad idea? We know that people are happier when they live in surroundings with more Nature, more greenery, more open spaces. Having Nature around makes people happier and more contented, we know that’s true.

Some canny developers are already working with conservation charities to incorporate wildlife into their developments – I wrote recently about an interesting development near Aylesbury where the developers are working with the RSPB on just such an approach. And what could possibly be wrong with trying to quantify the gains for Nature resulting from such developments?

Those in the conservation world are always using statistics to argue for changes in policy or law e.g. “these farmland birds are declining because of these types of intensive agriculture, so if we change that policy, so farmers will be supported to change their practices, then farmland birds numbers will go up again.”  This is an argument you will often hear, entirely dependent on data collected by people (mostly volunteers) going out, rain or shine, and counting the number of farmland birds they see, week in, week out, year in, year out.

The problem arises when scientific statistics are converted by economists into the language of accountancy.

Instead of farmland birds – yellow hammers, corn buntings, skylarks – we have a metric, a number. Think of it like this – “Yes, we’re very proud of the wildlife on our farm. We have yellow hammers. There are hares. I saw a hedgehog last week. The primroses in the wood are beautiful in the Spring, they remind of that day when….” you get the picture. All of that  – that wildlife, that history, those memories and stories – boiled down into: Yes, that farmland has a value of 2.63 on the Defra biodiversity metric.

According to the proposals from Defra, Net Gain will be defined by a 10% gain in the metric; so Dickens’ “happiness” will be a value of 2.893. This figure of 2.893 might mean any number of different things: It might mean a new park with a pond is incorporated into the new housing development; it might mean swift tiles in the roof of every house; it might even mean a new 10ha wildflower meadow is created on some other farmland 10 miles away. All of these things might contribute to 2.893. But can they replace what has been lost – can a metric include all of those aspects of a place with a history? Of course not. But then these things are usually lost when farmland is converted to housing – or rather, with those losses, a new chapter in that history unfolds.

The really odd thing about Net Gain to me is that it only applies to housing developments. Over 80% of the UK is farmland or forestry (and that’s where most wildlife is found), but there’s no suggestion that Net Gain should apply to these activities – why not? The simple answer is that it’s too difficult. Developers need to go through the process of gaining planning permission before they can build houses. Ploughing up a heathland or converting woodland into conifer plantation is much easier.

While Net Gain might make sense on one level, as a way to extract a financial contribution from a developer to pay towards improving the overall lot of wildlife in the area where the development takes place, one has to wonder whether the money will come from? After all, who pays?

Defra’s idea is that the developer will know, before shovel hits ground, how much they will have to pay towards Net Gain – in real cash terms. Developing on a particularly wildlife-rich site will mean more is paid out for Net Gain (and in theory could act as a disincentive to develop such land.) The developer won’t see this come out of their profit margin, so it either comes off the purchase price paid to the landowner, or it goes on the cost of the houses. I’d bet on the latter. You might end up paying more to buy a new house in a wildlife-friendly housing development, unaware of the destruction of nature that led to its creation.

Net Gain though? That’s for the birds.

PS: I’ve posted some more detailed comments on the consultation here

this column first appeared on Lush Times.

Posted in biodiversity offsetting, housing, Natural Capital, net gain | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Some thoughts on the EAT-Lancet report and the anti-vegan backlash against it

We already know that globally, human diets are seriously out of balance. We spend far too much effort growing cereals like wheat – much of which ends up being fed to animals – and nowhere near enough time and resources producing vegetables, fruit and sources of plant protein, like pulses and nuts. In this context, a new report from the unusually named “EAT-Lancet Commission”, called Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems has been causing a bit of a stir.

The report, produced over a three year period, and supported by a Scandinavian thinktank (called EAT) and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, has some profound recommendations including reducing the proportion of meat and dairy in our diet, and increasing what are termed “plant-based foods”.

It’s a long, dense report. It covers a wide range of issues, including human health and environmental impact, especially the climate change impact of food production. The simple message is contained within what the authors call the Reference Diet, which outlines which foods nutrients should be derived from – and it is mainly (but not exclusively) vegetarian.

As an aside, I have a slight problem with the phrase “plant-based foods.” Other than mushrooms (which are not plants, but fungi), all food is plant-based because plants form the foundation of the planet’s ecosystem. Plants and their components – seeds, the flesh of underground tubers, and so on, are not “plant-based”, they are plants. And anyone eating fish or meat is eating an animal which lived and grew by consuming plants. If you want to be pedantic, it’s true that marine fish (and shellfish) eat a diet derived ultimately from phytoplankton  – which is a complex mixture of tiny plants, bacteria and archaea. But, to a simple approximation, and for most purposes, it’s fair to say that all food is plant-based food.

The report highlights the appalling amount of food which is grown and never eaten, but lost or thrown away. It supports the Half Earth strategy to halt this current mass extinction of Nature that we have caused. And it argues, quite rightly, that the retail price of food does not reflect the total cost of its production and consumption. It proceeds through the evidence which points towards an urgent need for us, at least in the West, to change our diets or face environmental catastrophe. And whilst it recognises the need to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions from agriculture to zero, I was surprised that the authors did not feel that the impact from the two other main greenhouse gases associated with agriculture, Methane and Nitrous Oxide, also needed similar reductions.

Methane (from agriculture) is produced by ruminants such as Cows and Sheep (and rice paddies), while Nitrous Oxide is released mainly from the use of artificial fertilisers made from Nitrogen, about which I have previously written. The report only sees the need to keep levels of these two gases at their current levels – this may be a sop to those who advocate the need to continue using synthetic Nitrogen fertiliser (and the industry that depends on it) instead of adopting agro-ecological approaches which reject this argument.

Indeed, the authors actually recommend that the application of Nitrogen fertilisers, (which we know cause so much damage to the environment), should increase – albeit with a redistribution from farmers in the developed world, where use would decrease; to farmers in the developing world, where use would increase. This is part of what is called “sustainable intensification”, whereby (in theory) more crops are grown on less land, with more efficient farming techniques. It has to be said that this is controversial – and at odds with the principles of Agro-ecology that Lush supports.  An agro-ecological approach would often use animals, via their manure, to redistribute nutrients to fields where they are needed to help crops grow more quickly.

A vegetarian/vegan conspiracy?

There are some other real contradictions – for instance the reference diet include up to 6g of palm oil, from Oil Palm. There is no sustainable source of Palm oil, so including any in a reference diet would bring into question whether the authors had fully considered all the environmental impacts of the foods included. Even under the best future scenario where global food waste is halved, the authors anticipate around 30% increase in Palm Oil production over the next 40 years. This increase would surely devastate what little is left of the Tropical Rainforests of South-East Asia, and elsewhere.

Although welcomed in some quarters, perhaps more surprising than the report’s findings, are the extraordinary attacks aimed at it, for being part of some global Vegan/Vegetarian conspiracy. No seriously. I have read critiques from people who I had previously considered to be sensible, which claim that this is part of a secret global food industry plan to get us all eating a “plant-based” diet over which they will have total control – forcing us all to become vegan zombies.

This ties in with a more general backlash against Veganuary, which is being painted as something supposedly forcing people to give up eating meat or dairy products. But the reference diet specifically states that up to 84g (3 ounces in old money) a day of protein can be derived from meat, eggs or fish; plus up to 500ml of milk of equivalent in cheese/yoghurt.

How many subsistence farmers and the families they feed, across the world, get this much animal protein every day? The report references figures of around 30g of animal-derived protein per day per person, globally. So the Commission is actually recommending a substantial increase in animal protein consumption, per person, from the current situation. It’s just that this would also mean a substantial, or indeed dramatic, reduction in animal protein consumption from the current high rates in some western developed nations. Such as the UK.

Others have criticized the report for failing to recognise that sustainably produced red meat can produce healthy food, support Nature and tackle climate change. While this is true, it also seems somewhat parochial – growing lamb or beef organically on the Welsh hills is not exactly representative of the kinds of problems being identified at a global level by the authors. Conditions in the West of Britain and Ireland are certainly conducive to growing grass and (in the past) wildflowers, which produces fantastic quality meat. But this cannot sensibly be extrapolated to provide a solution to our global food crisis.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the hard-right “thinktank” and questionable charity the Institute of Economic Affairs attacks this EAT-Lancet repor, as an emanation of the International Nanny Superstate. The IEA was founded by Antony Fisher, who made his fortune introducing intensive “battery chicken” production systems from the USA to the UK. The IEA’s food-nanny finder-general, Chris Snowden, has denounced the report

“The potent combination of nanny state campaigners, militant vegetarians and environmental activists poses a real and present danger to a free society.”

Could this splenetic attack have anything to do with the IEA being funded, even now, by Agri-Industry? Greenpeace revealed recently how the IEA was being funded by US intensive beef producers, looking for ways to access the UK’s food market post-Brexit, by reducing food and animal welfare standards.

I think this report makes a serious contribution to the debate, both here (especially as Brexit-driven impacts on our food system loom ever closer) and internationally. While some of the solutions it proposes are problematical and therefore unpalatable, it at least recognises the problems of a dangerously imbalanced global food system, and the need for fundamental change.

This article first appeared on Lush Times

Posted in Food, food security, veganism | Tagged , | 9 Comments

St. Boniface, Avatar and West Ham United – in the realm of sacred trees

spirituality cartoon from ORFC by @envirovisual

It’s not often that a giant magical tree stars in a Hollywood mega blockbuster film. And what could possibly connect it to a key story in the transformation of Northern Europe from pagan-worshippers to Christians? These are the kinds of thoughts which wash around my brain after an invigorating mental workout at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, about which I wrote last week.

The film in question is director James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar, where the very tall blue indigenous people of the planet Pandora live in their sacred Home Trees. One of these is deliberately destroyed by the colonising humans, who are intent on obtaining access to an unimaginably valuable mineral resource which sits under the tree.

There are other even more sacred (and magical) trees in Avatar – and I wonder whether James Cameron was influenced at all by the story of St. Boniface. St. Boniface was a Christian missionary from Devon. Boniface’s original name was Winfrith – which by strange coincidence was the village chosen in the 1940s to host the UK Atomic power research facility, and just down the road from where I am writing.

Winfrith travelled to what is now western Germany to help with the conversion of the pagan Franks living in that part of Germany to Christianity. He found some continued to worship a sacred Oak tree, later called Jupiter’s or Donar’s Oak.

Boniface, with the help of some followers started to chop the immense tree down. Legend has it that as the first axe-cuts were made to the tree, a great wind blew up and split the enormous trunk into four equal pieces, imperilling the fellers. But Boniface emerged unscathed from the ruins and it was deemed a miracle. The pagans were so impressed by this miracle that they gave up their pagan beliefs. The tree’s timber was then used to build a church dedicated to St Peter, near the site of the sacred tree. Boniface went on to become one of the most significant founding figures of the Church in Western Europe.

A wave of desecration

This story neatly summarises centuries of activity, where sacred trees and other natural features, such as sacred wells and springs, were either expunged from the landscape, or appropriated into Christianity, at least until the 16th Century Reformation. At this juncture, the new Protestant faith rejected the false idolatry of shrines and images – and a further wave of desecration  – literally meaning the removal of sacred objects – took place.

Have any sacred trees survived to this day, especially in our mainly secular society? You might be surprised that they do, and in the most unlikely places.

Upton Park memorial garden and trees ©Miles King

It’s coming up to the tenth anniversary of my father developing, what would be for him, a fatal form of cancer called Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. Peter was a lifelong, die-hard West Ham fan, having been born within a few hundred yards of the Boleyn ground in Upton Park, West Ham, in East London. His father had also been a fan, and had been part of the famous crowd at the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley stadium when the Hammers lost to Bolton Wanderers in 1923. There was such a large crowd (estimated at up to 300,000) present for that game that it spilled onto the pitch stopping the match.

Peter was not expected to survive the Leukaemia, but incredibly, he did and in the end had a little over a year’s extra time, before it returned – and he died in July 2010. During this time he had decided that he wanted his ashes to be spread on the pitch at Upton Park, as many lifelong Hammers fans do. When we approached the club they explained that this no longer happens (on account of the players not really wanting to tread on people’s ashes as they played) and that over the last few years, ashes had been interred around a large Lombardy Poplar tree near to the club entrance.

We duly arrived at the ground to meet the Chaplain, who performed a simple ceremony as we interred the ashes under the tree. Around the base of the tree were a small sea of plaques and other memento mori, all in memory of Hammers fans, whose ashes had been sent from all around the world, to return to their spiritual home.

The tree (and a younger one next to it) had been festooned, time and again, by the grieving relatives of Hammers fans, festooned with scarves, badges and other memorabilia. Time, and the ravages of the weather (and London street pollution) had left some of these as strands of wispy fabric caught in the bark of the Poplar. A rather forlorn looking garden gnome, in claret and blue sat, unblinking, at the base of the trunk. This was clearly a sacred tree.

I do not use the words “spiritually” or “sacred” lightly in this context. I would certainly not be the first person to draw an analogy between football and religion. As the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said:

some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

My dad wasn’t religious, indeed he was what I would call a fanatical atheist. But he had faith in West Ham, following them through thick and thin, through the glory years when West Ham effectively won the World Cup for England in 1996 – and also through many years of mediocrity and failure.

Football has many elements of a religion – a shared faith in something bigger than yourself – opportunities to sing together, the many rituals associated with thousands gathering at a place (of worship) every week. A place where you can forget the troubles and difficulties of daily life, for a couple of hours. Where there are heroes (and villains) to be worshipped – and also idols to knock off their plinths, when they fail.

When West Ham sold the Boleyn ground (for a housing development) and moved to Stratford, my mum and I were very concerned about what would happen to the tree and its sacred burial ground. After some cajoling, the developers (Barratts) committed to protecting the tree and creating a new memorial. They asked us for our views about what the memorial would look like and it was gratifying that they recognised how important this place, and that tree, had become.

Elsewhere in the world, you will find many examples, in a variety of different cultures, of sacred trees being venerated and dressed, as memorials for people, who were loved and lost. Despite living in materialist secular societies, we still have a deep need to find what I would call a spiritual connection to Nature.

As the West Ham tree shows so clearly, there is no need to formalise this relationship through religion – and few would argue that West Ham has any properties that one would associate with the supernatural. On one level this is about humans, and the things that we need – that Nature provides. Things like solace and the opportunity to remember our loved ones in ways that are healing and strengthening.

This article first appeared on Lush Times

Posted in Oxford Real Farming Conference, sacred trees, spiritual value, spiritual value of nature, West Ham | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments