Last week, after a long time coming, The Government announced at a Bee Summit, that it would prepare a national pollinator strategy, to be published this November.
This is thanks mainly to the efforts of Friends of the Earth, who have been running their bee campaign for the last couple of years.
It’s great to see FoE campaigning on UK wildlife issues after such a long absence. FoE led the charge to protect SSSIs and get them managed properly in the 90s and their energy and imagination is desperately needed in UK conservation again.
Of course the National Farmers Union gave equivocal support to the strategy, claiming that farmers had in fact already reversed historic declines in pollinator populations and that solitary bees were thriving as never before.
Strangely, this rosy picture was not borne out by the “State of Nature” report which indicated that 2/3 of grassland invertebrates were still declining, including those bees. Clearly all those wildlife recorders have been looking on the wrong farms.
Lord De Mauley, the Minister for Bees has already made some bold statements picked up by Lou Gray in the Telegraph.
“Councils will be banned from cutting verges in early summer” and “could be told to create wildlife patches in park full of “weeds” for bees.”That wil go down well with cash-strapped local authorities. Well actually it should as it will save them loads of money.
What changes could be easily and cheaply achieved quickly to help the plight of the plummeting pollinator populations?
Here’s my list:
Yes Councils stop cutting them in May, that’s pretty obvious.
But also many verges are very grassy now through decades of mismanagement. Start putting flowers back into them, from local sources, and not just Ox-eye daisy – the “Billy bookcase of an ikeaised countryside” as Andy Byfield so eloquently put it. Yellow rattle is always a good one to add when restoring grassy grasslands and it’s good bee fodder too.
So – road verges – cut and rake in August, then again in October. But not all at the same time. Introduce flowers from local sources, over time (green hay).
There’s lots of public land, from municipal parks, municipal golf courses, cemeteries, car parks, little bits of greenery around council buildings, through to large estates such as the Forestry Commission and Defence Estates, as they were, now DIO.
This land already has the potential to provide much more pollinator-friendly habitat without introducing a single plug or seed. Just relax the mowing regimes – these pieces of grassland have escaped modern agriculture and are often full of wildflowers, just waiting for the mower to stop. Don’t abandon mowing altogether though as that also leads to grassy swards. It’s the same approach as for road verges – cut in August, rake, cut in September/October, rake.
Where it is just grass now, introduce wildflowers, from local sources. Use yellow-rattle.
It’s vitally important that this is all done with the support of local communities, not imposed on them. Bees seem to be part of the national zeitgeist now, so that should be easy – “it’s for the bees.”
Note that the above two save huge amounts of money currently spent mindlessly mowing grass.
Gardens are an obvious place to encourage people to be friendly to bees – and much has already been written about it. Nevertheless gardeners still kill bees with insecticides and kill flowers by treating their lawns with herbicide.
Our lawn currently is covered in white clover which we’ve left to flower for the bees. It also has a nice range of large yellow composities – cat’s-ear, mouse-ear hawkweed, rough hawkbit, smooth hawk’s-beard. And there’s a fantastic crop of ragwort just about to flower where the chickens are – great for bees. Yes I will cut off the flowers before it sets seed.
This is where it gets interesting. I think it’s scandalous that we pay farmers £200 per hectare per annum just for owning farmland. In fact one of the few rules that farmers have to comply with to get their money, is to cut down anything that isnt a crop but that might be about to flower and provide nectar for pollinators. This madness continues under the new CAP.
Farmers should only get a CAP subsidy if they provide environmental public goods. These should include:
a) protect and manage sympathetically, wildflower-rich habitats on their land
b) create substantial areas of wildflower-rich habitat that are not subject to insecticides such as neonicotinoids. These areas should be permanent and not rotated around the farm.
After all, it’s in farmers interests to do this, as they are providing the homes for pollinators to pollinate their crops.
Other things that would help pollinators on farmland include reduction in the use of pesticides and the phasing out of pesticides that are known to contribute significantly to the loss of wildlife, including pollinators.
Artificial fertiliser use and land drainage also contribute to the absence of wildlife in general and pollinators in particular from large swathes of British farmland – arable and grassland alike. A tax on artificial fertiliser would be a very effective way of driving more sustainable farming. Using nitrogen fixing legumes is the time honoured way of building nitrogen sustainably in the soil – legumes that also provide food for pollinators.
Firstly no new developments (housing, infrastructure etc) should be built on existing high value habitat, whether for pollinators, wildflowers or nightingales. Take Lodge Hill as an example. Government should provide crystal clear advice to landowners and developers alike – we will not allow development on nationally important wildlife sites.
Where new residential developments are created, they should have a minimum of 30% of the area of a development as wildflower-rich areas. Communities should be empowered to manage these areas (with community beekeepers). This area could include green roofs. No more boring green grass infrastructure.
Now you may say – what about developments of two houses, or five houses – shouldnt they be excluded? I am increasingly seeing small developments filling in the spaces within villages and towns down here in Dorset. Those spaces were often fields – quite nice fields, full of flowers. Now they are houses. Those fields helped create the sense of place, they were part of the history of these places, as well as providing important greenspace and habitat. So no, I don’t they should be excluded – it is more sustainable to build larger developments, where green and grey infrastructure can be provided and planned for from the outset. Poundbury may be a mishmash pastiche of architectural confusion, but at least the development i’s at a sustainable scale. There still isn’t enough greenspace in it though, and the grass is cut too often.
How many of these will actually get into the National Pollinators Strategy? That remains to be seen.
What else do you think should go into the Strategy?
“… it’s in farmers interests to do this, as they are providing the homes for pollinators to pollinate their crops”.
Most of the suite of agricultural crops we grow in this country are self- or wind-pollinated, so not a strong driver for requirements of pollinators.
How about the 1 million hectares of oil seed rape John? I thought that was insect pollinated. Also all our fruit crops including apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries etc.
But yes I take your point.
In the interests of brevity, I didn’t mention OSR. It has a long history of cultivation here, going back at least as far as the fen draining. It waxes and wanes in popularity – the current upsurge started in the 70s driven by financial inducements to reduce our (EU) reliance on imported edible oils. It may recede again – who knows?
And what’s this about “our” soft fruit – in my garden it all belongs to the Currant Hawk, Turdus merula.
Thanks John. Yes I am sure you’re right and OSR’s star is waning for the moment especially now the biofuel bubble seems to have burst.
I take great pleasure watching the bees pollinate our raspberries, though understand this is not really doing anything for economic growth.