Owen Paterson embraces Re-wilding.

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Thanks to Phil Brewin (@waterlevels) for the photo of flooding on the Somerset Levels.

It was only a couple of months ago, that Owen Paterson gave his most significant speech since he became Environment Secretary, to the Tory’s favourite Think Tank the Policy Exchange. You will remember the new chair of Natural England, Andrew Sells, was Policy Exchange’s Treasurer.

Paterson spoke passionately and enthusiastically about Biodiversity Offsetting, privatisation and the joys of killing furry animals, I mean necessary wildlife management. But amongst these familiar tropes, Paterson railed against Rousseauism.  Rousseaism, at least according to Opatz, is the practice of abandoning the land and losing its vital utilitarian values.

Paterson criticised the previous Labour Government for “a blind adherence to Rousseausim”, for not managing rivers properly, which led to flooded farmland and lost crops. Paterson announced he was already slashing up red tape which has prevented farmers from dredging their ditches and streams, to speed water off the land.

How long a few months are in politics.

Gone is the golden glow around Paterson’s pate. Now he is mired in the charnel of the badger cull, he has alienated countryside lovers with his crass remarks about replacing ancient woodland with tree-planting; and he is the arrogant face of the Government in the midst of the floods which have affected so many across the UK.

Meanwhile George Monbiot published his seminal piece in the Guardian where he brought together his own visions of rewilding the uplands, and the relationship between land-use practices, rain-water retention and flooding. Monbiot’s article was published verbatim in the Mail on Sunday, and even gained plaudits on the right of the Tory Party’s organ Conservative Home.

Now former Environment Minister Lord Rooker has publicly supported the notion of reforesting the uplands as a flood prevention strategy. Rooker summed it up thus “We pay the farmers to grub up the trees and hedges; we pay them to plant the hills with pretty grass and sheep to maintain the chocolate box image, and then wonder why we’ve got floods,” he said.

And in the same article Roger Harrabin reports that Owen Paterson “would seriously consider” re-wilding as an innovative solution to the problem of widespread urban flooding.Harrabin is still trying to get Paterson to give an interview to the Today programme on the floods.

I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence, but the Government did announce just two days ago that they have funding to plant 2000ha of trees this year. It doesn’t sound a lot, but they could be coming to an upland near you. The Woodland Trust were unimpressed. Of course it’s possible Paterson thought he heard reforesting, rather than re-wilding.

Have we seen a Damascene conversion of Paterson, from the New Enlightenment Man, to a follower of Rousseau and the Noble Savage? Or has he had a phone call from number 10 telling him he has one last chance to save his political career? You decide.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in badgers, flooding, Forestry, George Monbiot, Owen Paterson, rewilding, uplands and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Owen Paterson embraces Re-wilding.

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    Blimey, you’re quick! I remember Hillary Benn being interested in “rewilding” when he was Environment Secretary and had commissioned the review of England’s wildlife sites – at least that was what he intimated in a talk at Leeds in 2009. Looking at the composition of the Panel -and the conservation industry ideology of Lawton – it’s not surprising that it only got three paragraphs out of a 119 page report. Even then, the three “projects” it noted were all of the Dutch Nature Development approach of covering the landscape in herbivore excrement – in the case of the Oostvaadersplassen, this is not only provided by four-legged compost machines, there now being a serious issue of water toxicity from the geese problem!

    Ah – that’s why OPatz would (allegedly) “seriously consider innovative solutions like rewilding” He has noted how much HLS money has gone into grazing schemes that purport to be “rewilding” eg. Ennerdale, Knepp, Neroche etc etc. It’s a win-win!

    More seriously, the unpublished research paper for the EA, noted in Harrabin’s article, is actually the doctoral studies of Simon Dixon at Soton U., currently awaiting examination. His River Management blog has a very useful article about how wood in rivers affects flood risk, a method that is being used by Slow the Flow at Pickering. His modelling suggests that just inserting wood and/or logjams into rivers within a catchment as part of flood control for a downstream location is highly unpredictable. However, he says there are real benefits for flood control coming from restoring floodplain forests. Complex forested floodplains dramatically slows water moving over them as they have an irregular surface covered by tree roots, upright tree trunks and dead wood. Using the New Forest NP catchment as his modelling area:
    “The most promising scenarios, and the real take home message is the restoration of floodplain forests to entire “sub-catchments” of the main catchment (a tributary of the main river and all streams draining to it) always decreases flood peak height after 25 years growth, and can have dramatic effects. If this is done for areas of 20-35% of the catchment reduction in flood peak height of 10-15% are modelled after 25 years of forest growth”

    Again, there is the issue, brought up in comments to the article, about the disinclination of landowners from contributing to flood prevention. Dixon says “if we really want demonstrable flood protection from land use/rewilding we’re going to have to set aside areas of ten square kilometers or more and afforest them. Inevitably in most cases the current owners of that land are unlikely to experience the worst (or perhaps any) ill effects from flooding downstream, so there is no imperative to do it from the point of view of self-interest….. in reality I think there would need to be grants, subsidies, etc, etc to land owners and it may stack up to be a very expensive option for that reason.”

    So, maybe again that is why OPatz is interested. Woodland grants are now folded in to the new agri-environment scheme. It will be interesting to see if there are options for this under the scheme, especially considering that non-SSSI applications will require co-operation amongst landowners.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Mark. I wonder whether OPatz has muddled up re-wilding with re-foresting? Presumably fast growing conifers in the uplands (now there’s an idea – with big tax breaks for planting perhaps) or indeed short rotation willow coppice in the lowlands (to fuel Drax), would also yield some downstream flood prevention benefits. I suspect someone has managed to explain the idea of ecosystem services to OPatz and he is very keen on it!

  2. seasonalight says:

    Really? OP? Of course, he could have suddenly realized there will be opportunities for his gun.

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