The Coronavirus Spring

I’ve held off writing anything about the Coronavirus crisis until now. This is partly down to having other stuff to do, and partly because things are moving so fast at the moment, it’s hard to see beyond the latest headline. But as we’re all going to have more time to read stuff in the coming weeks and months, it’s irresistible for someone who has an urge to write, as I do, not to do so. I’ll try and avoid writing anything hysterical or just adding to the existing maelstrom of anxiety.

Where did it all start? Coronaviruses such as SARS and SARS 2 aka Covid-19, appear to live, under normal circumstances, in Horseshoe Bats and Pangolins (a kind of scaly Anteater) in South-East Asia. The closely related MERS is a virus which lives in Dromedaries in the Arabian peninsula. It looks like a precursor to Covid-19 passed from Pangolins in the Chinese medicine/wild meat trade, to humans some time last year. The precursor then mutated into Covid-19, such that it could very effectively infect humans  – and the pandemic was born. Researchers were already studying a very diverse set of Coronaviruses in Pangolins last year, before the pandemic began in China. But there’s no evidence that the virus is genetically engineered or escaped from a lab.

There’s a massive illegal trade in Pangolins to provide meat and scales to the mainly Chinese market, particularly for Chinese medicine. So it’s a fairly straightforward fact that the wildlife trade in general and the trade supplying Chinese herbal medicine specifically, caused this virus to infect humans. Some have sought to exploit this fact to blame China and even seek reparations for the economic impact.

 

 

This would open up a very large can of infected worms. Would the surviving indigenous peoples of the Americas claim reparations against unspecified European nations for unwittingly bringing smallpox to them, which wiped out millions? There’s even some evidence that it was deliberately used as a genocidal weapon against indigenous peoples in North America. Let’s set aside such ill conceived and inflammatory suggestions and  ignore their writers. Remember these are the same people who wanted Brexit, to break free from the chains of oppression created by the EU; who wanted to shrink the size of the state, remove all but the flimsiest of safety nets and place all our faith in the markets.

Talking of markets….no, let’s leave that till later.

Covid-19 has spread like wildfire, as other pandemics have before it. the 1918 Influenza pandemic was spread around the world by soldiers, initially from the US to France during the final year of the First World War; then as those soldiers returned home. My Australian granny caught it when she was 18 and obviously survived otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this. It spread more slowly in the age before air travel.

The 2009 swine flu epidemic spread much more rapidly, as a result of air travel. I can remember our eldest daughter being sick in a Heathrow baggage collection hall, after picking up swine flu on a trip to Vienna, poor thing. The virus was widespread by then, I hasten to add. This is different. This isn’t flu. The reason the swine flu pandemic fizzled out was because a significant chunk of the global population already had some immunity to it. No-one has any immunity to covid-19 – and we don’t even know if anyone, who’s already had it, has gained immunity to it for the future yet. It might, like seasonal flu, mutate again and again.

How many will catch it and how many will die? Nobody knows the answer to that. But what is clear is that countries with good health services are better able to support people who become gravely ill as a result of catching the virus. But even some of those are struggling – Italy and Spain for example. Others seem to be doing much better – South Korea and Germany. And also it appears that countries doing a lot of testing and contact tracing (China, South Korea, Hong Kong), are getting on top of the infection much more effectively than others. Whether they will be able to keep on top of outbreaks in the long run is another unknown.

This brings me to the UK. It’s difficult to be certain what’s going on here. This is partly because the information coming out of Government has been patchy and confusing. But it’s also partly because we’re in the middle of a major crisis and lots of things will not become public until long afterwards. We’re used to having information instantly available to everyone all the time thanks to the internet, 24/7 rolling news and social media.

As we have learnt over the past five years, this is both a blessing and a curse. Information can be manipulated, and the more there is out there, the more difficult it is to see what’s fake, what’s conspiracy theory, what’s well intended but wrong, and what’s accurate. I hope I’m not adding to this with this piece. I’m certainly trying not to.

What we do know if that the virus is spreading and it’s spreading rapidly. I’m in rural Dorset and so far we only have two known cases. But of course as there has been nowhere near enough testing, it’s inevitable that there will be more people out there who are infected, often showing no symptoms. It’s best to assume that wherever you go, you’re at risk of picking up the virus.

At the moment we can still go outside – for a walk, to enjoy the Spring. I fully intend to continue doing this and report back on what I have seen.

A couple of days ago I went to Kingcombe Meadows nature reserve, the jewel in the crown of Dorset Wildlife Trust’s reserve network. I try and go every year at this time to see the Moschatel, or Town Hall Clock. This diminutive green-flowered plant grows along an ancient green lane at Kingcombe – it’s often found growing on old wood banks in ancient woodland. It’s a difficult plant to photograph on a phone so apologies as these don’t really capture its loveliness. I suppose the thing I find particularly endearing about it is that it appears very early in the Spring and does its thing before almost any other plant has started; and its persistence and longevity. It’s a plant of old places, growing slowly and spreading along undisturbed places – albeit places created by humans in the long past. It to me suggests quiet continuity, resilience. Perhaps that’s a useful message in these days of panic buying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not going to offer any sage pieces of advice on what needs to happen next, what the Government has got right or wrong, the pros and cons of helicopter money, or even whether we should celebrate the fact  that industrial pollution levels have plummeted alongside the collapse in economic activity.

Suffice to say we are living in a very different society than we were even a month ago and that things will continue to change. Perhaps some things will never be the same again? who knows.

All I will say is that it’s more important than ever that we all look after each other, support each other and do what we can to help – to help our families and friends, to help our local communities and wider society. I think it’s inevitable that a few unscrupulous people will take advantage of this crisis – whether it’s Hedge Fund owners “shorting” businesses to make a quick killing, fly tippers seeing an opportunity to save a few quid; or toilet roll hoarders looking to turn a profit on ebay. This is not something any of us can do anything about other than to avoid them, refuse to take part, and where necessary report miscreants to the relevant authority.

Bear in mind though that all public services are under incredible strain – that’s the NHS, the forces, the emergency services, local authorities, public bodies, the civil service, the lot. We all need to do everything we can to avoid adding to their already huge burden; and we need to support them where we can. They were already reeling from 10 years of savage cuts in funding and loss of key staff and expertise.

I’ll continue to post here and on the People Need Nature website, exploring Spring and encouraging you all to get outside and enjoy it as much as we can. It is, after all, free and universally available. And it can be enjoyed while applying the 2m social isolation zone!

 

 

 

 

Posted in coronavirus, covid-19 | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Another wildlife-rich grassland planted with trees

Following last week’s post about tree planting on a very species-rich grassland in Cumbria, organised by the Woodland Trust, I’ve been contacted with another story of a similar nature, in Cheshire.

This time it’s a piece of lowland acid grassland – about 0.8ha of what may well be a very unusual species-rich form of acid grassland, as it supports a large population of Lathyrus linifolius (montanus previously) commonly known as Bitter vetch.

According to the source “Around 2 years ago the local community helped to plant it up with trees sourced through a Woodland Trust fund.” When the WT were approached and asked why they had planted up a species-rich grassland and whether they would do anything about it, they did nothing about it.

 

 

 

The grassland is not a County Wildlife Site but is being considered as one, in the hope that if it meets the criteria the owners can be persuaded to remove the trees and start grazing it again.

Nearby sites on similar geology support an interesting range of neutral and acid-loving plants, which would easily qualify them as SSSI. This type of grassland also supports internationally important communities of fungi, particularly waxcaps.

Once again we see the Woodland Trust supporting tree planting efforts on wildlife-rich grasslands. In this case it’s the local community who has been persuaded to carry out this piece of environmental vandalism, in the name of err environmental enhancement and climate action. The landowner is also an innocent party, as was the case in Cumbria.

For those of you thinking – “it’s just 0.8ha of grassland  – why all the fuss?”. Cheshire has lost 99% of its species-rich grassland – and lowland acid grassland, especially of the species-rich form which this site may support, is found across a few hundred hectares of very small sites.

If we are ever to restore wildlife across the UK, at a large scale, these small sites will be vital in providing the wildlife to colonise back into the surrounding landscapes.

But quite apart from that, they are little jewels, created by millennia of interplay between people and nature.

They hold our history, they provide meaning, they hold memories and they are places which we must cherish.

 

 

Posted in grasslands, semi-natural, tree planting, Woodland Trust | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Chronicle of a Grassland Saved

For those of us of a certain age, The Milky Bar Kid was part of our childhood. A boy, dressed as a cowboy, implored us to eat white chocolate  – which was not particularly popular back then. By coincidence one of the boys who played The Milky Bar Kid (there were several) was at the same primary school as I was (there was a famous acting school nearby). I remember him being a bit smug, but then who could blame him? He was The Milky Bar Kid! There was a catchy jingle which I can still recall 50 odd years later. The funny thing is now I realise that white chocolate doesn’t have any more milk in it than milk chocolate (perhaps it has less)  – it’s white because of the cocoa butter that’s used, not the milk. Amazingly, Milky Bars are still selling well nearly 85 years after they first appeared.

Nestles as they were known, or Nestlé as they should be called, were in the news this week for a less wholesome (yes that is irony) reason. When a Cumbrian ecologist Rob Dixon (@wildlakeland) posted pictures of a cracking piece of wildflower-rich grassland – which had been planted with trees, funded by the very same multinational food products company. The small steep slope in a valley in north Cumbria was part of a Dairy Farm which, via First Milk, provided  Nestlé with milk for their not so milky milky bars, and other confectionery.

The steep slope covering 0.65ha of plan area (but is actually an area of around 1ha of grassland, when the slope is taken into account) supports a diverse range of wild plants, including “Butterfly Orchids, Betony, Scabious, Restharrow, Harebell.”  These together suggest to me that this is a piece of species-rich limestone grassland.

Gateshaw Mill farm limestone grassland ©Rob Dixon

tree planting on limestone grassland ©wild lakeland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contrary to some media reports, it’s unlikely to have been hay meadow for a very long time, if ever – but the very strong terracing created by animals (presumably cows as it’s a dairy farm), which shows up nicely in the Google Earth image below, indicates it has been grazed for a long time.

Gateshaw mill limestone grassland. Image: google earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that Nestlé provide some funding for environmental projects on Cumbrian dairy farms, as part of their partnership with First Milk. This they describe as

a long running sustainability programme to empower & support Cumbrian dairy farmers to play a vital role in the sustainable stewardship of agricultural land. The programme of landscape management, of which tree planting is just one element, also looks to improve watercourse management, enhance biodiversity, improve soil quality, increase climate change resilience and reduce carbon emissions.”

And from the other information they provide,  contract out delivery of this sustainability programme to the Woodland Trust and the Game Conservation and Wildlife Trust, specifically its Allerton Project. It doesn’t look like First Milk play any role in the sustainability programme, but it’s not entirely clear.

When asked how this could have happened, the Woodland Trust published this statement

 

 

 

So far the Game Conservation Wildlife Trust and its Allerton Project have not responded to questions about their involvement. Given that the sustainability project at Gateshaw Mill farm was tree-planting, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was The Woodland Trust which organised it.

How could a conservation organisation such as WT have missed the fact that this was a nationally important area of grassland for its wildlife, before planting trees on it? Apparently the only check WT staff made before deciding to plant trees was a desk study  – I assume they looked on  MAGIC – the Government website which purports to show where valuable wildlife can be found in England.

 

 

 

 

 

MAGIC does not show the limestone grassland as “priority habitat”, although interestingly it does show adjacent areas of woodland (dark green) and “assumed woodland (hatched green)  – some of which was planted as part of an earlier FC – granted tree planting scheme.

 

 

 

 

you can see the rows of planted trees on this google earth image.

Had the WT looked on the Forestry Commission’s own GIS portal it would have found that the area of limestone grassland did fall into the buffer zone of the “priority habitat network”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t anything to do with the presence of the limestone grassland though, merely a buffer around the area of recent broadleaved woodland. It might possibly have triggered some further thinking and checking.

Perhaps WT might have checked with the Local Wildlife Sites project for Cumbria? As I have written recently, Local Wildlife Sites cover a much larger area than SSSIs but don’t appear on MAGIC. Sadly Cumbria Wildlife Trust had to close its Local Wildlife Sites project because of cuts in funding. I don’t know whether this particular piece of grassland was a Local Wildlife Site, but it seems very unlikely as the farmer was unaware of its value.

Where else might the WT have looked for information if they were just relying on a desk study to assess the value of a grassland before planting trees on it? The Local Records Centre would be an obvious place to go – in this case the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre.  These local record centres have also been deeply affected by funding cuts over the past 10 years and rely on charging for access to their data as a way of surviving. So perhaps WT decided not to check with them because they didn’t want to pay, or perhaps it just didn’t occur to them.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland also holds data on the wild plants of Britain. Some of their data is held with local record centres, and they also have their own database of sites supporting threatened, declining and rare plants. Some of these records are now held at very high resolution (to 10m) thanks to hand held GPS.  If WT had checked with either the BSBI or the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre, I am confident that the value of this grassland would have become apparent to them.

Thankfully Nestlé acted quickly once they became aware that the tree planting was going to damage a nationally important piece of grassland and the trees are going to be removed. Hopefully no long term damage will result in this misguided, if good intentioned, piece of activity.

Because the planting area was so small, and the area of grassland had not been identified as priority habitat (and therefore appear on MAGIC), the planting project did not have to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment – EIA. The threshold for this process being triggered is either 2ha or 5ha depending on where the planting is due to take place (though in special circumstances it can reduce to zero – eg for protected sites and even Local Wildlife Sites, if the FC know about them). The Forestry Commission were not involved at any point.

This incident highlights something which I was writing about in  the General Election campaign – you remember, the one with the tree planting auction.  There is very real risk now that with such a large tree planting target now being cemented in to Government policy and possibly legislation, organisations, such as WT, will be heading out with generous incentives for landowners to plant up every conceivable piece of land. And naturally, the landowners will be looking at their land which is the least productive in agricultural terms – you know, those awkward bits where you can’t get machinery on, the steep slopes, the wet corners. The steep slopes, supporting perhaps the last vestiges of wildlife-rich grassland. I can take you to any number of places where steep slopes of chalk downland have been lost to tree planting in Dorset, over a number of decades. And that has been replicated across the country. But we haven’t seen anything like the scale of tree planting being planned now, for a very long time.

It’s now more urgent than ever that a Valuable Grassland Inventory is created to identify all of the remaining areas of grassland, such as the one this story revolves around. By identifying them, mapping them and recording their value, this means that the landowners will know what they have, why it’s valuable and how best to manage it. These are the places that landowners should be rewarded for maintaining, through the new Agriculture Bill “public money for public goods” scheme. These are the places which form vital nodes in the much vaunted Nature Recovery Network at the heart of the 25 year environment plan. And these are the places which provide the species to spread out and colonise newly created areas for wildlife, whether via rewilding or not.

In the meantime though, it’s incumbent on organisations like The Woodland Trust, to check, check and double check before planting on any grassland which might remotely not be just Rye Grass and White Clover. If in doubt, get a competent botanist to check the site before making any decisions. Even semi-improved grasslands might have sufficient value to avoid having trees planted on them, and instead go into a restoration programme back to species-rich grassland. In some parts of the country all that’s left is semi-improved grassland.

 

Posted in 2019 general election, grasslands, tree planting, Valuable Grasslands Inventory, Woodland Trust | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Is it racist to say Prince Albert was German?

Amid the fallout arising from the BBC’s decision to show some humorous clips from Horrible Histories on Brexit Day, I was called a racist. The clips included a song “British Things” about things the British thought (and still think) are British, that actually aren’t. Like a cup of tea, with a spoonful of sugar, and Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband.

It’s typical HH – funny, irreverent, and mostly historically accurate.

The Brexit brigade hate this sort of thing, mainly because they don’t have a collective sense of humour. A largeish section also hate the idea of people criticising Britain, and by extension, the British Empire.

This makes sense when you put Brexit in the context of that lost Empire, those Glory Days, when Great Britain was truly great (ignore the Irish question – too complicated), our Navy ruled the seas, before we were cowed into servitude by those nasty Europeans. The fact that the Empire was collapsing into chaos at the time the majority of Brexit voters (age group 55 to 75) were children or teenagers, is also germane – something Otto English has written about. Fed on a never ending diet of war films placing Britain at the centre of the glorious victory against the Nazis, only further boosted this image of Glorious Britain, even as reality descended into post-colonial warfare across much of that pink on the world map (and Ireland).

Following on from Andrew Neil’s attack on Horrible Histories for being “anti-British drivel”. Sorry. Stop there. Andrew Neil, who I have written about previously, lives in France and worked for decades for an Australian with US citizenship… who now works for the billionaire Barclay brothers who live in a tax haven literally off the coast of Britain. Neil,  who consistently uses social & traditional media to give publicity to right wing even far-right politics such as the Hungarian Századvég Foundation.

Andrew Neil purports to know what is British and what is anti-British. As if that was an easy thing to do. For me, there isn’t anything more British than Horrible Histories. It imbues some of the best qualities in that nebulous thing, Britishness. It’s funny, irreverent,  satirical, doesn’t take itself seriously, indeed it’s often plain silly. Wonderfully silly. And underneath all that there’s a self awareness that Britishness is complicated, and there’s some very dark stuff under there once you lift the bonnet.

Feeling that somehow their glorious Brexit Day was being spoilt by the repeat of a song written for children ten years ago, one particular individual reacted angrily to me tweeting the link to the song, calling it

woke propaganda targeting innocent children with lies and hate” following up with

it’s like sending children to an AQ [Al Qaeda] run Madrassa

No, seriously. This is verbatim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my cardinal sin was to suggest that Prinz Albert was German, as the HH song had stated. This elicited the claim that I was racist (the offending tweets have now been removed after I protested). Well, technically HH was wrong because Germany didn’t exist until 1871, ten years after Prinz Albert died. He was born in the Saxon Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, part of the Holy Roman Empire. He became a British subject on his marriage to Queen Victoria, a unique way of becoming British. So it’s fair to say that Prinz Albert was both British and not British, depending on which part of his life you’re looking at. The racism claim was based on the idea that somehow in repeating the claim about Prince Albert, this meant I believe that you can only be British if are born in Britain.

Let’s just explore briefly what being British means and has meant through the ages. Since 1707 British subject status (which defined how was British and who wasn’t) was conferred on anyone who was born in any part of the British Empire which essentially meant The British Isles, plus anywhere within the Crown’s “Dominions and allegiance.” The legal status of different colonies, protectorates and Dominions is complicated and I won’t go into it here, but you can read in more detail here.  But the key word is allegiance – allegiance to the Crown. This is at the heart of what it meant to be a subject of the British Empire. This means that my mum, who was born in Australia before it became fully independent (in 1942), was born a British subject. As was almost everybody who lived across the Empire at that time.

It was the Attlee Labour Government which introduced the status of citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies in the 1948 British Nationality Act. This allowed British subjects living elsewhere in the Empire to come and live in Britain. But they didn’t become British when they settled here – they were already British. As the Windrush generation would learn, over and over again (even now), their Britishness was not regarded as the same Britishness as those Brits who were born in these islands.

Clearly being British is not quite as simple as it might be thought.

Looking back over the long a varied history of immigration acts particularly from the 19th century to today, one thing stands out. Britishness is a fluid thing – and whether you were allowed to be British or not, was primarily defined by what was best for the Empire at the time. At times when there was a need for, or an opportunity to gain from immigration, the laws were relaxed. When people complained about all these forriners coming here, the laws were tightened up. I remember coming back from a family holiday in France as a teenager, just after the 1981 Immigration Act was introduced. The immigration officer looked at my mum’s Australian passport and asked her how long she was intending to stay. Mum, being ever polite, replied that she’d been here 20 years and wasn’t planning on living anywhere else. But further restrictions forced her, reluctantly, to get a UK passport and citizenship. Even though she was born a British subject.

The thing that particularly struck me about this whole sorry episode is the attack on freedom of speech. Parts of the Brexit lobby wanted to shut down this relatively innocent humorous skit, their actions revealed as a twisted shadow of the political correctness they love to despise.

It’s perhaps no surprise that a recent survey found 41% of leave voters object to people speaking a foreign language in public. Perhaps they think that you can only be British if you speak the Queen’s English all the time. Bludy forriners.

 

Posted in Andrew Neil, Brexit, Britishness | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Brexit, The Environment Bill and Local Wildlife Sites – a perfect storm?

Many important places for wildlife are not protected as SSSIs. Weatherby Castle, Dorset ©Miles King

On this supposed “Brexit Day” I’m not going to dwell on the Bongs, or the Flags, or the Farage’s. But one of the consequences of Brexit is that we have a new Environment Bill in Parliament. This is as a direct result of the UK leaving the EU and having to disentangle itself from all the very substantial EU law which has developed to protect the environment over the past 40 years or more.

The Government would have us believe that the environment will be better protected once we have left the EU. I’d like to spend today just focussing in on one particular aspect – Local Sites.

“Local Sites” is a bland piece of Defra-ese, which fails to capture the magic and the incredible value of over 40,000 places across England, which have been recognised for the astonishing variety of wildlife, as well as history, and other kinds of value, to communities – as well as to the wildlife itself. These have identified, at county or other Local Authority level, over the past 4 decades. Much of the original work was done by volunteers or lowly paid Wildlife Trust and local authority staff, often going out on weekends to search countryside and towns for places with valuable wildlife habitats, uncommon or rare species  – at a time – in the 70s and 80s – when these things were rapidly disappearing as a result of agricultural intensification & abandonment; housing development, new roads, and so on. Each county came up with their own system for identifying these sites and this diversity continues today – but they are all broadly the same. They have different names reflecting their diverse origins – in Dorset they are Sites of Nature Conservation Interest SNCIs) which is clearly a riff on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Many are of the same quality as SSSIs, and all have significant value for wildlife.

According to recent Wildlife Trusts data there are 44,000 Local Wildlife Sites scattered across England, covering “at least 5% of England.” That’s at least 652,000ha.

Legally protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) cover about 7% of England (not including marine), though the SSSI series is skewed towards the uplands, where very large sites cover many thousands of hectares.

So for lowland England, the Local Wildlife Sites network covers a larger area than SSSI protection does.

A great deal of effort was put into campaigning to better protect (and monitor) SSSIs through the 1980s and 90s, and current Natural England chair Tony Juniper played a huge role in this campaign when he was at Friends of the Earth. This culminated in the landmark Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) with further protections in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). Meanwhile a smaller group continued to plug away at trying to get the Government to even recognise that Local Willdife Sites were important and needed their own protection, beyond occasional lip service given to their status in local plan documents (which of course only applied to planned development not anything else, like agriculture.)

Still, in those heady early days of the Blair/Brown Government when the environment was something they thought sufficiently important to do something about, some headway was made. By 2005 the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, which led on these things at the time, had produced guidance on what Local Sites were and how planning authorities should recognise their existence and perhaps even do something about preventing them from being destroyed by eg new housing developments. I think it’s fair to say that the Labour Government’s interest in terrestrial conservation was waning by 2006 as its focus shifted towards the Marine environment. The hope amongst the conservation and environmental planning world, to establish a statutory Local Sites system, was fading.

By 2008 the Government reluctantly agreed to take action   – and introduce a requirement on all Local Authorities to err report on whether Local Wildlife Sites in their area were being managed  – or “in positive management” in the civil service parlance. I remember at the time there was a general sense of disappointment that no further protection was being considered, and the Government were really only interested in a new metric. Plus ca change.

There were 149 Local Authorities in England in 2008 and all of them duly reported back on the management status of their Local Wildlife Sites. Many Local Wildlife Sites systems are maintained by Local Record Centres, working in partnership with Local Wildlife Trusts, Local Authorities and other partners.

Then came the financial crash. And the Coalition Government. And what’s euphemistically called Austerity. Austerity meant savage cuts to Local Authority staff and Local Record Centres. Many LA’s lost all of their ecological expertise during the years that followed.

Fast forward 10 years.

Last week the Government released the latest data on Local Sites in Conservation Management, and a little 2 page report summarising the data. Or obscuring it depending on your point of view.

An indication of how “austerity” has affected Local Authorities environmental work, including this a statutory obligation to report on the state of their local wildlife, is in the number of LA’s who even provided a response. 66 LAs failed to respond or only provided a partial response which didn’t include the crucial information – which means only 56% of all England’s LA’s provided information on the management status of their Local Wildlife Sites.

In 2008/09 Local Authorities provided appropriate data on 42098 Local Wildlife Sites. By 2018/19 this had dropped to 20606. So last year data was provided on the management status of only 49% of all the wildlife sites that existed in 2008. But actually it will be lower than 49% because new Local Wildlife Sites are being found and confirmed  all the time.

Hidden in these figures are some very worrying trends. Whole counties like Bucks, Beds, Cheshire (684) Cornwall (615),  Cumbria (728), Devon (1987), Essex (1440), Hampshire (3757), Somerset (2312), Wiltshire (>1500 sites), Suffolk (921) and Lancashire (1180) failed to report on the status of their Local Wildlife Sites last year.

this is bollocks

 

 

 

 

 

Defra tried to fudge the figures by extrapolating current management status from previous year’s data, to create the appearance that things aren’t quite as good as they were but there’s no cause for alarm.

But this doesn’t work. Local Wildlife Sites were previously benefiting from being in positive management (at least in the eyes of Defra) as a result of the previous Agri-Environment Programme of Entry Level and Higher Level Schemes – ELS and HLS. This had its own significant drawbacks – the Entry Level EK2 option, which many grassland local wildlife sites were entered into (and therefore met the criteria for positive management) allowed farmers to spread artificial nitrogen fertiliser at levels which damage grassland wildlife. Nevertheless these old AE schemes were providing some level of protection for Local Wildlife Sites in agricultural management (which, let’s face it, is most of them.)

As these old schemes expire, many local wildlife sites are not being entered into the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, for various reasons, not least the complexity of the scheme and the high bar set for entry into the higher tier of CS. So as these sites drop out of the old scheme and are not being entered into the new scheme, they will also lose their “positive conservation management” status. But as the local authorities are no longer reporting on them, we don’t know which ones are dropping out and which ones are staying in (though Natural England does.) Anecdotal reports suggest lots of important Local Wildlife Sites are dropping out of the old AE schemes and not entering the new ones, which leaves them very vulnerable to damage or destruction.

Where are we now? We have the makings of decent Local Wildlife System, but resources for monitoring them have been starved to the point where we don’t actually know what state they are in, and access to the main resource for helping landowners look after them (agri-environment schemes) has been made much more difficult.

Combine this with the once in a generation upheavals about to arrive for agriculture and you can see a perfect storm brewing.

The Environment Bill

Against all this context, Defra has included in its new Environment Bill (s.95) something called Local Nature Recovery Strategies. These Strategies will be prepared by Local Authorities – yes the same LAs that don’t have any resources to report on their Local Wildife Sites. The Strategies will identify what’s important in each LA area and how to protect it and put all these things on a Local Habitat Map.  The Local Habitat Map will show all the SSSIs and international sites, plus

other areas in the strategy area which in the opinion of the responsible authority—

(i) are, or could become, of particular importance for biodiversity,or

(ii) are areas where the recovery or enhancement of biodiversity could make a particular contribution to other environmental benefits

One might have assumed that, given Defra recognises Local Wildlife Sites as a thing which LAs need to report on, they might have specifically mentioned them in this clause. It’s very odd that they didn’t. You could almost read it that they don’t want to continue down the Local Wildlife Sites route any more.

One possible reason for this relates to the way the Local Wildlife Sites were identified. There is no statutory basis for their protection, so they rely on landowner goodwill, especially for private landowners. They are not obliged to let Local Wildlife Sites surveyors on their land and may well not want their land to be recognised as an LWS. They may have other plans which could be stymied by an LWS designation. Those who have allowed their land to be designated LWS may not wish this information to be placed in the public domain, for whatever reason. So are they likely to be enthusiastic about their LWS’s appearing on a Local Habitat Map? Or are they more likely to decide to plough up that bit of old grassland, or cut down that patch of scrub?

Or even perhaps, take government grants to plant a new plantation woodland on their grassland LWS. The Government, after all, has set itself a huge challenge to plant all these millions of trees – and the landowners are not going to be planting up their best agricultural land.

Now the Government may be pinning its hopes on the Agriculture Bill providing funds to support “public money for public goods” which could in theory direct public support to landowners managing their Local Wildlife Sites sympathetically. But that’s still a long way away, after a long seven year transition period. How many of these sites will still be around by then?

The Government appears to be serious about these Local Nature Recovery Strategies and Local Habitat Maps; and on the surface they seem like a really good idea. But the same Government has neglected the existing resource of places rich in nature for years, and could actually severely threaten them with these proposals.

Some joined up thinking would be welcome at this point.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Brexit, Environment Bill, Local Wildlife Sites | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Landed Gentry or Brexite – the choice to replace Mary Creagh at the Environmental Audit Committee

the shining light of Brexit ©miles king

It’s Brexit week – well it’s not really but the symbolic moment has arrived when we move into the next phase of what will be a very long process – on Friday the transition period will begin – and nothing will change, aside from the introduction of a new 50p commemorative coin.

But enough of such fripperies, there’s important political work to report on – namely the election of new Commons Select Committee chairmen. I say chairmen rather than chairs because they are almost all men. While Neil Parish stands unopposed as the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee chairman, there’s a contest over at Environmental Audit (EAC). EAC tends to look more broadly beyond the farm gate, but it also covers the farmed environment (which is 75% of the UK remember) and in particular the effect of farming on things like wildlife, flooding, climate change and pollution. So it’s an important job. Mary Creagh, who lost her Wakefield seat during the December election when the “red wall” was breached, did an excellent job of trying to hold the Government to account via the EAC. Now she’s gone, and reflecting the large majority the Tories now enjoy, the EAC chair has now shifted across to the Tories, as have most Select Committee chairs.

There are two candidates for this post – Philip Dunne and Matthew Offord, both previous members of EAC. Philip Dunne only joined the Committee in 2018 (after being sacked as a junior health minister)  – but, in his “manifesto”, makes a play of his high attendance figures – as if turning up to something was the main reason for being there. You could call it presenteeism. Why does Dunne feel he would be the best chair?

“Aside from our former Chair Mary Creagh, who steered the Committee impressively in the last Parliament, I had the highest attendance record of any member of the Committee and initiated the committee’s enquiry into one of the largest – yet largely hidden – sectors where modern slavery is prevalent today in Britain. I have pushed for more transparency to encourage Green Finance and greening of UK export finance, in improving biodiversity, air, water and soil quality.”

So his main arguments are that he turned up, initiated an inquiry on modern slavery at hand car washes and wants to encourage the greening of UK export finance. Both of these are undoubtedly worthy causes, but they don’t indicate a very broad range of interests. In a piece for Politics Home Dunne goes further – he tells us he is species champion for the Wood White – a lovely butterfly which is threatened by the lack of appropriate ride management in our ancient woodlands and his constituency supports 3 small populations. As at least one of the sites is in the Forestry Commission’s hands, Dunne could actually do something positive for the little butterfly by focussing the EAC’s attention on FC’s management of open habitats within its vast estate.

Dunne goes on to explain his enthusiasm for all things climate change (he should be, as a partner in a Lloyds insurance syndicate) including how EAC can influence the Government to use COP26 to “showcase our international leadership”. He also   “would work collaboratively with colleagues to encourage individual interests of members”. This is a curious phrase which suggests that his chairing would not bring the committee together, but encourage them to do their own thing.

Talking of the individual interests of committee members, I was struck by his own coyness in revealing his own. While extolling the beauty of his Ludlow constituency’s farmland, he neglected to mention that he and his family owned a large chunk of it. Dunne has a stake in Gatley Farms Ltd. Public information about land ownership in England is notoriously opaque, but we can at least see the extent of the farm subsidies it receives. In 2018 this was £215,732. That’s for one year. In 2016 it was only £155,298. This may in part reflect the fact that as the Euro strengthened against the pound after Brexit, farm payments (in Euros) became substantially more valuable. Either that or Gatley farms bought or leased some more farmland, on which they could claim subsidies.

The Dunne farmland covers 900ha or 2240 acres, not a small farm. Gatley Farms is part of the Gatley Park Estate, acquired by Philip Dunne’s ancestor, also Philip Dunne, in 1679. In addition to the farm and park, Dunne also owns substantial areas of woodland, including Gatley Long Coppice (an ancient woodland planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission, who lease it from Dunne – the FC are clear felling the conifers to restore to broadleaved woodland during 2020).

Dunne’s estate has recently entered Countryside Stewardship on about 240ha of that land, 155ha of which is in the Higher Tier scheme, which suggests that it is of significant wildlife value, though there don’t appear to be any SSSIs on the land, much of which is wooded.

Why the coyness? Could it be that Mr Dunne feels that his background as a member of the Landed Gentry would work against him? Or perhaps he thinks that being in receipt of large wads of public cash via the farm subsidy system might just be perceived as a conflict of interest.

It’s also worth noting that Dunne tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have scuppered Gove’s plans to focus public funds on the very public goods Dunne is now receiving support for.

His opponent is Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon. Offord is a keen scuba diver and identifies as that rarest of species – a Green Conservative. In his manifesto, Offord praises Mary for her “fantastic work” and pledges to continue where she left off, rather than encouraging members to explore their own interests, as Dunne wants. Offord believes Brexit will provide an opportunity to improve environmental standards, but then again as a member of the”party within the party”, the shadowy European Research Group, he probably believes that Brexit will usher in a new Golden Era. Offord could be regarded as a career politician having joined the Tories as a student and become a councillor at the tender age of 32, having stood as a Parliamentary candidate a year earlier. But he does have a PhD in geography and trekked across the Libyan desert.

Offord owns no farmland, but did complete a doctorate in geography, examining Rural Governance and Economic Development: The Changing Landscape of Rural Local Government. Perhaps it was this exploration of the impact of changes to Local Government in his adopted county of Cornwall (which received billions in EU funding) which led him to decide that we needed to leave the EU.

MPs will vote this Wednesday, to decide who they want to lead the Environmental Audit Committee, potentially for the next five years. This is a critical period for the UK environment – and the UK’s role as leader (or brake) for action on the international environment, for both the climate and ecological emergency.

Do they go for Dunne – for patrician, tradition, keeping things as they are… or Offord, the radical ERG member, who sees Brexit as the light, shining on the path to a bright future.

 

 

 

 

Posted in 2019 general election, Brexit, Environmental Audit Select Committee | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Green Future: 25 year plan launched (archived)

Note: for some reason I hadn’t saved this piece from Lush Times to this blog. It’s an old piece from 2 years ago.

Michael Gove – the most energetic and intellectual Environment Secretary we have had for many years – has been busy. Fresh from his performances at the two big annual farming conferences of the year (which I will write about next week), Gove  (perhaps with a push from the Prime Minister) has today published the long-awaited 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

Having seen a draft of the truly dreadful version created under his predecessor Andrea Leadsom, I’ve been looking forward to seeing what he has produced (from all accounts he’s  had a very personal involvement in its creation) and the result is… 151 pages of verbiage.

Verbiage – an overabundance or superfluity of words, as in writing or speech

Why did it need to be so long and why did it take such a long time to produce?

It’s heartening, of course, to see the “intrinsic value” of nature repeatedly mentioned.  Intrinsic in this sense means the value of nature for its own sake, not because it provides people with benefits – crucial though these benefits are.

The idea of Natural Capital is central to the plan – and it’s a controversial idea.

Some Natural Capitalists believe that everything in nature has a financial value – the danger with this view is that if something can be priced, it can be sold. Others recognise that some aspects of nature – beauty, or as a source of inspiration, cannot be valued economically, but are still of immeasurable value. The plan recognises this, without explaining how these “intangible” values will be protected.

There is a suggestion that if we all do our part, then the Environment will be protected – deciding whether to use a single-use coffee cup (with its non biodegradable plastic liner) or not, for example. But when two thirds of the UK is owned by 0.36% of the population, it’s clear that some individuals have a far bigger role to play than others.

One of the weakest elements of the plan  – and it should really be the strongest – refers to “connecting people with the environment”. Apart from this being an uninspiring description of something so critical, there is no ambition or political drive here. And all the aspirations that are outlined fly in the face of reality.

Schools, for example, are being encouraged to create nature-friendly grounds, whilst clearly at cross-purposes, the Department for Education is telling them to build new school buildings on that same ground. And in the case of Toby Young’s Free Schools, these are being established in buildings with no grounds to green.

Can we expect nature-friendly window boxes provided by Defra? And while Defra may aspire to creating more urban green spaces for us to enjoy nature, the reality is that Local Authorities are being forced to sell off parks and greenspaces for housing, to offset cuts from central Government funding.

The Public Forest Estate (that is land owned or leased by the Forestry Commission in England) continues to receive special protection within the Plan. This probably emanates from the 2011 forestry sell-off debacle – which ultimately led to Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman being publicly humiliated by former PM David Cameron (remember him?) in the House of Commons. Other public land continues to be sold off though – Ministry of Defence land (such as the Nightingale and Meadow haven at Lodge Hill Kent) is being sold off for housing, as are Prisons, Public Parks and even NHS land. While Forests are safe, the public estate is being quietly disposed of – with big implications for the environment.

We know how keen Michael Gove is on Beavers, but it looks like he did not get this all his own way – the section on Natural Flood Management mentions “building small-scale woody dams” but doesn’t suggest that the reintroduction of beavers is the best way of building them. Why, I wonder, pay people to build woody dams, when Beavers will do it for free?

A commitment to produce a Strategy for Nature – to replace the now aging (and mostly undelivered) Biodiversity 2020 strategy, does feel a bit like the can has been kicked down the road, yet again.

And although it’s welcome to see a target of 500,000ha of new wildlife habitat being created, why is there no commitment to protect the existing and still threatened areas of high quality wildlife habitat?

We really need the series of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, (started in 1949), to be completed – before what’s left has gone.

Another challenge will be how to prevent new wildlife habitat, created under a 10-year- scheme such as countryside stewardship, being converted back into farmland again when that scheme ends.

The plan is full of good intentions and these need to be recognised and encouraged. But what we also need to remember, is that under this and the previous Government, funding for the Environment Department Defra, and its agencies, including Natural England and the Environment Agency, have been cut, cut and cut again. Defra budgets have been cut by nearly half since 2010 and expert staff have been lost, both within the department and across its agencies.

Environmentalists often bemoan the short-termism of five year Governments. The environment operates on a range of time-scales – many are far longer than five years. Equally, the danger of a 25 year plan is that aspirations can be made that are risk-free – because this Government will not be around in 25 years time to be held to account for their failures, or feted for their successes. After all, if the Government had announced the publication of a 200 million year environment plan, they could commit to the complete eradication of marine plastic, because by then it will have been converted, by geological processes, into a thin layer of oil.

I’ve seen a lot of these documents over the past 30 years, and this is definitely not the worst. But as with all the others, it will be judged by how much of it is actually delivered.

What we need is more herbage, and less verbiage!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

2019…what a year.

The south winterbourne ©Miles King

This will be my last blog of 2019 as I intend to take a bit of a break from social media. But we’ll see how well that works out!

I’m not going to go into any great depth about the political shennanigans that we’ve seen this past year – as we are all far too familiar, perhaps even tired of hearing about it – and I have written about them ad nauseam.

I thought instead I’d just give a quick update on what has been going on here.

The year started with me continuing to write a weekly column for Lush Times, which I was really enjoying. Yes it was quite hard work coming up with a story every week and I had to keep a close eye on all the emerging environmental stories and also try and find interesting ones that weren’t already out there in the public domain. I was also continuing my work with People Need Nature, albeit this was a bit on the back burner, partly because it has been very difficult to find funding to support it.

Once again Lush had come up trumps supporting my report on farmland tax “Where there’s muck there’s brass“, which was the follow up to the Pebble in the Pond, the first report I produced for PNN looking at opportunities for UK agriculture after Brexit.  I worked on this through the Spring and it was published in late June. I’m running a session on farmland tax at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in a couple of weeks time, so please come along if you’re there.

Lush then decided to shift away from social media in April and I could see the writing was on the wall for its digital output including Lush Times. The last piece I did was on their amazing carbon negative packaging made of Cork at the end of July. This was picked up by the Telegraph and went a bit viral from there, which was nice. Also a bit ironic considering how difficult I had found it to get the press interested in my tax report. I was very sad that the Lush writing had come to an end after two years but it also gave me a big nudge to return my focus to People Need Nature again. It was also very sad to see the excellent team of writers, editors, photographers, film makers and podcasters ,that had built up around Lush’s digital work (with Si Constantine at its heart), disbanded.

Away from Lush and PNN, I continue to be involved with the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, which is an excellent project and I feel very lucky to play a very small part in its work. I’ve also joined the advisory board of a new group called Unchecked, created to campaign for the enforcement of environmental regulations. I think this is going to be very significant in 2020, with all the deregulatory pressures that Brexit brings.

There’s also a long running story of family illness which I won’t go into, but it’s thankfully much improved.

What do I hope for in 2020? Well it looks like there might be some very interesting arts/nature projects developing, which I think could be just what PNN needs, to take it forward. We  also have some good urban nature/nature connection projects on the go, which I will write more about in the new year. As for politics I think I might take a step back from policy work, aside from one small project looking at the perils of this mad tree planting craze we are in the midst of. I will keep blogging on here as and when I think there’s something interesting to write about.

So it just leaves me to thank everyone who has read this blog (or my never-ending stream of tweets), and especially those who find the time to leave comments.

Happy Christmas and New Year.

 

Posted in 2019 review | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Happy 70th Birthday to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (and SSSIs)

Parched acid grassland on Black Down, in the centre of Dorset AONB ©Miles King

While supporters of the Corbyn Project continue to search their souls for reasons why Labour now has the smallest number of MPs since before universal suffrage, I thought I  would commemorate a small but significant anniversary – it’s 70 years today since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was made law – by the most Socialist Government this country has ever seen.

The 1949 Act, as its known in the trade, introduced National Parks and the first nationwide right of access to the countryside (as the name would suggest). But the act also created Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National and Local Nature Reserves (originally just called Nature Reserves). Almost as an after thought the Act also introduced the concept of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (though back then they were areas of special scientific interest). A National Parks Commission was created to oversee the creation of the Parks adn AONBs. And something called the Nature Conservancy was created – mainly to look after the Nature Reserves – and if they had any spare time to look for areas of special scientific interest, draw some rough boundaries on a paper map, write a sentence of two as to why they are interesting (for scientists of course).

But things were so different in 1949 that the Government didn’t feel it necessary to inform landowners that their land was of special scientific interest, only the Local Authorities. What the LA’s were supposed to do with this information is unclear, but it does give an idea of how things were viewed back then. There was no sense that all of this wildlife was about to get swept away as a result of the food policy and consequent subsidies provided by two separate acts – the 1947 Agriculture Act and the 1946 Hill Farming Act. Joined up Government didn’t exist back then either, although there is a single line in the Act which states that whatever the National Park Commission or Nature Conservancy (and Local Authorities) might wish to do, they must  to “have due regard to the needs of agriculture and forestry”. That means they had to bear in mind that Agriculture and Forestry come first.

There’s no question that this was a visionary piece of legislation and it set the foundations for everything that would come afterwards. What it singularly failed to do was to prevent the catastrophic loss of wildlife (and landscape character) that was to come in the following three decades. While lines were drawn around National Parks, AONBs and areas of special scientific interest, there was little to stop the landowners from carrying on and doing what they wanted. Or rather doing as the Government instructed or encouraged (via generous subsidies) them – whether that was ploughing up down and meadow to sow the newly-created wonder-grasses or cereals; or planting up heath and moor; wood and forest, with conifers. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act in combination with the new Parks and AONBs legislation did prevent urban sprawl from spreading into them, but did nothing to stop the bulldozer and the plough, or the ever increasing number of sheep on the hills.

Despite the repeated protestations that the law was failing in its avowed intent of protecting our flora and fauna and the places they lived, nothing serious was done until 1979. Thanks to our joining the EEC (yes the irony should not escape anyone), as it was then, we were legally obliged to implement the EU Birds Directive. This led to the next most important piece of UK wildlife law – the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. There was  the most almighty row as  farm, forestry and landowning vested interests sought to prevent any change from taking place ie to provide actual protection for those SSSIs. It was at the time the most heavily amended piece of legislation ever to pass through Parliament and I don’t know whether that record has subsequently been broken. Even after the Act was passed it was so flawed that it gave landowners free rein to embark on a further period of intensive destruction until an amendment was brought in, in 1985. The Nature Conservancy Council, then sent out its officers to find out what had happened to all those paper protections afforded following the 1949 Act. Sadly the original series of SSSI maps has not yet been digitised and made publicly available. But I have seen some of them for Dorset when I worked at English Nature. It would make a sobering study.

When the SSSIs were “renotified” in 1985 and 1986 (a euphemism as the original notification was only to the Local Authorities remember), in a heroic project carried out in the teeth of landowner opposition by a very small band of civil servants, what they found was shocking. Many sites had been lost, were heavily fragmented, or so badly damaged that there was nothing left to protect. But further damage had been stopped – and since then very few sites have been completely lost (mainly to infrastructure development like roads). Of course the quality of those sites has continued to decline in many cases, but that’s another story.

So 70 years on we stand at another crossroads in the history of nature protection in the UK – but it’s as though someone has turned the finger post around and we’re heading back to where we came from. Forty years of EU membership has provided a whole additional layer of protection (and funding)  – creating our Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. All but a few anomalous sites are SSSIs under their EU protection – and it’s worth remembering that when the Habitats Directive was enacted in 1992 (partly thanks to Boris Johnson’s dad) the UK originally stated that they didn’t need to do anything about it because SSSI law already gave the sites all the protection they needed. It took a lot of campaigning and legal action to make them change their minds.

It seems to me inevitable that these additional EU protections will be stripped away before long – aside from anything else that protection was rooted in the threat of the UK being taken to the EU court and given massive fines which they couldn’t wriggle out of. If the laws creating additional protection for European Sites stay on the statute book, they’ll be a useful as those original SSSIs were back in the 1950s ie paper protections.

 

 

 

Posted in national parks and access to the countryside act, SSSis | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Election Blog 8: The aftermath

Remember waking up to the shock of the Referendum result in 2016? Today feels very different. Yes the Conservatives have won 363 (with 2 yet to declare), by taking seats off Labour in their traditional heartlands. They have a reasonable majority but it’s no landslide. Labour won 419 seats in 1997. The Tories won 343 in 1992 and 376 in 1987.

Thanks to our ridiculous electoral system, the Tories gained 30% of the total electoral vote, and have a healthy majority. 33% of voters did not vote. I’m increasingly of the view we should adopt the Australian system where it is compulsory to vote. “No taxation without representation” can work both ways.

Johnson has already admitted he’s won by “borrowing” votes from Labour, suggesting he knows this is a temporary shift as a result of two things – Brexit and Corbyn. Leave voters in Labour constituencies will have been horrified by Labour’s vacillation over Brexit and their position going in to the campaign was confusing, even if it was logical. Logical doesn’t win campaigns.

Perhaps more significant was Labour and floating voters’ distrust of Corbyn himself. He was elected leader by accident and he has shown his inability to be the leader Labour needed, at this critical moment. His own deep euroscepticism was clear for all to see, even if he reluctantly agreed that the party would take a different line – but he was certainly responsible in part for their confusing shifts and slides in position over the past four years. His utter failure to tackle the anti-semitism scandal will also have contributed to people viewing him as an unsuitable leader of a political party, let alone Prime Minister. And then there’s that long history of supporting radical (and militant) causes around the world. It’s what a devotee of international socialist revolution would naturally do. But most people would not want someone adopting that political stance to be their Prime Minister. So people didn’t vote Labour because Corbyn (and the cabal around him) was in power.

Of course there have been lots of dirty tricks and I’ve read that there was a massive social media campaign by the Tories in the last couple of days of the election. Hopefully we will find out the details but Facebook appears to be deleting the ads now so perhaps we will never know how effective it was in shifting votes in key constituencies at the last minute. With a decent majority there is now little chance of there being any kind of investigation into electoral malpractice, and certainly not the root and branch reform we desperately need of our electoral system and regulation of electoral campaigns and funding.

One thing which is now resolved is that Brexit is solely the domain of the Conservatives and they will now own whatever happens next. The Brexit Party has fulfilled its role, shifting the Tories towards the hardest possible Brexit and Farage will disappear off to the US dinner speaking circuit. Thank goodness for that. One thing that is still unclear is how the ultra-hard right European Research Group clique within the Tory party will behave now. Does Johnson have enough of a caucus, particularly among the new intake, to support his approach of a 11 month transition period and the “border in the Irish Sea” solution to Northern Ireland. Or is the ERG still large enough (or perhaps enlarged) to push for other forms of Brexit. Given that Labour will be in total disarray for at least a couple of years it seems unlikely that we’ll see anything like the bizarre coalitions that sprung up in Parliament over the last couple of years. Johnson has a clear run at whatever Brexit he wants to get done. And he’ll have to live with the consequences whatever they are.

On the environment, which let’s face it had a good campaign, I hope that some of the manifesto commitments made by the Tories stick. But the underlying reality still stands, which is that leaving the EU is bad for the environment – especially as Johnson has made clear he is moving away from the “level playing field” alignment with the EU. So we can say goodbye to the extra protections afforded by the EU directives – Habitats, Birds, Nitrates, Environmental Impact, Water Framework, etc etc. This is going to be painful. Will it make a massive difference to nature in the UK? difficult to say but the changes will be very significant in some places. EU law has held back housing development around the Heathlands of southern and central England for 15 years now (including here in Dorset). Those restrictions must be under severe threat as the housebuilders (who help fill Tory coffers at every election) look to capitalise on all that land becoming available, without having to spend anything on SANGs. There’ll be further relaxation of planning rules to allow development in the Green Belt and I would expect around villages  and towns. And a further accelerated sell of of public land (for housing.)

The fate of UK agriculture now rests in the hands of whoever becomes Trade Secretary and how keen they are on a US trade deal. Opening up our borders to imports of cheap food from the US and elsewhere will spell disaster to our farmers who can’t possible compete on price, however much they intensify. Equally a poor trade deal with the EU, or no trade deal at all, will cut off exports markets for Lamb and Beef, in particular. I’d also expect rules on growing GMO crops to be relaxed once we leave the EU.

Action on climate change will proceed in the slow land towards net zero by 2050, but once we are tied closely to the US, our enthusiasm for action (especially overseas) will be mitigated by whoever is in power there. Nevertheless I can see a big forestry programme getting going, with mass conifer planting on all that abandoned sheep land. I’m sure Confor will be grateful to Friends of the Earth for delivering their policy agenda for them. As a sop to the environment lobby, expect to see a handful of new national parks delivered by the Glover Review and some more introductions of lost animals; but with landowners being given free rein to cull them if they breed too successfully.

One question that is still to be resolved is whether Johnson and the Tory Party will shift wholesale to the positions adopted by the hard right  – the faux libertarians who occupy all those Think Tanks in Tufton Street. I’m talking about the “Singapore on Thames” vision, of a low tax low regulation society (although Singapore is much more complicated than that). This vision involves completely dismantling the welfare state created after the Second World War. I’m in two minds at the moment as to whether it will happen. Chances are that there are enough devotees of this political stance in the new Cabinet to push for it to happen. On the other hand Johnson (or rather his advisors) will be mindful of all those “borrowed” Labour voters, who are much more inclined towards a mixed economy. So there might only be baby steps for the moment, putting in place the measures needed to see a wholesale shift after Brexit is a distant memory.

If it’s any consolation, it was still a struggle to get Labour interested in the environment after the initial enthusiasm of the late 90s – and progress to reform the CAP was so glacial that I’d more or less given up believing any significant change was possible 5 years ago. We are still more likely than not to have a new agriculture policy which supports payments for public goods – and that’s worth campaigning for.

Nature still needs our voices to be heard, whatever Government is in power.

 

Posted in 2019 general election | Tagged | Leave a comment