Blow, blow thou winter wind

Valentines Day has brought weather warnings for approaching Storms Dudley and Eunice later this week. Dudley is likely to cause damage in the Grampian area of Scotland and Storm Eunice is tracking across the centre of the UK. The warnings include damage by fallen trees which is a common hazard both in urban and especially exposed rural locations in Scotland and the north and east of England. Forestry plantations have already suffered badly already this year from winter storms, with an estimated eight million trees blown over and may more damaged. It is too early to say if this is a record storm season but the damage to forestry is substantial and as the UK rushes towards larger land areas under woodlands there may be a reason to stop and think of how climate change and more severe wind storms will impact on the new trees.

Uprooted conifers at Bolam Lake, Country Park, Northumberland following Storm ARWEN.

(The root system is shallow and in the form of a large plate)

A visit to Northumberland last month highlighted the wide extent and severe impact of this storm. The most interesting aspect of this was the way in which conifers were more severely damaged than large deciduous trees. The Bolam estate near Morpeth was landscaped by a benevolent landlord in the early 19th century. John Decies, later Lord Beresford, employed local people in order to boost to the rural economy and help to alleviate poverty. A stream was dammed and mixed tree planting attractively arranged around the newly created lake. The planting is dated to 1820 but it is not clear if the wind blow pictured above is amongst these older trees. What is clear is that the main reason for the widespread damage is that the tree roots have formed a plate which is often the case with exotic conifers, especially if soil conditions are imperfect. Soils which are wet for long periods or have a dense clay as a subsoil, tend to form a plate. With high winds this is levered out of the ground and the tree collapse into the adjacent standing timber, creates a domino effect with the wind cutting a swath through a forest. This effect can be massively increased by the land topography such as a valley with the wind acting as in a funnel. During Storm Arwen winds were regularly in excess of 90 mph. In contract deciduous trees tend to form a root ball which allows the tree to rock and survive rather than topple as happens with a root which is shallow and plate like. Deciduous trees can of course be felled by high winds especially in summer when a leaf canopy adds wind resistance.

Wind blow in a funnel after Storm Arwen in a Scottish coniferous forest

New saplings planted in Bedfordshire February 2022

There are lessons from these storms for foresters, land managers and those who are desperate to plant trees in the landscape for good climate change reasons. However, does this unprecedented run of storm mean a more cautious approach: there is a strong likelihood that these storms will be become more frequent as climate changes.

These events have brought the power industry into the discussion as overhead lines across England and Scotland were damaged leaving 112,000 homes in NE England without power, and 80,000 in Scotland: trees and overhead cables do not mix well. For those wishing to plant new fast growing conifers, the damage from winter winds on exposed sites is yet another factor to think about.

There are varying figures for the survival rates of new planting especially from whips or saplings, with drought the main enemy. The accepted figure is a loss of 30 percent of new saplings in the first year. Lots of variable factors come into play but large scale planting by volunteers is very vulnerable to drought as the watering of individual trees is impossible. A dry spring and summer after winter planting can be deadly.

The aim of every organisation planting new woodland sites is to maximise community involvement. The volunteers who planted the above tree saplings, braved strong winds, occasional rain, and a lengthy walk to the site. There was no lack of enthusiasm but how many will be around next year.

Planting schemes do factor in a substantial loss in the first year and the mix of species is deliberate. Experience has shown that popular, willow and cherry saplings do well: beech, and oak less so. In regard to wind blow the Scottish example would indicate that larch and Norway spruce are vulnerable.

Poplars planted as part of arable farming diversification to be used as quick growing soft wood timber

(The title of this Blog comes of course from Shakespeare, As You Like It , Act II, Scene VII}

Thanks to the Happiness Engineers

During early 2021 a technical hitch with this blog emerged and eluded my half hearted attempts to remedy the situation. The old blog posts disappeared and discouraged I retreated from the world of blogging. With family help and detailed instructions from the WordPress ‘happiness engineers’, the older posts were retrieved and this site is now active. Therefore, at the .beginning of 2022 thanks are due to all who worked through the problem and restored normal service.

During, my absence useful newspaper articles were stuffed in a file, and notes made against the possibility of resuming writing. The thought that, ‘this would make a good blog post’ was always there and during 2021 there was a deluge of reports on the environment. The new, Environment Act became law, setting in train a raft of initiatives including a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). There was also the CoP 26 process in Glasgow and pledges and initiatives were set out hopefully for implementation here in the UK and beyond.

In early January the Government released more details on how the new farming schemes would work and how farmers and land managers could be funded for environmental improvements. The new framework to encourage improved environmental land use known as Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), is moving from policy to action with full implementation by 2028. The challenge faced is now to encourage farmers and land managers to buy into these schemes; and on the other hand to explain to the public, who are ultimately the funders through taxes, that these ideas will work and benefit farmers, the environment, and visitors to the countryside. There is then lots to look forward to and numerous pressure groups are watching. Talking the talk has run the its course. It is time to walk the walk.

Which brings us neatly to walking in the countryside. Many will have pulled on boots during the holiday season and battled with muddy footpaths. The government funded agency, Sport England attempts to estimate an annual measure of the average distance walked for pleasure each year and this increased to 220 miles in 2020 and the national Ramblers Association recorded a thirty per cent increase in membership in the same period. Books, and guides to walking routes have multiplied and there was a good selection available in the Christmas glut of new titles

The number of routes for a walk increase every year.
Will these be maintained?

One book which made me think was a recent publication, entitled, 22 ideas That Saved the English Countryside, published in 2016, by authors Peter Waine and Oliver Hilliam. This well presented text with beautiful landscape photographs, brings together 22 essays by well-known celebrity authors such as Ray Mears and Jo Brand on the theme of ideas, which did came reality and made a significant impact on the countryside. One such thoughtful contribution was by Julia Bradbury, who unsurprisingly, made the case for better access to the countryside. Her title, The Right to Roam, traces the historic battles which began to open up more areas of upland Britain to walkers. I was taken by surprise by this historical account which included what would now be called, ‘direct action‘ by national figures such as William Wordsworth, who was accused of damage to a wall blocking an ancient path. Mass trespass by determined walkers on the moors about Bolton in 1896, was followed by the Kinder Scout trespass in 1932. The violent scenes and arrests in 1932 led indirectly to the National Parks Movement with the Peak District National Park demarcated in April 1951. However it required numerous legal hurdles to be overcome before on October 31st, 2005, the Right to Roam finally came into force.

Campaigners have since then pointed out that the 11,000 square miles now open to walkers is less than 10 percent of the land area of England & Wales, leaving 90 percent or more of the countryside remaining out of bounds. During 2021 the latest salvo in the battle to gain increased access was fired by Nick Haynes in his book, Crossing the Lines that Divide Us. The author sets out clearly the arguments behind the trespass laws and takes the reader on a journey into the great swath of the countryside which the public is presently prevented from entering. The media reviews of this book describe it as both passionate and political which is exactly why progress on opening up additional land to the walker is glacially slow. This is political and therein lies the reason: no politician will dip into these contested waters.

A useful guide to the history of ideas which shaped the land

Yet one small glimmer of hope is that included in a list of potential outcomes within the ELMS funding arrangements, is a one line commitment to improved, heritage and access, in the countryside. Hopes were high at the beginning of 2021 that the whole underlying principle of, public funding in return for public goods, would stretch to incentives to allow more walking routes in a controlled way on farmed land. After a year long period of the pandemic during which there has been extraordinary pressure on the rights of way network in England, with people desperate to exercise and escape into the landscape, there was an aspiration that enhanced public access would be seen as a public good worthy of funding. Unfortunately the political pressure, not tamper with the knotty land problem, has seen this kicked into the next field.

Perhaps the answer is to exert pressure from below. Ramblers groups have seen a marked increase in membership and informal walking has been recorded as a hobby by almost 25 per cent of people surveyed. The profile of the middle aged, middle class, white British hiker is being challenged, with groups with names such as Black Girls Hike and Flocking Together expanding into minority urban based populations which have in the past been reluctant to venture into a countryside which was seen as strange even hostile.

Ivanhoe Beacon – east Chilterns close to the large conurbation of Luton – Dunstable

Finally, thanks again to the very polite and helpful technical wizards who steered me back on line. I do hope they escape from computers and enjoy time outside.

We Have to Talk About the Garden Shed

As the rain dripped on to the bikes and a lawn-mower, an unpleasant fact became  very clear. The garden shed needed to replaced, and soon. However, this shed is more than just a storage space – it has an important role in family budgeting and indeed folklore. The shed holds the position as a ‘benchmark’ in the endless ‘to do’ list . Above the garden shed and there is a real possibility that this job could be tackled and the funds spent. Below the shed in the list and there is little urgency. So a leaking gutter is above the shed as it spills water on to the walls; a garden gate which stubbornly and infuriately sticks, can wait for another day.

As I examined the leaking shed roof and tried to move the tools to a drier corner, the realisation came that this is how we, as a nation, have been regarding wildlife, nature and climate change. This has been called a state of, ‘twilight knowing‘ . We are aware that something needs to be done, but there is always another priority.  In national terms, health, education, Brexit, and of course recovery from the pandemic are the priorities. Like the garden gate we should get round to doing something about nature and the ailing envonment sometime soon.

The Budget of early March was a good example. Rightly the recovery was placed front and centre stage but there was no mention of a ‘green recovery’ and one of the lessons of the lockdowns was that people needed desperately to have access to green space, was skated over.  Commentators including the, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), lined up to deplore that there was nothing in the budget to boost the repair needed to restore damaged wildlife and biodiversity in Britain. Caroline Lucas the only Green Party MP at Westminster, noted this was not how to ensure a green recovery.

This is both surprising and disappointing as earlier in the year a Treasury commissioned a report on the importance of biodiversity in making economic decisions was published.  Professor Parth Dasgupta, an eminent Cambridge ecoonomist had been asked given the task of creating the first ecomic framework of its kind based on biodiversity. His findings are stark:

Our economies,livelihoods and well beoing all depend on our most precious asset:nature 

   The government press release which accompanied the document spoke about urgent and transformative change required in how we think about and measure economic success. It is worth noting this was a Treasury document not commissioned by the Department for the Environment .  In theory the state of nature was being dragged into the very centre of government.

In a similar  way  a  government report on the economic consequences of climatic change in 2006 released by Nicholas Stern, began the long slow march of policy to take accouint of climatic resilience  and efforts to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.  Britain’s efforts in this will be on show when the global climate talks are held in Glasgow in the autumn.

It should not be a surprise  that these efforts to fully appreciate the value of nature are being led by prominent economists.  The  trend of giving a value to nature has been gaining ground for some time. Habitats such as peat bog or a wood  can be  seen as providing an ‘ecological service‘. The costs of flooding and the reduction by the care taken of nature in the upland catchments can be set against the expenditure on repair to damaged homes, and expensive flood protection works in the urban areas. 

 

Image by Joe Morris of flooding in the UK where agricultural land is alowed to flood to protect downstream communities

In Britain these ideas were explored in the recent book, How to Value a Skylark,   which sets out in a non technical way the trend which will influence what we see in the countryside in the next decade. The compulsion that any developement  needs to demonstate a, nett environmental gain, moves the obligation of, for example a house builder, to think carefully on how to provide an environmental plus well beyond a few trees planted as landscapeing.

The disappointment of a lack more radical budget measures is a reversion to the older thinking that the envoironment can wait.  However, like the roof of the garden shed  the damage to other assets in the economy cannot wait for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the Skylarks to Sing

The bird book on my shelf describes the skylark as a, ‘rather plain brown lark with an inconspicuous crest’ and goes on to tell me that the birds sing all year – often before dawn, but the song is rarely heard in mid winter.

 Skylarks were once common in fields close to my house, on the edge of a small and popular Bedfordshire town.  However,  this land was always ripe for development and the open field is now replaced by neat houses and small gardens.  Gone is the rough grazing, the green space for dog walkers, and the short-cut to local school.  Gone too are the skylarks.

Image by Ricard Revels ( Alauda arvensis)

Or perhaps not.  Last spring the footpaths across arable land to the next village was alive with the song of larks.  Many arable farmers nearby have carefully left small unsown squares in the midst of the  winter wheat which allow ground nesting birds cover, when nesting in the spring.  In the first lockdown of 2020 the larks and their tumbling song became a welcome signal that nature was still with us, as all else around us changed.  So, this personal tale of the skylarks became  the germ of an idea for a book now completed and published by Eventispress  in January.

How to Value a Skylark : The Countryside in a Time of  Change looks at  the rapidly changing landscapes across Britain, and in non-technical language unravels the pressures which the countryside is presently facing and how this may impact on what we see in the next decade.  At the heart of this the book is a question:

What do we Expect from our Countryside?

As some 70 percent of the land of Britain is farmed in some way, agriculture is at the centre of  most countryside change.  Pressure and worry has been mounting for farmers and land managers as concern grows over the changes to farms subsidy payments.  Now well underway by 2028 the old arrangements where funding is matched to the area of land farmed – known as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) – will disappear. The new subsidy arrangements will follow  Government aspirations to encourage a transition the the spending of,  Public Funds for Public Goods.  This  then gives the taxpayer a say in how money  is spent and what we expect from the land.  Do we know what is best for land in Britain?

Will this mean more access and more space for nature to thrive, and how will this be paid for?  These are the  questions which will surface during the next decade. All this is taking palace against the background of global warming, with mounting evidence that the pace is accelerating and the time and space for  substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions narrowing all the time .

Other trends are also beginning to make an impact such as the growing acceptance of plant based diets, which has moved beyond simply a fashion statement to become a serious economic factor.   As the majority of land in Britain is  best used for livestock production and quality meat from the hills is a specialist product, this will have a marked impact. The marginal land across Britain, best suited to meat production may need to change.  How then can these landscapes be maintained without the drystone dykers and shepherds on the fells. 

There seems to be a growing understanding that the next decade will offer opportunities to do things in a different way.  And for every question there will be a many voices offering solutions .  How far can we push the ideas of re-wilding landscapes for example. and allowing nature to restore the land?  Can we legitimately expect greater access to the countryside and how can this be squared with ideas of trespass and private ownership?  The restrictions of 2020 have dragged these questions into the arena of public debate.  The outdoors and nature have become a place of solace in a time of woe.

T  

A horse rider on a wide bridle way with ample space for walkers and nesting birds in the hedge and along the field margin, is perhaps best practice allowing a mix of cropping, access. and  with space for wildlife – including skylarks

In, How to Value a Skylark, all these issues are discussed in a non-technical way with illustrations and examples drawn from across Britain. The book is available from the author, Eventispress, on-line bookshops and on Amazon.

Meanwhile as spring approaches we hold our breath and listen for the first skylarks song

 

 

What is happening to our footpaths

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Have you walked on a footpath recently? I don’t mean an urban trip to the post office or shop, but across fields and through the woods. If so, have you found time to clean the mud from your boots?

Two trends have come together to make a country walk a muddy experience: a period of wet weather with the land sodden and in many places flooded; and an upsurge in the numbers of people following the urge to breath the air outside their homes during lockdowns.

Local parks have become the ‘hot spots’,  with numbers usually only seen on a summer Sunday. Away from the increasingly well trodden paths in the local park, the countryside footpath network is under increasing pressure.    

A bridle way in winter – unattractive to walkers

Perhaps there is more going on here beyond a few wet days and muddy boots. Climate forecasting  predicts wetter winters in future.  Britain is becoming familiar with winter flooding: this morning in mid January there are 52 flood alerts  in place across England.   Cities such as Carlisle, and York, have suffered, with flood events spread from South Wales to the Ouse valley in Bedfordshire already this winter.    Footpaths will become  less attractive as the rain falls and the traffic of more boots increases

People have discovered, or re-discovered, the countryside.  Lockdowns meant green space became the ‘go to’, place for solace.  Attention paid to fitness and wellbeing and the importance of mental, as well as physical heath, meant more walkers tied up their boots, or trainers and ventured out. Off-road cyclists and joggers added to the  pressure.  Cycling became a  trend and the old bike in the shed was no longer up to the mark.  Technically cyclists are only permitted on bridle ways shared with horse riders and walkers.  In summer this may be a happy relationship.  In winter the  combination of hooves, and wheels, and boots makes the shared arrangement – how can I put this,  ‘slippery ‘  For two wheels the path becomes impossible

                 

Off road cyclists in summer in a forestry plantation.

Will summer, hopefully dry and warm, heal all this and banish mud.? Perhaps, or perhaps not.  Footpaths need maintenance, the additional traffic means paths become wider and on slopes lead to erosion.  May it be the case that , a limited number of paths need to be closed  in adverse weather.?  A golf course would not hesitate to stop play if the fairways and greens were in danger of damage. In fragile environments there has already been damage as reported on Scottish hills.  Ramblers groups do monitor paths and have repaired some  but the ultimate responsibility is with Local Government.  All Local Governments are cash strapped and there is always higher priorities pushing for attention. In the past the footpath network had a local champion, often called a ‘Footpaths Officer.’  These are now a rare breed in Local Government as staff numbers are reduced.

Other more weighty issues  also loom on the horizon. There exists a real  threat that government proposals to alter the law of trespass would have a negative impact on countryside access.  If the the law changed to make trespass a criminal offence,  rather than a  civil matter,  this would frighten many.  There is a danger that a simple mistake, such as becoming lost, would lead to a charge of trespass and a criminal record.  Remote perhaps but this would not encourage anyone to explore. For those not familiar with the countryside this adds a level of apprehension, even fear. 

The radical changes underway in the way farms are subsided by government has the simple objective of, Public Goods for the spending of Public Funds. Increased access has often been quoted as a positive outcome which would flow from the new funding arrangements.  The footpath network should benefit from this new way of thinking.  Clearly ramping up the trespass law  would not help more people to enjoy the countryside

A horse rider exercises along a field headland at a field margin

 

In contrast a party of winter walkers slip and slide along a muddy Footpath where the land  has been ploughed to the field edge . Damage to the crop is inevitable

Something to think about as you scape the mud from your boots!