Guest Post: Austerity and the Environment by Pete Johnstone

It’s a great pleasure to publish a Guest Blog today written by Pete Johnstone: the topic if Austerity and the Environment:

News that the Government will be cutting Defra’s budget again this year comes as no surprise. There will of course be further cuts in the coming years which will mean less funding for the environment in England. Putting the Agri –environmental funding and the re-energised (or is it re-booted?) England coast path aside there hasn’t been any substantial Defra funding going into countryside access or nature conservation for some years now.

This is nothing new to the environmental voluntary sector as they have seen the writing on the wall. An added pressure is the the government haste to transfer state owned assets into the charity sector. The emergence in 2012 of the Canal and River Trust from the old British Waterways Board and the more recent break-up of English Heritage into Historic England and the English Heritage Trust has shown that the Government’s role for safeguarding our heritage, one that has been painstakingly built up over the last 60 years is now fast declining and being handed over in an ever increasing rate, albeit with a dowry in some cases, to the charity sector for them to manage.

Of course It may well be that central government or their agencies should not be managing historic buildings as visitor attractions nor canals for holiday makers in the first place and it was just a quirk of fate and history that led them to take on these responsibilities as at the time there was on other body to do the work.

Well maybe government had got too big and it is really time now to slim down and focus on governing the country and that the management and upkeep of waterways, old buildings, art, historic landscapes, national nature reserves and even forests are non-governmental activities which should be for others to look after?

If that is the direction we are heading then I do believe that there needs to be some broader government thinking and public consensus on how this so called divestment is going to take place, managed and be funded, not just in the short term but longer term too. Otherwise we face the uncertainty of our heritage, our inheritance, being whittled away and passed down to the charity sector to manage in piecemeal fashion with no coherent long term strategy.

And, if the established voluntary sector says ‘no’ to taking on properties, land and staff because it will not be adequately funded by government for that task then, as is the case now, the old guard charities will be by passed and new charities established to take on the new functions. The follow on scenario is that we will see the continued rise in the number of charities and yet more pressure on grant giving bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, trusts and foundations and the general public. If the pressure to raise funds gets to boiling point (it’s at simmering point now) then it is likely that grant giving bodies will tighten their priorities even further and the general public, who are generally very sympathetic donors to charities and their causes, will be inundated in funding requests and will either lose interest or worse still, turn against the not-for-profits in anger.

Is there and answer? Well there could be. In 1994 John Major’s Conservative government created the National Lottery which to date has contributed a whopping £33 billion pounds to a range of good causes including the built and natural heritage. Two years later in 1996 the same Conservative government established the Landfill Communities Fund (LCF) as the first environmental tax in the UK which was introduced to increase the cost of landfill and therefore help reduce waste. Since its introduction the LCF has contributed £1.27 billion to environmental projects including public parks, biodiversity and public access projects, many of which would just not have happened without the LCF contribution. ¹

So can the present day Conservative government be forward thinking enough to follow on from these two seminal ventures created in the 1990s to tackle the current the problem of who should be responsible for the long term management of our state owned natural assets? And if the answer is yes then what would the answer look like? One practical charity led example is from Nesta, ³ who are running an innovative initiative to explore and test out new ways of managing and funding local authority owned parks with their Rethinking Parks Programme.

The uncoordinated disposal of state owned heritage is too big an issue for charities to sort out for themselves and it needs government resolve to seek a solution. A proper public debate and a Royal Commission ² to investigate the value of our state owned national and built assets and to lay out possible options of future management and funding is, to my mind, the best way forward. This process has to be done in an open and transparent way and one that clearly thinks through the long term solutions. Yes, it might take several years for the Commission to report back but if we don’t have this debate now then I fear we will face a future of increasing management cuts to state owned national forests, nature reserves and landscapes to a point that they will be termed ‘nationally renowned’ in name only.

Pete Johnstone is the owner of PJ.elements, a consultancy with a focus on assisting social enterprises and charities with project management and community and environmental funding advice such as via crowdfunding. Pete is a Chartered Environmentalist and is an enthusiastic supporter of re-connecting people with the natural environment.

 

Notes and References

  1. Following the Autumn Statement of 2014 the government are currently undertaking to reform the LCF. The consultation closed in June 2015. The outcome is not yet known.

 

  1. UK Parliament: A Royal Commission is a selected group of people appointed by the Government to investigate a matter of important public concern and to make recommendations on any actions to be taken.

 

  1. Nesta is an innovation charity with the purpose to help people and organisations bring great idea to life. Their Rethinking Parks Programme is working with 11 parks teams to counter reduced public investment in parks management.
Posted in austerity, guest blogs | Tagged , | 4 Comments

More on the #Rampisham Propaganda War.

 

thumb_P1040207_1024After yesterday’s blog about describing the opening salvo’s in the propaganda war that’s started in advance of the Rampisham Solar Farm public inquiry, more shots come thick and fast.

Dorset Eye, a Dorset community media website, have published a piece from Hannah Lovegrove who has launched a scathing attack on Dorset Wildlife Trust. Lovegrove, you may recall, is British Solar Renewable’s Director Giles Frampton’s partner and works for Community Heat and Power, a front organisation which claims to represent community interests when negotiating with Solar power developers, but is actually owned by British Solar Renewables owner Angus MacDonald. Normally these pieces would be signed off by Community Heat and Power but in this case Lovegrove has signed it personally. So it’s a personal attack on Dorset Wildlife.

The piece is titled

Rampisham Down: “Are charities taking advantage of people’s generosity, or indeed just taking advantage of people full stop?”

and the title uses a quote from the Information Commissioner Chris Graham in an interview with the BBC regarding claims that four charities, NSPCC, Oxfam, Macmillian Cancer Support and British Red Cross,

“Are the charities taking advantage of people’s generosity, or indeed just taking advantage of people full stop?”

This quote refers specifically to the four charities and specifically in relation to the alleged use of cold calling to pressure people into giving money to these charities.

Note Lovegrove has mangled the original quote – by removing the “the” which relates the comment to the four charities and their fundraising activities, she has created a fake quote which implies the Information Commissioner is asking a completely different question about all charities in general, and their activities in general, rather than about fundraising.

Lovegrove goes on in the piece to attack Dorset Wildlife Trust on the same grounds that British Solar Renewables have all along, framing BSR as the victim who is the only organisation that truly stands up for the interests of the wildlife at Rampisham. Reading through her claims, you would scarcely know British Solar Renewables were a business in the business of making profits from taxpayer-funded subsidies. I’m not going to explain why she is wrong, as I have already done so on many occasions, but if you have not yet done so please take a look at my Rampisham Down Factsheet series of blogs.

I mentioned in yesterdays blog that a Solar Industry Analyst Finlay Colville had been taken in by BSR’s line and hadn’t looked at the other side of the story. I approached him on twitter offering to meet him at Rampisham Down to show him the wildlife there and explain to him why I was so concerned by the proposals. His response? He has blocked me on twitter.

Posted in British Solar Renewables, community heat and power, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Rampisham: the propaganda war begins

thumb_P1040206_1024

It was inevitable that with the announcement of the Public Inquiry for the Rampisham Down Solar Farm, the developers would break cover and start a media campaign to persuade the public that their position is the right one.

So it begins. An article on an industry website Solar Power Portal reports that Rampisham owners and all round Solar subsidy farmers,  British Solar Renewables, have apparently released a report which they claim to prove that the solar farm poses no threat to the wildlife at Rampisham. Remember they claimed this before, with their risible attempts to show no long term change in vegetation under solar panels by monitoring the flowers over one growing season. This claim led to one of the most comprehensive demolitions of an “environmental consultant’s” claims by Natural England, that I have ever seen.

I have been trying to find this report; “a significant ecological study” according to Solar Power Portal, but with no success. I wonder where it is – anything being submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for the Public Inquiry should be in the public domain. But I suspect this report is just an update of the one from last year, perhaps with another two whole months of vegetation monitoring. BSR have been playing this one card all along, that they have proved already that the solar panels (yet to be constructed) will have no effect on the vegetation and associated animals on Rampisham Down. But, however much they may crow about being “scientific”, all the scientists involved will know in their heart of hearts that this is an entirely unscientific claim, based on one year’s monitoring, on an inadequate number of samples, which fail to take into account some critical variables.

An industry analyst Finlay Colville was also quoted in the story. He appears to have swallowed the BSR bait, hook line and sinker, saying

Until the end of 2014, BSR’s engagement with all relevant parties appeared to be of a highly collaborative nature, seeking to pacify all potential objections in a professional manner. From the start of 2015, it would appear that there is more intent now from BSR to simply make this site happen, and that enough-is-enough.

“While the case has been called in for review, the fact that the case went the public inquiry appeal route may actually end up to BSR’s advantage. Either way, there is likely to be serious sums of money involved pending the final decision of the inquiry, and what could have been a win-win situation if dealt with differently last year, may now only have one winner and one out-of-pocket loser.”

Now apart from anything else, how would Mr Colville know exactly what BSR’s engagement with all relevant parties was? He hadnt even spoken to Dorset Wildlife Trust; and Natural England don’t even get a mention. And the fact the site is nationally, possibly internationally important for its wildlife is also ignored.

BSR has also posted three short youtube films about Rampisham. I have only watched two of them as I didnt feel the need to put myself through listening to Councillor Jill Haynes again, after her performance at the West Dorset Planning Committee. The first film is Rampisham Scenery and shows a flowery scene, much as I described recently.

Pignut flowers wave in the breeze and the soundtrack is full of the song of skylarks. There’s a close of up the sward showing some flowers as well. It looks very nice. The next film is of an interview with Professor Ghillean Prance intercut with scenes showing Rampisham as brown and rank, because they were taken in the winter before the site had some grazing. Prance sounds like he is talking from a script – he praises BSR as if they were RSPB, and says Rampisham is a “trashed environment”. Prance criticises Natural England and claims that no plants at Rampisham are “really seriously endangered”, ignoring the nine Red Data Book species that occur there; let alone the importance of the site for Waxcap fungi, which has not even been fully elucidated yet.

I find it shocking, that a Professor of Botany and former Director of Kew Gardens should be so dismissive of the value of the plant communities and species at Rampisham Down.

 

Posted in British Solar Renewables, Professor Ghillean Prance, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

National Meadow Day

It’s National Meadow Day. I hadn’t noticed until today when I saw this piece on the BBC Earth website. The piece kindly references a report I wrote for Plantlife and the Wildlife Trusts about meadows back in 2002, called “Green Unpleasant Land”. This is still downloadable from the Plantlife website.

What the article doesn’t mention is that I wrote an comprehensive update to Green Unpleasant Land, called Nature’s Tapestry, which was published four years ago in July 2011. This was written when I was Conservation Director at the now defunct Grasslands Trust. Since the Grasslands Trust’s website has been taken down, there are no links to the report. So here it is  – I have put it on here as a series of jpeg images, but I also have it in pdf. If you would like me to email you a pdf copy please let me know via twitter or the comments page, or directly via email to miles@milesking.demon.co.uk

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry

 

 

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 2

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 3

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 4

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 5

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 6

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 7

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 8

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 9

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 10

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 11

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 12

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 13

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 14

 

 

 

 

TheGrasslandsTrust_NaturesTapestry 15

Posted in grasslands, meadows | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Rampisham Down planning permission called in for Public Inquiry

thumb_P1040200_1024

An array of wildflowers at Rampisham Down SSSI

Good news today from the Department for Communities and Local Government. New Secretary of State Greg Clark has decided that West Dorset District Council’s extraordinary decision to give planning permission for a 50ha solar farm on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Rampisham Down, West Dorset, should be reviewed by a Planning Inspector at a Public Inquiry.

This sensible decision was by no means inevitable, but happened at least in part thanks to all the 10,870 people who signed the Wildlife Trust’s e-petition asking the previous Secretary of State Eric Pickles, to call in the planning permission.

What happens next? The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has asked the developer and the planning authority to provide statements including “full particulars of the case” and a list of documents they intend to refer to. Natural England will also be asked to do the same and Dorset Wildlife Trust, who have made a number of valuable interventions to defend Rampisham Down, are also being invited to do the same. All these documents need to be prepared and sent off in the next six weeks (ie by 11th August.)

The Inspector has already indicated that they are particularly interested in evidence as to whether the development is consistent with NPPF paragraph 10 (climate change) and 11 (conserving and enhancing the natural environment). They are also interested in the extent to which the development is in line with the Local Plan.

Any organisation or individual that objected to the original planning application potentially is in a position to give verbal or written evidence to the Inquiry. As is always the case, the more people who send in evidence or are prepared to stand up and be counted, the more likely we will win. I am thinking about whether to attend and give oral evidence or not, but I will certainly be submitting written evidence. I will keep you posted with latest developments and how to go about giving evidence.

Posted in public inquiries, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms, SSSis, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Rampisham Down in Flower: what British Solar Renewables don’t want you to see

I thought it would be a good idea to see how Rampisham Down was looking as we have had some good weather and the site had received some (not enough but a start) grazing in the winter to remove some of the “thatch” that had built up over the previous years of no management.

I was extremely pleasantly surprised to see that it was looking really lovely. The air was buzzing with the sound of bees and other insects, butterflies flitted across the grassland and there was a spectacular array of wildflowers.

Contrary to what the site owners, Solar Subsidy Farmers British Solar Renewables, want everyone to believe, Rampisham Down is not “severely damaged” grassland. Despite British Solar Renewable’s  front organisation Community Heat and Power’s claims about Rampisham Down (eg here) it was indeed possible to graze the site last winter; and this has done a power of good for the lowland acid grassland for which the site is so special.

Here are the photos I took earlier this week from the public right of way which runs along the southern boundary of Rampisham Down.

The yellow will generally be bird’s-foot trefoil though there is Tormentil too. White flowers include large sheets of Pignut, Lesser stitchwort and heath bedstraw. The red is common sorrel. I saw very little bracken on the southern half of the site, which is excellent news and completely at odds with the extraordinary claims made by Professor Ghillean Prance, a paid consultant acting on behalf of British Solar Renewables, at the planning committee hearing, who said that the site would quickly become covered with bracken.

 

thumb_P1040215_1024

rabbit-grazed acid grassland in the south-east corner of Rampisham Down

thumb_P1040214_1024

looking across the down towards the test solar panel array. If approved much of the acid grassland at Rampisham will be under these large panels.

thumb_P1040208_1024

large carpets of bird’s foot trefoil adorn the sward at Rampisham. This is an important plant providing nectar for insects and also the food plant for the common blue butterfly

thumb_P1040207_1024

one of the surviving radio masts attesting to Rampisham’s very important role in British broadcasting history. At one point Rampisham was the most powerful radio transmitting station in the world.

thumb_P1040203_1024

Ladies bedstraw grows alongside Heath bedstraw, showing how Rampisham supports very rare “chalk heath” plant communities.

thumb_P1040200_1024

A profusion of pignut flowers at Rampisham, joined by Lesser stitchwort and Heath bedstraw, each a different hue of white.

thumb_P1040204_1024

bird’s foot trefoil growing on a bank at Rampisham

thumb_P1040201_1024

These flowers will disappear if BSR gets their permission to cover most of Rampisham Down in solar panels

thumb_P1040199_1024

a closer look at the sward showing Heath bedstraw and Pignut among a variety of different grasses and flowers

thumb_P1040194_1024

Bracken is confined to the edge of Rampisham down, at least along the southern boundary. Management at this stage will ensure it does not spread across the acid grassland.

 

Posted in British Solar Renewables, community heat and power, lowland acid grassland, Rampisham Down | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Mown Down or Gone to Seed: the confusing world of verges and churchyards

a tiny meadow full of wildflowers

a tiny meadow full of wildflowers

Mowing and not mowing the grass is making the news in the South West of England this Summer.

Police were informed after a churchyard nature area was “accidentally” mown by contractors in Cornwall. According to the Western Morning News the mangled bodies of hedgehogs were extracted from within the innards of the contractors’ mowers. Villager Daniel Grant said the area had been “completely destroyed”. The area is normally left until Autumn before being mown. Mowing wildflowers before they have set seed is a bad thing apparently.

Meanwhile in Dorset a village has had to withdraw from entering the best kept village competition (which it has previously won) because the council had not mown the verges. Vice chair of Owermoigne Parish Council Tony Wormald complained the grass in the village was “in a terrible state”. The County Council claimed they had left the grass uncut on account of the cultivated daffodils. “To ensure a good show next spring we need to allow the green parts to produce energy which is stored in the bulb for the next year’s growth.” I wonder whether these Daffs had been planted as part of the Best Kept Village competition.

Elsewhere Dorset County Council have been trialling sowing road verges under their management with Yellow-rattle, aiming to reduce the growth of grass by more natural means using this parasitic plant, instead of having to mow them.

It seems there will always be someone who complains whether the grass is cut too short, left too long or mown at the wrong time. The truth is there is no perfect time to mow grass. Every decision to mow has to balance different and sometimes conflicting priorities. Many people do want neatly trimmed short grass without any flowers in it. Others want to see flowers which benefit bees, butterflies and other insects, as well as looking attractive.

There is also a mistaken notion that it is necessary to leave flowers until they have set seed, presumably the thinking being that flowers need to shed seed in order to appear in subsequent years. This is based on a misunderstanding of plant biology. Most flowers that occur on road verges or in churchyards are perennials. They do not need to reproduce from seed each year. Many perennial plants can also reproduce vegetatively, for example by means of runners or stolons. Plants such as ivy, bindweed, clematis and bramble all produce runners or stolons which spread either above ground or through the soil. By not mowing until Autumn, these plants are given a big competitive advantage as they can colonise new ground while other plants are stuck where they are. Other plants such as bulky competitive grasses like cock’s-foot, false-oat grass or Tall fescue do very well when mowing takes places late in the season. These can form large tussocks or spread through the sward with runners. So it is often the case that churchyards or verges that are not mown until Autumn quickly get taken over by brambles, ivy or become dominated by tall bulky grasses.

Road verges also receive a healthy dose of nitrogen fertiliser from the exhausts of passing vehicles, and those bulky competitive plants are just better at taking up that extra nitrogen than smaller flowers, so this again gives a further push towards what might be called “Rank” vegetation.

Regular mowing (and, essentially, removing the arisings) will reduce the vigour of these competitive plants, and prevent plants with runners from spreading. Removing the arisings also removes nutrients from the grassland. This is exactly what is needed for the wildflowers that most people would like to see on verges and in churchyards, to flourish. Where a verge or a churchyard has become rank or overgrown, it may need several cuts a year for the first few years before the “bullies” are under control or removed. These cuts should be earlier in the year, rather than later, because it is earlier in the year when the vigorous plants are growing at their fastest, and removing their growth at this time is most effective at weakening them. It is also necessary to create bare ground when mowing. This provides opportunities for buried seed of flowers to germinate. Yellow-rattle also needs bare ground for its seeds to germinate – best practice suggests at least 50% of an area must be bare to get successful yellow-rattle establishment.

So was the Cornish churchyard really devastated – had the wildflowers been completely destroyed? It was extraordinarily crass of the contractors to mow around the sign saying “churchyard nature area do not mow”, or some such wording. And in creating ideal conditions for hedgehogs it’s not surprising that individuals were killed when those conditions were removed. I would tentatively suggest though that all the flowers that were in the churchyard will be back again next year, perhaps in greater numbers because of the early cut (depending on whether the arisings have been removed or not.)

Nature is pretty tenacious when it comes to things like mowing. Grassland plants have all evolved to be adapted to being grazed through their growing season, and mowing is a proxy for animal grazing. Indeed grassland plants depend on some activity keeping the habitat open, and preventing succession to scrub and woodland. While mowing verges every April or May will prevent plants from flowering, overall it’s better to mow earlier (June or early July) than later (August – October); as long as flowers get a chance to flower and set seed every few years they will be fine.

Caring for God’s Acre is an excellent charity which produces a range of guidance for how to best manage churchyards.

Posted in churchyards, mowing, road verges | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

half-baked ONS mix up their semi-natural with the semi-improved

The Office for National Statistics has produced some infographics to celebrate World Environment Day. This has left the BBC statistics editor somewhat bemused.  As the UK’s natural capital was calculated to be worth £1.5 trillion in 2011 (I expect it’s worth a bit less after the last four years of Coalition Government) which is the same as the national debt, he shrewdly asks whether we can sell it to pay off the debt. Don’t go giving George Osborne ideas!

Another statistic in the ONS’s infographic caught my eye. It said that the dominant habitat in the UK was “pastures” covering 22% of the land surface; and “semi-natural grasslands” cover another 17%.

I had a moment. I wondered, what could this mean? Was it a horrendous mistake – had someone left a couple of noughts off?

Now the UK is 24.3 million hectares, so 17% of this is 4.1 million hectares. There was I for years at the Grasslands Trust banging on about how little semi-natural grassland was left in the UK and blow me there was masses after all.  Where could this enormous amount of semi-natural grassland have been hiding all the time? I had a look back at the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. The figures are on page 167 of the grassland chapter (table 6.1).

The NEA estimated 216000 ha of semi-natural grassland in  priority habitats, those being the ones full of wildlife. Then there is another 1.476 million hectares in upland acid grassland. This is very poor in wildlife and is basically that mass of upland overgrazed heathland that has been grazed by sheep for decades – the stuff George Monbiot talks about in such scathing terms. So those two together make 1.692 million hectares. I would struggle to call the upland sheepwrecked landscape semi-natural grassland but people do.

Even including the sheepwrecked uplands, we are still way less than half way to the ONS figure. Where could they have got the other 2.4 million hectares from? I had another look at the infographic – there, winking at me, was a hotlink – “download the data” it said. I felt like Alice looking at the bottle which said “drink me”. I downloaded. The excel spreadsheet opened to reveal……

ONS figures

ONS figures

 

 

 

 

 

I felt swindled. There were no data, just a repeat of the figures in the infographic. Finally I found where the data originated, an ONS report looking at changes in land use cover. But that still drew a blank (other than noting that bracken had been lumped in with semi-natural grassland.) Then I realised what they had done. They had taken the figures for grassland from the Countryside Survey. CS breaks down grassland into neutral, calcareous and acid grassland, but these are almost all semi-improved grasslands; they are relatively poor in species of flower other than the very commonest, plus a few species of grass. They tend to have 10 or 15 species of plant in a field if you’re lucky. The difference in plant species richness between the “improved” pastures which the ONS call pastures and the semi-natural grasslands is actually very small. Note that the UK National Ecosystem Assessment specifically excluded these semi-improved grasslands from their definition of semi-natural, for good reason.

So there you have it. The ONS has ignored the approach taken in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which excluded the large area of semi-improved grassland from what they regarded as semi-natural. By doing so they bump up the figure for semi-natural grasslands to a staggeringly healthy figure of 17% of UK land cover. And hunky dory we don’t need to do anything about conserving semi-natural grasslands any more. Simples.

 

Posted in grasslands, ONS, statistics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Make with the Rake

After seven hours raking on monday, my back is just about ok now. I had asked the Council to come and do a partial early cut of Maumbury Rings. And they did. As they haven’t managed to commit themselves (yet) to the raking, I do it. I think it must be 10 years this year since I started working with Dorchester Town Council on restoring the grassland at this magical tiny open space, which I’ve written about before. I must have raked about a tonne of hay off the slopes. It’s a pity it doesn’t go to a good home; if you know anyone who would like it let me know. I think it just gets taken to the green waste tip and is composted.

P1040164

 

 

 

 

I didn’t manage to do all of the area that the Council had mown, but certainly most of it and far more than I have achieved before. I enjoy raking, there’s a great sense of satisfaction to seeing a large area clear of mown hay; especially when you get a really long row of hay and manage to roll it down the slope more or less in one go. The mowing and raking also reveal what’s been left underneath. In this case, it was mostly beer bottles, but also a few nitrous oxide canisters and lots of little empty plastic bags. It’s clear the Rings get used for hedonistic activities by the local teenagers. To be honest I’d rather be finding these things than dog poo. And I was struck by how little of that there was under the grass. Perhaps dogs don’t like pooing in long grass?

Some might think mowing in early June is too early, but it’s just the time when hay would have been cut in the past. I think too often places managed as meadows get cut too late these days, as people think that the flowers should be left to go to seed. By leaving the grass to grow on, what happens is that the vigorous grasses get through their life cycle and are better prepared for the following year, both in terms of seed production but also by storing energy produced from their leaves. By cutting earlier, you knock back the vigorous grasses, by removing both the seed source and also taking off leaves that are still photosynthesising.

P1040166This photo shows an area which had not been cut or raked until a couple of years ago. It was dominated by the coarse grasses Cock’-foot and False oat-grass. Now it’s had a couple of years cutting and raking, it’s transformed. Flowers such as Salad burnet and Ribwort plantain are really common now, while Bird’s-foot trefoil and Red clover (loved by bees) are spreading through the sward. A patch of hedge bedstraw is also quickly increasing. I expect other things to appear soon, colonising in from the tiny patch of very rich downland sward that is next to this area.  The grasses are changing too, as those that thrive without management are replaced by others – I have even seen a patch of Upright Brome which I have not seen on the Rings before.

I was also delighted to see that yellow-rattle continues to flower on another part of the Rings. P1040167This area is one of the surviving remnants of downland and includes Quaking grass as well as other downland grasses like Yellow oat-grass, Meadow oat-grass and Downy oat-grass. We introduced the yellow-rattle about five years ago as an experiment to see whether it would help reduce the vigour of the coarse grasses. But the sward was too closed and there wasnt enough bare ground for it to really take off. Still, it’s nice to see its still there doing its bit. Yellow-rattle is a surprisingly influential species to have in a grassland. By parasitising coarse grasses, it has a highly beneficial effect on invertebrates groups, including predators. If you’re going to add any plants to your roadside verge  – add yellow-rattle, not garden Daffodils!

I’ve decided this year that the whole of the grassland at the Rings will get mown in about a month’s time. I had been leaving the most flowery bits until September previously, but once the summer holidays arrive, the local teenagers make good use of the Rings and inevitably the tall flowers get squashed as desire-way paths are created through the long vegetation.

I’ll hopefully get a team of rakers together this time. So if anyone wants to join me I’ll be raking the grass on Saturday the 11th July.

 

Posted in grasslands, greenspace, management, maumbury rings, meadows | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Defra budget takes another hit; farmers worried they may have to pay for the Badger Cull

Defra received a further cut to its budget last week, shaving another £83M off. This is on top of the already planned £200M cut to take place this financial year.

The Defra budget has declined by around 25% since 2010, according to ENDS report. The National Audit Office recorded Defra’s shrinking budget in a report last year. This graphic is taken from that report. 2015-16 revenue spending had been planned at £1.76Bn before the latest cut brought it down to £1.68Bn, compared with £2.46Bn in 2009-2010. I make that a 32% cut in revenue budget.

Defra Spending

Defra seemed to have lost sight of how much they had underspent on their budget in 2013-14, something the EFRA committee chided them for, in their annual report.

It is unclear how the £80 million underspend in 2013 14 set out in Defra’s written evidence corresponds to the £50 million underspend set out in Defra’s Annual Report and Accounts for the same period. It is also unclear what the distinction is between “underspend within the disallowance ringfence” and “disallowance funding not utilised”: in total these two disallowance figures are worth £53 million which does not agree with the disallowance underspend of £30 million set out in the Annual Report and Accounts. Lastly, Defra’s written evidence refers to £50 million being transferred from 2013 14 to 2014–15 with Treasury approval, whereas the Annual Report and Accounts states that £20 million was transferred with Treasury approval.

Where might the cuts fall?

Natural England and the Environment Agency can expect to take another cut to their already emaciated budgets. I heard this weekend that National Nature Reserve Managers cannot afford to have their equipment serviced as there is no budget. This is the sort of false economy that starts to operate in desperate times, as the cost of replacing equipment that breaks because it has not been serviced, will be many times more expensive. Or just won’t happen.

The Farming and Landowning Industry has already set out its stall. Quoted in Farmers Weekly, ” CLA president Henry Robinson said: “Defra is an important department that does crucial work to create a regulatory framework that is a vital factor in how rural businesses make decisions.

“It also plays an essential role in administering support payments. We will work closely with officials to help them understand how they can achieve their objectives.”

Priority work included administering basic payments, tackling animal and plant disease and ensuring regulatory enforcement was efficient and targeted, said Mr Robinson. ”

NFU President Meurig Raymond echoed Robinson. According to Farmers Guardian,

“Mr Raymond pointed out the latest cuts came on top of recent heavy reductions from a budget ‘where there are so many demands’.

He said: “The Department is already under-resourced and we are obviously concerned when you see a reduction of £80 million out of a budget of just £2.3bn.”

“It is a fair chunk on money and any reduction is a worry as we don’t know where the axe is going to fall.

“The big concern, with so many demands on Defra, we could end up with more demands for cost recovery for animal health. At a time when the industry is suffering very badly on output values, that would be difficult.”

Defra’s animal health budget, in particular is under immense strain and the Department and the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England has been looking for a while at areas where costs could be passed onto farmers, particularly in bovine TB policy, which eats up a huge chunk of the budget.

Mr Raymond cited TB testing as an example of where the Government might look to recover costs.

“We know the cost of bovine TB is increasing and until the Government delivers the strategy in full to help get the disease under control, it is not going to fall.””

So Farmers are worried they might have to stump up more money to pay for TB controls, perhaps even having to take on all the costs of continuing the badger cull.

You’d think on that basis they would welcome news from the National Trust that they had completed a four year trial of badger vaccination across a large Estate in East Devon. The Trust has managed to get costs for vaccinating badgers against TB down to £242 per animal. This compares quite well with the costs of killing badgers which have come in at between £3ooo and £5000 per animal. NFU’s actual response was this, from Deputy President Minette Batters:

“But we must remember that vaccination will not cure a sick badger and in areas where bTB is endemic up to one in three badgers could have the disease.

This particular National Trust programme was carried out in an area where TB is endemic and therefore is unlikely to have had any impact on controlling disease – indeed some farms in the area came down with bTB during this badger vaccination trial.”

I expect Edward Jenner received the same kind of response when he invented vaccination in 1796. Vaccination is itself named after the Cow because it was cowpox which was used to vaccinate against smallpox. Ms Batters seems to struggle with the concept of vaccination being a preventative measure, and not intended to cure sick animals. As for TB being endemic to an area, it is only endemic when animals in that area are infected. It can survive in the soil, only for months. Once all the animals in an area are disease-free, the area is disease-free.

It seems, regardless of increasingly savage cuts to DEFRA budgets, NFU would rather spend thousands per badger killing the animals, than hundreds per badger on disease eradication. Perhaps when they are expected to meet the full costs of the cull themselves, farmers may decide to ignore their union and proceed with vaccination programmes.

 

 

Posted in badgers, Defra, NFU | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments