Wheat found in Mesolithic Britain 2000 years before farming arrived.


Einkorn – the first wheat


Some of you may know that I co-authored a book called “Arable Plants – a field guide” about 12 years ago (still available from all good internet book outlets, and possibly some bookshops too: no, I don’t get a commission!).

My co-author Phil Wilson, is a real arable weed expert and wrote the technical accounts. I wrote the history and conservation sections. The story of Agriculture in Britain, we were led to believe, started about 6000 years ago, when people from continental Europe arrived, bringing seeds of ancient Wheat (known as Einkorn) and Barley, along with the weeds that grew alongside these crops, all which are native plants of the Near East. Sheep and domesticated Cattle arrived then too. The “native” British people were hunters, but mostly gatherers.  They eat an awful lot of hazel nuts, and used fire to create hunting chases and glades within which they could corner and kill animals. With the arrival of the Neolithic crops and domesticated animals, the inexorable shift from gathering and hunting, to farming, started.  It’s still up for debate to what extent it was an “invasion” and Neolithic people replaced the Mesolithic peoples they encountered, or whether it was a cultural shift, with more or less the same people changing the way they lived.

That was the story, until now. Underwater archaeologists have been studying Mesolithic camp sites which have lain relatively untouched under the sea; and at one particular site at Boulnder Cliff off the Isle of Wight, they have found something really extraordinary. They have found the unmistakeable signature of near Eastern ancient Wheat, in a DNA sample, from around 8000 years ago. This is 500 years before Neolithic farming started in North-West Europe.

The campsite yielded DNA from Oak, Poplar, Crab Apple and Beech DNA plus grasses and flowers, suggesting a mainly forested landscape. Remember this is land that is now 12m under the sea. 8000 years ago Bouldner was a wet wooded landscape on a tributary of the Solent River, many miles from the sea. The Solent river headed east and south to join a great river, which became an estuary, south of the Isle of Wight. This was the English Channel. Britain became separated from the Continent around the same time, possibly as a result of a Mega Tsunami. And 700 years later Bouldner disappeared under water. The archaeologists at Bouldner have found evidence of log-boats from that time.

How would ancient wheat have moved from the Near East to Bouldner? Given that the first evidence for Neolithic crops in North West Europe only appears 500 years later, it seems more likely to me that the movement was coastal, rather than by land, using small boats to navigate along the coastline of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

It is possible that Mesolithic people were growing Wheat at the time but the evidence of this was lost to the flood which created Britain as an island – of course that’s pure speculation. Whether or not the wheat was “traded” between Neolithic and Mesolithic peoples is also speculation. What is not in doubt is that the evidence is building for a sophisticated Mesolithic culture in Britain, and not small bands of hunter gatherers eking out an existence in the wildwood.

Photo by Alupus (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in agriculture, Mesolithic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

UKIP’s Lord fulminates against madness of CAP rules, but takes over a million Euros in subsidies







The Perfect Storm

David Verney, 21st Baron Willoughby De Broke, who is UKIP leader in the House of Lords, arranged for a short debate on Agriculture to take place yesterday afternoon in the House of Lords.

Lord De Broke talked of a “perfect storm” affecting British Agriculture. He railed against unnecessary and burdensome over-regulation imposed on farmers, driven by the “Ayatollahs in Brussels”. He spoke in favour of Neonicotinoids, blaming Brussels for banning them (ignoring the fact that UK NGOs such as Buglife were at the forefront of that campaign) and attacked Greenpeace Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association for campaigning against GMOs.

He then goes on to describe the new Basic Payment Scheme as “madness” in particular singling out the Three Crop Rotation requirement of the new Greening scheme. He didn’t mention Golf Courses though. At least on this point, we agree.

His answer? Repatriate Agricultural policy to the UK.

Tory hereditary Peer the Earl of Caithness weighed in at this point in the debate, complaining bitterly that the CAP had been ruined because, and I quote

Decision-makers in Brussels pay too much attention to unelected, unaccountable NGOs. The so-called green lobbyists, funded in part by the taxpayer—quite wrongly in my view—are starting to do real harm”.

He also mentioned the Neonics ban as an example of the harm that NGOs were doing.

The Earl however did not advocate leaving the EU, but staying in, and making sure that Defra was not “gold plating” any regulations coming from Brussels.

Lord Willoughby de Broke received €875,803 in single farm payments between 2000 and 2009. On top of that 350ha of his estate is in ELS/HLS. That will bring in another tidy sum of subsidy – €10,000 a year for the ELS, plus however much for HLS, over 10 years – let’s say €200,000 at a guess.

The interesting thing is that Lord W is very interested in the environment. Notwithstanding the fact that Lord de Broke’s arable farm of Oil Seed Rape and Wheat, was until a few decades ago all ridge and furrow pasture, he is doing quite a bit to attract birds and pollinators, within the constraints of running an intensive cereal production farm.

I have already commented on UKIP’s proposed farm policies.  They are, like so many other UKIP policies, ill thought out, and could be even more damaging than the CAP is, if that was possible.

Their Farm policy spokesman Stuart Agnew, spoke at the last UKIP conference in the Autumn, confirming that UKIP would pay a flat £80 an acre (no metric here) without any cross compliance requirements. Here are some choice quotes from Agnew:

UKIP will bring back headage payments: “Moorland will get headage payments for sheep and cattle

UKIP will require farmers to farm to ELS standards “ELS means farmers can’t be accused of being ecological vandals, that all needs to be done.”

Farm Payments will be capped at £120,000 a year “anything beyond that will get nothing“.

UKIP hate wind turbines  “30 yards around each wind turbine will not get any farm subsidy.”

On food labelling, Agnew said “EU want control of labelling to stop the UK saying our food is best!

On Nitrates he said “EU legislation means there’s a blanket limit on amount of nitrates in water. It’s very difficult to farm and not put nitrates in water. leguminous plants put nitrates in water. We used to have a limit of 100mg/l of water and never had a case of blue baby syndrome in the UK. If a baby had excess over 100mg the baby goes blue but no harm is done.”

On green issues “A lot of people want the green thing, the touchy feely thing? UKIP can do that. UKIP will ban live exports for slaughter.”

Leaving aside the comments about “blue babies” and the “touchy feely thing”, UKIP would have us taxpayers pay farmers to deliver less social and environmental benefits than the CAP does.



Photo by Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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The New Common Agricultural Policy Rules: Can you claim farm benefits for your golf course?



And so it begins again.

The Rule Book for the new Common Agricultural Policy has been published – it’s here.

There are some welcome omissions – the much derided 50 Trees rule has been consigned to history. The requirement to prevent “the encroachment of unwanted vegetation” has gone. These rules were straight out of the Alice in Wonderland Bureaucracy songbook.

But in their place The European Commission has invented new and imaginative ways to confuse farmers, landowners and anyone else interested in how public money is spent.

Smallholders Out

We have a new Active Farmer Rule. This was supposed to put a stop to people claiming CAP benefits which they weren’t entitled to. These new rules immediately exclude any smallholders with less than 5ha of eligible land from claiming subsidies – that’s an awful lots of smallholders where the money would have very well spent supporting sustainably produced food. And they are probably the most active farmers of all.

If a farmer has claimed more than €5000 in farm subsidy in any of the previous 3 years, they will be deemed an active farmer. And farmers will qualify as active farmers if they DO NOT operate any NON FARMING activities such as running an airport. Or a Railway network. I guess the list is pretty endless. Active farmers might qualify on the basis that they are not operating a drugs cartel, or a funeral directors, or….. well you can make up a few yourself and let me know.

This reminds me of Monty Python’s Piranha Brothers’ who developed “The Other Operation” in which they selected another victim and threatened not to beat him up, if he didn’t pay them.

For those concerned that the railway networks on their farms may make them ineligible to claim farm subsidies, I can reassure them now, that miniature railways and tramways, are exempt.


One particular criticism of the previous CAP subsidy system was that Golf Courses were eligible for farm subsidies (apparently 30 UK golf clubs had claimed farm subsidies under the previous rules). Naturally this was considered to be a very serious misuse of public funds, and the European Commission has stepped in to stop up this loophole. So now, if there are any golf courses out there thinking they can grab a bit of taxpayers cash, forget it. That is, assuming there’s a clubhouse. or a driving range (with nets) or a spectator stand. Any golf course with a spectator stand will definitely not get a farm subsidy. But if you have a golf course which has no stand, no clubhouse, no driving range with nets – might you be eligible to claim that £200 a hectare? Possibly. If the Golf Course was “for personal use only” then that would be fine and you can claim the money. How would the RPA go about deciding whether a golf course (without Spectator Stand) was “for personal use only”?

Nature Reserves

“What about a Nature Reserve?” I hear you say. After all, is it fair that Conservation Organisations like the National Trust or RSPB rake in millions of pounds of farming benefits every year, when there are cows literally starving in fields. The RSPB pulled in €4.2M in farming benefits in 2012. And the European Commission has considered this – seriously. They have decided that, if a nature reserve has a permanent structure, such as a viewing hide, it isn’t farmland and isn’t eligible. Even if that hide is there for people to watch cows grazing on grass, it doesn’t qualify as being actively farmed.

What other “permanent structures” on a nature reserve might also disqualify it from receiving farm benefits? If I were from the RPA inspection team, I would definitely be looking for Interpretation Boards, Leaflet Dispensers, and possibly Dog-Poo bins; failing that they could look for dog-poo bag-strewn trees near the car park. These seem to be permanent additions to many Nature Reserves these days.

Now even if you are involved in all sorts of non-agricultural activities (such as owning Nature Reserves) you can still claim the payment, if you have more than 36ha of eligible land, or 40% of your business was farm-related, or your farm payments totalled more than 5% of your total income in the previous year. So it looks like the RSPB will be able to continue to claim their farm benefits after all.

Undefined Walking

The Commission are keen to ensure that farming and forestry are what happens on land eligible for CAP benefit payments. They are so keen, that they have come up with a list of non-agricultural activities, and decided which are ok to do on farmland and which aren’t. So “walking” is ok on farmland and you can continue to receive your farm benefits if its gets walked on.I am concerned though that the Commission have not defined what “walking” is. Is hopping ok? what about strolling, or ambling. Or Rambling.

“Bird watching” is also ok, according to the Commission. It doesn’t mention looking at plants or butterflies (let alone mosses or bugs) so farmers may want to keep a close eye on visitors walking on their land to make sure they are walking properly (not hopping) and only looking at birds. Shooting Game is also allowed (presumably not shooting walkers though.)

Things the Commission are not going to allow on eligible land include  – playing golf! Oh no, it’s not eligible unless you can prove that the golfing does not significantly interfere with the agricultural activity. Or you have a golf course for “personal use only”. What might constitute interference with agricultural activity when playing golf? I suppose killing one of your own sheep by hitting it on the head with a poorly executed golf stroke might qualify. This sounds increasingly like a scene from Shaun the Sheep.

One other activity which would mean you can’t claim your farm benefits is

zoological conservation (land on which animals, not typically kept in England for farming purposes, are kept primarily for study, conservation or display to the public)

So having animals on farmland, which aren’t farm animals, which are there for conservation, means you can’t claim your benefits. Wild Boar and Beavers come to mind, as do Elephants.

Ineligible Bracken

Just in case you thought we’d really seen the back of the nonsense about 50 trees and encroaching vegetation, there is still the small matter of what to do about scrub. Let’s face it, the Eurocrats in Brussels hate scrub, they hate the word, they really hate having to think about it, or pesky people trying to explain to them that it has  any value. Bracken and Scrub have to be classified into two categories – ineligible bracken (and scrub) and eligible bracken (and scrub). Eligible Bracken is not in any way related to Eligible bachelors.

Eligible Bracken is nice Bracken, and it only qualifies as nice bracken if “grasses and other herbaceous forage remain predominant” and it is suitable for grazing. Eligible Bracken then qualifies for farm subsidies by being classified as permanent grassland.

Ineligible Bracken is bad, nasty Bracken and does not qualify as permanent grassland, because presumably grasses and other herbaceous forage do not predominate and it is not suitable for grazing.

The Eurocrats have stated that all ineligible bracken stands on a farm have to be mapped – all of them, even the tiny ones. Then all the bits of nasty ineligible bracken have to be added together, so that, if the sum is greater than 100 square metres, the farmer has to declare them to the RPA. 100 square metres! a 10m by 10m square. Now I have seen bracken in my time – nice and nasty. And I have seen sheep, cattle and ponies, getting stuck in grazing or browsing in amongst stands of bracken and scrub. Even a 10m by 10m patch is hardly what anyone could reasonably argue to be ungrazeable bracken.

As for scrub, the same rules apply, unless it’s Dense Scrub. Dense Scrub is another Eurocrat’s nightmare – what is it for? where does it come from? Dense Scrub is as bad as Ineligible Bracken, possibly worse. Defra are very clear on this: “Dense Scrub is not Eligible.” Full Stop.  Period. There is no definition of Dense Scrub though. But we will know it when we see it, say the RPA Special Scrub Unit (Dense).


Finally, for those large landowners out there, dependent on state handouts, if your claim for Basic Farm Payment exceeds €150,000 a year (excluding the 30% greening payment) RPA will knock 5% of the top. So if you’re the National Trust, and you got €10.4M in 2013, RPA will claw back €510,000.

What conclusions can be drawn from this Bureaucratic madness? I think one clear message comes out.

For CAP 2015, The European Commissions’ special number is 5. It took them five years to come up with this madness;  if you have less than 5ha you don’t get any money. If you have thousands of hectares, you get a 5% reduction, but you’ll only get paid for your golf course, if it’s for personal use only.

 Photo “18th green at MCC” by Mlkofkim at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:18th_green_at_MCC.jpg#mediaviewer/File:18th_green_at_MCC.jpg
Posted in agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy, Defra, European Commission, scrub, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Badgers, Beaver and Boar: not welcome here?

wild boar






A couple of weeks ago there were widespread celebrations when Natural England decided that the Beaver family that has been residing on the River Otter, for several years, can stay, at least for another five – if they are found to be clear of the parasite EM. They will be captured, taken to Surrey and tested for EM, then returned to Devon. Let’s hope they all survive the ordeal. Beavers have been extinct in England for hundreds of years.

Wild Boar have reappeared in the English Countryside (especially the West Country, Sussex/Kent and the Forest of Dean) over the past 20 years, having escaped, or been “liberated” from farms. While they are certainly not a common sight, being very shy, they are having an impact. One is supposed to have caused a fatal road traffic accident on the M4 recently; and things really came to a head when Princess Anne, speaking at a farming conference, told the audience that one had broken in to her farm, and killed a prized Gloucester Old Spot Boar. These incidents have led to calls for them to be eradicated, exterminated, removed from England (again.) While there are only small numbers, these are increasing. But they are as nothing compared to the situation in countries where Boar is native, and its population is spreading. In the German state of Hesse, the Green Party has called for the Boar population to be culled, partly, it seems, because they are damaging Maize crops grown for biogas. What irony! Wild Boar respect no boundaries – take the one that broke through a security fence, then ran onto Madrid Airport’s runway.

And then there are our cute cuddly Badgers, which of course aren’t – cuddly. Cute is in mind of the beholder. Our Farming Minister George Eustice reacted to Labour’s announcement they would suspend the cull, which aims to reduce Badger populations by 70-75% in each cull area. He announced that, if the Tories get in, they will roll out the cull to more and more areas. The figure was 40 areas, similar in size to the current ones.

One reason why Boar and Badgers’ populations are so healthy, or growing rapidly, is because they love eating Maize. Maize is the most ecologically damaging crop grown in England; and its popularity is expanding rapidly (partly thanks to biogas subsidies). And it’s fuelling the rise in the population of these meso-mammals.

So, where do we, in England, stand when in comes to Mammals?

The Government view seems to be:

If it’s been hunted to extinction 500 years ago, and there are only a few returning, they are given a 5 year stay of execution (though most, if not all, of the public welcome them). But only as long as they don’t harbour a disease or damage farmland. (Beaver)

If it’s been hunted to extinction 800 years ago, but there are quite a few returning, and they cause road accidents and damage to farmland, they are not welcomed and may be re-extincted.  (Boar)

If it’s a native mammal whose population is recovering after centuries of persecution, and they damage farmland, and are implicated in spreading disease, they are not welcomed and their populations will be decimated. (Badger).

To cement this position, just last week, despite the best efforts of the John Muir Trust and Client Earth, the Government, in the Infrastructure Act, reclassified the Beaver and the Boar as “native species no longer normally present” in England and Wales. This means they can be subject to  Species Control Agreements and Species Control Orders. These new legal instruments allow Natural England, or the Environment Agency to require landowners to eradicate Beaver and Boar from their land; and if they don’t do so, the Agencies can pay contractors to enter private land and do the extermination.

I think this was clearly a move to subjugate the concerns of the Farming and Landowning Communities, who don’t want medium sized mammals, whether currently native or not, on their land, eating their crops, interfering with their farm animals, spreading disease and what not. It means that a future “Beavers reappear on the Otter” scenario is much less likely. And it does lead to the prospect of Badgers being eradicated entirely from areas of England, then added to the list of “native species no longer present”, such that if any do try to return, they can be killed under a Species Control Order.

I wonder what UKIP’s view of the Badger, the Beaver and the Boar is. Are they Native? Are the Incomers? Are they Aliens?

Of course all this flies in the face of the protection afforded to the Beaver under the Habitats Directive, and I expect a complaint will be being filed with the European Commission very soon. Not that the UK has a very good record of taking much notice of what the European Commission thinks.

Thanks to Sheila Wren at John Muir Trust for help on the Infrastructure Act.

Photo: “Sus scrofa ies” by Frank Vincentz – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sus_scrofa_ies.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sus_scrofa_ies.jpg

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

We need to talk about Defra

Defra plate




Defra – Deathra, the Death-Ray, Deafra, Defer, Defray – just some of the parodic alternative names given to our Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

Formed in 2001 under a Labour government, when Margaret Beckett was Environment secretary, during the panic-stricken days of the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis. Its unwilling parents were the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries or MAFF; and bits of the Department for the Environment Transport and the Regions (DETR). MAFF had long been the plaything of the landowning/farming/fishing unions. MAFF controlled the money which flowed (like hot butter) from Europe into the hands of farmers and fishermen through the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies. DETR was itself a bit of Frankenstein created in 1997 when Labour swept to power, from the old Department of the Environment (DoE) and bits of the Department of Transport. As Labour was keen on having regional governance, it needed somewhere to develop “the Regions” (remember them?), hence DET + R.

Defra has lived for nigh on 14 years. Will it survive another 14 weeks?

It was nearly killed off in May 2010, after a successful media campaign orchestrated by Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment Nick Herbert. He wanted rid of Defra, Natural England and all other such meddlers and busybodies who got in the way of decent country folk who wished for nothing more than continuing to receive enormous state hand-outs, for doing exactly what they wanted.

Herbert was also Director of Public Affairs at the British Field Sports Society before becoming an MP and I have no doubt that the hunting ban introduced by Defra, will have been a factor.

I have heard the story from several people so I am assuming it has substance: The Departmental plate was being removed from outside Nobel House, when the news came from Downing Street that Defra was to be given a reprieve. I don’t know who saved it – perhaps it was those nice fluffy people at the Lib Dems. Perhaps it was Oliver Letwin. I guess the truth will out eventually.

Defra survived by the skin of its teeth. But it had to endure the most savage cuts meeted out to any Government Department. As last week’s EFRA Committee report showed Defra budget was £3bn in 2010 and in 2015 it will be £2.14Bn, a 29% cut. Morale amongst Defra civil servants is lowest amongst the entire civil service.

Only 16% of Defra staff agreed with the statement “when changes are made in Defra they are usually for the better”,  and only 28% of staff agreed with the statement that “I believe that the Board has a clear vision for the future of Defra.

In their report the Tory-controlled EFRA committee urged Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss to protect Defra’s future. “We would like the Secretary of State to go out there and really stand her corner about what spending needs to be ring-fenced because in six months’ time it will be too late. Things will move fast after the election,” she told Farmers Guardian.

NFU President Meurig Raymond said “It is a concern, with possible further expenditure, that Defra could lose so much resource it makes it difficult to function,” he said. “We need to avoid that and it is important to have a strong voice around the Cabinet table and in Europe.”

There are rumours circulating that Defra might be merged with the Business Department BIS after the election, but a merger with DECC might also be on the cards (as I understand was planned in 2010.)

Given the appallingly low profile the environment (and especially nature) gets as a result of being within Defra’s remit, it may be an improvement if it landed in a bigger department like BIS. Or perhaps it should sit within the Treasury? This is, after all, where all the really important decisions are made now.

Some, notably the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, are calling for an Office of Environmental Responsibility, akin to the Office for Budget Responsibility. This proposal was picked up by the Environmental Audit Select Committee in their recent report. But the OBR is only an advisory body,  albeit with political clout. It seems likely the OER would have significantly less clout than the OBR.

Should we mourn the passing of Defra if it does shuffle off its mortal coil in May? I for one won’t. The old cosy relationships between NFU/CLA and their political chums survived the MAFF/Defra transition entirely unscathed. Defra time and again has sided with the Farming/Landowning lobby over issues such as wildlife protection, badgers/TB, bees and pesticides, GMOs, biodiversity offsetting  – need I go on?

Nature does need a voice within Whitehall – a voice that does not sit in any particular department, but has enough clout that all departments, and the Treasury, have to listen. I’m not convinced that an OER will be sufficient on its own, though it may be play a useful role. Perhaps every Department should have a nature unit, testing all new Government policies and legislation for their impact on nature. This could be achieved through a much stronger regulatory impact assessment process which can require policies to be changed where they clearly have damaging consequences for nature.

But none of these things will happen while politicians continue to see nature as a side-issue. Only a change in the way society views nature will lead to a shift in the position of politicians and how they view nature. This is what we all need to work on.

Posted in Defra, General Election 2015 | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Friday the 13th unlucky for Medway Council: Lodge Hill planning permission called in

It is great news that today the Department for Communities and Local Government have decided to call in Medway Council’s planning permission for Land Securities to build a new town on the Ministry of Defence site at Lodge Hill, on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. Let’s hope that this means Rampisham Down will also be called in: it would be pretty bizarre if one were and the other wasn’t. Bearing in mind Lodge Hill is 4 months ahead of Rampisham Down, we may not hear a decision about Rampisham for several months and pre-election purdah is only 6 weeks away.

The letter (below) explains that the Secretary of State is particularly interested in looking at how the planning permission was arrived at, in the face of guidance within the National Planning Policy Framework, and how it fits in with the Medway Local Plan (Core Strategy). Given that an Inspector has already rejected a Medway Core Strategy which included Lodge Hill as a major housing development, it’s difficult to see how a new Inspector is going to come to a different conclusion from the previous one.

The various parties now have six weeks (the clock is now ticking) to prepare their “statement of case” and present them to the Planning Inspectorate. After that, a date for the Public Inquiry will be set. Six weeks from today will be the 27th March. Pre-Election purdah starts on the 30th March. Given the high profile and controversial nature of the case, I can’t see the Planning Inspectorate making any announcement about a date for an inquiry during Purdah. This sets the whole scene up nicely for a summer Inquiry.

OK now for a bit of a “what if”. What if the Planning Inspector does reject the planning permission and this rejection is upheld by the new Secretary of State at CLG. This would effectively seal any future development opportunity at Lodge Hill, barring some small scale developments within the non-SSSI areas of the site. What happens to the SSSI? The MoD has already moved out. Who would buy it?

It would make a fantastic nature reserve. Perhaps the Kent Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the National Trust could make a joint purchase, with a big national appeal. After all, it’s now one of the best known nature sites in England. Then a management plan would be produced and it would be carefully managed to ensure that all the features that are currently present would be maintained in perpetuity. In some ways this would be a bit sad because it has never been a nature reserve, and the reason it’s so rich in wildlife (including the blessed Nightingales) is quite incidental to the activities that went on there over the last century and more.The extraordinary character of the place would undoubtedly be lost if it became an orthodox nature reserve.

Is there another way? Could Lodge Hill be a new kind of place – rich in nature but not managed in the traditional ways. After all, the place used to be a training ground for engineers and sappers, bulldozing, blowing things up, practising emergency stops in a tank transporter.

Could Lodge Hill be a place where people come and have fun driving diggers around, blowing things up (guided by professionals of course!)  knocking down scrub when it gets too big for the nightingales, digging a new pond, filling an old one in. Careering about it a tracked armoured vehicle. Doing all the things the Army did which made Lodge Hill the special nature site it now is.

Obviously there would have to be limits on the amount of careering – such that the site didn’t end up as all mud and bare groun; though actually if you look at photos of just these sorts of sites in the Second World War you will see that they often were almost all bare ground and mud. Anyway, there would also be plenty of more restrained activities, including visits to enjoy the nature and the history. It would also make a fantastic film set.

I am sure people would pay very good money to career about in an old tank or set some charges to blow up a few hawthorn bushes. And I am also sure that this is exactly the sort of activity which would ensure that nature continued to thrive at Lodge Hill. After all, these activities are just mimicking the activities of the Straight-tusked Elephants, the Rhinos, the Beavers and the Elk; and all the other megafaunal ecosystem engineers that dominated Britain for millions of years until 10,000 years ago.

But I guess my approach would not fit in too well with Natural England’s “Views about Management”.

Here’s the letter.























Posted in Lodge Hill, Military Land, straight tusked elephant, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Rampisham Factcheck #5: The photographs of Rampisham Down

Some people are trying to make out that Rampisham Down SSSI is a poor quality, low value piece of wildlife grassland, or, as Professor Ghillean Prance, former Director of Key Gardens said a “very degraded and often impacted habitat”.

They have posted photos of the turf, taken in winter, when the flowers are dormant. It looks scruffy, but then it would, if it hadn’t been managed properly for the last three years.

They have even claimed that the photo used by Dorset Wildlife Trust to illustrate Rampisham was not taken at Rampisham, because “it looks nothing like this”.

not taken at Rampisham?





Well… you can clearly see the Rampisham electric ducting in the background. Ok that’s not definitive. Oh, but Natural England used a close-up of this same photo on their website when they announced that Rampisham had been designated. Here it is….

Rampisham close up






I was getting a little bit confused about which photos were taken at Rampisham and which weren’t, so I asked Natural England to provide me with the photos (and their captions) taken during their survey work at Rampisham.

Here they are for everyone to see. They are all (c) Sean Cooch, Natural England.

It looks to me as though photo 8 is the same stand, with Bird’s-foot trefoil, as the stand in the photo that British Solar Renewables are claiming wasn’t taken at Rampisham (but clearly was).

Rampisham U4a 1

Photograph 3: Detail of U4a typical sub-community, the predominant vegetation found on the plateau. This stand, south-east of the transmission station is well represented by tormentil, heath bedstraw, bird’s-foot-trefoil, heath milkwort, pill sedge, spring-sedge, and characteristic red fescue, sheep’s-fescue, heath-grass, sweet vernal-grass and field wood-rush




Rampisham H8b

Photograph 2: Detail of a small stand of H8b heather – western gorse heath, east of the transmission station buildings. Heather, bell heather, western gorse, tormentil, heath speedwell, heath bedstraw and pill sedge are characteristic.

Rampisham U4 panorama

Photograph 4: Panoramic view of U4 acid grassland east of the transmission station. Typically this is growing very tall (late June 2013) since the cessation of grazing (none in 2013). Plants such as pignut and heath bedstraw are frequent, with mouse-ear hawkweed, yarrow, tormentil, spring-sedge and bird’s-foot-trefoil occasional throughout

Rampisham U4:H8 transition

Photograph 5: Detail of U4a/H8b transitional community found on the eastern side of the site, with abundant lousewort, tormentil, heath milkwort, heath and thyme-leaved speedwells, heath bedstraw, pill sedge, spring-sedge, western gorse and heath-grass. Typical heathland associates not recorded in quadrats but in the stand include heather and heath-spotted orchid.

Rampisham H8b 2

Photograph 6: Large stand of H8b on eastern side, sloping south off the plateau. Characteristic species shown here include heather, bell heather, tormentil, heath bedstraw, mouse-ear hawkweed, bird’s-foot-trefoil, pill sedge and heath-grass.

Rampisham U4a 3

Photograph 7: Species-rich stand of U4a on the far south-western side of Rampisham Down. Typical species include bird’s-foot-trefoil, heath bedstraw, mouse-ear hawkweed, heath milkwort, germander and heath speedwells, common dog-violet and pignut, with field wood-rush and occasional spring-sedge

Rampisham U4c

Photograph 8: Stand on south-western side of transmission station that conforms to U4c bitter vetch – betony sub-community (Cooch & Biron 2013). Bird’s-foot-trefoil is very abundant with lady’s bedstraw, heath speedwell, heath bedstraw, pignut, heath milkwort, ribwort plantain, dwarf thistle, spring-sedge and field woodrush.

Rampisham damage from solar

Photograph 9: Area of significant disturbance on plateau west of the transmission station. Recovery is underway (end of June 2013) and plants such as tormentil and bird’s-foot-trefoil, as well as bent and fescue grasses are obvious. It is likely however, that full recovery will take several years in some places due to compaction, waterlogging and rutting.

Rampisham U4a 4

Photograph 10: U4a grassland to the west of the transmission station. Characteristic plants such as tormentil, heath bedstraw, heather, western gorse and heath milkwort, as well as glaucous, sedge, pill sedge, spring-sedge and heath-grass, are frequent

Rampisham U4c 2

Photograph 11: Acid grassland to the west of the transmission station that conforms to U4c (Cooch & Biron 2013). Typically, bird’s-foot-trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, tormentil and dwarf thistle are more-or-less constants, along with glaucous sedge, spring-sedge, and quaking-grass, heath-grass and occasional downy oat-grass














Posted in Natural England, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Rampisham Down and Lodge Hill demonstrate that Natural England must Notify every site which qualifies as SSSI





Offham Down SSSI ploughed to grow Flax 1997



When the Wildlife and Countryside Act was introduced in 1981 in order for the UK to comply with the European Union’s Birds Directive, nationally and internationally important nature sites, known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), had no legal protection. Farmers could and did plough up SSSI downland and meadow, wetlands were drained and the Forestry Commission continued to plant conifers on ancient woodland SSSIs and peat bogs. During the 1980s a series of high profile cause celebre were fought – Halvergate Marshes, the Somerset Levels and perhaps most famous of all, the Flow Country. The latter campaign stopped the desecration, but led to the Nature Conservancy Council being abolished, for standing up for nature.


By the time of the Twyford Down case in 1992, when the M3 was extended through two SSSIs, with much protest, the number of sites being damaged by development had slowed to a trickle. The last major loss of SSSI to development was Cardiff Bay in 1994, when 167ha of mudflat was destroyed to make way for a marina. Losses to agriculture continued though, and after the ploughing of Offham Down SSSI in 1997, the last Labour Government introduced stronger protection for our best nature sites, through the CROW Act in 2000 and then further protection through the NERC Act in 2006.


Why then, in 2015, are we having to campaign to save not one but two nationally, and arguably internationally, important SSSIs, at Lodge Hill in Kent and Rampisham Down in Dorset?


The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced with some controversy in 2012, does not help. It states that SSSIs should be protected, but also that the economic benefits of development affecting them must be balanced against the harm, in a simplistic cost benefit analysis. It was this approach, which led in 1986 to the North Devon Link road passing directly through Hare’s Down, Knowstone and Rackenford Moor SSSI, rather than skirting around it (onto more financially valuable farmland,) on its way from Tiverton to Barnstaple. Subsequently the remainder of the site, split in two by the road, was designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the Habitats Directive.


This cost benefit analysis, supported by the ethically dubious biodiversity offsetting approach promoted by this Government, means the NPPF needs to be amended to give a much stronger steer to Council planning committee members as to what the balance between nature protection and economic development should be.


Both Rampisham Down and Lodge Hill were notified as SSSIs after the idea of developing the sites had been thought up. At Lodge Hill, the MoD who own the site, have been unenthusiastic about protecting the nature there and Natural England have fought against them to protect the site. Not surprisingly Medway Council, who want the Lodge Hill new town, see Natural England’s late entry into the fray as deeply unwelcome and have argued that localism in their case means just that and national concerns, such as for nature, should not over-ride their local concerns.


Rampisham was also in public hands (the BBC) until recently, and its full wildlife value was only appreciated after it had fallen into the hands of developers. Again the site was notified as SSSI while a planning application for development was being considered. Again the Councillors in West Dorset viewed Natural England as a Johnny Come Lately – one of the planning committee members said he was


“not convinced by Natural England turning up at the last minute to notify the site – why so late?”


In some ways it is a valid question. The particular plant communities and species found at Rampisham have almost disappeared from lowland England. There are estimated to be between 3000 and 5000ha left. Natural England’s own rules governing which sites should be protected as SSSIs state that ALL examples of habitats with less than 10,000ha left (in this case in lowland England) should be protected, if they are over 0.5ha in area. Rampisham Down is 72ha. It’s been known about for a long time. Why was it not designated before? According to Natural England’s own data, less than half of all this type of lowland acid grassland is protected in SSSIs – the other half is at the mercy of agricultural intensification, neglect and development.


The same applies at Lodge Hill. The Ministry of Defence knew it had an important wildlife site but kept quiet about it. It was mostly luck that the nearly 30ha of unimproved neutral grassland at Lodge Hill was even included in the SSSI. This type of neutral grassland used to cover lowland England and Wales – now it is almost gone, with less than 6000ha left in Britain. Only just over half of this tiny resource is found in SSSIs – and the remainder continue to be lost as this report showed. According to the Government there are 1.9 million Ha of priority habitat in England and only 40% is protected.


Trying to save an important nature site from development after planning permission has been granted is a huge waste of resources, both for the hard-pressed conservation charity sector, Natural England, the planning authority, the developers and central government. It could easily be avoided if Natural England actually delivered its statutory duty to notify all sites that meet the selection criteria for SSSI designation. Then everyone would know where these places were and not bother to try and develop them.


Why are Natural England not notifying every site they are duty bound to protect? Of course there are influential bodies, such as the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners and Business Organisation who do not want Natural England to notify any more SSSIs because of the loss of property rights they regard as a consequence of such actions. And they have lobbied for Natural England to have a new duty to have regard to economic growth when undertaking their work, in the expectation that this will be considered when new SSSIs are notified. But property rights are not inalienable and do change over time, according to the needs of society.


If Society cares about saving the little nature that is left, it needs to start applying pressure to Natural England to launch a major exercise where all the surviving sites which meet the SSSI criteria are protected.

Posted in Lodge Hill, Natural England, Rampisham Down, SSSis | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Dorset CPRE’s letter to Secretary of State Pickles asking for Rampisham permission to be called in

Dorset CPRE have just published their letter asking for the Rampisham Down Solar Factory planning permission to be called in for determination by the Secretary of State.

I am republishing it here. They make an extremely interesting point.

There have been a flurry of recent applications for Ground Mounted Solar Factories to be built in Dorset. West Dorset considered two recently:

One was not in the AONB and not on an SSSI: Natural England did not object, but the Planning Officer recommended refusal and the Committee agreed to delegate the decision to the planning officer. It was duly refused.

One was in the AONB but not on an SSSI: Natural England objected on landscape grounds, the Planning Officer recommended refusal and the Committee agreed to delegate the decision to the planning officer. It was duly refused. One of the reasons why this application (from British Solar Renewables) was rejected, was the loss of skylark plots.

So why on earth would the Committee decide to approve one which was on an SSSI and in an AONB; which Natural England objected to on nature and landscape grounds; and which the Planning Officer strongly recommended refusal? Why did the committee not delegate the decision the the planning officer in this case?


Here is the full CPRE letter.

Dorset CPRE Letter to NPCU Ref Call-in 1 D 12 001664 5 February 2015P2 Dorset CPRE Letter to NPCU Ref Call-in 1 D 12 001664 5 February 2015

Posted in CPRE, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms, West Dorset District Council | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Rampisham Down Factcheck #4: A Fairy Tale.

Here’s a quick fairy tale for Monday Morning.

Once Upon a Time, Nature was in trouble in the Kingdom, and the King sent for the wise men to tell him what needed to be done to save Nature.  The wise men talked together and one came forward, called Lawton, Professor Lawton. The King agreed that Lawton should write a book, about all the things that needed to be done to save Nature in Kingdom. They worked tirelessly night and day for a year, and when they had finished they presented the beautiful book, to the King. “What a Wonderful Book!” said the King, “I shall call it the Lawton Report” and all his courtiers nodded and agreed, that the book was wonderful and would help save Nature in the Kingdom.And so the Lawton Book became revered through the land.

But then the King died, and a cruel Prince took the throne. He said “I am the Greenest Prince there ever was, and I Love Nature”, but in truth he plotted with the barons to steal from Nature, kill the animals and spread dark magic through the land. The Prince hated to even look at the Lawton Book and it was banished from the land. The Lawton book was thrust into a locked chest, in a remote castle and forgotten about. But some people remembered what the Book said, and together, on dark nights, when there were no spies around, they would quietly chant

“Bigger, Better, More Connected; Bigger, Better, More Connected…”

they hoped that by chanting they would bring forward the Spirits of the Wood and the Meadow, the Spring and the Marsh; to stop the cruel Prince from destroying Nature.

Bigger, Better, More Connected

Rampisham Down is big, really big. It’s one of the largest surviving tracts of unimproved lowland acid grassland in England. And that makes it important, because bigger sites support a wider variety of habitats and species – including a number of rare species. But its size isn’t the only thing that’s particularly special about Rampisham, because Rampisham is located in an amazing, one might say unique, landscape in modern lowland England. It’s connected.

Rampisham Context Map SSSIs

This map is generated by MAGIC, the excellent Government website (yes I really did say that). It shows the effectively continuous band of SSSIs stretching from the A35 to the south, 10km north to the A357 Crewkerne road. This is a very large area where nature-rich habitats have survived the onslaught of modern farming to a far greater extent than any other lowland farmland landscape that I know of. There are chalk downlands, there are hay meadows and neutral pastures, there are rush-pastures and fen meadows, ancient woodlands, fens, wood pasture, ancient hedgerows, ponds, scraps of heathland and now, a large area of acid grassland. That is just the SSSIs.

Rampisham context map

This second map, also generated from MAGIC, shows the SSSIs plus all the additional areas of nature-rich habitat which are not designated, which are totally unprotected from harm, though many are County Wildlife Sites.

I’d like to put out a challenge to you, dear reader – find me another 10km square in lowland England with this much surviving nature-rich landscape, with such a diverse range of habitats.

I’m not promising to reward you with riches beyond your dreams though.








Posted in connectivity, Lawton Report, Rampisham Down | Tagged , , | 7 Comments