Lodge Hill Saved

the remarkable scrub/grassland mosaic at Lodge Hill ©Miles King

There was some very unusual good news late last week as Homes England announced that it was no longer pushing for housing development on the protected areas of Lodge Hill – the former military training ground (and munitions works) on the Hoo Peninsula, Kent. Instead they will push for a 500 house development on the former MoD land outside the SSSI.

As long-suffering readers of this blog will know, Lodge Hill and its remarkable array of natural history and historical interests, was threatened with total destruction, in the form of a 5000 house new town. Despite Natural England finding the gumption, under severe pressure from conservation NGOs, to notify Lodge Hill as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013, Medway Council and the MoD pushed ahead with their development plans. I have chronicled most of the story on here (search for Lodge Hill). Up until this latest announcement, we were waiting for a Public Inquiry to be called to determine the site’s future.

Make no mistake, this is a major victory for nature conservation. Thanks, at least in part, to “controversial” notifications such as Lodge Hill and Rampisham Down, Natural England has been eviscerated – see my previous blog on Natural England’s demise. Despite their claims, it seems unlikely to me that the hollowed-out remnants of a nature conservation champion had that much to do with this change of heart at Homes England. Nor can I really believe that RSPB was able to bring this about through their continuing efforts.

Much more likely is the intervention of Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove. Gove may well have felt now would be a good time to persuade new CLG Secretary James Brokenshire that getting 500 houses built on the former MoD land would be a big win, without the controversy that would inevitably accompany a Public Inquiry. Such a Public Inquiry, with the Government effectively arguing for the complete destruction of a site it had protected only a few years ago, would make a big dent in the notion of Gove’s Green Brexit. You may feel that the GGB is a bit of a joke anyway, given the threats to the environment that Brexits of all colours will bring. Nevertheless it’s something that I am sure Gove believes in – and there are still promising signs that the new Agriculture Bill will bring about improvements for nature in the farmed environment.

Natural England’s marginal involvement in the decision is also reflected in the fact that Homes England didn’t tell NE of their intention to make this momentous announcement last Thursday. We’re still waiting for a substantial comment from Natural England – other than a rather belated tweet pointing out its key role in protecting the site.

Some have complained that building 500 houses near to a SSSI will still be enormously damaging to the value of the site for nature. That remains to be seen, but it should not detract from the importance of this decision. This isn’t just about Lodge Hill. It sends a signal to housing developers and local planning authorities, that SSSI designation is a powerful regulatory tool which can stop housing development. Eight years ago no-one would really have thought that this was something worth debating or even an issue. It shows how much the political and policy landscape has changed since 2010. Hopefully this decision could be a sign that the pendulum is swinging back towards a position where regulation for nature is seen as a good thing rather than a hindrance to economic growth, though there are so many other factors still pointing in the wrong direction that it’s probably far too premature to make such a claim.

So let’s congratulate Natural England, Defra and Michael Gove, for making the right decision at Lodge Hill. This is a most unlikely and very welcome early Christmas present for the environmental movement.

Posted in Lodge Hill, Michael Gove, Natural England, Nightingales, SSSis | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The ideology that drives homelessness

This week, I’m straying out of my comfort zone, as I’ve been asked to write about homelessness. This feels appropriate, as we approach that time of the year which is inextricably linked to the story of a homeless family searching for somewhere to sleep, being turned away, again and again, until they find a stable where a mother can give birth to her baby.

In our small town of Dorchester in Dorset homelessness has become increasingly visible over the last 10 years. The extreme end of the homeless spectrum – rough sleepers – sit in shop doorways under multiple layers of sleeping bags during the day. I honestly don’t know where they go at night, but I have seen glimpses, through the trees, of small tented camps on the wooded slopes of the bypass, and a tent has appeared in the water meadows by the Frome river.

I wonder how they can sleep with the constant traffic noise. Nationally, the number of homeless people sleeping rough in the UK has almost tripled since 2010 and with changes to Universal Credit, which mean people in temporary accommodation are unable to pay their rent, these figures are likely to increase substantially over the next couple of years – unless Universal Credit is substantially reformed.

Of course homelessness is about far more than rough sleepers. Homelessness, according to the UK charity Shelter, includes people who are in temporary accommodation like B&B’s, hostels, staying with family or friends, squatting, at risk of domestic abuse (which might mean you have to leave home to find a place of safety), living in such poor housing it affects your health; and living apart from your family because you don’t have a place to live together. There are all sorts of reasons why people end up homeless, but one of the main reasons they stay homeless is because they do not receive sufficient financial support, from the State, to find a home; and because there aren’t enough homes available for people in poverty.

In rural West Dorset (which includes Dorchester) nearly 1700 families are on the housing register, but only 68 were housed in the quarter to September 2018. The Council is responsible for finding homes for homeless people. It seems like ancient history, but for a large chunk of the 20th Century, local Councils provided housing to the poor, specifically to prevent homelessness. Before this, for the homeless, there was the appalling prospect of ending up in the workhouse.

The myth of a property owning democracy

Immediately after the First World War, Councils started building their own housing – initially these ‘Homes for Heroes’ were intended to house soldiers returning from the Great War. Between 1921 and 1932, London County Council, for example, purchased farmland outside London and built 25,000 houses on the Becontree Estate outside East London. My father and grandmother took refuge with cousins in Becontree, when their house (near to the London docks) was damaged during the Blitz.

Further Council housing was built after the Second World War and this continued through to 1979 when Mrs Thatcher decided to sell off Council housing, to create that mythical Property Owning Democracy. 4.5 Million Council houses were sold from 1979 to 2013, leaving only 2 million with Councils. Councils also passed over their housing stock to Housing Associations – and there have been more recent moves to allow tenants to buy their housing association homes in an extension of the Right to Buy scheme. In this way the enormous safety net of Council Housing, built up over a 50 year period, has been reduced to a flimsy fabric of holes, through which more and more people are falling.

To a large extent, social housing has been replaced by the private rented market, where private landlords are paid to provide housing via housing benefit. Once again this is a kind of privatisation, which sees public funds end up in private pockets. The demand for private rented housing in some areas also encourages profiteering – including charging prospective tenants for basic rights such as viewing a property.

One of the many attacks on the public sector and public provision in the last eight years has been the prison system. Prison reform, (a euphemism if ever I heard one), has led to Victorian prisons being closed down and sold off, with plans for private prisons to replace them. Dorchester prison was sold as part of a bundle of town centre sites, to a property developer – City and Country properties. It picked up Dorchester, Gloucester, Shepton Mallet and Kingston (Portsmouth) prisons in 2014, for an unknown sum, but presumably not very much.

The developer gained planning permission for 900 homes across the four sites, so you can see that a tidy profit is likely. At Dorchester Prison, the developer proposed that not a single one of the 189 new homes it will build there, will be designated as affordable, let alone social housing. The developers used a loophole in the planning law, introduced by David Cameron’s Government, which meant that they could prepare a secret  housing viability assessment, which assessed whether they should be required to provide affordable or social housing as part of the development. Because the assessments are secret, it is not possible to challenge their findings. The Council, although furious, could not reject the planning application on these grounds, knowing it would have lost on appeal (with expensive costs incurred).

Private sales for private profit

If the Government were serious about tackling homelessness, it could have handed these old prisons over to their local Councils, and allowed them to borrow money to convert them into social housing, to replace some of the millions of Council Houses that were effectively privatised during the Thatcher era; or it could have used the proceeds from those sales to build new Council or Housing Association housing. Instead, the Government has sold these sites to private developers, for private profit – and the sale money (what little there was) has been kept by the Treasury.

Meanwhile flagship housing policy Help to Buy (cost £9Bn so far) provides a subsidy to people who already have the resources to buy property – as well as lining the pockets of those house-builders like Berkeley’s Tony Pidgely or Persimmon’s Geoff Fairburn. House Builders are prominent donors to the Conservative party.

This really epitomises the ideology that drives homelessness in Britain. Policies are driven by a belief that the State  – whether central Government or local Councils – should not own land or housing – and so every available scrap of public land and housing is being sold off, without any requirement to recycle the income generated into providing decent housing that is available to everyone.

Until this changes, homelessness will only continue to rise, with all the suffering, pain, humiliation and damage to our social fabric, that accompanies it.


This article first appeared on Lush Times

Posted in housing, Lush Times | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Apocalyptic visions raise false prophets of climate action


sea levels could rise by over a metre this century ©Miles King

Climate Change is in the news. Global climate policy makers meet today, in Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The assembled climate actors will talk of ambitious emissions reductions and how on earth we will adapt to the changes which are already baked in, as a result of greenhouse gas emissions that we cannot, easily or quickly, remove from the atmosphere.

With a sense of urgency to be expected where global environmental laws are concerned, this year the COP will seek to agree how to implement what was agreed, three years ago, in Paris. The USA has already withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and Brazil, under its new neo-fascist President, (who believes climate change science is a “marxist plot”), may well also leave.

Things are looking up though, even in the States. Two days after President Trump asked “whatever happened to Global Warming” after a record cold Thanksgiving holiday was predicted, his own administration, as if trolling its President, released a major new report – the Fourth National Climate Assessment – detailing how the USA will be devastated by the effects of climate change. Of course it’s possible that the President’s own staff (or at least the climate-denying ones) had tried to bury the report by releasing it on the Thanksgiving holiday in the hope that no-one would notice. That doesn’t seem to have been too successful though. The report is uncompromising in its language, the authors no doubt confident that the President wouldn’t be reading it:

Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts (Figure 1.2). The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate.”

Woefully Unprepared

Closer to home, our own Met Office published its first new projections for how climate change will affect the UK, in almost 10 years. Summer temperatures could be over 5C higher than now, by 2070 – and if you thought this Summer was hot, that was only 1.7C higher than average. Temperatures this high will mean that the crops and livestock which currently grow and live in the UK will no longer be suitable. With the sea over 1m higher by 2070, our coastline will also be unrecognisable and millions will have to move. Higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns affect human health too – in fact it’s already happening, as this report shows. MPs had already criticized the Government for being woefully unprepared for the Summer’s heatwave and estimate 1 in 5 houses dangerously overheats in such conditions. Imagine what those houses will be like with a 5C Summer temperature rise.

It was encouraging, in a small way, to see Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, speak at the launch of the Met Office report. He clearly believes in the threat of Climate Change. It seems less likely that one of his predecessors, Owen Paterson, would have been so sanguine. Paterson oversaw savage cuts to the Environment Agency’s work on climate change adaptation when he led Defra. Shortly after he was sacked from Defra, he made a major speech to the climate change deniers of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. But despite Gove, this Government’s commitment to tackling climate change is  – well let’s say, patchy, at best.

As chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee Mary Creagh said last week, the Government’s commitment to climate action, was “incompatible” with its stated policy of supporting the extraction of fossil fuels from the Arctic – the most rapidly warming part of the Planet. What exactly is the Government doing, continuing to support the production of fossil fuels?

Meanwhile the backlash continues, against the Climate Change Committee’s proposals for massive land-use and dietary change in response to the Climate Crisis. The farming industry – particularly those involved in producing cattle and sheep – is still trying to argue that red meat is not a climate change villain. Those arguments are shaky. Producing red meat releases Methane – mostly from cow burps. Methane is a short lived greenhouse gas (it lasts 10-20 years) but during its time in the atmosphere it is 24 times as powerful as the more common Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

So, while in the long-term methane production and destruction in the atmosphere cancels out, we don’t have “a long term” to put off taking action. We are now at the point where short term dramatic action is needed to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s no use the livestock industry saying today’s Methane will have disappeared in 20 years time – by that time it will be too late. The livestock industry has a bigger climate footprint than just from cow burps too. Livestock produce muck, and when this decomposes, it releases CO2, Methane and Ammonia. When Ammonia breaks down it releases Nitrous Oxide, an even more potent greenhouse gas than Methane. (Nitrous Oxide is up to 300 times as powerful as CO2, and lives for even longer in the atmosphere.)

False Prophets

Apocalyptic visions spawn false prophets. One of these false prophets claims that we can replace fossil fuel gas – euphemistically known as ‘natural gas’ – with gas from renewable sources. And one source of renewable gas is to take waste from livestock and convert it into “biogas”, via the process of anaerobic digestion (AD). I have written before about the scam where very generous tax-payer funded subsidies are paid for growing Maize to produce biogas. Some analysts believe that the entire biogas industry is actually just a cover for the fossil fuel gas industry to continue to operate. After all, biogas will need a gas grid to distribute it; and that grid will also be needed if, for example, fracking really takes off in the UK – as this Government hopes will happen.

Recent investigations in Northern Ireland have exposed another scam – investors have been persuading small farmers to have large industrial AD plants built on their land. These plants then receive vast quantities of cattle and pig slurry, produced by a burgeoning livestock industry. In fact, as this File on Four programme, explained, the livestock industry works very closely with the AD plant developers to create more intensive livestock production factories, and build more AD plants to take their slurry. And the AD plants attract very generous subsidies, which are paid not to the farmers, but to large agri-businesses or London-based venture capitalists. It’s just another case of subsidies driving all sorts of unforeseen consequences, many of them horrendous.

Fighting back

Local activists are fighting back – such as this group campaigning against yet another massive pig production unit. But consider that Northern Ireland’s pigs already produce as much waste as six times the entire human population of the Province, and you can see the problem. And if anyone thinks this gas is “green”, the pigs are fed soya beans grown in Brazil or Argentina, on land that was previously a huge carbon store, which has now gone.

Northern Ireland also appears to be suffering from a bad case of regulatory capture, where large agri-industry businesses took over the role of government or its regulators to ensure government policy worked in their favour. Moy Park chicken farms (whose waste also went to AD plants) took over developing the Northern Ireland agri-food growth policy, when the DUP’s Arlene Foster was the Minister for Enterprise. Ms Foster is also caught up in the not entirely unrelated Cash for Ash renewable heating scandal, where empty chicken sheds were heated, just to receive the very generous renewable energy subsidy.

Subsidies can help shift behaviour and provide solutions to our problems. Subsidies which supported rooftop solar on domestic and commercial buildings have helped create a sustainable source of electricity, as did subsidies for wind farms. But for some reason the rooftop solar subsidies have been withdrawn and offshore wind farms have been actively discouraged by the Government. Despite this, on a relatively windy day last week wind farms provided a quarter of the country’s electricity and it could be far more, if more wind farms were built (onshore or offshore). Practically every house and every new building could have solar panels. Yet the money (public taxpayer money) flows, via fake renewables, into the pockets of agri-business and venture capitalists looking for easy returns. Meanwhile, the Government makes cosmetic efforts or pays lip service to the need for us all to change – how we travel, what we eat, the products we buy, and how we heat our homes.

When will we finally have politicians we can vote for, who realise the dramatic urgency of the situation, and take real action? Or will it be left to radical social action, like the Extinction Rebellion movement.

this article first appeared on Lush Times

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Chronicling the Sad Demise of Natural England

Nightingale-filled scrub and wildlife-rich grassland at Lodge Hill ©Miles King

One of the more interesting consequences of having written a blog about Nature and politics for eight years, (aside from a short break between July 2012 and May 2013), is that you can look back at earlier ramblings, thoughts and predictions and see what actually happened.

The gradual demise of Natural England – the champion for Nature in England – started way back, when the Coalition Government came into power in May 2010. And on looking back, it appears I have unwittingly been chronicling that demise.

So, here’s the story, as I see it.

Outgoing Natural England chair Andrew Sells (who will no doubt be looking forward to meeting the Queen to receive his K, for services rendered) recently made an appearance before a very small gathering of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA). Former RSPB Conservative Director Mark Avery, in his excellent blog, has written about some aspects covered in the outgoing Chair’s hour-and-a-half exit interview – notably that Sells is now in favour of introducing vicarious liability for (grouse moor) landowners. But only after leaving the job where he could have pushed for its introduction.

The tone of Sells’ thoughts is one of regret. Sells regrets that Natural England lost its independence from Defra; Sells regrets that “we as a society haven’t been very good” about dealing with wildlife crime. And Sells mourned the 55% loss of resources Natural England have to notify, protect and ensure the good management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). He didn’t even mention the badger cull.

Sells was also unhappy about Countryside Stewardship, complaining that the scheme – introduced to pay farmers to manage their land for wildlife, landscape and so on – was doomed from the start; “like a badly designed car…various parts never worked.” This apparently was not Natural England’s fault, but no-one’s;  he “can’t point the finger” of blame anywhere. But he did note that Defra had parachuted in managers on secondment to run Countryside Stewardship, so perhaps it was their fault after all. The colossal failure of the Rural Payments Agency in failing to create the correct maps for farmers to use when applying for Countryside Stewardship was mentioned in passing – but since Defra decided to hand CS over to the Rural Payments Agency to run, it seems, as usual, that failure is rewarded.

But let’s rewind back to November 2013 when it was announced that Andrew Sells had been chosen to chair Natural England’s board. Sells was a player in the Tory backroom influence machine. He had been treasurer of Michael Gove’s favourite Tory dark-funded lobbying operation – otherwise known as Policy Exchange. Policy Exchange was and continues to be the crucible in which Tory policies – policies promoting less regulation and more privatisation – are forged and future Tory Ministers trained. You don’t get to be treasurer of such a key part of the deregulatory apparatus without (a) being very generous with your cash and (b) believing unflinchingly in the ideology.

A murky web

Sells had also been a key player in the “no2av” campaign. Those who will remember back that far will recall that one of the deals Nick Clegg made with David Cameron (remember them?) was that there should be a vote on introducing proportional representation. Clegg utterly fluffed this once-in-a-political lifetime opportunity to improve our democratic process. But more importantly, a highly effective Tory campaign was set up to kill the idea stone dead.

Step forward Andrew Sells – working hand-in-glove with the Matthew Elliott on the No2AV campaign (Sells was donor and fundraiser; Elliott Campaign Director). Matthew Elliott, for those who don’t know, set up the ironically-named ‘Tax Payers Alliance’, which lobbies to get rid of taxes, and the public services taxes fund. Matthew Elliott also ran the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum – the one that was found to have acted illegally. Elliott sits at the very centre of the very murky web of right wing lobby groups, which we could call the Tuftocracy, on account of them all being housed in one building in 55 Tufton Street, Westminster.

It would not be any exaggeration to suggest that 55 Tufton Street has more influence over UK politics than any other address, including 10 Downing Street. Sells was also generously giving donations to the Tory party – a total of £143k donated up to the point when he became Natural England chair.

Before Sells went into politics he made a massive fortune – first as a Venture Capitalist – setting up a private equity firm with John, now Baron Nash. Nash, once ennobled, went on to become a Tory Education Minister, and set up a chain of academy schools. Sells also founded Linden Homes, a house-builders firm which specialised in brownfield development sites. When Linden Homes was sold to Galliford Try, Sells walked away with millions.

Sells was chosen to chair Natural England by former Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson. Paterson was famous for a number of ridiculous statements such as “badgers moved the goalposts”  – but Paterson’s brother-in-law is Viscount Matt Ridley, a Policy Exchange visiting scholar. Paterson had been vilified in Cabinet over Natural England’s brave decision (though they were being pushed all the time) to make Lodge Hill a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Lodge Hill on the Hoo peninsula in Kent is a former defence training camp which was being sold off by the Government, for housing. As a brownfield site, it seemed like a no-brainer, until someone pointed out to Natural England that it supported the UK’s largest Nightingale population and is one of the largest areas of wildlife-rich neutral grassland in the country. (Several people have said to me that Natural England’s decision to protect Lodge Hill was akin to it signing its own death warrant. I have to admit some responsibility having been part of the RSPB team which successfully lobbied, and presented evidence, in favour of its protection.)

More stick, less carrot

You can imagine the scene – how dare Natural England interfere with the Government’s business of selling off public land to their private housing developer mates (and generous Tory party donors) for private profit? Who did these people think they were? There was a big row in Cabinet. George Osborne was livid.  The answer, obviously, was to install, as the new chair; a Tory donor who had founded a very successful brownfield housing developer. As Sells put it to the EFRA committee: “The Cameron era Government wanted much less stick and more carrot.” In other words, stop using the law and start asking people nicely, and pay them, to stop doing bad things.

One idea Sells seems keen on is “net gain.” This is where developers, say, of new housing, compensate for destroying wildlife by paying money into a ‘pot’, which is then spent creating new wildlife habitats somewhere else. It used to be called Biodiversity Offsetting (partly because of proposals to use it at Lodge Hill), but that got a bad name so it was rebranded. Biodiversity Offsetting, (I mean Net Gain) Champion David Hill, who set up the Environment Bank, an organisation that was created to .. err.. take the money from the Developers and give it to landowners to create wildlife habitat, was Sells’ deputy chairman at Natural England for most of the time Sells was Chair. So, it’s not surprising that Sells is so keen on it. (Hill is now promoting Net Gain alongside Matt Ridley, Owen Paterson’s brother-in-law, in a paper produced by that other dark-funded, pro-deregulation, “the market will solve everything” lobby group, the IEA. Small world.)

This wasn’t the first time the Tories had given Natural England a good kicking.

Shortly after Natural England was created – by amalgamating the Nature experts at English Nature, with the people who paid farmers to farm slightly less intensively; and the Countryside Agency in charge of landscapes – new NE boss, Helen Phillips, frightened the horses at a National Farmers Union conference in 2007. The NFU had successfully lobbied the Labour Government so that most of the farm payment budget back then was handed over to farmers for doing nothing. Phillips said she wanted to “raise the bar” and make farmers do something for their payments. This was entirely beyond the pale (she had kept her speech secret from her own Board of Directors) and the knives were out from then on. By 2009, Shadow Environment Secretary, Nick Herbert, was making dark threats that Natural England should not be openly criticising Government policy and that NE had become a “political lobbyist.”  The then NFU President Peter Kendall weighed in:

“When I see Natural England having a large policy section I ask if that really is the best use of our money. Defra should be developing policies and its agencies should be delivering them.”

And so it came to pass – when the Coalition Government was elected, it did just that – removing Natural England’s ability to develop policy, advocate that policy to Government, or even carry out its own publicity.  (It’s worth noting too that Nick Herbert originally ran the British Field Sports Society, which became the Countryside Alliance and founded his own Right Wing Think Tank, Reform, which worked closely with Policy Exchange. He went on to occupy a number of Ministerial positions.)

Two birds, one stone

It’s interesting to note to what extent Natural England’s statutory role of notifying SSSIs to protect our best wildlife sites was abandoned once Sells took over: After a busy year in 2013/14, when five sites were protected, this dropped to zero in the two subsequent years. Only a handful of sites have been protected since then, including the very large West Pennine Moors SSSI.

Sells also shook up the Natural England Board, bringing in reps from the NFU, upland farmers and the Game-shooting lobby, alongside conservation NGOs. He also lobbied for Marine Management Organisation Chief Exec James Cross to be installed. NE staff view Cross’ recent departure with relief – he was regarded as weak and biddable. As a result, the Board became more heavily involved in the day-to-day running of NE projects. Interference is the word that has been used.

Natural England doesn’t even report on how many new SSSIs it has notified now, just that there is a “pipeline”. Even when it does notify new sites, like this one yesterday, it doesn’t make any announcement to celebrate the fact. It’s almost as if NE is embarrassed about saving wildlife.

Following the very controversial decision to notify Lodge Hill as an SSSI – the controversy partly centred around whether the grassland there was sufficiently valuable to warrant protection –  Natural England reviewed its approach to choosing grassland sites. Having looked at the data, and the extremely perilous state of so many of our grasslands, it decided that it should effectively protect the entire remaining resource for a number of grassland types. Needless to say this has barely even begun. It takes a lot of expertise to notify a site as a SSSI. I know many of the people working at NE and have worked with them closely. I have the utmost respect for them. They are doing their level best in the circumstances. And then there’s Brexit …

As Andrew Sells noted “Brexit has consumed Defra”. And Defra, in turn, has consumed many of the best minds in Natural England. Sells claimed he was happy to see NE staff seconded to Defra to work on where to site the emergency food supply dumps, although he had worried they may not come back. At least he need worry about that for only another few weeks before his retirement.

So where does all this this leave Natural England – and indeed England’s Nature?

We await the publication of Michael Gove’s second big ‘it’ll all be fine after Brexit’ Parliamentary Bills – the Environment Bill. This will tell us of his plans for a fantastic new environmental regulator. The Withdrawal Bill includes text explaining how this new regulator will replace the work previously done by the European Commission and EU Court of Justice. Forgive me if I’m a little sceptical. And it’s not just me –  influential Think Tank, Green Alliance, also express doubt. Bearing in mind that RSPB took a complaint against Natural England to the EC over its failure to stop grouse moor owners damaging internationally important peatlands, it seems unlikely that this new regulator will be just another reincarnation of Natural England. It can’t mark its own homework and be an effective regulator.

Now that Natural England has lost its function of paying farmers to manage their farmland slightly less intensively, what role does it have? I would argue its primary role should be protecting England’s wildlife – and that means finishing the job of protecting all sites which meet the criteria as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

This is also probably one of the best ways to identify farmland which would benefit from the new “public money for public goods” approach to paying farmers to farm in an environmentally-friendly way, so it kills two birds with one stone.

NE also needs to focus on protecting species which occur outside SSSIs; not through biodiversity offsetting, or net gain, or whatever you want to call it, but by protecting their habitats where they are now. It doesn’t help NE’s reputation when it advises landowners to kill native wild animals, because people might be worried about them.

We need a new champion for Nature in England, and will need one more than ever after Brexit. NE needs to evolve again, into a new organisation, independent of Government. That won’t happen until we have a Government which recognises the value in that independence.

this article first appeared in Lush Times.

Posted in Andrew Sells, Natural England, Think Tanks | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Unicorns in Brexitland: Panto seasons starts early this year

What does Christmas mean to you? John Lewis adverts? An excuse for some retail therapy? Religion? Or Pantomimes?

It’s a long time since I went to a Christmas pantomime, but they seem to continue to be very popular. This year, Pantomime season has come early – and the big new favourite is Unicorns in Brexitland. This is the story of the deal which was so good everybody hated it: Michael Gove is Jack with his five magic Brexit beans. Out of the beans grows a beanstalk –  Jack climbs up it, into the sunlit Brexit uplands, where Unicorns prance. There’s a magic cake which you can have and eat. And of course there’s a mysterious Irish Border solution – a border which is both open to trade and closed to smugglers and immigrants – all at the same time! This comes with a pot of “no surrender” gold for the DUP.

I jest of course. There is no pantomime, except the one we are being invited to watch unfold with each new day. As I write this on Friday morning, Schrodingers Gove may still both be Environment Secretary and have resigned; Prime Minister May’s best possible deal may already have been rejected by everyone, except herself. And Labour may finally have agreed what it’s position on Brexit really is.

But don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, more important things unfold. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has published its latest (in a long line of them) report on how we are going to have to change the way land is used in the UK if we are going to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate chaos. It’s pretty stark, but also realistic. Diets will have to change, because allocating so much land to the production of livestock is unsustainable on any number of levels.

For starters, the CCC is calling for peatlands (our largest carbon store) to be restored – including calls for a move away from Driven Grouse Shooting. And large areas of what are currently grasslands, to be converted to woodland, as a way to store carbon. They call for 1.5Mha of new woodland and another 1.2Mha of short rotation coppice or Miscanthus grass, grown to produce feedstock for biomass power stations. (I’m glad they have discounted biogas from maize as an option, because it is not.)

Naturally, the National Sheep Association has attacked the proposal – claiming that sheep are the best way to solve the problem of climate chaos. You could call this ovine thinking, but that may be being unfair on sheep, which contrary to popular views, can be surprisingly intelligent. But when you consider that sheep grazing occupies perhaps a quarter of the UK’s entire land area, contributes £1.2Bn to the economy and employs perhaps 100,000 people, it’s not difficult to see that something has to give; that and the fact that fewer and fewer people are even eating lamb, let alone mutton.

Who, you might ask, would be responsible for achieving this massive change in the way land is used, how would farmers be supported in that transition, and what would we all be eating? Could it possibly be the Department for the Environment, Food, Farming and so on. Yes – this all sits squarely in Defra’s lap. But they are far too busy to be worrying about such trifles. Defra is preparing for the increasingly likely prospect that the UK will crash out of the EU next March. As a result, like some vast black hole operating within Whitehall, they have been sucking (400 so far) staff from wherever they can be drawn, to work on the Big Brexit Panic.

Natural England has already lost so many staff that it is struggling to continue with its own work. And now we hear that the Environment Agency is also succumbing to the gravitational pull of that Brexit black hole. Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, lambasted Defra recently for undermining Natural England’s work: “Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife.” Well quite.

But Natural England has other problems. It’s Chief Executive James Cross walked out of his job on the 9th November, to be replaced by Plantlife’s Chief Exec Marian Spain, at least initially on an interim basis. Marian joined Natural England’s Board just seven months ago, as a non-executive Director. I can’t help thinking that it’s extremely unusual for a non-exec, whose role is to scrutinise the performance of an organisation and ensure that it’s working to achieve its objectives, jumps across to run the organisation; especially after such a short time in that role. To me it smacks a bit of panic.

And what will happen to Plantlife? That organisation just lost its boss. Meanwhile Defra continues the process of recruiting the new chair of the board of Natural England, as Andrew Sells prepares to step down in January. My understanding is that interviews were held last week and a decision may have been made on the preferred candidate this week. Then again, Michael Gove might have been a bit busy. (My money’s still on Lord Blencathra.)

Defra will also be mulling over the future of a couple of England’s most loved mammals – one currently extinct, the other heading that way. For this week the Defra-commissioned report into the future of their Bovine TB eradication strategy was published. Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that far more action by farmers was needed, and less scapegoating of badgers. This report had apparently been sat on for quite a while – cynics might conclude that publishing it in the same week as the Brexit meltdown may have been a deliberate move but I couldn’t possibly comment …

Meanwhile more Beavers are being released – this time in Essex. Mr Gove is very keen on bringing Beavers back – though perhaps his hollowing out of Natural England to feed the Brexit monster inside Defra is having unintended consequences. It’s been brought to my attention that Natural England has released some guidance on where to get your Beavers from, if you want to introduce them in to the UK. The guidance lists some EU countries where wild Beavers can be captured for translocation  – and includes Finland, Ireland, Norway and Malta. Now, neither Ireland nor Malta have supported Beavers for centuries. And at least half of the Beavers in Finland are Canadian Beavers, which are invasive and outcompete the Eurasian native Beavers. They are also very difficult to tell apart.

If it does turn out that he leaves as a result of the’ Best Brexit Deal Ever,’ Michael Gove’s tenure at Defra has been unique: He has pushed through an agriculture bill which just might (will have) lay (laid) the foundations for the sort of radical land use changes the Climate Change Committee, and others, are saying are so desperately needed. Gove’s also been at the front pushing for Beavers to be re-introduced widely across the UK – in the first tangible example of rewilding to be seen, at least in the lowlands. But his Brexit (and it’s his fingerprints that are all over this particular crime scene) has also created the chaos that may not only undermine all the good work he has done, but make things significantly worse for the Environment – and for us.

Photo: Martin Putzlocher [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Brexit, climate change, Defra, Michael Gove, Natural England | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

European Laws set to be ignored, as Outer M25 rears its ugly head again.

News that the Government has decided to opt for the most environmentally damaging route for the “brain belt” road between Oxford and Cambridge, reminded me that the bright future of the past – when everyone owns a car and can drive freely, anywhere, anytime – is still with us.

It is literally, and figuratively, more than half a life-time ago, when I took part in my first road protest. Well that’s not strictly true. I come from a family of road protesters. In the 1960’s,  my mum was part of a group which campaigned against part of the M11 motorway being constructed through the lovely, historic landscape of Wanstead Park in East London (they won).

In the 1970s, we lived on a suburban road which had become the most extraordinary rat-run. Down this road charged juggernauts, coaches and cars, all seeking to avoid a bottleneck, to get on (and off) the A12 which linked London to East Anglia. After years of campaigning, in 1975, the Council agreed to close the road. But there were such howls of protest from the road lobby (and I guess the queues elsewhere must have been spectacular) that the barriers were removed, after five days.

This was my first lesson in environmental campaigning – be prepared for victories to be short, and hollow.

By 1991, I was a young conservationist (still with hair) in my first professional job working for the Berks Bucks and Oxon Naturalists Trust (now BBOWT). The Roads for Prosperity policy document had been published in 1989, the same year that Margaret Thatcher made her famous climate change speech to the UN. Clearly, there was no connection being made between building new roads and climate change – at least in that Government. And when I say new roads, I mean LOTS of them.

Even looking back it seems extraordinary that anyone could have come up with the idea of making the M25 12 lanes wide, all the way round. And not just come up with the idea, but actually publish it in a White Paper. One of the other proposals was a new road (which we dubbed “The Outer M25” –  from the Suffolk Ports of Harwich and Felixstowe, all the way down to the M40, or possibly even the M4 – it wasn’t entirely clear on where they would stop (Southampton?). But the way this was being presented at local level was just a lot of individual bypasses, including for Aylesbury, where I was living. In fact, the bypass was proposed to cross the very farm in which I was renting a room. Naturally the farmer and her partner were equally horrified.

A change of heart

We thought why not mock up the bypass using black plastic sheeting and stage an event and invite the press. We made some mock traffic signs, including some particularly fine signs depicting squashed animals with tyre marks across them and managed to get on the local BBC news and in the local press. Meanwhile the Rothschilds, whose estate just up the road at Wing was also destined to be sliced in half by a dual carriageway, were unhappy. Perhaps they had a quiet private word with Mrs T.

By 1992, the anti-road protest movement was in full swing, culminating in the Twyford Down protests which galliantly failed to prevent the M3 extension, but were pivotal in achieving a change of heart. Other protests followed (including one in my own back yard at Wanstead.) and Reclaim the Streets started to organise events of a different kind. In any case, by March 1994, the Government was in full retreat, with 49 of the schemes outlined in Roads for Prosperity being abandoned – including the Aylesbury and Wing bypasses and the “outer M25” or east-west route as it was formally known. Ironically the farm is now going to be developed for nature-friendly housing, including a new Aylesbury relief road.

The idea for an outer M25 didn’t go away. Indeed, in the intervening 27 years, much of this east-west route has been built, as a series of bypasses and link roads. The missing link is from the M1 to the M40 i.e. through North Buckinghamshire, one way or another.

Which brings me to our current Secretary of State for Transport, Chris “failing” Grayling. Possibly the worst Transport Secretary ever. Under his tenure, we have seen the rail network collapse into chaos. And he is pushing the Oxford Cambridge expressway – a plan to create a new road and open up countryside for one million new homes to be built. Grayling has decided that this scheme doesn’t need a Strategic Environmental Assessment, or a Habitat Regulations Assessment. (These are legal requirements for any significant developments, particularly those which might affect top nature sites protected by the Habitats and Birds Directives and BBOWT is seeking to take Grayling to Court to challenge his decision.)

Grayling is ignoring European Law – now why might that be? Could it be because he thinks he can get away with it just as we are about to leave the EU? Could it be because he knows that after Brexit, the new environmental watchdog set to be created to replace the role previously undertaken by the European Commission (and European Court of Justice) will have no teeth? You might well ask these questions.

In traditional Department of Transport style, the public has been presented with three options for the route across east Oxfordshire and north Buckinghamshire. Although they were all very environmentally damaging, option B offered far and away the most environmental damage. The internationally important Oxford floodplain meadows are threatened, as are irreplaceable ancient woodlands and wildflower meadows in Bernwood Forest. This was pointed out to DaFT (Department for Transport). So, of course, that’s the one Grayling has chosen.

As this map notes, the road is described as a “missing strategic link” – and it’s one that the Transport Department has been mulling over since at least 1983. This map from an old Department for Transport publication shows that back then, the plan was for a road to cross Buckinghamshire along a surprisingly similar line – it’s so old that Milton Keynes isn’t shown on it!

It’s easy to imagine a scene straight out of Yes Minister, or perhaps The Thick of It. The seasoned civil servant spots that they have a right turkey in the ministerial office, and decide to blow the dust off an old file with a fading label on it “linking the M1 and the M40.”

“Minister – have you considered how we might connect Cambridge to Oxford? We’ve been doing a bit of work on the challenge, and come up with this idea….”

This article first appeared on Lush Times

Posted in Brexit, Buckinghamshire, European environment policy, new roads | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Gentlemen farmer MPs look to their own pockets, oblivious to rise of plant-based diets

former UKipper George Eustice now guides the Agriculture Bill through Parliament

Restaurant critic, writer and all-round foodie William Sitwell has parted company with Waitrose, as editor of their Food Magazine. He had replied to a journalist who had pitched some vegan recipes to him, with suggestions, which included  hunting vegans and force-feeding them meat. It was, apparently, meant to be a joke.

Free Speech warriors leapt to his defence, arguing that he should be free to make offensive remarks, and that there had been a vegan pile-on, which had led to him being sacked.

In truth, Sitwell’s sacking was nothing to do with any ‘vegan onslaught’ on social media but rather everything to do with Waitrose’s sales and the supermarket’s successful moves to capture a chunk of the vegetarian and vegan market.

Selene Nelson, the journalist who is no doubt now getting death threats from meat-maddened trolls, pitched some recipes to Sitwell on the back of Waitrose’s own publicity celebrating how much more “plant-based food” it is selling. You would imagine that Sitwell, being Editor of the Waitrose in-house food magazine, might just have spotted this trend. But no, he chose to send back a ‘let’s kill all vegans’ reply – then claim that it was meant to be a joke.

Did Waitrose sack Sitwell because of some notion of political correctness gone mad? No, they sacked him because he was wilfully damaging the company’s commercial enterprise – you could call him a saboteur. Who wouldn’t get rid of someone doing that? It’s just standard business practice.

The UK imports over half its vegetables

In its  2018-19 Food & Drink report, Waitrose told us that one third of the UK population was cutting down on meat, including one in eight who are vegetarian or vegan. This was caveated by other evidence that many were not totally strict and would occasionally eat meat. Nevertheless, the trend is clear, and people are reducing the amount of meat they eat. And a major reason for doing so is because of health concerns. It’s therefore interesting to read that globally, food production is focused on the wrong kinds of food.

Researchers in Canada investigated what kinds of food were being grown, and found a glut of grains, sugar and oils, but not enough fruit and vegetables. This is certainly the case in Britain, where an estimated 85% of agricultural land is used to grow meat and dairy products, with most of the rest being used to grow grains, oil crops – and sugar. We are self-sufficient in Pork and Chickens, but have to import over half of our vegetables, and most of our fruit. By value, the UK imports over 90% of the fruit and veg we consume. Clearly this needs to change, and quickly. Perhaps the new Agriculture Bill, currently passing through Parliament, could provide the policy leadership that’s so desperately needed.

Labour shadow Farming Minister, David Drew, recently suggested he wanted to see the UK becoming 100% self-sufficient in food – I assume he meant fruit and veg, given that we are already self-sufficient in most types of meat. But how realistic is that? He mentioned how we grow all the carrots we eat, and that certainly has been the case in the past. This year though, the Beast from the East, followed by our scorching summer, has battered carrot growers, who have been talking about a Carrot crisis for months. Onions have fared worse, with growers crying about a 40% drop in yield this year. Even potatoes, in which we are usually self-sufficient, suffered from the cold, late winter, with planting areas down to the third-lowest on record. And with climate chaos now firmly with us and a reality for farmers across the UK, is it really that wise to put all our eggs in the self-sufficiency basket?

Not that this concerns too many of our farmer MPs. There are around 290,000 farmers, including spouses and business partners in the UK  – about 0.5% of the UK’s adult population. If the number of farmers (or their spouses) who became MPs was the same as for any other walk in life, we would expect to see 3-4 farmer/farmer’s spouse MPs. Instead, we have rather more than that.

Of the 55 MPs who spoke in the 2nd reading debate of the Agriculture Bill, an astonishing 25% of them were either farmers, owned farmland, or owned part of a farming business. Another 10% identified as hobby farmers, farmer’s spouses, or had jobs in farming, or in one case came from “a long line of ploughmen.” It will surprise no-one that almost all of these farmer MPs are Tories, aside from a DUP MP who owns farmland and a large meat-processing business.

Gove’s vision for the future of agriculture should be challenged

There is a Parliamentary convention that an MP should declare any interests they may have in a topic under debate, before making comments. Most of the farmer MPs just referred to their register of interests, as in “I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests”. A few went further, including ‘Brexity’ Dorset landowner (7000 acres) Richard Drax, who said

Yes, I did vote for Brexit and yes, I am a turkey voting for Christmas because the subsidies that my farm receives will be considerably reduced, putting my business plan if not at risk then certainly into review. I do not object to that: I voted to leave the EU because I believe that that is best for our country.”

Others were far more coy. Alister Jack, Tory MP for Dumfries and Galloway, failed to mention that he is part-owner of Courance Farms, which received £84,000 in basic farm payments last year. Julian Sturdy MP, referred to his register of interests, but did not mention he is part-owner of a farming business, which received £25,000 in basic payments last year. Mr Sturdy tops up his MP’s salary by paying himself £500 a month from the farm, for around 16 hours of work a month.

How many of these gentlemen farmers have been reading from the National Farmers Union (NFU) hymn sheet, you may well wonder? The NFU would much rather farmers were paid to produce more food, with a few crumbs being spent on the Environment. And members  continue to attempt to derail Michael Gove’s plans to introduce payments to farmers for ‘public goods’, rather than just paying landowners for owning land, as is currently the case. Fortunately they have not been successful so far.

In some sense though, it is right that Gove’s vision for the future of agriculture be challenged. While the “public money for public goods” approach has to be right, how can we also shift our agricultural system away from producing the wrong kinds of food, and towards the right stuff – more fruit and vegetables. And how do we ensure that fruit and veg that is imported into the UK, is produced to the same standards as our domestic produce?

The former could be solved by including public health as a public good, as proposed by Sustain – the alliance for better food and farming. As eating more fruit and vegetables is good for us, it follows that producing more of them (in a sustainable way) could also be seen as a public good. Small scale production of fruit and vegetables by smallholders and Co-ops also helps provide sustainable jobs and reduces food miles. However, ensuring that our sustainable food producers are not undercut by imported food produced to lower standards, is a knottier problem … especially as Dr Liam “chlorinated chicken” Fox is in charge.

this article first appeared in Lush Times.

Posted in 2018 agriculture bill, Lush Times, NFU | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Evicting feral ponies, trophy-hunting feral goats. Who decides what goes where?

What should we be conserving? Which animals should be free to roam the British countryside; free to behave as naturally as they can. And who gets to decide?  These questions have come to the fore once again in recent weeks, albeit in very different circumstances.

The idea of rewilding parts of these islands continues to incite controversy and anger, as well as inspiring our imaginations. Rewilding, in a nutshell, is about allowing natural processes to take prominence over human ones. This includes the notion of bringing back animals (or indeed plants, in theory, but it’s almost always animals in practice) which perform vital ecological functions. Animals such as the Beaver, which is now well establised in parts of Scotland, and starting to become so in England. Some also argue that the Lynx should be brought back, but even a discussion of this idea, has elicited outrage from the sheep-farming community. And don’t even mention the Wolf.

Hunters will explain that they now perform the role formerly undertaken by extinct predators such as the Wolf and Lynx. This is unlikely, of course, to have been the motivation for celebrity huntress Larysa Switlyk, who hit the headlines when it became clear that her visit to Scotland was not solely for self-publicity purposes, but to hunt and kill a feral goat on the Island of Mull.

Pictures posted on social media by Switlyk also indicate she shot a sheep during her “hunting” visit to Scotland. Understandable outrage ensued. Who would hunt a sheep? Well, there are historical precedents, perhaps most notoriously the Eton Ram Hunt, where boys of Eton College carried out a ritual hunt of a ram at the beginning of each school year – at least up until 1740.

Feral goats are by their nature, escaped domestic goats which have found a wild place where they can live and breed. They are wild, but they are not a native wild animal in the sense that Red Deer, or indeed Wolves, are. In the case of Ms Switlyk, she has permission from the landowner to hunt the goat (and one assumes the sheep), so was acting within the law.

The same principle applies to feral ponies. The Cumbrian Fell Pony is thought to have originated from Friesian horses brought to Britain by the Romans, although the evidence for this is not conclusive. These Ponies carried out hard physical work, especially in the farming, timber and mineral extraction industries for which the Lake District was so famous. What is clear is that these Fell Ponies have roamed the fells of Cumbria for several centuries. They are not wild and no longer breed without human intervention, as the stallions are not allowed to run wild with the mares. But the mares and foals do (in some places) live all year round on the fells.

Rights of grazing

Many of the Lake District’s famous remote and bleak fells are also registered Commons. Commons are owned by a landowner, but Commoners (a right usually associated with living in a farm near to the edge of a common) have rights to use the Common – and these tend to be rights of grazing. And these grazing rights can include the right to graze sheep, cattle and ponies on the commons. One such Lakeland common, Birkbeck Common, has been the location for a slow-burning controversy which recently came to a head. It has pitted National and International wildlife law against Commoners’ rights, and is a microcosm to explore the question of who decides what should be conserved.

Mr Potter, A Birkbeck Commoner, prominent in the world of Cumbrian Fell Ponies, was running a herd of Cumbrian Fell Ponies on Birkbeck Common. Natural England has responsibility to ensure that Birkbeck Common – part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and internationally protected Special Area of Conservation, is managed in such a way that the valuable wildlife present there is not harmed.

Monitoring the site over a number of years, Natural England staff concluded that Birkbeck Common was being overgrazed by Mr Potter’s ponies. Overgrazing at Birkbeck Common was first brought to the attention of its predecessor English Nature, in 1995. The Commoners had entered into an agreement with the Government in 1998 whereby they would be paid to reduce the number of animals they kept on the Common. This agreement was replaced by an updated Higher Level Scheme agreement in 2010. In this new agreement a much lower number of Fell Ponies were allowed to stay on the Common.

It would appear, however, that the owner of the ponies felt that they had a common right to let his ponies stay on the common all year round, against the decision of Natural England. Things came to a head in 2013 when the Common owner, working with Natural England and the Council, organised for Mr Potter’s ponies to be rounded up and removed from the Common. Mr Potter subsequently returned his ponies to the Common.

Things took a turn for the worse from there, until eventually Natural England commenced legal proceedings against Mr Potter in late 2017. This culminated in Mr Potter being found guilty on 12th September this year. He was fined £1,320 for illegally grazing the Site of Special Scientific Interest. He was also ordered to pay the prosecution costs of £15,000, plus a victim surcharge of £66. Mr Potter’s solicitor has said he will appeal the finding.

The Fell Pony Society is a small charity with around 1000 members, dedicated to conserving the Cumbrian Fell Pony. Although there are hundreds of these ponies owned by enthusiasts across the country, very few ponies still live on the Fells – and Mr Potter and others, argue that the breed will only truly be conserved if they are allowed to continue living on the Fells. But this small charity has influential friends. Natural England Council member Julia Aglionby felt the need to declare her interest during discussions of the Birkbeck Common legal proceedings at Natural England Board meetings in May and December 2017; and January 2018. Ms Aglionby is a prominent advocate for Cumbrian Commoners, and was funded by Natural England to develop a Commons Council for Cumbria (before she then joined NE’s board.)

Another NE Board member, former National Farmers Union uplands chair Will Cockbain, recently retired from Natural England’s board. Mr Cockbain did not feel the need to declare the fact that his wife has been and continues to be a Council member of the Fell Pony Society. Two relatives of Mr Potter’s also sit on the Fell Pony Society Council. And his solicitor also stood for election to the charity’s Council in 2016.

The irony of this case

It’s worth bearing in mind that Natural England very rarely resorts to prosecution for damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest. No criminal proceedings were brought at all during 2015-16. Indeed NE has been criticized repeatedly for failing to prosecute in high profile cases such as Walshaw Moor. I can only assume that NE must have felt that the case was a strong one, but also that it was in the public interest to take legal action against this 79 year old hill farmer. Equally Mr Potter would presumably have felt that his ancient common rights of grazing were being threatened, and that the conservation of the Fell Pony was also under threat. But the weight of the law sits behind the SSSI designation, and especially so for those SSSIs which also have European protection, as Birkbeck Common does.

The irony of this particular case is that other ancient Pony breeds such as the Exmoor, Dartmoor and Welsh Mountain Ponies, are used specifically for conservation grazing, because they are hardy and can eat pretty much anything. It’s just that in this case, the presence of this herd, all year round, was damaging the vegetation of the fell.

Some will argue that the most important thing to protect and conserve in the Lake District, is the farming system, which includes the Commons and the Commoners. James Rebanks, the Herdy Shepherd, believes this system of farming and commoners is the most important element of the landscape; it’s what defines and maintains the landscape. Others will argue that rewilding means shifting domestic grazing animals off the Fells to allow trees to grow back, for a more “natural” landscapes.

To return to my original question then, who decides which animals are allowed to roam freely across the landscape?

Should it be the landowner, the commoner, or the State, influenced by lobbying from special interest groups of all shapes and colours? And where should the focus of conservation be – bringing back extinct wild animals, conserving feral ones, or protecting ancient farming systems?

There are good reasons for arguing that all of these things have value to Society. But as the Birkbeck Common case shows, they cannot all exist in the same place at the same time.

this article first appeared in Lush Times.

Posted in commons, Fell Ponies, hunting, Natural England | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Backwoodsmen out in force for Parliament farm debate

the post-war drive for food self-sufficiency has its roots in the fascist ideology of Oswald Mosley

The long slow march of the new Agriculture Bill through Parliament continued last week, as Environment Secretary Michael Gove sought to reassure, indeed sooth, everyone’s concerns. Though Gove is a consummate schmoozer, mollifier and reassurer, satisfying the demands pressing on him from the many different sides of the debate may be beyond even his considerable talents.

There were some very valuable interventions – not least from Green MP Caroline Lucas, who made a number of excellent points. In particular, she pointed out that if we are really going to prevent Climate Change beyond the 1.5C limit the IPCC now says is needed, agriculture is going to have to change dramatically, as will our own eating habits. Lucas also noted the absence of public health as a key element of the new Agriculture Bill, as did others.

The debate was also, as expected, the first opportunity for the traditional Tory ‘backwoodsmen’ to make an appearance, alongside other characters who are famous, or infamous, for altogether different reasons. John Redwood, one of Sir John Major’s infamous ‘bastards’ who was among the original EU sceptics, made a bizarre intervention, claiming that:

“There has been a big decline in our self-sufficiency as food producers during the 46 years in which we have been in the ​common agricultural policy.”

A strange quirk of history

This is incorrect. Self-sufficiency peaked under Margaret Thatcher, due to Agriculture Minister Peter Walker’s enthusiasm for this ideological policy. By 1984, the UK was 95% self-sufficient in indigenous foods – a full 11 years after we joined the Common Agricultural Policy, (in 1973).

In a strange quirk of history, it was a Fascist who had the greatest influence over this particular policy aim. The British Union of Fascists believed that Britain should be entirely self-sufficient in food (known as autarchy) – they wanted it to be provided by a revival in domestic agriculture, and of course imports from the Empire and Dominions. As Empire crumbled, post-war, this policy evolved to argue for the UK to be self-sufficient in food grown from our own land.

The former BUF farm policy leader and Dorset farmer Bob Saunders (who was interned during the War), rose to a senior position in the National Farmers Union (NFU), where he was able to influence successive Governments and Whitehall civil servants in the Ministry of Agriculture. Saunders was particularly effective at influencing Walker, who took up this policy – despite it being completely at odds with the neo-liberal free-trade policies that became Thatcher Government’s hallmark.

After Walker left MAFF, successive free-traders abandoned autarchy, as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) also started to move (albeit at a glacial pace) away from the single focus on food production. It’s worth noting that the CAP was created as a direct response to people dying of starvation in Europe after the Second World War (and also a backdoor way for Germany to pay reparations to France, via farm subsidies).

Another bizarre intervention came from Huw Merriman who represents a chunk of the Sussex Weald. The Weald is now rightly famous as the last remaining sanctuary in Britain, for the survival of wildflower meadows.  Merriman initially waved his wildlife credentials around, bragging of his chairmanship of the All Party Parliamentary group on pollinators. He then proceeded to argue that the Agriculture Bill should pay his farmers to intensify production, on their poor soils, which are innately unproductive.

He railed against “investment bankers” buying up land and managing it for Nature rather than caning it for every last extra kilo of wheat. This is somewhat ironic considering that Merriman worked for the err investment bank Lehmann Brothers – you know, the one which caused the global financial crash in 2008.

Merriman was also confused about how much food the UK used to produce, claiming that we were 100% self-sufficient 50 years ago, but only 60% now. This is rubbish. Even at the height of that fascist-inspired self-sufficiency drive, the UK was only 78% self-sufficient. Does pollinator champion Merriman really want to pay farmers to plough up the few remaining wildflower meadows, just to produce a few more tonnes of low quality feed wheat? These are the policies of the 1970s.

Watching the debate, and reading through it afterwards, I was struck, once again, by how effective a lobbying organisation the National Farmers Union is.  We were treated by the spectacle of both the Environment Secretary and his opposite number trying to out vie each other in quoting from the NFU President Minette Batters. It was a bit embarrassing really – as they were both using her quote “you can’t go green if you’re in the red.” Meaning the environment only gets a look in on farmland once farming is generating a decent profit. Or even, as previous Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom claimed “farming is the bedrock of the environment.”

This is, of course, arrant nonsense and barely disguised NFU propaganda. How did Nature survive for four billion years before farming came along 10,000 years ago, you might wonder. But it’s testament to the power of the NFU lobbying machine, that our political leaders unthinking use the quote, in a weird competition of who can be the NFU’s real bff.

Another gem, probably straight of the National Sheep Association’s playbook, came from Scottish Lib Dem MP (yes there is one) Jamie Stone. Stone suggested that Scottish sheep farmers should be given farm subsidies:

It is self-evident to me that we cannot do much with the straths and glens in ​my constituency other than rear sheep. I want to push him on one other point. Tourism depends on seeing our straths and glens populated with livestock and on vibrant and successful farming. May I push him for his comments on the tourism aspect of agriculture?

Gove replied:

He is absolutely right: Iconic landscapes from Caithness and Sutherland and Easter Ross through to the Lake District and, indeed, Exmoor and Dartmoor depend for their tourist appeal and for their pull on the human heart on the work of our farmers. It is inconceivable that those iconic landscapes could survive and flourish without the rural, economic and social network that sheep farming and other forms of farming provide. Absolutely, we do recognise that. It is a public good, and public access to our countryside is placed here.

So, apparently, it is only sheep farming, which keeps the straths and glens of the Black Isle devoid of wildlife, which brings tourists there – and to other iconic landscapes  – or ‘sheepscapes’ if you prefer. Some might say sheep-scraped. Successive Governments, and the EU, have supported a massive number of sheep on these hills. But it wasn’t always like that – as I explored in a blog last year.

Some have argued that hill farming communities should be regarded as a public good and paid to exist, but Farm Minister, George Eustice, rejected this argument and noted that the Upland Alliance, which represents Upland farmers, believes that these communities should be supported for the wide range of public goods they already provide, and others which they can provide in greater proportion – for example preventing downstream flooding, or carbon capture in bogs and woods.

This debate has provided a useful opportunity to see who is lobbying MPs most successfully, and who is not being heard. Health came through, clearly as an issue which needs to be included. The effectiveness of the NFU in lobbying for payments to produce more food, regardless of the environmental or social cost, should also act as a red flag for anyone interested in seeing more sustainable farming systems adopted here.

Posted in 2018 agriculture bill, Fascism, NFU | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

England’s Green and Pheasant Land?

Pheasant Chicks © Ruth Peacey



Anyone visiting the countryside over the last few weeks will have noticed that, suddenly, pheasants are everywhere: Running into the road, or standing looking confused – they, at first, appear quite quaint and charming. Their sudden ubiquity, however, heralds the beginning of the shooting season.  Shooters will pay up to or even more than £25,000 a day for the most exclusive shoots, where hundreds of birds will be shot in one day. Others will shoot just a few, with friends, and for the pot.

Estimates vary but it is likely that considerably more than 35 million pheasants are bred and released into the countryside (mostly England) each year. These are not native wild birds – they are livestock, though their legal status is truly bizarre. There is a much smaller, though still very large, population of feral pheasants – now around two million in strength. Add these and their offspring to the 35 million released, gives a figure nearer 50 million birds out in the countryside at this time of year. That’s almost one pheasant for every person living in the UK.

Only about a third of those released, and a quarter of the total  – are shot. That’s about 12 million. And of those, less than half are taken by game dealers. Supply of pheasants far outweighs demand. Nearly half of game dealers only accept pheasants for free, while one in eight is now charging shoots for taking their pheasants, according to Savill’s benchmarking survey. The rest of those that are shot are either given away, or dumped. Dumping shot pheasants – either in specially created stinkpits, or just in the countryside, is an increasing problem. Although there are no official figures for how many are disposed of like this, it is likely to be hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And the fact that game dealers are now charging to take even the best carcasses, will only make this problem a bigger one.

So, what happens to the rest of them? A small number make it through the winter to add to the already burgeoning feral population, while the rest succumb to starvation, disease, predators and road accidents. Twenty million dead pheasants is a lot of freely available food for foxes, buzzards, other birds of prey, crows, magpies, other corvids and perhaps even the odd badger, which will eat carrion. So perhaps it’s no surprise that fox, crow and magpie populations are on the increase too. It’s worth considering how these predators then, in turn,  have an impact on farmland and especially ground-nesting birds. Could the pheasant industry be inadvertently contributing to the decline in farmland birds? It seems very likely.

There are other impacts too – pheasants are bred intensively and as a result are dosed with prophylactic antibiotics (given before infections arise). Only recently have vets considered that this could be contributing to Antibiotic Resistance – but so far have only proposed a voluntary scheme, to reduce antibiotic use.  In 2018, for the first time, a pheasant was found in England with symptomatic Avian Influenza. Now there is emerging evidence that pheasants can be infected, and release Avian Influenza virus, for prolonged periods of time, without showing signs of infection.

The welfare of pheasants is also given less credence than for say their domestic cousins, the chicken. Beak Bits are used to stop pheasants pecking each other, though beak removal is not commonly used.  Because of the confusing legal status of game-birds, they do not receive the same animal welfare protections as farmed birds and are only covered by a voluntary code of practice.

The shooting industry would love for us all to start eating lots more pheasants, to soak up all the surplus animals. They have even created a new organisation, The British Game Alliance, to promote pheasant-eating. Shooting advocate, the former England cricketer, Ian Botham, has  even suggested feeding pheasants to people in food poverty, although plans to provide pheasant meat to food banks via the Fairshare charity collapsed when it was noted that perhaps poisoning the poor with lead was not a great way of promoting the shooting industry. There is also something deeply unsavoury (and a bit Victorian) about the idea that food produced purely as a result of a wealthy person’s sport, should be made available to those at the bottom of society, who struggle to put food on the table.

In a way we all subsidise this sport – through our taxes. Farm and woodland payments to landowners help subsidise shoots. There are extra payments available for landowners to plant wild bird seed mixtures and cover crops. While these might provide food for truly wild birds, they will definitely also be helping to feed pheasants. And the same landowners also benefit greatly through tax incentives and tax breaks. There is even a public subsidy on shotgun licences.

It seems unlikely that the British public will start eating lots of gamey pheasant meat any time soon. We aren’t even particularly keen on brown chicken meat, exporting much of what the UK chicken industry produces, and replacing it with imported chicken breast – from the Netherlands and Poland. Indeed, it’s reckoned around half of the pheasant meat that does end up with game dealers is exported into the EU.

There are undoubtedly many small pheasant shoots across the country where the landowners care about animal welfare, eat all the birds that are produced; and manage the countryside in ways which helps other wildlife. But there are also very large commercial pheasant shoots which are causing a wide variety of environmental problems. This is now a lucrative, influential, and for the most part, unregulated industry.

Instead of just allowing pheasant numbers, and their impacts, to increase year on year, it’s time this changed.

this article first appeared on Lush Times.


Posted in countryside alliance, game shooting industry, pheasants | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments