Lodge Hill Grasslands and the NVC

I’ve received this comment from Doug Hulyer, Board member of Natural England, regarding my post about the notification of Lodge Hill as an SSSI.

It was good to see you at the Board meeting, Miles. I take issue with your claim that no board members understand the NVC. I’ve sat on NEs Board since it was vested, and on English Nature’s Council for four years before. My career in nature conservation began being a warden for two downland/grassland and one woodland reserve in Surrey in 1977 and I was Director of Conservation Programmes at WWT for many years, responsible for the oversight of several Ramsar sites. I won’t begin to list the achievements and ecological credentials of my fellow Board members, Prof David MacDonald and David Hill. There is substantial ecological expertise on the Board and, though I probably don’t have the detailed understanding of NVC that you do, before every visit I make to a SSSI before they come to the Board, I make sure I understand the NVC categories under consideration and their nuances.

Doug Hulyer

Thanks very much for your comment Doug. Perhaps I was a bit harsh when I said “no board members understand he NVC”. In my earlier post I was a little more nuanced and stated  “When it came to discussing the intricacies of vegetation they were all at sea. In a way this sums up where we are in conservation – we can deal with single species and their requirements, but when it comes to assemblages, or communities, and their multifaceted behaviour, the preference is to turn away, to avoid having to deal with it.”

My experience of listening to the board members talk about the grassland at Lodge Hill did leave me a bit shocked. The Board comprise: 2 farmers, a management consultant, a statistician and an accountant, plus yourself David Hill David McDonald and Andy Wilson. As far as biological expertise I would class you, Andy and David as principally bird experts  (you have all worked for the RSPB or WWT) and David M as a mammal expert.  I think it’s fair to say no-one on the board has specific plant or plant community expertise.

That came out very clearly in the discussion about the grasslands at Lodge Hill. The objectors succesfully sowed doubt in your minds using spurious arguments which commonly crop up when the NVC is discusssed. The main one used is “this is not a good example of this particularly NVC type because it is a poor fit to the floristic table.” And they then go on to bandy about statistics from MATCH to show how poor the fit is. When at The Grasslands Trust I took a complaint against Defra to the European Commission on the grounds that they were failing to implement the EIA Directive for agriculture and allowing semi-natural ie unimproved grasslands to be destroyed. Defra’s approach was that in order to prove a grassland was semi-natural, NVC data would have to be collected and put through MATCH. If a good fit was not achieved, the grassland could be destroyed. Of course most of the time there was NVC data to put through MATCH because the grassland had already been ploughed up. But the idea that MATCH could give you an unequivocal answer led Prof John Rodwell, Godfather to the NVC, to describe the relevant people at Defra as Woodenheads, and who am I to disagree with the Prof? MATCH should be used with extreme care because its results are invariably based on an insufficient number of samples. In this case we had to witness the absurd application of MATCH by the objectors to single quadrats!!

To dismiss a grassland because it is not a “good” fit to the floristic tables in the NVC is equivalent to Darwin visiting the Galapagos Islands and refusing to see the new species of finch, on the grounds that they were not “good examples” of the species of finch he was familiar with, and should therefore be ignored. The NVC itself emphasises time and time again that a stand should be characterised using the floristic table in combination with a close reading of the description in the text. The text provides considerably greater nuance and understanding than just a reading of the tables.

Grassland communities, just like species, are highly variable – indeed because they comprise many different species all varying their behaviour in slightly different ways, communities are much more variable than species. The NVC communities are “a reference system of nodal points in a complex multidimensional field of variation in vegetation so that any particular stand can be identified either as representing one nodal point or as occupying an intermediate position between two or more.”

Sadly the NVC in the intervening decades has been increasingly misunderstood as codifying a set of nodes as the “best”, rather than as archetypes around which much variation occurs. MG5 is probably the most abused NVC community, because it is a defnition by exclusion, covering such a wide range of variation; and also happens to be the one vegetation type that is both vanishingly rare and easily developable, so is commonly fought over. 13 years ago Rodwell recognised that the MG5 definitions in the NVC were inadequate “MG5 is a more diverse grassland than the present account indicates.”

In the end it was left to David McDonald to put forward the arguments that the grassland at Lodge Hill should be included in the SSSI, on the grounds that since some of it did qualify, even if other parts didn’t, then it should all be included. You asked if the grassland in Rough Shaw could be included, and the rest removed.  But all of the grassland is unimproved and species-rich Doug – all the scientific evidence showed that. The question came down to whether the stands were a “good” fit to the MG5 floristic tables – they were not, and that variation is the lifeblood of nature.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in grasslands, Lodge Hill, Natural England, NVC, Professor John Rodwell, SSSis and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lodge Hill Grasslands and the NVC

  1. doughulyer says:

    All fair points, Miles. I was questioning the implicit assumption that there was sparse ecological expertise on the Board. It’s interesting how assumptions are made… For instance, that I’m a bird expert because I spent over 20 years at Slimbridge. When interviewed by Peter Scott for the role of Education head at the Trust, he asked me if I was interested in birds/wildfowl – I replied no…but I am interested in what they eat. My biological background is freshwater biology (macro invertebrates
    ) and botany… Though very very rusty now.
    The case that both David and I made on Lodge Hill were complementary, helping coloeagues and leading to a decision to notify for grassland as well as nightingales.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Doug. Yes I did mistakenly put you in the “bird” box when that was incorrect.

      I do think though that given how important the NVC is to determining whether terrestrial SSSIs get notified or not, the Board should have actual expertise in it, as opposed to awareness of it. Otherwise the danger is that the Board, especially the non-ecological majority could be swayed by spurious arguments, or worse.

      This is especially important if the new chair has no particular interest in conservation.

  2. Pingback: Solar Farms and Grasslands: A cautionary Tale. | a new nature blog

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