Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Rewilding a wetland - update!

Hi folks. What a difference some rain makes! Was down at my field for the first time in a wee while and it was wet. Very wet indeed. Obviously you expect and to some degree hope for that when you are doing a wetland project, but it was still exciting to see.

Anyway, it was a beautiful sight. Herons, goldfinches, flocks of lapwings and starlings, snipe, kestrel and buzzards were all there, both in my field and my neighbours land. With a few more trees and little diversity of plantlife, who knows what might come along?

So that's the next step - to source some local trees to scatter in a couple of areas. Alder and downy birch to begin with, as I see plenty of them growing in similar areas a couple of miles away. Perhaps the odd oak on firmer ground, or if I have leftover soil from digging a scrape. Hawthorn and willow may be able to seed themselves.

I also installed a trail-cam to get an idea of what larger creatures may be passing through. Not only is this fun, but it might be important for trees planting. No point leaving little trees exposed if the deer are just going to eat them. :)

Friday, 25 November 2016

Wild boar are native too, and we should recognise that

Yesterday the Scottish Government officially recognised what we have long known and asked for - that beavers are a native species in Scotland and that those which have been reintroduced - whether intentionally or not - should be allowed to stay.

This is the right decision and a huge victory for all those - particularly those in the Tay Valley - who have campaigned for so long or worked on reintroduction projects. It means that these animals can be protected, and if necessary, managed for the long term. It is also good for the semi-legal populations of beavers elsewhere in the UK (such as those in Devon) as it should strengthen the argument that they are a fully native and protected species.

But its implications should go wider. Currently there are hundreds of wild boar living, half legally, in the UK. Like the beavers these are a native species which were wiped out for a few hundred years but which are now back in the wild. The UK (and Scottish) governments, should grant them full native status.

Critics will argue that as they have not been reintroduced in a formal programme they can not be considered native. This is nonsense, something the Scottish government has tacitly accepted by extending 'native' status to descendants of beavers which escaped in the Perthshire, as well as those of the 'official' reintroduction project in Agryll.

More importantly, at a time of biological crisis, when species and populations are falling at a catastrophic rate, we should look to our rules to help wildlife, not use them to throw up arbitrary barriers. Wild boar are native to most of the UK. After an absence of a few hundred years they have returned to several areas. How they came to do that seems, in the grander scheme of things, largely irrelevant. They are the right species in the right place and they are living and breeding and spreading. We should be happy about that and give the protection and the respect they deserve.

Here are some screen-shots I have made of a family near the Forest of Dean in England, from footage we shot a few years back (courtesy of Hand-Crafted Films).


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Scottish government recognises beavers as a native species

Woohoo! Finally after months and months of prevarication, the Scottish Government has formally recognised that beavers are a native Scottish species, and so will receive protection under European and Scottish law.

This is big news, as it means that not only the 'official' beaver reintroduction programme in Argyll, but also the much larger unofficial beaver population in Tayside can now stay permanently, and will be protected. Up until now they have occupied a sort of twilight area, where they have been vulnerable to killing and extermination.

While this is obviously of huge benefit to the beavers in Scotland, it could also be good news for similar 'semi-legal' populations in England, which I had a hand in helping be left in the wild. Currently the only beavers officially recognised in England is the group which escaped and established themselves on the River Otter in Devon, which is now being allowed to remain as a 'trial' managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust. Even these are not totally protected and could in theory be removed at the end of the process.

At the same time there are several other unofficial populations in England which, like their counterparts in the Tay river system, have been breeding unofficially and which are vulnerable.

So far the UK government has been loath to recognise that beavers are a native species in England, with all the legal safeguards that might entail. They even went so far as to introduce a clause in the infrastructure bill which could help to separate populations of the same species into lawful and unlawful ones. Nonetheless, the fact that the Scottish government has done so must put pressure on the UK government to follow suit, and may even have legal consequences all on its own. Watch this space. Regardless of the law, there really is no excuse not to protect them. At a time when the loss of wildlife is almost routine, we should fight tooth and nail for any chance to see a lost species return and spread.

In the meantime, it is a good thing in the midst of lots of bad things. So let's be happy.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Wild boar in our history

Hi all  - I just thought I would upload this beautiful painting from the lid of a 6th century Anglo-Saxon coffin I saw in the papers today, showing a wild boar hunt.

I love stuff like this, as it shows the vital place that wildlife has, and has always had in our culture and that of our predecessors. Quite simply our lives are enriched by sharing them with other creatures, something which can be forgotten in the dry world of ecosystem services and flood prevention which makes up so much of the conservation debate.

As you will know wild boar are now living and breeding in the several locations of the UK, and despite persecution and the occasional calls for their removal by various zoophobes, they seem to be well accepted.

Long may it remain that way, and lets hope it won't be long before they are found in forests and fens right across the country.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

I'm starting my own little rewilding project, and I'm really excited.

I've bought a field. Yup that's right, a whole field, with four sides. I'm officially a land owner. And I'm going to try and turn it into a little nature reserve through a gentle process of rewilding. It's very exciting.

I don't want to draw too much attention to myself, so I won't say exactly where the field is, but it's less than 20 acres in size and in a really lovely wetland part of England. For people in less densely populated parts of the world that might seem ridiculously small (it is), but it's a start, and it is what I can do right now.

The area as a whole is quite rich in wildlife, but heavily farmed. Not far from my field are a number of well established nature reserves separated by a mix of agriculture - grazing, hay meadows and arable farming. Criss-crossing the landscape is a maze of ditches and rivers, which provide some much needed refuge for aquatic species and important corridors for dispersal. A few small roads cut through the countryside.

The field itself and its immediate surroundings are free from environmental designations. While on the whole these are probably a good thing, it became clear during my planning for the project that it would be almost impossible to create a nature reserve if the field was in a SSSI or a Special Area of Conservation. Similarly if it was farmed under a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (a deal for farm subsidies designed to encourage nature) then it would be very difficult. This is somewhat paradoxical, but the point of these schemes is to maintain things as they are, to maintain the habitat they are classified as. That makes sense if we assume that 99% of development will be negative, but it is frustrating to have someone explain why you would be required to maintain a bare green field bare and green (classed neutral grassland) in order to maintain it's condition as a SSSI, while allowing it to convert to wet forest over time (another designation under the SSSI scheme) would not be acceptable.

Anyway, more on that another time.

Currently the field is rough grazing, unimproved grassland, surrounded by lots of other fields which are much the same. Every few years the area floods, and even in summer the water table is just a half a metre from the top of the ditches that surround it. Frogs, dragonflies, damselflies, reed warblers, goldfinches, buzzards and herons  and a host of other species all frequent the area. There is evidence too of badgers and deer, eating the grass and digging in the banks. Wild boar have been spotted not too far away.

Why here? Well, I have always been interested in wetland wildlife and ecology, and deltas and marshes have a special place in my heart. There is something so wonderfully wild and inaccessible about them. At the same time, being flat, they are always deeply threatened with draining for farmland and house building so have become very rare. In the rewilding debate too they have become a little ignored, as most of the attention has been focused, understandably, on the issues of afforestation in the uplands and the damage caused by sheep and grouse moors.

So what is the plan?

Well, I've been doing preliminary surveys on the land, scoping out what is already there and discussing some gentle changes with the experts.

First, I would like to create a bit more open water in the area. So I'm hoping to put in a couple of shallow scrapes. Like these ones nearby, but with a more ragged edge!

This one is not actually in my field but is a (very straight) scrape nearby...

Second, I'm going to plant some trees, or perhaps get some local children to plant them for me. Not thousands, but an initial scattering. In an ideal world I wouldn't need to, but there are no immediate sources of seed to recolonise the land, and I'm only human. I'd like to see some changes in my lifetime. Hazel, alder, birch, willow, blackthorn and perhaps an oak or too. The ground is boggy, but many of these species will thrive in those conditions, and if they don't that's okay too. I'll try and do them as unevenly as possible, so if anyone knows a location generator for this type of thing let me know!

And that's about it. After that the hope is to sit back and see what comes along, to leave most of the field alone to develop as it will  (or not - I have been assured that left alone most of it will stay the same for decades). If it seems like a good thing, maybe I'll try and raise some money for more land.

Is it rewilding? Well I would argue yes, of a sort. Obviously the piece of land is too small to allow proper landscape scale rewilding, but the philosophy of allowing a more hands off approach, not relying on merely maintaining existing land management techniques to maintain a nice, but desperately incomplete status quo. I hope to minimise human interference on the site as much as possible - there will be no parking areas, or picnic facilities or commercial apparatus of any kind. Nor are there any target species or fixed ideas about what it should look like. It will simply be one more tiny island in the mix of the landscape.

I'm sure there will be a lot more unexpected problems, so I may set up another blog to discuss the details, in case anyone wants to do anything similar or join in on a future piece of land. Wish me luck.

Until then, here are some pictures in which I carefully avoid giving away the location....

Friday, 29 July 2016

Should Bristol set up a Citizens' Embassy?

All over the world, two things people know about Brexit are that Scotland and London did not vote for it. I'll wager the fact that Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, Liverpool, Cambridge, Cardiff and many other cities also backed staying in the EU is not well known.

Why does this matter? Well, some might argue that the vote to leave the EU has done huge damage to the UK's reputation and cities and towns would do well to make their intentions known. Personally I suspect this is a good reason to get things going (London is certainly making its case), but something which may not such a big deal in the end. The fall-out, though real, will eventually pass.

What is more interesting to me is the very low international visibility of UK cities and regions - apart again from Scotland and London.

Okay, okay Oxbridge and Liverpool FC and the Beatles and Madchester may all be well known, but they are specific topics. Very little of the contemporary politics or cultural identities of UK cities makes it abroad. In art, design, fashion and general 'soft power' they lag. I have travelled the world and seen substandard French or US design trumpeted in stores in Japan, while UK branding is generally restricted to a 'London' tagline. Partly this is because in some respects the UK's regional cities do lag, at least in a global sense, but its a chicken and egg thing. In an information age, the story of a place really matters.

With that in mind I think Bristol could think about opening some 'embassies'. Not real ones obviously, but paradiplomacy is a growth area and there is no reason why cities and regions cannot have their own cultural centres and trade missions. It could even be independent of City Hall - a Citizen's Embassy if you will.

Other UK cities might like to follow suit. Perhaps three or four could team up.

What would they do? Well broadly speaking they would fly the flag for the city, arrange cultural exchanges, promote the exchange of urban development ideas, and connections in science, art, music - whatever. It would need to be honest, not pointless tub-thumping or tourist board nonsense, and open for serious business and engagement. So far so boring. But it could go further.

It should be participatory. It could crowd fund ideas, and the means to support them. It could have a budget set aside to allow people from the home city a say in how they wish to be represented. When problems faced by the home city are being addressed they could be opened up, advertised as it were, to source ideas from the other countries or regions. Bristol has aspirations to be an open-data city. By presenting the data sets abroad and inviting citizens in other countries and cultures to address problems we might come up with new and exciting ideas.

Where would I put them? I'd probably start with two. Say Berlin, and Brussels or Stockholm. If it worked, a few more, in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan or North America. Since the idea would be cultural exchange, there would not be a specific need to always base in the largest cities. A city like Bristol might gain more from an outpost in Taipei or Vancouver than Washington DC or Shanghai, making links where they might not be expected.

Okay, perhaps its a bit of a gimmick, but there is a real idea here. Cities in the UK need to be representing themselves, and building on their cultural identities, more so than ever in the face of Brexit. If the story of the last decades has been the growth of the globalised metropolis, it feels as though there may now be a shift towards the mid-scale, independent but internationally connected city as the driver for cultural and economic change, and Bristol is well placed to take advantage. And think of it this way - Iceland has 22 overseas Embassies and Missions. It has half as many people as Leeds city centre.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Could Brexit get Bristol a proper metro?

I don't like Brexit - not because of any particular technical details or economic fears (they come and go) but because I like the idea of European solidarity and exchange. However, assuming some form of Brexit happens, then it, and the accompanying political cluster-fudge, provides opportunities.*

One of those opportunities could be in infrastructure, specifically public transport.

First, there may be a need to stave off recession. The Bank of England has already indicated that more Quantitative Easing (injecting money into the economy) is on the cards. Rather than use this to simply inflate share prices, as happened before, it should be channeled into meaningful infrastructure. Many people have suggested this and it goes by the name of Peoples QE, Green QE etc...

Second there is an urgent need to boost regional economies outside London, something else the referendum made clear. Part of this may involve devolution, but much must involve investment.

Bristol is one of the UK's more successful cities but in some areas it is badly lacking, notably public transport. The weird Metrobus, dysfunctional normal bus and highly limited suburban trains are not a proper system. And that is what it needs. A - dare I say it - European or Asian style metro. Light trams, or underground trains. No fiddling around. Sure we can update the Severn Beach line etc, and we need to do more on cycling, but none of that takes away the need for a proper public transport system. And let's face it, nobody likes buses.

It would cost a lot of money. But then congestion is estimated to cost the city £350 million a year. It would also make it a much cleaner and better place to live, which would attract business. Cities compete with each other for people, so the 'story of life' is vitally important.

Finally if done properly, it will last for a hundred years, and become part of the fabric of the town.

I can hear the objections - Bristol is too small, it is too diffuse. Well, there are plenty of cities around the 500,000 mark with metros - underground or overground. Kagoshima, Rennes, Utrecht, Boston.

As for diffuse. Well Bristol's density is two-thirds that of London and the same as Rennes. Furthermore, density is a bit of a  chicken and egg situation. We know the city needs to grow, and we need to do that without trashing the countryside around it and ruining our quality of life. But a more dense city requires a public transport network to handle it. Put simply, if we build it, then it will change the pattern of city development, away from sprawling car-fueled suburbs, and towards a more modern Japanese or European style city.


*Note that this did not require Brexit in order to happen, there were no EU restriction, it is just that the ensuing political storm may provide economic space for big ideas.