Author Archives: Tim Burkinshaw

About Tim Burkinshaw

I work in ecology and biodiversity in North Yorkshire. I'm often found outdoors snapping nature and landscapes or spotting birds. In the garden I enjoy having my hands in the earth and striving for the perfect mix of greens and browns in my compost! As a Daddy I'm used to endless questions about the world around us, and generally have an answer up my sleeve for most things. If you spot me and my hat in real life or on social media do say hello!

Museums to visit

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The Lake Flixton peats are nowadays largely hidden under pasture.

At the site of Star Carr today there is little to see but a patchwork of arable and pasture fields, dissected with farm drainage ditches (See more on the fascinating drainage story here). The archaeological interest lies beneath the surface. There are however some excellent museum displays of  Star Carr and Lake Flixton material, which interpret and conjure-up the Mesolithic environment beautifully. There are several to choose from – all with a different slant on the story, but they are all well worth visiting.

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Rotunda Museum, Scarborough

The Rotunda Museum, Scarborough http://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com/rotunda-museum/

The Scarborough Museum Trust’s famous Rotunda Museum in Scarborough is a small but beautiful building and currently houses an excellent exhibition of Star Carr material. The building was originally conceived as a geological museum – if you are able to visit when they do special access to see the upper gallery in the central tower – such as they have done in recent years for Heritage Open Days – you can appreciate the stratigraphic arrangement of cabinets for geological specimens. An entry fee applies – look out for free access on Heritage Open Days in September.

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The Yorkshire Museum.

The Yorkshire Museum, York. www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk  – The York Museums Trust runs two museums and an art gallery in York. This one, located the beautifully-kept museum gardens (itself a great public green space close to York City centre) houses a very nicely done display of Star Carr and Lake Flixton material. There is firstly a display themed ‘After the Ice: Yorkshire’s Prehistoric People’ in which Star Carr material figures prominently. They also have what they call a spotlight display, ‘Ritual or Disguise: The Star Carr Headdresses’ which features some remarkable new frontlets to go on display and also the much publicized and unique Star Carr shale pendant, a small but tremendously important find from recent excavations. Entrance fees apply. YMT do a very worthwhile annual pass, the YMT card, for unlimited access to their three sites. The York Castle Museum is also excellent and substantially larger.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. In 2018 a brand new exhibition about Star Carr opened at the Museum of Arch. and Anth. in Cambridge, called ‘A Survival Story – Prehistoric Life at Star Carr’ It is bang up to date with the latest academic thinking about the significance of Star Carr to modern humans – explaining how the Mesolithic climate and landscape was in rapid flux during the site’s occupation and demonstrates a hitherto unrecognized level of resilience and adaptability among the Mesolithic people of Yorkshire. A Survival Story – Prehistoric Life at Star Carr is on display at the Li Ka Shing Gallery at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge, from June 2018 to December 2019. Entry is free. Read more on the exhibition on this archaeology news network blog.

 

Other places to learn more

The Scarborough Borough Council-led Carrs Wetland Project has come to a close but the landscapes and heritage of The Carrs remain a fascinating subject. The pages of the Carrs Wetland Project website remain a good introduction to the amazing and under-appreciated archaeology of Star Carr and Lake Flixton.  The most recent extensive excavations at Star Carr, although finished are still yielding new insights for science as the material collected is analysed and interpreted. There are new academic papers published by the Star Carr research team regularly and reported on their Facebook Page and website.

It is also worth mentioning a few groups or organisations who may run events or talks from time to time on the heritage of The Carrs. Below are some links which may prove useful, beginning with the ones more directly pertinent to the archaeology.

www.starcarr.com  – The official site of the archaeology project based at University of York. Full of info from Professor Nicky Milner and her team, the people who know the site best! Keep a look out for talks or media releases by the team about their latest research. If you ever get chance to hear Prof. Milner speak on Star Carr be sure to do so. They have an occassional newsletter which is certainly worth subscribing to.

www.sahs.org.uk – Website of the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society. They have a regular programme of indoor talks and summer field excursions as well as engaging in research investigations of their own.

www.yas.org.uk – Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society.

www.cba-yorkshire.org.uk – Council for British Archaeology – Yorkshire Branch.

www.scarboroughfieldnats.co.uk –  Scarborough Field Naturalists Society.

www.connectingfornature.wordpress.com – The website and blog for the local biodiversity partnership in whose patch The Carrs falls.

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New 25 Year Environment Plan champions peatlands

potato growing nr Seamer Carr

Deep, lowland peat soils, if drained, can prove fertile for arable cropping but as doing so releases many tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere as the peat gradually wastes away, should we be growing food on these soils at all?

The Government has published its new 25 year Environment Plan – ‘A Green Future’. Find it for yourself here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan

It is actually very easy to read and avoids technical jargon, explaining in clear reasoned terms what the government intends to do and why. Whatever the colour of your politics it is hard not to like what you read. It is particularly heartening to see lowland peatland restoration promoted and validated in spite of the agricultural importance of fenland and lowland vales in England. I will come back to this in a moment.

Meanwhile, if all 151 pages are a lot to take in at one sitting there is an At a Glance Summary document of the key policies which is much easier to digest. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan/25-year-environment-plan-our-targets-at-a-glance However I would urge you to open the full plan document and have a skim over it, dipping in to sections that captivate your interest.

It mentions marine plastics for example, farming and land management policies, green spaces for communities, helping primary schools to improve school grounds and get children out in contact with nature more. If your passion like mine is for soil health and protecting peatlands then the intention to phase out horticultural use of peat can’t come soon enough. There is stuff on waste reduction and Natural Capital (hurrah for that); policies on fisheries and habitat creation are described; a proposition to increase woodland cover to 12% and lots of talk about climate change mitigation, natural flood management, resilience, Clean Growth, whatever that is and lots more. Healthy cynicism aside there is much to applaud.
Anyway, back to peatlands, here is what is says on ‘Improving soil health and restoring and protecting our peatlands’:
“While peatlands are our largest terrestrial carbon store, drained peatlands release their carbon, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Organic or peat soils make up 11% of England’s total land area, over 70% of which are drained or in poor condition. Although our drained lowland peatland makes up only a small proportion of the agricultural land in England, these are among our most fertile soils and play an important part in the nation’s food supply. Conventional agricultural production using current techniques on drained peatland is, however, inherently unsustainable.”
While one could argue that the hot topic of upland moorland management (including the much debated impacts of driven grouse shooting on upland catchments and ecosystems) has been conveniently left out of the plan, I have to welcome the way that the essential conflict of cultivating lowland peat soils for food production (or indeed fibre or biomass) has been laid open for debate head on.
Seriously, do delve in and have a look for yourself. This plan is not just for civil servants to put on their shelf but has some real relevance in the way that ordinary people might participate in making things happen. Whether it be pledging not to use single use plastics (drinking straws, carrier bags, drinking cups), getting involved in rejuvenating a local greenspace, petitioning your garden centre to ditch peat-based composts or supporting the campaigns to reduce pesticides like neonicotinoids – there is sure to be something you can get personally involved in with.

Ploughing, Peat and Post-CAP Policy

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A cultivated field at Staxton, just inland of Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coast illustrates how dark the peat soil is here in the Vale of Pickering. These fields are a store of soil-based organic carbon, locked away in wetland biomass over the last 11,000 years. But we really should not be ploughing such soils for arable crops.

A freshly-cultivated field by the A64 at Staxton with a green sliver of a remnant drainage ditch, illustrates nicely how dark the peat soil is here in the eastern Vale of Pickering. Generally speaking the darker the soil the higher the organic matter and hence carbon content. These fields are a store of soil-based organic matter locked away in wetland biomass over the last 11,000 years, since Mesolithic humans knapped flint and hunted deer on the shores of Lake Flixton. In places the several-metre-deep peats around Star Carr and Flixton Carr have been found to be up to 95% carbon by mass. In the UK, soil carbon stores exceed that locked up in our forests by approximately four times. So we really should be looking after these Natural Capital assets. World leaders and policy-makers will be meeting in Edinburgh later this month for the World Forum on Natural Capital.

In climate change mitigation terms, (As I vividly remember reading in the exec. summary headline of the IUCN Commission of Enquiry on Peatlands)  the ‘low hanging fruit of climate change mitigation’ in other words the very first priority we should be spending our carbon offset cash on, is to restore and re-wet our degraded peatlands. Cultivated (and hence degraded and oxidizing) peat farmland soils figure prominently in this catergory. Spending our Corporate and Social Responsibility pounds on woodland creation may be more ‘sexy’ for big businesses and we’ve all bought the loo rolls that promise to plant two trees or whatever for every one they chop up for cellulose…or the tea bags that fund tree planting projects…but perhaps we really should be investing more in restoring and re-wetting peat bogs? (Maybe there is a good case for bog rolls that donate to Bog Restoration – just a thought.)

What I am about to say next may sound counter-intuitive…Sadly, Stewardship schemes for these type of famland areas ( ie lowland cultivated peats) over past decades have prioritised high quality habitat creation and biodiversity targets. These are fantastic of course where they can be achieved – restoring wet grassland for breeding waders like curlew and lapwing, but they are difficult and bold undertakings, needing expert advice, on the ground supervision, and a zeal for conservation rare outside of nature reserve management.

I have found this out through personal experience as Project Officer on the Carrs Wetland Project, a role I enjoyed full time from 2007 until 2011 then part time with other duties for a few more years. Only on a few of the farms on the ‘black land’ was re-wetting even acheiveable, especially when neighbours continue cropping and therefore maintaining active land drainage. Even then it was not an undertaking agreed to lightly. Prioritising wet grassland for breeding waders does nothing to offer incentives to the average farmer for managing their land to best retain soil carbon for its own value.

So, while on The Carrs we still thankfully have a few farm schemes in HLS doing what they can to re-wet the fields: bund the ditches, excavate wader scrapes, carefully manipulate sward structure with cattle grazing and raise water tables with sluices….the great expanses of ‘Black Land’ in between, comprising millions of tonnes of locked away carbon, but steadily oxidizing to CO2 with each pass of the plough….remain in cultivation. This may in fact be very productive, for potatoes for instance, or it may be sub-optimal – where adequate drainage is a barrier to good arable cropping. I really feel though that in the new era of post-CAP agri-policy we do need to be looking at payment for public benefits – including the sequestration of soil carbon itself – as well as the laudable efforts to restore species, preserve heritage features and regulate flooding wherever possible.

I hope the policy makers in DEFRA are paying attention, for meanwhile as Brexit negotiations rumble on, the farms are cultivating their fields, laying fresh underdrains, and planting crops on the very land that could help us stave off a runaway spiral of CO2 emissions and the uncharted climatic consequences that come with it. Our soils are just one element of Natural Capital – the assets in our landscape that underpin our economies, health and prosperity – but looking after our soils better (as part of a Natural Capital Policy that makes it pay for land managers to do so) is a very good starting point. I sincerely hope that national and global decision-makers wake up to this jolly soon, because I might just be still around to see the consequences.

 

Reflecting on #30DaysWild

Prompted by an email from the Wildlife Trusts I filled in a quick survey following up on my experiences of the 30 Days Wild challenge this June, the now annual gauntlet thrown down to ordinary people to undertake random acts of wildness every day for a month. Now, we all get requests for feedback surveys on this, that and the other; mostly they are a bit of an un-solicited chore. However, I feel that this initiative is a very worthwhile one for spreading the message of letting nature and wildness into our daily lives so I took a few minutes to respond. (If you took part in #30DaysWild yourself and want to shape the campaign next year you can do likewise using this link https://wildlifetrusts.typeform.com/to/aEvj9h )

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Instagram Post for Day 17 of #30DaysWild, 17/06/16 inspired by a surprise beetle encounter.

 

As when I took part in #30DaysWild previously, I found that by committing to a pattern of posting on social media (I tried to send a daily Instagram post, which was also shared to my Facebook timeline) this ‘public’ sharing element gave me a greater impetus to try to do something each day – I felt that I was under some scrutiny…

 …Whether or not my followers and friends would have noticed, let alone challenge me on it, were I to miss the odd day is a moot point. Even when sometimes I nearly missed (quick, dusk is falling!), or on a few occasions I posted something retrospectively the next day, the 30 days wild habit makes you more aware of nature moments in your daily life. During the month of June, and this was not the first year I’ve taken part, it meant I was always looking out for wild experiences that I could share. In this way, though it’s a challenge to sustain for a month, I find it trains one to think about ways to share and be evangelical about one’s relationship with nature. Which is no bad thing, is it?
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Day 18 saw me getting up close with nature in York and one of my favourite shots on the phone was this whorl of Woundwort flowers.

 

Post Script.

Last time around as this year, I chose to use Instagram as my modus operani, using the #30DaysWild hashtag and simultaneously selecting ‘share to Facebook’ and to my  Twitter feed. However this means it goes on my personal FB timeline and not to FB groups that I am a member of such as 30DaysWild (or more specifically ConnectingforNature and Stamford BridgeinBloom, my go-to places for daily posting activity these days). If I’m brave and willing to commit the time perhaps one year I’ll do it as a daily blog… but that’s still a bit daunting and I’m not sure I have the discipline to set to it of an evening after the day job. Posting on the 30 Days Wild Facebook gp seems a good option as it now has several thousand people and so a much bigger reach than my other social accounts but are we ‘preaching to the converted’?

I wonder what others feel and how it works for other full-time employed people? If I am brutally honest I sometimes imagine that the stay-at-home mums with preschool kids are best represented (and envied) on the 30days FB gp for their inventive #30DaysWild activities. I’m very lucky to have a day job and commute that can take me to beautiful wild places, a back garden and village which places nature on the doorstep and a strong affinity already to zero in on natures details. How is it for the busy professional or indoor worker to undertake the challenge? How daunted might they be by the scope and inventiveness of others posting their exploits. The wild experience is just as important, arguably moreso for them, as its more out of their way to make a daily wildness habit.

Did you do 30DaysWild? What are your thoughts about it? Did you share any random acts of wildness on social media? Above all do tell the Wildlife Trusts about it,  (Here is that link again https://wildlifetrusts.typeform.com/to/aEvj9h ) as it really will help them to finesse and grow the campaign next time around.

 

What will Brexit mean for Nature?

I am not sure where to begin with this post, but it feels right to have a stab at it. There is little doubt that EU Directives have been some of the strongest protection for species and habitats over the past few decades, and it’s also no secret that the Conservative government has been keen to minimise ‘red tape’ for economic development, by putting in place a presumption in favour of development in the local planning system. We now have the NPPF the National Planning Policy Framework, which swept away reams of details planning guidance, policy statements and advice, in favour of more general broad brush ‘biodiversity duty’ which, to put it crudely, leaves it to the discretion of local authority planning departments. So this is my first worry for Nature…protected areas and species.

First, what happens to Natura 2000?  – that Europe-wide network of designated areas given statutory conservation protection for their valuable wildlife habitats? Without EU legislation to require it, will the UK government uphold the conservation designations which are enshrined in European law? Special Protection Areas for Birds (SPAs) are European designations, for instance the North York Moors is designated an SPA for the populations of Merlin and Golden Plover it supports. Fortunately the North York Mors is also a National Park, which gives another strong UK based level of environmental protection. Special Areas of Conservation (SAC’s) are another EU designation, for instance the River Derwent is an SAC for its riparian habitats with key aquatic mammals and fish. Will this stand once we have parted company with Europe?

A second issue of EU legislation: Will the Water Framework Directive be abandoned – that challenging goal for raising the ecological status of all our rivers, streams and water bodies – including reduction of aquatic pollution, sediment inputs from land, removing barriers to fish migration on rivers etc. It has steered and dominated major aspects of the Environment Agency and DEFRA’s work relating to rivers and their catchments. Indeed the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) which has been embedded in aspects of DEFRA work on land management was a logical extension of the need to improve water quality and water level management of our river systems.

Thirdly and this is a big one, there is the matter of European subsidies for rural development, agriculture, forestry etc, including the Natural England flagship agri-environment scheme, Countryside Stewardship, on which the ink is barely dry from a major shake-up and re-organisation of farming subsidies for environmental benefits, including provision for pollinators, climate change mitigation, ecosystem services, carbon management, catchment sensitive farming methods, farmland biodiversity under Pillar II of the Common Agricultral Policy – the so called Greening of the CAP. It is up to the individual EU nation states to design their own schemes for prioritising and disseminating the subsidies for Agri-Environment work, and Countryside Stewardship – and its forbears including ELS/HLS -is our nations version. But the money ultimately comes from central European funds, and surely this is going to be a major headache for Natural England who are just bedding in the new CS scheme and working on only their second round of annual applications this summer.

Whati is without doubt is that there a major work to do both by government departments and by conservation organisations large and small to make sure that Nature does not get a raw deal out of  Brexit.   In one sense you could say that interest rates and currency flops can recover, but if natural habitats get ‘done over’ once in many cases it will be for good.