Category Archives: News

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.

 

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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.

Bugs, botany and birds at the balancing pond

Taylor Way Balancing Pond

Taylor Way Balancing Pond

Paid a quick visit this week to one of the two constructed balancing ponds on the Scarborough Business Park, Taylor Way, just off the road down to the Waste Recovery Centre at Seamer Carr. Its not open to the public (although the larger pond to the east has a right of way down one side and is certainly visited by some people who know it’s there.) I was keen to see how the meadow planting mix has established and see if anything interesting was about on a sunny morning. Now I’m not much of an entomology specialist and my botany is fair to middling but I snapped a few nice things with my phone for the record.

 

Red=Tailed Bumble bee on Common Hogweed

Red=Tailed Bumble bee on Common Hogweed

 

 

 

I enjoyed seeing lots of bumblebees out, mostly red-tailed. Among the other innumerable insects buzzing about the meadow margins of the pond were moths, craneflies and froghoppers (‘spittlebugs’) galore. Some Common Blue and Blue-Tailed Damselflies were active around the perimeter path (though my attempts to photograph them were all but thwarted as they are so flighty).

yellow rattle Taylor Way pond

Yellow Rattle, a native meadow flower, often included in seed mixes for restoring wildflower-rich meadows due to its hemiparasitic habits.

Yellow Rattle was in the seed mix used by the developer and is good for reducing the vigour of the grasses in meadow sites due to its hemiparasitic nature, attaching to the roots below ground and tapping into the spoils of the grasses’ photosynthesis. A good mix of other flower species were present including Birdsfoot Trefoil, Black Medick, Knapweeds, Buttercups, Ribwort Plantain and Red Clover.

Ragged Robin, a native wildflower of marsh ground, hee included in a seed mix for the margins of the pond

Ragged Robin, a native wildflower of marsh ground, here included in a seed mix for the margins of the pond

 

It is pleasing to see lots of Ragged Robin among the meadow flowers. This wildflower likes marshy ground and in the low spots which fill up in the wetter months there was quite a show. The name comes from the dissected petals giving a raggedy appearance. It is actually related to the Campion and ‘catch-fly’ family.

March fly on Knapweed

The call of a Curlew nearby piqued my interest and disturbed me from my Ragged Robin reverie, then looking up and listening a little more attentively I heard a pair of Oystercatchers which appeared to be hanging around on one of the undeveloped vacant plots to the north of Taylor Way. They were actually on the roof of a shipping container and at first I even wondered if they could choose to nest on there, safe from the depredations of foxes. These sparsely vegetated plots have been quite attractive to other waders including Lapwing in the few years since they were cleared for future development and left largely undisturbed since then, save for the occasional dog walker and some unsightly fly-tipping around the periphery. How ironic that sites cleared of topsoil and vegetation in anticipation of development can end up attracting a good range of biodiversity in their denuded state.

The site is not a public space, rather a water body to balance out run-off from the business park, with some designed-in ecological enhancements. However I’m sure the developers Caddick’s would be open to permitting visits by local naturalists to this and the larger pond to the east for ecological recording.

 

Prehistory in primary schools -Teaching resources road-test

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The peaty fields around Star Carr, once the shore of a Stone Age lake, where a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer settlement has given remarkable insights into how prehistoric people interacted with their environment 11,000 years ago. 

 

Prehistory is on the Primary Curriculum these days, which is great news. What’s not so great is that many schools and more importantly teachers are not as well-informed about the Stone Age as they would wish and need help designing engaging programmes of study for their pupils about prehistory. Thankfully the team involved with the Star Carr Archaeology Project at York University have been putting their minds to this and designing some excellent teaching resources for schools to understand the stone age and make the Mesolithic site of Star Carr, near Scarborough relevant to children in the modern age. Please share with teachers this opportunity to get in early and preview the materials they have produced and give some constructive feedback on the resources. The following four paragraphs are reproduced from the facebook page of the Star Carr Project  (which by the way is excellent).

TEACHING ABOUT THE MIDDLE STONE AGE
The Star Carr team has been busy producing resources for teachers about the site and the Mesolithic. The classroom activities have been grouped into three sets of units. Individual units can be taken from any set and taught as stand-alone activities. We are looking for teachers who would like to test these resources in the classroom and let us know what they think of them. Please contact Don Henson at dh625@york.ac.uk.

Set 1 – a skills log to develop basic archaeological skills in the
classroom: finding out information, identifying things, recording
objects, analysing how people lived and telling others about Star Carr.

Set 2 – a set of short stories, “11,000 Years Ago”, about the daily
lives of a Mesolithic family: moving home, making things, food, friends and strangers, a hint of winter, coming of age, a new life, the bad old days, boy or girl – animals or plants?

Set 3 – Lessons from the Middle Stone Age, showing how the Mesolithic can teach useful lessons to help us both live better lives today and understand the world we live in: the origins of ourselves, change is inevitable, the living environment, human diversity, healthy eating, what makes us happy.

 

That little lot sounds to me like a whole term’s worth of material for engaging and inspiring a generation of young scientists to think about our place in the world and what sites like Star Carr can teach us. If you think you know a teacher who would be willing to road test some of  these units in school do encourage them to email Don Henson at the University of York  (dh625@york.ac.uk) who would be pleased to hear from them.