Daniel Greenwood

I am living with the animals

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In May 2017 I visited the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Flevoland, north-east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The trip was organised by EuCAN in their drive to keep the conservation channels open in a post-Brexit landscape and my thanks go to Nigel and Kathy for their work in making it all happen, as well as my fellow travellers. The Oostvaardersplassen is renowned in conservation in the United Kingdom as one of the foremost ‘rewilding’ projects. I won’t attempt to completely deconstruct the project, its successes and failures, its history and ambitions, here. I didn’t gather enough information whilst there to attempt that. Instead I’ll offer a few observations and ideas regarding what we saw.

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The Oostvaardersplassen’s landscape

Oostvaardersplassen is a 22 kilometre-squared area of woodland, marshland and wetland reclaimed from the sea. Where the ‘free-roaming’ herbivores reside is completely fenced on all sides, though attempts have been made to create a wildlife corridor connecting them with other areas of the country. The site has been stocked with grazing animals – cattle, konik horses and several species of wild deer have entered in. The grazing regimes brought about by the inclusion of these animals are an attempt to recreate the prehistoric mosaic of open habitats that were once the ‘natural’ state of the European landscape. For some there is an argument that the landscape was coast to coast woodland, dark and overgrown, with few clearings. Another view, propounded by Franz Vera, a key figure in the Oostvaardersplassen, is that in fact the landscape was more open and that large herbivores (European bison, wild ox or aurochs, deer, elk and indeed geese) held back the woodland through their chomping, meaning a mixture of more open and wooded habitats. I am more convinced by the latter, especially after seeing the impact of the grazing here.

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The majority of the landscape is wetland, of open water and reedbeds. It is rich in birdlife and its geese populations are of European importance. This means that very little of the reserve is easily accessible but there is an excellent visitor centre and some footpaths and hides available for tourists. The most striking sense was of the large scale dieback of trees. As far as the eye could see willow trees were dead and dying. Speaking to one of the rangers for a short time, there is a great pressure from visitors whose views are based on aesthetics. The view from the neighbouring trainline has been voted the most beautiful in the Netherlands. Our guide spoke of how visitors perceived the landscape in terms of suffering, be it because animals that died were left to decay and that trees were not lollipops with a full compliment of leaves. This is not something confined to the Netherlands but it was clear these views stung the land managers and interventions had been made to ensure that animals, especially cattle and horses, were not allowed to suffer in ways that appeared negligent.

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The animals were the reason for the sea of deadwood that was immediately evident. The konik horses and deer had ring-barked the trees, meaning that the passage of food and water to the tops of the trees was impossible and the trees died. I found some real comfort in seeing this landscape of untidiness and it challenged my sense of ‘what a landscape should look like’. We are so used to formalised landscapes in the places that we live, be it the urban environment or the agricultural rural landscape. Why does a landscape have to look any way at all? It is an utterly middle-class concept. The ranger reminded us that there was no ideal vision for how Oostvaardersplassen would look. It was a matter of seeing how rich the landscape would become by returning it to one of free roaming grazing animals with limited human intervention.

In terms of flora, there was almost nothing bar a few dandelions due to the intensity of the grazing. Birds seemed to fare better, with male redstarts singing from song perches provided by the dead branches. The lack of leaves also gave an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph them.

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Redstarts are African migrants, preferring this kind of wood pasture habitat that grazing animals can create. The New Forest, though it has far more in the way of living trees, is another similar habitat type where redstarts still can be found breeding in Britain.

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To our delight, another species which enjoyed the prevalence of dead wood song perches was the bluethroat. At first hunkering down low in the reeds, the bird here nipped into a tree and belted out its medley of tunes and trills.

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In continental Europe the pied wagtail is replaced by a subspecies, the white wagtail. It has a greyer appearance. This bird was gathering insects to feed its young in the nest.

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There was an area of woodland accessible to visitors and free of grazing pressure. This was richer in plants, though limited mainly to nettles and other nitrogen-favouring species. In this area pied flycatcher was nesting and the insect life came to the fore.

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At the roadside a crowd had gathered to watch this eagle owl roosting in willow. It is a very big bird indeed, with a wingspan of 2 metres and a diet of buzzard and raven. It’s not a bird to meet in a side alley on the way home from the pub. There were reports of an eagle owl in Lelystad, the closest town, the previous day and there were rumours it could have escaped from a collection.

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There was a pleasing diversity of bee-life, with several species of Nomada bee potted and identified. This nomad bee had stopped to preen its antennae.

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A golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle. Outrageous.

The map butterfly is always a pleasant sight because it’s not found in the UK. It has two broods with separate markings, the latter being darker, seen in the Czech Republic in July.

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The most common insect to be found was probably this Empid or dance fly. It spent most of its time drinking from hawthorns or else hunting crane flies. It would attack the crane flies and fly away with them, legs akimbo.

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What is rewilding?

Rewilding is a conservation movement which seeks to return large areas of land to natural processes where human intervention is limited, sometimes to almost nothing. There are strong arguments for moving away from tree planting, for example, in areas where (as Oliver Rackham said) the simple lack of grazing animals will allow woodland to flourish on its own. In Britain there are arguments to allow ‘the uplands’ to be returned to a more ‘natural state’ (sorry about the inverted commas, but the terms used are often subjective) to prevent flooding by ending intensive moorland management and allowing trees to recolonise and therefore store more rainwater to reduce flooding in the land below, where most towns and cities are located.

Other ideas are to introduce wolves or lynx to areas where wild deer numbers are out of control and their grazing pressure is severely damaging woodlands. Something closer to reality is the return of the beaver to the English landscape and the positives they certainly can bring in reducing flooding and diversifying riverine habitats and boosting other species. One interesting idea is the return of pine marten to reduce the number of invasive grey squirrels, and the return of the otter resulting in a reduction in American mink through competition. There are many ideas, some hugely exciting. They are experiments which, due to the utterly changed nature of the British landscape, will remain a mystery in many cases.

Personally I see big problems with the concept as it has been conceived and amplified in recent terms, largely related to my experience as a land manager, not merely an ecological theorist or environmental campaigner. But then rewilding is also thought to be achievable in an urban setting, something that is otherwise alien to the concept.

Rewilding has experienced a massive spike in interest since the publication of Feral by George Monbiot but it was not first thought of then. Sometimes it is hard to be convinced it is a concept at all, such is its similarity to other conservation projects which are currently in action, as with the beaver reintroduction in Devon. Rewilding could be a response to the apparent bureaucratisation of the conservation movement. People don’t want their donations to conservation charities to be spent on printing and electricity bills (sorry but it actually has to sometimes). Rewilding has become a populist movement, largely thanks to Monbiot’s ability to inspire people in ways that previous proponents have failed to.

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Monbiot is a popular environmental writer who seeks to tie in his economic and social writings with those of environmentalism, connecting the impacts of Western consumer lifestyles with the shocking loss of species in the past fifty or more years. He is one of the only writers to be given column inches and use the phrase ‘British wildlife’ in a grown-up way, rather than simply recounting childhood memories. On the opposite end of the scale to Monbiot, there are xenophobic reimaginings of rewilding, highlighted in a twitter page called Rewild Britain, which uses the notion of species decline to lambast ethnic minorities, immigrants and anyone who is not ‘indigenous’ to Britain. Many people today have not understood that there are no ‘pure’ or ‘indigenous’ Brits. Our farming systems evolved in the Middle East, our language a melange of foreign ones, and Britain has been enjoying immigration ever since it became an island. Suffice to say the social media account in question has no accountability, no name, no website, and is easily confused with the official account of Rewilding Britain.

Is rewilding open to misanthropy? I have spoken to proponents of what they deem to be rewilding who have stated that they think, in essence, that humans are bad and that we should not be a part of nature as they conceive of it anymore. We are a part of nature, our place is still in the natural world, it is simply that our place in the food chain, in the temporal sense, has been warped by technological advances: it takes longer for our species to be impacted by environmental change. Climate change is impacting upon species with a low trophic-level (butterflies, bees, birds) right now and it will meet us in the same way later on, in terms, because of our protective measures buying us time whilst our damaging measures draw difficulties closer.

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Doing it the Dutch way

Back to the Netherlands. On our merry way around the five-lane motorways of the north-west Netherlands, we stopped in at the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland to visit an area where European bison were acclimatising. Bison are thought to have been present across the entire Northern Hemisphere before humans began to impact on their populations. Though there is debate about whether they were in Britain, they are now being introduced across Europe thanks to successes in Poland’s Bialowieza National Park. The bison in this part of Holland were living in an area of ancient sand dunes close to the sea but, as the photo above illustrates, close to human habitation. The place was a riot of nightingales. On our tour of this closed site, the manager of the bison told us that he wanted people to see that we can all live alongside these animals. They are not dangerous, they are unpredictable. He was underlining something we have lost in regard to wildlife: respect. That is something I can get behind, planning the reintroduction of extinct megafauna with people in mind. There can be no other way to do it when our population is set to increase further in the coming decades.

What is the point of releasing these bison here? It’s conservation of a gene-pool. By introducing the animals in as many different locations around Europe it makes them more resilient to population loss, allowing their genetic diversity to to evolve and for inbreeding to be reduced.

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The work being done here was admirable. Rather than sitting in front of a computer postulating about the possibilities they are getting on with it. But how wild can rewilding this way actually be? The bison we saw here were penned in, accounted for and cared for, just like livestock. Our impact on the environment is now so far reaching that reintroducing larger animals immediately has connotations in terms of animal welfare. Many of the species we want back in the landscape travel long distances, are predators of livestock and are greatly feared by people, for reasons that are largely unfounded. In Britain we struggle to live with badgers, foxes, cormorants, hen harriers and wasps, let alone wolves or lynx.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a case in point but then its managers have never called it a rewildling project. They have no plan for how it should look and no desired outcome other than to learn from its results. It gives a sense of hope, perhaps that’s what so draws people to rewilding. We are growing bored of the endless stories of negativity when positives exist and must be sought. The very existence of nature is a positive that sometimes conservationists have to draw on to keep going. That should be the very point, whether it’s rewilding, nature conservation or simply good stewardship, we have a duty of care to the planet and its wildlife. Finding out the best way of making it work is the challenge we and wildlife face. That we can surely all agree on.

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North Downs diary, Gatton Park, Surrey, April 2017

As we drive into Gatton Park a mistle thrush and a robin are singing under streetlamps. In front of this vast estate, with gardens laid out by the famous ‘Capability’ Brown, the darkness yields little birdsong. It’s 4:30 and dawn is yet to break on the downs, even the nearby M25 is held in relative silence. A cold wind blows across the lawns before the estate mansion, once the dwelling of the Colmans Mustard family, now an environmental education centre run by the Gatton Trust. Jess Hughes, the Trust’s education officer, is leading a dawn walk of the grounds and I am here to pick out the birdsong. Walking in a place I don’t know without full vision is unnerving with 3 hours sleep, so we pause at the dark blur of trees and fish for birdsong.

Walking down from the hill the wind dips, we ruffle the feathers of roosting woodpigeons in passing underneath their trees. Those wings and that kerfuffle are unmistakeable. Blackbirds sing from ranks of mature trees, the repeated verses of a song thrush pitched across the cover. A robin scratches its scribbly tunes from a branch somewhere. The dawn chorus always alters the sense of time that you take with you before one of these walks. I have learnt to recognise the change in sound with the change in the light, the point when some species emerge or sing. There is a set list of sorts.

As the light begins to spill over we enter a wood of tall, stringy ash and scrubby bramble. Behind us, the open parkland begins to fill with the flurry of blackbird music, my personal highlight of the dawn chorus. The tide pushes down through the open lawns and dotted trees, across the Serpentine stream to meet us in this wood. The blackbirds appear in ones and twos, I never know if it’s a case of birds moving like an armada, or whether one by one they blink into life like bulbs.

We hear not only song, alarm calls pierce through – the ticking of wrens, the rattling of a mistle thrush. We continue on back to the brink of woodland. The Serpentine crawls between the wood and park, on its banks yellow cowslips offer the day’s first glimpses of colour. At the water’s edge sweet woodruff flowers, its use for flavouring gin draws warm appreciation. Mallards drift in the subtle flow, in the shade of a tree opposite the first blackcap bubbles and warbles. From further downstream a great tit adds its bicycle pump to the mix.

Now crows skate to and fro overhead, a kestrel edges trees and hovers over the long grass in search of a first meal. We head round to the vast lake along a track marked by wild garlic, the sun rising between alders, behind clouds, the light rippling in the water. We pass Gatton Park’s edges where old yews have been lopped and anglers have built platforms embellished with woodchip for their camps. A neighbouring field overgrown with nettles lies for sale, from the group there are worries of an impending threat to the downs, echoed across Surrey by recent proposals to build entire new villages. Whenever green space is for sale it can be the only thought.

We pass up away from the enormous lake near veteran oaks enclosed by fencing, remnants of ancient parkland. The sun rises in the south east, the fresh leaves of the oaks glowing lime green in the light. We pause at the crown of the hill, before a Pulhamite rockery brought back from the brink of woodland by the Trust’s volunteers. Edging the hill is an ash tree, protruding, exposed to the south before Surrey, the Weald and Sussex. It is yet to leaf but Jess and the group have found fruit. A tree creeper inches the pale bark, its curved bill picking away for food. It’s a pointer to the time of day: dawn is over, the hard work has just begun.

North Downs diary

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Roydon Woods, The New Forest, April 2017

It’s Easter Monday and the sun breaks through the generic forecast of cloud, cloud and cloud. So too the bells of St. Nicholas’s church, reputedly the oldest in the whole of the New Forest. Bluebells swarm around graves, one reinstated in bright white stone. Sunglasses are needed to read the inscription. Bluebells and greater stitchwort spread out on the roadside banks and ditches, the fresh green feeling of spring is present here. The bells are clanging away for miles, oaks pushing out leaves after flowers.

Entering Roydon Woods the bluebells offer their spring greeting, washing off every now and then, where leaves and old bracken stems colour the woodland floor brown instead. The lilies have been trampled in places by badgers cutting across the margins of fallen trees and fencelines under dark. The bracken unfurls its prehistoric leaves, for how many millions of years has that been true, some in heart shapes fit for Instagram and greenwashing marketing campaigns. The urge is irresistible. In a place like this, at a time like this, it is difficult not to rejoice in the manner of the church at this time of year. Whatever your religious persuasion, it is hard not to feel a sense of something good making a long awaited return.

It is that time when those with less tolerance for heat jig between sun hat and tea cosy. It is the best of both worlds, and not expected to be the same again until autumn. The British summer usually dispels that generalisation. The birdsong has lifted, many species can be heard: blackcap, willow warbler, chiffchaff, coal, great and blue tit, robin, wren, nuthatch and the hammering of woodpeckers. The paths slaloms through Roydon Woods, at its edges oaks give way to holly, ash and birch. From these trees comes a sound I had hoped to hear for years in Britain. It is a quickfire piping that I have only personally heard in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is a lesser spotted woodpecker.

With binoculars I watch the point from which the call came, and sure enough the bird appears. White horizontal lines scar its black back, it is the size of perhaps a big chaffinch or a small thrush. This, the New Forest, is one of its final remaining strongholds in Britain. It has disappeared from woods in south London and across England for reasons not quite known or substantiated. The increase of their greater cousins and the general lack of available habitat for them may be the defining explanations. Walking on through Roydon Woods, lesser spots continue to call and hammer. I feel I know this ancient place a little more deeply now.

New Forest archive

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Mole gap trail - 3-4-17 blog-5

North Downs diary, Mole Valley, Surrey, April 2017

I follow the Mole gap trail into Norbury Park, ash woodland glowing in the spring sunshine, dog’s mercury abounding on the soil between the pale trunks. The railway line cuts across the eastern edge of the woods, a brick bridge taking trains straight over one of the major footpaths. Under the bridge a lady walks her dog down the hill, her shape appearing beneath the brick. She pauses as I pass under the bridge and takes a photo.

‘All I could see was your legs,’ she says. ‘And then the rest of you appeared.’

We both have cameras and she asks what I’m here to photograph, about butterflies and how many I’ve seen today. Orange tip, brimstone, peacock and my first small tortoiseshell of the year. Along the banks of the Mole butterflies have flitted in good number.

‘Oh I haven’t seen many,’ she says. She tells me more about Norbury Park, its managers Surrey Wildlife Trust and how angry she feels about the fact all the Trust’s rangers will be made redundant. ‘It’s always the people who are out there doing the actual work that suffer. When there’s a fire or something goes wrong there won’t be anyone there for us to contact.’

The ranger programme was being funded with money from Surrey County Council, and Jenny has been making efforts to register her discontent with local councillors. ‘It’s all about priorities, they’ve just resurfaced the A24 and when there was nothing wrong with it.’

‘I devote myself to the countryside,’ she says. ‘Apart from 3 years in London for university I have always lived in Surrey. I spend hours walking with the dog and never get round to everything I need to do in life. When I get home I just head back out again.’

I ask her how things have changed over the years.

‘There are definitely less birds than there used to be,’ she says.

As we stand talking next to the railway bridge the sun shines down through the leafless trees. Peacocks sun themselves on the ride’s edge, bright yellow brimstones pass across the slopes above us. We say farewell, Jenny heading off into the Park while I continue south towards Box Hill.

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The Mole edges Norbury Park, where beech woods sprawl along the eastern slopes. On the other side of the river the smell and calling of livestock breaks through. In the woods the beeches gleam in the glory of the sun, ramsons begin to flower one by one. Leaving the Park, farmland opens out and the woodland is replaced by fields with single oaks, and a beanpole lime tree riddled with mistletoe. I learned recently that mistletoe grows only on smooth bark, its seed is sticky and is often left there by the mistle thrush, so named for this reason. The branches in the canopy of limes are always sleek and silver, perfect for the mistletoe to attach itself to. The oaks are grand specimens, one dying back from above. Many trees are leafing on the Downs but no oak or ash quite yet. Overhead buzzards soar and mew, and the rickety frame of a red kite tumbles towards Box Hill.

The green fields turn instead to brown where cattle graze. More oaks mark the old field boundaries, likely once connected by hedgerows now removed. The farmer has fenced them to protect their roots and bark from the jaws and hoofs of his or her livestock. The fields are protected by electric fencing audibly ticking, but several of these oaks are dying, possibly from the damage done by the cattle. Crossing the Mole again the train line returns, a neat arch allows the river to flower as it kinks round. The light shimmers and ripples on the underside of the brickwork built almost in a spiral. It’s dizzying to watch for too long. Across the old footbridge and into a field named Foxbury Shaw more veteran oaks stand ready to leaf again, a trio leaning into a dried up channel, perhaps a former braid in the river.

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One oak has fallen and lies supine with that typical stag head of old roots. Passing close by I notice the swarming of insects at the root plate. It is surely too early for wasps and they appear too big. Edging closer, they are in fact hairy-footed flower bees whirring and zipping around the old roots. When the tree fell the roots lifted soil with them, now hardened like great chunks of biscuity dough. The sun has baked the soil and the wood of the fallen oak. Here is the very image of a life after death.

The oak is being mined by solitary bees, some, like the bronze furrow bee are minute. There are more animals besides them, with jumping spiders waiting for the chance to pinch their prey. One sits atop a root basking in the sun, camouflaged against the  bleached timber. The soil has been drilled with holes, the habitat of the flower bees. A group of about five to eight males, blonde and super-fast in flight, zip around me as I photograph their homes. Truly it is the sound of racing cars or X-wings tearing around at several hundred miles an hour. Another species of bee basks on the upturned roots, it has long, black antennae and is disturbed when I look more closely. It’s a mourning bee, a parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of hairy footed flower bees. The eggs hatch, eat the young of the flower bee and then eat the food stash left for its prey. Despite our clichés, some bees are only in it for themselves.

Explore my North Downs diary

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Clapham Common - 27-3-17 blog-3

This English oak is easily missed, to the point where I didn’t notice it was an oak until looking at the photo later. This early spring sunshine is the kind that brings people to sit underneath trees, like the man in the distance on Clapham Common. His bike is resting against the trunk behind him.

Oaks of London

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Enfield oak

This English oak (Quercus robur) is alongside the Great Cambridge Road near Turkey Street station in Enfield, north London. It was photographed on my phone in January 2017. It stands in what evidently was once a more open, rural landscape. It’s a big, healthy-looking tree, likely between 200 and 300 years old. What I like about this one is the clash of the old and the new, rural and urban. If it can remain in peace it could live a good many centuries. This is dependent also on a gradual reduction in emissions from the nearby traffic as predicted move towards electric vehicles progresses and its ability to remain unimpeded by either self-seeded trees or new plantings. If this landscape was abandoned in future, the oak would create a new woodland of oaks around it.

Oaks of London

 

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