Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘European Conservation Action Network’

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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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Wildlife does not heed national boundaries. EU funding, legislation and partnerships have led to benefits for our wildlife and ecosystems that a standalone UK could not have initiated. Britain’s membership of the European Union is often tabled as a threat to our sovereignty and freedom when in fact it has protected us from damaging policy decisions made by our own government. What has the EU ever done to help British wildlife? We must look back into the distant past to understand

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The making of a great divide

Consider the landscape of some 40,000 years ago: glaciers sat north of London, covering the whole of northern Europe. Scotland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States all locked in ice. But the earth was going through a period of global warming that allowed a new species to spread into the landscape we know today as Europe. This species had complex social structures and big brains, had learned how to clear trees, build fire and to cook food. That species was us, Homo sapiens. Our stepping stone societies had made it out of Africa and across Siberia. Fast forward to 12,000 years ago and these first Europeans had found themselves in a landscape that was changing in ways they had never known. Their world, Europe, warmed, the glaciers retreated north, carving valleys, exposing unimaginably old rock formations, rearing up chalk and baring limestone, flooding the deepest lying valleys and trenches. But it was not just people who crossed this new landscape, wolves (the greatest of terrestrial travellers), lynx, bison, elk and deer all migrated across land opening and warming, leafing and flowering in a way it had not for over 100,000 years.

By 8,500 years ago the trenches and gullies that once will have seemed so high, so insurmountable to our ancestors, were submerged by what we now know as the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic and most significantly in this case, the English Channel. Those animals (and I include Homo sapiens, of course) that did not cross in time, and that did not have wings with which to fly, were confined to Europe. The European ice sheets had melted and a critical divide had been made: Britain and Europe. For the next 8,000 years there were human attempts at passage and colonisation from Europe, and from Britain to Ireland and the now habitable Scottish isles. Some of these incursions are well known: the Roman invasion (43AD), the Vikings (9th century) and the Normans (11th century). There are some not so well known, like the early boats made from oak, chestnut and ash that will have capsized in their hundreds, their passengers never registered in history. On the shores today, many settled in their cities, towns and villages trumpet their near permanent roots in England, ignorant of the truth: the first Brits originated in Africa, arriving on foot via Russia 40,000 years ago. Further to this, we all depend on a system of food production developed by our ancestors in the Middle East. We are all the children of migration.

 

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The French connection

Ironically, British habitats are not so rich because of our separation from continental Europe both climatically and physically. On a landscape scale, take England’s chalk grasslands, a rare habitat home to species that have evolved in grasslands that pre-date the English Channel. At the tip of Kent, survey the fauna and flora of a chalky valley then catch a ferry across the water and see it equalled where it still exists. In Kent it’s called the Continental Southern Element, a place where plants like man orchid (above), pyramidal orchid, field eryngo, meadow clary and autumn lady’s tresses can be found, wildflowers that spread from southern Europe before the great flood some 8,500 years ago. Britain’s habitats are unique because we are an island. We have chalk grassland, ancient woodland, coastal dunes, freshwater lakes and river networks, saltmarsh, heather moorland, peat bog and mountain ranges. We have many of the habitats found across Europe, all encircled by one shoreline.

Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions. All of these problems are recognised by the European Union

A visit to many of Europe’s towns, cities and wild places, the encountering of common species that we call British, reminds us of our simple and close connections. A percentage of the beloved blackbirds and robins you see in your garden each winter are of Scandinavian stock, the Vikings of the bird world. The nightingales so loved by English literature, the swallows and swifts we welcome ‘home’ in spring, each are African birds, stopping off in Europe on their way to the UK. Each species is known to distant cultures and people who also feel a connection with their joyful freedom and music when we see them depart.

But our wildlife is in decline, our sparser diversity of species growing poorer. Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions, and even our own habitat, our cities, is poisoned by air pollution that stunts the lung development of our children, leads to mental ill-health, heart disease and shortens the lives of us all. And yet all of these problems are recognised by the European Union and our membership pressures our political leaders to act upon them. Bats are protected species, as are badgers, water voles and the great crested newt thanks to the Bonn and Bern Conventions. In England it is our very own government that ignores the protection of badgers. Our birds are supported by the Birds and Habitats Directives, our rivers now improved thanks to support from the Water Framework Directives. I have volunteered on projects and received training in invasive species control thanks to EU funding so to me and my local area the benefit is tangible. On some of the most crucial issues regarding our collective wellbeing, the EU has stood up against our government to do what is right morally (and ecologically) for British people. Even Chancellor George Osborne wants Britain in the EU, someone who considers environmental protections like the habitats directives ‘red tape’ holding back economic growth.

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Europeans working together for nature

It is true that the EU is not perfect. The spread of agricultural intensification into areas of traditionally-farmed landscapes of southern and eastern Europe will accelerate the ecological breakdown already seen in England’s rural landscape. The owl-rich farms of Serbia, the meadows of Hungary and Romania will be degraded and reduced to a shadow of their species diversity if they ever fall prey to agricultural ‘improvement’. This will mean more pesticides and a disconnection between people and the land. Once gone, these traditionally-managed landscapes are hard to bring back. Their stewards might well have packed up and headed for the city by then. Strangely, in Britain our wildlife is better protected from agricultural intensification by EU membership. When considering the role the European powers have in protecting our environment, the case of declining pollinators like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects is worth noting.

In March 2013 the EU proposed a ban on systemic pesticides, otherwise known as neonicotinoids. This at first failed to achieve a majority of support and the ban could not be implemented. Why was a ban being proposed? Neonicotinoids were linked to declines in honey bee and other wild insect populations. This is because many agricultural plants are now grown from seeds which are laced with neonicotinoid pesticides. This means that the entire plant is toxic. When these plants grow and their remains fall into the soil the toxicity lives on, contaminating local water bodies and river networks. This toxicity is also linked to a decline in farmland birds in Europe. It’s a decline which is shared at home. One month later, in April 2013, the motion was tabled once more at appeal and the UK switched its vote from abstention to objection, but enough nations voted in favour and the hung vote was taken up and implemented by the European commission. In this instance, we require the EU member states to protect our wildlife and wellbeing from the vagaries of our own government. We also have the chance to influence policy in Europe, a continent which has far greater biodiversity than we. We should take heart from the fact that the European commission has taken action on the Polish government’s unscientific clear felling of the Białowieża Forest, Europe’s largest ancient, lowland woodland.

Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at its very heart

In my mid-20s I was lucky enough to attend an EU funded placement volunteering in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. I saw then what EU money could do: support for local conservation projects that allow people, in this case shepherds, to contribute to the conservation of the lammergaier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a species that like so many does not heed national boundaries. This project with the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture was one of many EU funded projects supported by EuCAN, a Community Interest Company based in Dorset, England. There are partner projects in Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Hungary that have benefited from the support of EuCAN and its EU funded teams of volunteers. In July 2013 I visited South Moravia in the Czech Republic to meet people I now consider friends, all of whom are working to encourage a kinship between people and nature, riches of which the English can but dream. In April 2015 I travelled by train to Romania to meet Barbara Knowles, who very sadly passed away in 2016. Barbara’s project, Treasures of Transylvania, works to promote traditional land management in order to sustain some of the richest habitats Europe has. Prince Charles has travelled to Romania to offer his support for the project. Barbara worked alongside Pogany Havas, a local initiative to support the same goals.

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Britain and Europe’s wildlife needs us

The truth is that without EU membership British organisations like EuCAN are even less likely to be able to receive funding and the alliance of EU-wide conservation is threatened with critical impairment. Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at the very heart of conservation. In England there is an unspoken rivalry between conservation groups (all of whom, it would seem, support EU membership, with 6% of the Wildlife Trusts’ income garnered from the EU and David Cameron’s RSPB endorsement of what the EU does for wildlife) but organisations like EuCAN and the Barbara Knowles Fund show that we all share a common aim and understanding on a local level, whatever our nationality: our ecosystems are suffering because of human impacts, people are becoming disconnected from the landscape and we need to do something about that, together. The impacts of human populations and industry are not going to go away and so we have to accept there will be change and find a way to influence it.

It can’t be denied that the European Union’s impact on nature is not all good, but that is the nature of the world we live in today, be it Britain, Europe or the Americas. Remember that it was the EU that enforced a bee-killing pesticides ban, that it is EU legislation which protects our wildlife and rivers, that funds so many of these local initiatives that connect people and nature. In Britain it is by being a part of this discussion that we as individuals can speak to our political representatives to make a case for a better union for nature. If Britain leaves the EU, we lose that power and our wildlife loses a lifeline. The British connection to Europe is clear in the history of our culture, landscape and wildlife. We are all Europeans, however far back our English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish heritage may take us. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a time when European nations were at war, when millions of people were dying in wars fought over European borders. We now live in an age where Holland and Belgium trade land to clarify their borders without the hint of bloodshed, simply the ruffle of papers and the clatter of a computer keyboard. Today we reach out to each other, across the Channel to recognise the need to preserve our wildlife and local traditions that maintain Europe’s diverse habitats. The EU has supported and will support this. In conservation we have a common European goal, we should cherish that.

 

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