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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The wildlife champions

Posted on January 17 2011 at 2:26:49 0 comments

Mary Green shares her thoughts on the best ways to help wildlife.

New birch trees planted between Alvechurch and Hopwood

Our wildlife has been suffering through this hard winter, but the evidence from last year is that most native species cope, catch up and even thrive after a good cold winter. Whether the really exceptional cold in December will make more of a difference I am not sure.

We certainly had a good visitation from winter birds: redwings and fieldfares came here and not far away at Upton Warren a friend saw waxwings. Ducks, geese, moorhens, swans and gulls gathered on the patch of the canal at Withybed, which they kept ice-free despite ice of several inches thick elsewhere. Now the weather is milder, snowdrop leaves are showing and I have heard great-tits.

Winter is a good time to sit by the fire and take stock and think, so I will begin the year with some thoughts about wildlife.

What do we mean by wildlife?
Generally we mean the plants and animal life native to our country, and not farmed, bred, or planted in gardens by us. But it isn’t really as simple as that. Wildlife is not separate from us, and it lives in an environment we have created. It depends on us in all sorts of ways, even if we don’t deliberately look after it or try to destroy it. In England, there is literally nowhere that the landscape is truly wild. We have created it over the centuries.

At a talk on wildlife I gave last year, someone in the audience asked what English wildlife would be like if it was truly wild. I don’t know exactly, but probably the land would be covered by forest. We would have most of our birds and mammals (except rabbits, which were introduced later) with the addition of boar, beavers, lynx, wolves, and bears. We would have a more limited range of flowering plants, many of which need open ground.

Over the centuries, as we cleared woodland for farming, the familiar patterns of fields and hedges, interspersed with moors and woodland, appeared. Up until a couple of centuries ago, people lived in a mutually sustaining relationship with nature.

Plants, trees, birds and animals were always seen as a resource to help us live. We burnt wood for fuel and manufactured from it. We dug peat. We killed animals, fish and birds for food, and to protect our crops. No one would have thought of loving or protecting wildlife!

Yet we never took too many of the birds and animals, because we wanted more for the future. We managed the woodland so there would always be fuel and building material. The ancient rights to collect wood, or peat, or small game, were jealously guarded.

Even the new hedges planted for enclosing land were good wildlife habitats, and meadows used for grazing and hay grew flowers and attracted bees and butterflies. Water meadows allowed for natural flooding without damage. We were able to live in harmony with our wildlife.

All this changed from the 17th century on, as more and more land was enclosed in big estates, and then industry grew and began to cause serious pollution. Sheep took over the land; woods were felled for timber for warships, industry and building, and not replaced.

Moorland was cleared for the new passion of game shooting, and birds of prey killed to protect the game birds. People moved to towns.

By the late 19th century, some people began to realise we were losing our wild heritage. Movements to protect birds began, and “country ladies” drew wild flowers and collected information about them. Eating song birds, and wearing grebe feathers in your hat, fell out of fashion.

Unfortunately these early attempts at conservation missed the point about habitat. We went on treating the land as if it was an infinite resource, and modern science and technology meant we could do that more thoroughly. This is where my memory comes into it.

After the Second World War, huge areas of the country had hedges stripped out for vast wheat fields. Fenland and moorland were drained. Woods had already been decimated, and were replaced by conifer forests, poor hosts to wildlife. Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers were used widely.

The result was a huge loss of many of our distinctive wildlife habitats, and many species. Our marine habitat was similarly despoiled until many species disappeared from the shores.

When my family moved to a farm 60 years ago, it was still a mixed farm with a bit of everything. We delivered milk locally by horse and cart, pulled wild oats out of the crops and killed rabbits by hand for the pot. But in the next 40 years, like all farmers, we systematically specialised, and destroyed a lot of habitat in the process.

Everyone took part in this “green revolution” for the right reasons: after the war we realised we had to produce our own food on a massive scale. But we went in the wrong direction, and it was not “green.”

Fortunately there has been another change. Go back to that farm now, and you will find a mixed economy again. Areas of land are left for wildlife, including the cirl bunting, a bird that nearly died out. Now the big challenge is to find farming methods that are economically viable, but sustainable.

What is good for wildlife is actually good in the long term for farming. Intensive cropping not only drives out skylarks, but exhausts the soil so it becomes more and more dependent on artificial fertilisers. These are oil-based, and will run out.

I have heard the farming officer from Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, Caroline Corsie, talk very intelligently about this. She is trying to lead by example, farming in a way that is diversified and economically sound, but also hosts wildlife. She reminded us that nature is an interdependent system: bacteria, microscopic fungi, soil composition, worms, insects as well as the birds, animals and plants we love to see, are all vital parts of our world.

The good thing is that most mistakes are reversible. The red kite came back and is thriving, ospreys breed and the sea eagle and bittern have returned. Of British species, only the great auk was actually made extinct through our greed.

Trees are being planted at a better rate now, and they are proper native trees, often replacing the serried rows of non-native conifers. There are experimental areas of marine conservation. The environmental stewardship scheme pays farmers to include wildlife-friendly areas.

Wildlife trusts in every area provide good habitats, though they are not linked up enough yet. Worcestershire Wildlife Trust reserves local to us are Beaconwood and the Winsel, near Bromsgrove, Grovely Dingle near Hopwood, and Newbourne wood in Rowney Green, with many others within twenty miles, including Eades meadow. Country Parks like the Lickeys and Waseley Hills, and National Trust properties like the Clent Hills also have a renewed focus on wildlife recently.

Individuals too can make a difference. For example, my neighbouring farmer Adrian Bytom had planted new hedges and encouraged rough-pasture wildflowers. One of his fields has big patches of ragged-robin, which is rare round here. He has restored watercourses and settling ponds which help to prevent flooding. He has learned to lay hedges in the old way
Laid hedges are actually easier to look after once the initial work is done, and they still flower and fruit and host insects and birds. There are other lovely stretches of laid hedge around. There is a hornbeam hedge near the church in Alvechurch, a new stretch alongside the Radford road as you go towards Weatheroak, and several recently laid hedges near Cofton reservoir. You can also see where hedges were once laid, along the canal near Withybed and on Foxhill Lane.

Another neighbour, John Impey, has planted hundreds of new birch trees along the old lane called The Birches, which is a relic of ancient woodland. Many of the original birches have gone, but in twenty years time we will have an avenue of them again. He has also created new ponds and introduced wildlife into them, and replaced a dying oak tree with a new one. This kind of practice begins to restore the landscape.

Another group here in Withybed planted a wood twenty years ago, of predominantly local native species with the addition of some fruit trees, which is now a “proper wood.” It needs maintaining, of course, and many of the trees have been pollarded and coppiced regularly in the old way.

We are lucky to have several ancient woods round here, and some more recent ones, though not all of them are now managed. The Woodland Trust maintains some: round here they have Pepper Wood near Fairfield, Southcrest in Redditch and the lovely Uffmoor wood near Romsley, all accessible to the public.

There is also the big new wood that has been planted by Mick Robbins between Alvechurch and Hopwood. It is beginning to look like a wood, and I was delighted to see the golden leaves of young silver birch glowing in the November sunlight.

We can all contribute in our small ways, too. Gardens are a new habitat, which only really appeared in the 19th century for ordinary people. They caused a really good growth in the numbers of birds which had previously been woodland-edge birds, and which we now call garden birds. They host butterflies and other insects on which the birds feed.

We can encourage birds by planting natural gardens, full of trees, flowers and insects, rather than decking, tidy lawns and sculptural minimalist leaves. We can feed the birds, so long as we do it consistently. I met another wildlife champion in Segbourne Coppice, a beautiful wood in the Waseley Hills. He comes daily to feed the birds there, supplementing what they can find. This part of the wood is full of birdsong!

We can also try to persuade organisations to be more environmentally sustainable. Our roadside verges should be mown and the grass collected, once a year like a hay meadow. Wildlife trusts have tried this, and found a profusion of flowers start to grow. Motorway verges are often left to grow and only mown occasionally, and they have much better wildlife.

Whatever body takes over from British Waterways should make wildlife a priority as well as leisure boaters. More of us walk the canals than cruise them, and they are perfect corridors for wildlife. We can also support sustainable farming when we find it.

Unfortunately, some people who “love nature” naively believe that all we have to do is leave places to run wild and avoid killing any plants or animals. This doesn’t really work if we want to live here, and we need to manage the countryside, including using it to grow food and for sustainable energy production, and restoring certain habitats which have been lost, like woodland and wetland.

There is a good example of all this in Highland Scotland. In the 18th and 19th centuries the “Highland clearances” meant that crofting farmers were driven out, and native trees felled, so the land could be used for mass sheep rearing. The place I visited last year, Coigach, became an almost empty area, with many people emigrating and remaining families scratching a living in poverty.

Then in the middle of the 20th century a man called Frank Fraser Darling settled in the Summer Isles, and started work to show that farming could be successfully revived. He said, controversially, that the best species to be re-introduced for the benefit of wildlife would be human beings.

With the help of a little tourism, people began to come back and rebuild the ruined crofts. Vegetables and fruit are grown organically and supplied locally. Woods have been replanted. Someone had written a detailed survey of local birds 60 years ago, and another local writer did the same recently. The bird species had changed dramatically, as the old crofts had taken on the modern fashion for gardens, and our familiar garden birds arrived.

On the wider scale, of course, we have become dependent on fossil fuels – first coal, then oil – to live as we do. A British scientist in the mid-19th century realised that all the carbon we were releasing into the atmosphere was likely to cause climate change. That long ago!

We also know now that these fuels are not renewable, so we will have to find alternatives. We know that intensive farming depletes the soil. Collectively, we can solve this problem. It isn’t about saving the planet. The planet could carry on perfectly well without us!

I would love to hear from anyone else who is active in trying to help restore our biodiversity, or who knows of any local “wildlife champions.” I’m sure there is a lot going on.


I wrote this poem at this time last year, and it became relevant again this winter!

Snow

Don’t tell me it’s beautiful, he said, shovel in hand.
But it is, the snow that never seems to go.
No-one ever said beauty would be easy
It is shining and inconvenient, like falling in love.
At night the field glows white, and the day is white
Cold and hard and bright in the short daylight
The morning moon turning its cold shoulder.
I walk at night, free in the moonless white
Only indoors it is dark and warm and soft
A mad world, the misrule of twelfth night
Stuck in a groove like groundhog weather.
Children scream all day on the hill, seagulls,
Forgetting their screens and their texts, close
Up and startled by the ground on their bodies
Dirtying their pretty pink clothes, bright as ice creams.
Late at night the lads sledge down in the non-dark
Hooting like owls, tumbling and laughing.
Sheep wander crazily on to the frozen canal
Where someone has written his name
Without even doing a risk assessment.
It is beautiful, yes, opening your eyes wide.
But too much light for me, too much white
I long for green, for roots growing in the dark
I want to uncover my skin and warm my bones.
I have burnt the holly and the decorations
Let me burn away this glossy Christmas card.


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