Nature’s Got It In For You: What you should be scared of this month

I’ve taken the unwise step of reading the tabloids over the past few weeks and now I’m scared. Everything out there is out to get you in one way or another, didn’t you know? I didn’t know. I’ve managed to stay alive for 30-ermm-something years now and I’m not entirely sure how. It would appear it was more by luck than judgement, especially as I spend so much of my time out and about in the wild. Well, the wilder parts of South London, at least. There’s just so much out there that wants me dead! So here’s a round up of everything I’ve read throughout July that falls into that old staple, the Summer Scare Story:

The two biggest species that have been threatening life and limb around the country this month have definitely been the broad definition ‘gulls’ and of course Giant Hogweed (that’s what kicked this all off, really):

  • Hogweed! There were a full full ten (TEN! Count them, Ten!) articles on Giant Hogweed in the Mail alone since the start of July. It’s nasty stuff, undoubtedly, but people seem to be jumping up and down like this is a new phenomenon.
  • Gulls! Virtually over the last two weeks, gulls seem to have become public enemy number one. I’ll leave it for you to decide just how much danger you are in should you venture down to the seaside, but as always I’d advise reading a little further than the screeching, alarmist headlines to see what the various ‘experts’ actually said:

Seagulls could kill babies!

Yorkshire Terrier killed by Herring Gulls- ‘it could have been a child!’

Aggressive gulls must be culled!

There’s lots more out there, but here’s something a little more sensible on the subject. Now if you’ll excuse me I think I need to go and scrub myself with borax.

A Cryptic Message from my Cousin Part 2

My identical cousin has sent me another of his peculiar newsletters again. Same as last time, he insists there is some kind of ‘theme’ that he has secretly hidden throughout the document. No one got (or even cared all that much) about the May edition, which according to him had over 10 song titles by popular musicians ‘The Beatles’ (no, me neither) scattered throughout the text.

I have mentioned to him that he should perhaps take his work more seriously, but he claims that an element of levity is all part of the ‘community engagement’ process, whatever that means.

So once again, its prize time! Not only will the first person to find the theme in this month’s edition (or respond with all 10 Beatles songs in the May edition) get the inique prize of a lifetimes free subscription to Adventures in Conservation but I will also promise to link to your blog on here and comment on everything you write next month. Either that or you can claim a free pack of peanuts.

Giant Hogweed – Summer Scare Season

They’ve tried with foxes, they’ve tried with false widow spiders, they even tried to get Steve Backshall to be mean about Jellyfish – but now, a ‘certain brand of newspaper’1 is finally getting some traction with Giant Hogweed. Yes, it’s summer scare season and the papers are here to remind you that you should all fear nature!

Triffid or Giant Hogweed?

Triffid or Giant Hogweed?

Thing is, Giant Hogweed really is rather unpleasant, it really should be removed wherever it is encountered in this country and it really can cause some quite serious harm through something called phytophotodermatitis (I’m sorry, my biochem days are long, long behind me so I can’t quite bring myself to go through the physiology here, but my basic latin suggests this is something to do with ‘Plant-Light-Skin’??). There is, admittedly, something rather triffid-esque about them, looming over you out of the undergrowth. They can even cause blindness if they get at your eyes2. So maybe they’ve got this one right for once, maybe we should start barricading the doors and constructing makeshift weapons out of broken-up pieces of furniture and kitchen utensils. Well, no. Obviously not.

Now I’m someone who has often stated that having a healthy fear of the natural world is no bad thing, but clearly education, not overzealous use of a flamethrower, is the key to winning this war against our potential vegetative overlords. The Mail has, predictably, gone all apocalyptic on the subject and are advocating liberal application of Glyphosate (despite only recently warning against it themselves and with the Soil Association also coming out against spraying the stuff around willy-nilly).

They are compared, superficially at least, to Cow Parsley, and though any botanist worth his salt will of course scoff at this, there is some resemblance. That is before it makes a race for the sky and begins to tower over you. This is all predicated on the notion that most people can actually identify Cow Parsley in the first place; something that I would wager is perhaps not as universal outside of rural areas as most journos assume. Round and round again, this comes back for to the need for wildlife education and the importance of our natural vocabulary, so at least our small people are able to name the thing that’s just attacked them.

It’s not as if they are a new phenomenon. Inevitably it was those damn Victorians again with their penchant for plucking peculiar-looking plants on their itinerant floral tour of the Empire. Someone probably thought it would add much needed height to their borders. They’ve been here long enough and are prevalent enough for people to know better by now, so at the very least I can hold up these articles and say to any doubting teenager ‘See? See? Environmental education is important after all.’

1Incidentally, is the sidebar on the daily mail website the most repellently vapid thing on the internet?

2Hang on, that wasn’t the Triffids though, was it? That was meteors or something…note to self – re-read Day of the Triffids, it’s excellent.

Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

Rewilding has been making a big splash again recently. With the recent Monbiot book ‘Feral’ and the formation of a brand new organisation – ‘Rewilding Britain’ – encouraging (very tentative) talk of charismatic big beast reintroductions, it is now firmly on the environmental agenda. Broadly, rewilding advocates a removal of altering anthropogenic factors and a ‘hands-off’ management technique, allowing the area in question to develop of its own accord without predefined outcomes. This may involve the reintroduction of flora and fauna previously removed or lost due to human influences. The basis for re-wilding has many appealing facets from a conservation perspective, not least the relaxation of the interventionist approach widely implemented in many natural areas, which serves to reinforce the dependence of endangered species on anthropogenic interference. Re-wilding may also be seen as a measure for ‘redressing the balance’ of destructive human activity over the past few millennia. The enforcement of a re-wilding ethic is not without its negative factors though, including the complexities of removing human needs and influence, uncertainty regarding outcomes and issues over the true nature of ‘wild’.

Though not a new concept, increasing dissociation with the land has brought about a romantic longing for something wilder, something to breathe some life into the mundane and everyday. This has advanced the desire to improve and expand wilderness areas and, though it is oxymoronic, to increase areas of wilderness for public enjoyment. This begs the questions how could the population at large benefit from these new wildernesses without visiting and experiencing them, and therefore sullying their intrinsic wildness? Any rewilding project would ultimately always be judged from an anthropologic perspective and therefore not truly wild. However this, many would argue, is still a vast improvement on the current provisions of nature reserves pegged to one permanent ecological habitat type.

Lynx - Soon coming to a woodland near you...

Lynx – Soon coming to a woodland near you…

This in itself is an issue though. Conservation practitioners are accustomed to an interventionist approach. From working in and alongside conservation organisations and with professionals and volunteers, my experience has been of an underlying desire to meddle, to be seen to be doing something, often to attempt to placate or secure funding or improve visibility of the organisation in what is becoming a crowded market. Can that desire to tweak and interfere by advocating practical approaches just be dismissed? If this is what our professionals are trained to do and have the skills for, can they resist the urge to exercise those skills? I have even heard from some the worry that advocating a ‘hands off’ laissez-faire approach would result in fewer jobs in the sector, particularly for those with a practical background.

Furthermore, the question arises regarding the actual results of re-wilded areas. With pristine wilderness no longer in existence in the UK, the outcomes of re-wilding are no longer the true representation of a natural habitat. With invasive species spreading and anthropogenic changes to nutrient levels, climate and species composition, certain species may come to dominate where they would previously have been negligible or absent. It must be judged whether the prospect of this is preferable to a static-interventionist approach of holding a site in a preferential condition for a few select species. During re-wilding these species may disappear from a site, but should this be discouraged? If the wild state of an area is unsuitable then it is surely not worthwhile maintaining it in an unnatural condition at great expense for ill-adapted species.

So much of conservation writing and rewilding theory is nostalgia. How can one have the right to be nostalgic for something one has never seen? The ideal of wilderness is a profoundly human creation. Where once areas of wilderness were viewed as inhospitable regions fraught with danger, the romanticism of groups like the Sierra Club and John Muir have transformed these in modern day thinking into areas of virtue, untouched by human influence. Industrialisation, accompanied by scientific and cultural advancements in recent human history has served to place the rural idyll on an ideological pedestal

An important question to address when considering re-wilding is what do we want from our environment? What is deemed as a favourable condition is ultimately determined from a human perspective, and ideas of restoration can rest as much on social traditions, such as aesthetic value, as scientific theory. An issue occurs when areas are left to re-wild and then fail to conform to expected anthropogenically defined outcomes, and a desire to once again manage the area to fit these standards is likely. A lack of preconceptions regarding outcomes with respect to species and habitat composition is necessary if re-wilding is to be truly embraced, indeed the prospect of an environment with no ‘outcome’ and a flux of successional stages should be accepted and expected as natural. In the UK, this will be particularly low with a population accustomed to a history of a managed landscape with farming and forestry being prevalent. The timescale for a return to a defined baseline condition may be a matter of decades, in many cases longer than the lifetime of those involved in site management. A need for visually obvious progress and an innate human desire to see achievement may often compromise re-wilding efforts.

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

OK, not quite. But it’s in my image library and I need to break-up this text, so give me a break, yeah?

A main issue with rewilding theory is defining a baseline for restoration. This has and will continue to be an area of debate between proponents as some species are looked on more favourably than others due to such esoteric data as their first appearance in the pollen record of peat bogs or the last recorded sighting. It has been argued that due to the historical pastoral use of land and anthropogenic shaping there is no relevant specific baseline for ecological restoration. My two penneth sits with defining this baseline around the disappearance of the land bridge with Europe, but such issues are minor quibbles. There are much more serious barriers to rewilding within the conservation movement, and that’s before the notion is even brought fully into the mainstream.

The big stumbling block

Much greater, more practical, stumbling blocks stand in the way of the rewilding movement though, especially in the UK. Big questions such as ‘where’ and ‘who pays’ need to be addressed. Logically, this will involve the traditional discordant wrangling between environmentalists and the farming lobby as the only areas now feasible for rewilding are the uplands of Wales and Scotland. Unsurprisingly they are likely to be at loggerheads again as each lays a claim as the defenders of an idyll. For the environmentalist, this idyll is a less tangible desire for a rawer natural experience, for the farming community, this idyll is the quintessential British landscape of pasture and crop.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Sorry. Wrong again.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
― Aldo Leopold

Now, slowly but with gathering pace, the rural community is more willing to see and be told otherwise. Opponents push the notions that rewilding and in many cases the environmental movement is sentimental and unrealistic and it is true that there is a certain sense of collective guilt assuaging associated with rewilding measures. We all, rightly, have drilled in to us the damage our actions have wrought on the natural environment, though environmental education still lags in its position and importance at our secondary schools. But the main opponents to the rewilding ethic are not themselves averse to conjuring up a romantic idyll as a counterpoint. When arguing for the continuation of marginal, heavily subsidised upland farming, the farming community will talk of families owning farms for generations, of hard work and honest toil of salt of the earth types, of man’s intrinsic link to the land and the loss of community. These communities are already failing economically, and in many places are no longer viable with the growth of global free markets. Therefore would these subsidies not be better served supporting environmental practices that may have greater long-term value and support just as many jobs in tourism and conservation? Conservation will only succeed when the owners of land are paid to manage it in the public interest. They will need to be led by the nose, in most cases by waving money under it, and this may be the true issue that consigns rewilding to the dustbin as an exercise in conservation wishful thinking.

Positives for Rewilding

There is a future for rewilding though. Subsidies for marginal farming will undoubtedly become more stringent and many marginal farming communities are likely to disappear as the next generation look elsewhere for a career. And if you are looking for an example of how it can work, even in an urbanised area, I recently visited Zealandia on the outskirts of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Surrounded by an impassable fence, the 225Ha reserve sits in a valley in the suburbs of Wellington and has removed all invasive species from the site and reintroduced some rare flora and fauna. It is heavily geared towards visitors and public engagement, aiming to educate while also providing a reservoir and sanctuary for endangered native species, but retains a wilderness ‘feel’ as the rear two thirds of the reserve have minimal paths and access, ensuring that the public largely remain in the front third, where facilities and hard paths are plentiful. Securing such a large area of land near an urban centre is unlikely in the UK, but perhaps this represents a future ‘shop front’ idea for the rewilding movement, such as we are seeing the start of at Knapdale in Scotland. Future sights for such reserves are plentiful (Snowdonia, Cumbria, Yorkshire etc.), and perhaps this tourism based approach will be the first step towards a wilder Britain.

The Nature Writing Debate – A Meta-Analysis

IMG_0198

Here is a picture of a tree what has fallen down…but give me a healthy advance and I’ll write you 100,000 words on its ecological processes and about 500 on its aesthetic beauty, what it says about me as a human being and how it ‘makes my soul feel’

This was originally a much longer, wordier, more lyrical piece. However, I did a quick scope around and there was already a plethora of people speaking on the subject from a much loftier and more exalted position than I in a rather po-faced manner. Occasionally in a style that seemed almost perversely self-defeating. What there was a dearth of was fatuous, flippant fripperies not really addressing the point at all. So I thought what the argument really needed was a contribution from a non-writing barely-creditable scientist (ok, I didn’t think the argument needed that at all, but I felt I should probably come up with some kind of half-arsed justification for sticking my beak in). So here goes, it’s time for me to hold my breath and plunge headfirst into the recent ‘nature writing’ debate.

It’s an apt image; I do feel a little as though I’ve been water-boarded with opinions over the last fortnight. Like the Stephen Poole article a while back, an article by Mark Cocker in the New Statesman this year appears to have opened up divisions in the chummy world of green literature.

In an attempt to make a last grasp at brevity and concision on the subject, I did the only thing I know how to do. Over the weekend I read as many of the ‘thought pieces’ as I could and performed a meta-analysis using the most highly complex and powerful piece of analytical software I had available at the time – though what faculties my tiny little mind still possessed after a whole day out in the sun miscounting butterflies is debatable.

Through this unreliable prism I fed the dilemna ‘What is Nature Writing’ and waited for the resulting spew of stats and poorly formed notions. There were graphs, there were charts, phenological and chronological data on the public perception of the ‘nature writing’ phenomenon…did I mention there were graphs? It was fantastic, glorious to behold, but – I decided – possibly not for everyone. In a second attempt to curtail this rather ludicrous premise, I programmed my unreliable software to condense its findings down into a few, concise soundbites on ‘nature writing’:

  • ‘Nature writing’ must contain at least a 45.6% focus on non-human biological entities.

Thanks brain…A tad over-concise (though where this left dragon-based literature, I am still unsure).

By relaxing the parameters of my software by 5% increments and altering the language flexibility, I was able to increase the outputs and ascertain some fundamental concepts about ‘Nature Writing’:

Results:

  • Writing that does not educate the reader about nature is not ‘nature writing’.
  • It is easier to educate the casual reader about nature if you write engagingly.
  • Alas, as with all other genres, some of what is classed ‘nature writing’ is still tedious, pretentious, pompous, self-important or just plain crap.
  • Pigeonholing and genre definitions have their uses for the bookseller, but informative and engaging writing is priceless to the reader.
  • Arguing class, race, gender etc. in this context is redundant. Or at least it should be. Doing so is merely petty point scoring.
  • ‘Nature writing’ is not a whole, cohesive concept. It is amorphous and highly subjective.
  • In all the analysis of the analyses, and critiques of the critiques, something might just be lost. ‘Nature writing’ and writing about ‘nature writing’ has become about writing about the writing in ‘nature writing’ and not about writing about the nature in ‘nature writing’ – !Unexpected Logic Failure! Please Investigate and the Kill Process (Error Message 0x0EEJK).
  • The only real arbiter of whether something is ‘nature writing’ is the person reading it at that precise moment.
  • Who cares?
  • Stop taking it so seriously. It’s not like you’re doing proper work.

Examples of Source Materials:

Death of the Naturalist: Why is the ‘new nature writing’ so tame? – Mark Cocker

The Limits of Nature Writing – Richard Smyth

Is our love for nature writing bourgeois escapism – Stephen Poole

Tales of the City: Manning the Baricades – Melissa Harisson

Common Ground or Private Park: Whose (nature) writing is it anyway? – Richly Evocative

Limitations of the study:

Capacity and vocabulary of analytical software. Possible sun damage.

Suggestions for future studies:

For ease of comparison and to avoid future conflict, the study recommends the development of a Green to Purple ‘Nature Writing’ scale label for all future publications. Through facile chromatographic identification, individuals can assess their scope of literary preference and use this tool to aid further reading choices…

This child-like effort is the best my limited Paint skills could achieve

This child-like effort is the best my limited Paint skills could achieve

…Like that thing with the mattresses…you could probably justify hiking the prices in some way too…

You may have guessed that I am perhaps not taking the whole debate overly seriously, but then again it’s about time somebody didn’t. On the other hand, I’ve got form in this area, so this may not be the last you hear on this subject…

More Pointless Fox Hyperbole

Foxes = hyperbole. If I’ve learned anything from my ‘career’ in the sector, it is that there is very little as divisive. So when a story appears in the papers about a marauding fox’ penning some ‘terrified’ punters in a pub, I pretty much know what reactions to expect. Calls for culling, the counter ‘ode to the joys of the urban fox’; it’s all a little predictable.

chumsWhat I think has always baffled me though is the sheer number of people who just point blank seemed to have refused that this has happened. Why the self-deception? Why can they not countenance the idea that a fox, a wild predator, could possibly act aggressively towards humans? There is any number of reasons why it might – cubs, food, perceived threat or familiarity – but there is a steadfast refusal to accept. And so stories like this are treated with incredulity and ridicule. I have even heard people claiming today that all previous incidences of fox attacks on humans have later been proven to be dogs. I have also seen that damn statistic about dog attacks vs fox attacks trotted out everywhere despite its total irrelevance. One thing I do know from experience is that when it comes to foxes, you have to pick a side.

I can understand it to an extent – people see foxes as the victim, as persecuted, and are therefore more prone to emphasise their innocence and fluffiness. But why do they think it is necessary to overplay it? The peculiar thing is that today in the Guardian a piece also appeared by lovable hunk Steve Backshall (even I swoon) about the nefarious media practice of creating seasonal bio-panic, be it jellyfish, spiders, hornets or, yes, foxes. And I completely agree with every single word of it. So what am I even trying to say?

I think we need to admit to ourselves that there’s the odd thing out there that might, just occasionally, cause you a scratch, a

They'll be the death of me

They’ll be the death of me

sting, and abrasion, heavens even a cut. I think we have to embrace that. Grasp on to the last tiny semblance of danger in our rather mild-mannered ecosystems (this is all very well me saying this until I am mauled to death by badgers, of course). The truth is that kids, for one, are much more fascinated by teeth and stings and danger than they are by soft fur and a placid demeanour.

So the next time there is a story about a fox biting a bin man, an exotic spider secreted in a bunch of bananas causing mild swelling or reports of a super-deadly Asian Hornet (clue – it’s probably just a regular hornet! Seriously, those things are terrifyingly large) I hope our reaction is neither to run for the hills and stock up on canned goods or to put on our green armour and say ‘oh don’t be silly, it could never happen’. I hope our reaction is to shrug our shoulders and say ‘so what?’ Or even better, ‘cool’. Animals do what animals do and they’re pretty cool as they are, why feel the need to exaggerate or deny?

A Short Word About Ivy, Murderer of Trees

Last week I fielded for the umpteenth time one of those queries that if you’re working in urban green space, you’ve probably been asked a thousand times. No, it’s not the one about the Swans, it’s the one about Ivy, the one that goes ‘what are you going to do about the Ivy? It’s killing the trees! Why aren’t you doing anything? You people don’t know what you’re doing…’etc. etc. and so forth.

ivy tree

Hedera helix – Arborocidal Maniac

It’s a common complaint – the notion that Ivy in someway ‘strangles’ trees. I can even recall a time when, as a volunteer, I was instructed to cut sections through some thick Ivy climbers for this reason. Where does the ‘myth’ come from? I have a theory on this – trees covered in Ivy are probably better structurally supported when they die. Therefore Ivy bound standing deadwood is more likely to remain where other, none Ivy bound deadwood may fall. Does this, therefore, give a false impression to the casual viewer? Ivy is also evergreen, which may in winter further exacerbate the miscomprehension. It is not a parasitic species, but will also thrive better on trees that are already ‘on the way out.’ There is a definite confusion over cause and effect when it comes to Ivy, demonstrated nowhere better than the comments under this piece.

In short, Ivy can cause problems, but ‘choking’ trees isn’t generally one of them. They do swamp borders, and perhaps the mental trauma this has caused many a gardener is part of the reason it can be so divisive, but thought about logically, how could they even ‘choke’ a tree? Perhaps some people did not pay enough attention in biology at school.

What Ivy in trees does do, is provide refugia and habitat for a whole host of invertebrates, nest sites for birds and even roost sites for bats. Berries also provide essential food in winter for some species and may be of benefit to Pine Martens. It may become overly dominant in a woodland, but that is where effective and thought-through management comes in to ensure that diversity and mix of species and ages. There is also an aesthetic argument (apparently), and this may be of more relevance to formalised parks than wild wood, but I for one do not think questions of aesthetics should come into wildlife management. So if you’re about to chop-out sections of your ivy climbers, consider this – which is better from both an aesthetic and bioviersity perspective, a dead tree covered in live ivy, or a barely-live tree covered in dead ivy?