Reap, mow, dewild the meadow: Getting out of our culture of over-cutting

Image

Wrapped up in duffle coats and bobble hats, the volunteers were still more than willing
to venture out into the biting cold of mid-January. Having admired my captive harvest mice, pirouetting through the heather stalks of their enclosure with all the grace of Cirque du Soliel acrobats, we took to the frostbitten wetland meadow of the Escot estate in Devon, in search of the abandoned summer nests of their wild cousins.

In the chaotic tussock-jungle of cocks-foot grass, reeds and bramble, we delighted in
finding over a dozen of the exquisite cricket-ball sized structures that still held firm to
the plants the mice had originally woven them into many months ago. Needless to say,
the participants were delighted, and a couple that managed a farm on the edge of
Dartmoor were keen to know how they could promote habitat for them on their land.
In response, I pointed at the untidy nature of the meadow that many would claim as
‘neglected’.

“Essentially you want that – if you’re going to have to mow, do so in small chunks on a
three to five-year rotation, and ensure that you’re doing it as late as you possibly can.
These guys can be breeding right into autumn, so mid to late September absolute
earliest. Even better if you can do so in October.  They absolutely love the rough
tussocks formed by cocks-foot.”

The initial reaction in their faces was as if they had just sipped a coffee they had
accidentally added salt into instead of sugar. “Ah… I mean we’ve always seen cocks-foot
as a weed to get rid of, for starters. And we’d never have thought to cut that late.”
It’s an understandable reaction, when the timing and method for cutting meadows has
been so deeply instated for hundreds of years. Meadows are not an ecosystem in an
original sense – they are a product of low-intensity farming created to provide winter
feed for livestock, that also just happen to be great habitat for a huge suite of plants and
animals, including harvest mice. Traditionally, these were cut in mid-June to July in
order to provide the most nutritious fodder, but with the industrialisation of agriculture
and the advent of silage, we have lost over 97% of these agricultural systems that
happen to benefit a lot of wildlife. Continue reading

Of Eagle’s Nests and Missing Goats: Goblin Combe, 20th January (Nature Diary)

img_7878

The small car park in the quarry is packed to capacity with sardine-tin precision, as unsurprisingly everyone else is using their Sunday afternoon for a bracing walk. But thankfully the site is big enough that between nodded greetings of “t’noon” as I cross walkers on the footpath more often or not with a dog, there are moments when I can stop and just absorb the overwhelming silence – a silence that is, paradoxically, very loud. The windless cold at the bottom of this gorge holds sound like an invisible clenched fist around me, such that small notes like a twittering long-tailed tit or ruffled leaves from a foraging squirrel break it in a pure, practically crystallised note. Meanwhile, much more notable noise rings like someone coughing in a cathedral, reverberated by the steep sides of the gorge. The sounds of a woman talking on her phone about rescheduling her meeting tomorrow can be heard long before she appears, the mundane conversation ringing through the trees like a bureaucratic monsoon.

img_7873Next comes a leashed Labrador clearly very excited by something encountered up ahead, wheezing and trying to skirt his way back to the opposite direction. His owner nods at me half-heartedly, his face red and flustered from working reasonably hard to keep him heeled. Carrying on, I naturally assume the white and brown form, partially obscured by a few adults and held round the collar by a boy of about 9 or 10, I was coming up to in the path is a bitch in heat, and that this family were quickly reassessing their decision to take her out to a public space on Sunday afternoon. When she bleated however, I adjusted my view to realise the bitch was a goat. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Bennetts Patch Whales, 6th January

img_7761

I’d been meaning to recce this site for harvest mice for a little while now, having moved to Bristol a couple of months ago. Keen to make new connections like an over-enthusiastic fresher, I’d suggested to a local nature group I’d be happy to run a nest search session for the species, without having a single clue on where I might find them with their rather specialist requirements for untidy grasslands. This place was first on my checklist – a stretch of meadow about 4 hectares in size beneath a wooded hill in the Avon gorge, bounded between a railway line on one side and the A4 on the other. While much of it is short turf beloved by picnickers and dog walkers, the edges are grizzled with large grassy tussocks. Exactly the sort of unkempt stubble where a harvest mouse might feel at home.

I trudge across to investigate, the slight ringing in my ears still inherited from last night being drowned out by the sound of the road. It’s a fair punishment. I had only intended to go for a couple of pints with a friend, and spend a decent day out and about afterwards. But by beer number 4, we seemed to realise that at this middle ground of young-professional life, spontaneous nights on the town were becoming increasingly rare and would only become more frowned upon, leading to decisions that resulted in the evening’s conclusion at about 4am. At least by dragging myself outside to ruffle through some vegetation I’ve not entirely wasted the day.

Despite that, the search for nests isn’t going particularly fruitfully. Despite appearances from afar, many of the grass species here don’t have the stem strength necessary to keep nests in place, and those that do are relatively few and absent of evidence. Obviously that does not imply evidence of absence from this casual search, but I did have doubts about this spot. I dig out my phone, swiping my way through google maps to check out the surrounding landscape to assess how well connected it is with potential habitat (such is ecology in the 21st century). The answer is ‘not very’. Sandwiched between the city and the River Avon, there’s not much cover for harvest mice to move through, which has been shown to be a big predictor of where you find them. Continue reading

Nature Diary: The Year’s Close at Fishlake Meadows

IMG_7465

It always astounds me just how exciting a soggy clump of dying grass can be. I saw it after a couple of minutes looking in a swathe of reed-canary grass, perusing through dripping fronds of the stuff as casually as you can make crouching down and searching foliage look. It’s a harvest mouse nest – more specifically, a former breeding nest that has been abandoned with the coming of winter.

The first one I’ve found here this year, in fact. I’m intrigued as to whether it will be a bit more difficult to find them this season. While I’ve no doubt the warm summer boosted food productivity, the breeding nests are woven from still-living stems of grasses or reeds, which in the formers case would have been desiccated and lacking in stability over the hottest days. Whatever the case, the harvest mice will have it tougher now as they descend to the ground layer over winter, and the young born in the dark comfort of these nests now face the greatest test of their lives.

IMG_7463Knowing that trying to see harvest mice in the wild is about as easy as getting a Glastonbury ticket (we tried and failed on both releases this October – we cling to the vain hope of March re-sales in the face of all odds), finding the old nest leaves me satisfied enough on this whistle-stop visit to Fishlake at the afternoon’s end. Close to sunset on a December evening is not exactly widely held as a prime time for nature watching, and I’ve already completed the end of the walk circuit. Above my head, more and more cormorants appear flying into roost, and even in the middle of a reedbed spanning almost the entire floodplain valley, the “chack-chack” of restless blackbirds echoing the end of the day can still be heard from the scrub around its edges. Continue reading

Rewilding at RAU/Cirencester College -building bridges?

IMG_6040

Could a beaver-generated wetland sitting within an agricultural landscape – like this one in Bavaria – soon be widespread and indeed tenable across Britain?

It’s pretty amazing how quickly my childhood daydreams are growing into conservation’s zeitgeist. While I didn’t know the word ‘rewilding’ when I was eight years old, I would never have guessed optimistic hopes of having beavers back in the local stream would be a tenable prospect by the time I was at university, yet alone a middle-aged adult.

The change is dramatic even in the space of a few years. In 2015 I ran a rewilding workshop for young people from our youth nature network A Focus on Nature, not long after George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’ really brought rewilding into the mainstream. At the time I thought there were few outlets to explore the topic: but cut to late 2018/early 2019 and there are five rewilding conferences and workshops alone that I know of.

I was kindly invited to attend and write about the most recent of these, hosted at what you might think to be a pretty surprising venue – the Royal Agricultural University, with co-hosts Cirencester College. It’s fair to say farmers have not been the most supportive of rewilding; Monbiot has done much for pushing forward the agenda, but it’s fair to say for many of those who manage 72% of Britain, his views have been about as welcome as hair in your soup. So to have an opportunity where the agricultural sector are willing to engage with the idea, rather than stomping it into the ground in the hope it’ll shut up, is very positive to see. Continue reading

Nice (to live with) Beaver: Adventures in Bavaria

IMG_5885

Disclaimer: This was the closest thing seen to a live beaver over the course of the trip.

For most, Bavaria brings to mind beer. Having visited this region of Germany back in April I can confirm that’s apt. I’ve been well converted to the wheat beer and schnitzel, and after five evenings of sampling half of the region’s output of these goods with my seven companions for the trip, by the end of it all my head felt not unlike it had been on a stag-do.

While Bavaria’s beer is its notable export, something brought into the region – or rather brought back – is in fact more fascinating than the bevvies, and it doesn’t even give you a hangover (I think). They are the industrious, second-largest rodents we all know and love or loathe, depending on your perspective – the beaver.

IMG_5900

Not just about the beer

Following their reintroduction in the 1960s, from a few small areas they have recolonised more or less every watercourse. Bear in mind that the Bavarian landscape is by no means a wild one where big beasts roam free and chase the colours of the wind. It is often flat, and full of intensive agriculture. Essentially it’s Norfolk with Germans. And many of them were not too pleased when de Biber started blocking drainage ditches, felling prize trees and burrowing into the fields, potholing tractors as they did so.

Many called for the beaver to be eradicated, and it could well have gone that way. But there was a concentrated effort to mitigate the beaver’s habits were it became a problem to human interests, while very much allowing the animal to colonise Bavaria. Continue reading

Silent Fields Revisited: Don’t let shifting baselines tell us how much nature we can have

IMG_0423.JPG

A rural landscape in mid-Wales, where the reintroduction of pine martens is actively taking place. (Peter Cooper)

Memories are fickle old things. They are the sum of who we are as people. Our best days and worst days, while long gone physically, can stay with us for life and define who we are. They can even be shared between generations, and shape our reality. Yet as those generations pass, those memories become stories. And if they are not documented scientifically, they can blur the lines between fiction and reality.

Here in the UK, our own generational memories of the countryside often determine what we prioritise in wildlife conservation. The trouble with this is that with each successive generation leaving less nature behind than the one before it, our perception of what is healthy becomes skewed over time. It can pre-determine what we value; much attention is currently being given to curlew recovery, with older folk still remembering a time when they were common on farmland. But the once equally numerous corncrake receives nowhere near the same attention, perhaps because the witnesses to its former abundance have effectively died off.

This is the shifting baseline syndrome. The presumption that what we grew up with is the norm. Needless to say this has been written about numerous times but, in short, it is a barrier that can restrict us from realising the fullest possible ecosystem. And one doesn’t have to go far to find written sources that make us realise what we have lost. Continue reading

What is Rewilding Anyway? Episode 3: Neil Heseltine

neil1

Photo: Stephen Garnett

In the third episode of the podcast, I speak to Neil Heseltine, a farmer based at Hill Top Farm in Malham, the Yorkshire Dales.

Neil is already diversifying his farm for the benefit of wildlife, moving away from sheep to Belted Galloway cattle. Much of the talk around rewilding centres on the uplands in Britain, but what could or does this mean for the rural communities that already live and work there? Neil shares his views of this and more in the interview.

 

Nature Diary: North Devon, 8th February

IMG-5256

Image: Pete Cooper

Three months into a winter of fieldwork, I’ve become used to the ‘treacle tracks’ now.

A time in which this barely-recognisable footpath along the hedgerow could be walked in clothes that grew sweaty with heat, immersed in the sound of cavorting insects or birdsong, seems so distant as to be a fable. Bar the whispering rushes of the strengthening cold wind, all I can hear is the slop-clop-glop of the mud protesting at each of my footfalls. Liquid enough so that my walk becomes an un-even yoga class of splits, solid enough so that I have to put in some effort to free my boots, the quagmire gurgling pathetically in response.

A cold wind is building strength on the top of the valley, whistling threateningly with growing intent past my ears; grey drizzle moving in on the horizon. Bleak, but certainly not lifeless. Hard to believe, when the hedges look like tangled brown skeletons in their seasonal death, and the only actual animals I have seen are a flock of redwings that took off into an oak from the rushes on the hillside below.

Yet winter is the time to witness life in memory. Not what is dead or slumbering, but of the traces those creatures that still stir leave in the land. Continue reading

What is Rewilding Anyway? Episode 2: Dr Steve Carver

stevec In this month’s episode, I went to the University of Leeds to speak to academic and director of the Wildland Research Institute, Dr Steve Carver.

I have had several prior conversations with Steve on Twitter, and have always been interested to hear his thoughts on what we can really define as wild, how we could intergrate rewilding in Britain, and in particular the idea of rewilding as a ‘spectrum’, as illustrated below.

spectrum

The Rewilding Continuum (Steve Carver)

These and more were just some of the topics talked about in the latest podcast in the ‘What is Rewilding Anyway?” series, which you can listen to in the audio file below.