Saturday, 27 October 2018

Review: Wildling - The Return of Nature to a British Farm

I don't often get to do book reviews on this blog. The subject is a bit narrow  Readers will remember my review of Robin Page's awful book,  Messages From A Disappearing Countryside.  

However, on this occasion I have a truly wonderful book to review, written in an intelligent and knowledgeable fashion. It was first drawn to my attention in a tweet.

May 28
Afternoon ! I don’t know if you have yet to read Wilding by ? If and when you do, there is an exposition therein on ragwort that will gladden your heart
With a tweet like that what could I do but read it! Indeed, it did gladden my heart and when I did read it I knew I would be writing this blog entry. There is a chapter in the book about ragwort called "Living with the Yellow Peril".

The full title of the book is Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm  and
its subject, rewilding, intersects very neatly with my reasons for writing this blog and all the other work I do combating the hysteria over ragwort. This chapter is so good and so informative that it is worth taking time over this review and first I will explain why it intersects so neatly with my work.

As a conservationist I am acutely aware of what is now named The Biodiversity Crisis.  The loss of species globally at an alarming rate and the loss of numbers of all species of wildlife. There is one concept that has become clear and which I have spent a lot of time studying. This is the concept of Metapopulation Dynamics.

The word Metapopulation is a typical scientist's word. It is half Ancient Greek and half Latin in derivation and it therefore sounds quite complicated. However, the basic concept is actually quite simple. Organisms live in groups of interconnected colonies. Periodically, for one reason or another an individual colony will die out, but as long as there is another one in a reasonable distance and the habitat is still OK it will eventually be recolonised by an individual from another colony. In time perhaps the colony which provided that individual with  suffer the same fate and die out but be recolonised from the site which it previously seeded.

There are important repercussions of metapopulation theory. Firstly, in order to conserve wildlife it has to be done on a landscape scale and secondly, because it takes a long time for all populations in the system to die out, even if the system is ultimately doomed, then wildlife losses will continue to decline even if no more habitat is destroyed.

The key therefore is to recreate more habitat and indeed I have spent sometime studying the technical matters of habitat recreation.  If someone is claiming that because a plant is poisonous, like many, that it must be eradicated and being quoted as saying, "It is toxic to humans, so what the hell are we doing with it in this country?"  , then it is going to cause problems with any wildlife restoration scheme. Wildlife sites would be subjected to even more agricultural intensification in the name of weed control. This is why I work on ragwort hysteria. because in the big picture it harms conservation.

This is of course where rewilding comes in . It is one of the processes that is necessary to conserve our wildlife. Ragwort hysteria is obviously a block to it and this is demonstrated in Isabella Tree's writing in this book.

To cover the main theme of the book it describes the work of the author and her husband on their 3,500 acre estate in West Sussex returning the site to a more natural state while still using it to farm livestock.

The chapter with which I am concerned starts with an explanation of the fact that people were unhappy with the changes that were taking place in rewilding the site at Knepp. Then it goes on to explain one problem which as you will note, "threatened to derail the project."

But one particular aspect of the project refused- and continues to refuse - to die down. A furore so intense that at one point it threatened to derail the project altogether. To many people, the most offensive aspect of the Knepp project, epitomizing our neglectful ways and ranging in locals’ minds from a ‘great disappointment’ to an ‘unmitigated disaster’, is the appearance of ‘injurious’ weeds. ‘Sir Charles has turned a well- farmed estate into a wasteland of thistles, docks and ragwort,’ wrote an observer to the County Times. Of these three offending species, by far the worst seems to have been ~ and continues to be - common ragwort.
This is entirely in keeping with the entries I have been making on this blog for years. I don't blog so much now as I tackle stuff in other ways but I still regularly see hysterical nonsense about the plant.  The author continues ....

The moral outrage ragwort engenders in Britain is usually aimed at alien invasives like Japanese knotweed. Hostility to a plant that has been part of our environment since the last ice age is a peculiar new phenomenon. Less than two centuries ago the poet John Clare was extolling its ‘shining blossoms . . . of rich sunshine’. The Isle of Man knows it as ‘cushag’ - its national flower. Yet to the rest of Britain ragwort is an evil to be expunged from the world. Its sulphur-yellow flowers are rags to irascible bulls. Feelings run so high that recent attempts by DEFRA and the Wildlife & Countryside Link - a coalition of forty- six conservation organizations - to encourage a sensible approach have failed to dent anti-ragwort propaganda.

The loudest accusation of all is that it is a killer of livestock. Ragwort is, indeed, a poisonous plant. It contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids - toxins that, when eaten in large quantities by mammals, cause liver- failure and death. But grazing animals have lived with it for tens of thousands of years. Our own longhorns, Exmoors, Tamworths, roe, fallow (and subsequently red) deer graze amongst ragwort with no adverse effects whatsoever. They know to avoid it. The plant itself warns them away with its bitter taste and a smell.
It is all too true. What I really admire about the author's work is that she has done her homework and understands the science and then writes in a clear and articulate fashion the truth and points clearly to where the blame lies. The comparison with Japanese knotweed is a very good one since you will regularly see ragwort listed on council websites alongside this plant. Often it will be with misleading or plainly wrong information that has clearly been a result of someone reading the anti-ragwort propaganda that is so prevalent. Another piece of insightful understanding follows.

The source of the most recent wave of ragwort hysteria can be laid at the door of the British Equestrian Veterinary Association and the British Horse Society. In 2002 they published the results of a survey claiming that as many as 6,500 of the UK population of around 600,000 horses die every year from ingesting ragwort. It was an astonishing leap from the average often ragwort-associated horse deaths per year estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1990. The BEVA’s claim - it emerged was based on bad science. 4 per cent of BEVA members had responded to the survey, reporting that they had seen, on average, three ‘suspected’ (note, not ‘confirmed’) cases of ragwort poisoning (note not deaths) that year. The BEVA had then simply multiplied this average by the full BEVA membership of 1,945 to produce a total of 6,553 cases for that year. No one at the BEVA seems to have considered the most likely reason that the majority of vets failed to respond to their survey was that they had no cases to report. Despite the fallibility of their reasoning and their having subsequently removed the misinformation from their website the BEVA-based myth has developed a life of its own, particularly in the folklore of horsiculture. As the old adage goes, a lie can get halfway round the world before truth has got its boots on.
Indeed, this is really bad science and correctly identified as such. There cannot be anything really than suspected cases because the test which involves microscopic examination of liver samples to distinguish ragwort poisoning from other, commoner causes of liver damage isn't precise since these changes can also be caused by fungal toxins in invisibly mouldy feed. All to often we see claims of ragwort poisoning where even this test hasn't been done and all there is is liver damage. We know, from research, that the overwhelming number of cases of liver damage in horses, where this nonsense started, are from causes other than ragwort.

As she says this stuff is still circulating.I myself have taken adverts repeating this nonsense to the Advertising Standards Authority and got them stopped.

Again her talent for identifying the truth in the face of an onslaught of nonsense is shown in this paragraph where after quoting a letter sent to her husband. accusing them of letting seed blow onto their land ,the author quotes the science destroying the claimant's argument with great ease.

Once again, prejudice and alarm outpace science. It was virtually impossible, according to the government’s own guidelines, for ragwort to be colonizing the countryside from Knepp. Research
has shown that 60 per cent of ragwort seeds fall around the base of the plant, and it is the seed source in the soil, rather than the source from windblown seed, that generally germinates. The seed
being blown on the wind is lighter and likely to be infertile. It is estimated that, for a plant producing 30,000 healthy seeds,- 18,000 of them land at the base of the plant, 11,700 at 4.5 metres (15 feet)
away, and so on, decreasing with distance, until 36 metres (120 feet) away only 1.5 seeds land. In accordance with the code of practice published by DEFRA we had created a 50 metre buffer zone
inside our boundary that we keep regularly topped, allowing no weed seed sources to develop, and to further reassure our neighbours we voluntarily pull up ragwort by hand in a further 50 metres. In areas of particular sensitivity where, for example, our land abutted a llama firm, we cut a 100 metre strip - twice the area recommended by DEFRA. Our ragwort seed, viable or not, was - and still is - highly unlikely to be travelling beyond our boundary.
This book is really excellent. It really does gladden my heart. Get your copy now!
You will not regret it. It is written by a talented wordsmith and the Knepp project is so lucky to have her as an advocate. I will leave you here with the final paragraphs of the ragwort chapter where the case for rewilding to restore the lost wonders of British nature is made so charmingly and eloquently. We have lost so much, even in my lifetime, we need to restore habitat on a much wider scale. In the words of Dylan Thomas, a poet from my hometown, we should, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Aesthetic sensibilities are deeply subjective, and hard to acknowledge and analyse clearly. They take root in us from the moment we’re born. They bind us to a particular view of the landscape, something we
begin to think of as ‘natural’ or, at least, benign. What we see as children, particularly where we grow up, becomes what we want to continue to see, and what we want our children to see.
Nostalgia, and the sense of security that nostalgia brings, binds us to the familiar. We are persuaded, too, by our own absorption in this aesthetic that what we are seeing has been here for ever. We
believe the countryside around us, or something very similar to it, has persisted for centuries and the wildlife within it, if not exactly the same, is at least a fair representation of what has been here for centuries. But the ecological processes of the past are hard for the layman - and often even conservation professionals - to grasp. We are blinded by the immediacy of the present. We look at the landscape and see what is there, not what is missing. And if we do appreciate some sort of ecological loss and change, we tend to go only as far
back as our childhood memories, or the memories of our parents or grandparents who tell us ‘there used to be hundreds of lapwings in my day’, ‘skylarks and song thrushes were ten-a-penny’, ‘the
fields round here used to be red with poppies and blue with cornflowers’, ‘cod was the poor man’s fish when I was a nipper’. We are blind to the fact that in our grandparents’ grandparents’ day there
would have been species-rich wildflower meadows in every parish and coppice woods teeming with butterflies. They would have heard corncrakes and bitterns, seen clouds of turtle doves. Thousands
of lapwings and hundreds more skylarks. A mere four generations ago they knew rivers swimming with burbot - now extinct in Britain - and eels, and their summer nights were peppered with bats and moths and glow-worms. Their grandparents, in turn, saw nightjars settling on dusty country lanes and even hawking for moths around the street lamps in towns, and spotted flycatchers in every orchard, and meadow pipits everywhere from salt- flats to the crowns of mountains. They saw banks of giant cod and migrating tuna in British waters. They
saw our muddy North Sea clear as gin, filtered by oyster beds as large as Wales. And their grandparents, in turn, living at the time of the last beaver in Britain, would have known great bustards, and watched shoals of herring five miles long and three miles broad migrating within sight of the shore, chased by schools of dolphins and sperm whales and the occasional great white shark. We don’t have to look too deeply into the history books, into contemporary accounts, for scenes dramatically different to our own to be normal Yet we live in denial of these catastrophic losses.
 This continuous lowering of standards and the acceptance of degraded natural ecosystems is known as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ - a term coined in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who
noticed that experts who were charged with evaluating radically depleted fish stocks took as their baseline the state of the fishery at the start of their careers, rather than fish populations in their
original state. Hundreds of years ago an area of sea may have been heaving with fish. But scientists’ reference point for ‘natural’ population levels is invariably pinned to levels dating back no more
than a few decades from the present. Each generation, Pauly realized, redefines “hat is ‘natural’. Each time the baseline drops it is considered the new normal Something similar has happened with
the British Trust for Ornithology setting 1970 as its baseline
year for monitoring British bird populations. Of course, a baseline has to be set somewhere - and the declines since then, meticulously recorded, have been dramatic - but the baseline itself begins to
encourage pre-baseline amnesia. We forget that there was once more. Much, much more.
Evidence of shifting baselines was apparent on our first tractor- and-trailer tours of Knepp in the early 2005, when we began to take mixed generational groups from NGOs like the National Farmers’ Union and the Country Landowners’ Association around the project. We were familiar with the usual reaction from our own generation, the forty-to-sixty- somethings. Children of the agricultural revolution were aghast at what we were doing. The twenty-somethings were often more responsive. For them the idea of national food security, of digging for Victory, was an anxiety from a bygone age. They had grown up in a time of plenty - an era of globalization, cheap clothes and cheap food, their supermarket shelves stocked with Spanish tomatoes in winter, asparagus from Peru, lamb from New Zealand, tiger prawns from Thailand and beef from Argentina. But they had never heard a turtle dove, and rarely a cuckoo. Most had never seen a living hedgehog. The emptiness of British skies, the absence of birds and butterflies, was their normal. Yet they had also been educated, at school at least, to worry about the environment. Knepp was something new and we watched their confused delight as they waded through insect- filled air, picked up grass snakes and slow-worms, and raised their voices above surround- sound birdsong.
But the real surprise came from the oldest generation. Those in their eighties could remember the agricultural depression between the wars, when marginal land across the country had been
abandoned the era of Charlie’s great-grandfather, when most of Knepp had been allowed to revert to scrub. To them, clumps of dog rose and hawthorn, thickets of hazel and sallow - even swathes of
ragwort - were not offensive at all The landscape recalled them, instead, to their childhood ramblings in a countryside heaving with insects and birds, to the days when there was a covey of
grey partridges in every field. There was nothing threatening or alarming about what they were seeing. Quite the reverse. To some, it was positively beautiful. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking
about,’ one old boy berated his son - a baby during the war - who insisted what they were seeing was ‘unnatural’. ‘This is how the countryside always used to look!
Do you get the point? It is all like this. Buy the book and read it!

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