Monday, 26 November 2012

An important meeting about the Arun and Rother river valleys.

Our local rivers are precious and important for our economy, health, well-being and leisure as well as being vital for wildlife and the wider environment.  Multiple pressures, however, impact on this valuable resource; including water abstraction, pollution, soil run-off and changing weather patterns (which have resulted in both drought and flood conditions in this area).  Our rivers are not the clean and healthy habitats they ought to be.

The Arun & Rother Rivers Trust (ARRT) is a new charity dedicated to improving the quality of all the rivers and streams within the “Arun and Western Streams” Catchment.  I have been delighted to be a member of the board of ARRT since it was established and see this charity as an excellent vehicle for bringing together all the people who are active in the river environment – from landowners, farmers and anglers to residents, conservationists and naturalists.

ARRT has now been asked by Defra to listen and engage with people who live, work in and manage the catchment and to take the lead in writing a Catchment Management Plan for the area. To explore this approach ARRT with the Arun and Rother Connections (ARC) Partnership and the South Downs National Park Authority are hosting an event to give people a real say in how their local water environment is managed now and in the future.

ARRT are therefore putting out an open invitation to everyone in the area to come and join a discussion about our local rivers, streams and wetlands. This event will be run in the evening on Thursday 6th December and is open to everyone - you do not need any specialist knowledge to participate. To make it as convenient as possible for people to attend, ARRT is running the event twice on the same day, once in the afternoon and once in the evening, so you can come along to either of the two sessions.

During the workshop you will have the chance to:
  • Learn more about catchment management, express your own concerns and discuss possible solutions
  • Help identify opportunities for working together
  • Learn about funding and support for local community projects

ARRT is keen for this important event to be well attended and I strongly support ARRT in its aims.  We hope that by working together we can develop a clear vision for a rich and thriving river system and develop practical projects to achieve it.

To book your place, please register on-line here or call Sara Denton on 07557 190705. Further information including an agenda and directions will be sent out to all registered participants before the event.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The State of the South Downs National Park report

The South Downs National Park Authority became operational in April 2010 and it is interesting to look back to see what environmental organisations like the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the South Downs Network expected from the new Authority.  What did we ask for back in 2010 and has it now been delivered?

In order to know whether the Park is improving or degrading, there has to be a base-line survey.  You can’t tell if somewhere is getting better or worse if you don’t know what it’s like at the moment.  Therefore the first and most over-arching outcome we were looking for was a State of the National Park Report.  This is the essential first step against which to measure change. 

Two years later and this is exactly what has been delivered.  This State of the Park report is a major document covering over 140 pages that includes all the issues we then highlighted for which a baseline was needed.

This is a huge piece of work.  Exhaustive as the document is, this is really just the top layer.  It is supported by additional detailed information that is accessible on-line.  Even so, there are inevitably knowledge gaps and these too are highlighted.

A development over state of the environment reports of the past is an emphasis on the value of a healthy environment to people.  Nature has an over-riding value in ethical, spiritual and moral terms, but understanding its value to people in terms of the vital services it provides adds to, rather than detracts from, these deeper values.

Any report can only scratch the surface when assessing nature’s services but this document does, for instance, highlight the following:
  • 1.2 million people rely on drinking water from the Park and this is more likely to be drinkable if the wildlife habitats above it are in good health. 
  • 34,000 ha of woodland could be managed sustainably to provide heat for 9,000 homes while reducing carbon footprints and enhancing woods for wildlife.
  • Obesity costs Britain £5 billion a year but enjoyment of the environment by using the Park’s 3,300 km of public paths could contribute to the health of the nation.
You could add all sorts of other often immeasurable things like the cycling of nutrients, pollination, flood risk reduction, pollution amelioration, the simple enjoyment of orchid rich downland grassland or just using the South Downs brand in niche marketing.  The general message is the same – maintaining and improving the high quality environment of the South Downs is key to the areas economy and to the well-being of people in the area.  A statement of the obvious you may say, but still something that is often forgotten.

Valuing nature can be controversial, but it is not the same as “pricing” nature.  A better appreciation of the economic and non-economic value of the Parks special qualities should improve decision making.  If successful maybe this report might help reshape the economy as much as it might inform management of the environment.  As the report says, the “special qualities of the National Park are key to the future economy”.  The local economy will thrive if it supports and adds to these special qualities – not if it sees itself in competition with them.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Ash die-back is now a fact of life – what now?

The situation with ash die-back has moved very fast over the last few days.  It now looks like we have moved well beyond a time when simply eradicating the disease was a realistic possibility.  The disease is now here and we are going to have to live with it.

So what lessons can we learn?

First is a general point about the health of our environment.  Tree diseases happen, quite naturally, causing local tree death in woodland.  In limited amounts this is just part of a natural process that simply opens up woodlands, allowing light to reach the floor and encouraging natural regeneration to flourish.  This is not damage, this is nature, and the effect is to make a wood richer.  The first point therefore is that we need to develop a rich and resilient environment where the loss of occasional trees is made up by natural regeneration. 

Our problem today, however, is that we are seeing the appearance of more diseases and they seem to be more virulent than might naturally be the case.

The second point relates to biosecurity.  The UK must get much better at making sure that the incidence of these diseases reaching our shores is reduced.  Many people have made this point so we now need to see some long term action.

When it comes to the current situation with ash trees, however, what do we do now? 

The desire to “do something” might result in calls for expensive clearance of woodland, to burn the infected material, even to spray with fungicide and to replant with new ash trees.  Every element of this approach would be wrong.

Any strategy must be led by science.  This is why reported sightings from the Forestry Commission, Defra and the general public are so important.  This tells us how widespread the disease is and so what management strategies might work.  Science may also give us a better understanding of the disease and what remedial actions might be, to some extent, effective.  If cases were well isolated then local eradication may have been a possibility but the result of these surveys shows that this is not the case and therefore the slash and burn approach should probably stop. 

Cutting and burning suspect trees over a large area will result in the loss of trees that may have had some level of resistance to the disease.  It would not prevent the disease spreading but it would stop the development of a resistant ash population and it would damage the woodland ecosystem.  More than ineffective, it would be counter-productive.

Replanting opens the questions of what with and where from (and why)?  Ash trees are one of the most freely regenerating of the trees that we have.  Leave any area of ground near an ash tree alone and pretty soon you’ll have thousands of small ash seedlings competing for space.  The most successful will survive but the vast majority will die.  Ash die-back has been said to kill 90% of trees in some areas.  However, in freely regenerating areas 99% of these small ash seedlings could easily be lost and there will still be more than enough potential new trees available.  This will be far more vigorous, more successful and more genetically varied than a few replacement planted trees.

We often forget the power of natural regeneration.  A good friend, Patrick Roper, has been studying what happens in just one square metre of land in his garden if you leave it alone.  Being an expert naturalist he can name everything that is on there – from trees to insects.  In his one square metre (that’s just the space taken up by one large paving slab) he has ash, hazel, oak, hornbeam, willow, holly, birch, sycamore, elder and hawthorn all regenerating naturally from seeds that blew in.  And the ash has survived even after being eaten by rabbits for three years!

Forget the heavy intervention and expensive approach of slash, burn, poison, replant (and then do the same again when it fails) and instead develop a rich and resilient nature that is able to heal itself.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Ash die-back – cures far worse than the disease.

Late in the day – probably too late in the day – we have woken up to ash die-back (Chalara fraxinea).  Indeed, at last government seems to be taking tree diseases in general more seriously.  However, if we fall into panic mode then we could come up with a whole host of “cures” that are far worse than the disease.

The first reaction was to cut and burn infected trees.  This could only possibly work if the disease had not progressed far.  If caught in time, with just a few trees affected, then there could have been a policy of cutting infected trees and also removing trees in the vicinity in order to prevent spread. 

Increasingly, however, the evidence seems to indicate that the disease is now established in the wider countryside, and that spores may be spreading on the wind.  The genie may now be out of the bottle.  Far from helping, a slash and burn approach now may be counter-productive.  Some of our ash trees may have resistance to the disease.  If we destroy all ash trees in sight then any new race of resistant ash trees will never emerge.  Acres of dead ash trees, killed by the disease, will be bad enough, but a scorched-earth landscape with no chance of ash tree recovery will be far worse.

We are now also seeing the emergence of some most bizarre ideas for a “cure”.  Recent news reports suggests that “scientists” have come up with a “cure” and it is only “red tape” that is holding things up.  This cure is the aerial spraying of a solution of copper sulphate and nutrients, presented as a modern answer that just requires fast-tracking through trials.

On the contrary, the use of copper sulphate as an anti fungal agent is centuries old – throwing it out of an aeroplane does not make it a new cure and goodness knows what any “trial” might show that we don’t already know!  This is a highly damaging broad-spectrum fungus-killer.  It will kill a wide range of fungi, could well persist in the soil and might fundamentally damage woodland ecosystems.  Our under-rated fungi are the engines of woodland ecology.  They recycle all the nutrients, form soil and enable plants to grow.  Without them our environment would simply not work.  Tipping chemicals into woods in the hope of curing ash die-back is about as likely to be helpful as is randomly jamming a screwdriver into the back of a computer.  Indeed it is quite possible that we are seeing an increase in diseases because our fungal flora is already unhealthy.  The broad-spectrum killing of more fungi is not the answer.

This underlines the point that government needs to take proper advice on this subject from people who know something about woodland ecology.  They should not simply fall for any wacky knee-jerk reaction.

In the end I suspect that the only sensible course now is to let nature take its course and try to encourage a new generation of resistant ash trees.