Ben­e­fits af­ter Brexit?

Leav­ing the EU is likely to have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on Bri­tain’s land­scape. So could it ben­e­fit our habi­tats and wildlife, asks en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Chris Baines?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

What leav­ing the EU could mean for the UK’s wildlife

S ince June 2016 Brexit has dom­i­nated the news agenda in Bri­tain, and many com­men­ta­tors – re­gard­less of their po­lit­i­cal views – agree that it could spell change for our land­scape. If so, it won’t be the first time that big po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions have trans­formed our coun­try­side. The first of the En­clo­sures Acts was passed al­most 250 years ago. An en­tire ru­ral land­scape was taken out of com­mon use and sub­di­vided by hedges and walls to cre­ate the checker­board farm­ing land­scape that is now sym­bolic of the low­land English coun­try­side.

At the time the ‘peas­ant poet’ John Clare railed against the carv­ing up of open land where pre­vi­ously “its only bondage was the cir­cling sky”. Iron­i­cally, two cen­turies later the Cam­paign to Pro­tect Ru­ral Eng­land (CPRE) and oth­ers cam­paigned to stop the clear­ance of the very hedgerows that had so of­fended Clare. They were de­scribed in the 1970s as “the most wide­spread semi-nat­u­ral habi­tat in Eng­land”.

Af­ter World War I, Lloyd Ge­orge’s gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished the Forestry Com­mis­sion, in­tent on mak­ing sure that Bri­tain’s coal mines would never again be short of pit props. The re­sult­ing conifer plan­ta­tions caused the loss of a huge pro­por­tion of the coun­try’s sur­viv­ing an­cient broad-leaved wood­lands. Th­ese were the most con­ve­nient land­scape el­e­ments to clear and re­plant. In another twist of fate, by the time many of those stands of soft­woods were ma­ture enough to har­vest, pit props were no longer needed.

When the Euro­pean Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity (EEC) first emerged in 1957, its prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tives were last­ing peace across the con­ti­nent and self-suf­fi­cient agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity. At that stage, 70 per cent of its bud­get was ab­sorbed by the Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy (CAP). The post-war chem­i­cal and me­chan­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion was fu­elled by a be­lief that “na­ture was the en­emy”, with wildlife in farm­land and forests seen as a weed, pest or dis­ease. Con­se­quently, the past half cen­tury has seen the spec­tac­u­lar ster­il­i­sa­tion of Bri­tain’s more pro­duc­tive ru­ral land­scapes.

A rable crops have lost their ‘weeds’ and most of their pol­li­nat­ing in­sects. Al­most all of the coun­try’s species-rich wild­flower mead­ows have made way for sin­gle-species pas­tures and silage crops. Farm­land birds have de­clined in num­ber by 65 per cent and once-fa­mil­iar species such as the yel­lowham­mer, tur­tle dove and cuckoo have be­come rel­a­tive rar­i­ties. Farm­ers have found ways of cul­ti­vat­ing the pock­ets of ‘dif­fi­cult’ land – the steep slopes and boggy bits that had been the last refuge for so much of our ru­ral wildlife.

Even where ef­forts are now be­ing made to re­vi­talise the faarm­ing land­scape with bee­tle bbanks, un­sprayed head­lands and nnewly planted hedgerows, the best reesults are a very pale replica of thhe pre-war coun­try­side. Try to rre­mem­ber when you last needed to scrape squashed in­sects off your ccar head­lights. Even bet­ter, take a walk through a hay meadow in a coun­try that came late to the CCAP – in Ro­ma­nia, Bul­garia or HHun­gary, for ex­am­ple. You will be over­whelmed by the sights and sounds and smells of a species-

rich land­scape that we in Bri­tain have lost in just two gen­er­a­tions.

Brexit comes at a time when the idea of ‘ecosys­tem ser­vices’ is rapidly tak­ing root. This is the re­al­i­sa­tion that our nat­u­ral life-sup­port sys­tem has a mea­sur­able eco­nomic value. In towns and cities, ‘green in­fra­struc­ture’ is in­creas­ingly recog­nised as the cool­ing air con­di­tioner that can re­fresh the body and soul. In the more re­mote land­scapes of the ru­ral up­lands, the ecosys­tem ser­vices are equally tan­gi­ble. Seventy-five per cent of Bri­tain’s drink­ing wa­ter is gath­ered from up­lands, and where the land is suf­fi­ciently ab­sorbent it can pro­vide nat­u­ral wa­ter stor­age, pol­lu­tion fil­tra­tion and flood pro­tec­tion.

In a coun­try as crowded and ur­banised as ours, re­mote ru­ral land­scapes have al­ways been im­por­tant for recre­ation. I grew up in a fam­ily of Sh­effield ram­blers, where a week­end in the Peak District pro­vided phys­i­cal and emo­tional es­cape from the stress of the city. In 1949, the post-war Cle­ment At­tlee gov­ern­ment made the bold move to en­shrine that par­tic­u­lar ecosys­tem ser­vice in the form of Na­tional Parks.

C an Brexit now be the trig­ger for an equally am­bi­tious re­think of how we man­age th­ese spe­cial places? Can we re­fo­cus pub­lic sub­sidy to cre­ate land­scapes man­aged for a wider def­i­ni­tion of the pub­lic good?

Most of Bri­tain’s up­lands are man­aged by farm­ers and, for many, their prin­ci­pal prod­uct is lamb and mut­ton. A great many of th­ese hard-work­ing men and women are at or be­yond re­tire­ment age and their an­nual in­come falls well below the na­tional av­er­age. Euro­pean sub­si­dies pro­vide as much as 80 per cent of this and the na­ture of the pay­ments con­tin­ues to en­cour­age over­graz­ing and land­scape de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in many of our most trea­sured up­lands.

Forty per cent of the sheep meat from those up­lands is cur­rently ex­ported to Europe. So if Brexit brings ex­port tar­iffs and in­creased bu­reau­cracy, there will be lit­tle in­cen­tive to con­tinue farm­ing th­ese mar­ginal lands. If the sub­si­dies also dis­ap­pear, this could lead to wide scale rewil­d­ing by de­fault. The over­graz­ing would come to an end and very quickly we could ex­pect to see sil­ver birch and moun­tain ash, hawthorn and oak re­colonis­ing open hill­sides.

Else­where in Europe, this has been the un­in­tended con­se­quence of ear­lier pe­ri­ods of land aban­don­ment. Large ar­eas of the French Pyre­nees are heav­ily wooded, but old pho­to­graphs show that this was once an open land­scape, heav­ily grazed and rel­a­tively tree­less.s. In Cat­alo­nia, Barcelona has a glo­ri­ous fo orested range of moun­tains as its back­drop. T Th­ese were mostly grazed pas­ture u un­til bet­ter-paid em­ploy­ment in t the tourist in­dus­try along th he nearby coast proved irre es­istible and the labour fo orce left the land.

Aban­don­ing th he land and ‘leav­ing g it to na­ture’ would cer­tainly de­liver land­scape change – but it is a blunt in­stru­ment. Barcelona’s for­est is at con­stant risk of wild­fire. Stone-walled graz­ing land in the English Lake District, York­shire Dales and else­where that was left un­tended through the two world wars was soon in­vaded by bracken. The boundary walls can still be seen, but the hard-won pas­ture has been lost. Con­ser­va­tion groups man­ag­ing the UK’s few sur­viv­ing species-rich grass­lands are well aware of the ef­fort nneeded to hold back the tide of in­vad­ing scru ub.

There is also con nsid­er­able con­cern about the so­cial ch hange that would re­sult from aban­don­ing g the land. While farm build­ings might sur­vive s as ru­ral re­treats for sec­ond-home ers or satel­lite-linked small busi­nesses s, we would lose the lo­cal kno owledge of the land and the neeigh bourli­ness. And, in Snow wdo­nia’s case, de­sert­ing farm ms would lead to a loss of laan­guage too.

Most en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists seem to agree on one thing. Af­ter Brexit, sim­ply re­in­stalling a Bri­tish copy of the CAP would be a mis­take. Since the CAP has gen­er­ally de­liv­ered wide­spread hu­man and eco­log­i­cal poverty in our up­lands, Brexit in­stead of­fers us the op­por­tu­nity to do much bet­ter.

T he lion’s share of the Euro­pean money is paid out as di­rect grants, sim­ply for own­ing land and keep­ing it in a pro­duc­tive state, in its cur­rent form. Al­though in re­cent years a share of the money has been made avail­able for stew­ard­ship, it is of­ten ap­plied piece­meal and has done rel­a­tively lit­tle to re­build the eco­log­i­cal in­tegrity of the wider coun­try­side.

There is a strong case for main­tain­ing the ex­ist­ing scale of agri­cul­tural sub­sidy, but tar­get­ing it more in­tel­li­gently. We should spend pub­lic money on im­prov­ing wildlife habi­tats, mak­ing wa­ter sup­plies more de­pend­able, pro­tect­ing his­toric her­itage and on any of the other ecosys­tem ser­vices that come from sen­si­tive, sk­il­ful land man­age­ment. Let’s sup­port the landown­ers and man­agers most will­ing to work to­wards such tar­gets. Post-Brexit, we should be in­spired by ex­am­ples of sus­tain­able up­land man­age­ment. Here are two.

Af­ter al­most a cen­tury of coniferi­sa­tion, foresters are learn­ing how to lib­er­ate those suf­fo­cated broad-leaved wood­lands. Spurred on by wood­land own­ers such as the Na­tional Trust, Wildlife Trusts and Wood­land Trust, the PAWS pro­gramme (Plan­ta­tions on An­cient Wood­land Sites) is care­fully re­mov­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate conifers and let­ting in the light. Prim­roses and vi­o­lets that had sur­vived on the edge of for­est rides are creep­ing back. Speck­led wood but­ter­flies and pearl-bor­dered frit­il­lar­ies are once more bring­ing the sun­lit glades to life, and bird­song is swelling in both vol­ume and va­ri­ety. Here and there, the soul of Bri­tain’s wood­land is be­ing re­stored.

The role of up­land peat­lands as nat­u­ral reser­voirs is be­ing re­vived, too. Wa­ter com­pa­nies have been work­ing for sev­eral years with con­ser­va­tion groups and farm­ers to block sur­face drains, re­sat­u­rate the sphag­num moss and build the wa­ter-hold­ing ca­pac­ity of blan­ket bogs. This boosts the year-round de­pend­abil­ity of drink­ing wa­ter, pu­ri­fies rain­wa­ter and mod­er­ates the flow of streams and rivers that might oth­er­wise cause flood­ing in the low­lands.


It also en­hances the car­bon-stor­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of the peat­lands and re­verses the car­bon emis­sions caused when they dry out, help­ing to counter cli­mate change.

In schemes like th­ese, tra­di­tional land man­agers such as farm­ers and foresters are still es­sen­tial, but their ex­per­tise is used in dif­fer­ent ways to pro­duce a wider set of out­comes. The wildlife ben­e­fits are a bril­liant bonus. Many of the schemes in­volve un­ortho­dox al­liances across the pub­lic, pri­vate and vol­un­tary sec­tors. This may be the se­cret to suc­cess in a post-Brexit world.

Con­ser­va­tion char­i­ties are al­ready ma­jor landown­ers in all of Bri­tain’s most highly val­ued up­lands. For ex­am­ple, the Na­tional Trust owns a quar­ter of the Lake District, 12 per cent of the Peak District Na­tional Park and half of Mount Snow­don. Non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions have the ca­pac­ity to tap into a wider va­ri­ety of funds, in­clud­ing lot­tery money, lega­cies and pri­vate do­na­tions, and by def­i­ni­tion de­liver sub­stan­tial pub­lic ben­e­fit through their mem­ber­ships.

There is some ev­i­dence that wealthy in­di­vid­u­als may also be start­ing to in­vest in wild land­scapes for pub­lic ben­e­fit. In the moun­tains of Ro­ma­nia, an en­tire new na­tional park is be­ing es­tab­lished as a re­serve for large car­ni­vores such as bears, wolves and lynx, funded through the pur­chas­ing ca­pac­ity of a hand­ful of ex­tremely wealthy bene­fac­tors and their trust funds. A cen­tury ago it was fash­ion­able for ‘new money’ to be spent ac­quir­ing shoot­ing es­tates for the ex­clu­sive use of the own­ers and their friends. Is it too fan­ci­ful to think that this gen­er­a­tion’s mega-rich might in­vest in es­tates for gen­eral pub­lic en­joy­ment? We have seen the shift from big game hunt­ing to photo-sa­faris else­where in the world, so why not some­thing sim­i­lar here?

P ubli­cally funded sub­si­dies for agri­cul­ture may dis­ap­pear com­pletely af­ter 2020, and even if they do sur­vive, the ‘un­pro­duc­tive’ up­lands in the north and west seem likely to be side­lined by the largest, most prof­itable farms to the south and east of Eng­land. So this is a good mo­ment to be cast­ing the net more widely, and the reg­u­lated pri­va­tised util­i­ties may pro­vide a fruit­ful source of fund­ing. The en­ergy reg­u­la­tor OFGEM has al­ready ac­knowl­edged that Na­tional Grid plc, whose py­lons and pow­er­lines cross our na­tional parks and ar­eas of out­stand­ing nat­u­ral beauty, should pay for the priv­i­lege. So far a bud­get of £500 mil­lion has been au­tho­rised for plac­ing trans­mis­sion lines un­der­ground in the Peak District, New For­est, Dorset and Snow­do­nia.

Sup­pose the wa­ter reg­u­la­tors OFWAT and the Drink­ing Wa­ter In­spec­torate fol­lowed suit. It makes per­fect sense for wa­ter com­pa­nies to fund man­age­ment of the up­lands, since they pro­vide their cus­tomers with a more sus­tain­able wa­ter sup­ply. The reg­u­la­tors could make that hap­pen on a mas­sive scale. And if the health reg­u­la­tor NICE em­braced the idea that in­creased ac­cess to na­ture, fresh air and ex­er­cise brings sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic health ben­e­fits, could we also look for­wards to a share of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try’s prof­its pro­vid­ing funds to re­vi­talise Bri­tain’s post Brexit land­scape?

Like many en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, I am anx­ious about the im­pact Brexit may have on all kinds of help­ful rules and reg­u­la­tions. But al­though much of the pro­tec­tive Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion of the last half cen­tury has been wel­come, the con­flict be­tween farm­ing sub­si­dies and wildlife con­ser­va­tion has been a con­stant source of frus­tra­tion and dis­ap­point­ment. Af­ter the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, some lead­ing Brex­i­teers en­thused about “the sun­lit up­lands of Brex­i­tan­nia.” Here’s hop­ing we can make that a re­al­ity.


By re­mov­ing conifers, foresters are help­ing species such as speck­led woods and vi­o­lets ( left), show­ing the type of trans­for­ma­tion we might achieve post-Brexit.

Up­land sheep farm­ing ( right) and py­lons ( below) could both van­ish postBrexit. Yel­lowham­mers ( bot­tom) are an ex­am­ple of a species af­fected by cur­rent farm­ing sub­si­dies.

Conifer plant­ing in Bri­tain was driven by the need for logs as pit props.

Out with the old dark, in with the new light… the Wood­land Trust is re­plac­ing conifer plan­ta­tions ( left) with na­tive trees ( right) at Clanger Wood in Wilt­shire.

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