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What’s up with our Reed Buntings?

Reed Bunting (male), Bridge Meadows, February 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

This week we report BridgeNature.org’s first recorded sighting of a Reed Bunting. It was a solitary bird observed in the meadows down by the trickle that remains of the Nailbourne. Those who are not familiar with this bird may find it difficult to distinguish at a distance from a house sparrow, it being of similar size and having similar colours; yet on closer inspection we see the Reed Bunting’s characteristic features, particularly the white collar and white moustache on the male.

As the name would suggest, Reed Buntings are most associated with wetlands, reedy marshes and riversides, but they are now often seen in fields and gardens too, possibly as a result of declining wetland habitats. In summer they may nest amongst oilseed rape, also eating the seeds, and in winter they can be found in fields of stubble looking for the small seeds of wild plants that grow between the crops. When the fields are ploughed in early spring ready for crop planting, the food source is gone and the birds may turn to garden feeders for emergency supplies. This is one example of where uncultivated field margins can be of great benefit to wildlife.

Following a 50% decline in numbers after the 1970s, Reed Buntings appeared on the RSPB’s Red List of endangered British species, but their numbers are now rising again nationally and they have been moved onto the Amber List of birds at less risk. However more localised counts by the British Trust for Ornithology reveal something odd going on: Reed Buntings are disappearing from the southern coastal counties of England, yet increasing in numbers in the north, East Anglia and more dramatically in Ireland. Why are they leaving the south to move up country? No one seems to know.

In parts of East Anglia observers report seeing hundreds of Reed Buntings gathering in winter evenings: here in Bridge we are delighted to see even one.

Being green after Brexit

Our local farmer prepares ground as part of a wildlife biodiversity programme. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

As the British government prepares to invoke Article 50 in order for us to leave the EU, a report by the all party Environmental Audit Committee expresses a number of concerns about the future of our wild and farmed landscapes and the animal life which inhabits them, and makes some significant recommendations to ensure that all continue to receive the protection they need if they are to prosper in the future.

Our natural environment stands in a precarious situation: many of the protections which currently safeguard it were provided by European laws which will be lost at the point of Brexit. One example is The Birds and Habitats Directives, which “form the cornerstone of Europe’s legislation on nature conservation”. They will cease to have authority when we leave the EU and the effect on our wildlife could be devastating. Other protection laws may be ignored, superceded or allowed to lapse over time.

For farmers, who undertake the practical tasks of managing huge swathes of the British countryside, the question of grants is paramount. Many cannot earn a living from farming, particularly if they make extra efforts to be environmentally compliant in the way they work, and consequently they need EU subsidies to produce the food which they deliver to the market. Such is the imbalance between supermarket prices and the costs of production. Something will need to be done to ensure that the UK’s agricultural industry survives after Brexit.

Our current Conservative government made a manifesto commitment to “be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than they found it”. In order to do this, when we leave the EU’s jurisdiction they must provide an equivalent or better level of protection for our environment and wildlife than existed while we were members. To address these issues the Environmental Audit Committee makes seven recommendations which we summarise here (1).

1. The government must legislate with a new Environmental Protection Act which offers similar or greater environmental protections than EU legislation.

2. The government must make a full assessment of the resources necessary to replace existing EU environmental funding to ensure that farming remains viable and animal welfare, food security and food safety are protected.

3. The government must recognise the interdependence of its two forthcoming 25 year plans for A. the natural environment and B. food, farming and fisheries. Consultation on these should inform the Brexit negotiating strategy.

4. Brexit negotiations must address international issues and trade arrangements with regard for how they will affect the UK’s natural environment and agriculture.

5. Before Article 50 is triggered the government should identify the legislation guaranteed to protect our environment when we leave the EU and guarantee that it will not trade away environmental and animal welfare protections as part of negotiations to leave or in future trade deals.

6. Before Britain leaves the EU the government must establish the environmental objectives and governance model of any future land management payments {ie: grants and subsidies} so that they are linked to public goods {ie: environmental protection} rather than just providing income support to farmers (2).

7. Defra must ensure that funding is allocated fairly across the nations of the UK with environmental standards required.

(1) This list provides a lay summary only. For full details of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report see: The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum: sixth report of session 2016-17.

(2) {…} denotes editorial insertions.

Leylandii: planting menace in the mind

Cypress Leylandii (centre), Mill Lane, Bridge. Given space to grow, Leylandii is not unattractive in itself. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Leylandii, that notorious, rapid-growing, evergreen, furry monster which has blighted suburban gardens and caused domestic disputes across the country for decades: we all recognise it and despise it, don’t we? Well things are not quite what they seem…

Members of the Cypress tree family(1) are generally recognised by their evergreen, fern-like branches. Cypress Leylandii is a man-made hybrid within that family. It was created in Britain in about 1888 by arboriculturists who were sharing conifer seeds imported from America. It is not clear who actually produced the first tree of this particular hybrid but a certain Mr Leyland got the credit, or should we say blame? Leylandii is fast growing and can grow to 50ft in 15 years or so, and it will grow to 150 feet if left unpruned. It was created by crossing two North American trees, the Nootka Cypress from Alaska, which provides great hardiness, and the Monterey Cypress from California, which gives it rapid growth. In their natural setting, both of these trees are really quite beautiful and they would never have cross-pollinated naturally.

Leylandii became popular in modern British gardens when it was discovered that, planted in a close row, they quickly provide an effective tall screen to give privacy. However, pruned closely such hedging can appear overly severe, yet if not controlled at all, the trees rapidly outgrow their setting and become a nuisance.

Bridge Tennis Club. Strictly controlled conifer hedging can look overly severe, and hard pruning leaves ugly bare patches which may never recover. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Yet, surprisingly, people who complain about Leylandii in their neighbours’ gardens may not actually be seeing Leylandii at all, they may be looking at another similar tree in the Cypress family, the Lawson Cypress. Sometimes called a False Cypress, this tree is in fact a cedar, known in America as the Port Orford Cedar because it comes from that region of Oregon. It was introduced to Britain in the 1850s by the Lawson nursery in Edinburgh. It is often planted for hedging for similar reasons to Leylandii. Its flowers can make it a more attractive tree, but if left untended, it causes the same problems.

Male (red) and female (brown) flowers on this Lawson Cypress on Patrixbourne Road can make it an attractive tree in spring. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

However, this is not yet the full story: another group of similar looking trees in the Cypress family, also commonly used for tall hedging in Britain, are the Thujas. These are again cedars, notably the Western Red Cedar and the White Cedar from the Pacific coast of North America. While all these different possibilities make identification complex enough, the situation is further complicated by the fact that over the years all these trees have been further crossed and selectively bred to create size, growth habit and colour variations which range into the hundreds.

The distinctive cone of a Thuja growing in Bekesbourne churchyard. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In all the furore over Leylandii’s role in irresponsible hedge planting, conifers in general have gained a bad reputation which they do not really deserve. The original trees that created some of the most notorious hybrids were all selected because they were and are hansom trees in their own right. In the correct setting they make wonderful specimen trees and their wood is highly valued by craftsmen across the globe: the timber of Port Orford Cedar is used in America and Japan for making arrows and musical instruments; Thuja wood is very decorative, so it is often made into ornamental bowls and boxes; Nootka Cypress is considered one of the most useful timbers in the world, it is very resistant to rot and is often specified for the construction of wood cabins, decking and traditional small boats.

What a shame it is that, simply because of unsuitable placement in modern suburban British gardens, many conifers have been tarred by one common villainous appellation ‘Leylandii’, a name which arouses such contempt amongst the British public.

(1) In arboricultural circles there has been and remains a great deal of debate about which trees actually belong in the Cypress family and which should be placed into other groups. For the sake of simplicity here we have tried to cite commonly accepted classifications.

Badgers, blame and bovine TB

Badger, secret location, East Kent. The government’s badger cull has not reached Kent… yet! Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Bovine TB (b:TB or cattle tuberculosis) is a menace on the farm. If cattle contract it they must be slaughtered. For farmers who have spent many years breeding a herd this is a disaster, particularly as the disease tends to spread amongst animals in close proximity, meaning that sometimes an entire herd has to be destroyed.

For decades farmers, vets and environmentalists have argued about what causes the spread of bTB. Environmentalists say modern farming methods are to blame, insisting cattle aren’t checked properly before being transported to farms across the country. Others, including many farmers and the vets who earn a living treating their cattle, say badgers, which are known carriers of the disease, pass it on to livestock.

In recent years two hugely important trials have occurred out in the fields in the west of Britain. In a few English counties, a highly controversial government backed cull has attempted to kill vast numbers of badgers to see if bTB in cattle is reduced. About 15,000 have been killed so far and the pro cull lobby claims success, but many leading scientists and The Wildlife Trusts, suggest there is no basis for suggesting anything of the sort. In a joint statement the Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, the RSPCA, and The Humane Society International make their view clear:

“there is no evidence that the current culls are reducing bovine TB in cattle” (1).

One surprising figure from an earlier test is that 83% of badgers culled in government trials 2002-2005 tested TB free” (2), yet in the culls of recent years the government has refused to allow testing of culled badgers to check if they actually had bTB. Furthermore, a panel of experts appointed by the government to assess the validity of the English badger cull was disbanded when they reported that the cull was both cruel and ineffective.

Meanwhile in Wales, where a cull was ruled out, a so called IAA Vaccination Programme has been vaccinating hundreds of Badgers against Bovine TB, so that they don’t get it and therefore can’t spread it to cattle. In tandem a more stringent bTB testing programme has been carried out in Welsh cattle herds.

Between July 2015 and July 2016 new bTB incidences in Welsh cattle fell by 19% (2) although more incidences were found in herds known to have had previous bTB infections. This suggests overall the two level programme is working: less herds are being infected, and better testing is finding more of the cattle which already have bTB. Vaccination is cheaper too, at about £700 per badger (3), while the cull is costing about £5-7,000 per badger(4). Nevertheless many Welsh farmers are insisting they want an English style badger cull. Such a call would seem to conflict with the scientific evidence.

To pass the disease directly to a cow, an infected badger would need to come within 1.5 metres of it, but new research by Prof Rosie Woodroffe and experts at the Zoological Society of London (5), in which they tracked 65,000 badger and cattle movements, shows that rather than coming into close contact with cattle, badgers actually avoid them. Only once in the entire study did a badger come within 10 metres of a cow, but most preferred to stay 50 metres away or more.

These new studies suggest that environmental factors may play a much more important role in bTB infections than has been realised. “The current tests for bTB in cattle are only 20-50% effective and one fifth of all bTB infections are only discovered when the animals go to slaughter” (6). These cattle are therefore likely to have been infecting pasture land, farmyards and a variety of common animals including hedgehogs, mice, moles, rats, sheep, goats, slugs and worms long before the disease was detected. Even when a bTb infection is found early in a cattle herd, the slurry and manure from these animals is not regarded as contaminated and often gets spread all over the farm. Professor Alastair MacMillan, ex Defra vet and Veterinary Adviser to the Humane Society International has advised:

The suggestion by some that TB is spread by frequent nose-to-nose contact between badgers and cattle has now been completely dismissed. It is much more likely that contamination by cattle of fields and yards by [TB bacteria] is the cause of repeated TB herd breakdownsIt’s clear that the government must divert the substantial resources being used needlessly to cull badgers and instead improve farmer education and biosecurity on farms”(7).

So, why is there a continued insistence amongst farmers and some members of the governmental scientific community that badgers are always to blame? Badgers are an easy target: they, like many wild animals, have been persecuted by cruel country folk for centuries, not because they cause any real harm, but because it’s a traditional ‘country sport’ to kill them. Could it be the very same thugs who are getting paid to kill badgers in the cull?

Britain’s farming industry is vital, it feeds the nation, it must succeed; but whatever the definitive cause of the spread of bTB turns out to be, we need an ethical, sustainable farming industry that works in harmony with the land, local communities and wildlife. The mass slaughter of thousands of healthy, uninfected badgers surely cannot be seen as a logical, ethical and humane solution to what is essentially a modern farming problem.

(1) Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, RSPCA, Humane Society International, joint submission to DEFRA consultation, January 2017.
(2) Badger Trust figure
(3) Figure quoted by Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(4) Initial figure: £7,000, Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007; revised figure: £5,000, Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(5) Prof. R. Woodroffe, Ecology Letters, 4 Aug 2016,: Badgers prefer cattle pasture but avoid cattle: implications for bovine tuberculosis control
(6) Dr Monaghan MP. Sponsor of Commons EDM on Badger Cull. Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(7) Quoted in The Guardian, Friday 5 August 2016.

A village speaks

An impression of a display at the BNPC Information Event. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Following the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan Group’s information event on Saturday 21 January we present a number of the comments made on the ‘Panoramic Views’ board. We believe these give a good flavour of the opinions expressed when residents were asked which views they want protected.

The views on display were: 1. Station Rd to Bridge (not Mill Lane as stated); 2. The Butts to Mill Terrace; 3. Bishopsbourne Hop Garden to Flint Cottages and beyond (not where indicated); 4. From Star Hill over Bridge; 5. Highland Farm to Bifrons Estate; 6. Town Hill to Bridge. Some significant views of Bridge were absent from the display.

Comments

All views should be protected

No. 6, Preserve the gap between Canterbury and Bridge. Is paramount {sic}.

Keep Bridge a rural village protect all views

{Pic 6} Do not build of the green gap {sic} between Bridge/Renville/Canterbury

Keep Bridge a village do not allow Canterbury to encroach. Save all these views

No. 6 It is essential to keep a clear green gap between Bridge and South Canterbury

We need to preserve all our areas of outstanding natural beauty

{Pic 6} The green gap must be preserved for Bridge residents now and for the future

{Pic 4} The view from ‘Star Hill’ is very special and has a fantastic history. DO NOT CHANGE IT!

All views should be protected – our village is special and so are our landscapes

Surely we must preserve all our green spaces and open views. It’s a bit ironic and sad that the major threat to Bridge — Mountfield Park — is outside the scope of this otherwise informative and useful exhibition

All views should be kept our village should remain a village

1 2 3 4 5 are outside the village envelope

No 6 will mean no green gap and no space between Canterbury and Bridge

Please ensure Bridge retains it’s identity & do NOT build on the green gap {sic}

4 A frequently used footpath with lovely views of bridge over the top

{Pic 6} Please do not build in this “Green Gap”

No 6 We must preserve the Green Gap between the village and south Canterbury where they are building 4000 new homes. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty

4 The footpath here is very well used. The views are fantastic. No building here

All views should be preserved and protected — they form part of the quality of the area and contribute to the A.O.N.B. in which Bridge is situated

The key aspects of the rural setting of Bridge lies to the south and west views (1-4) The “green gap” is on high ground affecting the views from the village centre. The topography is such that access is likely to be from Bekesbourne Lane – it can therefore be argued that these houses are C/B overspill rather than part of Bridge so it too should be avoid but detriment is less {sic}

4 This should remain as beautiful as it is Do not build on this land.

So much development is going on in Canterbury, namely Barton and behind Park-n-Ride N/Dover Rd. Why must we sacrifice Bridge. Legal advice should be taken to preserve us! And our spaces.

6 Must retain green gap! This is national policy. We do not want to be connected to Mountfield Park

No. 2 and all others. This (No 2) should be preserved it is an area that all villagers enjoy. Wildlife in abundance and it makes our village special. Please keep Bridge rural.

6 It is imperative to keep the Green gap between Bridge and Canterbury so we are not part of large complex of houses

Surely we must preserve all our green spaces and open views. It’s a bit ironic and sad that the major current threat to Bridge — “Mountfiled Park” — is outside the scope of this otherwise instructive and useful exhibition.

{Pic 1} Please leave this This is a preserved area

6 {first part hidden} before the extent of Mountfield Park was known. Building here will join Bridge to Canterbury. KEEP THE GREEN GAP

Please leave all of it alone!

6 This view must be kept preserved It is the green gap

All views to be protected Don’t spoil the very thing that most of us want to live here for

{Pic 6} We need to preserve the green spaces around Bridge — and especially between us and Canterbury — if we’re to maintain the character of the village

Bridge is in an A.O.B. we should not be building in any green sites and definitly not build on the gap between bridge, Canterbury {sic}

{Pic 6} Please do not build in this “GREEN GAP”

1. Quintessential view for protection

It is vital to maintain the identity of the village and not allow the defined gap to canterbury to be filled. 6 must be maintained if we are not to become an suburb of Canterbury {sic}

All areas in Bridge need to be preserved and protected, I have watched wildlife throughout seasons in all of these locations and it is not acceptable to take away any habitat. It is an A.O.N.B.

We thank all those who left comments: clearly our countryside is much valued by the people of Bridge. Having previously expressed BridgeNature.org’s position that we want all our local countryside to be protected, we are delighted with the response of Bridge residents. We do hope that this strength of public opinion will, in future, be reflected in the policies of the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.

*Note: Public comments made at a Parish Council event are a matter of public record. All comments here can be verified as having been made at the event. Comments were written on small ‘Post It Notes’ so line changes sometimes replaced punctuation which might otherwise have been used. We have tried to record comments accurately as they were made. To this end spellings, grammar and punctuation have not been corrected. {Pic X} indicates near which picture the comment was posted, although the nature of the display did not always make this clear. This list does not include comments made by BridgeNature.org.

Breaking the ice

Frozen puddles trap vital drinking water, Whitehill Wood, Bridge Parish. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Deep in bleak mid-winter the crystalline patterns formed by ice in frozen puddles can be intriguing, and it’s not just children who like to pause and stoop to examine these strange frozen worlds at our feet. But the attention span of children is short, and often, when curiosity gets the better of them they will try to break the ice, either for the sheer naughty pleasure of doing so, or perhaps to discover what further mysteries lie in the murky water beneath the glassy surface. To considerate, responsible adults who have been brought up to respect our countryside, this deliberate vandalism can seem like sacrilege, the callous fracturing of Nature’s works of art, the spoiling of a virgin frozen world; but, if ever you find yourself in that frame of mind, think again, the breaking of the ice can be a godsend to wildlife yearning for a drink.

Just like us, birds, mammals, reptiles and insects of all kinds need water to drink and moisture to help them keep themselves clean, even in the winter. Out in the countryside, puddles are a precious source of water. Pot-hole puddles on country lanes provide a drink or a bath. Baths are important for drowning parasites in a bird’s feathers: blackbirds and starlings love a delousing bath. In the woods and fields the water-filled ruts left by tractors and 4X4s offer refreshment, nutrients and sometimes food like snails, nymphs and worms.

In the frozen world of winter, all such sources of water are vital for our wildlife. It really is a matter of life and death: thousands of our native birds will not survive through winter, either because of cold or starvation. In the famously cold winter of 1962-3 it was estimated that half of all British birds died (1), but in any of our colder winters up to 80% of some species, particularly smaller birds like wrens and long-tailed tits may die. Even in a normal year only 25% of Kingfishers are thought to make it through the winter (2).

The modern world has taken so much from Nature, so why not give our wildlife some help? Feeding birds in our gardens is important, providing our wild creatures with drinking water out in the countryside is absolutely vital, and this is often easily achieved as we saunter out on country walks admiring the beauty of the frost. Next time you see a puddle which has frozen across the top, go on, break the icy surface to expose the water underneath: you might just save a life.

HELP IN THE GARDEN TOO!
If you have a bird bath which freezes over, please refresh the water each day. In a small pond, leave a ping pong ball or two on the surface to stop it freezing over.

(1) The Independent, Thursday 28 January 2010. Experts fear count will reveal a deadly winter for birds.
(2) RSPB Figure

Important views of Bridge

Don’t Judge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

“An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is exactly what it says it is: a precious landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them”.
Kent Downs AONB Management Plan 2009-14

Readers will be aware that residents of Bridge are invited to an information event hosted by the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan Group, which will be held at the village hall on Saturday 21 January 2017. The event will feature a display of photographic views of the village and its surrounds taken by some local people. Residents will be asked to express preferences on which views they consider the most important, so that they can be listed for protection in the new Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.

Of course photographs of our beautiful landscape are lovely to look at, but photographs are just selective images reflecting the particular tastes of the photographer. Pictures alone do not enable us to know or judge which areas are important out in the real landscape either visually, ecologically, for agriculture or for biodiversity, so they must never be used to set one aspect of our protected countryside against another.

In fact, BridgeNature.org was asked some weeks ago to provide photographs for this event, but we declined to do so because Bridge is a rural village within two Conservation Areas and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and these legal designations mean that our village and its surrounds must, by law, be protected, both to preserve its character and its appearance. The law is quite clear: it’s not about choosing this view or that view, all our rural landscape must be protected because our area is special. The government’s National Planning Policy Framework 2012 states that AONBs are equivalent to National Parks in terms of their landscape quality, scenic beauty and their planning status (1).

Modern planning law imposes “a duty on relevant authorities, public bodies {including parish councils} and statutory undertakers to take account of the need to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of AONB landscapes when carrying out their statutory functions”. Kent Downs AONB Landscape Design Handbook 2005 reprinted 2006.

To the modern mind the term ‘natural beauty’ may sound rather vague and perhaps, to use a contemporary term, ‘cheesy’, but in 1949 it was written as shorthand for something far more important than just pretty scenery: it describes the visible presence of what today we would refer to as a healthy local ecology and rich biodiversity within a flourishing rural landscape. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (which first defined AONBs) makes this clear “References in this Act to the preservation or conservation of the natural beauty of an area shall be construed as including references to the preservation or, as the case may be, the conservation of its flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features”. NPACA 1949, Section 114.

With this in mind we suggest that asking residents to express a preference for certain areas of our protected landscape by voting on some amateur snaps of Bridge is a gross misunderstanding of the requirements of a Neighbourhood Plan for a parish within an AONB. Some might call it crass. We understand that some Neighbourhood Plan Group members and their advisors have tried to ensure that, at the information event, public votes on the views will be restricted, so that only a limited number of views will be accepted. One suggestion was to force the vote to reduce an original display of twenty views down to six. Why should we only be allowed to value six views of our local landscape? Another suggestion was to ask residents to give the views a value on a sliding scale from ‘very important’, through ‘important’ to ‘not important at all’. In a designated AONB this has appalling implications.

We do not know which method has been chosen, it may be something different, but any attempt to prioritise or rank certain areas of our landscape against others is unacceptable: we must not let our AONB be judged in this way. To ensure that it is not, we ask all residents to spare just 15 minutes or so to attend the information event in the village hall on Saturday 21 January, between 10am and 1pm and we urge you to make it clear to the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan Group that we will not subject our local countryside to an ‘X Factor’ type popularity contest in the village hall, nor, as one committee advisor suggested, a competition for ‘Likes’ on Facebook. We wish to preserve ALL our greenfield land, ALL the scenic views it provides and ALL the flora and fauna which depend upon it. Under the laws governing an AONB nothing less is acceptable, anything else is a betrayal of its original designation.

(1) NPPF 2012. Paras. 14 footnote 9, 115 and 116

The myth of ‘The Balance of Nature’

Nature does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar. Little Egret, Bridge. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

“The idea of a balance of nature has been a dominant part of Western philosophy since before Aristotle, and it persists in the public imagination and even among some ecologists today. In fact Nature is not in balance, nor has it ever been at any stage in Earth’s history.”
John Kricher. ‘The Balance of Nature; ecology’s enduring myth.’

On 7 February 2017 we finally had to concede that the Nailbourne had dried up. Not a trickle ran in constant flow through Bridge. Since it is a bourne, an occasional stream, which leaks from fissures in the chalk beneath East Kent, this is not to be unexpected; but it spells disaster for our local wildlife and the precious ecosystem of a rare chalk stream. A rich and varied biodiversity nurtured by the cool springwater will be lost: a delicate, heirarchical food chain which was gradually establishing itself in the heart of our valley will break and fail. Many species will either die or move elsewhere.

It is a populist notion that such events are all part of what some people call the ‘Balance of Nature’. They are not. Balance implies a system of self-correction, a sustained position of equilibrium. This is not what happens in Nature. The natural world does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar; it reels and lurches from one disaster to another, like a confused boxer losing badly in a fight.

“Nature is not a balance, it is just one catastrophe after another!”
Professor Richard Dawkins

When a natural catastrophe occurs on a large scale in a meteor strike, a flood, a volcanic eruption, or, on a smaller scale, perhaps the drying up of a village pond or a local spring, there is destruction and there is death. This creates a vacuum in the natural world and Nature abhors a vacuum. Something, in a quest for survival, will fill it; this invariably will be some species of plant or creature which is more suited to the new environment. An opportunity arises, something seizes it, but this opportunism must not be confused with ‘balance’, for the state of things will now be different, the equilibrium has not somehow been restored. Things have changed and in consequence there may now be a new order in the food chain, a new king ruling the jungle. He will rule as long as the new conditions remain or until the next catastrophe arrives to topple him from his place. It’s a continuing struggle for survival in which each individual in each species fights for itself in the face of ever looming death. In the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, over 99% of all the species that ever lived here are thought to have become extinct, either because they just couldn’t live in the environment in which they found themselves, or because a new, more advanced or adapted species was able to out compete them. This is a process called ‘speciation’ and we modern humans may face it one day as did Neanderthal man who failed to compete with us.

Mother Nature is not of gentle mind, she is a violent and ruthless ruler in her empire of the sun. Her flowers bloom sublime, but don’t be confused by her apparent charm and her fondness for the young: she has no compassion. Her disasters appear random, but they are all a consequence of her brutal rule. There is an order in the chaos, but it is heartless, inequitable and cruel. Life on Earth staggers on, trying to navigate through constant adversity and change: ‘carpe diem’, seize the day and do your best to survive, but be assured your death will come and you won’t be calling it a balance when the reaper swings his scythe.

Sometimes we think we see Mother Nature as a beauty, dancing elegantly to illuminate our lives in the darkness of her universe. Her beauty, her dancing and even the colours of her dress are mere mirage; but the miracle, the sublime, spectacular miracle, is that she ever manages to stand at all. We must hope we never live long enough to know when she finally collapses and her empire turns to dust.

 

 

New life in a rural hedge

From now on hedge cutting on Mill Lane will take place at least a month or so later each year. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Following a BridgeNature.org campaign to stop Canterbury District Council cutting the hedge on Mill Lane, Bridge, within the bird breeding season, we have just been informed today that the council have changed their policy. The hedge, which grows down the Brickfields side of Mill Lane, has now been recategorised from an ‘amenity hedge’ to a ‘rural hedge’, meaning that from now on it will only be cut once a year after 31 August in compliance with the same modern environmental practice required of grant funded farmers.

This may mean that during the summer the hedge grows a little wider and taller than we have seen in the last few years but the birds, including sparrows, dunnocks, robins, thrushes, blackbirds, collared doves, tits, chaffinches (and possibly greenfinches and siskins) which regularly nest and raise young there will no longer be disturbed mid-season.

Before cutting the Mill Lane hedge is a beautiful rural haven for wildlife. This picture was taken in early May when the oak tree at the junction with Western Avenue is just coming into leaf. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This is another success for BridgeNature.org in our campaigns to protect our local wildlife, but it has been achieved with the intervention of Councilor Simon Cook who stepped in to help us by negotiating with Canterbury City Council. We offer both Councilor Cook and Canterbury City Council our sincere thanks for making this policy change happen. We know our local wild birds will appreciate it.

A world made in pictures

Blue Tit, Bridge Meadows. Unlike the fleeting glimpses of wildlife we catch in the real world, in photographs nature pauses, poses, and stands still to let us look at it, but we are creating an imaginary world. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Out in the countryside around Bridge it seems an increasing number of people are taking photographs. It is wonderful that residents have an appreciation of our landscape, but we must remember that, however much a photograph seems to capture the beauty of the scenery, it isn’t as important or as valuable as the real thing, and photography is not conservation.

For BridgeNature.org, creating and presenting pictures is not, and must not be our main objective. Conservation of our real, living, breathing wildlife and countryside is our essential purpose, not some pretty representation of it in photographic images. Can the same be said of the beautifully filmed natural history programmes we see on television week after week, and of the perfectly produced photographs we see in magazines, online sites and exhibitions? Well, many certainly appear genuine in their intentions, but, whatever the motives of their producers, conservationists fear a real danger that, in presenting films and photographs, the images themselves achieve a profile and value in the public mind, sometimes merely an entertainment value, that casts the pictures’ subjects, our real landscape and wildlife, into the shade. However sublime the photographs may be in their own right, this is cause for concern.

The issue lies within the very essence of the photographic image: capturing and re-presenting a visual likeness of something. Once we have accepted this medium as a way of seeing the world around us, a picture seems real. A film seems even more real, because it moves and captures sound. But both are real only as entities in themselves: the animals, trees and landscapes portrayed within them only exist as coloured dots, or pixels on a screen, the sounds they emit are electronic, made by a loudspeaker.

In public understanding, the old notion that ‘the camera never lies’ still persists to this day, yet it is in itself a lie. At best the photograph only tells us part of the truth, often it is a manipulated deception and, in the very act of switching our attention from the real object to the picture, the real object ceases to have form and substance as it is discarded in favour of a man-made image. We learn to accept this carefully manufactured representation, which, unlike the views of Nature we see in our real imperfect world, pauses, postures and poses to let us look at it until, in effect, the picture or film becomes more real, impressive and permanent than the real thing. To the conservationist this is alarming, because all the while these carefully selected images present a perfect vision of Nature, people assume everything is fine in our countryside: but it isn’t!

Picture this: protected fields north of Conyngham Lane, Bridge, under threat from development. In a few years’ time, will we just be left with pretty images as mementos of our countryside? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today, our wildlife and countryside are under threat as never before. They are not as valued or as protected as we might hope they are. In recent years large tracts of our AONBs have been lost to housing development. Even specially protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been neglected: in 2011 only 26 out of 710 ASSIs and SSSIs on enclosed farmland were in favourable condition (1). Our farmland birds have declined by 56% since 1970 (2); woodland butterflies have declined by 51% since 1990 (3); 728 wildlife species are at risk of extinction from Great Britain (4). We need to decide what it is we want to value, treasure and protect: is it all the wonderful photographs and films we see of our wildlife? Or is it the real thing? If we make the wrong choices now, all that will be left are some pretty pictures to remind our grandchildren of what we squandered.

(1) UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011
(2) BTO Farmland Bird Indicator 2016
(3) Woodland Butterfly Indicator 2016
(4) State of Nature Report 2016