Conservation & Environment

On Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady’s Bedstraw, The Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the last few weeks, that bright and breezy stretch of the Kent Downs up beside the old railway known locally as ‘The Butts’ has been a colourful place, as yellow Lady’s Bedstraw lies across the hillside under a perfect blue of English summer sky.

The plant is so named because it retains a soft springiness after drying, which made it an ideal filling for mattresses, and it was used traditionally for that purpose before modern manufacturing. One might even argue that it was better suited than some of the materials that replaced it, because the pleasant honeyed scent of the flowers aids sleep and eradicates fleas.

Lady’s Bedstraw is a common plant of heathland and meadow across Europe, and it is perfect for the chalk grasslands of the Kent Downs. A wonderful plant for pollinators, it attracts bees, butterflies, caterpillars and all those who have an appreciation for the downs in their finest summer glory.

For a life less cruel

Fox. East Kent. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
Genesis, ix 2-3. King James Bible.

Prime Minister Theresa May recently stated “personally I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting” (1) and, in an effort to repeal the current ban on hunting, her 2017 Conservative manifesto promised a free vote on the issue. We can today confirm that, following Mrs May’s disastrous election campaign, the plan to revive fox hunting has now been dropped, but why was it proposed in the first place?

The fact that an intelligent, well educated vicar’s daughter, now Prime Minister, admires the repulsive and barbaric ‘sport’ of fox hunting should come as a shock to all decent Britons living in the 21st century, but it doesn’t. Such has been the ambivalence of the Christian church towards cruelty to animals over centuries, and the political dominance of the landed gentry over generation after generation, that in fact the opposite is true: this wanton cruelty to wild animals is considered by the higher echelons of the British establishment to be a wholesome tradition within our national culture, one to be glorified and nurtured, not a vile and despicable wildlife crime which must be eradicated.

That foxes can do damage to livestock is not in dispute, although that nuisance is often exaggerated beyond the hard facts and what could be prevented by responsible measures of livestock protection. Nevertheless, there are valid reasons why the fox and other nuisance creatures may need to be controlled, but why should this control take the form of an amusement, a country ‘sport’?

The truth is, that killing wild animals has always been a sport, with roots embedded in the male bonding exercise of hunting for food; but the advent and dominance of farming, even well before Roman times, created a stable and readily available food supply without the need for hunting wild animals in Britain. Hunting increasingly became a practice for the would-be warrior, or a sporting pastime for the rich, sometimes with a prize of luxury meats like boar and venison (deer were often carefully fenced in so as to be easy to hunt). But often the sport of hunting needed an excuse to justify itself, and animals which threatened farming, or offered particular challenges in the chase, became the obvious ‘game’: targets for well fed people in search of amusement. Instead of supplying food, hunters envisioned themselves as the protectors of the farm, and, in heroically going out to slay the local ‘vermin’, they reasserted themselves as masters of the wild landscape and all that dwell therein.

No real animal threats to human or farm safety remain now in the British countryside, just a few wild boar, some deer, rabbits, hares and foxes; but many would kill them for the fun of it. For those of a vulgar, bullying mind, killing is the very affirmation of superiority, the irrefutable statement of that absolute supremacy of man over beast proclaimed in the Old Testament. Take that notion from our minds and human kind has some very different moral dilemmas to consider. It speaks volumes that the King James Bible has no answers to issues of animal cruelty: its much praised prose doesn’t even manage to ask the questions, perhaps because the issues can’t be resolved by sacrificing a goat. The Britain of the future needs scientific understanding and compassionate thinking, not obedience to discredited, outdated religious dogma sponsored by a king with a passion for torturing women.

With her failure to gain a majority in the general election and the subsequent collapse of her political authority, Prime Minister May’s support for blood sports now looks sickly ironic: she is the huntress become prey, while her former colleagues circle round her taking tactical positions like predators on the prowl. Clearly some of them are enjoying the sport. In her struggle to survive she has appointed Michael Gove as her new Environment Minister but, astonishingly, the appointment has only induced more contempt. Mr Gove is a man, according to Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party “who is uniquely unqualified for the job” (2). iNews reports that he has previously voted against emissions targets, voted in favour of selling off our forests, voted in favour of fracking, and voted in favour of reducing building restrictions near environmentally sensitive areas (3). He supports badger culls (3) and fox hunting (4). However, in his role as Education Secretary, he sent thousands of copies of the King James Bible to schools across Britain. What can his message be?

We don’t know how long Mrs May will survive as Prime Minister, but in her preference for cruelty to wildlife over reasoned compassion, and her apparent support for archaic faith over scientific fact she represents an outdated vision of our environment which has no place in modern Britain. When her once trusted colleagues finally dispatch her from her post, we wish her a long and healthy retirement with time to contemplate and perhaps begin the search for a different set of values in a life less cruel.

(1) Interviewed by The Independent, Tues 9 May 2017
(2) Interviewed by Sky News, Mon 12 June 2017
(3)
https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/politics/environment-secretary-michael-goves-voting-record-on-green-issues/
(4) http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/fox-hunting-surreys-mps-stand-9661746

 

 

In the meadow of the Moon Daisy

Oxeye Daisies, Bridge area, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Walkers who venture along the farm track extending from Mill Terrace in Bridge will, once again, see a swathe of flowers growing in a field near the old Elham Valley Railway. Currently in bloom are thousands of Oxeye Daisies (alternative spelling Ox-eye) planted by our local farmer a couple of years ago. We believe more have flowered this month than this time last summer. Sometimes these are called Moon Daisies, either because of the bright yellow disc of florets at their centre, or perhaps because the flowers seem to glow in the moonlight.

While, in the past, some formal gardeners and indeed farmers too, may have considered the Oxeye Daisy to be a weed, in these more enlightened times it is recognised as a true grassland flower to be valued for the biodiversity it brings to the Kentish chalk downlands. The yellow florets at the centre of the flower will provide nectar for a whole range of pollinating insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Farms need to be growing food, but it is now well understood that biodiversity assists in that cause and one of the ‘beauties’ of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is that it can, and should, be retained and enhanced as a preserve of biodiversity for the benefit of our entire countryside.

Also growing in the same area, though blooming at different times are chicory, cornflower, yarrow, wild carrot, buttercup, common mallow, herb robert, black horehound, herb bennet, knapweed, ragwort, selfheal, birdsfoot trefoil, field marigold, dandelion and scarlet pimpernel.

 

How green is my rally?

Green party logo, courtesy of the Green Party.

Four of our major political parties use symbols from the natural world for their logos: the Green Party use a globe, Labour a rose, the Liberal Democrats a flying bird and, rather bizarrely, the Conservative logo is a flag draped tree. All very evocative of environmental empathies, but how do environmental policies fare in the election manifestos of these parties?

The highly respected environmental group Friends of the Earth has published a league table of four of the major parties’ approaches to environmental issues in the forthcoming general election. They considered 16 environmental issues of major national concern and scored the parties a maximum of 3 points for each issue, based on their manifesto commitments and statements from their leaders. These are the results:

Green Party 46
Labour 34
Liberal Democrats 32
Conservatives 11

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Green Party, with its strong emphasis on environmental policies, comes out on top with 46 points. Labour comes second with 34, matching the Green Party’s strong commitment to maintaining the environmental laws established during our EU membership, but Labour are judged poor on dealing with waste.

The Liberal Democrats come third with 32 points. Along with the Greens, they intend to be hot on the current problem of air pollution over Britain and also state an intention to redirect farming subsidies towards flood prevention and countryside protection, so that environmentally responsible farmers will be rewarded as a priority rather than those owning most land.

The Green Party, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all strong on supporting renewable energy, and all stand firmly against fracking.

Despite a previous manifesto promise to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, the Conservative Party trail far behind in the scores with just 11 points. They seem to believe that our air pollution problems can simply be solved by planting more trees, while still building new roads, and they were judged to have a very weak policy on litter and plastic waste pollution. According to Friends of the Earth, the Conservatives’ attitude to fracking is an “undemocratic and desperate set of policies to over-rule local communities and rig the planning system in favour of this dirty fossil fuel.” Furthermore, the Conservative Party still offers only vague concessions to maintain environmental protections established during our term in the EU. They plan a new ‘Agri-environment system’ (as yet unexplained) to be introduced in a following parliament (if they get in). While committing now to keeping our national forests in public ownership (after their previous attempt to sell them off), the Conservative manifesto also promises a free vote on repealing the hunting ban.

To read Friends of the Earth’s detailed report on the parties’ manifestos click on the link below:

https://www.foe.co.uk/general-election/election-manifestos-scores-are

Sustainable Development: a dream betrayed?

What makes development sustainable? Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In recent years anyone reading a local authority Local Plan or perusing a property developer’s brochure will have come across the term ‘sustainable development’. It’s a popular term at all levels of government and it is ubiquitous in modern planning documents, but what exactly does it mean?

Back in 1970, while Simon & Garfunkle were singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, a group of MIT scientists working for a think tank called ‘The Club of Rome’ were studying a computer simulation which predicted that our world was developing too fast and our natural resources could not support the current rate of industrial production and growth beyond the later 21st century. They concluded that we needed a new global economic system which provided for the needs of everyone while remaining sustainable into the future. They called their report ‘The Limits to Growth’: it was seminal and it influenced minds across the world.

Two years later in 1972, Stockholm hosted the ‘United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’ which declared 26 principles for a sustainable global future. These are the first 10:

1. Human rights must be asserted, apartheid and colonialism condemned
2. Natural resources must be safeguarded
3. The Earth’s capacity to produce renewable resources must be maintained
4. Wildlife must be safeguarded
5. Non-renewable resources must be shared and not exhausted
6. Pollution must not exceed the environment’s capacity to clean itself
7. Damaging oceanic pollution must be prevented
8. Development is needed to improve the environment
9. Developing countries therefore need assistance
10. Developing countries need reasonable prices for exports to carry out environmental management

A new concept ‘Environmentalism’ hit the headlines, but, as anyone who lived through the 1970s and 80s will know, in those decades environmentalism was not taken very seriously in the developed west. Nevertheless, by 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development had released a report called ‘Our Common Future’, or ‘The Brundtland Report’, which brought into clear focus the idea that development and environmental conservation must work together if the world community was to have a sustainable future. To that end it introduced the concept of ‘sustainable development’.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
The concept of ‘needs’, in particular, the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs”
(1).

The idea drew support, and in 1992 the United Nations held a Conference on Environment and Development, known as the ‘Earth Summit’, in Rio de Janeiro. At this conference 128 participating countries, including the United Kingdom, agreed on a new global plan for sustainable development into the 21st century, it was called ‘Agenda 21’.

“Agenda 21 addresses the development of societies and economies by focusing on the conservation and preservation of our environments and natural resources”(2).

Agenda 21 is ambitious: it is a revolutionary new concept in global politics: a world of united nations working together with a plan to end poverty and improve health (particularly in poor countries), to enhance the lives of women and children, to control population expansion, to change consumption patterns, to conserve natural resources, to clean up pollution, to limit deforestation and to conserve biodiversity right across the world. All this within a framework which encourages economic growth for all the nations involved and financial prosperity and social inclusion for all of their inhabitants. A noble initiative indeed, but its critics say it’s not so much a plan as an unachievable fantasy.

In Britain in June 2000, The Sustainable Development Commission was set up to “hold government to account to ensure the needs of society, the economy and the environment were properly balanced in the decisions it made and the way it ran itself”(3). It was shut down by the coalition government in 2011.

The new National Planning Policy Framework, which dictates the planning rules for Britain, was published in 2012 with its much quoted mantra:

“At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking” (4).

It is a policy for building development. Yet each time we see this golden thread twisted into the context of a new planning proposal on our diminishing British farmland, we need to follow it back to its origin and ask ourselves: is the term ‘sustainable development’ really being used to describe a proposal which will help to end world poverty, to conserve natural resources, to preserve biodiversity, to change consumer consumption patterns? Or is it just being misused as a meaningless catch-phrase to justify a new housing proposal here in the affluent west?

(1) United Nations: www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm
(2) www.sustainable-environment.org.uk/Action/Agenda_21.php
(3) www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/what-is-sustainable-development.html
(4) NPPF 2012, Para 14.

Biodiversity on the bund

Spring 2017 and the bund along the Nailbourne has been strimmed; but is it necessary at this time of year? Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those who regularly stroll in Bridge Meadows will have noticed that, in the last days of April, the flood prevention bund which runs along the bank of the Nailbourne between the ford on Mill Lane and Bridge Place was strimmed to bring the long grass and wild plants down to ground level. This was maintenance work done by the Environment Agency in what was set to become an annual spring cutting programme to prevent the growth on the bund becoming too high and too permanent. Access for regular inspection of the bund is important and it therefore needs to be kept in manageable condition.

However, BridgeNature.org has been in contact with the EA to see if the annual cutting of the wild plants on the bund can be rescheduled for autumn. This would preserve an important wild habitat for many riverside plants and creatures through the spring and summer, while there is minimal risk of flooding.

We are pleased to report that experts at the EA have been most open to the idea of rescheduling the maintenance to improve wildlife biodiversity through the summer. Strimming will now cease in the spring and become an annual event each September. The work will include a ‘preamble’ along the bund to inspect the area for wildlife and trigger escapes before the area is strimmed. The inspection will also provide an important pre-winter check for the bund itself.

As a further consequence of the initiative, BridgeNature.org has been invited to assist the EA by monitoring wildlife along the Nailbourne and the bund so that measures can be put in place to safeguard specific animals or rare plants should it be deemed necessary. If members of the public become aware of any particular issues of concern we would be grateful to hear about them.

 

Three Willows and a bridge

Willows near Bridge Tennis Club, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Canterbury City Council have recently granted permission for the pollarding of three Willow trees on the banks of the Nailbourne at the southern edge of Bridge Recreation Ground where it meets Patrixbourne Road.

BridgeNature.org is not generally keen on the pollarding of ‘amenity’ trees: amenity in this sense means trees which are planted to enhance the appearance of a particular public space rather than for timber producing purposes. Pollarding is an ancient procedure which strips a tree entirely of its branches, thereby leaving just the trunk standing as a stump, which, if the work has been done correctly on the right type of tree and at the right time of year, will grow new branches over the next few years. In olden times whole stretches of woodland were pollarded to provide a regular supply of young branches for fuel or fencing. Riverbank Willows were often pollarded for flexible ‘withies’ for basket making, furniture and other products.

It is sometimes argued that pollarding rejuvenates a tree by encouraging new growth, but the suggestion remains controversial. Another more certain consequence of this method, if practiced regularly, is that the subject tree is restricted in height and span so that it takes up less space. For this reason the procedure is often adopted as a method of controlling trees in urban landscapes where space is limited; but the results can look brutal and unnatural to those who love trees.

All this begs the question, why pollard Willows on the banks of the Nailbourne in Bridge in 2017? We think this may be more to do with tradition rather than anything else, but there is a technical argument in favour too. Left to their own devices Willows will grow into very large trees which cast a lot of shade. They grow thick upper limbs, but the wood is weak and liable to crack and fall, particularly on the Crack Willow, which is how that tree gets its name. This is obviously potentially dangerous and unsightly on an amenity tree. As a measure to reduce such risks, Willows are often pollarded and these trees tend to accept the procedure better than most.

Some may feel the Recreation Ground’s Willows are too big and cast too much shade. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.2017.

We have great faith in local tree surgeon Paul Davies, who will be supervising the work this year, as he did the same work to the same trees some 30 years ago. We understand the pollarding will be staggered so that all three Willows are not stripped at the same time. In his role as Parish Councilor, Paul Davies will also be overseeing shrub pruning and maintenance around Bridge Tennis Club, and he has  already stated that he is keen to ensure work does not progress while wild birds’ nests are in use in the area. We thank him for this considered and responsible approach.

In the same location, beside today’s dry Nailbourne, the old bridge to the Recreation Ground is under consideration for replacement. We don’t know what sort of bridge will be installed, but in olden times a new bridge would have been constructed from local timber or stone, and some ancient peoples created bridges out of saplings which would be trained to form a living tree across the water. Ironically the best tree for this kind of project is… Willow.

Some small tragedy

Common Frog, Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Some small tragedy on Western Avenue
Walking home one night recently, I was turning the corner on Western Avenue when I spotted a frog sitting on the pavement opposite Saxon Lodge. Having my camera with me, I took a few pictures to record the event, then wondered if I should leave the frog where it was, or try to help it to a place of safety.

On a cold winter night a Common Frog would not be venturing out onto our streets, it would be hibernating in a found burrow, or under leaves; but as spring approaches and the night-time temperature rises above five degrees or so, frogs begin to come out foraging, or wandering in search of a lake or pond in which to meet a mate for a midnight rendezvous. There are one or two ponds in the back gardens along Western Avenue, but the road was not a good place for the frog to loiter.

Having made a decision to rescue it, I went home to get a bucket in which to transport the frog to somewhere more suitable: perhaps a spot down by the Nailbourne. But on my return it was no longer visible on the pavement, so I looked around for a while with a torch, only to find, to my horror, the body of a frog, dead and grotesquely flattened onto Western Avenue.

In the daylight of the morning, some children heading for school may have studied the squashed frog in the road with ghoulish curiosity; a hungry magpie may have eyed the corpse from a perch on a garden tree. For my part I felt a certain guilt: perhaps I could have done more. Some readers may feel the same; but in truth there are few in our busy modern world who would pause to mourn the passing of a Common Frog. Every year, on warm nights in spring, thousands of such deaths occur to frogs and toads on roads all over England, yet these sad tragedies, each the extinguishing of a little striving life, are considered of no consequence in our distracted and disinterested human realm.

 

Spring activities on the land

A modern cultivator at work near Flint Cottages this spring. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Soil preparation and spring planting
Last summer, much of the wheat we saw in our local fields had been planted the previous autumn. The wheat grows a little, lies dormant over winter, then begins growing in earnest in the spring. We understand the same practice was followed this year on fields between Bridge and Patrixbourne, but not in the fields between the Nailbourne and the Butts. In the last couple of weeks, those fields which still had stubble remaining in them, were tilled with a modern cultivator and prepared for a spring seeding of oats.

Seeding was completed in a few hours using a modern seed drill which simultaneously plants numerous rows of seeds at exactly the right depth so that the crop grows uniformly across the entire field. This would be impossible to achieve when scattering or ‘broadcasting’ seed by hand.

For our previous article on sowing search for ‘seed drill’ in our search box to the right.

A modern seed drill in operation, Bridge area. Seeds are contained in the red hopper at the top and distributed through tubes down into the earth. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Fallow land
This year we can expect to see more sections and strips of fallow land in the fields around the village. Leaving some land uncultivated as an Ecological Focus Area (EFA) for the benefit of wildlife is now a general requirement on the modern European farm, but we understand that a particular issue with the EU’s so called ‘greening’ regulations this growing season has meant that more local land will be left fallow than usual. Calculating greening requirements is a complex business for farmers, but it can provide a bonus for our wildlife.

Stringing the hop poles, Bishopsbourne, February 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Stringing the hop poles
Over the winter there were fears that Bishopsbourne might lose its last remaining hop farm, but it has apparently been reprieved, and the stringing of the hop poles began in late February in the field near Flint Cottages. This is a long, laborious process which can take many days. It must be done by hand with the aid of a long pole, enormous lengths of twine, and quite a degree of skill. Looking at the number of poles now strung, it seems we may even see more hops growing this season than we have in recent years.

For our previous articles on hops and stringing search for ‘hops’ in our search box to the right.

Best wishes
We wish our local farmers a good growing season, and let us all remember, as we face the possibility of losing more fields around Bridge to building, that farming is still, unquestionably, the most important industry in Britain.

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.