History & Culture

Grass darts and summer holidays

A field of False Barley, Patrixbourne Road. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

And so the great school summer holiday begins. Those who venture out into the fields this month can encounter a plant which, for many older ramblers, will bring back fond memories of dallying childhood walks and endless summer holidays spent playing in the countryside. The plant is a particular form of grass which somebody (we suspect a long, long time ago) once discovered could be thrown like a dart and it would stick to clothing, particularly woolen jumpers and cardigans, which were the popular children’s fashions for those of us of a certain generation. Popular too were the outdoor adventure stories of ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Swallows and Amazons’: summer holiday inspiration in those days before computer games, iPhones and a general 21st century disdain for fresh air and the countryside.

False Barley: otherwise known as Dart Grass. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The grass in question was False Barley or Wall Barley (Hordeum murinum or variant subspecies) though no one knew it at the time. To the youngsters of those days it was just ‘Dart Grass’ and it was as familiar as brambles, stinging nettles and sticking catchweed (cleavers) which would also cling to clothing. While remembered fondly, Dart Grass is generally regarded by adults as just another weed, but it has a valid place in the wild countryside and can be a significant plant in grazing pasture, although, if left to go to seed, it can be injurious to sheep and sheepdogs. Variants of this grass are often grown as forage for animals in different regions around the world, and in China a similar subspecies is cultivated for human consumption. One wonders if generations of Chinese children have also played grass darts on the walk home from school.

The Common Oat, too base for Rome

Oats growing in the Bridge area, 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

This year several of the arable fields around Bridge, Bishopsbourne and Pett Bottom have been planted with Oats, which have grown rapidly over the last month or so and are now turning colour from green to the golden hue of the harvest.

While barley, wheat and rye can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in the field, the Oat plant has a very distinctive shape known as a ‘panicle’, it presents as an array of flower heads hanging on delicate branches coming from a single stem. The flower heads or ‘spikelets’ hanging from it may number fifty or so and are formed of a husk, shaped like an upturned V, with two or three seeds or ‘groats’ held underneath.

Oat spikelet showing the V shaped floret husk and groats within. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The outer casings of these groats (without the V shaped husk) are known as ‘oat bran’: they are removed, ground up and used as a valued food ingredient. What remains of the groats is crushed or rolled, and referred to as ‘oatmeal’. While this is well known as the main ingredient of porridge (a dish first described by the Ancient Greeks), only about 5% of oats are grown for human consumption. Most are grown as an animal feed and feed additive, particularly for chickens, cattle and horses, and it was as animal fodder that Oats were first introduced to Britain by the conquering Romans who, apparently, regarded the plant as unfit for human consumption. This, much to the amusement of the Scots, who adopted the Oat for their porridge and, even today, like to remind us that those Roman fussy eaters never successfully invaded Scotland.

The oat panicle. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Unlike barley, which demands hot weather, Oats prefer a cooler, wetter climate. In long periods of hot sun the plants will go dormant, so early planting and milder summers with spells of rain are beneficial. This is one reason why Oats became a traditional and popular crop in Scotland and the rest of Northern Europe, but they have been less commonly grown in Africa and India, although new Oat varieties are now being developed to grow in these regions.

 

 

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

 

 

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.

A journey on the Mayflower

Common Hawthorns in bloom, Bridge Meadows, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The Hawthorn tree is one of our more familiar hedgerow trees, but we also see it growing locally alone in a field or on a riverbank, and when we do we can recognise it by its rugged, stunted shape and resilient attitude, its thorns, its bright red autumn berries and its white, or sometimes pink, spring blossom.

Common Hawthorn in flower, Bridge, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those we see in the fields around Bridge are more generally the Common Hawthorn, but there is another less ubiquitous variety, the Midland Hawthorn, which is the true English species of this tree. I have been on a quest to find an example of it in our local area for about five years now, but, throughout that time, my search has been hampered by one small technical problem: I didn’t really know what made it discernibly different. Tree guides waffle on confusingly about leaf shape: the Midland’s leaves are less deeply cut than the Common, the Midland’s lobes are more forward pointing; but try looking at the leaves on just one Common Hawthorn and they are so variable throughout the tree that one could be looking at either species.

However, armed with a new differentiation strategy I have now identified one Midland Hawthorn(1) in a local meadow. From a distance of about three feet the tree is virtually impossible to tell apart from the Common Hawthorns in the same hedgerow, but get up close, examine a flower and the difference becomes apparent. Common Hawthorn has just one green style amidst the stamens in its flower, while Midland Hawthorn has two, or possibly three. On examination the leaf shape of this tree is as described in the tree guides, but it would be very difficult to identify the tree on that basis alone.

Midland Hawthorn flowers, Bridge Meadows, on an evening in May. Note the two green styles at the centre of the flower. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

So, to my great delight, after years searching, I have found my Midland Hawthorn, right here in a meadow behind my home. Why does it matter? Those who have to ask may never understand, but for the amateur naturalist such quests are the learning journeys which make life and the natural world that little bit more interesting. Furthermore, the Midland Hawthorn is hugely significant in our history: its flower is the Mayflower, for centuries the very emblem of May in rural England. It symbolises hope and new beginning. In the superstitious times of the 17th century, many ships were called Mayflower, but it turned out to be a wonderfully apt name for a little ship sailing out into the New World in 1620 with a group of pilgrims on their own journey of hope, personal development and new beginning.

(1) As with many trees, Midland and Common Hawthorns do hybridise, so this may not strictly be a genetically pure example of the Midland species.

 

In praise of olden Alder

Alder, Bridge Pond, spring 2016. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Stand for a moment in the spring sunlight at the edge of our pond off Brewery Lane in Bridge and your attention may be drawn to a beautiful golden catkin laden tree leaning slightly over the water from the garden of Little Bridge Place. This is a Common (Black) Alder tree; perhaps one of the more forgotten native trees of our western heritage. Besides the Common Alder there are about 30 other species in the family including the Grey Alder, Green Alder and Italian Alder; some of which can often be seen in woodland today.

In olden times the Alder was valued not for its beauty, but because of a unique property in its timber: it remains immensely strong and rot free if placed in water or wet mud. This made it the primary choice for building wooden jetties, bridges and river bank supports and pilings when building on marshy ground. In fact much of Venice was built on Alder posts set into the mud beneath the Venetian lagoon. We don’t build with wooden supports so much these days, but Alders are still a popular choice for riverside conservation projects. Where riverbank stabilisation is required, Alders are ideal because they flourish in damp ground; in areas of land reclamation they can help to fix nitrogen into the soil; in farm hedgerows they provide good wildlife habitat.

With catkins and the hardened remains of last year’s cone-like fruits hanging from its branches, this can only be an Alder. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Like the hazel the Alder bears male flowers on dangling yellow catkins which pollinate by the action of the wind. The two trees can appear similar, but they differ in that the female flower on the hazel is like a little flowering bud which produces a hazelnut, while the female flower on the Alder is like a tiny catkin which produces a fruit closely resembling a small fir cone.

The yellow male catkins of the Alder and the smaller pinkish female flowers which turn into a cone-like fruit. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Later in the year seeds will fall from these fruits, often into water, and spread to other areas, leaving the empty fruits drying and hardening on the tree right through until the next spring.

Continuing an ugly tradition

Young Fox, Bekesbourne. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Last weekend a local hunt group continued at least some semblance of the tradition of fox-hunting with a meet in Bishopsbourne. In olden times the hunt was often regarded as an elegant, jolly affair, but from the distance of a different moral perspective, in the cold light of a grey February morning in 2017, this tradition just evokes feelings of sadness.

Hunting with hounds is an ugly relic of our barbaric past and it has no place in modern countryside management: it has little to do with controlling fox numbers in the Britain of today. Historically it was a sport of the landowning elite who, rather than actually trying to exterminate foxes, retained coverts of trees and shrubs across their land for foxes to inhabit so that they could be hunted for fun. The sport became so popular that during the 19th century foxes were imported from Europe and openly sold at London’s Leadenhall Market in order to stock the English countryside where hunting took place.

For many years, foxes were effectively protected specifically for the hunt, despite the pleas of tenant farmers, shepherds and pheasant farmers who wanted them efficiently eradicated, not preserved for the amusement of their landlords. Sometimes farmers secretly killed foxes, but bizarrely this so called ‘Vulpicide’ was regarded as immoral by the landowning gentry because it diminished the number of foxes left for hunting. Controversy raged until, eventually, a compromise was achieved and farmers were paid compensation for any birds and lambs lost to the fox. Of course the reports of damage done would have been grossly exaggerated in order to claim more compensation from the wealthy landowners.

Today foxes account for about 1% of all poultry (1) and 1-2% of lambs (2) lost in open fields. Annual (pre-slaughter) lamb mortality from all causes, including disease and hypothermia is “thought to be 15-20%” (3), a vastly higher figure, although precise data is not collected.

For our previous article on foxes search for ‘fox’ in our search box

(1) Game Conservancy Trust figure
(2) 1% Game Conservancy Trust; 2% The Burns Report. See:
http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/is%20the%20fox%20a%20pest.pdf
(3) Sheep Health and Welfare Report 2016/17

 

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.

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.

 

 

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