Last updated 13 October 2014
Grey wolves in the northern Rocky mountains are thriving and no longer need protection - see the Addendum August
Now we should fear for the wild -see the Addendum March
Born to be wild
So often, the word wilderness is used incorrectly in the media, and there is a seemingly determined phobia for wild nature amongst the media clique. Perhaps it's too challenging for their revolving metropolitan/weekend country cottage lifestyle?
It is obvious that the problem arises from the lack of true wilderness in Britain from which an understanding can be derived. Thus wilderness is described as empty, bleak, savage, or even pointless, and proponents of ecological restoration are seen as indulgent or seeking a vicarious thrill.
This is an occasional series that highlights the backward use of the word wilderness - ssenredliw - and the blindingly misinformed state of many columnists on wild nature. It will highlight the painful paradox that journalists, by their ill-informed reporting, are guilty of supporting the increasing harm that is being caused by public funding being used by conservation professionals to manage landscapes in ways that kill off wildness. It may also expand on articles and press releases where the real importance of the story is overlooked.
Can wild konik ponies munch a meadow back to life?
BBC News Science and Environment 12 October 2014
Another week, another nauseating puff piece on BBC breakfast news showing cute but allegedly “wild” animals coming to the rescue of meadow flowers in an RSPB reserve on the NE coast of Scotland. Dig a little deeper and not only has this story been done to death before, but the shallow nature of the explanation of what is going on there is riddled with holes. Taken at face value, the claim is that Konik ponies, a breed of horse from Poland with characteristics believed to be similar to the extinct European wild horse, have been brought in to graze a fen meadow of its soft rush that is outcompeting meadow flowers, and thus avoid the costs from mechanical cutting. We see RSPB staff affecting to be wary in their handling of these “wild” animals (even though one is seen trying to pet an animal while it was in a crush), the inevitable GPS tracking collar on one of the ponies adding to the allusion of a "wild" animal whose grazing behaviour would then be matched to the varying flowering season. On the version broadcast, there was also a loony from Plantlife doing the “science bit”, but stressing that it will involve visitors and the local community who can come along and see what’s going on. What was this loony (an allusion to a N. American aquatic bird) doing there, and why strangely is he missing from the video version posted now?
This is the RSPBs Loch of Strathbeg reserve, a freshwater lagoon behind a large sand dune, and which is bounded by marsh and fens – a combination that is a magnet for passage, wintering and breeding waterfowl in Britain. As a SSSI, the birds and the dune are notified features, as are the fen meadows that are mostly to the W of the lagoon. While the bird species of interest are detailed, there is no listing of the flowers of interest in these fen meadows, just a condition assessment from 2005 that they were unfavourable declining (1,2). The Site Management Statement from Scottish Natural Heritage has an objective for management to maintain the current extent and diversity of fen and swamp habitats along with zonal transitions, by controlling scrub and grazing the marsh and fen areas (3).
The loch itself is of relatively recent origin, formed in about 1720 when encroachment of a coastal bar sealed the mouth of the Savoch Burn (3). The majority of the site was shot over for waterfowl until, in 1973, the RSPB established a nature reserve. The main land use of the catchment surrounding the reserve is mixed or arable agriculture, so that diffuse inputs from agriculture, and the large number of waterfowl roosting on/near to the loch in winter, both contribute to, and accelerate eutrophication of the loch. The outlet from the Loch of Strathbeg is artificially maintained. Under RSPB management, fields close to the loch at Savoch have been turned into pasture and flooded for part of the year. This has been done by managing the water table on the Savoch low ground, to the west of the Loch, and installing a series of ditches and bunds, so as to make it more attractive to waders and wintering wildfowl. Of course, this gardening for nature cannot stop there, as the pasture has to be grazed with the inevitable flock of 32 sheep (4)!
I’m guessing that the sheep didn’t do well in the wetter
areas, and so the first herd of eight Konik ponies arrived in 2011, having
come from the Wildwood Trust in Kent, their arrival captured for TV (5).
Wildwood Trust chief executive Peter Smith appears in the video, and is
Can the grazing by a domesticated animal whose presence even as an analogue for an extinct species, but which has no legitimacy in a post-glacial Britain, be considered natural (6)? Is a fen meadow contrived by manipulating the hydrology of the reserve ever natural? Smith is of course rehearsing the conservation industry mantra that grazing by herbivores is a replacement for the cost of cutting by machinery, and which is echoed by Dominic Funnell of the RSPB in that video. Smith avers that the ponies came from a very large reserve in the Netherlands, which I presume must be the Oostvaardersplassen. While they may be free-ranging there, delivering of their offspring without assistance, they are still captive behind fences and have no experience of the fear of being predated, the same conditions that face them now in the RSPB reserve but in a much smaller area. I think it more likely that Smith is talking about the origins of his source of Konik ponies because, over the years, Wildwood has captively bred and then distributed hundreds of the ponies around the UK (7,8). How wild is that? How wild is a domesticated breed?
A year later, a further four ponies were added to the herd, Richard Humpidge, RSPB, declaring that the ponies have been “so effective we've decided to increase the herd slowly and naturally through a breeding programme. That way we can monitor their progress and ensure we reach a grazing level that is beneficial for the thousands of geese, ducks and wading birds that need the wetlands to feed and breed” (9)
No mention of meadow flowers there, but you have to follow the money in the change of emphasis for the grazing. Come forward to June this year, and BBC Two Scotland has a section of their Landward program where “Dougie is at the Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve to meet the rare Polish ponies that are being used to control the growth of vegetation to create a better habitat for local wildlife” (10)
The reason for this second TV piece on the ponies? Arch
open landscape protagonists Plantlife led a successful £2.1m consortium bid
to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Save our Magnificent Meadows Project
(11,12). As a partner in this consortium, RSPB Scotland put in a bid for
money to fund conservation work on the fen meadows at Loch Strathbeg. What
you can read in the RSPB press release about the project, but won’t hear in the latest and
third TV piece, is what that money is being used for. In the press
release, Richard Humpidge – who earlier said the ponies had been “so
effective” (see above) is quoted as saying that that during the three
years they have been there, the Konik ponies have made a “good start”
at removing the rushes (13). However, their shortcomings are then
Would soft rush ever be their first or only choice of what Konik ponies will eat? The RSPB always knew that Konik ponies would never be enough to create the garden they envisaged, hence the need to find funding for the contractors, but they still trumpeted the conservation industry mantra that herbivores would save money and replace direct cutting. Why was it that the loony from Plantlife said nothing about bringing in contractors in the third TV piece? He did, however, admit that they would have to work out how to avoid the ponies eating the meadow flowers if and when they return.
Mark Fisher 13 October 2014
(1) LOCH OF STRATHBEG, Scottish Natural Heritage
(2) Site Details for Loch of Strathbeg, Scottish Natural Heritage
(3) LOCH OF STRATHBEG Site of Special Scientific Interest Site Management Statement
(4) sheep, mud and questionable sanity, Dominic Funnell, RSPB Loch of Strathbeg blog 12 February 2010
(5) Konik horses arrive at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg reserve, BBC News NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland 7 April 2011
(6) The natural vegetation of England, Self-willed land August 2014
(7) Wild horse foal born at Wildwood, Wildwood blog Tuesday, 27 March 2012
(8) Wildwood's horses roaming free in Wales Wednesday, 30 April 2014
(9) More wild Konik horses introduced at Loch of Strathbeg, BBC News NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland16 August 2012
(10) Episode 12, BBC Two Landward, 13 June 201419:30
(11) Multimillion pound boost to save UK’s Magnificent Meadows, Heritage Lottery Fund 4 February 2014
(12) Investing £5million in UK’s natural heritage, Heritage Lottery Fund 4 February 2014
(13) Fen restoration is horse-play at Loch of Strathbeg, RSPB News 13 June 2014
Hairy pigs introduced to restore heath land and attract wildlife, BBC News 3 October 2014
I saw the section of BBC Breakfast news that is shown in the video link in this article. It’s another nauseatingly trite puff piece from the conservation industry, this time about the RSPBs restoration of heathland on its land on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. It has all the ingredients – cute animals that are “the latest weapon in their fight to preserve and restore threatened heath land in Dorset”. Where is the war? Such hyperbole! Then the justification – “Normally it would be an expensive piece of machinery but this time it is something more unusual - a rare breed of hairy pig”.
Well, since there is a whacking agri-environment payout on the land, and claiming single farm payment, plus milking funds from it being in a Nature Improvement Area (Wild Purbeck?!!) then the matter of cost is probably immaterial compared to the promotional value of the cute animals that got it on breakfast TV. Moreover, we have the subliminal implication that the use of this domesticated species, whose numbers have waxed and waned, is somehow saving of the breed, and that, really, it is like a wild animal that is doing the business. I will gloss over the ignorant claim by the RSPBs Mark Singleton that he didn't know of pigs being used in this way before, because it wasn't obvious what he thought the pigs were achieving - he talked of litter arising from tree cover, but by way of example he showed a handful of the humus layer that arises from bracken coverage. The nodding donkey from Natural England just gave it imprimatur by spouting the usual dogma about how precious heathland is. It is though Tim Muffett (?!) the TV interviewer, who nails the dogma in the very first few seconds when he describes the restoration of this RSPB reserve to the “pristine heathland” it once was. Perhaps I should also put this on my webpage documenting the nonsense of conservation speak!
I walked Arne Hill last year, depressed at yet another example of how the conservation industry kills all the wildness, so much so that I used photographs I took to illustrate a talk I gave at the Wild Nephin conference, where I teased out the meanings of wild, natural and native (1). I observed that while the vegetation on Arne Hill is mostly native, it was not natural, and definitely was not wild. Under the photo of an area of mono-culture heather on Arne Hill resulting from prior restoration, I asked “is this really worth the destruction?”
Mark Fisher 5 October 2014
(1) Fisher, M. (2013) WILD or NATURAL -the challenges
Europe faces in setting aside wilderness