The revisionism of the conservation industry – expanding the noosphere in Britain

 

I have remarked before about the revisionism that characterises the conservation industry when it comes to justifying and aggrandising their management practice (1). Then there is their devaluation of words like “rare” and “precious” through a misuse by association with their irrational preferences, the choices of their dogma (2). I was thus wary in approaching the consultation on a “light touch” review of the Guidelines for the Selection of Biological Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for fear that the revision would add further evidence of a shifting baseline, exemplified throughout our cultural history and in our conservation philosophy, in what we are expected to believe is the state of wild nature in Britain. The auguries were not good when attention was drawn to areas of the revised Guidelines where more substantive changes had been made. Here is the one that disturbed me (3):
“Throughout the document, attention has been given to the concept of near-natural habitats as well as semi-natural habitats”

The Guidelines currently in use date from 1989, and have interest as an historical document in seeing how thinking has changed in the last 20 years (4,5). In that document, there are two references to natural habitats, none to near-natural, with the rest being references to semi-natural habitats. Thus putting an emphasis on near-natural in the rewrite, and using it in the same breath as semi-natural, demands scrutiny for its intention. Near and semi are paired six times in the revision, once in combination with natural, which itself has two further instances on its own, and three with semi-natural (6). A definition of near-natural is given in the revision:
“Very little of Britain's land surface is unmodified by human influence, and the remaining near-natural (essentially unmodified) habitats, are confined to some high mountain tops in the uplands, cliffs, limestone pavements, peat bogs, mountain lakes and rivers (and their islands), sea cliffs and many intertidal areas”

There is, however, no overt definition given for natural or semi-natural. Confusingly, near-natural is lumped in with semi-natural in terms of an experiential quality of wildness, in a sentence that appears to contradict the assertion above of the essentially unmodified nature of near-natural habitats:
“Most near- and semi-natural habitats share the common quality of appearing to be in a wild state, with little obvious evidence of human activity, even though they may have been much modified from their original state”

Near-natural is lumped in again with semi-natural in a consideration of their combined extent in Britain:
“around 30% of the land surface is considered to comprise near-natural or semi-natural habitats, which retain a high degree of naturalness and typically support diverse native animal and plant communities”

How much near-natural is there?

The revision remarks that there is a wide variation in the distribution and abundance of these two habitats across Britain, with the greater part being in the upland districts of Wales, northern England and Scotland. While there are some examples given in the definition above of what may distinguish a near-natural from a semi- natural habitat, the revision itself does not venture to put a figure on what may be the extent of near-natural habitat alone. DEFRA recognises that no more than 2.5% of the UK is above a tree-line in those high mountain tops in the uplands, and where trees would not naturally grow (7). This rules out much of the rest of the uplands as being near-natural, as it is a landscape denuded of trees. Thus while it may be dominated by native species, it must be considered to be semi-natural as the true potential natural vegetation is not expressed. To that naturally tree-less area above the tree-line can be added the naturally waterlogged wetland areas, the rocky outcrop or cliff face, some substantial intertidal areas plus areas of natural maritime grassland with high coastal exposure. All these are where trees would also not thrive, and where the true potential natural vegetation is likely to be expressed. However, the rest of our land area would be woodland of varying character. That we have only 2% of Britain with a cover of ancient woodland, and not all of that is comprised of native species, shows the extent of the loss of species through cultural modification, and the simplified ecologies that we have been left with.

There is a sleight of hand going on here, an elision of boundaries between definitions, a running together of meanings. It comes from a shift away in the revision from some essential honesties that appear in the earlier version. Thus in 1989, an explanation of the high nature conservation value given to certain habitats described as "man-made", such as both lowland and upland grasslands and heather moorland, is because they are seen as being on a continuum of variation in naturalness, and thus representative of their point on the continuum. They are not lumped together as in the revision. Moreover, in listing examples of habitats in the UK that are highly localised in Europe, the existing guidance is decidedly frank about the origins of heaths (5):
“Anthropogenic vegetation, such as grasslands and heaths derived from woodland and wetland and representing plagioclimaxes”

A plagioclimax is where human impact (anthropogenic) has prevented the ecosystem from developing further into the later stages of vegetation (potential natural vegetation) as is the case for heath. However, in the revision, the overt anthropogenic origin of the heathland plagioclimax has gone, but there is a nod to its reality (6):
“Some habitats (bogs, montane areas, some woodlands, coastlands) should generally be characterised by a lack of gross and/or recent human modification. In other habitats, physical management or modifications vary greatly in their impact. Some may be an essential or desirable part of conservation management (excavation of choked water bodies, grassland or heathland management)”

Human control and the noosphere

Conservation grazing with domesticated livestock has of course become the essential element of heathland management, a supreme representation of the human impact that is evidence of the noosphere, as is argued by Dr Peter Rhind, a coastal ecologist working for the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW). Peter and I corresponded in 2004, when our shared concern about the interventionist approach of the conservation industry led us to consider setting up a campaign group. Peter set out his stall in an article in British Wildlife (8). He invoked the noosphere, a term coined by the Russian Vernadsky in 1945 to describe the pervasive and ever-widening sphere of influence of the human mind (noos is derived from the Greek for mind). Vernadsky predicted that eventually all aspects of the biosphere would come under that influence, as the last of many stages in its evolution. Peter explained:
“For those of us interested in preserving part of the planet free of human influence, this comes as quite a depressing prospect. But clearly this is becoming a reality. In Britain, for example, we know that even the remotest parts of our countryside have been subjected to some form of human control”

Peter pointed to the system of SSSIs containing elements of noosphere expansion, because it requires that control mechanisms through management intervention are put in place to prevent any natural development that may alter the species composition of the SSSIs, such that they are frozen in time. What we need, he wrote, is a more flexible system of conservation, with legislation that not only protects sites of conservation interest, but also incorporates the legal mechanisms for allowing unhindered natural succession to take place. He argued that one of our primary conservation objectives should thus be to reduce Britain’s noosphere and to regain an element of wildness. (I have given before examples of a few areas of non-intervention where succession is taking place, and which are not protected as such under our current legislation (9))

The noosphere is being expanded in Britain every day by the conservation industry. I came across a typical example when researching the plan to fence off and graze Padworth Common after I was contacted by one of the objectors to the scheme (10). Here is the classic heathland horror story: Padworth is a heath-dominated registered common, owned by West Berkshire Council, which designated it a local nature reserve in 2005 (11). It’s a popular and well used spot for walking and riding. However, the Council succumbed in 2008 to the lure of filling their boots with the agri-environmental stewardship funding of the Higher Level Scheme (HLS). As a heathland site, the signing up to a grazing option from the menu of HLS funding was inevitable, and so it is no surprise that the HLS agreement for Padworth foresaw the enfencing of the Common (12):
“It is preferable to introduce grazing on Padworth Common as soon as possible. Secretary of State approval will be required to fence the common and capital grants can be made available for fencing, gates etc.”

The first application by the Council to enfence the common in April 2010 was eventually withdrawn after significant opposition led the Planning Inspectorate to conclude that a Public Inquiry would be needed to consider the application (13). The Council, even after revising some of its proposals, obviously lacked confidence that it would have been able to address the particular points about access from the objectors, nor show that it had sufficiently consulted with local people. On the latter, there is a telling section in one of the letters of objection sent to the Planning Inspectorate, from Adeliza Cooper (14):
"I cannot object strongly enough!! I am sure when the land was donated to the 'local' community - not 'West Berkshire Council' by the local vicar all those years ago he did not envisage it being enclosed, segregated, and made accessible only to a few.... Why should we be dictated to by so called environmentalists who insist they and not local people know best"

The Council embarked on a “period of informal consultation” which turned out to be just one “user group and residents meeting” before submitting a second application last September (15). The second application has also attracted a large number of objections - about 120, and including the Open Spaces Society (16) - so that the Planning Inspectorate again intend to hold a Public Inquiry.

Bending the natural reality

There are assertions in the fencing and grazing proposal, written by Sara McWilliams, a Countryside Ranger with West Berkshire Council, which should be challenged at that Inquiry, since they are definitely expanding the noosphere in their bending of the natural reality. Here is one (17):
“it has been demonstrated beyond doubt by many grazing programmes worldwide that grazing is only ever beneficial to an ecosystem”

This is unsupported nonsense, as can easily be demonstrated by anyone who makes the slightest effort to discover the truth in the examples from each continent of the globe that follow. In the particular case of lowland heathlands, a recent systematic review of the evidence in Britain of the relative impacts of grazing compared to alternative management interventions came to the conclusion that grazing can drive out heath and turn into grassland, and that some heathland managers might be reluctant to admit that (18). Moreover, it was the belief of heathland managers, elicited using a questionnaire, that negative impacts of grazing on some habitat attributes are widespread. Thus declines in the vertical structure of ericaceous shrubs, gorse cover and abundance of grass tussocks, are likely to be deleterious to reptiles. Similarly, the reported declines in the abundance of tree species, cover of ericaceous shrubs and abundance of grass tussocks are likely to have negative impacts on invertebrate communities, whereas the declines in gorse cover and vertical structure are likely to have negative impacts on some bird species, such as Dartford warbler and linnet. As the authors noted, while there was a relatively large literature on the topic, it did not yield much that was conclusive in the way of supporting the virtue of grazing:
“Monitoring the impacts of interventions before and after implementation and further experimentation are necessary in order to develop a robust evidence base regarding the relative impacts of these interventions”

Moving further afield, a recent study in Spain showed a negative relationship between the rise in cattle numbers in the Cantabrian Mountains in NW Spain over the past 20 years, and the occupancy of capercaillie leks (19). The rise in cattle grazing was linked to agri-environment funding and the conservation policies of EU, which reflect an overarching concern about the alleged negative effects on biodiversity of abandonment of traditional uses such as livestock herding. However, the authors claim those negative effects are neither straightforward nor always supported by hard data. Their conclusion is that while preserving traditional uses of the landscape and helping local human communities are legitimate policy options, they argue that such goals should not be disguised under the term of nature conservation. Instead, they should be named according to their main objective, which is preservation of cultural landscapes or of economic activities.

The resurgence of brown bear on the upland grassland of the Tichá Valley in the Tatra mountains in Slovakia is attributable to the removal of cattle and sheep grazing. Land nationalisation began in 1948, and went hand in hand with the creation of the Tatra National Park and the removal of grazing rights (20). It took another 10 years until the remaining sheep grazing was removed from the valley. However, where there was once only four bears, there is now a population of over 40. That bears flourished after the removal of grazing livestock is unlikely to be due to resource competition alone, and probably has a major element of these large animals being better able to exhibit their natural behaviour within their natural range (21). This has implications for the re-introduction of domestic livestock into abandoned areas that may already be seeing a repopulating with bears and the larger carnivores. It will create tensions that paradoxically are not just about the threats to the livestock, but the carnivores will get the blame.

Australia presents another example of where the removal of livestock grazing was considered essential for wild nature. The Australian alps is a mountainous area that straddles Victoria, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory. These upland areas had been used for the summer grazing of domestic livestock for over 150 years (22). They are predominantly treeless plant communities of grasslands, herb fields and wetlands that occupy only about 0.1% of the Australian continent. They are hardly ever grazed by large, native herbivores, since kangaroos, wallabies and wombats are extremely rare in the alpine landscape. Consequently, the alpine vegetation did not evolve in conjunction with native vertebrate grazers. The introduction of cattle was therefore a major departure, especially since the soils are extremely low in nutrients, and are easily disturbed. They are highly erodible, both by wind and water and may be subject to frequent frost action. Thus, the nutrient limitations of the soils, and the generally short growing season, dictate that the growth of alpine plants is slow, and that, following severe disturbance, regeneration is also slow.

In the 1920s, grazing was temporarily halted in the area of Mount Buffalo National Park, Victoria, and finally stopped in 1952. Because of its effect on water quality, cattle were taken out of Kosciuszko National Park in NSW during the 1950s and 60s. Reports by scientists on the many aspects of cattle damage grew over the years, but the practice continued within Victoria's Alpine National Park into the current century – no other alpine park allowed grazing to continue. Cattle were eventually removed from the Alpine National Park in 2005 after a thorough investigation by the Alpine Grazing Parliamentary Taskforce. One of the reasons for ending licensed alpine grazing was the damage cattle were causing to the hundreds of mossy peat beds scattered throughout the high country. Alpine streams and rivers were also damaged, increasing siltation and nutrient loads in streams, and affecting rivers and dams downstream.
In 2010, however, the newly installed Victorian Government controversially returned cattle grazing to Victoria's Alpine National park under the guise of “scientific cattle grazing”, aimed at reducing fire risk. This was in spite of any scientific justification that alpine cattle grazing reduced fire risk. In fact the cattle grazing quickly caused damage to habitats listed as nationally threatened, as an early investigation by Dr Wahren of LaTrobe University's Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology showed (22):
"The wetland habitat of the Alpine Tree Frog is heavily used by cattle, and given the level of damage already observed after just two weeks, it is likely to be severely degraded by the time the cattle are removed for the season in April"

The grazing lasted only three months before the national Government shut the trial down, calling in the five year proposal by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment to reintroduce up to 400 cattle to graze in the state's Alpine National Park for up to five months a year as a research trial. The proposal was assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, with the Environment Minister Tony Burke recently declaring that it would have an unacceptable impact on the national heritage values of the Australian Alps National Park (23):
"The assessment has shown there is irrefutable evidence that cattle grazing would damage the sensitive natural environment, disturb the remote and wild character of the area, detract from aesthetic values, and erode its heritage values. While my personal views on this matter are known, in determining this decision I have considered only whether or not the proposed action would be in breach of the EPBC Act”

His personal view is that a national park should not be used as a farm (24).

The Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa has a range of expectation on its delivery of experience, as well as its focus on conservation. The charismatic species of KNP’s large herbivores, such as elephant, buffalo, giraffe and zebra, are an obvious attraction, but they have had a largely undetermined effect on the vegetation and ecosystem processes. KNP is mandated to ‘‘maintain biodiversity in all its facets and fluxes’’ (25). Biodiversity in this context for KNP is based on the three core attributes of composition, structure, and function, a compelling approach recognized by Franklin in forest ecosystems (26) and expanded upon by Noss (27). This holds up to shame the devalued concept of biodiversity in Britain, as narrowly defined by the priorities and choices of the conservation industry.

A recent study took advantage of a range of different age herbivore exclosures in the KNP (6-, 22-, 35-, and 41-year exclusions) to identify differences in the cover of woody canopies, live and dead/senescent herbaceous canopies, and bare soil using airborne optical mapping methods (28). The three-dimensional (3-D) structure of vegetation is central to the functioning of African savannas, providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. Too many herbivores can lead to the loss of ecological functioning through alterations in vegetation composition and structure.

Areas in which herbivores were excluded over the short term (6 years) contained 38%–80% less bare ground compared with those that were exposed to mammalian herbivory, but with only a few measurable differences in the 3-D structure of woody plants. In the longer-term (>22 years), the 3-D structure of woody vegetation differed significantly between excluded and accessible landscapes, with up to 11-fold greater woody canopy cover in the areas without herbivores, and much greater 3-D structural diversity. These differences in turn affect the diversity and richness of animal species, as well as the ecological functioning of these systems. The authors note that the greater canopy structural diversity enhances the habitat available for a wide range of organisms beyond the herbivore communities and alters such ecological processes as nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, and germination. The authors suggest that land managers at KNP will have to consider altering or deflecting herbivore populations in an effort to maintain whole system biodiversity.

Is grazing giving heath back to nature?

I find a striking parallel between this negative impact of herbivory on the structural diversity of savannah for wildlife and the negative aspects of grazing management of lowland heathland on its vertical structure described earlier and with its consequent impact on reptiles, invertebrates and some bird species. It brings me to a second assertion in the fencing and grazing proposal for Padworth Common by Sara McWilliams that rides on the back of a particular perversion of natural reality that has gained a lot of traction in NW Europe (17):
“The most compelling reason for reintroducing grazing must be that it is a traditional way of managing heathland, in essence giving the heath back to nature”

Let's look in detail at her assertion. Heathland was never “managed”: the tradition was its extractive use to the point of sucking the life out of it, or as Dr Peter Shaw, Department of Life Sciences at the University of Roehampton, puts it in a lecture on heathland management in his module on Conservation Ecology (29):
"most heaths result from man-made habitat destruction......caused by forest clearance and land over-exploitation in pre-history"

Dr Shaw is very frank with his students about how heathland should be managed now, seeing a barrier as being a shortage of modern day peasants:
Peasants used the heaths in several ways……
cut firewood and removed peat…..Gorse was cut for fodder…..Animals grazed by day……heath was burnt....these impoverished and acidified the soil.....What it really needs is a force of peasants, heating their hovels with peat and grazing their skinny cattle on the heath"

He goes on:
How to manage a modern heath: (pretend to be a family of peasants)
Killing scrub.  Wage incessant war on pine/birch seedlings, by hand (worst), herbicide, or graze with goats/highland cattle; burn to remove vegetation and nutrients; remove topsoil”

Thus the depauperation needed to maintain heath is more than just grazing, which in effect only converts vegetation into topsoil while having no impact on the removal and leaching of nutrients that is necessary. Adrain Ince made a similar point in his objection to the fencing at Chobham Common at the recent Public Inquiry. He considered that the Statement of Case for the fencing made by Surrey Wildlife Trust was deceitful not only in saying that the Common had been created by cattle grazing, but that the cessation of grazing by commoners had been responsible for the deterioration of the Common, and that only the reinstatement of cattle grazing could restore it (30):
“Surrey Wildlife Trust and Natural England both know that the impoverished soil of the Common came about, and was maintained as impoverished, by exploitation of the Common by cutting turf for fires and roofs; by cutting gorse for fires and especially for the kilns in the local brick making industry; by the cutting and removal of trees as timber; by the enormous industry of heather harvesting for brooms (Chobham Common supplying brooms for the navy for years); as well as seasonal grazing. It is the ending over time of all these activities which is the basic reason the soil is gradually being enriched thus changing the kind of growth, and the
kinds of plants, and thus the kinds of animal, bird, and insect it is a suitable home for"

McWilliams has little to say in the fencing proposal for Padworth Common on the range of extractive activities other than about grazing, but is that giving the heath back to nature in employing that alone? McWilliams uses a sleight of hand in the fencing and grazing proposal that compares livestock grazing to the mechanical methods of heathland management, such that we are to believe that the former is more natural than the latter (17):
"Grazing regimes negate the need for heavy, expensive, noisy machinery to be used which only ever provide a short term solution anyway"

We get this also from Surrey Wildlife Trust and their much trumpeted Grazing Project (31):
Grazing is the most natural method of looking after the land. As the animals graze across the landscape, they make the decisions where they concentrate their efforts so creating a mosaic of different sward lengths and micro habitats”

In what seems to be becoming obligatory in this new era of using domestic livestock as agents of nature, some of the Trust’s cattle have GPS tracking collars (32):
“These are carried by the lead animals and allow SWT to monitor the herd’s use of an area. Their movements can easily be tracked which enables SWT to focus on monitoring the patches where they spend most of their time. SWT are at the cutting edge of the use of these systems”

Such is the cutting edge logic of Surrey Wildlife Trust that it expects us to disregard the admittance that in their world agriculture and conservation are intertwined” (33) as it is of course generally in the conservation industry in Britain. The Trust demolishes all credibility for the naturalness of their Grazing Project with this (32):
“Grazing is a vital management method in helping conservation organisations look after their protected landscapes. Farming has played a crucial role in shaping these habitats and the continuation or restarting of grazing is vital for their survival”

The sleight of hand of imbuing domestic livestock as agents of nature also characterises a number of grazing projects based in the Public Forest Estate (PFE), with the Forestry Commission succumbing to the expansionist tendencies of the conservation industry, desperate as it is for larger areas of land to act out their grazing fantasies. Thus the vision of the Neroche partnership in the Blackdown Hills is to “liberate the landscape” through a herd of English Longhorn cattle grazing areas of the PFE after conifers have been harvested (34). It is claimed that the cattle will “help generate a more naturalistic pattern of vegetation” and that the large area of grazing will allow “natural patterns of foraging to be expressed”(35). So clear felling conifers and turning it into farmland with domestic livestock grazing is natural?

The Friston Forest Grazing Project covers about a quarter of the 850ha of Friston Forest near Eastbourne, leased by the Forestry Commission from South East Water since 1929 (36). The project is managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, which introduced a small herd of British White cattle in 2008 into the northern end of the forest, adjacent to Lullington Heath National Nature Reserve. The Trust describes it as “a pioneering approach to land management”. They at least allow that it will be natural processes, such as wind, drought and fungal decay, which along with the grazing animals will determine how the site will evolve. However, they then imbue the cattle with wild characteristics, an element of de-domestication that is just wishful thinking, and does not need the nonsense of hourly radio-collar tracking via a base-station in Germany:
“Their behaviour is fascinating to watch: at different times of day, and at different times of year, they seek out different plants to feed on in different locations”

Dunwich Forest in Suffolk is described by Simon Leatherdale of the Forestry Commission as (37):
“currently undergoing a process of 'rewilding' with a long term plan to recreate and regenerate the natural landscape that existed prior to the conifer plantations. The managment of the forest is now a partnership between the Forestry Commission, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and RSBP. The more northern area being managed by SWT and grazed by a herd of Dartmoor ponies. The heathland habitat to the south is being managed by the RSPB”

Is clear felling conifers and then grazing with livestock really rewilding? The county wildlife trust is more circumspect, having badged it as one of their newest Living Landscapes (38):
“This is a large scale innovative partnership project with the Forestry Commission to create 260 ha (640 acres) of grazed woodland habitat from an existing block of conifer plantation. This will be the first time such an initiative has been undertaken on this scale in the UK”

However, the origins of the context in which this Living Landscape project was conceived was as a rewilding project of a local biodiversity partnership, the principle of which Suffolk County Council wishes to extend to the rest of the Suffolk Sandlings (39). Gary Battell, a Woodland Officer with Suffolk County Council, has a greater grip on natural reality when he describes the main aim as being the creation of 320ha of wood pasture, a culturally managed landscape, after the felling of conifers and the introduction of 28 Dartmoor ponies (40). Battel writes that the development of the trees in this wood pasture will be dependent on regenerating broadleaves that were already seeding in before the ponies were introduced. Will that happen in the presence of grazing by the ponies? How many more people are going to be incensed at the reduction in access that has resulted from the increase in fencing that has gone up?

The Vera hypothesis and Nature Development

The spontaneous outburst of regeneration of open or scattered broad-leaf woodland in the presence of livestock grazing is the basis of the “Vera hypothesis”, a notion so full of holes that it is routinely trashed in the literature (see later) and which I have explored before (41, 42). In the Netherlands, where it originated as a concept before Vera published his PhD thesis, it came to be known as Nature Development. As the name suggests, it is no longer about protecting and conserving existing nature, but is a move to produce new nature. That this should have arisen in the Netherlands is hardly surprising, since it is one of the most intensively used and highly modified landscape areas in Europe, with about half of its surface area less than 1m above sea level. Nature Development, based on the habitat requirements of large herbivores, was thus proposed by Wallis De Vries in 1995 as a key to the design of large-scale nature reserves. He gave two points to support his argument (43):
“First, by slowing succession or maintaining open habitats, large herbivores are keystone species of the ecosystem and increase habitat quality for an array of other animals and plants. Second, viable populations of large herbivores require extensive areas of land that should meet the requirements of many wild plant and animal species. Large herbivores can therefore also be considered "umbrella" species. Their virtually world- wide distribution provides for a general application of the concept”

He goes on to say:
“The requirements of large carnivores may be the final bottleneck for the establishment of a complete ecosystem. But because carnivores are dependent on herbivore populations and because they do not have a similar direct impact on vegetation succession, it appears that satisfying the basic conditions must be a higher priority for herbivores than for carnivores”

This is remarkably naïve, for a number of reasons, not least that Wallis De Vries is wrong about carnivores. In a criticism of Nature Development, Jozef Keulartz had this to say (44):
“By redeploying large herbivores, grazers (such as cattle), pruners (deer and elk), and ‘intermediate feeders’ (red deer and European bisons) the forests can be prevented from overgrowing, allowing the landscape to develop into a mosaic of open and densely wooded patches with a rich vegetable and animal population. Provided, that is, the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves and lynxes is pursued with equal energy. If this is not done, the herbivores will not disperse sufficiently and the forests will not get a chance to regenerate properly”

Keulartz was not too happy about the all-pervasive Nature Developers, who he felt made highly selective use of ecological findings, and monopolised the social debate on nature and landscape:
“However, the basic principles of nature development are not only ambivalent but also one-sided since nature developers systematically turn a blind eye to alternative paradigms or competing research programmes. In short, whether one looks at it from a socio-cultural or a scientific point of view, nature development in its present form is both questionable and dubious”

The Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands is so often given as the inspiration for reinstating a grazing pressure as a missing natural process from many of our modern day forests. Oostvaardersplassen was a brownfield site, not a wooded area. Is there much woodland developing there now? Will the numbers of introduced grazers continue to increase year on year? (see my lecture on Nature Development, the Oostvaardersplassen and the Vera hypothesis (45)). A news feature about the Oostvaardersplassen appeared in the journal Nature in 2009. It gave voice to critics of Nature Development, who say that the projects are more sentiment than science (46). Dustin Rubenstein, an ecologist at Columbia University, NY, argued that placing proxy animals such as horses in a modern landscape is not the same as turning back the clock. He also worried about how the projects in Europe were being run and said that information about them is not being disseminated “We’re not seeing the results in the peer-reviewed literature”. Emma Harris, the author of the news feature, and who interviewed Frans Vera, was not very complimentary about his hypothesis - His is the minority view”. She had a devastatingly simple critique:
“So far, the Oostvaardersplassen has shown that a high density of grazers can certainly affect the landscape: they have largely mowed it clean”

Vera trotted out his usual excuse, that thorny shrubs will establish themselves and act as nurseries for tree seedlings, but see later. Harris then got to the nub of the flaw in the Oostvaardersplassen with this:
Vera’s experimental set-up does have major limitations……The Oostvaardersplassen, for example, contains none of its lost predators, such as bears or wolves, yet other reintroduction experiments have shown that they can alter the entire ecosystem

The use of large herbivores for Nature Development started out in the Netherlands as an experiment on a 98ha nature reserve Baronie Cranendonck near the Dutch–Belgian border (47). Arable fields and pastures covered one third of the area, and the rest was made up of dry heath with juniper shrub on former drift sand, and some planted pinewood and oakwood. The whole area was put under a year-round grazing regime from 1973 onwards with Iceland ponies. The ponies obviously kept mostly to the areas of grass. Initially, the number of rabbits increased, which combined with the grazing by ponies, prevented tree regeneration on the former fields, as was revealed by the few small exclosures created on the site. The rabbit population dropped away as the grass sward that developed in response to horse grazing was no longer attractive for foraging rabbits. However, 27 years after “abandonment”, the former arable fields in the study site were still more than 98% open grassland. The increase of woodland cover in the whole study area only amounted to 8% between 1970 and 1999. This was caused mainly by lateral crown-spreading of the ageing oak and pine trees and to some extent by the regeneration of Scots pine in parts of the area that were hardly grazed by the ponies, such as grass-heath on former drift sand.

The study at Baronie Cranendonck is a test of the theory of tree regeneration under the herbivore pressure in Nature Development being aided by thorny shrubs over those 27 years. In common with the sun rising each day, the authors found that tree regeneration in the few areas of bramble (<0.1% of the total area) was greater compared to the areas of heather, soft rush or grass. They were, however, a bit optimistic to predicate a continuing and accelerated woodland recruitment on that theory. A quick check of a satellite picture of the regeneration over the last 12 years of the area shows their optimism to have been entirely misplaced. Thus 39 years into the project, and the only thing to show for it is a few more areas of grass and heath that developed on the “abandoned” arable fields. This has been confirmed by other studies on woodland regeneration in the presence of grazing, one of which concluded that in homogeneous grassland, woodland regeneration is almost impossible, even with very low herbivore densities (48). Contrast that to the regeneration of woodland cover on Scar Close in the Yorkshire Dales after the sheep were fenced out (9).

What is of course missing in this Nature Development approach are the native carnivores. While the Nature Developers may vary the number of herbivores, they seem incapable of understanding the role of predators in regulating the activity of herbivores, and especially the spatial variation of herbivore pressure that is induced by the physical presence of carnivores. They should take notice of the comparative studies in Venezuela by John Terborg, on the influence of predators on landscape vegetation. Those studies have made a significant contribution to our understanding and support for the top-down control that has been dubbed the Green World Hypothesis – that predators limit the influence of herbivores, allowing vegetation to flourish (49). It was the fortunate set of circumstances, the inundation of a section of the Caroní valley in Bolivar State for a hydro-electric scheme, that brought forth a group of predator-free islands, and which provided the experimental model that gave convincing evidence of a trophic cascade. The latter is where predators in a food web suppress the abundance and/or alter the behavior of their prey, thereby releasing the next lower trophic level from predation, such as reducing the effect of herbivores on vegetation. The subsequent paper in the journal Science boldly declared an “ecological meltdown” resulting from the unregulated activity of herbivores (50).

The dramatis personae of Terborg’s research were exotic by the standards of our temperate and generally depauperate landscapes in Britain, devoid as they are of large carnivores. His research talks of howler monkeys, iguanas and leaf-cutter ants as the primary herbivores; and with armadillos, harpy eagle, jaguar, puma and ocelot as the predators missing from the small islands. The meltdown so brutally described was the complete demise of the semi-deciduous, dry tropical forest into a barren ground of leafless trees, red earth brought up by the excavations of the ants, and all smothered by a defensive thorny scrub that was choked by lianas (51)

That top predators have a profound influence on woodland regeneration has been shown by the studies of Oregon-based researchers Robert Beschta and William Ripple, many of which are founded on observations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in America after wolves were reintroduced there in 1995 (52). Willow species and aspen showed significant regeneration in riparian corridors along with the returning wolf population, the studies describing a spatially patchy recovery of woody browse species released from the herbivorous actions of elk. The patchy nature of recovery was due to elk avoiding places or browsing less where there was a higher risk of wolf predation, such as along river banks.

Predators are thus a key consideration that is missing from initiatives that take a Nature Development approach with free-ranging domestic livestock, or domestic livestock as proxies or analogues of native herbivores. Herbivore pressure in these grazing obsessions will never be as close to the natural situation as possible without native carnivores also being present. Terborg, in revisiting the Green World Hypothesis, reflected on the loss of the many elements of wild nature, eliminated over much of the contemporary world to the extent that intact ecosystems replete with top predators and large ungulates have effectively been reduced to a few scattered remnants (53). His fear is that the aberrant world that is left, a greatly diminished state of nature, should not be taken as a frame of reference because “ecology will by default become the science of human artifacts”. Such a dreadful prospect that he could have been talking about the noosphere, but then he was also foretelling the revisionism of the conservation industry in Britain and its pathetic attempt to pervert what is wild and natural.

Mark Fisher 15 March 2012, 8 April 2012, 25 June 2012

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url:www.self-willed-land.org.uk/articles/noosphere.htm

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk

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