What would Eat a Badger? Rewilding at the Hay Festival

I took a trip last week to the Hay Festival with my supervisor Dr. Sophie Wynne-Jones of Bangor University, and trustee of the Cambrian Wildwood group,  who was participating in a panel debate on rewwilding, along with Minette Batters,  deputy president of the NFU, and Julia Aglionby, Executive Director of the Foundation for Common land.

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Left to Right: Julia Aglionby, Sophie Wynne-Jones, Minette Batters, Rob Yorke

Chaired by independent rural commentator Rob Yorke, about 100 people turned up to listen and ask questions. In his introduction, Rob showed he has an in-depth understanding of the topic, and began by proposing two variants of rewilding- passive, as in taking a step back and letting nature run its course, and active, including such things as herbivore and carnivore re-introductions, and asked the panelists how important they felt it is to have an agreed definition. Sophie felt it was not so important and the greater issue currently was to build bridges and make connections with all stakeholders; Julia felt that however it was defined, rewilding would need management in some shape or form: farming is a long-term activity and land cannot just be abandoned. One problem already occurring in some areas is the rapid spread of bracken, a result of reduced sheep grazing and milder winters. Minette later argued this is bad for climate change since the build-up and subsequent rotting of such vegetation releases a lot of methane. Is this what we mean- or wish for- when we say “rewilding” ?

Rob suggested that we might conceive of scales or degrees of rewilding- with something akin to Yosemite in its early days- when all the native peoples were forcibly removed in order to make room for “wild nature”- at one end of the spectrum, and something much more managed perhaps at the other, though it was not made clear what this might be, though Juila did make the comment that “wilderness is in the eye of the beholder”.

Rob briskly moved the discussion on, asking whether rewilding had been used at times more as a weapon against existing land use and users than as a tool- at this point, a farmer in the audience piped up to assert that as farmers “we love our farm and we love the countryside”. Rob again pointed out that the fault line in these discussions is often drawn between those for whom the “wild place” is seen for leisure and those for whom it is their place of work and source of livelihood.

Should production landscapes be focussed in the fertile lowlands, thus allowing the uplands to be for culture, heritage and nature? It was here that clear differences between the panelists emerged: Minette was adamant that it would be disastrous to take stock off the uplands. Farmers are the custodians of the land and we must not allow their skills to be lost by such drastic changes in land use. There is a danger that all this talk of rewilding will alienate farmers and put them off from improving biodiversity on their own farms. James Rebanks’ 2015 book The Shepherd’s Life was referenced, perhaps to provide balance with the bad press brought upon sheep farmers by Monbiot’s laying the blame on them for what he sees as the current “sheepwrecked” state of Britain’s uplands.

It was when the discussion moved onto animal reintroductions that positions became even more entrenched: I was somewhat taken aback by the stridency with which Minette dismissed the idea of carnivore reintroductions: lynx are a danger to man and our animals, she argued, and there is a very good reason they were got rid of. It would be disastrous to bring them back. She had to back-track a bit and extol the virtues of the fine animal that is a lynx when challenged by a member of the audience who asked if, then, it was a generally good policy to deliberately cause the extinctions of animals we don’t like, but I felt she then contradicted her own position by saying, “look what has happened with the badger- their numbers are out of control because they have no predator.”

Isn’t this one of the main arguments for rewilding, I asked? Badgers are not top predators in the same way a lynx would be, and are generally classed as mesopredators, generalists and omnivores which prey on smaller animals like hedgehogs- and are blamed for drastic impacts on the numbers of the latter and other small animals.

Badgers are the center of a long-standing controversy over culling and TB which I have not really looked into and shall not get into here- but this has nothing to do with the issues of threats to sheep and people by the lynx. However, Minette’s response to me was, “What would eat a badger?” which did give me pause for thought and became something of a joke between myself and Sophie on the way home. Further research later that night suggests that  badgers do not in fact have many natural predators, being well-adapted for their own defense, and probably would not be the first choice of a lynx looking for its lunch, although badger cubs might be taken by various predators including lynx and eagle. Mesopredator release – the rapid increase in numbers of mesopredators as a result of the elimination of higher carnivores- is a real thing (Prugh et al 2009), but it is unclear that there are good documented examples of this happening with badgers, apart from a controlled experiment in Texas when Cayotes were removed. In this case however “the increase in mesopredators did not lead to the decreased rodent numbers that classic trophic cascade theory would predict”  I don’t know why, or if, then, badger populations have increased relative to historical levels.

Much more worrying was Minette’s concern about the danger of lynx to humans or stock: Lynx are a shy animal and pose no real threat to humans, and any increase in sheep take would barely register against the several hundred attacks by domestic dogs each year. These arguments against carnivore re-introductions are common and understandable, and should not be dismissed, but seem to me to be the weakest, and such fears should not be fueled by representatives of the NFU . Far more serious are the concerns raised by Rob about our own duty of care to such animals, which may not survive in any case, or be vulnerable to being hit by traffic.

Another application of rewilding is flood mitigation, through riparian plantings (trees can increase infiltration rates) and re-meandering of rivers as we saw at Pickering on the Study Tour. Minette was also completely opposed to this, arguing that the most fertile land is generally the flood-plains and should be kept for farming; the water should not be “slowed” but sped up through the towns to be got rid of as soon as possible. If only it were so simple…

Sophie was keen to focus on practical examples such as the Pontbren in mid-Wales, which is cited as a a successful case of using trees to help in flood mitigation- however she cautioned against extrapolation from relatively little data and experience which might lead to over-stating the case for what trees in the landscape can achieve, and also made the important point that this was a farmer-lead project not originally connected with flood mitigation at all, but originally driven by using trees and hedgerows to shelter livestock.

An hour was far too short and the conversations continued over drinks afterwards, when I had some interesting discussions with countryside blogger Ben Eagle who also has a nice write-up of the event.  Ben had also pointed to the recent policy briefing by Paul Jepson which disentangles some of these debates and shows the way forward for a possible policy framework for rewilding.

A local farmer who was present, a neighbour of Rob’s in the surrounding Black Mountains,  also emphasised the crucial importance to farmers of maintaining their role of food producers. Why? Going back to Rob’s question earlier, could not the less fertile upland areas be rewilded, and food produced where more intensive methods can be implemented? Earlier Minette had explained to me that lambs do not stay long in the upland areas, being soon sold to lowland farmers, and sheep farming is highly integrated across the landscape; I am not sure if this really makes the case though. The conversation turned to policy- would farmers not simply do what they are paid to do? Would they not be just as happy to be paid for conservation as to produce food? For me it was something of a revelatory moment when the table went quiet as it seemed all parties present agreed on one thing at least: noone was really sure what the current farming payments are actually supposed to be for.

I have a lot to learn about farming and farming policy in the UK, as well as about rewilding in its various ramifications, but the diverse opinions I heard at Hay have provided plenty of fodder for this week at least. I shall  post more findings and insights as I continue my research through the summer.

References

Prugh, L.R. et al 2009 The Rise of the Mesopredator BioScience 59: 779–791

Feedback on the Forest Garden

My last post dealt with the permaculture edible forest garden, and it received some commentary on a couple of Facebook groups and permaculture forums. A lot of the responses were, predictably, from permaculture advocates who took umbrage at my having deigned to critique their philosophy at all, but there was one very valid criticism concerning yields: while I had compared weights of different crops per acre, a more useful approach would be to compare calorific yield. Doing this for the crops I listed gives a result looking something like this:

Crop                         tonnes/ha                 Cal/100g              m cal/ha

potatoes                           40                                  70                        27

wheat                                 8                                  333                        26.6

hazelnuts                       3.5-4                             646                       25.8

Sweet chestnuts             4.75                             200                        9.5

Corn (US)                          10.5                               360                       37.8

apples                                  44                                50                           22

As you can see, hazelnuts do perform extremely well on this score, having a very high calorific value, but as explained in the article, in a forest garden, the trees would be at wider spacing and the yield per hectare would be lower as a result.

As was pointed out to me by one commentator, apples score very high, comparable to wheat and potatoes and coming in behind only US corn (maize). Can apples substitute for those foods as a staple crop? For a food to be classified a staple it requires not just calories but high levels of macronutrients including proteins and oils; so I do not think we would thrive on a diet of mainly apples, although the person who pointed this out to me was adamant that we could and indeed should, precisely because they are a tree crop. An original argument for sure, and not one I have heard before in any of the forest gardening literature. Once again, though, the yields cited are from conventional apple orchards, not forest gardens.

Most of the other critiques were based on misunderstanding the article (aka not reading it properly!). The whole issue of yields was questioned- why am I comparing yields from tree crop monocultures- we know that forest gardens produce far more than they would, even though there is no data! This is of course the whole point: unless anyone has any better ideas, the use of tree crops as a proxy makes perfect sense, as they will almost certainly be producing the staple crops with the highest yields (and the most calories)- but they will not be achieving such yields in forest gardens, and indeed one of the best known forest gardeners, Martin Crawford, grows his nuts in a separate orchard, with nothing but mown grass beneath the trees.

Not everyone on the permaculture forum took the same defensive line- one commentator asked “So who ever said it was a good idea to grow vegetables under trees anyway?” implying my whole article was a straw man, apparently missing that I had carefully quoted directly from the principle authors in Britain and America who  advocate this kind of system. Again, the question of yields is important since these authors- Jacke, Whitefield, Hart, and the UK Permaculture Magazine, really do position forest gardening- including growing vegetables under the trees in a multi-storey system- as a sustainable and viable alternative to modern industrial agriculture.

Another recent permaculture author who makes similar claims- not specifically for forest gardens but for general systems based on perennial woody agriculture- is Mark Shepard. There is an interesting review of his book here, coming to similar conclusions to myself, and further commentary here on the issues of perennials vs. annual crops.

Another commentator seemed indignant that I was not only critiquing Hart’s invocation of a new “Age of Gaia” but also, apparently, that I completely discredit ecology aswell. They did not say exactly where I do this, but I guess it might be in the section on systems and complexity, where I cite to Gleason’s 1926 paper The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association. Far from  dismissing ecology as a science, I am here quoting one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of this young science, the famous Clements-Gleason debate. The earlier view- originally from Tansley who coined the word “ecosystem”- saw nature as best represented on the community level, with more or less fixed boundaries around ecosystems and communities of plants and animals who had co-evolved over long periods of time. This was promoted by Clements and became the dominant paradigm, but later gave way to  Gleason’s view of nature more as a continuum, in constant flux, with no fixed boundaries around communities.

I suggested by the response above, the permaculture community has not moved on with the new paradigm. It is certainly this old conception of nature being in a state of balance on which the whole philosophy of permaculture rests- which is precisely why forest gardens, based as they are on the adage of “copy nature”, are still considered so important. Hart explicitly takes this further almost into the realms of religion with his Gaia quote, but so do many others in the permaculture community-  as indeed I did once myself. Even Clements probably never saw natural systems in this way. Forest gardens are however largely entirely novel systems, resembling nature only in structure and function and relying on previously untried assemblies, mixing wild, “native”, exotic and domesticated species together, so it is questionable to what degree they could be said to be “mimicing nature” in any case.

The Clements-Gleason debate is still ongoing, and demands an essay in its own right- perhaps I shall return to it as some point.

Finally, some conspiracy theories were spun around my essay, with comments along the lines that my real intention was to make a hatchet job on permaculture in an attempt to justify modern industrial farming. I have no hidden intentions, but simply wanted to explore the origins of the forest gardening idea and consider theoretical reasons why it is unlikely to meet the claims being made for it from within the permaculture community. Certainly, if it really held the promise being made for it, everyone would be doing it, but as I point out at the outset, despite some 30 years of promotion, the concept has failed in any way to capture the interest of more than a handful of farmers. The undeniable fact that there are costs and externalities for industrial agriculture does not mean that forest gardens- or even agroforestry- are necessarily a viable alternative solution.

More interestingly from a sociological point of view is the question as to why they are still so popular (within the permaculture fraternity) as an idea, with so much being claimed for them, when for the most part what are actually planted as forest gardens here are little more than orchards with a few herbs and soft fruit bushes, with even the most enthusiastic advocates getting most of their produce from more conventional annual vegetable beds. It is relatively easy to create wildlife gardens, or low-intensity food gardens that are also great habitat, and require few inputs, but for the time being at least it seems that the low-input high-output garden remains an appealing but unattainable dream.