Thursday, 5 November 2015

For All To See: Overgrazing apologists and regressive conservation

I have talked about the British highlands before, discussing its depleted state, and how it came to be this way. In that article I also devoted a substantial quantity of words to how conservationists have, for a long time, been helping preserve this depleted landscape. None of this has radically changed in the few months since I wrote that post, nor is the subject of today any more relevant now than it was then. It is also not any less relevant however. What I will be talking about here is the issue of those conservationists who have not moved on, who still cling to the old and outdated notions of what is and is not good for nature. They are unfortunately still large in number, and often fill some of the most powerful positions in conservation, controlling the majority of nature reserves. Change is coming, but as with all upheavals, there will be resistance, and much of it at that. Still, there is something uncannily disturbing about a conservationist, supposedly bolstered and driven by science, trumpeting blatantly and demonstrably false statements, so heavily contradicted by evidence, much of which they must be aware of, to border on outright lying. This post is both a rebuttal to the arguments made by these people, and also a reflection on just why they are acting the way they are, and how we may perhaps be able to change it in time.

A picture of the desolate Scottish highlands, one of many in this post, with sheep in the foreground

While I don't typically reference recent events or news, partly as to not unnecessarily date these posts, and partly because the subject matter is generally from so long ago as to render recent events quite irrelevant, in this case I will be responding in part to this specific article from ITV News. The article itself is not the issue here, it does a decent job of remaining relatively neutral. The issue lies with some of the people quoted within it. They serve as good examples of the mindsets and arguments often put forward by what I have termed "overgrazing apologists", people who claim that overgrazing is either benign, or in many cases even beneficial. So, here is the first quote from Richard Leafe, Chief Executive of the Lake District National Park, one of the most frequently criticized parks in Britain, and rightly so.

"I think George over-exaggerates for effect. He has a point in as far as we could do better in this National Park for wildlife but what George is not very good at is recognising the contributions that have been made towards achieving that by the farming community: most of them are now in agri-environment schemes which encourage them to manage the land for the environment: reducing their sheep numbers, planting trees, allowing shrubby vegetation to grow and all of that is great for wildlife whilst at the same time keeping the industry farming and I think George doesn't give enough recognition for the very valuable work that we as the National Park Authority and the farming community are doing together to make sure that we have both of these things: a fantastic cultural heritage and great wildlife."

This all seems well and good, but the problem here is numbers. While he states that farmers, and the park itself for that matter, are making big steps towards helping the environment, this is just not what we are seeing. Yes, small areas are being allowed to regenerate to a degree, and tree planting is occurring in some places, but the extent of this is incredibly limited. The British highlands are not, as some people seem to believe, a small area with limited potential for wildlife. They are larger than the country of Slovakia, and about the size of the entirety of my home country, Denmark. Combine this with the fact that the highlands are one of the least densely populated areas in Europe, and it quickly becomes clear that, if the farmers and reserve managers truly wanted, Britain could easily be home to one of, if not the largest wildernesses on the continent. Instead, what we are getting is tiny, isolated islands of woodland in a vast sea of artificial tundra, maintained by constant cutting and burning. This is not to deny the efforts of some farmers, for there are indeed those who have made outstanding efforts towards aiding nature, but they are individuals, not representative of the farming community in general. As we will see in the next quote, even of the farmers who think what they are doing is beneficial towards nature, in many cases they are deeply misguided. 

The Lake District, a national park consisting mostly of towns, heath, and plantations

Leafe was not however inherently wrong. While I feel he has a great lack of perspective, he at least seems to understand what is and is not good for nature. John Atkinson, a farmer who has been quoted below, evidently does not share this understanding.

"Sheep and cattle and stuff have been here for thousands and thousands of years so the ecosystems and biodiversity sand stuff have grown up to live with that. You take that away and you're going to have a very different sort of things and lots of the species that now live here will die off and disappear." 

The issue with his statement is, to put it bluntly, that the entirety of it is factually incorrect. While it is true that both sheep and cattle have been present in Britain for thousands of years, they certainly did not have the same impact that they do today. Never has the management and grazing of the land been so intensive, and never has biodiversity been so low. While the majority of the highlands today are barren heath and rough grassland, the extent to which this is the case has not been the same for the last few thousand years. As with biodiversity, wood cover is also at an all-time low, and while grazing and burning has certainly been creating moors for millennia, it was never to this extent. And yet, that is not even the biggest issue with his statement. The fundamental falsehood that he commits is his proclamation that the wildlife in Britain has been adapting to the altered habitats, and are now dependent on them. It is true that many of the species we see today are adapted to moorland, but this is not because they altered their ecology due to the expansion of heather and grassland. Skylarks and Stonechats were always suited to these habitats, the reason why many of the species living in the highlands today seem so well adapted to moors is quite simply that they are the only things capable of surviving there. It is not that the woodland birds evolved to live in the heathland, it is that everything but the heathland birds went extinct due to the destruction of their habitat. On top of all of this, today, most of the dedicated moorland birds are declining too anyway, because of how intensive the management has become. Effectively, the highlands are now so intensively grazed and burned that not even animals adapted to said grazing and burning can survive anymore. 

Sheep like these are not good for biodiversity, nor have they ever been

So why are we seeing this denial of reality? This is not a poorly researched area, the science is out there, and it very clearly shows that the current practices of intensive management are bad for wildlife. It is perhaps understandable why the sheep farmers might deny this, they do after all have a vested interest in promoting their livelihood as beneficial to nature. Less clear is why the conservationists and managers, with seemingly no economic motivations, also often support these pseudoscientific methods. I do however think there is an answer, and a relatively simple one at that: Admitting that everything you have been doing for the last century to protect nature is actually to a large extent responsible for the decline in wildlife you have tried to prevent is not easy, in fact it is quite a horrific reality. To a person who has spent their entire life promoting burning and grazing in the belief that it benefited nature, a revelation like this one may just be so depressing that simply denying it is easier. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Reality is not on the side of the slash-and-burn advocates. Their methods have been tried, tested, and proven to not only lack a positive impact, but actually be one of the most harmful activities to wildlife imaginable. Facing up to such a reality may be hard, but for the sake of nature and the future of our wildlife, it must be done. 

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