Measuring Landscape

There’s something about the way that fields and churches and orchards and houses and dry-stone walls have been artfully arranged over the centuries that nourishes our inner life and calms the human psyche; wilderness, on the other hand, is just saying ‘Woooaaahhh’”

Pete McCarthy

Between landscape research and subsequent policy and the work of land management practitioners there exist large, deep chasms.

Landscape means much to many and it is impossible, indeed dangerous to try, to reduce anyone’s perception of landscape – particularly their own landscape. But governments and others do so regularly, as they have to under the banner of economic progress, and resulting cost due to protest is high.

In many ways it can be argued that the widespread ‘dumbing down’ of our landscapes – both the mention of them and the reduction of elements in them that increase the multiple values of that landscape – is a deliberate attempt to avoid the supposed complications arising from having to consult. And consultation processes these days are all too often based on the assumption, quite rightly in the majority of cases, that there will be protest, with the media happily helping to ensure that any protest will be as vicious as possible by way of highlighting the polarised extreme views and never the middle line. We all end up paying too much money.

So the easiest solution is for policy makers and others to aim to ‘simplify’ processes in land management planning and land use instead and by doing so remove the most significant of voices; those who belong to that landscape, because it is assumed too difficult to quantify their sense of ownership of that landscape.

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In working with others exploring ways to quantify landscape values in order to highlight good landscape management practice it has been a huge shock, and frankly a bit scary, to realise there has been little attempt to do so before in tune with traditional practitioner methodology, a methodology all too aware of the complexity and diversity of the landscape concerned. Media can’t possibly highlight the huge range of factors it really needs to – and the resulting ‘coverage’ of landscape and land use is invariably lacking. Unfortunately policy makers are now forced into accepting such coverage in their decision making and thus a further barrier is created, in turn imposing fashions on landscape management thus moving steadily further away from sustainability.

Practitioners and others invariably work with a site specific approach, where the background information, usually spatial and thus mapped, can be over layered on top of the plan of the site involved (the vertical) and then ‘on site’ the lateral information is determined (the horizontal). It is the point of the angle between the vertical and the horizontal which has become a problem. Those needed to help determine an accurate and effective lateral input into the planning are all too often excluded. These vital stakeholders, which must, if the planning is to work properly, include those from that landscape are now all too often usurped by a gang of green fleeced self appointed ‘experts’ whose special isms are wonderful insights into a minute factor with regards that landscape but not much more. No surprise we have dangerous policy which only hones in on the needs of 1 or 2 species – such as biodiversity offsetting English style.

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What we really need are those belonging to a landscape to point out things for consideration. And these things or features are what we need to quantify. Given the substantial evidence that a significant proportion of our biodiversity is now to be found in man made landscape features, we cannot allow for our human influenced landscapes, our rich cultural landscapes to be forsaken completely in favour of chasing an ideal habitat for one or two rarities – although this is still something that should and can be done according to the site specifics of some of our more unique landscapes and areas of importance for particular indicator species.

So measuring a landscape towards defining good landscape management practice involves identifying and measuring landscape features, and that is what I am involved with now. The results are surprising and the realisation of the extraordinary quantity of values that can be attributed to some of our traditional landscape features highlights just how low we value the natural and man made in the world around us – as well as how low we value ourselves and the privilege of being part of a landscape, any landscape.

At present I’m playing about with external surface area measurements for dry stone walls, ultimately to try and find a standardised system of measuring these features. Initial results are surprising, one square metre of wall face = (on average) an external surface area of 8.3 square metres, including 1.8 metres of horizontal surface. Thus 100 metres of dry stone wall = 432 square metres of flat surface area, ideal for many small mammals, birds, reptiles and a vast range of invertebrates. Making a mockery of grubbing out such a feature for crop maximisation only to then plant wide strips of wildflowers as a measure to combat biodiversity concerns. Imagine further that the dry stone wall is a Cornish hedge and include the surface area of the plants and trees growing on it! Immense – and that’s still not including the wider benefits of these features, for example for water management purposes, of such concern in the UK at present where the debate is largely focussed on sheep and tree planting.

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Our land management forebears created an extraordinary landscape of beauty and immense sustainable value, how can we have been so stupid to ignore this for so long?

Being a very small part of a very large new project towards landscape (HERCULES – HERitage in CULtural landscapES) and seeing the initial research I’m delighted to feel optimistic that soon we all will be able to engage with the planning of all our landscapes.

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Putting Culture back into Arboriculture

The suggestion of new woodland to help towards tackling flooding is not new. But the risk in pushing policy solely towards increased ‘native woodland’ creation turns heads away from the more important role our non woodland trees have in flood prevention; trees which in the main have been planted or retained by humans to help maintain a sustainable landscape for humans to live, work and profit from.

The British media are always far too keen to publish anything that polarises a debate. Whilst it is true that modern agriculture has helped to accelerate run off and thus add to flooding, to suggest to ‘go back to basics’ and simply plant more woodland, or even further re-wild areas, merely creates division. So stakeholders are divided – and at risk of being conquered. Resulting policy making does not automatically follow a middle road, as one would assume, but instead takes elements of the two extremes – resulting in a stalemate and the continuation of power to those who shout loudest, who rarely represent the industries concerned and certainly not the local voice.

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Riparian hybrid Ash

All trees outside of woodlands and forests, be they on a hedgerow or planted in an suburban garden, help to reduce flooding risk. Of course they cannot replace the need for flood prevention infrastructure as the pressure to utilise what little land is available is too great. But many ignore the fact that many historic landscape features, particularly those with trees were created with water management very much in mind.

The British landscape is a man made landscape, the majority, if not all, non woodland trees in that landscape were planted or retained by humans. They may not be working as well as they did – but that is because so much has been lost.

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Riparian woodlands doing what they do best, filtering and slowing down floodwater.

It is also fair to say that attention to soil and tree roots when planting trees are, and have been for many years, blithely ignored in favour of design for design sake.

Research into trees is still very limited, there is so much to research. Our scientific and practitioner knowledge are yet to level up let alone progress. I would guesstimate we are well short of 10% of the knowledge we really need to truly value the importance of trees. But it has to be accepted that practitioners know more than other group.

And we have lost a huge amount of knowledge. Prior to the Industrial revolution it is clear our forebears had the knowledge and the skills far beyond those of us today in being able to manipulate trees to provide services well beyond the limited functions we ‘sell’ trees for nowadays.

The new ‘hedgerows’ we see are rarely anything more than just strips of tree planting. Many new woodlands, particularly those planted in good faith by volunteers, will take many, many years to resemble woodland aesthetically and a lot, lot longer before they match biodiversity of true woodland – if ever. We should be maximising planting in areas where the transition into woodland is easier, such as the Caledonian Pinewoods. But we should be accepting that most other tree planting is much more for us than it is for nature. After all the public don’t hold the view we in industry have of a clear distinction between plantation and native woodland, as was demonstrated so clearly during the campaign against the PFE disposal. Neither do the public hold a distinction between the trees and patches of ‘scrub’ in the urban or peri-urban landscape against those in protected landscapes. Policy makers can ignore this easily, but the costs involved when protest occurs is something no one should ignore as it costs all taxpayers, particularly those in the local landscape concerned.

The only solution is to accept that the only people knowledgeable enough to plant the right tree in the right soil for the right purpose in the right landscape are the arboriculturalists who live in that landscape. They are the ones capable of not just understanding why their forebears planted trees, but also of engaging with the communities concerned.

Sadly far too often such knowledge is sidelined, indeed stolen from them. And the arboriculturalist is left doing the only task deemed worthy of their skills – felling and not even allowed to explain the reasons for doing so.

We see increasingly on social media the practitioner base campaign as much for the protection of trees, if not more, than the public they serve in their own landscapes. The image of a chainsaw wielding arborist is simply not realistic, as any true professional understands that the sustainable management of trees = a sustained income. In general media the arboricultural community are under a glass ceiling above which commentators are happy to say whatever they wish and it is frankly disgraceful that on occasion images are used of the UK practitioner base to highlight deforestation issues?! It is not a case of bad PR by the arb industry it is just a case of stronger PR by others, content in reinventing the wheel, over and over again to sustain a ‘story’ and thus an income.

As the arb and forestry industry, again partly due to the shake up of the sector due to the campaign against PFE disposal, take to twitter, facebook and elsewhere their voice is slowly being heard. Their questioning of judgements made by other’s who, quite wrongly, use ‘landscape’ to justify their actions will eventually win over.

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And as finally academics and others recognise that the protection and maintenance of landscapes not only has to be bottom up, but fully acknowledges the need for qualified practitioners we may yet see a reversal in the general disenfranchisement of arboriculture and finally watch the sector take its lead at the head of realising a resilient landscape through the management of its greatest natural feature – trees.

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Interact with the tree in your landscape through the rhizosphere.

It was to be expected that with the weather patterns in the UK so far this winter, and the resulting damage, that there would be many calls for felling trees near to homes to avoid ‘possible’ future damage to persons or property.

A knee jerk reaction against trees in the immediate vicinity of your home is to be expected when confronted with the images of damage when a tree does fall in an urban or suburban area. And there can be no blame attributed to anybody, no failings by local authorities or their arboricultural teams or contractors when a tree that would pass the most vigorous of assessments falls due to extreme winds.

We always have to accept that not all people love the trees in their landscape, but it is rare to see communities polarised due to trees. And in most urban or suburban landscapes most people, virtually all, will believe that any trees outwith their property and certainly on public land are not their responsibility, (many people with trees on their property do not accept that the health of that tree is their responsibility), not surprising given the significant costs of surveying and maintaining large mature trees.

It is sad that whilst trees remain an important, indeed vital, landscape feature in the urban and suburban areas of Britain the people who benefit from that tree in their place and the tree itself have no interaction until disaster strikes or the tree or the person are gone.

The work of Christopher Neilan and some others who have been able to break down this stand off through encouraging the celebration of trees is a huge step in the right direction and I personally believe as with others that this is bridge required for a new value on all trees. But maybe there is something more we should be encouraging the more interested tree lovers to be doing to interact with the trees in their landscape, using the rhizosphere?

Britain, as is being so well proven by the increased flooding, suffers from a massive problem that is rarely discussed. Soils in virtually all areas suffer from compaction. The UK has a landscape, that possibly more than any other country in the world with a significant remaining proportion of rural land left, that is the result of human activity. In urban and suburban areas soils now exist which are unique and even enviable due to how they have continued to be ‘alive’ despite centuries of human activity. I would argue though that the skills and knowledge to work with these soils is severely depleted. Some good work continues and there are some exemplary, internationally lauded case studies of good practice with regards soil in the UK, but on the whole far too many are ignoring soil and therefore the rhizosphere is also ignored.

It is all too easy to explain the uprooting of a tree by way of a simple chain of events: Excessive rain saturates the soil – this weakens the soil in the rhizosphere – the roots can no longer anchor themselves against strong wind. There are many omissions from this chain of events, omissions where some mitigation work can be carried out by non professionals concerned about the trees in their landscape.

Sub surface soils in the urban and suburban landscapes and further are immensely complex. The interface between roots and subsurface infrastructure as well as in relation to smear surfaces by various causes cannot be tackled by standardised methodology. The means of surveying these major issues with regards urban, suburban and garden trees is impractical in terms of cost for younger trees, things are often too late by the time the tree is mature – if the tree even survives that long.

By simple maintenance to the soil surrounding the tree – the future extent of a tree’s rhizosphere is suitable for it then we can help ensure the longevity of that tree and insure, in part, against that tree as being a threat to persons and property in the future.

For the vast majority of younger trees, we can sadly assume that they have not been planted as well as they could have been. Many will be sitting in ‘pots’ created by smearing the clay soils when the tree pit was dug, thus creating a shear zone which in turn allows the tree to fall far too easily when it is older and heavier.

Simply spiking the ground at 0.2m intervals or digging small holes at 0.5m intervals (diameter <30cm, depth >40cm), backfilling with small stones mixed with composted material or even just good quality soil is incredibly effective at encouraging root development into anchor positions.

If mulching then ensure by way of using a fork or spike that the mulch enters into sub surface layers of soil. Mulching of trees in urban and garden soils has to be done with discretion, too many trees in these locations sit in soils far too rich in nitrogen.

Better still, use a more benign medium; 80% sand mixed with well rotted horse manure or compost.

In many places it is still common practice to use a dead branch from the tree in question, whittled to a point and then hammered into the ground within the dripline of the same tree.

These are all quick and easy things that will help that tree by way of giving something to its roots, helping you engage with that tree and form a relationship with it.

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Undervalued Landscape

I am getting increasingly concerned that during the push towards ‘natural capital’ existing, very real, financial values are being ignored. Whilst I am all in favour of valuing the biodiversity in a landscape or habitat and the ecosystems contained, this is not where the buck stops – far from it. And any attempts so far towards such valuations placed on nature are falling well short of the true economic benefits of nature within that landscape let alone attributing the mass of other values concerned.

This is heading towards a crash. A crash that will severely undermine those earning from any landscape and any potential earnings, which we are still far from realising.

And the increasing use of ‘landscape approach’ as laid out in so much policy spiel at present is not only completely at odds with much landscape research – but more dangerously is taking any values used from somewhat tenuous calculations.

Surely nature capital values are only of any worth if added to all other values attributable in a particular landscape – thus helping in closing the circle of what a sustainable multi functional landscape actually is.

Biodiversity offsetting has already undermined such values and the resulting value of the land used is considerably less than it’s real worth. The huge shortfall in the values used can only have a negative effect on those working with or indeed benefitting in anyway from that land – including the landowner themselves both public and private. It was good that UK MP’s recognised the ‘simplicity’ of the biodiversity offsetting system on offer as being a major flaw – but the economic consequences of ignoring the complexity and diversity of landscapes were not considered enough. A shame insofar that the economics are the most likely to be listened to by policy makers.

There is an axiom that has been dangerously overlooked, that many practitioners and others involved in the maintenance and care of our landscapes have done so fully understanding but unable to communicate the values of the complex issues in any particular landscape. This very diminished, ignored group have been aided slightly by a new and again often overlooked demographic of ‘hobby farmers’ – a term which is arguably wrong as so many of these new landowners and farmers are actually making good money from their small holdings through terroir products – high quality, landscape based produce. I would argue that ‘terroir’ is a recognition, a valuation of all things in a landscape that contribute to a taste and thus an income. This closed circle is far too whimsical though for policy makers – sometimes even in France, unfortunately. And so long as central government holds a purse of subsidy those who choose to follow this well proven system of making money from a landscape into perpetuity do so alone.

A flood of ‘buzzwords’ is proferred almost daily. Quangos and NGOs busily booking conference halls to discuss and then endless streams of reports reinventing the wheel time and time again. Every so often there are glimpses of sunlight but on the whole it is all far too costly and worthless. There is no ‘value’ that can be taken back to the landscapes in question – because everything is now designed to be centralised.

And the only positive is in fact a negative. The investigation by people of their landscape is protest driven. Paying attention only when their landscape is threatened. This costs money, this is manipulated by NGOs and other organisations and government both local and central love it – ‘divide and conquer’. But the landscapes in reality maybe divided but they are far from conquered because of the complexities involved.

What would be absolutely fantastic and of real worth is to have values attributable to both natural and man made elements within the landscape. We already have tree valuation systems from the UK and US – what if we can have values per metre of hedgerow or dry stone retaining walls.

All values can be of use to any land based practitioner and of course easily digested by the public. Values should be an easy sell, a good conversation starter in the pub or the meeting halls in every community, leading to progressive local planning and site specifics, but not if they are simplified, boxed up and publicised without explanation. And definitely not if they are far too cheap.

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England’s Urban Green Space’s on Death Row

UK policy with regards all land management and landscape issues is readily digested abroad. For many years the UK has the led the way with progressive research combined with historic policy allowing for ‘on the ground’ case studies of good practice.

This has of course changed rapidly under the current coalition government and most now look to the UK and England in particular for bad case study and the results of poor policy making led by poor media and lobbying by vested interests with far too much power.

The larger NGOs have successfully established themselves as the voice of the public in the minds of the policy and law makers. This in turn has meant that any progression in ensuring ‘All Landscapes Matter’ is non existent – it is only their landscapes that matter.

There are key elements in our landscapes, historic and culturally rich, which provide a benchmark for the landscape to continue. These elements do not or rather should not halt development or the evolution of a landscape – but help towards good design. Hedgerows, ancient trees, neolithic sites, dry stone walls etc., and in the urban landscape Allotments.

Allotments are now under massive threat after this ‘landmark allotment court defeat’

Together with urban tree deaths usually the result of human activity and a lack of attention to the complex technosols of our cities, a rise in felling to pre-empt planning permission, policies such as biodiversity offsetting which allow for a relaxation of sustainable development measures during construction – it is clear that when the importance of urban green space is mentioned by policy makers it is nothing more than spurious rhetoric.

Those who care, of whom there are many, are not enough, not loud enough or rich enough to compete with the larger NGOs or fight against the huge development companies. Their one tenuous hope being a celebrity to speak up for them.

Will the above judgement, which defers back to enclosure legislation, prove to be the edge of the cliff needed to kick start a change, a huge new campaign that fights for 21st Century legislation to protet and enhance all green spaces in all of England’s rapidly growing urban landscape?

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Biodiversity Offsetting Will Destroy Much More Than Nature

I have just returned from what I thought would be a quick jolly to Brussels to attend a Biodiversity Offsetting workshop, run by FERN & RE COMMON. 

It was no jolly, it was heartbreaking. Many stories from across Europe and further, including the UK, were unbelievable – yet unfortunately true. From the ignoring of a referendum, with more than a 95% ‘NO’ to an open cast mine in Poland, through to military occupation of an area where locals are campaigning against a high speed rail link in Italy, it is obvious that any ‘bottom up’ policy with regards landscape issues is simply non existent. Local campaigners are simply regarded at best as NIMBY’s but frequently as terrorists and one can only assume that such labelling is an easy way to avoid having to explain the huge costs involved in countering local protest – particularly when governments are so closely aligned with multi national developers that they increasingly, indeed it is now the norm, to take it upon themselves to simply attack protest preemptively.

There is an incredible amount of social issues raised with regards the effects that Biodiversity Offsetting as a ‘new’ tool for policy makers would have but all these issues, the complexities of society, not least its connection with its landscapes are generally ignored by policy makers. Thus one cannot help but believe that Biodiversity Offsetting is being used to deliberately ensure that people are once and for all permanently removed from having any say about their place, landscape or further – making the enclosure acts look positively progressive. The clear assumption is that the NGOs are the sole voice for people in their place – something many NGOs assume themselves, quite wrongly.

The sheer volume of academic and scientific text, as well as some fantastic case studies on the ground, which highlight the essential need for public participation in planning and land management have been ripped up or ripped out. Make no mistake – biodiversity offsetting wherever it has occurred, including in England, completely and utterly ignores the complexity and diversity of local society as much as it ignores the complexity and diversity of the nature in our landscapes.

It is easy for me, and I have done so, to completely dismiss BO as pure nonsense as it ignores basic science – how can you offset what we don’t understand fully, what we don’t know even exists? But this has turned my attention away from the very clever political manoeuvring that has gone on with the policy being kept well hidden deliberately – and it is shameful that the NGOs who are apparently the voice of civil society have been more secret than the government.  Owen Paterson has stated BO is a ‘win-win’ situation, the developers win, some nature conservation NGOs win – but there is one clear loser, society.

Practitioners, many of whom both in the private and public sector, will be usurped, have been usurped by the progression of BO, (bearing in mind it is now in play), in particular by the crass valuation method used. Any and all site specific work is now at risk. Owen Paterson has bowed to some pressure by insisting that offsetting should be local, but given that the one clear example we have of the BO system operating in England is an offset 11miles from the development then the definition of local is clearly at odds with that of most practitioners (11 miles away is often the responsibility or working patch of someone else), most people (11miles is a long walk) and of course the biodiversity (a very long migration for soil fauna).

Although BO is already in use there is a consultation out on it now. There is a lot of money at stake for those involved in BO, (I wonder how much funding as come from the public purse?), and it will be difficult to campaign against BO as it is so brazenly corrupt – one only has to read the biography of the chairman of the principal brokers for BO, the Environment Bank, for example.

However I do have some optimism with regards BO. It has been brought in at a time of immense polarisation between various sectors of those involved in all aspects of land management and planning. BO is looking likely to be the catalyst that bridges the chasms between so many from very different backgrounds – as demonstrated by those attending the workshop in Brussels, most importantly including those that add to the economy working with and in landscapes. It also provides a platform for showing people that their landscapes do belong to them, a welcome opportunity for landscapists and localists. Owen Paterson wishes to dismiss the PFE forestry disposal furore as done and dusted – I believe that protest against BO has the potential to make the PFE disposal protest look like a lone protestor at the gates of Wells Town Hall.

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Time to Move on for Forestry Commentary

A wee debate played out on tweeter following this article: Urgent incentives needed for forests in Scotland.

There was for me, as an ex private sector forester working in Scotland, much sense to the article, which was apparently paid by Confor to be in the Scotsman newspaper. We have to be planting to ensure the longevity of the forest industry itself. It is a shame that such a valuable opinion  piece by a leading forest academic needed a financial incentive for a newspaper, (a newspaper in a country with such strong links to forestry), to publish. During the PFE disposal furore it seemed any celebrity or political commentator could see their opinion published no matter how much at odds with reality their comments were.

As for the debate, opinion solely based from a ‘conservation’ angle, whilst independently correct and with wonderful objectives is not just unrealistic in the present economic climate but ignores an industry who largely agree – but do need timber also to make it happen. We now have a firmly established system of multipurpose and sustainable forest management installed in the methods of all private sector foresters and now virtually all private forest owners also – why ignore this?

And sadly it is still evident that a widely proferred opinion during the PFE disposal furore is still very much in play – despite considerable efforts to redress. Far too many people are at least 20 years behind in what they believe to be modern forestry and particularly the main goals of the FC.

The dinosaurs of the industry have all almost gone, thank goodness. And I remember all too clearly how bad the situation was, being told once by an ‘old school’ forester whilst stood in an ASNW remnant in Cornwall that the only way forward was to under plant with Sitka Spruce.

I am firm believer, with many others, that we need to keep discussing forestry to progress, and will never exhaust ourselves. but to do so we can do without dismissal of valuable opinion, indeed further suggesting it is wrong to publish, simply because it may not fit with their own opinion. When the public forestry sector is silenced it is fundamentally wrong to ignore the private forestry sector also who have not fallen into the sickening PR driven ‘tea partyesque’ commentary that actually attracts press attention as their land management counterparts the CLA and NFU have done so.

Forestry and Arboriculture can lead the way for land management both in practice and policy – let it do so.

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Multi purpose forestry stretching beyond the horizon. Drôme, France

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