Twisting Landscape

As real landscapes and definitions of landscape progress to the front line of policy making it is not surprising to see terms and the landscapes themselves being abused.

The talk of radical broad spectrum changes – a new idealism, in order to protect the environment is nothing new, but recent commentary from deep inside the conservation lobby points towards the fact that virtually everyone now is pointing to the same road, to landscape – albeit often inventing their own ‘buzzwords’ which deliberately ignore the existence of the wealth of research and study which has led to landscape being defined in legal status by Council of Europe member states, (including the UK), who have ratified the European Landscape Convention.

The UK, and in particular England provide an invaluable case study to the forthcoming problems this abuse of landscape will cause.

Bear in mind it is well proven that landscape is something the public are all too aware of, it is to many a very emotional ‘thing’ – their thing and relates to their surroundings in which they are comfortable. Thus any further confusion is unwelcome and damaging. To use landscape a policy maker must be aware of the full connotations involved or what they say makes no sense to the public.

”Landscapes are not only beautiful and historic parts of our countryside. They are integral to tourism, to the economy, to well being and to health. That’s why, as Defra Secretary, it’s a privilege to be responsible for England’s Protected Landscapes.”
Owen Paterson speech to National Parks conference

The above speech went on to push biodiversity offsetting, and understandably led to serious concern that ‘protected landscapes’ would be at threat from this nonsensical, weak and frankly corrupt method to bypass all sustainable development (and of course landscape) goals. But also showed a clear misunderstanding of landscape and therefore was abuse of landscape itself, despite the coalition’s reaffirmation of their commitment to the ELC from Paterson’s DEFRA colleague; Richard Benyon MP.

Also unveiled at the conference was the Landscape Declaration

It is a well written and difficult to criticise measure to further landscape as defined by the ELC into the public consciousness in terms of ensuring protected landscapes remain protected. However, probably the most significant part of the ELC is ignored, that all landscapes are matter. This ‘protected landscapes declaration’ is potentially much more digestible to policy makers than the ELC itself, from which the declaration quotes from, simply because it rides on the back of existing legislation and thus tackling the issues of urban, peri urban and indeed any and all land with the misfortune not to be contained within a ‘designated land’ boundary can be ignored. This seriously risks further fragmentation of the wider English rural and urban landscape. Is it very clever PR? A method to ensure that any and all new funding towards landscapes has to be paid into those that in reality least need it?

Given that indirect and direct funding towards European land management based on the text of the ELC for both the private and public sectors is increasing dramatically then it is all to easy to believe that those stuck in the boundaries for the sake of boundaries system will in desperation try and fit landscape into their mapped areas. And as with the all too hasty post imperial and wartime demarcations such as the Radcliffe line the results could be catastrophic and accelerate the people’s disenfranchisement with their own landscape – ultimately destroying landscape itself.

Policymaking can and should only give the verticals, it is the people and practitioners on the ground who provide the essential horizontal which will provide the final answers needed.

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Image: Public consultation on the future of the Var alluvial landscape in Nice, using a satellite image and the simple question ‘What is important to you here?’

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A New EU Strategy for Europe’s Forests – Raise your glass of flat lemonade.

Today the EU Strategy for Europe’s Forests was published.

The text of the strategy is not ambiguous and the statistics are worth noting. Much of it is a ‘wikipedia’ style of introducing Europe’s forests and European forestry. Is there is anything to celebrate however, beyond the work of those who have managed to get this finally published?

It is disappointing and a sad result of modern politics and PR that so many new publications, including even scientific ones have replaced all ‘must’ and ‘will’s’ with ‘encouraged to’ and ‘should’s’. Voluntary action is the supposed new path to progression and the lengthy negotiations needed even to get to first edit mean it is well out of date before it is published.

And the EU forest strategy, what should have been a rallying cry for firm action towards the protection of forests in Europe and a platform towards real legal powers, is therefore nothing more than an out of date statement. I could be and hope to be wrong but I fear this strategy which has involved so many and cost so much is actually little more than a useful ‘link to’ for some in the periphery (particularly in ‘offsets’) of the forest industry.

It is quite clear that when talking about forests and forestry in Europe, one must consider or even lead with discussion on protecting non woodland trees. It is also essential to consider the amenity value of these behemoths of all European landscapes. Any policy based on trees and wood products needs to integrate the society surrounding the trees in the present and in the future.

The nod towards the past and the recognition of cultural values of trees and forests is great, but isn’t it a little embarrassing to ourselves when we read Hans Carl von Carlowitz or John Evelyn to discover we haven’t progressed at all in policy terms. But I know forestry and arboriculture have advanced in terms of knowledge and practice.

In fact if the industry and professionals within it had not advanced it would be doubtful that there would be any decent forests left at all in Europe.

The EU Forest Strategy will be ignored by many because it has ignored them as it had to in order to ever get published. I think we should work towards a Strategy for Europe’s Trees which will help toughen up this Forest Strategy.

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On Biodiversity Offsetting & Soil

Asides from the fact that anything the current Defra minister says about the environment should be treated with extreme caution, an easy fix to the ongoing polarisation between conservationists and developers should be dismissed for the dangers it bestows on the rest of us – the practitioners and the public. You know – the social element of the triple bottom line for sustainable development.

Biodiversity Offsetting is absurd. The ecological pyramid we all learnt at school displays this nonsense well; look at the bottom layer – how can you offset what we don’t know about? I speak as one who works with soil, one who almost daily is intrigued by interactions and the potential existence of new species found in one of the most easily accessible yet unexplored habitats in the world.  

I would argue that true sustainable development is much more advanced than many policy makers believe or have been led to believe and in terms of soil management, particularly in the urban and peri urban landscape, it was advanced enough to enable development with green space in the most contaminated sites in England. Soils had been pigeonholed, quite wrongly, solely in ‘Agriculture’ and the agro lobbyists campaigning hard against a soil directive and indeed any other measures to tackle the massive threats to soil had inadvertently halted potential funding for increased and much necessary research.    

Biodiversity offsetting diverts the eyes yet further from progress in sustainable development towards the ongoing fight between conservation and development, a fight umpired by Planning. Planning in turn is attacked by those advocating Biodiversity Offsetting. Is this all simply to make green fields available to the development industry, an industry which contains many who had started to embrace sustainable development and would be able to measure its success through values by way of ecosystem services.

As BO (surely one of the worst acronyms to come out of environmental policy making) begins, after a couple of years, to finally get the attention it doesn’t deserve, it is apparent that few actually understand what it really will entail. This does not matter because all the proposals on offer are uniformly nonsense – asides one; the local one, an environmental type of planning gain within the immediate vicinity of necessary development where a local community can get involved in the design and implementation of a habitat for wildlife on their doorstep, next door to the new supermarket. Unfortunately the existence of biodiversity banks, murmurs of trading and bypassing of usual planning routes suggests this is far from what is contained within the policy makers’ briefcases.

The deafening silence surrounding BO betrays the fact that those involved know it is highly controversial. It is good to see the NGOs finally starting to become seriously concerned and thus the forthcoming green or white paper will be scrutinised properly.

Eminent landscape professionals have been voicing their concerns, with quotes ranging from describing BO as ‘weak sustainability’ to ‘in the words of Edmund Blackadder: ‘the only slight problem with this plan is that it’s bollocks’. Certainly BO is going to prove highly unpopular with landscapists and as little consideration has been given to either the Aarhus convention or European Landscape Convention some clashes are ascertained if BO allows for a bypassing of traditional planning routes, which seems a certainty in order make it as attractive as possible to developers.

Put all the above criticism of BO aside and the many, many other flaws aside and simply consider this:

We are supposed to place our trust in bankers with regards the biodiversity in our landscape?

That’s a hard sell indeed.

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To Value a Landscape, You Must Also Value the Forester, Arboriculturalist and Other Land Management Practitioners Working In It.

There cannot be many other professions that are so heavily infiltrated and usurped by ‘others’ as the UK Arboricultural & Forestry industry.

Conservationists, economists, politicians and even celebrities happily carry on not just discussing what to do with the trees in our landscapes, but implementing policy as well, as though ‘Tree Pros’ do not exist.

Some other land management professions suffer from the same and I honestly believe that this disenfranchisement is one of the greatest threats to our landscapes and biodiversity contained within them.

Indeed much damage has already been done and biodiversity continues to decline despite huge funding and a myriad of NGOs and Quangos dedicated to natural elements within the landscape. A lot of discussion and a lot of flawed decision making has occurred because of the absence of the voice of the land management practitioners in their place.

The development of an environmental policy as part of state forestry in Scotland was not so much driven by external pressures from conservation organisations but by a combination of economic and social pressures in the Highlands and the fact that many foresters are sensitive to the environment in which they work.
Kornelis Jan Willem Oosthoek

The hurry to install Biodiversity Offsetting is a classic example of ignoring practitioners yet again. Which is odd in so far that much rhetoric appears favourable to practitioners – but as offsetting allows for the dumping of sustainable development measures in any particular place then practitioners who could deliver such measures could also be dumped.

Site specific land management goes out of the window together with potential funding direct from the developer towards practitioners. Could BS5837 and other standards, guidelines and simply ‘good practice’ be deemed ‘red tape’ and slashed, with Biodiversity Offsetting used as an exemption?

Valuing nature in financial terms is often cited as ‘radical’ and ‘innovative’ yet Helliwell’s amenity valuation system has been in use since 1967. Subsequently a very different tree valuation system, CAVAT and others were devised all providing a tangible value and a valuable tool for the practitioner in decision making, client liaison, insurance purposes, etc,. I fear such tree valuations will also now be considered to be within the ‘red tape’ slashing by the current coalition. Those who devised these valuations state it is still not a ‘true’ value, as this is impossible to do – which is why study into the wellbeing and health benefits of a tree are so important also. In trying to go one stage further and add in that most vital of values, a persons personal value of a tree (the tree in which they climbed when young, the tree under which they were proposed to, or the tree into which a loved one crashed) one must be in direct communication with people in their place, something that practitioners do on a daily basis.

With the rush towards using the value of nature as a tool to enable development would it not have been sensible to have investigated tree valuation methods first? It would prevent a huge waste of public and developers money.

The ignoring of practitioners by other ‘stakeholders’ (whose work allows them to dominate discussion in conferences, online and in the halls of central and local government whilst the practitioner is working in the landscapes being discussed) is somewhat inevitable given a host of other disenfranchising factors.

In schools land, garden and tree management is considered, quite wrongly, to be a fall back career for the less gifted. There is a huge shortfall of properly qualified land management practitioners and the National Trust are amongst others in highlighting a lack of properly qualified head gardeners – yet pay their existing head gardeners an appallingly low salary!? A hotel or restaurant knows it needs to pay its head chef well – why has this fundamental good business sense not translated into land management?

Indeed the economics of land industry are somewhat bizarre. If you read most press releases and most ‘policy’ discussion with regards funding two words dominate; ‘volunteers’ and ‘grants’. With the flow of money into land management it is quite clear that some very lucky people are enjoying huge salaries at the expense of practitioners.

Added to this is the rogue trader element, which arboriculture and landscaping is severely affected by – to such an extent that the rogue trader and unqualified persons influence has reduced the ‘going rates’ for all.

It is no surprise therefore that a steady ‘skill drain’ of foresters and arboriculturalists has been ongoing for many years. You will not struggle to find UK tree pros (as well as horticulturists and other land management practitioners) across the globe.

As policy making as well as other initiatives for our landscapes continues to proffer ‘solutions’ which are lacking the site specific research and are all too often found damaging after being applied, it is the practitioner who has prevented considerable wider damage due to their knowledge and care of a place, and most importantly it is they who embrace the complexity and diversity of a place and celebrate the reality that we don’t fully know all there is too be known yet about a place – and this is what makes all landscapes wonderful.

The rapidly growing amount of practitioners online and engaging in social media is very very welcome and it is interesting to see who these practitioners engage with and it is pleasing, although not a huge surprise, to see considerable following of these practitioners by interested public. No nonsense wins attention, but is it enough to counteract the volume of spurious policy ideas and actual policy? Time will tell – but lines are clearly being drawn in the sand and it is apparent that the majority of the public will be behind the practitioners line.

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Our Landscape – Lies, Lies and more Lies.

Landscapes are so complex, so diverse that it is probably impossible to ever fully understand them.

It is thus all too easy to fill in the huge gaps with spurious information and there is now an industry who do nothing more than this.

As we pass beyond the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere figure of 400ppm and continue to see huge losses of biodiversity it is all too obvious that what we are being told, what we are proffered as solutions have to be binned.

As a practitioner, along with most others, what is happening in our landscapes is all too apparent. Breakdowns are occurring and are accelerated by lies, downright nonsense. These lies have infiltrated into every possible funding channel towards the ‘environment’.

2 simple facts: 1 – to halt further CO2 emissions deforestation must end now and we must start planting trees. 2 – to reduce CO2 we must support engineers and land managers in finding a real method of sequestration, which will probably be below ground.

Biodiversity Offsetting, Biochar and a host of other ‘initiatives’ are all just crap.

As a Briton myself it is sad to have to accept the fact that the government of Britain is one of the most malfeasant on the planet with regards the environment – in allowing there to be a future for my child. (I cannot think in terms of grandchildren as the way things stand now). The coalition dismiss science, they have listened to and accepted the lies and unfortunately a significant proportion of the population of the UK have also. The environment has been and remains a playground for the very worst PR and we in land industry are culpable by way of allowing these numptys to get away with it.

The NGOs are as complicit as multinational companies – sitting around discussing bollocks like Biodiversity Offsetting as though it isn’t the complete crap that it is.

What is worse is that much of what is ‘on offer’ further removes both people and practitioners from any kind of process, helping to secure a future of continuous funding of bollocks by the taxpayer. At a time when climate change and biodiversity losses accelerates this is unforgivable.

A landscape approach, which lets be honest is the only route forward, has been hijacked by the likes of Nestlé, whose CEO believes that water ‘is not a basic human right’!!!

All discussion is instantly polarised by the media and which suits the two extremes; the ‘conservation’ NGOs (who make a lot of money from this, but don’t do an awful lot of conservation) and the large corporate lobbyists (who have made good friends across the political spectrum – THIS WAS NEVER POLITICAL & NEVER SHOULD BE).

Our children face a crap, uncertain, dangerous future. They do not deserve this. As parents, as guardians, as custodians of the land and landscape we have to stop the lies. We have to accept that we don’t know everything and that this is a good thing. We have to look back at historic, traditional techniques and rely on them whilst the innovative is fully tested.

Let’s start to fully trust those with soil under their fingertips, those in the labs and the engineers. When these people start talking to those who live in a landscape then we will see results, then we may actually have a future for our children.

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Cultural Heritage – A Saviour to Sustainable Land Management

Watching a recent French documentary on the work in understanding how those that built the great French cathedrals did so in order to preserve these monuments of ancient architecture for the future highlighted the loss of so much knowledge and the fact it would be impossible to build such architecture nowadays. The knowledge of our ancestors with regards land management is also largely lost, knowledge which would have provided methods needed in order to progress sustainably, but there are enough examples to ensure it is still possible to achieve on a much greater scale if need be.

With my work I see daily that our ancestors knew how to manipulate tree roots in order to increase the longevity of structures built to facilitate sustainable long term. The construction of dry stone features in our landscapes show common European wide traits in using composted material, careful placement of stones to anchor trees and to direct the spread of roots to ensure they help maintain and increase the integrity of the structure. Such discovery falls into the realm of ‘cultural heritage.’

Being British it is now time to accept the hard truth that any chance for sustainable land management and climate resilience is now dead in policy making and heavily threatened in the small pockets holding out against the influence of the multinational malfeasant industries such as the pesticide companies. The UK government has without that much dissent, (yet again where is the NGO voice? probably sitting patiently for their funding from Biodiversity Offsetting to arrive in the post), given up any attempt at proper science being included into land management policy as the lobbyists from both sides of a falsely polarised situation shout at each other, (a position that the likes of Bayer and others have played upon to ensure victory by injecting cash into the pockets of assumed neutral voices such as ‘The Amenity Forum’). I struggle with the resulting doomsday predictions coming in from ‘green’ commentators, which are predictable given what has happened in the UK – but wrong when you take into account the optimism that can be found elsewhere in Europe, a Europe our forebears did not regard as so separate as the now entrenched, and frankly ludicrous, mindset of many British, particularly the media and politicians today. John Donnes’ ‘No man is an island’ is probably more relevant today than when it was written’.

I am optimistic with the burgeoning recognition of ‘Cultural Heritage’. Heritage is a twisted word in England, with the likes of the ‘Quango?’ English Heritage continuing to damage it for all. English Heritage have made the very worst of our heritage standard, making our historic monuments strimmed, floodlit and expensive lumps of the past with little relevance to the landscape they now sit in. It is no surprise, but still appalling, that English Heritage are members of the aforementioned Bayer sponsored ‘Amenity Forum’, one has to ask why? It is not too cynical to assume that there exists a compatible mentality with regards controlling and manipulating landscapes for profit.

Cultural heritage is thankfully at odds with such a mentality, but very much in tune with proper scientific discovery and ‘on the ground’ work of many practitioners. It is very apparent that our ancestors guessed at things only recently discovered as fact. The ‘mother tree’ and fungi communication being an example. Given the ignoring of our forebears intelligence by policy makers of the past – particularly the church, it is not much of an assumption to make that they knew a heck of lot more, which can be found within their land management techniques some of which are still in use by the practitioners of today.

Cultural heritage is progression as it includes all of us and what our ancestors were also. It has been thus, so far, a disgracefully and deliberately disregarded element of land management – tossed aside in favour of the innovative and of ‘exciting’ archaeology. The latter is understandable, the former unforgivable.

Our landscapes are all so complex, so diverse, that we cannot allow the disgraceful and damaging polarisation to continue and cultural heritage which includes by default the knowledge of past and present land practitioners helps to halt this stalemate in favour of the richest lobbyist as well as embracing the fact so mislaid and abused that we are all Europeans, geographically and culturally – a fact our ancestors used to their advantage in laying out food, culture and heritage that we take for granted and yet are so close to losing.

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Over Reliance on Woodland Volunteers is a Threat to Achieving a Woodland Culture

A controversial issue many think not, but it is and is a major issue if we are to realise a ‘woodland culture’ in England.

Volunteers are wonderful and one should never discourage anyone from volunteering to assist in their local woodlands, no matter who the owner may be. However has it reached a point where woodlands are under threat because of a lack of restrictions on the limitations of what a volunteer can do? I would argue yes and is clear to see within much English woodland. Further of concern is the lack of and disenfranchisement of existing forestry and arboriculture professionals with both the traditional and innovative skills and knowledge essential to the longevity of a woodland.

Firstly there are few, very few areas of woodland, if any, which do not require some form of human intervention in England. The reason is simple – the native flora and fauna ecosystems no longer exist and many non native, invasive, alien species are now too well established.

Volunteers can help to redress this imbalance and many have helped to keep things in check in some places where it is crucial and long may they do so.

But many more woodlands are suffering as the sheer weight of the volunteering sector has taken hold to an extent where it is considered a vital asset in woodland management. This is dangerous and the results can be clearly seen: large areas of woodland with the wrong trees removed by ‘thinning’ without proper regard for the balance of age and species needed. Understorey and 2nd generation vegetation cleared, often with tools unfit for purpose by an untrained eye, working to their own personal belief of what a woodland should look like, combined with the all too common ‘native planting’ schemes which lack any decent ground preparation, are badly planted and rarely maintained, much broadleaved woodland is in a bad state.

With some woodlands in ‘conservation’ management the situation is often even worse. In the attempts to create a ‘perfect habitat’ for a particular species whole swaths of trees are cleared. This management for a single purpose is as damaging as replacing the woodland with a single species for plantation purposes only and disregards the immensely complex and diverse nature of a woodland (having allowed such management it is easy to understand why some conservationists have allowed ridiculous ideas such as Biodiversity Offsetting loose in the land management sphere).

The forestry and arboricultural sectors have to start to shout more about its professionalism and particularly the heavy influence that science has over it. It is maybe too late and certainly the possible merger, which has actually been welcomed by some in the conservation sector, of the FC into Natural England is proof that it is too late?

What other profession or industry would allow such an infestation of volunteers to the ludicrous position of having volunteers giving talks with trained professionals in the audience? This situation is the result of having a top heavy presence of those who manage and profit from volunteers claiming ‘stakeholder’ status. Easily done when a significant section of the industry is silenced and many of the rest are out there without the technology and certainly without the time to counterbalance things to how they should be.

The pitiful salaries of many highly qualified forestry personnel in the UK is a direct result of an over reliance on volunteers. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that many high up in the industry and charitable sector profit hugely and selfishly in disenfranchising the industry as a whole by the overuse of volunteers and thus any chance of a real woodland culture is completely thwarted.

For the sake of our forests please accept that there are foresters needed together with local knowledge from the owner or users for those forests to exist and to thrive for the benefit of biodiversity, society and economics (if desired), knowledge which unfortunately cannot be replaced by volunteers.

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