Chronicle of a Grassland Saved

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For those of us of a certain age, The Milky Bar Kid was part of our childhood. A boy, dressed as a cowboy, implored us to eat white chocolate  – which was not particularly popular back then. By coincidence one of the boys who played The Milky Bar Kid (there were several) was at the same primary school as I was (there was a famous acting school nearby). I remember him being a bit smug, but then who could blame him? He was The Milky Bar Kid! There was a catchy jingle which I can still recall 50 odd years later. The funny thing is now I realise that white chocolate doesn’t have any more milk in it than milk chocolate (perhaps it has less)  – it’s white because of the cocoa butter that’s used, not the milk. Amazingly, Milky Bars are still selling well nearly 85 years after they first appeared.

Nestles as they were known, or Nestlé as they should be called, were in the news this week for a less wholesome (yes that is irony) reason. When a Cumbrian ecologist Rob Dixon (@wildlakeland) posted pictures of a cracking piece of wildflower-rich grassland – which had been planted with trees, funded by the very same multinational food products company. The small steep slope in a valley in north Cumbria was part of a Dairy Farm which, via First Milk, provided  Nestlé with milk for their not so milky milky bars, and other confectionery.

The steep slope covering 0.65ha of plan area (but is actually an area of around 1ha of grassland, when the slope is taken into account) supports a diverse range of wild plants, including “Butterfly Orchids, Betony, Scabious, Restharrow, Harebell.”  These together suggest to me that this is a piece of species-rich limestone grassland.

Gateshaw Mill farm limestone grassland ©Rob Dixon

tree planting on limestone grassland ©wild lakeland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contrary to some media reports, it’s unlikely to have been hay meadow for a very long time, if ever – but the very strong terracing created by animals (presumably cows as it’s a dairy farm), which shows up nicely in the Google Earth image below, indicates it has been grazed for a long time.

Gateshaw mill limestone grassland. Image: google earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that Nestlé provide some funding for environmental projects on Cumbrian dairy farms, as part of their partnership with First Milk. This they describe as

a long running sustainability programme to empower & support Cumbrian dairy farmers to play a vital role in the sustainable stewardship of agricultural land. The programme of landscape management, of which tree planting is just one element, also looks to improve watercourse management, enhance biodiversity, improve soil quality, increase climate change resilience and reduce carbon emissions.”

And from the other information they provide,  contract out delivery of this sustainability programme to the Woodland Trust and the Game Conservation and Wildlife Trust, specifically its Allerton Project. It doesn’t look like First Milk play any role in the sustainability programme, but it’s not entirely clear.

When asked how this could have happened, the Woodland Trust published this statement

 

 

 

So far the Game Conservation Wildlife Trust and its Allerton Project have not responded to questions about their involvement. Given that the sustainability project at Gateshaw Mill farm was tree-planting, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was The Woodland Trust which organised it.

How could a conservation organisation such as WT have missed the fact that this was a nationally important area of grassland for its wildlife, before planting trees on it? Apparently the only check WT staff made before deciding to plant trees was a desk study  – I assume they looked on  MAGIC – the Government website which purports to show where valuable wildlife can be found in England.

 

 

 

 

 

MAGIC does not show the limestone grassland as “priority habitat”, although interestingly it does show adjacent areas of woodland (dark green) and “assumed woodland (hatched green)  – some of which was planted as part of an earlier FC – granted tree planting scheme.

 

 

 

 

you can see the rows of planted trees on this google earth image.

Had the WT looked on the Forestry Commission’s own GIS portal it would have found that the area of limestone grassland did fall into the buffer zone of the “priority habitat network”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t anything to do with the presence of the limestone grassland though, merely a buffer around the area of recent broadleaved woodland. It might possibly have triggered some further thinking and checking.

Perhaps WT might have checked with the Local Wildlife Sites project for Cumbria? As I have written recently, Local Wildlife Sites cover a much larger area than SSSIs but don’t appear on MAGIC. Sadly Cumbria Wildlife Trust had to close its Local Wildlife Sites project because of cuts in funding. I don’t know whether this particular piece of grassland was a Local Wildlife Site, but it seems very unlikely as the farmer was unaware of its value.

Where else might the WT have looked for information if they were just relying on a desk study to assess the value of a grassland before planting trees on it? The Local Records Centre would be an obvious place to go – in this case the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre.  These local record centres have also been deeply affected by funding cuts over the past 10 years and rely on charging for access to their data as a way of surviving. So perhaps WT decided not to check with them because they didn’t want to pay, or perhaps it just didn’t occur to them.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland also holds data on the wild plants of Britain. Some of their data is held with local record centres, and they also have their own database of sites supporting threatened, declining and rare plants. Some of these records are now held at very high resolution (to 10m) thanks to hand held GPS.  If WT had checked with either the BSBI or the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre, I am confident that the value of this grassland would have become apparent to them.

Thankfully Nestlé acted quickly once they became aware that the tree planting was going to damage a nationally important piece of grassland and the trees are going to be removed. Hopefully no long term damage will result in this misguided, if good intentioned, piece of activity.

Because the planting area was so small, and the area of grassland had not been identified as priority habitat (and therefore appear on MAGIC), the planting project did not have to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment – EIA. The threshold for this process being triggered is either 2ha or 5ha depending on where the planting is due to take place (though in special circumstances it can reduce to zero – eg for protected sites and even Local Wildlife Sites, if the FC know about them). The Forestry Commission were not involved at any point.

This incident highlights something which I was writing about in  the General Election campaign – you remember, the one with the tree planting auction.  There is very real risk now that with such a large tree planting target now being cemented in to Government policy and possibly legislation, organisations, such as WT, will be heading out with generous incentives for landowners to plant up every conceivable piece of land. And naturally, the landowners will be looking at their land which is the least productive in agricultural terms – you know, those awkward bits where you can’t get machinery on, the steep slopes, the wet corners. The steep slopes, supporting perhaps the last vestiges of wildlife-rich grassland. I can take you to any number of places where steep slopes of chalk downland have been lost to tree planting in Dorset, over a number of decades. And that has been replicated across the country. But we haven’t seen anything like the scale of tree planting being planned now, for a very long time.

It’s now more urgent than ever that a Valuable Grassland Inventory is created to identify all of the remaining areas of grassland, such as the one this story revolves around. By identifying them, mapping them and recording their value, this means that the landowners will know what they have, why it’s valuable and how best to manage it. These are the places that landowners should be rewarded for maintaining, through the new Agriculture Bill “public money for public goods” scheme. These are the places which form vital nodes in the much vaunted Nature Recovery Network at the heart of the 25 year environment plan. And these are the places which provide the species to spread out and colonise newly created areas for wildlife, whether via rewilding or not.

In the meantime though, it’s incumbent on organisations like The Woodland Trust, to check, check and double check before planting on any grassland which might remotely not be just Rye Grass and White Clover. If in doubt, get a competent botanist to check the site before making any decisions. Even semi-improved grasslands might have sufficient value to avoid having trees planted on them, and instead go into a restoration programme back to species-rich grassland. In some parts of the country all that’s left is semi-improved grassland.