Is Theresa May an ‘Unelected’ Prime Minister?

This morning, Jolyon Maugham QC tweeted the following:

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Encapsulated within less than 140 characters, Jo seems to have raised two or three issues all at once. But the thing which caught my eye was his use of the phrase ‘Unelected PM’.

This particular jibe has been used more than once by a number of pundits. It was used several times during the premiership of Gordon Brown. Invariably, it is used pejoratively as an attempt to diminish to legitimacy of a particular Prime Minister. There have been occasions in the past where such a Prime Minister has felt the need to go to the country in a General Election in order to secure a popular mandate and thus carry out their intended programme. So perhaps there is a modicum of truth in the epithet. But certainly, we need to examine the situation a little more carefully.

The standard procedure for the appointment of Prime Minister in the UK, is for the Crown to ask a particular politician to form a government. This is why, after a General Election, there is a ritual journey by the leader of the winning party to make a journey to Buckingham Palace to seek an audience with Her Majesty. That politician is not necessarily the leader of the party which won most seats. Famously, after the 2010 General election, it took a couple of days to winkle Gordon Brown out of Number 10 Downing Street before David Cameron was confident enough to go to the Palace.

A General Election is called for the electorate to choose a politician to represent them in Parliament. Although many of us, when we vote, will have at the back of our minds a view of the competency of a particular party, a party leader, and who we should like to form a government, this is not the legal purpose of the election. The legal purpose is to return a politician to Parliament to represent us in that place.

So, with these caveats in mind, we should then look at the history of elections and Prime Ministers in this country and see what has happened.

Since 1900, there have been a total of thirty General Elections, thus forming thirty Parliaments. Of these, there have been thirteen Parliaments where the Prime Minister has been changed during the course of that Parliament. This has happened for a variety of reasons – resignation of an incumbent PM  due to ill health being one reason. On other occasions, a PM has resigned because he (or she) can no longer carry their party with them. Margaret Thatcher’s resignation under these circumstances is perhaps the most well known example in recent times. David Cameron’s resignation falls into this category.

Using this list, it can be seen that there have been two Parliaments since 1900 which have been headed by more than two different Prime Ministers – that of 1900-1906 (Marquess of Salisbury, Arthur Balfour and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) and 1935-1945 (Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill). Furthermore, not all General Elections have resulted in Parliaments where successive PMs have come from the same party. The 1900-1906 Parliament was headed by three Prime Ministers, the Marquess of Salisbury and Balfour being Conservative, and Campbell-Bannerman being Liberal. The 1918-1922 Parliament was headed successively by David Lloyd George (Liberal) and then Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative). Likewise, the 1923-1924 Parliament was lead by Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) and then Ramsay Macdonald (Labour).

The principle point seems to be that the Crown can appoint anyone to form a government in the best interests of the nation. Looking at this list, where 43% of governments (and therefore Prime Ministers) have been changed during the course of a single Parliament, it becomes apparent that our electoral and constitutional system is remarkably flexible and can be altered according to the needs of the nation at any particular time or national emergency. Under this examination, it seems to depend upon three things for its success: the willingness of the electorate, the politicians and the constancy of the Crown acting in the best interests of the whole nation.

So when considering recent events, Theresa May’s government was formed upon the resignation of David Cameron and the result of the EU Referendum. This new government has been drawn from the ranks of the Conservative MPs who are mostly different individuals from their immediate predecessors. As a result, the philosophical outlook of the current government is markedly different from that of David Cameron’s government, but is no less legitimate for it. There is no particular need for Mrs May to go to the country for another General Election, because the Conservatives enjoy a small but workable majority in Parliament. In any case, the immediate need for the country, as mandated by the result of the referendum, is to extricate the United Kingdom from the clutches of the European Union. Another General Election would only act as a distraction and hindrance to this requirement.

Finally, we need to address directly the ‘unelected’ epithet. There have been no Prime Ministers of the UK who are unelected since the Marquess of Salisbury resigned due to ill health in 1902. The nearest we have had since then was Sir Alec Douglas Home (the 14th Earl of Home) who was appointed Prime Minister upon the resignation of Harold Macmillan.  Home renounced his peerage four days after his appointment as PM in order that he could be held to account within the House of Commons.

Theresa May was elected MP for Maidenhead in 1997 and now enjoys a majority of 29,059 at the last election. Given that, and all the conditions outlined above being fulfilled, it is difficult to see how Jo Maugham can  argue that she is somehow ‘unelected’ – even allowing for the habitual sophistry of lawyers. Sadly, this is not the first time he has let himself down with cheap, unsubstantiated jibes. I doubt if it will be the last.

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The impact of upland farming – Part 4 of 4: Definitions and conclusions.

In many ways, George Monbiot’s book Feral, is a curious amalgam of anecdote, ecological theory, polemic and autobiography. On two or three occasions, he seems to feel intimately and mystically connected to events (as he envisages them) in the distant geological past. These intense emotional experiences lead to ideas of a revelatory nature. So his nostrums for the correction of the UK’s environmental ills (as he sees them) are correspondingly muddled. Nevertheless, he has inspired a whole new movement of people devoted to returning large chunks of the British Isles to a state of natural bliss, as determined by Monbiot and his acolytes. This last post in the series looks at some more ecological definitions and a few objections to the idea of ‘rewilding’ as a scheme to do little more than introduce some large predators and let vast tracts of land revert to secondary forest, in an outwardly naive attempt to re-create a pristine ‘natural’ environment.

Part A – Definitions and Principles.

A large part of the intellectual shortcomings of this book are the use of terms from the science of ecology. This relies upon their everyday usage where the precise meanings have been muddied. So the following notes are a short discussion of the definitions and their implications for ‘rewilding’ on the scale that George Monbiot envisages.

An ecosystem is a ‘..discrete unit that consists of living and non-living parts, interacting to form a stable system. Fundamental concepts included the flow of energy via food chains and food webs, and the cycling of nutrients biogeochemically. Ecosystem principles can be applied at all scales. Principles that apply to an ephemeral pond, for example, apply equally to a lake, an ocean, or the whole planet.[1]’ A closely related concept is that of the habitat which is defined as ‘the living place of an organism or community, characterised by its physical or biotic properties.[2]’ Thus it can be seen that the habitat of, say, a Pied Flycatcher might be an upland Sessile Oak wood pasture, because that is where Pied Flycatchers like to breed. On the other hand, the Sessile Oak wood pasture can be viewed as an ecosystem in terms of the flows of nutrients, energy and species of plants and animals that live within it.

The above definition for ecosystem uses the words ‘stable systems’. This should not be confused with ‘static’. Within an ecosystem, most species will be in a constant dynamic flux, their populations waxing and waning within certain limits. Some of these fluxes will be diurnal, seasonal, annual or may even operate over decades or centuries. For example, the wood pasture will have originated as young trees. The influence of grazing animals upon it isolates those individual trees which reach adulthood, but will suppress any further young trees. The woodland takes on an open aspect with few younger trees. The trees themselves will also be deliberately pollarded by humans, to maintain green growth and fuel stocks, whilst keeping the regrowing branches clear of browsing cattle. This will also considerably extend the lifespan of the individual trees. After many decades, the wood will take on a distinctive open-floored appearance and many characteristic flora and fauna. However, if the grazing pressure is removed, the wood will produce many young trees, the open aspect will be lost, the old trees will die much earlier than otherwise; and so many species which were dependent upon its previous regime of fertilisation from animal dung etc, will be lost and may be replaced by others.

An ecological term which is in frequent use, and which is abused almost as often as it is used, is biodiversity: ‘A portmanteau term, which gained popularity in the late 1980s, used to describe all aspects of biological diversity, especially including species richness, ecosystem complexity and genetic variation.[3]’ The problem with this term is that it frequently has an implied value judgement attached to it. In other words, if biodiversity for a particular habitat is described as ‘high’ this is seen to be a good thing. Conversely, if the biodiversity is ‘low’ then this is bad. The principle seems to rely upon counting the number of species in an area and calling this count ‘biodiversity’. This practice of counting species is endemic amongst that particular kind of birdwatcher known as ‘twitchers’. Amongst this group, there is a habit of collecting lists of birds seen: there might be a ‘British List’ for all birds seen in Britain; a ‘Life List’ for all birds seen so far in the birdwatching career of an individual; a “garden List’ for all birds seen in that person’s garden; and so on. The longer the list, the more pleased is the twitcher. A very long list may even confer status to the holder amongst his fellow twitchers. The pursuit of such lists is similar to that of a stamp collector or train spotter and is perfectly harmless.

However, this listing habit can lead to some obviously absurd conclusions. One example is contained within the National Biodiversity Network Gateway. This an enormous exercise whereby all official databases for UK flora and fauna have been collated to produce a vast interactive map showing which species has been recorded in which 10Km square of the Ordnance Survey grid. In one particular square in south-east Dorset, a total of 38,738 species of plants and animals have been recorded. This is because that square includes chalk downland, acid heathland, saltmarsh, sand dunes, built up areas, sea and a chunk of Poole Harbour. By virtue of a statistical quirk, it has accumulated species from all of these vastly different and varied habitats. In other words, we should not consider the Dorset square as being more important or valuable than this square which has 4,513 species recorded in it. The two squares just happen to be very different and each contain species which are characteristic of those habitats. The National Biodiversity Network has been created with very serious intent and it is important for research and assessing the impact of such things as development. But we should not run away with the idea that big numbers of species are necessarily more important than small numbers.

Contrary-wise we could consider an extreme example of the Antarctic, which has no predatory land mammals. Would we introduce – in the interests of ‘improving its biodiversity’ – Polar Bears into this place? Hopefully everyone would agree that this would amount to an ecological disaster, and so this act of vandalism would not be done. To return to the example of Welsh uplands, the relatively small number of species recorded in the upland moors are distinctive to that habitat. They play a part in the dynamics of the moorland and so are of importance in their own right.

This brings us to the concept of a keystone species which is defined as: ‘A species which has a disproportionately strong influence within a particular ecosystem, such that its removal results in a severe destabilisation of the ecosystem and can lead to further species losses.[4]’ Note that the definition revolves around the word ‘influence’; and secondly that it is couched in terms of what happens when the keystone species is removed. There are two implied conditions within this definition. The first is that the keystone species has to be present in sufficient numbers to have influence; and secondly that there is a directional aspect to its influence. However, in the stories that are told to illustrate the keystone effect – wolves in Yellowstone Park and Sea Otters in kelp forests, there is the effect of removal, which is adverse, and the reverse effect of reintroduction which brings about the restoration of the affected ecosystems. In both of these cases, the removal of the keystone was only a matter of a few decades. Both affected ecosystems were otherwise unmanaged by humans. In both these cases, the keystone is a large predator – and this explains why Rewilding Britain wishes to re-introduce large predators.

The impact of a keystone species with the rest of the ecosystem starts with a predator-prey relationship. In the case of Sea Otters, the prey species are sea urchins. In the case of the Yellowstone Wolves, the prey species is the Elk Cervus canadensis. Predator-prey relationships are rarely straightforward. The longest running study of the dynamics of predator and prey is the Isle Royale project which has studied the way in which wolves interact with Moose Alces alces on this large 535 square km island in Lake Superior. This is a relationship which is outwardly simple: the wolves eat the moose, whose numbers decline as a result of predation. The wolf numbers decline correspondingly as the numbers of moose declines and the wolves have insufficient to eat. When predation pressure is thus reduced, the moose numbers build up again. Or that is the theory.

But reality is much more complicated:

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Figure 1Isle Royale: fluctuations of wolf and moose numbers since 1959. Image from Wolves on Isle Royale project.

From Figure 1, the anticipated wave-form type picture, with wolf populations following fluctuations in moose numbers has not quite happened. As can be seen from the overview of the project, it’s a lot more complicated than expected from classical predator-prey theory. And this is in a geographical situation where the two populations are isolated from any other outside influence.

All of this unpredictability brings us back to the suggestion I made in Part 3 of 4 of this series, that characteristic species would be lost from the uplands if rewilding is conducted in the way that George Monbiot and Rewilding Britain seem to envisage. The other thing that we can say is that those characteristic species would be replaced by comparatively commonplace woodland species – except, of course, for the wolves and the lynx. The unpredictability is increased when a large predator is introduced into an ecosystem that has not known such predators for many centuries. Regardless as to whether a particular species is found in the fossil record, or if it appears in mediaeval records, introduction of such a species amounts to the release of an entirely alien species, with results that are completely unpredictable.

Part B – Can the uplands be made better?

None of the foregoing is an attempt to say that everything in the uplands of Britain and Northern Ireland are perfect as far as ecological health of the moorlands is concerned. There are some serious causes for concern. Almost all of the iconic bird species mentioned in Part 3 of 4 are in decline. Some seriously so. The reasons for these declines are not fully understood, but one reason may be related to the recent history of grazing and certain dominant species of vegetation such as Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea and Matt Grass Nardus stricta. These grasses are tussocky in habit – Molinia in particular growing tall dense tussocks which reduce the open habitat of the moorland to a much more hazardous, enclosed vista which hides predators from ground nesting birds. As the tall grasses encroach, the number of places in which a Skylark, for example, will wish to nest are seriously reduced. Another factor will also be related to the commercial afforestation of the uplands, and the edge effect, as explained in Part 3 of 4 of this series.

The traditional management practice has been to burn the Molinia and then allow cattle to graze the new shoots ensuing from the blackened stump. However, under the influence of previous incarnations of the Common Agricultural Policy, headage payments made for sheep meant that numbers of sheep on the hill rose and caused undoubted over-grazing. Furthermore, the hardy hill cattle breeds such as Welsh Black, Belted Galloway and Highland cattle were reduced in number and replaced by continental or other lowland breeds. These modern breeds are insufficiently hardy to be put on the hill and will not thrive on the poor quality grazing which the uplands have to offer. So grazing pressure has been increased at a lower level on the in-byes to each farm. This, in turn, has reduced habitat for the grassland species at lower altitudes such as Skylark and Lapwing. Ironically, it is likely that the encroachment of unfriendly grasses on the uplands has been exacerbated by the recent reduction of sheep on the hill (which has happened as yet another incarnation of the CAP has replaced headage payments with area payments). Although sheep do not control Molinia as well as cattle, they are better than nothing. Furthermore, cattle are better at keeping bracken under control, because Bracken does not like to be trampled. Moorland has thus suffered over the last 30 years from a high grazing density of sheep, a reduction of cattle and then a reduction in the numbers of sheep (since 2001), but not enough cattle. A summary of the grazing effect on upland pastures can be found in this 2012 report from the RSPB. Further experimentation and monitoring of cattle grazing Molinia can be found here.

Given sufficient practical science and experimentation; and coupled with a re-learning of traditional practices, it is quite likely that a sensible approach to grazing the hills can bring about a large improvement in the number of Curlew and Golden Plover nesting  in our uplands. All it needs is a bottom-up demand from the farmers and the local people to drive demand. Government assistance in the form of flexible grant-aiding would cover any losses. The prospect of leaving the EU and our departure from the centralised and often damaging regimes dreamt up in Brussels will mean that opportunities for sensible management will soon become possible.

Part C – Food value of sheep.

George Monbiot claims that sheep occupy a huge amount of UK land surface area, but produce a mere 1.2% of our diet. In making this comparison, Monbiot is attempting to diminish the role of sheep in the national diet and so conclude that the loss of sheep from the uplands is of no significance – and by implication can easily be made up from other sources. He uses a rough calculation of the calorific value of sheep meat in our diet to justify this comment. In so doing, he uses this to lend strength to his idea that sheep should be banished from the landscape and replaced with trees and wolves. However, Monbiot’s statistics are never what they may seem at face value. His statistics are based upon the calorific value of sheep meat compared to the total average food consumption in the UK. At first glance, this may seem to be a reasonable comparison. But the UK has to import 40% of its food, so this makes the production of food from the UK of much greater importance in terms of food security and contribution to the economy.

A better comparison would be to compare sheep as a source of protein with the total amount of protein from animal sources produced within the UK.

From these two figures, it can be seen that sheep meat contributes 300,000 tonnes, of which approximately 60,000 Tonnes is protein. Clearly, the loss of such enormous quantities of food from UK production would amount to a serious loss in the nation’s ability to feed itself.

However, the story is not yet complete. Monbiot is assuming that the uplands are only producing sheep. In fact, the uplands produce both sheep and beef, so an element of the UK beef production needs to be added to the sheep figure in order to assess the importance of the uplands. This is difficult to assess from the statistics that I have found so far, but Welsh statistics provide us with an approximation which can be used:

Welsh beef production in 2014 was 42,600 Tonnes.

Welsh lamb production in 2014 was 64,200 Tonnes.

80% of Welsh farms are the Less Favoured Areas (i.e. the uplands), so the beef contribution to the upland output is 42,600 x 80% = 34, 080 Tonnes beef from the Welsh uplands. At 20% protein for a carcass, this is equivalent to 6,816 Tonnes of protein. If we assume most Welsh lamb is produced in the LFA, then using the same approximate calculation, the Welsh uplands produce about 15,000 Tonnes of protein from the combination of lamb and upland beef.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a lot of food and protein produced by some very poor grazing, and cannot be considered to be unimportant enough to dismiss.

Section D – The rewilding business plan.

The Rewilding Britain plan is much the same as George Monbiot’s. It amounts to statements that express a wish to reintroduce Lynx and Wolves amongst other things. Their plan also assumes that vast areas of upland Britain will be re-afforested in order to provide habitat for the large mammals they plan to bring in. As this will create environments which will be full of birdsong and so on, it will also draw in the tourists. This will compensate the farmer for his loss of sheep and grazing. Rewilding Britain has a stated ambition: “To see at least one million hectares of Britain’s land, and 30 per cent of our territorial waters, supporting natural ecological processes and key species.” One million hectares is ten thousand square kilometres, or just under half the area of the whole of Wales. The UK Exclusive Economic Zone (i.e. our territorial waters) is just under 4 million square kilometres, so 30% of that is 1.2 million square kilometres. It seems that they want to take control of much of our fishing grounds as well. We would expect to see a comprehensive plan involving lots of people, government and so on. Unfortunately, there isn’t any.

The principal thrust of Monbiot’s plan, which is backed up by Rewilding Britain, is that the  upland sheep farming will be replaced, and even improved upon, by tourism. According to the Welsh Assembly, total Gross Value Added for the Welsh economy is about £55.8 Billion. Of this, agriculture contributes about 0.71%, or £396 Million. However, this includes dairy and lowland farming, so we have to multiply this figure by the percentage of Wales which is occupied by Less Favoured Areas (which is a proxy for upland farming). This gives a contribution to the Welsh economy by hill farming of approximately £317 Million. As Rewilding Britain wish to rewild the equivalent of nearly half of Wales, this would suggest an equivalent of £150 Million would have to be generated to make up in order to equal the losses caused by the departure of hill farming. Tourism in Wales already contributes 5% of the Welsh economy, or £2.79 Billion. So Welsh tourism would have to be increased by approximately 5 – 6%.

Furthermore, Rewilding Britain needs to demonstrate that they can generate this additional income from the act of rewilding itself. In other words, it is not enough to increase Welsh tourism by building more caravan sites near the beaches; they have to show how many more people will visit Wales in order to view the Wolves, Lynx and Blue Tits in their new forests. This may be tricky, because it is a well known fact that most tourists rarely walk more than 100 yards from their cars. The very small number who are prepared to walk miles uphill and then sit in a cold and uninviting hide for hours in the hope that they will see a Wolf or a Lynx will be perilously few in number.

Rewilding Britain and George Monbiot counter this objection by citing instances of the numbers of people who come to watch Ospreys. This is fair enough, but Ospreys have have a convenient habit of nesting in the tops of dead trees, or even on artificial platforms, which are easily arranged to be close to car parks and hidden approaches. This kind of arrangement suits any species which is static in its habitat and breeding sites. Beavers are a possible example of  this kind of arrangement. But Wolves and Lynx are much less tolerant of human presence and are unlikely to breed in accessible places. Furthermore, their home ranges are vast in terms of area. The likelihood of seeing either of these species will be small; and the income generated from that possibility will be correspondingly tiny.

Section E – Risk and impact assessments

Aside from the economic impact of rewilding, it is essential that other impacts are considered. The first is the ecological impact of re-afforesting the uplands in terms of what species will be displaced by the new arrivals. Part 3 of 4 of this series gives an indication of the impact upon the bird species which would be adversely affected. Part 3a of 4 suggests that the archeological damage would be significant. The social and cultural losses in human terms are unquantifiable but considerable. But no thought has been applied, either by Monbiot or Rewilding Britain, to even considering these issues. It is as if, in their world, humanity is simply a hindrance to ‘nature’ and should be eradicated in the interests of this tiny group of activists.

Section F – Conclusions

Rewilding Britain acknowledge that the release of potentially dangerous animals into the UK environment has a number of obstacles, and mentions the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.  Surprisingly, it fails to mention The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Section 14 (1) (a) which states that it is an offence to release into the wild any animal which ‘is of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state;’ Wolves and Lynx fall into this category because their absence from these islands is one of many centuries. Despite this omission, to their credit, they recognise that the obstacles to their principle objectives are likely to be many and considerable.

To put the ambitions of Rewilding Britain into perspective, their stated aim is to ‘rewild’ 10,000 square kilometres of Britain. As already stated, this is equivalent to an area nearly half the size of Wales. It is 4.2 times the area of the Lake District National Park – our largest national park. Alternatively, it can be said to be the equivalent of six and a half average UK national parks. Given their list of species which they intend to ‘rewild’, it is clear that they intend to re-afforest this area. They have not said what they intend to do with the farmers who currently produce food in these areas, but it is clear that the trees will have to move in, and the farmers, grouse moor owners and deer stalking estates will have to move out. How they intend to achieve this is unstated in legal or any other terms. It can only be assumed that they intend some form of compulsory purchase or other statutory instrument to achieve this aim. In proportional terms, it is on the scale of the wholesale collectivisation of Soviet Russia in the 1930s.

The very idea of this arbitrary seizure of our uplands is one of staggering arrogance, only equalled by its ignorance of the natural and human history of our island nation. It seems to be founded on the Monbiot principle that humans are, at best, a nuisance and only ever destructive to the ‘natural’ environment. It harks back to some period, perhaps in the Neolithic, when we as a species were deemed by Monbiot to be in some sort of harmony with our surroundings. The fact that most of the extinctions of some of the very large mammals, such as Mammoths and Sabre-Toothed Tigers, all took place in the Neolithic seems to have escaped them. The principles of this scheme do not acknowledge the upland species which we hold in this country, and which are themselves of huge importance. They are ignorant of the consequences of their proposals upon important ecosystems and they are careless of the human and historical impacts.

This plan is outrageous and preposterous in equal measure. If carried out, it would amount to a modern totalitarian equivalent of the Highland Clearances, but without the sheep. That it is proposed by a collection of comfortable metropolitan intellectuals, whose management abilities are unlikely to extend beyond the getting of funding, is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that they have funding and they are serious. This, they say, will happen whether we like it or not:

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References

[1]  Allaby M, (2010) A Dictionary of Ecology. Fourth edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Ibid.

Posted in Conservation, Farming, Livestock | 4 Comments

The impact of upland farming – Part 3a: A short walk upon Bodmin Moor.

Yesterday, in a spirit of inquiry, I set off early to Camelford and then to the north side of Bodmin Moor. My aim was to walk up to the top of Rough Tor, which is just to the north of Bodmin Moor’s highest top of Brown Willy. I was looking for evidence of ecological disaster caused by upland farming, as described by George Monbiot. Early in the morning, there had been a massive hailstorm, so ice had to be cleared form the car before I set off. The ice persisted in many of the narrow lanes even as I neared my destination, despite the sunshine. And so as I arrived in the car park next to a plantation of conifers and a small boundary plantation of young oaks, everything was wet and gleaming underfoot. The view in front of me towards Rough Tor, was one of an open grazed moor leading up to the broken granite top. A group of Galloway cattle grazed on the short turf. Behind me, I could hear the sound of an approaching vehicle. So could the cattle, who lifted their heads and began to bellow. Even though the vehicle was still out of site, the cattle knew it was the farmer, who duly appeared over the brow in a Land Rover laden with sacks of feed. He opened the gate and drove in and then across the bottom end of the moor to the north-east and out of sight. The cattle followed. A line of Scottish Blackface sheep appeared and threaded their way across the moor, following the cattle. A minute or two later, some ponies appeared from high on the hill and followed the sheep. As I walked through the gate onto the moor, a Song Thrush sang from the oaks.

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© David Eyles 28th February 2017 – Scottish Blackfaces heading for Breakfast. Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor.

The grass was short turf interspersed with clumps of Nardus stricta  – Matt Grass. The clumps had been grazed tight – I suspected that this would be the work of the ponies. Apart from the occasional plantations of exotic conifers, the whole place was a vista of open and sweeping aspects. Monbiot would describe this as ‘sheep scoured’, ‘desolate’ and so on. It would send the poor man into deep depression. But as far as I was concerned, it was a beautiful sunny, if showery, late winter scene. The greens and browns of the turf  and tussocky grasses blended. Only the broken granite stones of ancient settlements broke the surface. As I walked up the hill, I crossed numerous lines of stones, many set upright like mini menhirs. The OS 1:25000 map describes these as ‘settlement’ and ‘cairns’, but it is clear that a long time ago, many people were very busy building and living in this bleak place.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Bronze Age standing stones. Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor

As I neared the top of Rough Tor, a pair of Ravens rose into the air to check me out. Typically, I had chosen the more difficult route to the top and the granite slabs were slippery as I wibbled my way up. And then, of course, I managed to find a nice deep hole of peat and water in which to slide my right leg. The camera nearly got a dipping.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Raven. Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor

The great granite slabs, rounded by an ice age and millennia of wind and rain, sat balanced upon the Tor. In the distance was the sea on the coast of North Cornwall. Patches of water from reservoirs and old clay tailings dams gave patches of blue. All around was green at lower altitudes and then the dark green of the plantations dotting the upper landscape. Then there was the moor itself. Not a uniform green, but squared off patches, some of Nardus, some of short Fescues and clumps of Hard Rush Juncus inflexus. These enclosures were the work of ancient and more modern man, but over all these, the sheep roamed unhindered.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor

As I looked to the south-east and at Brown Willy, the base of Willy himself was surrounded by  ancient field systems. All around me was the evidence of Bronze Age human activity. About 4,500 years ago, this was a large community of people. Most likely, in the Neolithic period which ended 2,500 years BC, people had already cleared all the trees from the tops. This laid the foundations for their successors to begin agriculture and pastoralism with domesticated sheep in cultivated fields. At some later point, the climate changed for the worst and became pretty well what it is today – a lot wetter and colder. The Iron Age successors to these early pastoralists moved down the hill, now able to cut down trees with their iron implements and find the deeper, more forgiving soil of the lower altitudes. They left only a few hill farmers behind, who exploited what the hill can still provide – grass for sheep, cattle and ponies. The farmers are still there today.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Field systems at the base of Brown Willy. Bodmin Moor.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Bronze Age field systems at the base of Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor.

I turned to look for an easier way down that they way I had come up and found a short stone staircase that led between great boulders. That staircase might be four thousand years old, built by the people who lived in the settlement near the top of the Tor. My cranky knees silently thanked them for their public-spirited foresight all those millennia ago. I slithered down to the saddle which separates Rough Tor from Showery Top and then turned North to amble down the gentle slope back to the car park. To my right, a Skylark sang briefly. This was not the tremulous chirrup of the massed winter flocks, but a short song of a solitary bird – a quiet rehearsal for the full magnificence of the breeding season. Then, from behind Showery Top came a musical cry and I looked up to see a flock of about fifty Golden Plover wheeling in the blue. They headed off north and I continued my gentle descent.

A few hundred yards from the plantation at the car park, three or four Carrion Crows were bouncing about in the little field systems. They were clearly feeding in the short turf upon invertebrates. To emphasise the point, a flock of thirty or so Starlings landed on the same patch and began to forage busily. They took off and joined another flock and landed again to thunder across the turf in a crescent, jabbing and whistling as they went. If the worms did come out voluntarily to be eaten, then they could be frightened out by the advancing cacophony above them.

As I neared the plantation I could hear an early Robin singing and the short song of a Chaffinch. A small flock of Wigeon paddled about in the stream. The plantation provided a habitat for the crows and the woodland birds. But the crows’ forays into the surrounding moorland shows how treacherous these alien trees can be when dumped into the middle of a landscape which has been a home for waders for thousands of years. This was as neat a demonstration of the edge effect as you could wish for. The crows near the plantation were replaced by the Ravens who guarded the Tor. The landscape was not empty, but busy with life.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Alien plantation in a Neolithic/Bronze Age landscape. A home for Carrion Crows to harass breeding waders. Brown Willy Downs, Bodmin Moor.

A small flock of naughty young Blackface escapees scooted off the road as I drove back up the lane. A field to my left had a few ewes and the first cross-bred lambs of the year. The field on my right was very short cropped and full of pregnant ewes. The flock of fifty Golden Plover I had seen earlier, had joined some others and they now numbered two or three hundred. They took off from feeding amongst the ewes and wheeled around. Golden Plover like to take off and do some freestyle formation flying. Only in the depths of a snowy winter do they sit and sulk in a field before moving off south to warmer places. But this field they had been feeding in was clearly full of invertebrates, even though it looked skinhead-shorn by the sheep.

I had come looking for environmental and ecological devastation and found great, open beauty that had endured for thousands of years, kept alive by the very grazing pressure so hated by George Monbiot and his metropolitan acolytes. You could argue, and I would  agree, that more could be done to increase the numbers of birds breeding on these open spaces. It is likely that by altering the grazing pressure a little – a few more cattle and fewer sheep, that within three or four years the clump-forming grasses would recover, the shorter grasses might grow a bit longer and  some of the species which are still declining in our uplands, would increase again. We do not know for certain, because too little scientific work has been done to answer this question. We know for certain that control of predators, like the Carrion Crows I saw yesterday, will improve breeding success. But what should not happen is that grazing is withdrawn and the landscape neglected, fenced off and called ‘conservation’ or ‘rewilding’. That will destroy these beautiful places as certainly as planting alien conifers upon it. It will drive out the wonderful species which depend upon the invertebrates and short grasses – all of whom rely upon the cropping and manuring by domesticated animals. It will also bury the archeology which created the landscape in the first place.

And we humans will have lost our connection with some of our own origins.

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©David Eyles 28th Feb 2017 – Brown Willy from Rough Tor. As it always has been for four thousand years – grazed by sheep and cattle.

 

Posted in Conservation, Farming, Livestock | 5 Comments

The impact of upland farming – Part 3 of 4: Ecology of the uplands in transition.

In his book Feral [1], George Monbiot outlines his ideas for the environmental transformation of the British uplands – from open sheep grazed pastures to wooded hillsides. He argues that this will considerably enhance biodiversity. Furthermore, that the release of large predators such as Lynx, Wolves and Wild Boar, will amount to a restoration of keystone species that will bring about an enormous ecological improvement and which will bring everything back into a natural balance. He proposes that afforestation of the uplands should be carried out by the removal of sheep and cattle from grazing the uplands. This will allow the fragments of woods that currently remain on the periphery to regenerate. He also suggests replanting with local tree stock to enhance this process. The large predators would be re-introduced to ensure that a balance is achieved between trees and deer.

It is clear from his book that Monbiot hates sheep and all their works; that he prefers a heavily wooded landscape and dislikes the open vistas of apparently bare mountainsides. He claims that not only do the sheep ‘scour’ the upland landscape and leave it devoid of any birds or insects, but that they also graze within the woods and prevent any sort of natural regeneration. Most of his adverse comments seem to apply to upland Wales, which he describes as ‘the Cambrian desert’.

This post will examine Monbiot’s ideas, mostly from the point of view of birds, as they are the group that I know most about. However, it should be noted that Monbiot’s  radical proposals would also affect everything else in the uplands; from the trees, shrubs, grasses, mosses and invertebrates.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series have examined the upland farmer from the point of view of economics and culture. This post will examine the farmer as a player in the ecological dynamics of the uplands and how the birds will be affected by the change from a farmed landscape to an un-farmed landscape.

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-13-59-02Golden Plover – a distinctive species of open upland moorland. Photo by Sindri Skulason via Google Images.

A central justification to Monbiot’s ideas, and the principles of the ‘rewilding’ movement which has which flowed from them, is the term keystone species. This means: ‘a species that has a disproportionately strong influence within a particular ecosystem such that its removal results in a severe destabilisation of the ecosystem and can lead to further species losses’ [2]. Monbiot cites the example of wolves in Yellowstone Park, which were initially eradicated from the park in 1926. At that point, Elk Cervus canadensis, began to multiply rapidly and overgraze the park. This resulted in degradation of some ecosystems within the park, and so wolves were re-introduced in 1995. Monbiot’s point is that the wolves were responsible for restoring the balance between grazers and predators to the benefit of the vegetation and the rest of the ecosystem, and that this makes them a keystone species.

All of this is perfectly reasonable in the context of Yellowstone Park, which has had relatively little human interference since it was first designated a National Park in 1872. This is because the Native American tribes that had lived in the area for millennia were systematically removed (or ethnically cleansed)[3]. In other words, the wolves had been absent for a mere 70 years. Their re-introduction from such a short absence managed to restore things to a balance closely resembling the situation before they were eradicated. However, in the UK, wolves were eradicated in England and Wales by the 14th Century and in Scotland by the 18th Century. Since then, upland ecosystems have had time to adjust and in any case have been controlled principally by the farmer or moorland manager.

The most far-reaching of Monbiot’s ideas is the proposal to reafforest the uplands as he seems to envisage. The consequence of so doing would result in a highly dynamic situation of encroaching forest which moves steadily uphill. In order to assess some of the changes another ecological term needs to be introduced – that of edge effect:

‘The change in the number of species occurring in the zone where two habitats are in contact. Since this zone may contain biotic elements from both habitats and some unique to itself it may be rich in species, but because those species are ill-adapted to the immediately adjacent habitat, the rate of local extinction is usually high at edges. Predation in particular, is greatest at the habitat edge. The effect occurs because the overlap region supports some species from both adjacent ecosystems and some peculiar to itself. Ecologists now regard the edge effect as a sign of ecological deterioration. The fragmentation of habitats causes an increase in edge areas, but a decrease in in the internal areas of ecosystems, leading eventually to a loss of species from all affected ecosystems and an increase in edge species, which are usually commonplace.’ [2] [My emphases] 

An illustration of this is given below, which is an idealised upland moor (green circle) with a sessile oakwood (red ellipse) in a valley leading up onto the moor. As the oakwood enlarges with the forces of natural regeneration, it encroaches upon the moor and the two edge effects combine, with the moorland becoming diminished. For a schematic illustration, see Figures 1 and 2 below:

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Figure 1Schematic diagram of open moorland (top circle, mostly green) currently grazed with sheep and/or cattle. This is the breeding ground for specialist birds such as Red Grouse, Curlew, Golden Plover, Merlin and so on. The deep green is where those species are most numerous and the lighter coloured areas where those species are compromised by the edge effect, including the slight impinging of predators from the oakwood. The red ellipse is a small sessile oak pasture which is partly open canopied and is grazed by sheep and cattle. The red fuzzy area beyond the boundary of the wood is the area which is affected by predators living in the wood.  

In Figure 1 above, the open moor is characterised by a mixture of heather Calluna, Purple moor grass Molinia caearulea and open stretches of shorter grasses which are readily grazed by the sheep. There are few trees in this area, which is gently undulating and receives high rainfall and wind. The bird species which are characteristic of this kind of habitat are concentrated in the dark green area, with fewer or none in the light coloured areas. A stream drains the moor and this feeds into a valley which is occupied by a small sessile oakwood which is also grazed. This means that the wood has open areas which are covered in grass instead of thick undergrowth. The oak trees are all very old, often covered in mosses and lichens and are occasionally isolated, so the tree canopy is discontinuous.

Figure 2 below shows what happens when the sheep and cattle are withdrawn. The moorland grasses and heather become rank. Molinia encroaches into the areas previously grazed and gradually dominates the heather which becomes weak and leggy. The characteristic bird species which demand open areas, decline in numbers – here represented by the green changing from dark (Figure 1) to light (Figure 2). The sessile oakwood is now overtaken by thick undergrowth and young trees. As these mature, the older trees die off. Furthermore, because of the lack of grazing, the wood extends and creeps up the hill and begins to enter the area previously occupied by the moorland species. As more predators occupy the wood, the range of predation beyond the wood is also extended.

The edge effect is shown by the fuzzy coloured areas. As the woodland edge effect is extended, so the moorland characteristic species retreat and go into decline until they are eliminated.

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Figure 2The same areas after grazing has been stopped and the wood and moor allowed to regress. The woodland extends at the expense of the moorland; and the influence of the woodland is now felt well beyond its boundaries, shown by the fuzzy red areas. The remaining moorland habitat is degraded because of the removal of sheep and cattle and this is shown by the lighter green. 

Whilst Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the general principles, they provide little information as to which species will be affected by the transformation of open upland moorland into continuous or even patchy woodland. To do this properly requires an environmental impact assessment which takes into account the habitat requirements for all species of plants and animals; and an intimate knowledge of the nature of succession and how it affects all of those species. A long succession of moorland into woodland spread over many decades is almost impossible to predict exactly, but some indicators of the potential changes can estimated using the habitat requirements of birds, which are well known and recorded. Figures 3 and 4 below show the shift in species as the open moorland is overtaken by woodland. The estimations of the effect of each phase of transition from open moorland to forest can be estimated from the habitat and feeding requirements of the distinctive species of both upland sessile oak pastures and open moorland, which are summarised in Appendices I to VI below the References section. These lists are not intended to be exhaustive, but are simply representative of the characteristic species  of birds within these two ecosystems.

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Figure 3Transition of upland sessile oak pasture into dense woodland with closed canopy and thick undergrowth caused by the withdrawal of grazing by sheep and cattle. The existing open canopy and open floor is represented by the blue sector, which shifts into the yellow block and then finally matures into the green block. As young trees overtake the original parent trees, the older trees die off, thus progressively removing specific habitats for, say, the lesser spotted woodpecker. The first changes will be in the woodland floor which becomes overgrown and is no longer suitable habitat for birds which rely upon the open, grazed woodland floor as feeding habitat. 

This suggests that changes occur progressively and in different ways, affecting some species of birds sooner than others. In the above example, the loss of a grazed woodland floor may result in the loss of Pied Flycatcher, Wood Warbler and Tree Pipit fairly quickly, as the woodland floor becomes overgrown. By contrast, Black Grouse will benefit with the new advancing vegetation and young trees, as they are a species of transitional habitats between trees and moorland, as they rely upon both for feeding at different times of year. As the new trees mature and close canopy, species such as Goshawk move in, which are adept at hunting prey in heavily wooded areas. However, towards the end of this dynamic process, it can be seen that the species which are particularly associated with woodland pastures are extinguished. The list above is not exhaustive and does not show the increases  experienced by generalist woodland species such as Tawny Owls, Blackbirds, Robins and many others. These would all increase in numbers and variety, but only at the expense of the specialist species for which upland sessile oak pastures are renowned.

Figure 4 below shows what would most likely happen when open moorland is progressively encroached upon by advancing woodland:

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Figure 4Transition of open moorland to predominantly closed canopy woodland with some open patches. The blue block is the starting point of existing open moorland dominated by heather Calluna, purple moor grass Molinia caearulea and other grasses which are grazed by sheep and cattle. As grazing is ceased, the transitional yellow block becomes more prevalent, until it too is overtaken by mature woodland. The loss of open moorland and shorter grasses result in a local but wholesale extinction of the moorland species.

There is considerable difficulty in predicting the progress of ‘rewilding’ to the uplands of the UK. The preceding paragraphs have discussed the possibilities for birds, with Welsh uplands in mind. This model is a very simple one – and which would become much more complex and dynamic if deer were introduced, wild boar arrived to dig up and bury acorns, and both were predated by lynx and wolves. There would be almost complete unpredictability about the rate of afforestation and the precise nature of the undergrowth thus created.

But the effect upon open moorland of withdrawal of grazing would be almost immediate, and certain, as it is overtaken by rank growth and creeping afforestation. The result would be certain loss of bird species which are considered to be distinctive of the Welsh uplands. Wales is a stronghold of many of the species mentioned above and whose habitats are summarised in the appendices below. Nevertheless, it is clear that the withdrawal of grazing and subsequent encroachment by woodland would result in wholesale extinction of many species in the affected moorland.

It is fair to say that the woodland which replaced the moorland would possibly harbour more species eventually, but these would tend to be species which we are already familiar with in our urban gardens. In other words, the likely outcome would be that distinctive species are replaced by commonplace ones – exactly as predicted by the definition for ‘edge effect’ as given above.

Despite Monbiot’s enthusiasm for dense woodland and his revulsion for open landscapes, most people would consider his ideas for rewilding the Welsh uplands as a tragedy, rather than an ecological gain.

References

[1]  Monbiot G, (2013) Feral, Penguin Books, London.

[2]  Allaby M, (2010) A Dictionary of Ecology, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[3] Cramp S and Simmons KEL (eds) (1979), The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol.II, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[4] Cramp S and Simmons KEL (eds) 1982) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol.III, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[5] Cramp S (ed) (1985) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol.IV, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[6] Cramp S (ed) (1988) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol.V, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[7] Cramp S and Perrins CM (eds) (1993) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol.VII, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[8] Cramp S and Perrins CM (eds) (1994) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol.VIII, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Appendices

Each appendix is a table of the species with its habitat requirements and feeding behaviour. These are abbreviated summaries taken directly from The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vols II to VIII, from the sections on ‘Habitat’ and ‘Food’ within the each species description.

Appendix I – Red Grouse to Common Buzzard

Species Breeding Habitat Feeding behaviour
Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus [3] ‘Treeless tundra, moors, heaths, bogs…wherever Calluna…dwarf shrubs…flourish. Ssp scoticus confined to heather moors above or well clear of trees.’ Avoids trees in winter when moving down to lower altitudes. Mostly herbivorous, but some invertebrates esp. for chicks.
Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix [3] ‘…Glacial relict…transitional between forest…and open heath, marginal cultivation, bog and fen, or steppe. Presence of trees essential, but not in dense stands or closed canopy.’ Mostly plant material – tree seeds, buds. Feeds on ground in spring, summer and autumn. In trees in winter.
Red Kite Milvus milvus [3] ‘In Wales, small relict population based on small discontinuous open relict oakwoods Quercus petraea …in undisturbed upland valleys up to c400m…providing breeding, resting and roosting places…hunting over adjoining farmland, rough grassland mostly at 200-300 m, but also on higher deforested moorland and rough grassland …and heather carrying substantial flocks of sheep…Preference for extensive open areas with low vegetation where prey species active diurnally…Attachment to trees does not extend to closed forest.’ ‘Predator and scavenger. Wide range of food items…. Hunts by soaring and circling over open ground.’ Hunts up to 7 Km away from breeding site.
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus [3] ‘Usually avoids steep mountainous terrain, unbroken forests…groups of mature trees…tall dense stands of grassland or vegetation. Otherwise [occupies] wide range open terrain…includes grassland, upland moors, heaths…etc.’ ‘…young and adult songbirds, young nidifugous birds and small rodents. Flies low quartering over ground and seizing prey with sudden pounce, often using hedges and shrubs to surprise prey. In breeding season, hunts predominantly along transect, following habitat edges’
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo [3] ‘Preference for hunting over open tracts with low vegetation…[linked] with varied landscapes including forest clearings with groves or tall isolated trees and hilly slopes, ridges or uplands with some or much tree cover…preference for broad leaved trees and, in Britain, woods of sessile oak Quercus petraea.’ ‘Wide diversity of prey…small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, larger insects and earthworms. Feeding techniques governed …by habitat restrictions. (1) perching then planning onto prey… by surprise attack. (2) soaring or hovering over open terrain before dropping onto prey. (3) walking or standing on ground looking for locusts or earthworms.’

Appendix II – Goshawk to Golden Plover

Goshawk Accipiter gentilis [3] ‘…exclusively in forested and wooded areas, esp of coniferous trees (spruce) and broad-leaved trees Quercus and Fagus. Adept at flying through close forest but prefers to nest in tree-tops, where clear level access is afforded by stream course, ride, fire break or natural glade. Hunting range up to 6 Km, but open country exploited only when it lies near more or less extensive woodland, and when hedgerows or wind-breaks provide good cover.’ ‘Mainly birds up to size of Capercailie Tetrao urugallus and Hare Lepus europeaus. Hunting…swift, aggressive, and adroit pursuit flights…Takes advantage of any cover to approach prey …to take it by surprise. Will stoop from great height like Peregrine Falco peregrinus …to catch prey in air.’
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus [3] ‘For hunting, requires extensive open terrain often including wetland or coastal habitats. For breeding mainly cliffs, crags and other precipitous undisturbed locations such as tall inaccessible structures.’ [now in tall buildings in cities]. ‘Mostly birds…majority taken on the wing; usually over open country and over water, rarely on edge of woods.’
Merlin Falco columbarius [3] ‘Avoids forests and bare precipitous mountain ranges, preferring open tracts of low, rough vegetation on uplands, foothills or plains…Favours undulating or folded landforms providing wide outlooks from ground perches or nest sites, especially heads of upland stream valleys… Reliance on small birds as prey and preference for habitats of low bird density necessitates hunting over fairly wide extent of homogeneous terrain.’ ‘Chiefly small birds caught in open country. [Usually] hunts in low…horizontal flight from perch with final glide less than 1 m above ground. Prey usually caught after short-distance surprise attack. Other techniques included prolonged persistent chasing and vertical stooping…On Yorkshire moors…fed almost exclusively on Anthus pratensis [Meadow Pipit] 90%… Northumberland …almost entirely birds…40 species, [but] 48% [were] Anthus pratensis.’
Golden Plover

Pluvialis apricaria [4]

‘…unenclosed upland moors and peatlands…often windy climate beyond normal tolerance for tree growth….stops short of mountainous terrain, inhabiting sub-montane and montane zones …between 240 m and 600 m in Britain….Sometimes overlaps with Dunlin Calidris alpina on moist cottongrass Eriophorum moors, but differs in tolerating drier terrain…Prefers flattish or gently sloping ground with some raised places suitable as lookouts…some blending of open patches with very sparse low vegetation and other areas providing partial cover, but still not tall enough to block the distant view. ‘Wide spectrum of Invertebrates, principally beetles and earthworms. Some plant material incl. berries, seeds and grasses.  Most food taken from surface or by probing 1 – 2 cm…prey mainly located visually, although some evidence of acoustic location.’

Appendix III – Lapwing to Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus [4] ‘Requires ready access to soil carrying appreciable biomass of surface or subsurface organisms, not arid and preferably moist or even near saturation. Habitat may be flat, gently undulating…and must not impede easy walking. Invariably chooses unenclosed terrain affording unbroken all round views. Avoids fields enclosed by hedgerows or walls smaller than c. 5 ha, or parkland with many large trees.’ ‘Predominantly ground-living invertebrates…Prey located by sight and sound… All prey taken on ground.’
Dunlin Calidris alpina [4] ‘Avoids dry stony or rocky sites and those overgrown with dense herbage or tall shrubby plants, preferring moist boggy ground, often interspersed with pools or other standing or flowing water.’ ‘Chiefly invertebrates. Prey located by sight and by touch. Feeding method depends upon substrate (e.g. hard or soft mud) and behaviour of prey (mobile or immobile).’
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos [4] ‘Prefers fresh water of clear lakes, rivers or streams, especially favouring fairly fast flowing upper courses of streams and rivers…Thus differs from most waders in preferring stony, shingly or rocky edges…’ ‘Chiefly immobile or free-flying invertebrates, particularly insects. Prey located visually; picked mainly from ground (especially between stones and within cracks), from low vegetation, and from faeces of mammals (e.g. sheep).’
Curlew Numenius arquata [4] ‘Chooses damp or wet terrain with dry patches, or sometimes the converse, especially near water. Characteristically an upland bird in Britain… Prefers open landscapes with wide visibility, unbroken by forest or woodland, or by ravines and other features permitting surprise approach. Favours moist, poorly drained upland moors, either of heather Calluna mixed with rough grass… or open recently burnt stretches…’ ‘Omnivorous, though taking principally invertebrates.’
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor [5] ‘…tolerance of high and low temperatures, wind and rainfall…Availability of easily worked decayed wood may be more essential than tree height or species. Prefers open broad-leaved woodland, edges, spinneys, parkland, riparian or other tree lines or avenues, and most moist woods of oak Quercus, hornbeam, Carpinus, willow Salix, alder Alnus, or poplar Populus. …Avoids conifers and any dense, mature stands.’ Almost exclusively insects. Rarely feeds on ground. In summer, chiefly searches for insects on surface of tree trunks, branches and leaves; in winter, pecks at rotten wood to find beetle larvae and adults beneath bark…’

Appendix IV – Meadow Pipit to Wheatear

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis [6] ‘Chooses, as a ground dweller, open areas of rather low, fairly complete vegetation cover. Avoids extensive bare rock, stones, sand, soil and close-cropped grass or herbage…and on the other hand, tall dense vegetation, including woods, forests and reedbeds. Flourishes, however, in plots of young planted trees, and perches freely on fence-posts, telegraph wires, stone walls and other points of vantage, but once scattered trees appear, competitive advantage seems to pass to Tree Pipit.’ ‘Mainly invertebrates, with some plant seeds in autumn and winter. Feeds almost exclusively on ground, walking at a steady rate picking invertebrates from leaves and plant stems.’
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis [6] ‘…basically a ground feeder and ground nester, but unique [amongst congeners] in West Palearctic in attachment to trees and bushes as look-outs and song-posts, no less essential in breeding territory than suitable foraging terrain and nest-sites. Accordingly shuns both open and shrubless habitats and those where habitats and those where density of woody vegetation leaves insufficient open low herbage accessible.’ ‘Chiefly insects with some plant material taken in autumn and winter. Food mostly taken from ground, low herbage and leaf litter, more rarely from twigs, branches tree trunks and stumps.’
Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus [6] ‘Requires sheltered but fairly open wooded or parkland areas with access to dry secure nest-holes in trees, rocks, walls, banks or other places without too dense or tall unbroken undergrowth or herbage…prefers broad-leaved or mixed trees …and is adapted to woodland edges, streamside and roadside trees, orchards and gardens in human settlements.’ ‘…largely insects…and spiders… (1) Picks items from ground; apparently does not probe for worms and rarely searches in leaf litter. (2) Feeds in trees and other vegetation…, picking items from trunks, branches and leave, including hovering near foliage. (3) Flies from perch on to prey on ground, normally returning to perch to eat it. (4) Takes aerial prey in brief flight from perch.’
Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe [6] ‘…requiring ready-made rock or burrow nest-site immediately neighbouring seasonally insect-rich bare patches or short swards for for easy foraging…European habitat also open… flat, sandy, sparsely vegetated arctic tundra…cliff tops, heaths and downland closely grazed by rabbits or sheep…’ ‘Chiefly insects; also spiders, molluscs and other small invertebrates, supplemented by berries. Normally locates prey visually, chiefly on ground or in low vegetation… (1) Running: in flat areas of short turf, runs…short distance, stops to pick up item or to scan ground ahead, and then runs on. (2) Perching: in areas of scattered perches (e.g. stones or low bushes) uses these to scan the ground nearby, drops down for item and then returns to perch or moves to new one…. ‘

Appendix V – Whinchat to Wood Warbler

Whinchat Saxicola rubetra [6] ‘… more continental bias than S. torquata, although favouring moister and less rough habitats. General separation of range suggests avoidance of interspecific competition with S. torquata and greater use of seasonal growth of green vegetation such as bracken Pteridium and tall grasses or herbage in preference to permanent woody shrubs. Accepts sparser and less robust perches than S. torquata, often using posts, fences or tall weeds… more attracted to grassy areas, incl some farmland types… fringes of wetlands and grassy uplands.’ Invertebrates and some seeds. Hunts from perch, flying to and taking prey mainly from ground or in vegetation, sometimes in flight like flycatcher.’
Stonechat Saxicola torquata [6] ‘…inhabits wide variety of dry plains and hillsides, often sub-marginal for agriculture, characterised by scattered bushes, shrubs, stones, walls, or fences … used as look-outs or song-posts commanding lower heathland, grassland or bare patches. In Britain, prefers rough coastal areas where gorse Ulex, heather Calluna or Erica, and bracken Pteridium are interspersed with close-cropped grass; Where grass grows tall and dense, S. rubetra usually takes over.’ ‘Small and medium sized insects and other invertebrates. Locates terrestrial prey from elevated perch then flies, glides or hops to ground, picking prey up on landing or while standing on ground; may return to same perch or a new one.’
Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix [6] ‘…requires moist and shady woods with closed canopy and no or sparse undergrowth… Recent intensive study in Westfalen (West Germany) shows deciduous trees, especially beech and oak, to be indispensable for territory…In Britain characteristic of woods of sessile oak Q. petraea…usually preferring mature canopy… little secondary growth and sparse ground cover, but which has convenient low branches for perching…. Thus requires dual-level habitat: tree canopy for foraging and singing; and more or less open ground beneath for breeding.’ ‘Insects and other invertebrates, with some fruit and seeds in autumn. Picks items off leaves (often from underside) and other parts of trees and bushes while moving through foliage.’

Appendix VI – Ring Ouzel to Raven

Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus [6] ‘…typically open moorland or fell with rarely more than sparse and stunted trees, occasionally at sea-level but normally at 250 m or higher, in Scotland up to 1200 m. Most nesting territories in Britain include small crags, gullies, screes, boulders or broken ground, as well as sloping or flat areas, often of heather, with a few trees or bushes…’ ‘In spring and early summer, adult and larval insects and earthworms; at other times, mainly fruit. Feeds on ground and in trees and bushes.’
Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca [7] ‘Range broadly coincides with occurrence of more than 1000 mm of annual rainfall, and with hilly terrain, and with area in which sessile oak Q. petraea is dominant tree, with little undergrowth…. spacing of trees and plenty of low undergrowth appear to be essential.’ ‘Arthropods, flying and non-flying… during breeding season, larval lepidoptera important for nestlings; fruit and seeds taken taken regularly in late summer and on migration… Obtains food directly from trees or ground or by sallying out from perch after flying prey, usually for a short distance.’
Magpie Pica pica [8] ‘Occurs up to considerable altitudes… where ecological conditions are suitable, but is predominantly a lowland bird of open or lightly wooded country offering good opportunities for foraging on ground and for nesting, roosting and taking cover in trees or shrubs. Inhabits woods of many different types, both broad-leaved and coniferous, wherever glades, clearings, or more open stands occur, and especially near margins of natural or cultivated grasslands and croplands.’ ‘Invertebrates, especially beetles Coleoptera, fruits and seeds; occasionally small invertebrates [eggs and nestlings of other birds] and all kinds of carrion, refuse and domestic scraps. Very opportunistic feeder, diet varying considerably according to habitat and local food sources: broadly, consumption of invertebrates highest in spring and summer, and vertebrates and plant material in autumn and winter.’
Carrion Crow Corvus corone [8] ‘…forest country, esp forest edges, groves and river valleys… In Britain marked attraction towards foraging on tidal estuaries… recently, strong build-up has occurred even within the largest towns…Many studies indicate that given its wide-ranging foraging, omnivorous appetite, and skill in exploiting the most diverse opportunities, habitat constraints are not normally limiting…’ Principally invertebrates and cereal grain; also small vertebrates, birds’ eggs, carrion and scraps… varying greatly according to local availability. In general, a ground feeder and scavenger in agricultural landscapes, typically in pasture or rough grassland in spring and summer, and arable fields in autumn and winter. Favourite sites include dung-rich pasture, hayfields, fields of cereal after harvest, areas by water (esp seashore) and rubbish tips.’
Raven Corvus corax [8] ‘So wide ranging that concept of habitat is hardly applicable…Overriding requirements are for nest-site of difficult access, normally on a rock-face or tall tree, and wide, largely undisturbed foraging area with tracts of open surface of any kind on which long-range food-gathering, often involving high flights, can be practised. Thus avoids interior of large or dense forests, scrub woodland, thickets, shrubby terrain, wetlands with tall aquatic vegetation, orchards, plantations, field crops and intensively farmed or grazed lands.’ ‘Plant and animal material, taken opportunistically; animal food may be killed with powerful bill, or scavenged as carrion. Also robs nests and takes invertebrates (esp molluscs on shore); plant material mainly cereals and fruits. Where carrion plentiful, usually takes food by scavenging.’

 

 

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The impact of upland farming: Part 2 of 4 – The invisible strands of culture.

Culture is usually defined in terms of a higher understanding of the arts and other intellectual achievements – anything from opera at Glyndebourne to Morris Dancing and  the Helston Floral Dance. But in this post, I use the term as meaning the characteristics and social interactions of a particular community. In this case, the community which revolves around hill farmers. There are three strands to these interactions. The first is the very personal and which affect the individual farmer in ways such as their own emotional contact with the land that they farm and the landscape around their farm. The second and third strands are the outward interactions of the farmer with the many people, animals and architecture around the farmer – that entity which we might call ‘the community’.

A sense of the community which revolves around the farmer can be detected indirectly by watching the number of people who turn up to a funeral or memorial service for a local well known farmer. The church will be packed; and this gives an indication of the number of lives that that farmer touched during his or her own lifetime. In that church service, there will be children of every age. One generation slips away and another replaces it. The invisible threads that bind that community repair themselves and the loss is healed. Provided there are farmers to replace the one who has died, that healing manifests itself in the form of continuity in the landscape, the animals which populate it and the settlements of the farmers themselves.

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Figure 1The culture of interactions between the farmer, family, community and animals. The black arrows indicate direct links between one specific category and the next. The broad red arrows show the general links between one block and the next. In general, the closer a coloured block is to the farmer, the more direct is the interaction. The black arrows create a matrix of interactions which suggest that each of the three light coloured sectors are intimately connected. The top two sectors would scarcely exist without the bottom sector which contains the sheep, cattle and dogs. Taking the bottom sector out of the uplands would leave a very large hole in the community – and an even bigger one in the landscape.

The invisible threads that issue from the farm into the local community are tied together with a commonality of language, of blood relationships and of the relationships of neighbours and friends; and still further with the relationships of colleagues and those that work with the hill farmer. In the case of a Welsh hill farmer, there is an obvious manifestation of one of these strands – that of the language. To a non Welsh-speaking Englishman such as myself, spoken Welsh seems to flow downhill from the hills to the valleys like so many of their rushing streams. The language itself reflects the humour, observations and landscape of the people themselves. Most hill farmers in Wales have Welsh as their first language and some speak English only by slowing down and thinking carefully. Look around a pen of ewes at a livestock market in Wales. The crowds will be clad and hatted in green and brown and the eyes will be dark and shrewd. Their pickups may be Japanese, but their livestock trailers will be made by Ifor Williams. Elsewhere in the British Isles, Gaelic might replace Welsh, or the many dialects of English, but the substance is just the same – an individuality which is defined by the place in which it is found.

Another manifestation of the invisible cultural threads that issue from the hill farmer is to found at any agricultural show. There are many of these throughout the country, some of the biggest being the Royal Welsh, the Royal Cornwall and the Royal Highland shows. Look carefully at the livestock section and there you will find dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and all manner of other more exotic animals. Watch the judging for the sheep or the cattle and  watch them move amongst the line of hopefuls, critical and eagle-eyed for any imperfections. Teeth, feet, udders and testicles are checked and then the prizes awarded to the lucky owners. Underneath the surface of this outwardly good-natured and polite ritual is a seething hotbed of competition. Go along to the sheep tent early in the morning before judging and you will find the corridors between the pens filled with sheep being primped and cosseted; and with the sound of hand shears hissing rhythmically amongst the low talk of the owners.

The animals themselves provide another strand in the culture of the hill farmer. Not just at showing time, for that is merely the warm-weather interregnum between lambing and shearing – a chance to get off the farm for a day or two and catch up with old friends. No, here I mean the bonds which exist between the farmer and his (or her) animals. The way the sheep are hefted upon the hillside – the habit of individual sheep to restrict themselves to a particular part of the open hillside. These territories, or hefts, are handed down from one ewe to her daughters in a continuous line. The advent of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 brought with it the destruction of many flocks; and with it went the sense of place enjoyed by those sheep. The replacement flocks seem to have re-built the hefts, but it was a close run thing.

The sheep interact with the shepherd closely, often dependent upon him for help at lambing time and extra food during the winter. The gathering, shearing, worming, foot trimming, sorting for the tup, pregnancy scanning, lambing, weaning, fattening and transport away of the year’s surplus bounty are all times when the sheep become individuals to the farmer. Their needs are inextricably bonded to those of the farmer: “This ewe won Breed Champion at the local show three years ago. This one always gives us twins and this one gives us a single, but it is always a good one.” And so on.

The hill farmer or shepherd jumps onto the quad bike first thing in the morning with the dogs. He notes the greyness of the sky, the bitter cold and the shift in the wind. The sheep will have moved into shelter a little today and will be more difficult to find and count. Otherwise, each patch of grass amongst the heather and bracken will be occupied by a different ewe who will pass knowledge of this patch down to her daughters and grand-daughters – and so on for generations. The shepherd and his dogs know every boulder, scrubby rowan, birch and drystone wall behind which the ewes will shelter when the wind whistles, cold and mean, across the folds of the hillside. The shepherd is as hefted into the hills as his sheep.

The direct psychological links between the farmers and their livestock vary between individual farmers, but are real enough to the animals under their care. When the ewes are brought down off the hill for lambing and brought into the barn, they will watch every tiny movement of the shepherd. For herd animals like sheep and cattle who have complex social structures between themselves, body language is the biggest source of information – something which is rarely understood amongst we humans whose principle means of communication is spoken language. But the ewe lying quietly with her lamb in the barn will be watching and she will know precisely what sort of mood the boss is in this morning as he rattles buckets and heaves hay into racks.

The health and attitude of the farmer towards his or her livestock will often be reflected in the health and attitude of the sheep and cattle. It goes deeper than simply having a few ewes who have been bottle-fed and are a bit tamer than the others. Just as the health and  happiness of ordinary parents will likewise affect their children, so a very similar relationship between the farmer and their livestock exists. The links are invisible and poorly understood. An ailing and over-stressed farmer will often have ailing and over-stressed sheep and cattle.

The relationship between the hill farmer, sheep, cattle and the upland landscape is deep, intricate and often goes back over many human generations. It is the continuity of this  relationship which has caused the landscape and all the living things within it to become what it is today. As economics, social change, government policy and disease have affected the hill farmer and the livestock, so the landscape has likewise borne the changes. Centuries of sheep and cattle husbandry in the uplands has created what we see and enjoy today. Removal of the animals and the farmers from this landscape would create radical changes to our uplands and terrible changes to the communities and culture which are dependent upon those same humans and animals.

If you wish to read a first hand account of shepherds in the uplands, you should read this.

Posted in Environment, Farming, Livestock | 2 Comments

The impact of upland farming. Part 1 of 4 – economics.

Upland farming has come under attack recently from a number of sources. Criticism is often levelled at hill farmers because they require large public subsidies to keep them going. Grumbling is also directed at hill farmers because they are perceived to be responsible for ‘overgrazing’ and thus denuding the upland landscape of its ability to hold back large quantities of water during periods of heavy rain. This is alleged to cause or exacerbate flooding downstream in urban areas. But the most vocal challenge comes from George Monbiot of The Guardian in his book Feral∗. In this book, George Monbiot explains that our uplands are no longer clad in trees as they were thousands of years ago. No longer  are our rivers and forests teeming with so much fish and game that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were able to pluck it out at will. George mourns the loss of this Pre-Arcadian idyll and so is agitating for our uplands to be afforested with native trees and populated with wolves, lynx and beavers, just as they were two thousand years ago.

However, there are a number of practical, environmental and ethical difficulties with  Monbiot’s vision.

The impact of upland farmers upon their local environs is much more subtle than at first appears. It can be briefly summarised as in Figure 1 below:

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Figure 1Venn diagram of farmers as influencing three aspects of the local area, as well as producing food.

From this, it can be seen that farmers affect economics, culture and the natural environment as well as contributing to the nation’s consumption of food.

This first post in the series will look at the way in which upland farmers affect the economy locally, nationally and internationally.

In brutal economic terms, UK agriculture struggles to produce much more than 0.6% of total UK GDP (World Bank figures 2004 – 2015). The livestock part of this figure is an even smaller share. As we become more numerous, urbanised and affluent, this percentage will inevitably diminish further. Or so it would seem, provided food continues to be considered as a mere commodity which can be purchased elsewhere whenever the need arises. However, in strategic terms, UK agriculture still provides just under 60% of the nation’s food. As our population rises, in common with that in the rest of the world, the cost of imported food will only rise, leaving UK produced food ever more important in terms of cost – especially for the lowest paid in our society.

Because of the low percentage contribution by agriculture to our GDP, there has been a tendency by politicians to dismiss farming and suggest that the 70% of the UK land area which is farmed can simply be turned over to ‘nature conservation’ – a glorified country park if you will – and that farmers become mere providers of ‘environmental goods’. However, the contribution that agriculture makes to the UK economy is a little more subtle than an isolated category on government statistics.

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Figure 2The cone of economic dependency upon livestock farmers.

Figure 2 is a conceptual sketch of the dependency of other parts of the economy upon farmers. For example, food processing dwarfs agricultural output in financial terms, but is  entirely dependent upon agriculture. That is, the value added to food as it leaves the farm gate is considerable by the time it is sold to the consumer. Food processing is the largest part of our manufacturing sector; whilst that in turn is much smaller than the food retailing sector – which is a very large component of our services sector. So it is apparent that the tiny value of livestock (and other farm commodities) as they leave the farm gate  don’t just contribute, but generate a very large part of our overall economy.

In broad terms, that is the view at national level. But farmers should also be looked at in terms of what they contribute to the local economy and how they interact with it:

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Figure 3 An economic matrix generated by the upland farmer. Directions of arrows indicate the direction of travel of money from the farmer outwards.

Whilst this diagram is designed around upland farmers, similar models apply to farmers, whether livestock or arable, in the rest of the country. A Fenland farmer has just as much impact upon the local economy as a Welsh hill farmer. What matters is that the money that originates with the farmer, pushes outwards into the rest of the economy, gathering added value as it goes. Much of this money, and added value, stays within the local economy within a web of interactions which revolve around the services required by the farmer.

As money circulates within the economy, growing with each transaction, that wealth is mostly retained within the local area. Often, the rural uplands are low income and/or deprived areas. Although upland farmers are heavily subsidised, this taxpayers’ money is well spent because it helps communities which would otherwise be considerably more impoverished than they already are. Furthermore, the jobs entailed in the agricultural and related services are all productive and as such are intrinsically satisfying from a n employment and psychological point of view.

The removal of upland farmers (by virtue of closing down their subsidies, by mass afforestation of the uplands, or by other forms of ‘rewilding’) would leave a huge hole in the local economy which would be extremely difficult to plug in any way, other than by greater social security payments. This creates a dependent and severely depressed society and becomes a recipe for a political vacuum. Furthermore, there is a greater risk in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland of calls for further breakup of the UK.

∗ Monbiot G, (2013) Feral: Penguin Books, London.

 

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Obesity and sugar – is Public Health England right to demand a sugar tax? Part 1.

There has been much chuntering (for example here and here) recently about sugar and whether or not it should be taxed. This is because there is a rising and worrying incidence of obesity. Excessive consumption of sugar is blamed for this and there is a powerful school of thought that thinks that taxing sugary drinks will reduce the problem. A report published by Public Health England sets out PHE’s case for taxing sugar on sugary drinks like Coca Cola. It does not provide any scientific evidence for sugar being a principle cause of obesity – it is taken for granted that it does; and then sets out evidence for sugar taxes being effective in reducing consumption. Criticism is also thrown at supermarkets for putting these products on special offers and near the checkouts to encourage impulse buying; and so policies are offered to force supermarkets to reduce this kind of temptation.

This blog attempts a number of exploratory statistics to work towards a testing of the PHE hypothesis that dietary sugar is a cause of increased obesity.

Whilst researching datasets for use in another line of inquiry, I discovered a wonderful dataset, going back to 1974, where food consumption by households is presented as consumption per person per week. This shows food consumed under sufficient categories to cover our food consumption as a nation. The data has been gathered consistently since 1974 and so provides a fairly accurate indicator of our national diet and how this has changed over the last 40 years. Given that seriously obese people were something of a rarity 40 years ago, and now they seem to be commonplace, it would suggest that something is going wrong with our eating habits. Another dataset, this time from Public Health England, which is much shorter and dates only from 2000, is graphed below in Figure 1. It should be noted that the vertical axis starts at 21.2% and so the total rise in incidence of people with a BMI (Body Mass Index) greater than or equal to 30 is about  4.4%:

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Figure 1: Percentage of people with BMI greater or equal to 30, since year 2000 to 2014. Source data – Public Health England

Even though the percentage increase of 4.4% is small, it still seems an inexorable and alarming rise in only 14 years. So there is some justification for the panic amongst public health officials that more more obese people will lead to more type 2 diabetes, heart disease and so on.  Sugar in soft drinks are known to be very high and consumption of these products are increasing, so perhaps PHE has found the culprit and is correct to target them.

However, the Defra family food datasets show up some trends which provoke the curiosity of those of us who are mildly sceptical of claims from a department which has set off a number of wild strategies in the recent past. In fact, the total consumption of many of the broad categories of food has dropped:

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Figure 2: Changes in consumption of main categories of food since 1974. Graph from Defra dataset.

A shorter dataset from 1992 to 2014 is available for three other categories not specifically collected from 1974:

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Figure 3: Changes in consumption of soft drinks, confectionary and alcohol since 1992. Graph derived from Defra dataset.

It can be seen that several large categories of foods which have been variously branded as ‘unhealthy’ by assorted health officials over the years, have declined dramatically – bread, potatoes, table sugar and preserves, meat and dairy produce and so on. These figures are in grams per person per week (I have approximated 1ml of liquid as equivalent to 1g). If there have been so many reductions, then what has happened to the total food consumed?  Figure 4 shows us:

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Figure 4: Total consumption per person per week for all food categories since 1974 and 1992. Graph derived from Defra dataset.

This suggests that for all categories excluding soft drinks, confectionary and alcohol, the national consumption of food has declined by 2,142 g/person/week; from 10,629g in 1974 to 8,487g in 2014. The consumption of soft drinks, confectionary and alcohol has risen slightly by 2,56g from 2,095g in 1992 to 2,351g in 2014. In other words, our total consumption of food has dropped by about 2,000g/person/week. On the face of it, this does not seem to indicate a nation which is overeating huge quantities of food. In fact this suggests that we are eating about 18% less food than we were in 1974. As this is not a picture of a nation of gluttons, there is obviously something happening to our national diet which is affecting some of us. Sugar in drinks may be a big part of the answer, and may suggest that PHE is justified in conducting their ‘war against sugar’. We need to take a closer look at the numbers for each main category of food:

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Figure 5: Milk and cheese consumption

 

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Figure 6: Fats and Sugar

 

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Figure 7: Bread, cakes, biscuits and cereals.

 

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Figure 8: Meat, meat products and fish.

 

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Figure 9: Potatoes, vegetables and fruit.

 

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Figure 10: Beverages and other food and drink.

 

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Figure 11: Soft drinks, confectionary and alcoholic drinks

 

It should be noted that the above graphs mostly show only very small variations from one year to the next and that the trends are fairly easy to discern. This suggests that the data is collected consistently from one year to the next and that the errors in sampling are fairly small. However, there are one or two big fluctuations in some of the time series. For example, in Figure 9, there is a large uptick in 2007/2008 in the curve for fresh and processed fruit. This is most likely because of a government drive to get people to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables (the ‘five-a-day’ campaign). Like wise, in Figure 10, there is another sharp fluctuation in ‘other food and drink’ which I cannot explain at the moment. In Figure 9, there was a very pronounced decrease in the amount of potatoes consumed in 1976. This was because of a very bad harvest in 1975 and prices rising by three or four times in a few months. Questions were asked and statements made in the House of Commons and this Hansard entry shows the exchange. The data shows a sharp reduction in consumption and this coincides with my own memory of that time.

Overall, the trend has been steadily downwards for many traditionally British foods such as dairy produce and fresh red meat, potatoes and so on which have halved in many cases. There have been commendable rises in the amount of fruit that we eat and a very slight decrease in the amount of vegetables. Bread, cakes, flour and biscuits have all decreased. Fats and table sugar, jams and honey have plummeted. Sugar, in particular, has dropped to about 25% of its 1974 amount. Conversely there has been a small but discernible increase in the amount of fish consumed. Looking at these items, we should have a lot of very happy dieticians and public health officers because they have, at some stage or another, encouraged us to eat less of the things that have dropped in consumption and more of the ‘healthy’ things like fish and fruit. However, despite the nation dutifully heeding the strictures of these officials, we are getting much, much fatter as a nation.

The clue must therefore rest in the things which have risen in consumption. These are the categories ‘Other cereals and cereal products’, ‘Non carcass meat and meat products’ and ‘Other food and drink’. (Figures 7, 8 and 10 respectively). Analysis of these three headings will proceed in Part 2 of this series of blogs.

The main target of PHE’s ire is that of sugary drinks, i.e. ‘soft drinks’. Data for this category only started to be gathered in 1992, but is shown in Figure 11. Here the curve for soft drinks is a curve which peaks at 2003/4 and then declines to not far above its 1992 level. The 2014 consumption was only 98ml above the 1992 consumption, which corresponds to a 6.7% increase. However, the peak in 2003/4 was 485ml above 1992 figures, corresponding to an increase of 33.5% above the 1992 figure. So there has been a considerable drop in consumption of sugary drinks since 2003/4. On its own, this consumption behaviour should raise question marks about the link between sugar and obesity. When it is added to the Figure 1 curve which shows a steady increase from 2000 to 2014 in obesity, rather than a peak (assuming obesity is also a transient characteristic), then we would expect a flattening out of the obesity curve, at the very least.

The reduction of consumption of ‘sugars and preserves’ and the increase and then decline of consumption of ‘soft drinks’ begins to make the position of PHE on sugar look open to question.

Part 2 of this series will drill down deeper into the data and examine statistical links between the various categories of food consumption. Part 3 will look at the sugar content of each category of food and will balance that against actual consumption.

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