The challenge of recovering our best unprotected grasslands

At Tuesday’s England Biodiversity Stakeholder Group, the latest incarnation of the England Biodiversity Group, we heard Biodiversity Minister Richard Benyon (no buzzards were mentioned) tell us he was absolutely focused on “outcomes and results”.

He’s right  – we can sometimes get lost in the processes of biodiversity conservation (and that has happened all too often over the past 20 years), and we always need to draw connections between the process and the reality. We also heard from Defra about the new set of Biodiversity Indicators they are developing. The Minister singled out the indicator “area of land in agri-environment schemes” and noted that this was one of the indicators which was showing a positive trend, alongside fish stocks and the levels of hazardous substances in the marine environment, all of which are heading in the right direction apparently.

While listening to the Minister talk quite passionately about his enthusiasm for Nature Improvement Areas, my mind wandered back to a wonderful bike ride I had taken on a sunny day off the previous week. I’d followed some fantastic green lanes around the chalk country  between Dorchester and Weymouth, followed the South Dorset Ridgeway and dropped down into Martinstown, famous as the place where the wettest day on record happened in 1955.

There was a lovely little “dry” valley (not very dry actually after the exceptionally wet weather we’ve had, although this was the day before the deluge when 110mm fell on this part of Dorset in 36 hours), with some downland on either side. I noticed that the downland hadn’t been grazed for a while – you can tell because the red fescue grass grows out and forms these waves of grass which eventually smother the wildflowers. False oat-grass was also becoming established on deeper soils within the downland banks but I still found plenty of downland plants like salad-burnet, bird’s-foot trefoil and rough hawkbit. I wondered whether these downland banks in their current state would qualify as priority habitat. One large section of downland bank was subject to another land-use change, but I’ll come back to that later.

When I got home I had a look on MAGIC and Nature on the Map to see what was going on.

priority grasslands map

This map shows that there are several separate surviving fragments of downland in this dry valley. The blue-green denotes downland – the olive green polygon is supposed to be lowland dry acid grassland. How anyone could imagine that there could be acid grassland in a dry chalk valley I don’t know.

This does just show how vital it is that the lowland grassland inventory is properly updated to become a truly comprehensive grassland inventory.

OK so that’s good news I thought, so why aren’t these banks being grazed? I looked at agri-environment scheme coverage.

Agri-Environment Schemes: purple = OELS/HLS; blue = OELS; yellow = ELS/HLS

Clearly this area of Dorset more than meets the target for AE scheme coverage in the Biodiversity Indicators – it’s practically completely covered by them and lots of HLS! That is surely great news. The only slight problem is that the schemes have almost completely missed the surviving priority habitat in the area. The only grassland that does fall into an agri-environment scheme is the mislabeled acid grassland, but at least that’s in organic entry level so it won’t be getting any artificial fertiliser.

In the first map you might notice a largeish area which isn’t downland priority habitat and which sites neatly in the middle of the 3 surviving areas of downland. Here it is marked with an arrow

Now take a look at this Google Earth image of that same piece of downland

Notice anything? It’s been planted with trees, sycamores to be precise. The first planting on the bottom of the slope was quite a while ago, possible 20 years. But the rest of the downland has been planted much more recently – perhaps 8 years ago. I’m checking with the FC as to whether an EIA  for forestry was carried out and whether the trees were funded by a farm woodland premium scheme.

Now when the first trees were planted there was no EIA requirement – unless the site was SSSI it was OK to plant it up – and that’s why it’s so important that Biodiversity 2020 recognises that unprotected priority habitat is as valuable as SSSI. Once the first trees had been planted and the downland was unmanaged for years, that would mean that it would not be classified as priority habitat (and therefore pass the EIA test) when the second lot went in.

But wouldn’t it have been better, in terms of restoring the surviving priority downland fragments, if it had been targeted for HLS (which started in 2005 remember), restored to grazing, and reconnected those now disconnected fragments. Hopefully this sort of approach will yield results in the Nature Improvement Areas.

What concerns me now is that once the surviving downland fragments have been ungrazed for a few more years, these will then lose their priority habitat status. And then even if an EIA for Forestry was carried out, they would pass the test and be eligible to be planted with more trees.

The challenge set out in The England Biodiversity Strategy, to get 90% of priority grassland habitat into favourable or recovering condition by 2020, really is a huge one.

This will be my last blog post for TGT on wordpress, as we move our blog over to our new website starting next week. I’ve enjoyed writing these posts over the past nearly two years and thanks to you all for reading and commenting. I hope that I will continue to write a blog for Buglife once I’ve moved over there.

Miles King

Posted in agri-environment, agriculture, biodiversity, grassland restoration, grazing, landscape scale, tree planting, woodland | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Discovering Carmel’s beautiful grasslands and woodlands

This weekend, while much of the UK was suffering under some of the worst rainfall on record, members of The Grasslands Trust Conservation Committee and Grasslands Trust Staff were basking in sunshine at Carmel National Nature Reserve in Carmarthenshire.  I was delighted to have been invited to join in and had the most wonderful time.  Emails were flowing on Friday night as to whether we could make it through the rain and floods but the concensus was we should try.  We were more than rewarded when passing Swansea on the Saturday morning the skies cleared and we headed for the sun.

Carmel is an absolute jewel of a place.  Situated on a limestone ridge, the area is dotted with lime kilns and quarries; once a heartland for providing lime for industrial and agricultural development.  In biodiversity terms, it is one of the UK’s richest wildlife areas and a Site of Scientific Special Interest (SSSI). Its range of habitats includes ancient woodland, heathland, and species-rich grassland which support some of the UK’s rarest plant and animal species.  Created a National Nature Reserve in 1999, and predominately owned by Tarmac, the site is managed is managed by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and The Grassland Trust.

The Grassland Trust’s involvement began in 2006 when it took over management of a greater part of the Reserve to restore grasslands that had been damaged through intensive agriculture back to flower-rich meadows and pastures. The Trust owns two sites: Pant y Castell and Stag and Pheasant and leases three more: Garn South, Garn North and Pwll Edrychiad.  Our visit centred on the last three in particular as well as a visit to the Carmel Woods visiting the quarry, woodlands and the only turlough (seasonal lake) in Britain.

The mosaic of grasslands, woodlands and heath were beautiful to see and I had the great pleasure of being in the knowledgeable company of Andy Barker, James Robertson, Stephen Ward and Corinna Woodall together with Miles King and Deborah Sazer from the Trust. Going through a fairly boggy Garn South, we met our two Carneddau-type Welsh mountain ponies who arrived at Carmel at the end of April to help with vital vegetation management here, trampling down the invasive bracken and scrub.

Carneddau Ponies at Carmel

Crossing the road to Garn North, we were able to see the really wonderful improvement work that has taken place to restore the grasslands here. Standing in these beautiful meadows, with swallows (Hirundo rustica) flying overhead and dragonflies whirring in the grasses, Miles showed us old photographic maps of the area, sourced from the Archives of the National Museum of Wales, describing the history of the fields and the area. We wandered through Garn North’s meadows and glades for the rest of the afternoon, identifying plants and butterflies, and discussing the management techniques that have been used to restore these beautiful species-rich meadows.  Over the two days I learned a tremendous amount about the native grassland plants and their relationship with the numerous species they support.  They have magical names: Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) which gives the sweet vanilla scent to new mown hay; Meadowsweet or Queen of the Meadow (Filipendula ulmaria) with its fluffy heads; the exquisite little Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) which has little whorls of tiny white flowers; and the Enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea sp.).

Our day ended visiting one of the disused limestone quarries and  kilns.  These quarry sites are not only important in the landscape as tangible remains of Welsh industries that fed and fuelled the nation, but as sites that support a number of species.  Growing on the little patches of  limestone grassland we saw a little creeping thyme (Thymus sp.), quaking grass (Briza sp.), Fairy flax (Linum catharticum), the cheery Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and yellow Agrimony (Agrimonia sp.).  We didn’t see the rare Brown-banded carder bee that created such a buzz of excitement last month but we heard from Deborah about how popular the bee-identification training sessions have become in the community, with one held the day previously.

The Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) is a rare bumblebee species that has suffered dramatic decline through the loss of traditional habitat and intensive agricultural practices. Habitat preference is for open flower-rich habitats on drier sites and it is found on quarry or brownfield sites which play a significant role in the conservation of the species. It is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Priority Species. © The Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Sunday we woke up to another glorious day and spent the morning clambering around, up, and through the beautiful Carmel Woods.  We were led by Jamie Bevan,  Senior Reserves Manager, CCW,  past a towering limstone cliff last worked in the 1980’s, where we were joined by Ray Woods, and up into the mixed ash woodland. Walking through, we listened to the Green woodpecker (Picus viridis), Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) and the Chiffchaff. Reemerging at the top of the quarry, we were rewarded by wonderful views of the Brecon Beacons, from where we walked down to see the Turlough, a unique feature of limestone.

The afternoon was spent back in meadows on The Grasslands Trust site of Pwll Edrychiad visiting first the restored meadows and then moving into the semi-improved areas. It’s a beautiful site and the meadows were full of Yellow rattle or Cockscomb (Rhinanthus minor) and orchids including the Greater Butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) and the Common Spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii).

Greater Butterfly orchid in Carmel meadows

Moving into the damper, semi-improved area, we also saw a charming, dainty umbellifer, Whorled Caraway (Carum verticillatum). Wending our way up the last hill we viewed the Slowworm (Anguis fragilis) refuges tucked into the field-margins.  It was the end of a really lovely weekend spent looking at not only has been achieved by knowledge and hard work over the last few years but looking at future opportunities for further restoration and improvement of these beautiful and important sites.  We are all collating our photographs and I can share some with you over the coming weeks so you can enjoy the views and grassland species.  If you have a chance, visit these lovely and inspirational sites.  Lucky me – I am going again at the end of the month to see our other Grassland Trust reserves of Pant y Castell and Stag and Pheasant.  I can’t wait!

Elaine Shaughnessy, Director of Communications, The Grasslands Trust

Posted in Author, bees, biodiversity, Carmel, Elaine Shaughnessy, grassland restoration, grasslands, Grasslands Trust Nature Reserves, grazing, habitat management, meadow restoration, Miles King, pollinators, Uncategorized, woodland | Leave a comment

De-regulation for agriculture is as bad as De-regulation for banking

Banker bashing dominates the headlines yet again. It turns out that traders at Barclays (and presumably the other banks) were conniving to fix the critical LIBOR rate which determines the interest rate that banks pay to borrow money from each other, to  – well to lend to you and me, but also to place large bets on the market. This is the so-called casino banking which used to be kept separate from the traditional stuffy high street banks of old, that looked after our bank accounts. That all went out of the window back in 1986 – the Big Bang as it was known at the time  – deregulation of the City was the name of the game. And we have been paying the price for this big idea for the last five years, and we will contine to pay for it for a long time. Who’s idea was the Big Bang? Chancellor of Exchequer Nigel Lawson. He created the Lawson boom of the late 80s, which became the Lawson bubble leaving millions in negative equity and created the early 90s recession.That’s deregulation for you.

Now that interest rates are at a historic low and the stock market is still struggling with the debt crisis, the banks are finding it difficult to get the returns needed to, for example, provide any sort of income for future pensioners. Is there anything that is making money at the moment? Well yes there is – land. Land prices continue to go up – it is the ultimate commodity, because as the old adage says, they’re not making it any more.

Apart from the seemingly ever bouyant London property market, fuelled in part by overseas buyers looking for a place to shelter their capital from taxes, farmland continues to be a very attractive place to invest capital. As farmland appreciates in value it gives a long term return on investment, and it also produces an annual income, through rent, ultimately derived from what it produces ie food.

This is not good news for tenant farmers, who find rental prices are going up, but the value of the food they produce is not necessarily going up at the same rate.

But there are a couple of extra reasons why farmland is so expensive and continues to increase in price. It’s an excellent tax shelter (Jimmy Carr take note if you’re reading) particular for the very long term. Capital invested in farmland is exempt from Inheritance Tax. Place your investments in a family Trust and invest that capital in farmland and you can be tax free for inheritance and also reduce your income tax at the same time.

On top of that you get around £200 a hectare per annum as a gift from the rest of us taxpayers  – it’s called the single farm payment. For a 1000ha estate (which you would now have to pay around £8M but if you’d bought it 10 years ago it would have cost you half that) that means around £200,000 a year just for owning the land. Not a bad little earner – certainly better than sticking the money in a bank account or probably even investing in the stock market.

Where does this leave things like wildlife protection or new fangled ideas like valuing ecosystem services? Let’s take an example  – a piece of grassland (say 20ha) that has been cared for by an “old boy” sympathetic farmer for 40 years – they’ve decided not to intensify their grassland and it’s full of wildlife, and it contributes to things like carbon storage, cleans the water we drink and gives homes to pollinators that mean crops like oil seed rape can be grown.

Sadly the farmer dies and the land is put up for sale. The agent advises the beneficiaries that the land is very valuable as the surrounding intensive dairy farmers would pay handsomely knowing that they could get a great return by converting the grassland to maize production (dairy cows don’t graze in buttercup meadows they eat fermented maize fed to them in large sheds). The 20ha is worth £10,000 a hectare – that’s £200,000. It would take someone pretty extraordinary (especially in these times) to turn down that sort of money.

The land is sold – but someone has noticed the wildlife value and informed Natural England (yes this is all taking place in England) that the new owner has been telling everyone in the pub that they’ve bought those weedy old fields that look scruffy and is looking forward to “improving” them by converting them into maize fields. Natural England aren’t actually allowed to enter the land to check on whether the wildlife value is good enough for them to be protected, but they get in touch with the new owner and ask permission to have a look. But it’s too late and the farmer has already ploughed them all up and planted maize. No evidence is available to show whether they were good enough to be protected either by EIA Agriculture regulations or even Widlife and Countryside Act.Even if they had been the farmer would only have had a slap on the wrist or a meagre fine a tiny fraction of the profit generated.

The ecosystem services the fields provided have been reversed; most of the carbon stored in the soils has been lost – that’s probably about 8000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent; the water that was once pure is now polluted with all the nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides applied to the maize (and those pollutants have to be removed from the water before we can drink it – in a process paid for by us the taxpayer) and the homes for all those pollinators have been lost.

The farmer gets single payment and also enters the newly arable land into Entry Level Scheme by agreeing to flail the hedgerows every couple of years instead of every year. Kerching £4000 single payment kerching £600 entry level scheme. That’ll go a long way towards paying the interest on the loan the farmer took out to buy the land.

And in the process of “improving” the land the farmer has actually increased its capital value, as well as increasing their annual income. So that”ll keep the bank manager happy. Does the farmer really have much choice about whether to “improve” the land or not?

And that is why, with our current economic model, the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystem services will always be a magnitude or two smaller than the economic returns derived from intensive agriculture. Which is why, until we agree our current economic model is hopefully flawed and come up with something a bit saner, we need stronger regulations to protect these things, not de-regulation.

Miles King

Director of Conservation

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Rain Rain go away

The Met Office recently blogged that we were heading for the wettest June on record (since 1860)  – that was before yesterday’s downpours which hit Northern Ireland particularly badly. I can well believe we’ll have record June totals – here in Dorchester I’ve recorded over 156mm so far with more rain in the forecast.

What an increasingly bizarre year we are having with the weather – well bizarre is one word, awful is another. The first quarter of the year was exceptionally dry with only 116mm  –  remember the drought? This has been followed by an amazing 191.75mm in April, an average May with 49.5mm, and this drenching June. The total so far for the second quarter is 397.5mm. That’s nearly 4 times as much as in the first quarter. Let’s hope the third quarter doesn’t follow the same pattern.

Meanwhile the Arctic sea ice is disappearing more rapidly this year than any of the previously recorded years in the satellite era (ie given how difficult it is to record sea ice accurately it’s only since satellites have been recording it that there is any degree of accuracy). This is a particularly good website to follow its fortunes and here’s the latest image showing that 2012 has seen a dramatic drop in sea ice cover in the past month (the yellow line), way beyond even last year or the record 2007 melt.

Sea Ice Extent courtesy of the Polar Research Group University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Are the two correlated? It seems a shift in the jet stream which brings low pressure systems across the Atlantic is causing the rain to hit England and Wales, and missing its usual path which is further north. North West Scotland has been unusually dry as all the rain passes by further south. The question is whether the jet stream is moving because arctic sea ice summer cover has reduced so much. There’s also some suggestion that the Jetstream is getting stuck in particular positions for much longer than occurred previously – so when its stuck in a “dry” place it causes long term drought, and when it’s in a “wet” place it never stops raining.

Some think there is a correlation – here’s some evidence in support on the arctic methane emergency group website. It looks like evidence is still being collected and it doesn’t look like there is undisputed causal evidence yet.

If it is the case though it has severe implications for the UK, for agriculture, for the wider economy and for society. Wetter summers with increasing flood events, coupled with drier winters, will make arable farming increasingly expensive as more fungicide is needed to control the growth of moulds on the crop. Grass will grow more, good for grazing and silage, but hay making will become even more difficult, which isn’t good news for the few wildflower meadows that still survive. In Dorset, sharp-flowered rush does seem to be increasingly common in wildflower meadows, and this may be a signal that the soil is getting wetter because of a change in the climate.

Artificial nitrogen fertiliser and other inputs will be more vulnerable to being washed out (into water courses) by heavy spring and summer rain, which could in theory drive more sustainable approaches to maintaining soil fertility, such as using legumes. Soil structure will also be affected as heavy rainstorms erode soil and contribute to compaction especially where soils have already lost their structure through compaction by vehicle use or heaving grazing.

The impact of climate change could actually force UK agriculture to adopt more sustainable approaches to arable and livestock production – but, call me a cynic, but it seems more likely that actually more money will be spent developing new fungicides, a new era of land drainage and more investment to engineer crops to cope with the changing climate.

Hopefully a combination of the best from the two approaches will enable agriculture to reduce its impact on the environment and adapt to the changing climate.

Putting all that to one side, how are the rest of us going to cope with rainy flooding summers for the foreseeable future?

Miles King (sitting in a mouldering west Dorset)

Posted in agriculture, climate change, farming, food, grasslands, grazing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Creating a buzz at Carmel Nature Reserve

A joint project of The Grasslands Trust and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has resulted in an exciting discovery of the rare Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis), a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Priority Species, at Carmel National Nature Reserve.

The Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) is a rare bumblebee species that has suffered dramatic decline through the loss of traditional habitat and intensive agricultural practices. Habitat preference is for open flower-rich habitats on drier sites and it is found on quarry or brownfield sites which play a significant role in the conservation of the species. It is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Priority Species.
© The Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Carmel National Nature Reserve, near Cross Hands in Carmarthenshire, is one of the UK’s richest wildlife areas and an internationally significant site. Its range of habitats includes ancient woodland, heathland, and species-rich grassland which support some of the UK’s rarest plant and animal species.  Situated on a limestone ridge, the area was historically used for quarrying and traditional agriculture, resulting in a mixture of ancient meadows and woodlands, quarries, spoil heaps and lime kilns. Declared a National Nature Reserve in 1999, Carmel is managed by The Grasslands Trust and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW).

In 2006, The Grasslands Trust took over the management of a greater part of the Reserve to restore grasslands that had been damaged through intensive agriculture back to flower-rich meadows and pastures. Through the “Working with Nature” Project funded by GrantScape, The Grasslands Trust, in partnership with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, has been working to increase the populations of bumblebee species by undertaking restoration of their primary habitat: wildlife-rich grasslands. Restoration work has also included the restoration of woodland glades and small sunny quarries, by managing the encroaching shrubs.

Bumblebee numbers have sharply declined with the loss of traditional habitat and intensive agricultural practices.  The UK’s wildlife-rich grasslands have declined by 97% in the last 70 years as a result of intensive agriculture, development and neglect with profound impacts for native bumblebee populations, including loss of habitat and food resources. An important element of the “Working with Nature” Project includes training volunteers in bumblebee identification.

The Brown-banded carder bee prefers open, flower-rich habitats on drier sites. Quarries and brownfield sites, like Carmel, play a significant role in the conservation of the species. This new discovery of the Brown-banded carder bee is as an exciting and important result for the project.  Other bumblebees reported include the Barbut’s cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus barbutellus) and the Heath Bumblebee (Bombus jonellus).

In a joint press release issued today, The Grasslands Trust CEO Lucy Cooper said that this was “incredibly exciting news for us and is an excellent example of public and charitable funds being put to good use for the benefit of people and wildlife.  Bumblebees are essential for the pollination of wild flowers and food crops and play an intrinsic role in the provision of ecosystem services vital to maintain life in our ever-increasingly industrialised world.”

Dr Ben Darvill, CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust added that  “The UK’s farmed landscape is largely brown or green. It never used to be that way. A visit to Carmel in the summer months reveals the full palette of natural colours, with wall-to-wall wildflowers and the uplifting buzz of bees. Hopefully this conservation work will inspire others to create vibrant meadows on their doorsteps.”

The restoration of Carmel NNR has been made possible by the generous support of our funders GrantScape, Biffaward, WREN (Gwendraeth Grasslands Project), the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, The National Lottery and the Charitable Trusts who support our work. GrantScape’s £200,000 award for the project ‘Making a beeline to Carmel’s meadows’ provided critical funding for the restoration and management of Carmel’s bee-friendly habitat.

In speaking of the award, Andrew Budd, who is also Grant Manager for the CWM Community and Environmental Fund in Carmarthenshire, said: “On what is only just the second anniversary of GrantScape’s 3-year grant, it is fantastic to hear that such a scarce bumblebee species has already rediscovered Carmel’s wildlife-rich grasslands. This is a clear indication of the project’s success, and one which we hope can be built on over the coming years”.

Miles King, The Grasslands Trust Director of Conservation said: ““Finding such a threatened bumblebee at Carmel is great news for The Grasslands Trust and it is a strong endorsement of all the work we have been doing restoring the meadows at Carmel. It shows how important it is to focus conservation effort in the right places, forge partnerships between communities, landowners and conservation charities, and the need to carry out detailed surveys of key species.”

The 1994 UK Biodiversity Action Plan was the UK Government’s response to signing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, setting out a programme for conserving the UK’s biodiversity. Twenty years on, while the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) has been discussing the sustainable future of our planet, and whilst many of the targets have not yet been met, The Grasslands Trust and Bumblebee Conservation Trust are delighted that their vital work in the restoration of the UK’s grasslands to provide essential habitat and food resources for bumblebees is returning such a positive result.

Elaine Shaughnessy, Director of Communications

Posted in agri-environment, agriculture, bees, biodiversity, Carmel, Elaine Shaughnessy, grassland restoration, grasslands, Grasslands Trust Nature Reserves, habitat management, Heritage Lottery Fund, Local Sites, Lucy Cooper, meadow restoration, Miles King, nature improvement areas, pollinators, publicity, volunteer surveys, volunteers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Blowing in the wind

 Last Saturday 20 children with parents in tow braved a very windy day to meet at Lakeside Country Park, the purpose, to make hand crafted paper with additional natural materials. This was another DoGG community event designed to attract families to a site that they may not have visited before. In fact, I spotted a couple of youngsters take time out to watch the local anglers land their carp!

The site, owned and managed by Eastleigh Borough Council is mainly used by anglers, dog walkers and water sport enthusiasts. DoGG hopes to encourage people to take a greater interest in the various habitats at the site and to offer a range of educational events.

Anyway, back to the wind . . . some of the smaller ones had a hard time just standing up and so it was inevitable that materials were blown to all corners! Persevere we did, and it was certainly worth it. Olivia, who was leading the event, patiently showed everyone how to create ‘real’ paper and embed it with ‘things’ from the meadow. Everyone enjoyed the day squidging around in buckets of paper mash and water and I even had time to show off some of the grassland plants adjacent to the tables.

 Next event sees a return to more traditional things – sweep netting the meadow – let’s hope for a still day!

 Martin Reeves, Community Grasslands Officer

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Time to move on

After Five and a half years at The Grasslands Trust I’ve decided to move on – but not too far, I’m moving across to be Conservation Director at Buglife. I’m up for a new challenge and moving to a bigger organisation with more resources is a big step up for me. And you can’t get much broader than the conservation of all invertebrate life – 80% of the species on the planet!

The Grasslands Trust has transformed over the past five years. We now have two excellent local grassland projects in Durham and the Weald, with very good Project Officers in Paul Evans (and Claire Bending before him) and Dawn Brickwood. And our National Nature Reserve at Carmel in Carmarthenshire has been transformed thanks to the efforts of Charli Evans and Deborah Sazer.

I am quite proud of having created our policy work, which sets us apart from most of other smaller conservation organisations – we contribute to policy development and advocate policies that are better for grasslands alongside much larger players like RSPB, CPRE and The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. As you will have read on this blog we are now starting to have some influence over policy on biodiversity and agriculture.

We have also embraced the world of social media as a way of getting our messages across directly to interested communities without having to negotiate the tricky waters of the traditional media. Thanks to Jemma for her far-sightedness back in 2009 starting our Twitter feed, we now have over 5000 twitter followers – more than many larger organisations. This blog has also had a real impact, even generating a few mainstream media stories along the way and getting our message out very widely.

We have also developed a really good advice service, which is run mainly by Deborah Alexander, with a little help from me on technical issues. Thanks also to Harriet Holloway for her sterling work on the advice leaflets, which have come in so useful, saving countless hours and providing consistent advice.

Deborah has also played an absolutely vital role getting the UK Grasslands Forum off the ground – this is also something I’m very pleased to have done  – it brings together all organisations interested in UK grasslands under the chairmanship of the excellent Professor John Rodwell. Deborah and John have worked especially well together over the past 18 months successfully organising an initial meeting with 24 people in the room and six phoning in (initially not very successfully but that was my fault!). This was followed up by a fascinating meeting in West Fermanagh Northern Ireland where we were able to provide advice to the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group. We finished off 2012 with a seminar in Wales looking at all the different values of grasslands  beyond traditional interests of biodiversity conservation. This was massive feat of organisation for Deborah and we did all on a very short shoestring. We’re having a quieter year this year, but planning is already well underway for our coming NIA workshop in September, where once again we will be bringing together grassland experts and practitioners to develop a more co-ordinated approach to grassland conservation in this increasingly disconnected times.

Our community grasslands work has also flourished under Martin Reeves’ leadership. Martin started with the Hocombe Mead project in Chandlers Ford near our Eastleigh head office. This has now expanded into our second Heritage Lottery Funded project covering a wider range of sites across Eastleigh. I think this work will continue to expand and enable us to take up a strong position to influence the future of Green Infrastructure policy development, especially once the economy is up and running again and housing development picks up to the levels of six or seven years ago.

It’s been a fascinating time at TGT and the organisation has developed a great deal in that time. We now have a great conservation team who are working well together, complementing each other’s roles and sharing what works well and things to watch out for. This was exemplified in a recent trip the conservation team (sadly minus Dawn our Weald project officer) to Carmel when we talked about management of the site and how to work with the local community and encourage them to get involved.

Of course The Grasslands Trust is more than the conservation team and we couldn’t deliver our grassland conservation aims without the untiring support of our chief exec Lucy, finance manager Jenny, media officer Sarah, our previous development manager Jemma, Liz our fundraising consultant and Amy running the office. Equally we couldn’t do any of it without our wonderful volunteers whether they be Trustees, conservation committee members and our office and conservation volunteers, working away on the ground on our reserves and projects.

There have been some low points along the way and some frustrations naturally – not being to able to successfully purchase Bury Farm last year was a big blow (especially having raised over £1.5M to fund the purchase and 5 year project), though in retrospect there was a real risk that such a large project would have weighed us down and skewed our priorities.

What about the future? It’s very exciting that we’ve now got our first Communications Director Elaine Shaughnessy, and I am sure she will be putting TGT fully on the media map in the coming months. There’s also going to be a full blown launch and push for membership which will be excellent. We’re also putting together an ambitious fundraising package for new posts to strengthen the conservation team which I have high hopes will be successful.

Conservation priorities will include developing the comprehensive grassland inventory and expanding our work advocating grasslands as valuable carbon stores. I’ve now written our new conservation strategy,  and this will provide a solid framework for my successor to build on over the coming years.

I’ll be finishing up my conservation work on 27th July then having a break, before spending a few days “tidying up” before leaving finally on 17th August.

Thanks to you all for reading this blog over the past couple of years – I’ve really enjoyed writing it and reading your comments here and on Twitter. I hope very much to be able to write a blog at Buglife but that’s all up for discussion when I start there in September.

Miles King


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