Protect Britain’s ancient trees

British trees have found themselves featured in the press fairly regularly over the past couple of months – mainly due to the apparent madness of Sheffield City Council deciding to remove thousands of healthy specimens seemingly for no other reason than that it would be expensive to revoke the instruction now that it’s been given. The decision provoked dogged resistance from locals, and even caught the attention of the environment’s surprising new ally, Michael Gove. These sorts of decisions matter – not just because they’re aesthetically unappealing (I can’t think of many people who want to live in a city stripped bare) but because as a nation we need all the nature we can get.

We know that global biodiversity is plummeting partly as a result of climate change and intensive chemical-fuelled agriculture – the French have recently recorded alarming reductions in bird numbers (so significant that experts are warning it could spell disaster for Europe’s wildlife) and Britain has been identified as being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. One of the key factors behind this global dilemma is habitat loss.

In the UK, ancient woodland – constantly under threat from the pressure to “develop” green areas – is one of our most valuable habitats. What isn’t necessarily so obvious is the fact that a single veteran tree is in and of itself a crucial wildlife habitat – a little universe humming with life, a microcosm of diversity. According to Back from the Brink, 2000 species depend on ancient trees for their survival in the UK. Fungi, beetles, birds – as the Woodland Trust explain on their website, the fact that ancient trees are in a state of prolonged decay makes them a vital and complex home for a rich variety of flora and fauna. And crucially, as the Woodland Trust also goes on to point out, ancient trees often aren’t located within existing woodland. They are the solitary remnants of former hunting forests, the ancient guardians in our oldest churchyards, pockets of wilderness in housing estates and city centres.

Biodiversity aside, these ageing monuments to centuries past also offer us romance and mystery – a tangible reminder of what our landscape used to be, the connective tissue joining us to the millions of people who walked under their shade before us. Our ancient trees – Tolkein’s Ents – have born witness to princes and poachers, lovers and mourners, scrumpers and twitchers. And as a nation, we obviously do care. The protestors in Sheffield – ordinary people moved to take action by the bizarre destruction of their city’s trees – seem to be on the cusp of forcing something of an about turn. John Lewis-Stempel, Robert Macfarlane, George Monbiot – there’s a reason nature or countryside writers are in the ascendancy in Britain. Millions of us feel a keen affinity with our natural world, and as such want to see it protected.

And the first step in ensuring that protection is to enshrine it in law and government policy. Whilst it’s heartening to see that the campaigning of organisations like the Woodland Trust has led to new protections for ancient woodland in the  National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) , inexplicably individual trees have been excluded explicitly from these safeguards. It’s a critical oversight which seems to ignore the value of these precious habitats – and which encapsulates the pressures being felt by vital habitats the world over.  What we need to remember – to paraphrase the excellent videos made by Conservation International over the past few years – is that we need nature. It doesn’t need us. So let’s take the opportunity to remind the Government that whilst the developments regarding woodland protection are extremely welcome, individual trees are also of critical importance to our nation’s ecology. We have until 10 May to respond – the Woodland Trust makes it very easy to do so via their website: Truststronger-planning-policy-for-ancient-woodland/.

Harnessing the rage

The essential problem with becoming more political over the past couple of years is that I’ve genuinely started to lose the faith. I know that the best way to change people’s minds is to be positive and upbeat but honestly, after a couple of gins, I tend to veer into bleak (and no doubt extremely tedious) territory at the moment. The more you read about climate change, the environment, and the loss of biodiversity, the more it becomes apparent that our government is doing virtually nothing to avert catastrophe. Smug digs at Caroline Lucas aside, Theresa May’s government is doing what my dad would have called the square root of FA. Ratifying the Paris Climate Change is easy – anyone with a lady bic has got that bit covered – but actually doing something to help contain this problem seems to be utterly beyond Westminster.

I’ve been chewing over this for some time now, and here’s my analysis in all it’s world-weary glory: our current Conservative Government is incapable of prioritising anything over money.


Now I’m really not having a dig at anyone who votes Tory – I’m the only leftie in my family, for a start, and I do get it, to an extent. I appreciate that a society needs economic stability in order to thrive – but my god, this bunch uses that justification to cover a multitude of sins. Here are just a few of their policies that have been keeping me up at night.

(1)    Austerity: I’m no expert in economics (which by Michael Gove’s standards should fast-track me to the Treasury) but it’s abundantly clear that this policy is something of a clusterfudge. Leaving deficits to one side, how can it be justifiable to penalise the poorest and most vulnerable through endless cuts to public services, whilst continuing to offer tax breaks to big business and the fossil fuel industry? How is it reasonable or sustainable to promote a policy which is going so far as to breach international human rights – hammering, in particular, women, young people, ethnic minorities and disabled people? Why are we surprised when the “post-fact” promises peddled during the EU referendum nudged struggling communities into voting against their own interests? And then there’s nasty old climate change to think about – cutting funding for first responders and flood defences isn’t ideal when we can reasonably expect some pretty extreme weather in the coming years. It’s pretty diabolical.

(2)    Fracking: Let’s take a moment to remember that the EU Referendum was run on the promise of giving power back to the people – cocking a snook at those nasty Brussels bureaucrats and making sure that if we want flammable flags, then dammit we shall have them. You could almost hear Henry V’s rousing speech running through Boris’ head as he whanged on about independence day. It was all very Last Night of the Proms. And yet…the Government doesn’t really believe in giving power to local communities. Not when there’s a risk of us exercising our right to make a decision they don’t particularly like. Take fracking, for instance. When Lancashire County Council decided to reject a fracking application last year, the Government responded by changing the rules. Now any decision regarding fracking can be made by the government, if they consider the application to be in the national interest – which, given that they’re the party going “all out for shale”, casts serious doubt on the idea that an application will ever be turned down. So much for people power, chaps – when they want our opinion, they’ll give it to us.

(3)    Subsidies: Most of us are agreed that climate change is, in the words of Harrison Ford, a clear and present danger. In principle, I think it’s fair to say the majority of us have also made the connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming – apart from Donald Trump, who thinks it’s a Chinese conspiracy. Essentially if we’re to have any hope of keeping the temperature increase below  2°c, we have to stop now. This is not a drill. In fact, in most cases it is a drill, because our energy policy seems to be frack in national parks like your life depended on it.

Which brings us to the issue of subsidies. Not only are our leaders failing to support the renewable energy sector – subsidies for green energy were slashed last year – but they are actively propping up coal. The Paris Deal becomes depressingly theoretical when you read George Monbiot’s comment that ,“In Britain for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5 billion more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.” A child could identify the problem with this set-up: it’s short-sighted, hypocritical, and essentially driven by the fact that there is no chance of a right-wing government alienating insanely wealthy fossil fuel companies. The stakes literally couldn’t be any higher, and all they’re concerned about is the bottom line.

(4)    Hinkley Point: Now I don’t have any particular beef with nuclear power. My dad worked on a nuclear submarine, for heaven’s sake, so joining the CND isn’t really an option in my house. There are huge questions to be answered about how we store nuclear waste safely, but in principle this is surely something that needs to be explored if we’re going to wean ourselves off coal and oil. Hinkley, however, does yank my chain, for the simple reason that this is being presented as a green solution by the government when (i) see points 2 and 3 above: what’s the point of promoting this whilst hamstringing other forms of green energy (ii) it’s going to cost a fortune and the technology, by all accounts, is the equivalent of trying to “build a cathedral within a cathedral” and (iii) it seems likely that it’ll take a good ten years for this plant to be generating energy when we need to tackle our energy crisis now. Not in 2020. It’s hardly the silver bullet.

(5)    Bake Off: As if the summer couldn’t get any worse, now the Tories have stolen cake. Cake. What’s next?! Christmas?!                                                                                                        

So here’s my dilemma: is it possible to talk about all that in an up-beat way? How can I evolve from teeth-gnashing into charm? Is there a more effective way to convince people than to collar them at parties and scream that we’re doomed? If there is, I haven’t found it – and  I suspect that my rage is as ineffectual as it is exhausting. Any tips most welcome – and in the meantime, it’s best to avoid me during cocktail hour.



“Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare” by Paul Colinvaux

My reading so far this year has taken me on a path through Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Laurie Lee; Naomi Klein; George Monbiot; and now Paul Colinvaux. It feels very much as though I have been approaching the science of conservationism and climate change backwards – the beautiful, nostalgic lyricism of PLF and Laurie Lee reminded me of just how much pleasure I take in being outside, walking through beautiful places. Naomi Klein jolted me into recognising how truly under threat that natural world is (not to mention our way of life), and George Monbiot stepped in when I was feeling helpless and nihilistic about it all, and introduced a much-needed sense of thrilling hope.

I’m sure that a lot of people have finished This Changes Everything and looked about them, frantically wondering what on earth they can do about it. I’ve spent the past few months trying to work out what to do with all of this new information. Should I try to learn about environmental law? Volunteer? Curb my consumerism (like some kind of activist Larry David)? So far, the answer has been an attempt to combine all of those things – and most recently, I’ve decided that I need to try to go back to first principles. If I really want to engage in this conversation, I know that I need to educate myself – it’s not enough just to agree with newspaper articles and books telling me that we need to divest/ avoid fracking/ stop exploiting fossil fuels/ rewild where possible as a way of injecting a bit of balance into our environment. I need to take my daydreaming, novel-loving brain and try to get it to understand something about the science.

I hope to study Biology A-level as soon as the new curriculum has settled down and its possible to do that via distance learning, and in the meantime, I’ve signed up to do an Environmental Studies A-level over the next two years (which seems like a really good idea now, but I’m sure will feel daft when I find myself in an exam hall next summer, clasping a sweaty fountain pen and trying to remember whatever silly mnemonic unlocks my revision notes). For now, a very clever scientist I know recommended Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and I have absolutely loved it.

Colinvaux’s book is essentially a series of essays which answer questions like “Why the Sea is Blue”, and “Why There Are So Many Species”; one of which is the excellently named, “The Curious Incident of the Lake in the Now Time.” Each essay is a perfect little capsule of information, clearly explained, beautifully written, and never intimidating. Big animals are so rare, he tells us, because they are limited by the supply of energy which is able to flow from the sun, through the food chain and ultimately to our largest, rarest predators. The sea is blue because only blue light is able to make the journey from the surface to the depths and black, and because there are not enough plants to make it green. The territoriality of yellowhammer birds enables pairs to establish a kind of marriage contract, and the problem with burning fossil fuels is that we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere more quickly than the sea can absorb it. It is full of fascinating nuggets of information which are thoroughly and most entertainingly explained, and he ends with a compelling (if rather alarming) description of the evolution of mankind and the fall of empires.

One of things I found most intriguing about the book is that it was first published in 1980 – a time when climate change theories were still relatively nascent (at least in the public consciousness). What is so interesting, and in fact so frightening, is to read passages like this, and to realise that almost nothing has been done about it during my entire lifetime:

“We are embarked on the most colossal ecological experiment of all time; doubling the concentration in the atmosphere of an entire planet of one of its most important gases; and we really have little idea of what might happen.”

A hundred pages later, he talks about the Alaskan pipeline: “I happen to think that the Alaskan pipeline is a disaster to the American heritage, both for the aesthetic damage it does to the last wilderness and for the encouragement it gives to the continued misuse of fuel reserves.”

It is precisely the argument being rehearsed now over the Keystone Pipeline (although of course there is now a great deal more urgency, because we have done nothing to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels over the last thirty five years). I don’t mean to misrepresent Colinvaux here, or to invest these quotes with an agenda – he is not an environmental campaigner and presents these facts with an academic’s eye, not as a call to arms. (It would be fascinating to hear him speak on these subjects in 2015.) But it is so interesting for an amateur like me to find the roots of current, popular science in this collection of essays – I very much had Feral in mind when I was reading the chapter called “The Succession Affair”, for example.

Paul Colinvaux’s personality informs ever page, and the science is presented with compelling conviction; he must be a very inspiring teacher. If you have any interest in the natural world, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

(Postscript: I loved Carolyn Scrace’s cover illustration for the Penguin 1990 edition. Perfect.)