Natural Environment Analysis

Preamble

Wessex writers and activists have a long tradition of critiquing industrial capitalism; from William Barnes’s Views of Labour and Gold in 1859, through Rolf Gardiner’s folk revivalism and George Pitt-Rivers’s Wessex Agricultural Defence Association (WADA) in the inter-war period—both of which were tainted to some degree by their sympathies for early Nazism, which we of course repudiate—and later to the anti-nuclear and road protests at Greenham Common, Twyford Down and Solsbury Hill, which went on to form the basis of Occupy and other anti-capitalist movements. Another interesting figure who was born in Chester but spent much of his life in Wessex was Brunel biographer Tom Rolt, an engineer and an enthusiast for vintage cars and heritage railways. Though he loved machines, he recognised the need to live within natural limits, pioneering the narrowboat revival movement on the River Thames. We believe that the reforms we propose are in the spirit of these critiques.

Apex Predators

The reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, brown bears and wolverines is one of the most controversial aspects of rewilding. Some farmers rightly worry about the threat to livestock, though species such as wild boar and longhorn cattle are often better evolved to defend themselves against such threats than newer breeds cultivated since their disappearance from these shores. The reintroduction of native predators can also sometimes help to curb the populations of invasive species: pine martens of grey squirrels, for example, or white-tailed eagles of mink. Any such reintroductions need to be sensitively handled, with regard to the needs of local communities.

Native species can also cause problems for communities. Badgers in particular are notorious for digging up gardens. While adult badgers are too large to have any natural predators, foxes, eagles and buzzards prey on badger cubs in Britain; while wolves, wolverines and eagle owls can also take them in places where they coexist. A Wessex Regionalist government would rely on the best scientific advice to ensure that the solution isn’t worse than the problem.

It would be wrong to paint this issue as a conflict between farmers and rewilders, as they are very often the same people. The Wessex Regionalists are, however, opposed to rewilding imposed from outside. Rewilding projects should be initiated by those who will be affected by them, not by interlopers seeking to profit from ecotourism.

Common land and Ecological Restoration

The London parties have a history of neglecting the right of the people of Wessex to live in harmony with their surroundings. From the Inclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries robbing people of access to common land to the much-protested road schemes around Winchester and Bath, the needs of local people have been subservient to those of the major financial and industrial centres. However, the New Forest is the last place in England to recognise the historic right of pannage (grazing pigs on open land), under the oversight of the Forest Verderers, while Dorset Wildlife Trust recently launched England’s first community rewilding project at a 170-hectare site near Bere Regis.

It is our opinion that regional devolution is necessary to achieve a Wessex-centred, radical process of ecological restoration, to reverse the damage done to countryside and coast by enclosures and industrialisation, much of it chiefly benefitting major landowners rather than local people. But devolution of government is not enough, we also need devolution of ownership, restoring the land to the community and to its natural state. In many cases, this may mean the reintroduction of species such as beavers, sea eagles, iron age pigs and longhorn cattle, and the creation of new wetlands and other lost habitats. One such new wetland has already been created at Steart Marshes in Somerset, resulting in the return of species that had previously disappeared from the area, including otters, avocets, and little egrets.

Rewilding Britain estimates that the least productive 20% of land in Great Britain produces only 3% of the country’s calorific value. In Wessex, many coastal areas and part of the Cotswolds could be given over to rewilding and/or carbon sequestration with minimal impact on food production.

Flooding and Housing Policy

Floods are a longstanding risk facing many coastal and riverside areas, notably in Gloucestershire and Somerset.  Parts of Berkshire have also experienced flooding from rising groundwater.  Understanding of these processes is improving through modelling and mapping, work led by the Environment Agency.  It is essential that this work continues, with devolved administrations working to consistent and precautionary definitions as far as possible.  Some of our region’s boundaries follow rivers, and others cross large catchments like the Severn and Thames, so all public authorities must take downstream effects into account when considering changes to land use patterns or water management policies.  The cross-border arrangements that have evolved between England and Scotland and England and Wales provide a model.

We believe it is for communities to decide their response to risk, free from pressure to meet growth targets by building in floodplains.  Between 2001 and 2011, the total number of homes nationally increased by 7% but the number at flood risk increased by 12%.  We would trust the wisdom of local people in knowing how to best manage the places where they live, involving the region only when there is a dispute between communities needing mediation by a neutral third party, or to prevent a “tyranny of the majority” whereby community decisions negatively impact their most vulnerable or marginalised members, who would be protected by robust anti-discrimination laws (see statements on Community Cohesion and Discrimination, to follow).

Our preference is to work with nature, limiting development in flood risk areas to that which cannot go elsewhere.  Development behind flood defences requires that these be maintained indefinitely, and it remains at risk from breaching or overtopping.  While large existing developed areas will need continued protection, it is unfair to future generations to extend the burden.  Where flooding is inevitable, buildings can be raised on stilts or designed to dry out quickly and safely.  Such solutions are not ideal for users and should be the exception, not the rule.  We will keep under review whether road or rail links need to be raised or relocated in the light of climate change forecasts.

The new wetlands mentioned above, reintroducing the European beaver in some places, and restoring the meanders to artificially straightened rivers, would also be beneficial in preventing flooding.  The ultimate aim should be to use the whole landscape to absorb rain before it can become a problem, integrating agricultural practices, tree planting, and sustainable drainage systems.  We would replace the Environment Agency and Natural England in Wessex with a new body – Natural Environment Wessex – able to take this holistic view.

Forestry

Forestry should prioritise a diversity of native species over plantations of a single species (eg Scots pine). Forest gardens mimic the structure of a natural forest, with a diversity of plant and animal species that can serve a variety of functions: providing timber, growing food and attracting wildlife. Many books and websites on forest gardening, however, place emphasis on mixing native and exotic species. We would seek to adopt a strategy of creating forest gardens using only indigenous species (including reintroductions where appropriate).

As part of our commitment to rewilding Wessex, we would favour natural tree planting. In 1882, two fields in Hertfordshire were given over to nature. Within 30 years, they had reverted to mixed deciduous woodland without any human intervention. Coppicing techniques have been used since the Bronze Age to turn woodlands into a self-sustaining economic resource. The UK is currently the world’s second largest importer of wood products, after China. More woodland would create employment opportunities and promote greater self-sufficiency.

Invasive species

Invasive species can sometimes stop indigenous species from flourishing, eg grey squirrels, American crayfish, Pontic rhododendron. In some cases, there are no natural means of control, and eradication is the only option. We would ensure that such removals were carried out as sensitively as possible, without disruption to other species. For example, with the rhododendron, we would favour uprooting individual trees over the widespread use of herbicides.

Meat and Livestock

The health problems caused by the current western diet, rich in meat and grains, are too well-known to be worth enumerating here. More people are switching to a plant-based diet, but this often involves industrially produced meat substitutes which are little better in terms of salt and fat content. Whilst we support the right of people to abstain from eating meat on animal welfare grounds, animals traditionally perform a range of functions on farms, including manuring, dispersing seeds, grazing land and even as transport (literal horsepower). Horses and oxen can be used to pull ploughs. There is no reason why diet in a small farm future could not continue to include small quantities of free-range meat. We would insist on the highest animal welfare standards, with no exemptions for kosher or halal meat. See separate papers on Farming & Food and Animal Welfare (to follow).

However, livestock farming is far more land-intensive than arable farming. Whilst there is no need to eliminate meat-eating altogether, we would strongly encourage a diet lower in animal products and higher in fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, to free up land for arable farming, allotments, and rewilding.

Water Quality

Private water companies, like all private businesses, place profit over all other considerations. Leaky pipes lose water, yet it is sometimes cheaper to build new reservoirs than to replace them, such as the one planned by Thames Water near Steventon in Berkshire. Cost-cutting leads to a drop in water quality as companies find it cheaper to pay fines, if they are successfully prosecuted, than to sort out pollution problems. We would take water companies into public ownership, working closely with the newly-formed Natural Environment Wessex to integrate the provision of domestic water and sewerage supplies with other aspects of the conservation of inland and marine bodies of water.