What has nature ever done for us ?

Ewen Cameron is an Operations Manager in our Tayside and Grampian team and descended from many generations of farming folk. Here he talks about how we can help nature locally and in so doing help ourselves and future generations.

If you have ever watched the film, The Life of Brian, you will recall the conspiratorial scene when the question is asked – “What have the Romans ever done for us?”   Starting from the assumption that they have always been the losers, the conspirators gradually realise that they have actually done quite well from the Romans.   Our relationship with nature has some similarities to that comedy routine.

Often, we only see the ‘bad’ side of our wildlife and natural processes.   Many people dislike (or even ‘hate’) animals like foxes because they will take a lamb or a chicken or two; forgetting they also take lots more rabbits, mice and rats.   I grow strawberries in my garden, but I don’t mind the blackbirds eating some.   They eat a lot more slugs and leatherjackets; all in all I get just as much out of that relationship as the birds do.   Farming, forestry and fishing get far more out of Nature than they ‘lose’ to it.

2020V poster - farmland

So before we complain, or even go so far as killing wildlife or trying to control these natural processes, we should think it through.   We may get a short-term gain; but what will it cost us, our children and grandchildren in the longer term.   Rather than just look at the superficial effects, it is always worth looking at things a bit more deeply.

A few years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage and the comedian Phil Kay produced a short video entitled – Biodiversity begins with a Bee – which you can still see on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_otglflQw4&feature=kp  The video introduces the idea that despite all its sophistication, modern society is still very dependent on the natural world.

Most of us know (or do we?), that much of what we eat depends on nature giving food producers a ‘helping hand’ – pollination by bees and other insects is probably the best known example of this and is reckoned to be worth about £43 million a year to the Scottish economy.   In fact there is now a bit of jargon to describe Nature’s philanthropy and our continuing dependence on it – ‘Ecosystem Services’.   Much as we all bemoan jargon, it has a place and can be useful shorthand for ideas and processes that would take up lots of space if written out in full every time.

Like the conspirators in The Life of Brian, if you give it some time, I have no doubt you will be able to think of lots more instances where, despite all our modern technology, we are still very dependent on these Ecosystem Services.   If it wasn’t for lots of beetles, fungi, red kites and other scavengers dealing with everything from cowpats to dead rabbits; what would your countryside walk and the daily work of farmers and foresters be like?   Permanently knee deep in all sorts of dead and decomposing stuff!!

2020V poster - forest

Without a range of micro-organisms, sewage treatment simply wouldn’t work and without natural fungi, bacteria, earthworms and goodness knows what else in the soil, agricultural production would be a tiny fraction of what it is.

The decline in our native bees has led to some 45,000 bee colonies being imported to the UK every year for the pollination of greenhouse and field crops like tomatoes, peas and strawberries.   The financial cost of this importing is known – £4-5 million a year, but what about the less obvious costs.

Studies have shown that a significant number of these ‘imports’ carry parasites which can affect local honeybees and bumblebees.   Is that not an argument for a little more space being given over to restoring the habitat of native bees on farms and in the countryside generally, rather than running the risks and incurring the cost that go with importing?   In recent times we have seen the consequences of pests and diseases arriving in the UK.   The first confirmed UK case of Chalera dieback in ash trees was found in a consignment of infected trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire.   The financial cost of control is likely to be high, but we still don’t know what the longer term will bring for ash in the Scottish landscape.

Of course we cannot make Scotland a biological fortress, the wind, climate change, the migration of wildlife and movement of people will also bring us new pests and diseases.   When we look at changes in the way we manage our land, wouldn’t it make sense to consider all the costs and benefits of the actions we take.   The obvious action may be a cheaper option for us today – but will our children and grandchildren see it as a choice wisely made?   They may be left with all of the costs and none of the benefits.

In recent times, flooding has been a very emotive issue in the UK.   While there may be a case for dredging some watercourses, it’s also worth asking the question – where does all the sediment that blocks these watercourses come from?   Could something be done to prevent the sediment getting into the watercourses in the first place?

2020V poster - river

A few years ago the James Hutton Institute did some research on potato fields in Angus and estimated 80 tonnes of soil was washed off a 17 hectare field after the potatoes were lifted. That quantity of soil was also estimated to contain 60 – 70 kilograms of phosphorus; a vital crop nutrient in the fields, but a major pollutant to wildlife and fisheries in our lochs and rivers.

This explains why many people campaign for the wider use of buffer strips of natural vegetation because they provide an ecosystem service by trapping soil that might otherwise end up in watercourses.   The buffer strips are a loss to the farmer in terms of cropping land, but they are also a great benefit to the farmer and many others.   The farmer finds less soil (surely his or her most basic asset) washing down the ditches, burns and rivers, where it blocks drains and can cause flooding far and wide.

Urban dwellers have also contributed to these problems.   More and more development produces more and more non-porous surfaces of roads, hard standings, forecourts, and car parks, all of which mean rain gets into drains and then into watercourses much more quickly than if it filters through soil or gravel.   How many people do you know who have tarred over their driveway or part of their garden? It’s certainly easier to maintain, but creates a cost we all ultimately bear. Now multiply that by many thousands and you have a vast volume of water sloshing into drains and watercourses and rapidly raising the water level and overtopping the banks.

2020V poster. Urban greenspacepsd

Porous gravel driveways, bogs, forests and well vegetated riverbanks and burnsides all mean that much more rainwater takes the long route via the soil into watercourses so the rise in water levels is much slower.   In all such cases we have opted for the cheap, short term benefit without seriously considering the much wider and longer term costs and consequences.   If you’ve ever been flooded out of your house – you’ll know exactly what I mean.   So keep your gravel driveway and parking spot and you will be helping reduce the risk of flash flooding.   Yes, peat is good for your garden, but is probably much better left in the bog where it acts like a giant sponge and reduces the risks of flooding.   And of course an intact bog can extract and store vast amounts of carbon, the main component of the greenhouse gases we continue to pump into the atmosphere as if there was no tomorrow.

2020V poster. Bog

None of us can claim to have been great custodians of the natural world, but it’s not too late to mend our ways; to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions and make some small changes that will help make our children’s future a bit less bleak.   This article can’t give you all the details, but is just trying to prick your conscience.   Google ecosystem services and you’ll get lots of advice on what you can do to make a difference.

Remember – if you’re not taking part in securing the solution, you really are part of the problem.   If everyone who reads this article left a little more space for Nature on their farm, in their garden, on their allotment, in their local park, in their woodland or school grounds – we will all be repaid a thousand times over.   That sounds like a bargain to me.

Acknowledgement – this article first appeared in Leopard magazine.

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