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  • Posted November 14th, 2017
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    What’s the best thing to do with the uplands, in terms of sustainability?

    What’s the best thing to do with the uplands, in terms of sustainability?

    This is a question asked in an interesting debate on Facebook along the lines of uplands and their appropriate maintenance with regards to grazing. There are several fascinating projects and opinion pieces that were linked to, including the polar opinions of Rebecca Hosking of Village Farm, and George Monbiot with his articles for the Guardian and his book Feral.

    ‘What’s best for the uplands?’ is a seriously complex subject. Firstly, the term ‘uplands’ is too broad a brushstroke. Within the uplands there are many different ecosystems depending on previous land use, climate, altitude, soil type, water catchment etc. etc. Then you have to add the people – if the community doesn’t want change, have fun trying to plant trees. The economics of each area will differ, depending on population concentration and how they get their money – not everyone is a sheep farmer. It is also not all the sheep farmers’ fault. Have a look at Feral by Monbiot for some interesting research on the maintenance of uplands from an environmental policy point of view, choosing wildly inappropriate species to act as indicators of healthy upland management. Then there are the estate owners, especially in Scotland, that encourage high deer populations for shooting, and the monoculture of grouse farms on the moors where they burn everything and kill the predators that would otherwise eat the wild chickens people pay to shoot.

    BUT is it our right to dictate what happens to these areas anyway? Who are we to tell the uplands what is best for them? From a deep ecology outlook you’ve got to remove the anthropocentric focus while still including humans as a species that is part of the local ecology. In that case it’s not what we do about the uplands, it’s what the ecosystem does for itself. You could potentially create a system where we are able to reforest great tracts of land, but humans will want to use it and as soon as profit twinkles, the lot will disappear – there is no profit in the natural world, it is a fiction of capitalism that encourages the use of someone or something else at that thing’s own expense. So perhaps shallow ecology – where we boost biodiversity for economic gain rather than because it is fundamentally right to allow other species the right to thrive. How far do you go? Where should you make the compromise? Do you exclude humans from the wild areas, pen us into the cities? Or do you attempt a hearts and minds campaign to rewild the humans too – if they love it, they will protect it, and there’s plenty of evidence that says we need to be connected to the land to be happy, healthy animals. All these areas need to be looked at in order to answer the question ‘What is best for the uplands?’

    And then we should do it for the river basins, the forests and woodlands, the lowlands, the sea. Big job, eh! As for research into the simple view of ‘plant trees and all will be well’ search ‘Welsh farms plant lots of trees’ and there’s a few news articles on the financial buffer and shelter benefits. There is also an article in Farmers Weekly titled ‘Grow trees, not sheep for better return from Welsh Uplands’. Sadly, if we need the trees to stop the flooding that damages our economy – we are going to have to plant them ourselves, because the uplands are so bare the ability for the ecosystem to recruit species enough for succession to occur is going to take an awfully long time. Given how degraded the environment is from what it was, there isn’t the species reserve to repopulate the areas as they were before so a new climax community will emerge. But we’re fresh out of climax community predators so herbivores are still going to end up dominating the ecosystem – eating all the trees. So unless we behave like the predators and cull the herbivores, the forested dream will remain just that. Have a look at Yellowstone’s reintroduction of wolves.

    If you want to be a sheep farmer (i.e. the predator), on a large scale, it is very, very hard to make a living. It is common knowledge that without subsidies there would be no sheep – especially in the uplands where the focus is on maintaining traditional livelihoods, not exactly on turning a profit. So Brexit is going to have a fascinating impact on how land is managed, but we all know there’s no research happening there… but there is the new Food Policy from Simon Fairlie and the guys at the Landworkers Alliance. Simon Fairlie has also done some excellent research for his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, and his article on taxing meat has some really good links for reference points. On the whole though, if you’re a smallholder with a little bit of uplands, plant native trees, leave bits to go back to nature, encourage native wildlife. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence of forest gardens i.e. orchards or silvo-pasture with bees etc. providing a decent income, however when compared to high intensity farming they fall short, as the inputs vs outputs are wildly variable. A good study was done by Bethan Stagg at Schumacher College with Dartington to compare the two farming systems side by side, which is worth a peruse if you are interested.

    Do you think that in the long-term, for the sake of ecology, plus small farm incomes, it would be a good idea to try to find ways to allow forests to come back to (most) hills? On the discussion it was put forward that allowing forests to come back to ecosystems would require fencing as is often found in places such as the New Forest where enclosures exclude the browsing ponies and deer that would otherwise eat the trees.

    Fences imply control and we have proven time and again that humans cannot create a representative ecosystem by ourselves. Fences will prevent other species from accessing the area to fill niches that would support faster regeneration. Fencing anything in or out adds a lot of maintenance (i.e. money) too.

    There have been various reports comparing the incomes of upland farmers in Scotland and Norway – where there is much more woodland, and farmers fare better. Their disparate incomes could have something to do with Norwegian agricultural policy. In Norway, all their food comes from Norway and only if they run out will imports be sought – and it’s the farmers who control that. In Scotland they are subject to the highly skewed land subsidies etc. which favour bare agricultural land and not forested land. There are massive caveats on how many trees you’re allowed on the land you are claiming subsidies on. We came a cropper with it at our farm – we desperately needed trees for shelter as the land is incredibly exposed BUT we couldn’t claim the subsidies we needed to fund our regenerative works if we planted them… bit of a Catch 22 really.

    Long term, we all need to work towards regenerating landscapes, and that absolutely means trees in the right places. Changing the subsidy schemes to help farmers pay for the ecological changes they need to make, that won’t necessarily benefit their bottom line, is possibly the only way to do this – this means expanding on the Pillar 2 payments, however all the wealthy landowners that simply get paid for owning land might have a problem with those changes post Brexit (especially as they are the ones dictating all the policy).

    We also need to be wary of shifting baseline syndrome. Sustainability isn’t enough – sustaining a broken system is just silly. We need to regenerate, not sustain, and we need to look beyond the 1970s when many of the first species counts were conducted for comparison against today’s losses. So many conservation projects try to return the land to what it was – what it was when? 10 years ago, 50 years, 10000 years? What we need to do is look forward at what it could be now. With climate going the way its’ going the climax communities are going to be very different – so re- establishing forests in the uplands needs to take that into account too. If we are going to get involved, we need to pick species very carefully so that in 20 years time our investments won’t be lost because the temperature or rainfall has shifted.

    However the solution to land management is not an either/or, its an ALL. Its not about fences, or saving areas to be ‘representatives’ of certain habitats, about saving traditional farming methods or preserving the perceived ‘rights’ of the wealthy to enjoy countryside pursuits.

    On a larger scale, for working farms having to turn a profit, there is a wonderful concept called Wilderculture, pioneered by Caroline Grindrod of Roots of Nature, and Primal Meats, that aims to create a way of managing land to encourage the regeneration of ecosystems while supporting an income for the people involved too.

    Wilderculture is new and it’s different. It’s not just conservation, it’s not just farming, it’s not just wild game management and it’s not just rewilding; it’s completely and utterly all of it; an integrated approach which includes people in this mix too. Wilderculture is a holistic land management strategy that aims to rebuild an ecosystem for the benefit of the entire system instead of simply just one part – be that human profit or nature conservation.

    Conventional conservation and farming both involve managing an ecosystem to ‘hold’ it in a state, preventing its natural succession towards woodland in order to promote the species they want. Conservationists usually prefer a wildlife species or habitat, and farmers prefer livestock or crops. Farmers sell their ‘species’ for money, and conservationists mostly fund their work through donations. Unlike a machine with cogs and wheels that can be replaced when they break, an ecosystem is self-organising and complex so holding natural processes back takes a lot of energy in the form of money or management and more often than not doesn’t do what we expect.

    The holistic management aspect of Wilderculture makes it a highly practical systems management framework developed for working with complexity – you know, like dynamic ecosystems and people who won’t fit into our plans. It’s a set of tools, planning processes and systems that help us make great decisions that keep us on track. Most decisions we make these days tend to be in response to a problem and rarely address the root cause, this is how we often wind up with results we didn’t plan for. Treating the symptoms instead of the sickness will never heal the land and its peoples.

    Methods such as this are a great step forward in an era where looking after our environment is becoming so crucial. Without the support of government infrastructure it is up to pioneers and entrepreneurs to solve the problems we are facing and encourage change from the roots up by demonstrating their successes.


    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    5 Comments

    • Dave Darby November 14th, 2017

      Hi Emma

      Wouldn’t reforesting the uplands mean that a lot more resources could be harvested (meaning more income for hill farmers)? For example – timber, firewood, charcoal, tourism, hunting, wild meat (in the absence of top predators), farmed meat (pigs can be run in woodland), wild food etc. – and at the same time providing habitat, carbon sequestration, holding soil and preventing flooding.
      Reforesting would be a slow and difficult process, but ultimately worth it, surely?

      Plus do you have a link to Bethan Stagg’s report?

      • bimbleboots - replied

        November 14th, 2017

        So, imagine you are a sheep farmer with access to a few thousand acres of uplands. How much money do you think you have? As a sheep farmer in Devon, we were offered a grant of £22k to plant trees on our 170 acres BUT we couldn’t claim that money until we had planted all the trees in the agreement. So firstly, we had to get together the capital outlay ourselves. The money we could reclaim would cover our time (which we had very little of as full time farmers), and the outlay for the thousands of trees, guards and gates on our enclosures to keep our sheep out (so we lost a few acres of grazing in each field, meaning less sheep). Those lost acres meant our subsidy went down, you can’t claim for areas that aren’t grazing, so overall we lost out yearly in other areas. We wanted the trees to provide desperately needed shelter, so there was no shelter for them, so the trees we managed to plant grew very very slowly. We anticipated that any revenue that could be taken from them would be in the next generation’s lifetime. And for us, with no children on a rented farm on a short lease, there seemed little point to this in the name of profit. We did however, desperately want to improve the landscape, to increase biodiversity and sequester more carbon, and do our bit for future generations, demonstrating to others that it can be done. We needed the income of the sheep to begin to fund our regeneration of the land, AND we needed the support of the general public who needed to pay a premium for sheep raised in an environmentally conscious way so that we could put money into our regenerative projects. BUT with the economy as polar as it is, there are an awful lot of people who just can’t afford that extra, seeing it as a luxury instead of an important agricultural paradigm shift.

        The slow and difficult part is always the challenge when it comes to replanting/rewilding/reforesting an area for use of resources. I don’t know the exact figures for costing a reforestation project but I expect the inital outlay for trees, guards, fences to keep herbivores out until the trees are established etc. would cost significantly more than the resources harvested in say, 20-30 maybe even 100 years. Establishing trees in areas with no shelter can take considerably more time than in an area that already has some cover. Naturally occuring succession takes a long time because the environment needs to be slowly prepared for the establishment of the climax community. Scrubland helps protect the young trees from the elements while they establish strong root systems that will keep them healthy. The scrubland (bushes and grassland) provides food for the species that would otherwise graze all the trees and in every ecosystem there is an enormous attrition rate, something not taken too kindly when each sapling has to be paid for…
        Not only that the soil communities change over time too. A grassland microbial community is radically different to that of an establishing woodland and it takes time for it to change from one to the other. Grasslands are characterised by short lived species, both bacterial and fungal, whereas wooded climax communities are characterised by complex, longlived communities. This can be replicated with the addition of mycchorizal treatment on the roots of planted saplings but nothing we can do compares to a naturally established system. Also, the farmer who is planting the trees and doing the work of maintaining them, is unlikely to see financial benefit from the important flood prevention his upland forestation work has provided. There would need to be some sort of recompense elsewhere in the system for this important service, i.e. through the subsidy system.

        I am by no means suggesting it is an impossoble feet. There just needs to be considerable change in the system to allow it to happen. It is not a case of whether foresting is right or wrong – of course creating natural climax habitat is the best option for every ecosystem. The issue is Who will pay for it? Because the only way it will stay as a climax community is if balance is enforced when we humans come and reap the profit, and sadly balance often means less profit. Can we be less greedy, for the sake of the environment? Can we put something back, give something without the need to get something in return?

        I fundamentally believe these changes need to happen if we are to pull back the environment from its headlong rush to oblivion at the hands of the humans. But I am also chronically aware of the effort that needs to go into changing these systems, and ultimately, who the decision makers are.

        Here’s the link for Bethan’s summary poster which has some great graphics for comparison of the ‘conventional’ vs ‘forest garden’ approaches to food production.
        https://www.ipcuk.events/sites/default/files/Bethan%27s%20forest%20garden%20poster.pdf

    • Emma Olliff November 14th, 2017

      Not an upland estate, but an interesting case study for rewilding with examples of revenue streams that enable landscapes to be allowed to regenerate naturally https://knepp.co.uk/

      The difference with many of these rewilding projects is they are starting with areas that are already wooded in part so species are present in order to spread if allowed, unlike the uplands where an entire ecosystem shift would be needed at additional cost. But a good start 🙂

      • Dave Darby - replied

        November 14th, 2017

        Interesting, but the ownership structure is not good, and I’m not sure it lends itself to smallholders who haven’t inherited 1600 acres. I think you’d need to be in pretty special circumstances to be able to afford to do that. Maybe, in time, co-ops could start to own more land, and have some wild land as part of the deal. But then there’s the burgeoning population. I can’t see how we can afford not to maximise yields, but at least leaning towards this style of farming might mean we can slow down soil erosion and biodiversity loss. But small-scale, organic and producing for local markets directly will maximise yields I think.

        Interesting also that she’s saying that the UK would never have been covered in trees because there were always large herbivores clearing different habitats.

    • Stuart-Anderson November 15th, 2017

      I watched the TED talk with great interest, then read this:
      All Sizzle and No Steak
      Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong.
      By James E. McWilliams

      • Annie Leymarie - replied

        November 15th, 2017

        Dozens of ecologists have written, just like James McWilliams, to denounce the gist of Savory’s theory as utter nonsense (including of course George Monbiot in the UK, who recently wrote in The Guardian: “I would like to see the TED team post a warning on Savory’s video, before even more people are misled”).

        One organisation which has spent years examining his claims is the UK-based Food Climate Research Network. They have recently published a report which shows very clearly that the theory that ‘holistically-managed’ grass-fed livestock can help mitigate climate change doesn’t hold water (http://www.fcrn.org.uk/fcrn-blogs/tara-garnett/blog-post-tara-garnett-why-eating-grass-fed-beef-isn%E2%80%99t-going-help-fight).

        Another recent study states that “To date, no review study has concluded that holistic grazing is superior to conventional or continuous grazing. Some claims concerning holistic grazing are directly at odds with scientific knowledge, e.g., the causes of land degradation and the relationship between cattle and atmospheric methane concentrations. The idea that ruminant populations have historically been ‘very large’ appears to be pure speculation. It is likely that the emissions of methane outweigh any positive effects associated with increased soil carbon storage as a result of improved grazing management. The soil carbon storage potential does not exceed 0.8 tonnes of C per ha and year (according to an estimate based on very optimistic assumptions), thus less than 5% of the emissions of carbon since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Thus holistic grazing cannot reverse climate change.” (https://www.slu.se/globalassets/ew/org/centrb/epok/dokument/holisticmanagement_review.pdf ).

        A review in the International Journal of Biodiversity concludes that: “Ecologically, the application of Holistic Management (Savory’s) principles of trampling and intensive foraging are as detrimental to plants, soils, water storage, and plant productivity as are conventional grazing systems. Contrary to claims made that Holistic Management will reverse climate change, the scientific evidence is that global greenhouse gas emissions are vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to store the carbon emitted each year.” (http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijbd/2014/163431/).

        One of the authors, George Wuerthner, has often written about the damages done by grazing livestock and the fiction that is ‘green grazing’. In The Wildlife News, he wrote that “reducing livestock numbers is the quickest and perhaps most effective means of significantly altering greenhouse gas emissions”, concluding that “there are a host of collateral damages created by livestock production, from the destruction of soil biocrusts, killing of predators, water pollution, clearing of forests for pasture, and so on”. In a recent post he wrote: “For every example of “green grazing out there I can show 100 examples of where livestock production is destroying and degrading our natural landscape. As a botanist and biologist and in researching dozens of books (…) I saw first hand the bogus arguments that “Good grazing” was good for wildlife. It’s like saying that city dumps are good for wildlife because ravens and gulls love them” (http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2017/08/14/critique-of-montana-outdoors-proposed-green-grazing-article/)

        Another critique of Holistic Grazing is from Guy McPherson who writes: “As if logic were not sufficient to put a stop to Savory’s stupidity, we have data. Droves of data. And all those data point in the opposite direction Savory would have us you believe” (and he quotes quite a few references) – http://guymcpherson.com/2013/03/peak-patriarchy/.

        There are many, many more (ask if you’re interested!)

    • Rosewood Farm's Rob November 16th, 2017

      ‘doesn’t hold water’ – I’m sure that pun wasn’t intended but it is very apt. One of the major underlying principles of holistic management is that the land does retain water better. 🙂 The truth is that it does work to improve land, including water retention and soil carbon levels. Monbiot’s take-down of Savory didn’t actually study Savory’s grazing methods. Fortunately Monbiot does provide references so you will be able to verify that he wasn’t using holistic management example to ‘debunk’ Savory. However, he was invited to see holistic management working for himself by myself and others but thus far he hasn’t taken the opportunity.

    • Rosewood Farm's Robert Rose December 22nd, 2017

      I’ve been giving this subject some thought as I’ve been reading some of Monbiots Feral recently and think I have hit upon the reason why it won’t work – Monbiot himself. He has written this book as an ‘inspiration’ but completely failed to engage the audience ie the land owners and managers that he needs to influence to make it happen. Feral seems to appeal largely to people like Monbiot himself – those who want to these changes but aren’t prepared to pay for it. Meanwhile he is seeking, on a pure ‘voluntary’ basis, to recruit land managers by alienating them unless they agree with him.

      As a lowland land manager my only interest in the uplands is that I share their flooding as it passes through our valley and brings life to the lowlands. As such I don’t wish to preserve the uplands in a steady-state but I do firmly believe that in targeting the uplands only for rewilding that Monbiot is protecting the interests of people in the lowlands (and cities) in order to garner their support. Amassing an army of supporters to attack (politically) the much smaller population who call the uplands home.

      My own vision for the uplands is more inclusive but also more controversial because it affects everyone – not just a few wealthy landowners and poor sheep farmers but every single one of us. Rather than seeking to hold the floodwaters back in the uplands I think we should all take on some of it and re-wet the lowlands and rewild both our farmland and our cities. Then we might understand better how people in the uplands feel by investing in something they are unlikely to see the benefit of in their own lifetime. While a thriving forest ecosystem will take time to develop before it’s resources begin to generate an income it is imperative that our society changes to start *demanding* those resources now, in order to give the uplands the confidence to invest. Likewise the same applies to the lowlands – we are currently demanding dry-land products which is competing with our need to re-wet vast tracts of land for carbon storage, habitat and water management. This needs to change.

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