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

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Posted Nov 14 2017 by Emma Olliff of Regenereat

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.