Everyday we are inundated with news about the climate change crisis, with dramatic images of glaciers receding, polar ice melting, fires, floods, famines, and extreme weather conditions. The responsibility of humans for this crisis and the scientific evidence upon which it is based are, regrettably, too hotly debated, if you’ll excuse the pun. But the flip side of the coin, about which there is no argument, is that humans are solely responsible for a massive loss in biodiversity.
For me the single most obvious marker over the last 20 years is that I am no longer woken by a deafening dawn chorus of birds in the spring. And how many of us still have an opportunity to walk through an ancient wildflower meadow and see 200 yr old plants like great burnet and hear the songs of competing skylarks? We have lost 98% of these ancient floodplain wildflower meadows in the last 75 years. A mere 4 square miles - the size of Heathrow Airport - of this type of meadow remain in the whole of the UK. Around Eynsham there were many such meadows, but walking out now from our village we can no longer easily pick a handful of wildflowers - buttercups, great burnet, meadow foxtail, oxeye daisies - for a vase. Instead stores tempt us to buy roses grown in Africa.
And so we can go through a very long list of losses that have resulted in the appalling statistics cited in successive State of Nature reports, the latest being in 2019 (https://nbn.org.uk/stateofnature2019/reports/), where a survey of nearly 700 species of land, freshwater and sea animals, fish, birds, butterflies and moths revealed that 41% of species have seen significant population decline since 1970, 33% have seen little change. On Long Mead we no longer see hares on the meadow and there are fewer skylarks, the coots and great crested grebes are no longer nest in the reedbeds. Kestrels, once common, are also now rarely seen. But not all is gloom - 26% of the 700 species have increased in number – so yes we now do have red kites soaring overhead.
The reasons most commonly cited for this catastrophic decline are loss of habitat and fragmentation due to development, and pollution from many sources. Of course these negative actions are carried out by others, not by us, the ecologically enlightened. But the fact is we all contribute to the loss of biodiversity in subtle ways of which we may often be quite unaware. It seems to outsiders that the British suffer from a syndrome known as Ecological Tidiness Disorder (ETD) – a compulsion to tidy the environment down to the last weed. We know a someone in Oxford who hates sweeping up leaves, so he has chopped down all the veteran trees he inherited when he bought his house and he continues to put pressure on all his neighbours to chop theirs down too!
While his is an extreme manifestation of ETD, we also create monocultures like lawns that need mowing every two weeks, fertilizing, and weed killing, we plant non-native species of trees to which our wildlife is not well-adapted, we remove ivy from trees because we think it damages them, whereas it provides an important refuge and nesting place, and is important source of nectar for many insects in autumn, and it provides fruit in winter for birds. Around the parish we still see veteran trees being felled for no good reason, verges being mowed very regularly, dead tree branches removed rather than leaving them as another habitat - all this in the pursuit of tidiness. But tidiness is in the eye of the beholder. You would imagine that the Swiss are very tidy, but in Zurich, where I used to live, trees are planted wherever possible along every street, and around the base of each tree a self-seeded mini meadow arises, which gets trimmed just once a year. Almost all our insectivorous birds thrive on natural profusion, which some see as ‘scruffy’, but if scruffy supports moths, we will have cuckoos, and the house sparrows will thrive if we leave them an untidy bush and untidy corners around our homes.
Artificial night lighting has well-documented negative effect on ecology, yet around the parish bright street lights, signs, and factory security lights beam forth, often all night. All these examples, and many more, are our unwitting contributions to biodiversity decline. And though the decline year-to-year may be imperceptible, just talk to longstanding members of the parish and they will remind you how large is our loss.
So what’s to be done? You all probably know the old joke where a tourist coming up to a local and asks them for directions to a village somewhere in the parish. The local listens intently and then says, ‘ If you want to get there, I wouldn't start from here.’ We would all surely rather not be starting from such a dire state of nature, but since we have to start from here, let’s see what direction we might usefully take in building nature recovery network.
The mantra given to us by Sir John Lawton, who wrote the first State of Nature report in 2010, is ‘Bigger, Better, More Joined up’. And we can add to that: ‘More diverse’.
And fortunately in the Eynsham parish we are not starting from a standing start - many of you have been involved in leading a sustained and active program of nature recovery for decades.
And this is point 1: We take it personally and we do it. Point 2 follows logically: we do it on our own doorstep.
As a first step then we need first to know where we are. This is what we have been doing for the past months in making a baseline map of what actually exists in the parish. With this baseline of data, and by exploiting all the opportunities of modern media, we can document the Before-and-After pictures of our activities to generate biodiversity.
I’m sure you will be fascinated to know some of the bald statistics that already emerge from the Map - that the area of Eynsham parish is 3600 acres, 58% of which is arable, 8.5% is grassland. Species rich wildflower meadows form a tiny 4%, 3.5% of which is still under restoration. But woodlands also cover only about 4% of the parish. There are 23 miles of road, 23 miles of rivers and streams, and a whopping 51 miles of hedgerows. Still to be added are measurements of air, soil and water quality, and surveys of all things that fly, walk, crawl, and swim, as well as plants, trees, hedgerows, and orchards.
Already in these statistics lies Opportunity with a capital ‘O’ - what we scientists refer to as ‘low hanging fruit’. Many of these opportunities have already been identified by you and are reflected in the comments and stickers that you have put on the aerial view of the parishes that has been up in the Market Garden for the past months. Top of the list were proposals for tree planting – for example, planting orchard trees in unused allotments at Cassington, planting trees in various sites like Marlborough Place, Willowbank, Millwood End. There were many requests that we manage the verges more sympathetically and to improve the plant life along verges. There were suggestions for wildflowers to be sown at various sites – Hazeldene Close, Freeland, unused meadows and pockets of land. These and other proposals are on the board.
One opportunity we have taken at Long Mead is to restore wildflower hay meadows with the intention of linking Long Mead – an ancient hay meadow – to other meadows as far up river – to Pinkhill Lock and beyond - and down river to the SSSI (Sies of Special Scientific Interest) - the meads of Oxford. Our dream is that one day you will again be able to walk from Eynsham to Oxford in wildflower meadows. This is our contribution to the mantra – bigger, better, more joined up, and crucially, more diverse.
Are we side-stepping the climate crisis by focussing on creating diverse habitats? Emphatically not. But in the present enthusiasm to address the climate crisis by planting billions of trees, we should remember that loss of biodiversity is the flip side of the coin. It makes no sense to fill up our empty spaces with trees, for this simply creates a monoculture and a loss of diverse habitats. Grasslands for example are crucial habitats for species that do not live in woodlands.
As well as being species rich in plants and animals, wildflower hay meadows form as important a carbon sink as forests do. Thus by restoring meadows we get the double plus of increasing biodiversity and of capturing greenhouse gases.
Interestingly, species-rich wildflower meadows traditionally provided commercial opportunities for haymaking and grazing – and for the health of farm animals. Welsh farms often kept a wildflower-rich meadow called a "Cae Ysbyty" or "hospital field" where sick animals recuperated by grazing in the herb-rich meadow, because it has medicinal properties.
We hope that the inaugural meeting has opened your eyes and ears and given you a heightened consciousness of nature in our parishes, as well as evoking many exciting ideas – and an eagerness to pick the low hanging fruit that a parish offers.