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“Simon says” – How green is your belt?

November 30, 2016

view-to-poole-from-upton-heath-mark-heighesIf the broadsheet newspapers are to be believed recently, England is heading towards an era of urban sprawl and environmental degradation as developers get access to sacrosanct green belt land.  The Telegraph talked last month about 300,000 new homes in 14 green belts, and The Times last week revealed that Ministers had been urged to support building on green belt to ease the ‘housing crisis’.

Green belt – what it is and what it isn’t

As environmentalists it is obvious that we should be opposing this development isn’t it?  Well actually I don’t believe it is as simple as that.  First of all green belts are not just nature conservation designations.  They are a development planning restriction.  They aren’t a new concept either.  In his review of green belts for Dorset’s Local Nature Partnership (http://www.dorsetlnp.org.uk/hres/green-belt-report.pdf), Simon Williams described the history of the concept which goes way back to 1580 when Queen Elizabeth established a three-mile cordon sanitaire around London.

It wasn’t until 1947 and eventually 1955 that it became enshrined in our modern laws.  Not to protect landscape or nature, but ‘to provide a girdle of open space around major conurbations’.  The concept does not define the quality of the land to be protected, merely a line on a map outside which development should not normally occur.  Green belt is specified land around the country’s major conurbations, not just open countryside, and not around towns and villages as is sometimes thought.

What do we want green belt to be?

Probably few would doubt the continued value of preventing urban sprawl.  How would our country look and feel if it was one long suburban sprawl from London to Liverpool, as it is around Tokyo?  You may have a different view, but I for one would prefer to live where there was a marked contrast between town and country, not a bland indistinguishable blend of the two.

It has been a criticism of green belt that it primarily benefits the more wealthy who can afford to live there – look at the New Forest for example.  Green belt can though be a huge benefit to urban residents if there is adequate access and it is of good enough quality.  DWT’s own Great Heath project is an example of this.  Heritage Lottery Fund supported the project because of the access it gave to communities around the conurbations of Poole and Bournemouth.

Currently the quality of green belt land on the urban fringe can include anything from internationally important heathlands to a pretty tatty mix of football pitches, pony paddocks and monoculture agriculture.  Nothing wrong with the latter three in the right place, but I think it is a wasted opportunity not to engage communities and get a wide range of people out on high quality green-space in the vicinity of where they live.  Look how popular Moors Valley, Brownsea Island, Upton Heath and Badbury Rings are.  All close to the conurbation in Dorset.

In these days of kids becoming increasingly isolated from nature, the population becoming more obese, and increases in mental ill health and fitness related illnesses, we need more natural places for people to exercise or relax and to recharge our batteries.  Green belt can do that, but not used as it is today, i.e. purely as open land to separate towns.

A green belt for people and nature

So let’s then think about how green belts could be better set up and used so that they benefit modern-day communities, not just for a single use.  That requires that we give up the concept of green belt as sacrosanct.  Easy for us, but much harder for councillors and some MPs who have been elected on a ticket of defending green belt to the death.

The first thing to ensure is that the size and connectivity of the green belt is not eroded – it is not just the green part of green belt that is important but also the belt.  Government has talked about a land-swap, though CPRE has concerns as they say it is far easier to get land for development than to set aside land as green belt.  I like the idea of land-swap because it retains the size and connectivity of the green belt, but admits that the exact location of the 1955 designations may not be as relevant today.

Developer pays

Securing land for public use, dedicated to local authorities or environmental organisations, and for funding improvements to the quality of green space is hard to come by these days.  Improvements to access, bike paths, restoring habitats, interpretation, land management, fencing, etc., all cost money both in the initial set-up and ongoing management.  If people are to use the land and enjoy nature, the quality of the experience often has to be improved over what is currently on offer within our green belts.  Who is going to pay for this?  This is where developer contributions come in, in the form of a green belt levy, mitigation costs, or more formal overarching section 106 agreements (legal planning obligations).  This funding must though be used for nature and environment and not just siphoned into other levies for example for new roundabouts and bridges.  There needs to be a net gain for the natural environment.  Simply opposing development at all costs will not generate the benefits that have the potential to improve quality of life, health and wellbeing.

So in summary, my personal view is that in certain, controlled circumstances development on green belt land can be a good thing for the environment and for communities, but we must ensure that the amount of green belt land does not decrease and the quality of the land in terms of nature and amenity increases – paid for by the development itself.  We may not be able to stop progress, but we can certainly make it a force for good.  What do you think?

By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps

Photo: View to Poole from Upton Heath © Mark Heighes

Wildlife Skills communications week in Devon

November 21, 2016
Lake at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Lake at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Last week we went on our second residential of the traineeship, down to Devon. It was a great week filled with important training where we learnt new skills and challenged ourselves. Over the course of the week we got up to a variety of activities.

Monday
On our arrival in Okehampton it was good to catch up with our fellow trainees. After sharing what we had been up to over lunch it was time for our first activity of the week, a high ropes session. Facing our fears, we managed to complete several teamwork tasks including climbing a Jacob’s Ladder as a group. We had to work together helping each other to get our team as high up the ladder as possible in five minutes. In the evening, we had a presentation skills training session where we were given useful tips on how to deliver an engaging talk to an audience. We could take things from this session to use in our own presentations we had prepared for this week.

Tuesday
Tuesday was spent cracking on with our training, this time though we were learning all about communicating through the media and how to become social media gurus! The evening session gave us a chance to practice our presentation skills, presenting to the rest of the group about our favourite aspects of the traineeship so far. Delivering a presentation can be a bit of a daunting task so this was a great opportunity to practice and improve at it.

Wednesday
It was time to get out and about on our third day. We took a trip to Meeth Quarry Nature Reserve where we were given a guided walk of the site lead by the Devon practical trainees. It was interesting to learn about how the former clay quarry has become a haven for wildlife with its range of habitats from its lakes and ponds to its woodland and grassland which are grazed by ponies. We also took part in a practical conservation task to restore a pond. A mass of trainees made light work of clearing scrub and digging the pond base out, even the rain couldn’t stop us!

Pony at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Pony at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Thursday
We were joined by Chris Salisbury from Wildwise who delivered a workshop about storytelling. To begin the session, he told us a short story whilst playing an instrument called a tank drum. We all listened intently, captivated by his voice and the accompanying music and gestures. The session involved a few different activities to get us thinking creatively and understanding the power of storytelling in engaging people with nature and wildlife.

Friday
Our final day provided some glorious sunshine for us to take part in a guided walk lead by one of Devon’s trainees to Black-a-Tor Copse National Nature Reserve. Black-a-Tor Copse is a good example of a high altitude oak woodland in Britain and was a new type of habitat for us to experience. Many of the trees here support nationally important lichen and mosses.

Stream on Dartmoor, copyright Hazel Pittwood

Stream on Dartmoor, copyright Hazel Pittwood

Dartmoor, copyright Lizzie Parris

Dartmoor, copyright Lizzie Parris

Engagement trainee Hazel really enjoyed the training week and reported, “The highlight of our Okehampton training week for me was Black-a-Tor Copse.  I loved spending time amongst the gnarled oak trees of the ancient woodland, draped in lichen and moss. If ever I saw a place that resembled the domains of faeries and other folk of fantasy tales, this was it! Our eyes were met with an entire spectrum of lush greens. A Red Admiral butterfly glided past and came to rest on a branch, furiously vibrating its wings to warm up. The adjacent stream provided a peaceful soundtrack to our visit and the low autumn sunlight illuminated the glowing golds, yellows and reds of the other trees nearby. It was quite simply a magical place to behold! Other elements of the trip I thoroughly enjoyed were our visit to Meeth quarry and our practical task there (restoring a pond), hearing what my fellow trainees have been up to when we all delivered presentations to each other and the session about using storytelling skills as a way to engage people with the wonders of the natural world.”

Black a Tor Copse, copyright Lizzie Parris

Black a Tor Copse, copyright Lizzie Parris

 

Lizzie Parris, West Dorset Practical Conservation trainee

“Simon says” – Marine Protected Features

November 3, 2016

undelute-ray-peter-tinsley-2In this blog at the beginning of each month I hope to be giving some topical insights into what goes on behind the scenes in conservation and environment.  I will try and be thought-provoking and sometimes even controversial, but I hope not divisive.  The views expressed here are not necessarily the policy of DWT, but are my own thoughts laid out for you to judge – for better or worse.  Please pass this blog on to your networks if you found it interesting.

Marine Protected Features

I have been an oceanographer / marine biologist for all my career and so I constantly strive to ensure that marine conservation is not the poor cousin to the work we do on land.  There is however no getting over the fact that humans are, with a few notable exceptions like Jacques Cousteau and Duncan Goodhew, a terrestrial species, so we have to work that much harder to raise the profile of the importance of the massive range of ecosystems that cover two thirds of our planet and are vital to our very survival.

Whilst marine conservation and management has its particular challenges, such as a lack of ownership and the famous ‘tragedy of the commons’, we salty types like to think we are every bit as advanced in our thinking as those poor individuals constrained to working on land.  The subject of my blog this month has both positive and negative elements to it, and I leave you to judge which prevail.  As an optimist I side very much on the positive side of the great progress made.

Decades ago in response to the decline of some notable species, plans were set up for their protection and recovery.  These plans were targeted at the species of concern, often to the exclusion of other species.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on the nature of the plan and the species.  The problem with such a focussed approach is that all life coexists in ecosystems within which there is a myriad of inter-relationships.  Hence a change in one element of the system can cause unexpected consequences elsewhere.  A good example of this is the damage caused to bees by neonicotinoids used to control aphids.  Another example is that over £300 million has been raised for tiger conservation because people generously donate to iconic species rather than less sexy ecosystem processes.  It is though the latter which need to be addressed to protect tigers, such as habitat destruction, watershed management and prey abundance.  As Dorset based conservationist Mark Carwardine says, there is a place for both approaches.  Certainly though, targeting on just one species or element of the ecosystem has considerable limitations.

Moving then back offshore, this lesson does not appear to have been learnt by national marine legislators – and it drives me up the wall.  The story goes like this.  The EU Habitats Directive (long may it live in a post-Brexit world), seeks to conserve key rare, threatened or endemic plants and animals.  Good start.  Over 200 habitat types were also identified for protection.  Better still – sounds promising.  At sea a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) known as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) were identified and designated by member States across Europe.  These SACs were augmented by a national network of MPAs called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) under UK law designed to protect a representative range of nationally important features and provide an ecologically coherent network. An aside here is that I don’t know anyone brave enough to suggest what an ecologically coherent network actually looks like.

This all sounds wonderful and indeed it is and is long overdue.  Whilst the areas set up to protect the features in the SACs and MCZs are way less than the 40% of sea area recommended by Prof Callum Roberts, they are adding up to a significant area of protection.  Dorset in particular appears to be leading the way both in designation and regulation.  The government and our fabulous local regulator the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA) should be proud of that as it will help restore the health of the sea and increase productivity for fishermen.  Now that we are at the stage of actually regulating for their protection however, usually by local fisheries bylaws, comes the regression to a bygone age of conservation.  In order to avoid legal challenge, which may or may not be successful, by groups opposed to MPAs, the locally written bylaws can only protect the features (species or habitat) in the MPA not the whole MPA itself.  Bonkers.  The local regulators, who do their best to balance conservation and commercial interests, have their hands tied by national legislation.

There are several consequences of this bizarre step.  Firstly, it means that the size of the protected areas, designed and dimensioned to form a coherent network, is very much smaller than envisaged and may well not be sufficiently large.  Secondly, the risk of damage by activities the bylaws are set up to limit, such as bottom trawling or aggregate dredging, is far greater as they will be allowed within the MPA right up to the feature.  Thirdly, an ecosystem comprises a range of habitats and so protecting just one is a risky strategy.  In the Great Barrier Reef, research showed that the featureless sandy areas between reefs were vital for the productivity of the coral reefs themselves.

This feature-based approach at sea is years behind conservation thinking.  We must get the government advisors like JNCC to recommend the changes in law to protect our valiant local regulators and move to a more ecosystem-based approach, especially in such a fluid, high energy environment as the sea, by protecting and enforcing good management in the whole of the MPA.  If not we will need more MPAs and a greater area under protection.  Far better to protect not just the species or feature, but the function and inter-relationships ecology relies on.  We’ve made great progress of late, and the network we have, though imperfect, will restore our degraded seas, but with just a little more thought and leadership at a national level we could end up with a system of MPAs that has the best possible chance of sustainably managed seas.

Image:  Undulate ray in Dorset © Peter Tinsley

 

Batty about Bats

November 1, 2016

Bats are scary, or at least that is what a lot of people think. Many people have the image of bats flying into their hair and sucking the blood of unsuspecting victims! When in reality they do very little, if anything, scary.

As part of our training, all the trainees went to live on on Brownsea Island for a week. Of an evening we would go strolling around the island searching for wildlife, and of particular interest were the bats.  However as bats can be difficult to see, needed help to find them and this came in the form of bat detectors. These are small devices that detect the echolocation signals of bats and converts them into audible frequencies.

As you walk along holding the bat detector, a gentle, but slightly eerie white noise, can be heard when no bats are present. Then suddenly the bat detector starts making these loud distinct clicking noises.Occasionally a bat would swoop down inquisitively over your head, using their echolocation to map your body. The detector would sound like a machine gun firing off as the bat comes close then swoops away.

As it is Halloween, visitor centres have been running bat events. At Lorton, we went on a bat trail around the reserve followed by some bat crafts. One of my favourite facts I learnt on the day was that a Noctule bat is as loud as a jet engine – the loudest mammal in the UK!

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Halloween Bats at Lorton – Copyright: Steph Aburrow

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Crafting Creepy Bats – Copyright: Steph Aburrow

Meanwhile Hazel, the East Dorset trainee, has also been busy telling people about bats this week.

She says ‘ My week was all about bats! It was Wild About Gardens week from the 24th to 28th and this year’s theme was bats. Halloween was coming up too – a night that people have associated bats with since they were portrayed in the Dracula films of old.  This gave me the perfect opportunity to get out in the community to talk about these wonderful creatures of the night and inform people how they can help protect and conserve them. I had two bat themed craft activity sessions in libraries last week with groups of enthusiastic children making flapping bats and bat masks.  As I type this I am about to head out on a bat walk and talk – people will be joining us to learn about bats, using bat detectors to try and listen to these incredible animals communicating and hunting!’

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Copyright: Hazel Pitwood

Happy Haunting,

Steph Aburrow
Heritage Lottery Funded Wildlife Skills trainee with DWT Mid Dorset team

Fungi and Fish Forays

October 19, 2016

All around us the Autumnal indicators are becoming evident: the leaves of the trees are changing to beautiful rustic and golden hues, the wonderful wildflowers are being replaced by fabulous fungi and over-wintering visitors such as Spoonbills are taking up residence on the Brownsea Island reserve.

I’ve had a great week, out and about learning lots of new things as ever. Recently I’ve been joining a Forest School group on Tuesdays, learning about working with children outdoors and helping them to engage with the natural world. This week the children learned about habitats, gaining understanding about what wildlife needs to thrive. This culminated in them working in teams to gather things to make ‘houses’ for little animal friends, as you can see below!

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The children at Forest School made homes for wildlife © Hazel Pittwood

I’ve also been out doing practical work with lots of dedicated, hardworking volunteers. We pulled on our waders and headed out with a group from Barclays to clear obstructive plant growth in the Gussage stream on Wednesday.

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Gussage stream – a chalk stream and tributary of the River Allen © Hazel Pittwood

The next day I joined the ever popular Thursday volunteer work party. This group consists of many longstanding volunteers, but also welcomes new faces week after week; it never ceases to amaze me how much they all get done! This week was no exception with the task of clearing invasive Rhododendron at the DWT Troublefield reserve.

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Thursday volunteer work party at Troublefield © Hazel Pittwood

Friday was spent closer to home, doing a spot of garden maintenance at the Urban Wildlife Centre and helping to put up posts for stock proof fencing. Whilst gardening I came across a feisty Devil’s coach horse beetle who was very aggravated and tried to give me a nip! After having a look at this magnificent insect I popped it back in the garden. To be fair, if I was disturbed by a garden fork digging me up I think I’d be a bit annoyed too!

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Devil’s coach horse beetle © Hazel Pittwood

Whilst I’ve had my feet firmly on land Steph, based at DWT’s Chesil visitor centre, has been out on the water. Here’s what she had to say about her week:

‘Over the last couple of days I have been helping out Southern IFCS with their small fish surveys. This was a great chance to brush up on fish ID and learn how to set a purse seine fishing net! Plus, I got to zip around on a boat for the day so, all in all, an opportunity not to be missed! We managed to catch over 10 species of fish and easily in excess of 1000 individual fish! These ranged from Dragonets to Sand Gobies, Two-spot Gobies, Scorpion Fish, Mullet, Bass 15 Spined Sticklebacks, Cuckoo Wrasse and Ballan Wrasse!’

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IFCA fish survey photos © Steph Aburrow

Hazel Pittwood
Heritage Lottery Funded Wildlife Skills trainee with DWT East Dorset team

 

The Challenges of Chainsaws

October 4, 2016
Terrance the chainsaw Copyright: Lucy Allen

Terrance the chainsaw. Copyright: Lucy Allen

An important element of the Wildlife Skills Traineeship is that we all grab the opportunity to train and develop a plethora of skills and qualifications that will enable us to gain employment and importantly become effective players within the conservation sector. The past few months have been filled with learning and skill development for all of the Dorset Trainees but for the DWT practical trainees (myself and Lizzie) our training kicked off over the last couple of weeks with chainsaw training hopefully leading to a Lantra and NPTC chainsaw and felling small trees qualification.

Chainsaw training is the biggest challenge I have come across in the traineeship yet and is very different to anything I have ever done before. It’s an important skill to master to enable the management and conservation of woodlands, and to open up the canopy to let light in for plants on the ground. Upon telling family and friends about my up and coming training activity I got an interesting response… Most looked at me with a nervous smile on their face and wide eyes at the thought of me in possession of such a tool. This response didn’t fill me with confidence but hey off to training I went!

Admittedly the week got off to a rocky start with a major disagreement  between myself and Terrance (Terrance is my chainsaw – brilliantly named by my predecessor) about starting up. It was safe to say we were not friends that first day.

First 'Mini' Fell Copyright: Lucy Allen

First ‘Mini’ Fell. Copyright: Lucy Allen

After a couple of days of getting used to things, learning maintenance, cutting and felling techniques time to fell was upon us! Ok so admittedly whilst everyone else picked a beast of a tree to cut I kept things a little… well little. My first fell was an old mini half stump which fell as (un)dramatically as could be expected but I was pleased all the same and happily progressed to real trees.

Lizzie was beginning to ‘drop um like hot potatoes’ as seen in this @Wildlife_Skills tweet

which shows a clip of her first solo fell. Things were also looking up for me when I felled my final tree solo resulting in my best cut to date.

Crosscut of final fell copyright: Lucy Allen

Crosscut of final fell. Copyright: Lucy Allen

All in all despite my continued disappointment that shouting ‘timber’ as a tree hits the deck is not a real thing when felling trees I think my first two weeks of chainsaw training have gone pretty well! Did I or any of my friends imagine I could be a chainsaw wielding kind of chick? – Well… no… but after the official training week and with the continued expert training from Mid-Dorset Ranger James I’m definitely going to get there!

Elsewhere in Dorset the other trainees have also been busily developing their skills as well as learning new ones. Here is what the lovely DWT community engagement trainee Hazel based at the Urban Wildlife Centre in East Dorset has been up to;

“I’ve been having a great time and learning lots out and about with various groups this week. Monday we did a litter pick with a volunteer group from Bournemouth and Poole College, Tuesday I was assisting with a Forest School session (working outdoors with children, focusing on nature based learning and play), I went with the Wednesday volunteer group to install waymarking posts along the Castleman Trailway and joined Thursday volunteer group at a new reserve for some habitat management work. As I type, it’s Friday and I’ve got a day in the office catching up on admin after my week of outdoor adventures! Phew! The highlight of my week this Fox Moth caterpillar – the largest, furriest caterpillar I have ever seen! “

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Hazel and a Fox Moth Caterpillar. Copyright: Hazel Pittwood

Lucy Allen – Practical trainee, Mid Dorset

Here we go – Cohort 3!

September 27, 2016
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Left to Right: Lucy, Lizzie, Steph and Hazel. Copyright: Lucy Allen

From the 1st of July, myself and 3 other nature crazed trainees joined the Dorset Wildlife Trust as part of the Wildlife Skills Traineeship funded by the Heritage Lottery ‘Skills for the Future’ programme.

We each got positions across Dorset, either in a community engagement or practical based role. The hope is that we will gain an enormous amount of  experience and knowledge so that we will be able to gain employment within the highly competitive conservation sector.

We will be blogging fortnightly to share our experiences throughout the year. As this is our first blog entry we thought we should start by introducing ourselves!

Lizzie

I am the West Dorset practical trainee based at Kingcombe Meadows. Before I started the traineeship I was an apprentice at Dorset Countryside. Since starting in July I am really enjoying getting stuck in working on the reserves and learning lots of new skills that I can carry into the future.

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Lizzie Bird Watching: Copyright Steph Aburrow

Hazel

I’m Hazel, DWT community engagement trainee based at the Urban Wildlife Centre in East Dorset. Prior to starting my traineeship, I was involved with DWT as a volunteer marine warden at the Fine Foundation Marine Centre in Kimmeridge and took part in the Wildlife Champions training scheme. I worked in a completely unrelated office based role for the past ten years until my love for wildlife drove me to seek out opportunities in conservation. I was thrilled to be offered this fantastic traineeship and I am enjoying every minute of it! Every day is different; I am gaining knowledge about UK wildlife, getting experience in engaging with the public and learning a variety of practical skills. I look forward to sharing my adventures from my life as a trainee with you and hope you enjoy reading about them.

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Hazel testing out a newly built bench. Copyright Hazel Pittwood

Lucy

After many years of volunteering and academic study aimed at changing my career I was lucky enough to gain one of the four wildlife skills traineeships within Dorset Wildlife Trust funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I am pleased to say that I am the  Dorset Mid-Team Practical Conservation Trainee. Even though I have only just started my traineeship I have already learnt a great deal, gained many new skills and insights into the conservation sector. This will hopefully continue not only helping me to build a career but also give me the chance to make a real contribution to the conservation of the beautiful landscapes and Wildlife of Dorset.

Steph

I was recently described as a ‘friendly, smiling, sea loving girl’ (thanks Hazel), which I guess is a pretty good summary! I enjoy anything outdoors, particularly being in, under or on the sea! I spent my last 3 years gaining a degree in Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology and then my last summer as a Marine Awareness Assistant with the Devon Wildlife Trust. This involved going rock pooling, making crafts, having a natter with the public and drinking many cups of tea! This seemed like a pretty good place to start my career and that is how I have ended here, as a Community Engagement Trainee at Chesil and Lorton!

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Steph at Big Wild Chesil: Copyright Angela Thomas

Looking forward to the year ahead,

Steph