Europe’s Rainforest

Chalk grassland is an enormously rich habitat. It’s so biodiverse and yet so fragile, that the late naturalist David Bellamy called it “Europe’s rainforest”. There are some beautiful examples of it on the South Downs, especially at this time of year with so many plants in flower.

It’s not a natural habitat. It’s the result of thousands of years of careful management. The secret is grazing. The right density of sheep and cattle, grazed in the right rotation pattern, keeps the grass at the right height for other plants to flourish. With a flourishing variety of plants comes a flourishing variety of insects and other invertebrate life. With those comes a flourishing bird population. The animal dung enriches the otherwise poor soil. Too many heads of livestock and you end up with short-cropped grass and little else. Too few, or none, and the grassland would turn to scrub and eventually to woodland. That might not necessarily be a bad thing in itself, but the species that thrive on the chalk downs would be lost.

It seems to me that this grassland environment is a good example of the kind of co-operation between humans and majority-nature that leads to the flourishing of life: how humans can shape the world for the good of many, with more biodiversity as a result than there would be without human intervention.

But all over the Downs is evidence of human intervention that is less positive. Only 4% of the surface area of the South Downs National Park is grassland. Much of the open land is under the plough, with great fields of wheat and other cereals standing in what looks like dry flinty clay. There are also fields of vegetables, and more intensive pasture. The most rapid loss of grassland to the plough happened during the second world war, and that illustrates the dilemma. We have to eat. Can we afford to be sentimental about wild flowers and butterflies when we need farmers to provide us with food – and at a time when the new isolationist politics in Britain are likely to make home-grown food much more important? At the same time, there is environmental pressure to eat less meat, especially lamb and beef: the very meat that makes any economic sense at all of conservation grazing on the Downs.

There are two arguments here to which I’m sympathetic:

  1. Land shouldn’t need to be economic. The commons should be restored. In particular, the land that is now in the hands of large estates as a result of enclosure processes should be returned to the people. The trouble is, what would the people do with it? Most enclosure happened hundreds of years ago, since when most of the population has become urban and detached from the land. Personally, I wouldn’t have a clue.
  2. Nature should be allowed to take its course, with no human interference. Why should humans get to decide the fate of other species, or determine which particular snapshot of history gets conserved? I love the idea of this, but I suspect it’s somewhat romantic. For example, woodland benefits from being managed: coppicing increases the lifespan of trees and increases biodiversity by allowing more light through. The amazing wilding project at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex also shows the value of careful management. While their approach is one of minimal intervention, they do intervene, for example in controlling the sizes of populations of the large mammals (deer, cattle, ponies and pigs) whose introduction, with the different ways they graze, browse and disturb the soil, has been largely responsible for the incredible resurgence of biodiversity there.

Perhaps a bigger picture needs to come into play. This is not just about land use, it’s about economics and the structure of society. What if we took our networks of food production and radically localised them? There’s no obvious reason why, in my supermarket right now, loose onions come from Suffolk while the bagged onions right next to them come from Egypt. Come to that, there’s no good reason why I’m even looking at onions in a supermarket. If the food chain were shortened as much as possible, it would help those of us in towns to develop more awareness of farming: what’s in season, where it’s grown, how it’s grown, and so on. I would like to buy less of my food from huge food corporations, with their ridiculously far-flung sourcing, their over-processing and over-packaging, and their economic strangle-hold on farmers and sellers. Sure, in my busy urban lifestyle, I can (in theory) seek out farmers markets and so on, but if local food is going to catch on it needs to be much easier to buy – for everyone.

Localise and simplify the whole thing. The answer to methane emissions from the dairy and meat industries is not to replace industrialised meat and dairy with industrialised plant-based products made from God-knows-what transported from God-knows-where and wrapped in plastic. The answer is not to have meat and dairy industries. In fact, the answer is not to have industrialised food. Instead, if I could be assured that the milk or cheese came from a small farm just over the hills, and that the lamb I occasionally ate as a rare treat came from sheep grazed responsibly on chalk grassland, there would be many benefits. There would be more wildlife in the countryside, not least on the Downs. The money would stay local rather than propping up Unilever or whoever. I suspect my carbon emissions would be lower. I’m not sure how we move from our present industrialised food supply to one that is local, but I do think that food supply is only one aspect of the economy that needs to be re-distributed more locally if we want a flourishing and humane society.

This is starting to feel rather technical and argumentative, especially as just the mention of food ethics is enough to raise hackles and cause deeply held opinions to be fired from trench to trench. I want to go back to the meadow on the downs, sit on the grass among the flowers and listen to the thrum of insects and the singing of skylarks. This diverse abundance seems to me to speak of harmony and co-operation. Even if those Neolithic ancestors who started grazing sheep and cattle on the Sussex hills weren’t doing so to provide a habitat for the Adonis blue butterfly, we can do so. We know enough about the complexity and interconnectedness of ecosystems to be able to manage the land for the benefit of all life, not just to do less harm but in such a way as to promote greater abundance in the big picture. It’s a choice. Perhaps the vulnerability of habitats like chalk grassland and the endangered status of so many wild species across all habitats might help us value them more, perhaps even to the extent that we are able to weigh them sensibly in the balance against money. Surely it must be possible to live with nature in such a way that the abundance of life is enhanced, with ample habitat (including food) for all?

These thoughts started life as one of my two-minute sermons. You can watch it here:

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