A dead fox, urban sheep, countryside cowboys

Sheepcote valley

Just back from a brilliant ramble around Sheepcote Valley on the eastern edges of Brighton, an area of chalk downland now undergoing conservation grazing by a flock of ‘urban’ sheep. As we moved down from the ridge into the valley, Paul the ranger almost stumbled over the corpse of a fox, a young male about one or two years old; dead for at least a couple of weeks, it had until recently been covered by snow. He mentioned having heard about a likely lamping expedition 2 or 3 weeks ago, just before the snow fell across the Downs, and only the 2nd such incident in the Valley he knew of in the last 2/3 years.  He turned over the corpse with his feet to check on possible causes of death, saw a large hole in its side, most likely from a rifle shot.

Lamping is a method of night hunting using off-road vehicles with high-powered spotlights, that uses the eyeshine of animals to identify and target them. Spotlights are used because of the tendency for many animals, such as foxes and rabbits, to stare into the light rather than run away, as they would from humans. They are immobilised by the light and are then shot. Importantly, In Britain, while lamping foxes using dogs is now illegal, lamping then shooting is legal. However, no-one can kill a badger in Britain without a licence.

dead fox

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) publish a code of practice for lamping specifically as pest control, carried out with a landowner’s consent:
The night shooting of foxes and ground game is necessary to ensure that damage to game, wildlife, livestock and growing crops is kept at acceptable levels. It is a safe and effective method of control.[…] There are no specific legal restrictions on the night shooting of foxes. Authorised persons may legally carry out this form of fox control. Ensure you comply with previous guidance in this code.

But we also have The Hunting Life, that describes an essentially illegal activity: Lamping with lurchers at night can provide fast action and really get the heart racing […] Lamping with air guns and high-powered rifles at night can be lethal for pest and predator control at longer ranges, and provides great sport for the hunter.

in 2004, a boy of 13 was shot dead in a lamping incident near Totnes, Devon. Subsequently, an investigation by The Independent indicated its widespread illegal use and persecution of wildlife, from blasting at rabbits and hares, more organised deer poaching, to persecution of badgers. The RSPCA described illegal lampers as ‘thugs of the countryside’ and a redneck culture across Britain of people going out into the countryside ‘blasting at anything that moves’. At the 2004 Liberal Democrat conference, a member of a Montgomeryshire hunt explained how lamping was leading to a new type of ‘countryside cowboy’.

Scientific evidence suggests that the fox is not a mass killer, as popularly described, but has an important role to play in countryside ecology, and that fox populations self-regulate without the need for human intervention.

Sheepcote valley lies below the racecourse, on the eastern edge of Brighton, now included in the South Downs National Park, but very much on the urban fringe. It is public land, not private, and anyone taking part in a lamping expedition would have been doing so illegally, Sussex ‘cowboys’ with rifles.

Keep Our Forests Public

Below is an article written by Dave Bangs (Action4Access & Keep Our Forests Public)

He eloquently outlines the complexity of public land management & ownership issues  & the urgency for action & continuing campaigning to ensure we have greater democracy in decision-making.

9th February 2011 (before the climb down on 16th Feb, but still some relevant info)

The governments’s announcement that they are postponing the sale of 15% of the Forestry Commission estate so as to review the site-by -site criteria for disposal is a first victory in the massive grass roots anti-privatisation campaign. We have a country-wide wave of anger that has brought levels of support for the public forest estate of the same order as that for the NHS or free education. We’ve seen activist groups forming from top to bottom of the country, with (polite) anger so raw that Mark Harper, the Forest of Dean Tory MP, scuttled fearfully out of the back door of a meeting venue, rather than address the shivering crowd outside.  We’ve seen an on-line petition approaching half a million signatures and rising.

And yet ALL of the rich conservation organisations – the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts Partnership, and even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – who have the resources and clout to lead this campaign to a rapid victory have been horribly absent from the field.

At a recent ornithologists conference in Sussex I asked the RSPB’s Conservation Director what kind of a campaign they had, and suggested that his organization and its sisters had the ability to make or break the campaign.

His answer was chilling. He made no mention of a campaign, and started off by telling us that the RSPB was not a rich organization (though their regional office down the road from me has 60 salaried staff, and they have recently acquired several new tracts of Sussex land) and rounded up by saying that “the state had no business growing trees”.

Yet it does. Though the Forestry Commission controls only 18% of woodland the Commission produces 60% of home grown timber, and harvests 92% of its softwood increment, as opposed to just 37% in the private sector. The public forest estate counters the business cycle by a steady timber harvest irrespective of market conditions. They maintain their network of staff and contractors, their forest infrastructure and year-on-year thinning and planting operations, irrespective of market conditions because they know that, if they don’t, their long term forest plans are jeopardized. By contrast, only 60% of all private woodlands are in management schemes, and commercial pheasant shooting represents the only real management many of the woods in my county receive. My countryside is tarnished with privately owned semi-derelict forestry plantings, ancient woodlands strangled by invasive rhododendron, giant veteran trees strangled by encroaching conifers, and gill woodlands dating back to the ‘wildwood’ now flooded for commercial duck shooting ponds.

But the Commission doesn’t just grow trees. They are a major player in the restoration of ancient woodland, as well as endangered heath, mire, fell, and other open habitats. About 26% of Forestry Commission land has SSSI status and 96% of this is in favourable condition. The Forestry Commission today bears no resemblance to the Commission of a generation ago, with its narrow remit to grow conifers, conifers, and conifers, irrespective of landscape and wildlife. Their recent dedication of their entire freehold estate as statutory access land, and their energetic creation of Community Forests and multi-purpose urban fringe and brown field woodlands, exemplify a major progressive turn.

Down here in Brighton we have some previous experience of the bureaucratic inertia of the conservation NGOs. Fifteen years ago the Labour Council proposed privatizing our 13,000 acre farmed downland estate. Every one of the rich local conservation organisations accepted that the privatisation could not be stopped, and contented themselves with seeking tokenistic measures of amelioration. A hastily cobbled together coalition of community and wildlife activists – ‘Keep Our Downs Public’ – refused to accept this sell-out, campaigned furiously, and won. This victory set the scene for four more successful local anti-privatisation struggles, including a 77% tenants’ vote against council housing stock transfer, and a recent success against the privatisation of council–owned downland at nearby Worthing.

The lesson is clear. We need a two-pronged battle. First, the widest possible independent mobilization against this privatization, on a clear demand for the protection and expansion of the public forest estate as an exemplar for a people’s countryside, and, secondly, a hard challenge to the rich NGOs to adopt a common position of refusal to take over any privatized fragments of the Forestry Commission estate. Such a boycott will blow out of the water the government’s smokescreen proposals for an increased role for the ‘third sector’, social enterprises, and community control.

If we do not succeed in this the ramifications of failure will spread far beyond the decline and commercialization of ex-Forestry Commission land, for the fire-fighting role of the NGOs will be even further compromised. We will be faced with a huge diversion of the energy of countryside NGOs and activists to the effort to absorb chunks of privatised forest and preserve their public values, without the commercial cross-funding and professional resources of the Commission.

Down here in Sussex we have painful recent experience of this, for Keep our Downs Public’s fight against privatisation came too late to keep one important landscape, at the Devil’s Dyke, in municipal control. The National Trust took it over, and launched a big fund raising appeal. Whilst they were doing so a further stretch of gorgeous downland came onto the market – downland with ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ status and traversed by a stretch of the South Downs Way. The National Trust refused to bid for it – too expensive, in the light of their new commitment. The result was that this downland was lost to an agri-business investor who wished to convert its woodlands to intensive game rearing. The old conservation projects were abandoned, and when I inspected the site last year the landowner had herbicided over an acre of ancient flowery chalk grassland to secure his fence lines.

Thus, the National Trust wasted its energies on purchasing land that was already in public ownership, and abandoned the fight for a site that was at real threat.

But the struggle for the public forest estate is one that we CAN win, and in so doing we can make further gains. We can use this campaign to re-connect people with the wider countryside and its problems. Down here in the south east many of our Forestry Commission estates are scattered and relatively remote. Our campaign will make sure that the public get to know better what they are at risk of losing.

We can, too, gain traction for the case for greater democracy and local initiative in the management of public forests, without fragmenting ownership and strategic control amongst a rag tag of third sector organizations, private forestry companies and landowners.

State ownership’s major advantage is that it subtracts a resource, at least partially, from the irrationality and greed of the market.  The answer for our public forests is the same as the answer for our economy. We need more democratic public ownership and economy-wide planning  – enough to break the dominance of the market – not some porridge of private businesses and ‘social enterprises’ struggling for market share.

‘Keep Our Forests Public’ is a new coalition formed with the intention of galvanising campaigning activity across the Forestry Commission’s South East Region.

By Dave Bangs

Does it smell? Collecting & using seaweed.

Seaweed as compost and mulch

Despite considerable research into their use over time as effective fertilisers, the mechanisms through which seaweed provides beneficial effects are still uncertain.

Seaweeds have very high potassium concentrations in comparison to other plants; nitrogen levels are similar, and phosphate levels are lower. This obviously makes them suitable for use as fertilisers in low potassium areas such as the South Downs where the (alkaline) chalk soils can lead to potassium deficiency in plants e.g. Lime-induced chlorosis in strawberry plants. They also contain important trace elements of iron, manganese, zinc, copper and boron. Seaweed improves the structure of clay soils, because the alginates in the seaweed help break up the clay and prevents it from clumping.

It’s not against the law to collect seaweed that has been washed up with the tide onto the beach, but it is against the law to harvest it from the rocks where it grows: you should NEVER cut seaweed from rocks.  The best time to collect seaweed is after a storm as the newly washed up seaweed has less salt in it than the stuff that has been floating around in a harbour, or lying at the high tide mark for weeks.

Washing seaweed before use is a criminal waste of water and completely unnecessary. Despite received opinion, there is not a great amount of salt in seaweed if it’s freshly washed up on the beach; it’s the dried stuff that has been around for a while which contains extra salt as a result of exposure to sea spray from the waves.

How to use Seaweed:

You can apply it fresh directly to the soil, as a 2 to 4-inch mulch layer. You don’t introduce weed seeds with seaweed mulch. However, some members of the Chenopodiaceae (such as Chenopodium album, ‘Fat Hen’) are coastal plants and their seeds could be transferred to your allotment in the seaweed, if they’re growing near your collection site. I’d argue that this was a minor problem compared to the benefits to the soil. Don’t use on rootcrop beds as it could result in forked roots (carrots especially).

If you have ridged beds, cover them with a good layer of seaweed. This will prevent nutrients and soil being washed away by rain, and act as a weed suppressant because a thick layer of seaweed prevents light from reaching the soil and so prevents seed germination.

In your brassica beds use seaweed to mulch around the plants – apparently, as the seaweed rots it gives off boron, which can help to produce good heads on brassica crops.

Use fresh seaweed on rhubarb crowns and around fruit bushes as a mulch; this acts as both a weed suppressant and nutrient. We use it on our potato beds as both fertiliser and mulch. You could also use it on your asparagus bed, adding it in the winter, along with leaf mould; this will protect the crowns through a cold winter & feed the crowns as the spears emerge in the spring.

Seaweed is an excellent compost activator, so adding it to your compost heap will add nutrients and more organic matter. It decays quickly because it contains little cellulose – this winter, I have added a large amount to our leaf mould bin, which has rotted down faster than it normally would, and is now teaming with worms, illustrating how fresh seaweed does NOT kill your worm population.

Some gardeners use dilute seaweed solution to soak their seeds before sowing and report better germination rates.

In the summer dry some seaweed by spreading it out in the sun in a thin layer. When it’s dry, put in a large plastic bag or old baby bath and stamp on it a few times to make seaweed meal and store in an old potato bag for use later.