Reinforcing biodiversity through reforesting

| 5th July 2019
Woods with sunrays

Woods with sunrays

Field after field of barren grassy hills is neither ecologically desirable nor essential. We desperately need to break up this green concrete by planting more trees in our uplands.

Modelling shows that if all current pastureland was repurposed for rewilding, UK agriculture could meet the necessary greenhouse gas emission cuts required to stay within 1.5 C degrees of heating.

Nature’s ecology is a beautifully complex, interlocking network of species that depend on each other for survival. If one part disappears, it has a knock-on effect on the entire system.

We are in a period of mass extinction and biodiversity is reducing at an alarming rate both globally and here in the UK. It is a crisis. The culprit? Human activity.

The loss of biodiversity in the UK is particularly apparent on British farms, where it has fallen drastically. According to Defra’s own figures, farmland birds declined by 56 percent between 1970 and 2015.

Ancient woodland

It is estimated that this is a loss of at least 44 million individuals, particularly affecting the lapwing, cuckoo and turtle dove, as well as many types of once-common butterflies.

One of the reasons for this staggering drop in the number of wild species, from insects to birds, is due to the grassy monoculture that dominates large swathes of the British countryside, especially in upland areas.

There is field after field after field of grass, all identical and described by Guardian journalist, Michael McCarthy, as akin to ‘green concrete’. This is because these barren grasslands have a similar damaging effect to covering the land with concrete – a huge reduction in the number of species that can thrive there.

The idea that some areas of British countryside, especially upland areas, are only suitable for grazing livestock is simply untrue. These areas were once home to ancient woodland, teeming with life.

Rewilding projects could transform our uplands, helping to foster new life in these grassy deserts, whilst also sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and helping to prevent lowland flooding.

Heritage

The uplands are where most of our rain falls and increasing tree cover allows the water to penetrate the soil more easily. When land is kept bare for grazing, the water cannot permeate due to the loss of deep vegetation and compacted soil, caused by grazing livestock.

Research suggests that reforesting just 5 percent of the land reduces peak floods by around 29 percent, whilst full reforestation would halve them.

It is often claimed that these pasture lands are part of our British heritage, so should not be changed. Lake District poet, William Wordsworth, famously described England as a ‘green and pleasant land’, and many of John Constable’s paintings depict the quaint grassy hills of the uplands.

No good art, poetry or culture has ever come from trees, forests or woodland, you say? Nonsense – tell that to Rudyard Kipling (The Way through the Woods), A. A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh – The Hundred Acre Wood) or Romantic painter William Turner (Brook and trees).

Increasing woodland in the UK does not detract from our heritage, it enhances it. Woodland cover has decreased over the centuries for a variety of reasons, with agriculture playing a huge part.

Zero carbon

Today, woodland makes up just 13 percent of UK land, compared to a European average of 35 percent. This makes the UK one of the least wooded countries in Europe.

The fact is, we desperately need more trees. Not only to tear up the green concrete that has been spread all over our countryside, but to have any hope of meeting our climate emergency targets. This is supported by Harvard research, which indicates the necessity of large-scale rewilding of pasture land to meet the Paris Agreement global heating targets.

Modelling shows that if all current pastureland was repurposed for rewilding, UK agriculture could meet the necessary greenhouse gas emission cuts required to stay within 1.5 C degrees of heating.

Further modelling shows that if all the crops currently grown for animal feed were repurposed as crops for human consumption, we could also grow enough of a diverse array of crops here in the UK to meet all our nutritional needs.

Now that the UK government has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, rewilding on this scale is essential.

Plant protein

This isn’t going to happen overnight, but it needs to start soon if we are to have any chance of averting the biodiversity and climate emergencies. Policy support and legislation will be key to this process, enabling it to happen in the tight timeframes we have left.

The draft Agriculture Bill is currently floating around Westminster in a Brexit limbo, along with many other progressive ideas. This draft legislation is encouraging, especially the principle of ‘public money for public goods.’

This marks a departure from previous policy (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy), where financial support was linked to the amount of land owned.

Where the ‘public money for public goods’ approach differs, is that it offers subsidies linked to ‘public goods’, which include animal welfare and environmental protection.

Clearly, growing plant protein crops (like pulses) or planting trees, has much better environmental outcomes than grazing ruminant livestock, which produce very high levels of methane gas - a powerful greenhouse gas, approximately 25 times more powerful than CO2.

Disaster

You would think that this would be reflected in the legislation, however there is no mention of this in the Bill, and the Environmental Land Management Scheme - still in development in Defra currently - also doesn’t appear to factor this in.

The Vegan Society has been calling for agricultural subsidies to be weighted towards less environmentally damaging practices, like rewilding and plant protein crop production, to encourage these activities.

Our Grow Green campaign is also calling for policies that make it easier for animal farmers to transition towards more plant-based agriculture.

A package of support for current livestock farmers who wish to transition towards these more environmentally friendly practices would certainly make this easier. Support like this could be decided upon in consultation with farmers but should at least cover the initial capital start-up costs.

Much needs to be done to prevent ecological disaster in our green and pleasant land. Many areas need wholesale revolutions to stop the trend towards extinction. One thing is certain – we need to break up the green concrete paving the way to ecocide in our rural areas.

This Author

Mark Banahan is campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society. He tweets at @Mark Banahan. If you would like to learn more about veganism, sign up to the 7-day challenge here.

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