The Grumpy Old Man

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....Trees not Sheep....

...A look at the ecological case (climate change) for replacing moorland sheep with trees....

As many of you will know, I studied in North Wales and like many people fell in love with the area, particularly the mountains, moorland, crags and fells of Snowdonia. At that time, the early 1960s, sheep farming was a dominant industry in the area. There were little pockets of slate extraction, forestry and a number of modest tourist attractions. Obviously the area was also a Mecca for the Climber and Walker of North-West and Midlands England. I remember that wherever you went, there were little blotches of white scattered over the hllside these being sheep. For some time after graduation I was a regular visitor to the area until domestic responsibilities curtailed those trips, so it was that there was a gap of some ten or more years before I was able to return. When I did, I was amazed at how the landscape had changed and it appeared that sheep farmers had realised that if they reduce the number of sheep on "The Hill", the vegetation would regrow. The effect of this was that, although they had fewer sheep, the quality of the sheep meat was far superior and hence commanded a better price. The end result being their income actually increased.

Towards the end of that period the overall public awareness of the dangers of greenhouse gases was increasing, together with its overall effect on the environment through global warming. This was particularly so after the success of the CFC ban and subsequent repair of holes in the ozone layer. The overall public and scientific community consciousness of greenhouse gases and their effect grew and it was realised that agriculture was a major generator of them. The gases were being produced by enteric fermentation in cattle, sheep and manually spread chemical fertilisers and released into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. Once this was proven by research, there was an ever-increasing ground swell of comment and encouragement of people to change their eating habits such that less animal protein was produced and consumed

This is now having a clear effect as farmers are now protesting that they are not getting their usual price for "beef". Clearly the basic law of supply and demand is working and as demand falls, farmers (producers) are not reducing production (the supply side) to react to this shrinking demand. But this is all background, however interesting! Researchers are now looking at an even greater reduction in the upland sheep population and how it could effect the worldwide ecology.

It has been known for a number of years that trees are excellent for the task of the absorption of gaseous carbon dioxide from the tmospere and converting it into solid carbon, retaining this 'sequestered carbon' within their structure. It is estimated that an acre of trees can sequester about two and half tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. (I agree, the figure varies according to the species of tree grown and to a lesser degree, source of analysis )

In the UK alone, there are, according to satellite surveys, 1.3 million acres of moorland and fell. Archaeological investigation shows that most of this in the not too distant (geological) past was covered in trees. Man in his infinite ignorance has felled the trees burning them to provide heat for cooking and a few possibly for ship and house building. Clearly those trees burned have released their sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Not I might add, a great idea! Modern man likes to think of himself as intelligent and a little brighter than prehistoric man who used to run around in loincloth and woad! To be quite frank, Grumpy is not sure that that claim is one that will stand up to detailed analysis.

From the above facts however just imagine if only half of that moorland were planted with trees. Doing the sums will suggest that upwards of 0.625,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide would be "withdrawn" from the atmosphere in the lifetime of the forest. In addition to that, with the reduction of the agricultural activity on said forest there would be a significant reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases being generated. Do remember that not only do the cattle generate carbon dioxide but the addition of fertilisers to grassland is also known as a significant source of greenhouse gases. Which for many agricultural countries this is why agriculture is their largest source of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately for many of them agriculture is a major contributor to their GDP.

Agriculture, particularly in Europe, is heavily subsidised by the common agricultural policy (CAP) of the European Union. (And this is when I thought "state aid" was totally banned within the EU. I suppose it's a case of do as I say not as I do!) Financial analysis shows that if one uses the CAP financial subsidies to encourage farmers to move away from livestock production, in this case moorland sheep, it is eminently feasible for them to become foresters with little or no effect on their annual income. The benefit being a lowering of the production of greenhouse gases and the absorpyiion of significant quantities of that already released.

But what about the cost of planting you may ask. Experiments show that one does not need to "go out with a bundle of saplings and plant them in the ground". Provided one can discourage herbivores from browsing the new shoots, then trees that have been planted will naturally "seed" adjacent land. It has been estimated that since newly planted trees will need protection from these herbivores a fence of some sort will need to be erected round the plot. Experiments have shown that if the protective fence is erected a small distance from the new trees, the unplanted space will be adequately seeded as the planted trees grow.

Other benefits from the scheme were found in an experimental three quarters of a square kilometre plot established in Glen Finglas, Scotland in 2002. Herbivore protection was provided around this experimental plot, which was split into four parts, some grazed, some not. A rapid increase in the woodland growth was found together with wildlife from the animal and insect kingdom, including some species that were never imagined possible in this area. "Spotters" report seeing increased numbers of insects and spiders, voles, foxes and hen harriers (presumably attracted by the voles) and such birds as meadow pipits, cuckoos (and cuckoo's eggs), willow warblers, stone chats, reed buntings and black grouse to name but a few.

There is also the advantage the presence of the trees themselves provide. Over years of deforestation, the already poor subsoil was been eroded and washed down the hill to be lost completely (eventually to the sea). In some ways this loss of topsoil could be likened to the "dustbowl" conditions that prevailed in the United States when huge areas were totally cleared of vegetation to grow grain. There was nothing to act as a windbreak, so, during dry weather the topsoil was simply blown away. Here it has been washed away. Replanting trees will stabilise what is left and the leaf mould and rotting timber will eventually contribute to soil recovery. Other benefits will ensue, so as the soil quality and quantity improves the upland areas will be capable of storing more rainfall and therefore stabilising the flow of rivers downstream, thus acting as a natural flood control system. (This effect is widely known and can be seen in a number of new flood control schemes that replace meanders in rivers that were straightened out by man in previous years as part of drainage mechanisms.) From an ecosystem point of view, this effect could be further improved, as the Forest develops by the introduction of beavers who will quite happily build their own dams and so control the flow of water into the rivers thus reducing the possibility of extensive flooding further downstream.

I accept that much of the land identified is being used as grouse moor and is owned by a number of quite well off people, who frequently live hundreds of miles away from the moor claiming it is providing employment (agreed, but highly seasonal and very limited) but still rake in significant sums of money for them which immediately disappear off to London if we are lucky or more likely the Caiman Islands. Apart from the moral attitude of growing these birds purely for the hoi polloi to shoot at them (i.e. kill them) for pleasure, these activities pale into insignificance when one looks at the potential benefits of a total change of use of this moor land to one that will benefit everyone. After all if everybody took that attitude there would be no tomorrow for any of us, let alone the rich and famous.

You may think tree planting and rewilding will do little for the climate however I would remind you that there is clear historical/scientific evidence to support the view that man's activities and its association with farming has in the past had a significant effect on the world climate. I would remind you that Europeans commenced the colonisation of the Americas from around the year 1500 onwards. It is also known that the disease that was taken to the Americas by these Europeans killed 90% of the indigenous population (some 55 million people) this population decline over a short period resulted in significantly less farming taking place and is attributed by many scientists to be one of the causes of the mini ice age that the world experienced at that time. As an example the River Thames froze at least 24 times during the period 1500 to 1600, the ice being so strong that fairs and markets were held on the ice in mid river.

It is high time that governments started to legislate and actively encourage these activities as the benefits to the ecosystem and the population at large, I am sure, will far exceed the wildest dreams of them and eco-warriors alike. All it needs is the will to grasp the nettle and get on with it, saying that this is an old industry and we have always done it that way is no better than burying their head in the sand as the problem will not go away. I say the time is nigh for action but I fear that the optimum time has long passed and politicians and industrialists must engage their most fundamental orifices in gear and do something, otherwise there will be no tomorrow for any industry, let alone old ones, as it is just these old industries that have caused the problem we are now facing.