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Cultural landscapes show the way forward to zero carbon Britain

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No one can argue with the need to move towards a zero-carbon Britain can they? A low carbon economy is one of the AONB Management Plan objectives so I was looking forward to reading zerocarbonbritain 2030 ( http://www.zerocarbonbritain.org/) produced by the Centre for Alternative Technology but sadly, despite all the specialists involved, the landuse chapter appears surprisingly simplistic and for anyone interested in cultural landscapes it is a depressing read.

 

Planting monocultures of Miscanthus and Short Rotation Willow on grassland is presented as a solution for decarbonising land use. So for the High Weald this would mean that our small scale, complex landscape with its high biodiversity and ecological resilience which has survived sweeping agricultural, social and technological changes over the last 700 years and provides a whole range of life support services would be sacrificed for a single commodity - biofuels.

A pity the authors didn't read PlanetEarth online 13th August 2010 - 'The havoc that biofuels is playing with vulnerable ecosystems around the world was unintended by hardly unforeseeable,' writes Bill Sutherland (http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/features/story.aspx?id=754). And it's not just destruction of biodiversity but the constraints biofuels can place on the ability of landscapes and the people living in them to provide other benefits such as clean water and food, materials for industry and inspiring places to live. It is not enough just to balance our carbon budget. The landscapes around us are our life support system and they need a more holistic approach.

Dustin Benton writing in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/cif-green/2010/aug/16/emissions-landscapes-ecosystems) welcomes the stimulus zerocarbonbritain 2030 gives to a much overdue debate on how we want our landscape to look, to work and be worked in the 21st Century but it is easy to be seduced by a quick fix, apparently simple solution to the problems of decarbonising land use. It's worth looking at those landscapes modified in the past to provide single commodities to see how vulnerable they are. The degree of uncertainty associated with the impacts of climate change suggests that the priority for adaptation should be to increase the resilience of both the ecological and social systems underpinning landscape. 'Big' ideas, the  'one size' fits all solutions are not the answer. We need flexible, rapid and adaptable land management responses delivered at a local scale. Our focus should be on the human capital in landscapes at least as much as it is on ecological resilience.  We need skilled flexible land managers - increasingly gardeners who can grow many different crops on a small scale - a resurgent in low carbon craft skills maximising useful products from the land; targeted research with effective communication to the front line via trusted advisors and a community fully engaged with their landscape.

Cultural landscapes like the High Weald demonstrate by virtue of their surviving character a resilience to change that is worth investigating. The difficult physical geography and socio-economic character that has developed in response to it has resulted in small holdings - many people living close to the land - and a mixed farming and woodland economy. It doesn't lend itself to agriculture on an industrial scale but these characteristics which until recently were looked on as rather quaint are exactly the strengths needed to support a adaptive, low carbon economy.

Economic planting of biofuels might be suited to arable areas already modified for industrial farming but for small scale mixed agriculture areas like the Weald there are alternative approaches which reduce carbon and enhance character. The Weald has always be good at growing trees. Our research shows that trees growing naturally in the High Weald AONB already lock up equivalent of a fifth of annual carbon emissions from its residents http://www.highweald.org/home/research/1493-carbon-storage-woodlands.html . We can improve this significantly by promoting the use of timber as a substitute for high embodied energy materials in buildings. Growing high quality timber ought to be a priority along with support for wood using businesses which maximise the range of products produced from each tree. 

It was only in May that the papers reported the dreadful state of the World's biodiversity. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) suggested a ratio of costs of conserving ecosystems to the economic benefits range from 1:10 to 1:100.  Yet zerocarbonbritain 2030 appears to advocate replacing some of the UK's rarest and most diverse habitats, unimproved grassland, with monocultures of Miscanthus and Short Rotation Willow. It even makes the extraordinary claim that plantations of energy crops have a 'strongly positive effect on biodiversity' relative to grassland. I can only assume that none of the authors have ever walked through a Weald meadow in June alive with colourful wildflowers and butterflies with up to 100 plant species, the air heavy with the buzzing of bees and grasshoppers.  These grasslands and the ancient hedgebanks surrounding them also store carbon and can feed us with extensively grazed, highly nutritious traditional breed livestock. Enjoy Weald meadows at www.highweald.org.

 

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