Until the system changed a few years ago it was a requirement of all course leaders at the University of Northampton to attend Award Boards at which the students graduating that year were named and their degree classification confirmed. It was not popular with academics, as you can imagine, as we spent half a day waiting for the turn of “our” course. Typically we would take manuscripts to revise or crosswords to complete, or a good book to read, until such time as it came to our own students. As each student’s name was read aloud, their degree classification was confirmed: “First Class Honours”, “Two-One” (Upper Second Class Honours), “Third” (Third Class Honours), and so forth.
One category was rarely used: “Ordinary by Choice”, meaning that the student had not completed a final year dissertation and had opted to take an Ordinary, as opposed to Honours, degree. It is a phrase that I was always struck by: except for a (perfectly respectable) Higher Education qualification, would anyone elect to be “Ordinary by Choice”? Do we want that for our lives, our country, our society, or even our environment: Ordinary by Choice?
The phrase came to mind last week when I heard about an interview with Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the current British Government. Paterson, who coincidently studied at the precursor to the British School of Leather Technology here at Northampton, said that in the future it might be perfectly acceptable to build on ancient woodland if the destruction of that site was offset by planting trees elsewhere. A spokesperson for his department later said that it was “highly unlikely” that such development would ever occur on ancient woodland, but that’s not the same as “never”.
In fact such destruction of ancient woodlands is currently being proposed by the development of the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) line from London to points north. An analysis by the Wildlife Trusts of the currently proposed HS2 route shows that it will pass through “10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), more than 50 ancient woodlands and numerous local wildlife sites”. Important wildlife sites are perhaps not as safe as government would have us believe.
From the outset let me say that in my opinion this notion of “biodiversity offsetting“, in which one can apparently trade like-for-like in the destruction and recreation of natural habitats, putting back or even enhancing the biodiversity of a region, is pure fantasy dreamt up by government. It can’t be done. It’s not possible. The reason? There are no complete inventories of the biodiversity of any patch of planet earth. None. Not even of a few square metres of arable grassland in rural England, a simple habitat in comparison to the fantastically complex biodiversity of an ancient woodland. Such All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs) have been proposed in the past, but never completed.
Now I am using a strict definition of biodiversity to include all of the diversity of life within an area, including not only plants, birds, mammals, and large insects, but also the many smaller insects and other invertebrates, algae, protists, fungi, and bacteria. But that’s not what the proponents of “biodiversity offsetting” such as Owen Paterson have in mind when they champion the system. What they really mean is “species offsetting”: for example cutting down an oak forest and replacing it with young oak trees planted some distance way; or destroying a wetland used by over-wintering birds and creating an artificial wetland at another locality. In both cases the species in question will persist: oaks will grow and birds will over-winter. The assumption is that the other elements of biodiversity, the neglected micr0-invertebrates, bacteria, lichens, fungi, and so on, will also return. It may take some time, perhaps hundreds of years, but (goes the logic) they will eventually come back and the habitat will contain the richness of species that there was previously.
This may happen, but not for all species, particularly naturally rare organisms with small populations and low dispersal abilities. The fact that (as I’ve noted) we have no complete inventories of biodiversity for anywhere on the planet means that we currently cannot be certain about how “biodiversity”, as opposed to “some of the larger and obvious elements of biodiversity”, can spread and re-establish. In contrast, all of the available evidence suggests that the historical continuity of a site is vital to its current biodiversity. Let me give you an example, in fact from a data set that I’ve never published.
About the time I arrived in Northampton (in 1995) I started to develop a more serious interest in fungi – moulds, mushrooms, and toadstools. Together with colleagues in the department and some of my students I began to systematically identify the fungi in a long, narrow patch of woodland (the “Shelter Belt”) on Park Campus. Early on I set out a series of 1m x 1m quadrats and every week for two months I recorded which fungi appeared. It was a short survey but very revealing because it was clear that there were differences in the diversity of fungi in different parts of the Shelter Belt, and that some areas had much richer diversity than others, even over a distance of a few tens of metres.
In fact the western side of the Shelter Belt contained almost twice as many species of fungi as the eastern side. In addition there were few species on the eastern side that were unique to that area: most species were also found in the western portion. This is despite the fact that the woodland appeared very homogenous: a linear strip dominated mainly by the non-native Black Pine (Pinus nigra) with an under-storey of common small trees such as Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Elder (Sambucus nigra) and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).
A likely reason for this difference was revealed when we studied some old maps of the area; a sixteenth century map showed that there was a hedgerow on the site of the western part of the Shelter Belt from at least Tudor times, and probably much earlier. This hedgerow may have been planted as a boundary for livestock, or may have been a remnant of an even older patch of woodland that was felled and managed to partition agricultural fields. The presence of plants which are known ancient woodland indicator species, such as Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) was further evidence.
So an ancient hedgerow, now erased and replaced by later planting that was at least 50 years old (it appears on Google Earth historical imagery for 1945), was continuing to influence the biodiversity of a site long after it was gone. But that influence was subtle and involved a neglected element of wildlife that is nonetheless vital to the natural world: fungi, which act as decomposers, consumers and recyclers, and without which a woodland could not function.
The definition of “ancient woodland” in England and Wales is an area of woodland that existed prior to 1600 and the Shelter Belt example shows why this definition is important: the history of a site has a huge impact on its biodiversity. Simply planting a new woodland of young trees will not replace what is lost by the destruction of a site with historical continuity of habitat which is supporting slow-spreading species.
Government and the public have a choice: we can sanction the destruction of truly biodiverse sites such as ancient woodland and replace them with ordinary ones, such as new planting of trees on farmland. Is that what we want, an environment in Britain that is Ordinary by Choice?