David Bellamy on conifers and the importance of encouraging countryside careers

I was at a holiday park in Cumbria on Saturday as part of Haven’s Big Green Weekend, and got chance to speak with environmental campaigner David Bellamy, who was there to host a wildlife ramble for kids.

Bellamy has come under lots of criticism for his controversial views on climate change – he’s said previously that he doesn’t believe in man-made global warming, and that glaciers are actually advancing, not retreating.

I certainly don’t agree with him on this, but the Green Weekend was more about getting holidaymakers to spot birds and creepycrawlies so I didn’t like to bring it up. And the kids bloody loved him.

While we were chatting about wildlife, one of the main issues he described was way in which conifers have radically changed the British landscape and its biological make-up.

I was aware that conifers are not native to the UK, but hadn’t really appreciated how they came to be here and the threat they pose to our ecosystems, so I did a bit more research.

Apparently, just after the First World War, whole swathes of native woodland were chopped down to replace it with quick-growing conifers like the Sitka spruce from North America. We needed a ready supply of wooden pit props for use in coal-mining; at one point during the war, we’d almost run out of them and couldn’t import them because of the German blockade, and we couldn’t take that same risk again. So the Forestry Commission was set up, and quickly set about intensive tree farming of monoculture conifers.

The Independent’s Michael McCarthy says:

Over the hills of England, Wales and Scotland the great austere blocks of huddled conifers began to spread, 150,000 hectares by 1939, and then at a gathering pace after the Second World War: 310,000 hectares in the Fifties, 365,000 hectares in the Sixties. No matter that nobody liked it. No matter that much of our ancient broadleaved woodland, its value unrecognised, was being cut down at the same time. No matter that sites of beauty and conservation value were being swamped. The dark monoculture advanced remorselessly, until by 1980 the woodland cover of Britain, which in 1919 had been the lowest of any major European country, at less than 5% of the land, had doubled to over two million hectares.

The impact of this (apart from them looking so dark and ominous compared to our native broadleaved forests) is that it changed habitats for wildlife. Conifers don’t let light through to the forest floor. They have also been blamed for acidifying water – making some lakes and rivers un-liveable for fish.

David Bellamy’s answer is to cut down all the conifers and transform our landscape back to how it was a few thousand years ago; I’m not sure the Christmas tree industry would be too pleased.

He also emphasised how radically agriculture has changed the UK landscape. “All the best land is covered with cereals now – that’s why we don’t see bees and butterflies anymore,” he explained.

We also had a good discussion  about the need to get more young people into countryside careers. “Young people don’t know about or don’t want to be farmers and gamekeepers anymore,” he said.

Agriculture was certainly never on my radar as a potential career-path, and I can’t remember a single classmate for whom it was. The growth in sales of locally-sourced produce in the UK is enouraging, but with the number of young people going into agriculture on the decline, who’s going to grow it all? I’ll sit and eat my onions from Lincolnshire and spinach from Kent quite happily – but would I be happy to get out there and do the hard work?

David’s suggestion is some kind of national eco-service: “If I were prime minister, I’d make every child between school and university go and work in the countryside and learn how to look after it”, he says.

One of the six tennets of the RSPB’s ‘Letter To The Future” campaign is for the government to commit more money to getting school children out of the classroom and into the countryside and nature reserves to experience wildlife for themselves.

If so few young people are even familiar with the countryside, we  can’t be surprised if they don’t consider working in it to be a feasible career choice.

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