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Our latest directors’ blog is written by Matthew Hay, who reflects on the state of nature in the UK after a recent trip to some of Italy’s wild and not-so-wild places.

The last time I left the UK, it was to play the bagpipes at a wedding in Sri Lanka for some friends. I travelled out with my family and we all took some time off beforehand, to see a bit of the country. The main thing that struck me was its biodiversity. Despite being more densely populated than the UK, Sri Lanka thrums with life, both human and wild. Despite economic conditions most Brits could scarcely conceive of, the country is deeply committed to the conservation of its largest mammal, the Asian elephant, creating a nationwide network of corridors to allow elephants to move between protected areas across the island. It’s hard to imagine a similar approach being taken here. In the UK we can’t even connect fragments of native woodland within our national parks.

But impressive as Sri Lanka was, I assumed the primary reason for its nature-rich character was latitude. A tropical country was always going to be more biodiverse than Britain could ever be. Italy has blown that assumption out of the water. A developed economy, a European country, a temperate climate; it exposes the depressing reality of the state of nature in the UK.

Let’s start with some headline figures. Italy has a land area slightly over 300,000 km2, compared to the UK’s 242,500 km2. Both countries have populations over 60 million, with the UK’s population density being higher at 270 people per km2 to Italy’s 201 km-2. So there are some demographic differences but not drastic ones.

Things get more interesting when we look at the physical geography of the two countries. 32% of Italy is covered by woodlands and forests, some 9 million hectares. That is almost three times as much as the UK’s 3.2 million hectares. Even more strikingly, the ratio of native woodland to plantations in Italy is nearly 6:1, while in the UK, it’s 1:1 and in Scotland, where our tree cover is highest, it’s less than 1:2. To my mind, these statistics alone go a long way to explaining why Italy ranks more than 80 places above the UK on the global Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), with a score of 65% to our 50%.

But clearly it isn’t that simple. A huge range of differences between the two countries have an impact on their respective ecologies. From the management of protected areas to differing preconceptions about predators, Italy and the UK are in many ways chalk and cheese. What follows is my experience of a few of these distinctions in some of the regions I’ve visited.

A swallow drinks from the pool of a Tuscan villa, with a patchwork landscape behind

Tuscany – For many, La Toscana is the ultimate cultural landscape, Italy’s answer to the Yorkshire Dales. A mosaic of olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields and woodlands creates an attractive patchwork, cloaking the region’s rolling hills. Such is the sentimentality attached to the ideal of Tuscany that the different land uses are, according to one local I spoke to, set in stone, effectively immutable even for those who own or manage the land. What was an olive grove must remain an olive grove. I wonder how long that stasis will last?

But despite this focus on a very specific aesthetic, the landscape has retained a lot of forest. It’s one of the permitted land uses and woodland threads its way across the hills, covering extensive areas in places, sustaining the local love of foraging for mushrooms.

The Tuscan landscape

These woodlands also allow Tuscany to support a significant population of I cinghiali, wild boar. As elsewhere, these animals do what they do, namely grub about in the dirt to find insects, roots and other edible matter. Their activity leaves patches of overturned soil and they consume a lot of crops, causing damage to vineyards in particular. And yet, when I visited a local town it was clear that the Tuscan people’s relationship with wild boar was anything but negative.

Dozens of shops in the town we visited were selling cuddly wild boar toys, the local football strip had a wild boar mascot plastered across its front and cinghiali adorned the town’s cycling jerseys. I also counted no fewer than 7 shops selling wild boar meat. This animal was clearly totemic for the local people. Yes, it caused damage to agricultural interests, but it also sustained and indeed necessitated a hugely important hunting culture, providing a completely renewable source of low-carbon meat, which enterprising folk could sell for good money. I also saw first-hand how the boars’ disturbance of the soil created regeneration niches that were quickly exploited by wild flowers and native trees.

A wild boar toy poses candidly on the walls of San Gimignano

Could this sort of culture be (re)created in the Forest of Dean? Somehow I doubt it…

As ‘feral pigs’ start to recolonise Highland Scotland, debates are raging about how they should be managed. To my mind, the Tuscan model seems a good one. Whether such a hunting culture could be reconciled with Scotland’s extremely concentrated pattern of land ownership is the big unknown.

“Buy me!”

Lying to the east of Tuscany, the regione of Umbria is a less-manicured version of it’s more famous neighbour but with a similar patchwork landscape. Olive groves, vineyards and arable fields are carved out of woodlands that cloak the hills. Were it not for the trees, the region would resemble Exmoor or mid-Wales.

Yet despite these topographical similarities, the differences with the UK were everywhere. In Umbria, roadside verges were lined with wild-flowers, not strimmed back to within an inch of the soil. Every town and village seemed to be patrolled by endless squadrons of swallows and swifts, which screamed around piazzas and down narrow streets. Much of the agriculture was a patchwork of small fields, each growing something different.

Insects were wonderfully abundant, as were their predators (the aforementioned birds as well as innumerable small lizards). Most mornings, I could hear the purring coos of turtle doves from nearby thickets and on several occasions we were treated to a sounder of boar, including humbugs (piglets), crashing through the trees beside our cottage. Every night the garden was ablaze with hundreds of fireflies.

Even the local forestry made me swoon. It seemed to all be based on continuous cover principles, with 10-50% of the trees left standing in any given compartment and restocking achieved purely through natural regeneration. The result was that native woodlands could still dominate the landscape, providing ecological continuity, and yet be managed productively: for timber, firewood and other forest products. Such forestry may not be lucrative enough to attract large amounts of private capital but it does seem to strike a much better balance between economy, ecology and society than any productive silvicultural system I’ve seen in the UK.

Umbrian hill country

I began to wonder if turtle doves, swifts or swallows were even in decline in Italy? I’d always assumed the population collapses we are seeing in Britain would be mirrored across Europe, the product of habitat degradation in Africa or crashes in insect populations that were happening in all developed economies. But I left with the concern that perhaps the UK is in a uniquely poor state, with a lack of ecological integrity and ambition not shared by the Italians?

Our nation may be trying to cut ties politically with the European Union but ecologically we have clearly got a lot we could still learn from our continental neighbours.

Turtle dove populations have fallen by 98% in the UK since 1970. Photo credit – Antonio Pena

After Umbria, we travelled south to visit Italy’s second-oldest national park, which spans the regions of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise. Set amongst the peaks of the Central Apennines, many of which rise to over 2,000 metres, this is the jewel in Italy’s ecological crown. Vast beechwoods, some with cores of old growth forest containing trees more than 600 years old, cloak the mountains, giving way around 1,800 metres to krummholz pine, juniper scrub and alpine meadows.

Krummholz pine is recolonising ground above the park’s vast beech forests

It is a landscape that supports wolves and bears but also cows and sheep, people and cars. In some ways, it seemed like Italy’s version of the Cairngorms National Park: both enshrine large, putatively wild mountain ranges. But in Abruzzo, ecology was afforded an importance that is hard to imagine in Scotland. Some trails were off-limits to people for part or all of the year to create low-disturbance sanctuaries for wildlife. Local people were paid to not fell woodlands and no hunting had been allowed in the park for nearly a century.

The result was a landscape that was astonishingly nature-rich. I couldn’t believe how much scrub there was, the abundance and diversity of wildflowers, the quantity of insect life or the size of the red deer. The most common sound in the beechwoods was the song of wood warblers, while from the grasslands the bubbling call of quail was omnipresent. Red-backed shrikes sat perched on the tops of hawthorn and everywhere the call of the cuckoo could be heard.

A scrub-filled landscape on the edge of the national park
Wildflowers in the foreground and a clear treeline in the distance

It made me realise that the management of national parks is completely upside down in the UK, largely as a result of historic (and ongoing) patterns of landownership. Whereas the ecology of the Cairngorms is subjugated to the dominant regional land uses, be they grouse shooting, deer stalking or forestry, in Abruzzo the land uses had to fit in with the park’s ecology. Herds of cattle and free-roaming horses grazed amongst the trees. The park itself was a no-take zone for hunters, and hikers’ wants came second to the welfare of wild bears.

What surprised me was how well this seemed to work. The cattle I saw looked fat and happy, grazing amongst dense scrub or helping to maintain open glades within the forests, benefitting certain wildflowers and insect species. I watched a large male wolf run across a plain where cows with calves and horses were grazing. The livestock didn’t even look up. They could not have cared less about their proximity to a top predator. That is not to say that wildlife-livestock conflict doesn’t exist in the park. It definitely does, especially where sheep are the livestock in question. Our guide told us about one farmer who lost over 90 sheep to wolves; the panicked herd fled into the hills, never to be seen again. But because the wolves had only directly killed a small proportion of the flock, the compensation he was offered was pitiful. There is no doubt that cows and wolves are far more compatible than sheep and wolves will ever be.

The other takeaway for me was that this national park is really delivering ecologically. One of its core aims, when founded in 1923, was to preserve L’orso Bruno marsicano (Marsican brown bear), the Italian peninsula’s endemic subspecies of European brown bear. Having been overhunted by Europe’s nobility in the 19th century, there were perhaps as few as 30 wild bears left in Italy when the park was formed. Now their numbers are up to 60, despite occasional poaching, poisoning and collisions with cars. The species is still critically endangered but the trend at least is up. Encouragingly, bears are also beginning to disperse from the national park, using ecological corridors to colonise adjacent protected lands that will allow them regain a foothold across a large swathe of the Central Apennines. Likewise the endemic Apennine chamois, which has been preserved by the park, is beginning to recolonise some of its former range.

An Apennine chamois gazes down at the steadily advancing treeline. Photo credit – Giorgio Rodano

When I compare this with the state of the Cairngorm’s emblematic species, the contrast is bleak. Scottish wildcats were declared functionally extinct in 2017. Capercaillie are in dire straits. Salmon populations continue to fall and wild plants like Alpine Blue Sowthistle are clinging on by a thread. What’s to blame for this discrepancy? Patterns of landownership? An unwillingness to restrict access rights in key conservation areas? A lack of statutory powers to regulate deer densities or muirburn? Historic deforestation? It’s probably all of these to some degree but, regardless, the result is depressing.

There are of course some challenges that both national parks face, the most obvious of which is climate change. As our planet warms it is causing an expansion of the Hadley cell, a global-scale atmospheric circulation that manifests as large areas of high-pressure in sub-tropical latitudes. These anticyclones explain the distribution of the world’s deserts and, as the planet heats up, they are growing, spreading inexorably poleward. The result? A longer, drier and hotter summer in places like Southern Europe. From one peak in Abruzzo national park we could see Gran Sasso, the highest mountain in Italy’s Apennine range at 2,912 metres. It houses (what is now) Europe’s southern-most glacier, il ghiacciaio del Calderone. Based on its current melt rate, this ice-field is unlikely to survive beyond 2030.

As in Scotland, climate-change in Italy poses an obvious threat to those species living at the highest altitudes. Where do chamois or the Highland’s dotterel go when their habitats disappear? Already in the Central Apennines the treeline is creeping higher and higher, with red deer beginning to displace chamois from the lower parts of their range.

Even Abruzzo’s vast beech forests are not safe in this grave new world. They will likely give way to turkey oak and other more drought-tolerant species. The snowy winters for which the region is famed will become less frequent, prone to sudden, drastic thaws or long spells of dry, settled weather. Maybe the l’orso marsicano, already distinct among brown bears for not hibernating fully, will give up on their cold season sleeps altogether.

But, for now, the park’s ecosystems are holding up ok to the challenges the Anthropocene has imposed. On our last morning in the park we had an incredible close encounter with two wolves, half-way up a mountain. They loped past us, barely 30 metres away, pausing only to look across and calmly observe us. I felt no fear at being so close to these animals, only wonder and respect. All the while we watched them, I could hear the cow bells of a nearby herd gently ringing, farmyard dogs barking and cars passing on the road below us. While watching wildlife in another location, a young man, illegally riding his dirt bike in a protected zone, burst onto the plain mere seconds after a wolf had crossed it.

Abruzzo national park is a land that had already been settled for millennia by the time the Roman Empire came along. Agriculture and human activity have long shaped its ecology and will continue to do so. It is a peopled landscape, not a wild one. But it is nature-rich, to a degree you cannot find in the UK. Surely that’s the blueprint, at least in Western Europe: not wild but nature-rich.

An alpine meadow, kept clear of trees by cattle and horses. We saw a male wolf crossing this plain, close to where the livestock grazed.

I left Abruzzo with lots of questions about our relationship to the land in the UK. Why were we so averse to scrub? Why did it take the example of Knepp for us to remember that dynamic landscapes, ecotones and successional processes were the key to biodiversity? Why had the Italians not hunted their large predators to extinction like we had? Had legends like Romulus and Remus given species like the wolf cultural acceptance to a degree never realised in Britain?

The wolf is still Italy’s national animal. Not only do they live alongside it, in ever-growing numbers, they actively celebrate its continued presence in their country.

Some of the Apennine wolves (Canis lupus italicus) that we saw on the slopes of Monte Marsicano. Photo credit – Maurizio Biancarelli (www.mauriziobiancarelli.it)

At the time I’m writing this, I’m reading George Monbiot’s Regenesis, while he is having a twitter-spat with James Rebanks over land-sparing vs. land sharing. To me, it seems blindingly obvious that we need both. In Italy, the full spectrum is on display. Intensive arable agriculture in the Po valley, nature-friendly farming in the hills of Tuscany and Umbria, extensive grazing in parts of the Apennine mountains and rich ecosystems preserved by national parks connected via corridors of protected land.

The type of farming that James Rebanks is doing is invaluable. His family are increasing the ratio of cattle to sheep in the hills, maintaining the best of our species-rich grasslands, while also restoring wetlands, scrub and corridors of woodland. This sort of farming may not provide much food but it keeps people on the land, has huge social and cultural importance and undeniable ecological value. But above it (literally in most cases) needs to sit genuine ecological restoration, landscape-scale networks of semi-natural, nature-rich habitat. In the Cairngorms this would take the form of restored peatlands and large, interconnected tracts of native woodland, which would grade into krummholz pine and montane scrub before finally reaching the alpine zone. Missing species would be reinstated and, over time, cattle would be allowed to seasonally graze in these landscapes, forming part of an agricultural continuum that would find its counterpoint in the productive lowlands of Aberdeenshire and Tayside.

Every country needs to ask what sustainable looks like when mapped onto their nation. If we want a habitable planet, probably 30% of it needs to be covered with healthy, functioning ecosystems. That should be the proportion we seek to emulate in our own countries.

If we want our children to grow up in a world with wonder, where lions and elephants, bears and rhinos still exist, then we have to be prepared to live alongside our landscapes’ native fauna, challenging as that will sometimes be.

It won’t be easy to achieve these things in the UK. But Italy shows us that it can and is being done.


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