I was recently asked to write a few words for the WildEast blog, explaining about the Suffolk Project and it's origins, and why I am a keen supporter of their work and ambitions.
I moved to Suffolk in 2016 after living in the Middle East for many years. I spent the first couple of years here restoring a Tudor cottage and reading everything I could about my new home, the county of Suffolk. Fortunately, there’s a great legacy of wonderful books about Suffolk and particularly, of course, its farming legacy. Until modern times you couldn’t really talk about Suffolk without talking about farming; so many of our great writers of the past: Bell, Evans, Blythe, Freeman, focused on this subject. I was totally charmed by the work of these writers who evoked a world of the past that seemed so distant and yet signs of which could still be seen all around.
While I was living abroad, my visits home had been fairly infrequent, mainly to my Welsh cottage, another long-term restoration project. In retrospect I think I was away for long enough to be struck by the rapid changes in the British countryside. For instance, I kept a motorbike in Wales, and when I first went there in 2004 it was impossible to ride around the country lanes in summer without full-face protection because of the battering you received from insects. By 2016 that had changed and you could safely ride in just goggles. Even though this happened in such a recent and breathtakingly short time frame, I think it escaped most people’s notice (or perhaps they thought it was a good thing!) and yet, when you think about it, it’s a change that is shockingly profound and it’s implications reach right to the foundations of the countryside we love.
I’m a professional commercial photographer but I’ve always been very active working on personal photographic projects. So when I started to think about a subject for a new work in Suffolk, I knew immediately that agriculture and conservation would have to be important elements of it.
My previous personal projects have been concerned with sustainability, and particularly with regard to the way that humans interact with their environment. In the Middle East I was struck by the way people were accumulating wealth and possessions and the extraordinary rate that we were getting through consumables; whether it was all the food that was flown into the country of which half would end up in the garbage, or the energy expended on air conditioning our houses while the doors were left open. But additionally, the beautiful virgin deserts, coastlines and mountains were being consumed; broken down into building aggregates or turned into money-making real estate opportunities. The great water aquifers laid down in the last ice age were depleted: pumped up to the surface to irrigate golf courses and roadside landscaping; and along the coast, energy-intensive desalination plants were making fresh water from seawater and pumping the concentrated toxic bi-product back out to sea.
I photographed all of these things, and in 2013 my project entitled ‘consumption’ was selected for a photographic award in London, themed ‘scarcity-waste’, which was sponsored by the agribusiness Syngenta. The awards ceremony gave me the opportunity to chat with their CEO; a conversation that really sparked my interest in the relationship between farming and wildlife. I've subsequently learned much more about this subject, but the more I learn, the more complex the subject seems to get. But there are, I think, some basic truths.
Whenever I’ve spoken to conservationists I ask them the same question; what do you think are the most important factors in collapsing British wildlife populations. They always give the same answer: intensive farming. Most experts agree on this, but few will want to narrow down the particular aspects of intensive farming that do the most damage. Is it the prevalence of winter-planted crops? Or the way hedges, waterways, woodlands and other natural assets are managed? Perhaps the lack of margins and spaces left behind? Is it the density of crops and the reduction in natural soil fertility and structure? Or is it the intensive application of inputs: chemicals? Personally, I would like to find out what specifically changed in farming between 2004 and 2016. It may just be a personal anecdote rather than scientific data, but that’s the period when my bugs disappeared.
The work of conservation organisations is critically important: acquiring, protecting and maintaining key habitats for wildlife to thrive in. Suffolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Natural England and the National Trust have portfolios of reserves that are the pinnacles of our conservation achievements. They also offer important visitor opportunities so people can relish the natural world and be inspired to protect it. But take a look at a map of Suffolk and highlight all those areas. They amount to a tiny proportion of the land area. If we add gardens, parks, churchyards, parklands, roadside verges and other public, private and unfarmed spaces it becomes more significant. If we add organic farms and farms that are managed for nature, perhaps on higher-level stewardship schemes, the areas in red start to grow a little more.
It must be remembered that our ecosystems are adapted to traditional farming landscapes. It’s not true to say organisms have evolved in the farming context; agriculture is far too young for that, but the systems are unique, interdependent and complex. Many species thrive in the disruption caused by farming, just like the Robin that follows you round the garden hoping for a worm while you dig. Worked farming landscapes are important for our wildlife.
Farmers don’t need to convert to organic to make a positive contribution to wildlife. It’s not all black or white. Everyday there are critical choices made which have deep implications for wildlife. A quiet week in October with not much else to do might seem like the perfect moment to trim the hedges, but that small decision will result in the winter food supply for many small creatures being decimated. Even while spraying Glyphosate, small areas left to grow, margins avoided, will provide important habitats (and save time and money!)
It’s all too easy to look out on the landscape of Suffolk and only see a verdant green paradise. We look at cities like Dubai with scorn for their apparent lack of environmental concern. But the changes that have happened in our landscape are, arguably, just as profound as those that have happened in the United Arab Emirates in the last 20 years, we just haven’t noticed.
As soon as I heard about WildEast, and their plans to increase biodiversity across the region by 20%, I got in touch to offer my photographic services. There are so many incredible individuals and organisations across East Anglia working hard for nature and they deserve to be celebrated. I hope my photos of them inspire others to join the community.
You will see the pictures from my first Wildeast photoshoot in Jillian Mac’Ready’s piece on The Bury Water Meadows Group, some of whom I was fortunate enough to meet a few weeks back while they were hand scything one of the town meadows. Scything by hand isn’t some quaint, romantic hobby for rural types stuck in the past; it’s actually an important technique for reducing and removing excess growth in the same way that grazing animals would naturally do; by comparison, strimmers chop up the cuttings and over-fertilise the soil, creating the wrong nutritional balance for wildflowers and the invertebrates that thrive on them.
In other words, this is one of the many, many ways we might get our bugs back!