Dr Chris Sandbrook posted a piece on the ‘The three most dangerous narratives in conservation’ on his blog Thinking Like a Human .  Here he sounds a warning about ‘ tremendous lengths that (most of) the conservation sector has gone to over the last few decades to repackage and represent the value of nature in monetary terms’. Chris’s post was interesting and stimulating and he also states that these narratives are ‘not entirely false, but their ‘truth’ has become accepted as orthodoxy to the extent that they slip by almost unnoticed.’

I have been thinking about a post around Natural Capital for some time, especially since George Monbiot’s article The UK government wants to put a price on nature – but that will destroy it. I’m personally uncomfortable with the approach, but i think we have to accept that until we shift our current economic paradigm, its the right tool in many situations going forward.

So, my reply:

Thanks Chris for this stimulating piece. However I think one of the dangerous narratives in conservation is the rise of voices AGAINST natural capital and monetising of nature as a tool to protect and preserve the environment under the current economic system. Scott H posted above that ‘Traditional conservation has failed to halt the decline of biodiversity over the past 50 years, so we have to do something else’ which is right but he doesn’t say why he disagrees with this.

The danger in dismissing natural capital approaches is that this plays in to a binary approach to problem solving. The environment is part of a complex system which like it or not is bound up intrinsically with human development and wellbeing. Solving the issue of reducing the scale of our impact on the biosphere will necessitate a range of solutions.

Natural capital one might argue is the only adaptive approach to our current economic system, which isn’t going to change radically very soon. Of course we need to be innovative and find new ways to live and do business with each other, and there are many organisation around the world doing great work exploring these transformative pathways.

More on this soon.

Thinking like a human

Emery Roe, an American policy scholar, first developed the idea that ‘narratives’ – stories about the world and how it works – are used in policy making processes to cut through complexity and justify a particular course of action. We are a storytelling species, and people find it easy to understand and get behind a compelling story with strong internal logic and a beginning, middle and end. Once a narrative has taken hold they can be very difficult to shake off, at least until an even more compelling ‘counter-narrative’ arrives on the scene. A classic example from resource governance is the ‘resources will be over-exploited unless they are in private ownership’ narrative, based on Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Tragedy of the Common’s article. It took decades of careful scholarship, and ultimately a nobel prize for Elinor Ostrom, to demonstrate that this narrative was compelling, influential, and wrong.

There are numerous narratives…

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In wildness is the preservation of the world- Henry David Thoreau, in  ‘Walking’ (1862)

Its Sunday June 3rd and back in the UK my colleagues at Surrey Wildlife Trust have already been busy filling social media with their #30dayswild posts to encourage their friends, family and the public to take time each day through June to connect with the wild. Lou took a walk in a local wildlife with her dog Banjo and photographed all the flowers. James has revamped his garden with new plants to attract wild pollinators. Lucy  and Nicole have been exploring the mountains of Scotland. My computer screen is brimming with colour and energy and life.

I have been meaning to update my blog but I have been too busy living #MyWIldLife to write about it, but now happily both my love of writing and my need to spread the word about some of the exciting things i’m doing coincide, just in time for this annual celebration of wild living.

My Canadian adventure which started in 2016 has now reached a new phase  and I am at the start of a 10 month sabbatical from SWT. I am working as Visiting Scientist at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Innovation and Resilience which is part of the University of Waterloo. I have joined the team on the Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape initiative  who have been using a partnership approach to explore complex issues of landscape planning and management within southern Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). I’ll be working with partners to support their hedge planting and hedgelaying visions at both site and landscape level, together with exploring the development- or rather curation-of a rural skills network in Southern Ontario. This practical work will explore new pathways of sustainable transformation towards landscape and community resilience. More on this in later blogs!

I am living with my partner Sarah at the wonderful Mount Wolf Farm, owned and run by the Crandall family where my friends Nigel and Jef demonstrated hedgelaying back in 2016 and last year we planted the first plants in the First Canadian Hedgerow (probably not but every hedge needs a story!).  Mount Wolfe is at the centre of a transitioning landscape, a complex theatre in which i find myself an actor exploring solutions towards a sustainable future.

Thoreau’s thoughts about wilderness are iconic. Today, in the age of the Anthropocene as we struggle to maintain ecosystems and reverse biodiversity loss from a myriad of pressures perhaps we might restate this famous quote- in our world  is the preservation of the wild.

Here are a few highlights for my days 1-3 of #30dayswild



My last day at SWT for a while, I’m heading out on sabbatical to Ontario next Friday to join the Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Greenbelt project as a Visiting Scientist at the University of Waterloo. Just some of the things I wont leave behind…


Even in winter, hedgerows are working in the landscape. Not only can they prevent snow drift on to roads (a feature or ‘ecosystem service’ I’m keen to explore more in work in Ontario, see 3 Go to Canada: Hedges, Novel Ecosystems and Damn Fine Donuts,HedgeCanada Revisited: healing the landscape and connecting communities with a new hedgerow story  and Hedge Canada 3: The Planting) , thick hedgerows can also be a barrier and shelter against wind for wildlife and people. They also provide visual interest in the landscape, their varied structural forms catching the eye, an adventure in landscape history for the curious mind and a cheering companion on a winter walk, especially when full of redwings after ivy berries! Ivy in hedgerows and trees is crucial at this time of year for birds and small mammals. Rowan berries and hawthorn hips are mostly long gone, but Ivy berries still endure. Kate Bradbury has written about the benefits of Ivy in the Guardian here

Its this varied structure of hedgerows, clearly seen on a winter walk  that underpins their value to biodiversity. In a  recent paper (Graham et al 2018 The influence of hedgerow structural condition on wildlife habitat provision in farmed landscapes) the authors reviewed the importance of hedgerow structure to biodiversity and found that the the definition of a good qualityhedgerow for biodiversity conservation should be expanded to include all those key structural features which are important across taxa. They highlighted the importance of heterogeneity in hedgerow structural condition  where no fixed set of hedgerow characteristics were found to benefit all taxa., which leads away from the prescription of uniform hedgerow management , because some species (including those of conservation concern) are likely to be adversely affected by a loss of suitable habitat or resource decline. I’ll review the paper in  future blog.

It’s important to maintain hedgerows in good condition however. Annual cutting at the same height every year stresses plants resulting in thick stems and a hard knuckle of regrowth which cracks and splinters under a flail which looks unsightly and may contribute to exposing plants to disease and decay. Annual cutting leads to gappy hedgerows as plants disappear from the hedge, like in this ‘candelabra’ hawthorn along Chapel Road in Westhumble, Dorking. Equally, non intervention leads to tree lines and eventual disappearance of hedgerows.




I suggest a balance needs to be set between the need to preserve the hedgerows and hedge networks itself versus the needs of the species that occupy it/them. There is a point in the (The Hedge Management Cycle, (see also Hedgelink website) where a hedgerow reaches Point 10-  line of trees, and is managed as such for biodiversity and socio-ecological benefits. There are some old beech hedges in Surrey at Haslemere and Hindhead and on Leith Hill which still retain the old pleachers fused together at the bottom of huge mature beeches. These amazing relics are part of the story of our landscape history and while I wouldn’t prescribe ‘no intervention management’ to all hedgerows its important to allow space for such features to emerge, both for wildlife and people. Its only by planning at the landscape scale and over time can you assure the heterogeneity Graham et al recommend.


Old Hedge & SarahD_Comp

Relic beech hedgerow at Leith Hill, Surrey


For more information about hedgerow management visit the Hedgelink website  http://www.hedgelink.org.uk


“I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”
– Walt Whitman

On an unseasonably warm and sunny Thanksgiving Weekend (6th October 2017) visitors to the Open Day at Mount Wolfe Farm in Caledon, Ontario were able to take part in a first for the farm, for the town of Caledon, and who knows maybe for Ontario and Canada as well: the planting of a hedgerow with hedgelaying in mind. Volunteers walked down from the Shed past the greenhouse and through a gateway of two black walnut stumps. Here at the bottom of a gentle slope the farm manager Sarah had ploughed a 100m strip ready for planting. Earlier that day I set out the plants that have been kindly donated by Toronto Area Conservation Authority (TRCA) to form two staggered rows of plants. Rows are 40cm apart and each plant will be 30cm apart, a density of five plants a metre. We only had 2 plants every metre but the rest will be delivered in the spring when the hedge will be finished.

The volunteers took to their task energetically and with enthusiasm. I’m used to planting 30-40cm whips which can be slipped in with a T-cut using a spade; these potted plants required a bit more digging to contain the roots before being heeled in. Although the plant species we are using for the Mount Wolfe hedge are different species from those we would plant in the UK, they are broadly similar. We have hazel, albeit the American hazelnut Corylus Americana; Grey Dogwood Cornus racemose; and a Prunus-Chokeberry Prunus virginiana- which although doesn’t look as fierce as Blackthorn Prunus spinosa sounds like it might perform a similar function in the hedge to provide dense, stock-proof growth. We are also planting a couple of Viburnums: NannyBerry Viburnum lentago and Arrowwood V. dentatum, which are similar to the Guelder Rose V.opulus and Wayfaring Tree V. lantana we might plant in a hedge in the UK. This list is topped off by Serviceberry Amelanchier canadensis, Black Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa and Fragrant Sumac Rhus aromatic. A list of potentially suitable hedge species was developed last year when my colleague Nigel Adams visited the TRCA plant nursery with Ralph Toniger (see link below).

These plants have been chosen for their mast-producing qualities, so the hedge fits in with Mount Wolfe Farm’s food producing ethos. The location of the hedge has also been chosen to zone part of the farm which its owners the Crandall Sisters and next generation farm manager Sarah are hoping to designate as an open space, a commons, for the use and benefit of local residents, a novel land-use approach in a landscape of privately-owned properties.

In advance of the hedge planting I delivered a talk on hedgerows in the same Shed that almost one year to the day Nigel Adams, Jef Gielen and I found ourselves delivering talks followed by a hedge laying demonstration as part of the University of Waterloo’s Partnership project Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Greenebelt. You can read about that trip in 2016 in my earlier blog HERE and an update on the growth of the hedge in my visit in Spring 2017 HERE. It feels fantastic to be part of the first hedge planting event envisaged by that partnership last year. My talk was sandwiched between Professor Stephen Quilley who gave an overview of the aims of the HOG project in developing social resilience and Debbe Crandall of Mount Wolfe who gave a fascinating insight into the development of the Crandall family farm and the importance of the hedgerow project to regional and community planning.


Two more hedge planting events on different sites with very different aims and visions are planned which, it is hoped, will form case studies to showcase the varied contexts hedgerows can be used in and the different ‘services’ hedges can provide: from the food and zoning focus of the Mount Wolf hedges, to the provision of habitat and landscape connectivity and even to services such as natural flood management, prevention of soil erosion and stock management.

The novelty bought by these hedges is that they are being planted with long-term management in mind. Species are being selected for their shrub-like qualities and their ability to respond with new vigorous growth when coppiced. Hedges may be trimmed on a 2-3 year rotation but all will need to be rejuvenated- cut at the base to encourage new growth- to keep a thick canopy from the ground up.

Hedgelaying has developed throughout Europe as a way of rejuvenating hedgerows but this management technique has been developed locally and hedges now provide a more aesthetic and social component than perhaps the first hedgelayers intended. There are now over 30 hedge-laying styles in Britain alone.

What will an Ontarion Hedgelaying style look like I wonder? We are at the beginning of finding out.


Check out my YouTube video.

Many thanks to Sarah D, Debbe, Sheilagh, Marce and Sarah C for putting me up- and putting up with me-at Mount Wolfe. Thanks also to Prof Quilley and PHD candidate Perin Ruttonsha at The University of Waterloo for continuing to involve me in this fascinating project. This blog is dedicated to Nigel and Jef who couldn’t be with me this time.

Learn more about hedgerows and how they are managed at Hedgelink and the National Hedgelaying Society

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