Flavian Obiero, a tenant farmer in Hampshire
Country Notes

Real pond life

There is a simple way to foster biodiversity

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A little over a fortnight ago, I stood down on the sand by the Thames, around a small bonfire. A poet read some of his work, and then a lady who had come all the way from Scotland sang a song that she explained was music from the “traveller folk”. It was cold, and the rising river shone purple and green beneath the lights of Hungerford Bridge.

We were the dregs of a launch party for a new book titled Wild Service, which is a collection of essays written by various people affiliated with the Right to Roam campaign. Guy Shrubsole, the land access campaigner, has a piece in there; Nick Hayes who wrote the Book of Trespass contributed an essay that touches on paganism, and Jon Moses wrote on the Gwent Levels and “Stone-Age schools”.

The hope is that the book inspires a mass movement of people who head out into the countryside every weekend in order to restore ecologically damaged places. The contributors, the publisher reckons, “are guerrilla guardians”, those who “don’t own the places they protect” and “don’t have the permission to restore them”, but who will create idylls and oases where there is currently no space for nature.

The idea, in theory, is lovely. There’s no doubt that vast swathes of the countryside have been neglected and that lots of landowners don’t really know, in any sort of intimate way, what it is they own and which endangered species actually rely on bits of habitat across their many acres.

A couple of days after the launch, with my clothes still smelling of woodsmoke, I emailed a land agent to firm up some details about a pond I want to rent from their employer. Or at least it would have been a pond at one point, but it’s now just a scrubby forgotten square in the middle of a big field.

I’ve still not quite got there, but I proposed a small rent on the basis that I’ll need to get a report done to make sure there are no turtle doves or nightingales nesting there, I’ll need to get somebody in with a flail mower, and I’ll hopefully be able to do a bit of chainsawing myself. Not to mention a Norfolk Ponds Trust two-day pond restoration course I’m going on.

It struck me on Saturday whilst looking at the possible pond that, with the best will in the world, a bunch of guerrilla guardians would be pretty useless. They would of course have to make sure they had somebody there who was qualified to do the necessary survey and then throughout the whole process, they’d be committing a number of not-inconsiderable offences.

Has anybody ever restored a wetland meadow successfully in the dead of the night?

Driving onto somebody’s land (whether you agree with the notion of private property or otherwise) with a tractor and a mower, as well as bringing your chainsaws along, would be foolish.

I noted, whilst signing up for the pond restoration course, that there will be a whole section on approaching farmers and landowners in the hope that attendees will be able to apply their skills — I will of course ask about the guerrilla approach. Has anybody ever restored a wetland meadow successfully in the dead of the night?

Yesterday morning, I went to visit Flavian Obiero, a tenant farmer in Hampshire, who has goats, pigs and sheep. He took me for a wander in his woods where there are some coppiced hazel stools not so long out of rotation.

What he really wants to do, he explained, is get the local college along to coppice them, which he thinks would also leave him knowing more about woodland management. Then after that, he told me enthusiastically, he could maybe get some nursery groups to come and learn.

It might sound radical to jump people’s fences and start doing a bit of 2am hedge-laying or wholly illegal pond restoration, but it’s impractical. It is quite unlikely that you’re going to persuade local nurseries to send their toddlers out on forest trespasses, for example.

Yet, with the support of the person who actually manages the land — somebody like Flavian — you could make something special happen.

There are, as lots of people like to remind us, landowners who are very much asleep at the wheel. But perhaps tediously, even if it might seem demeaning to ask, a tactful approach rather than kicking farmers’ barn doors down, might just be of greater benefit to “the wilds”.

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