Wildlife Warden Podcast Episode 3

In the latest Devon Wildlife Warden Podcast, Emily Marbaix brings you details about Churches Count for Nature Week (between 5th and 13th of June) and of a quiz she has put together to quantify how well you are managing your garden for wildlife. There is also:

  • An interview with Flavio, the Wildlife Warden Coordinator.
  • A summery of what Wildlife Wardens have been up to recently.
  • Details about the Wildlife Trust’s 30 days wild challenge.
  • Information about the Avon Valley project.
  • Information about some of the meadows you can visit through Open Meadows 2021.

Why Wildlife Wardens?

In December 2020 I signed up to become a wildlife warden for my parish, writes Emily Marbaix. It’s a scheme run by ACT aiming to help local wildlife survive and thrive. There’s a strong connection between wildlife loss and climate breakdown. They are both outcomes of our exploitation of the natural world and insatiable demand for more stuff.

Wildlife wardens on a training day in October 2020

Scientists often think of the natural world as a web of interconnected species, habitats and resources. Take one away and the rest become less stable. Take away lots and it’s like a Jenga tower teetering on the edge of collapse. Our natural ecosystems are now reaching this point and it’s for this reason that grassroots movements are springing up all over the place, attempting to protect what they can in their local areas. This is exactly what ACT and its wildlife wardens are attempting to do – help to look after their local area, and encourage others to do the same. 

So how and why did I get involved? Well, I went to university to study science and the media in the hope that I could tie together my love of the natural world with my passion for communication and performing. Back then, I had hopes of being the next Attenborough (hey – it doesn’t hurt to dream big!) However, with £20,000 of student loans hanging over my head and a desire to get on the property ladder, I turned instead to the corporate world and pursuit of the almighty pound after a brief stint in teaching. 

Fast forward 16 years and I’m in a more financially stable position, with my son at school and more time on my hands. So when I saw the advert on Facebook inviting people to apply to be wildlife wardens, I thought it was a great scheme to get involved with. I did some basic training via Zoom and started to think about what I could do that might make a difference in Abbotskerswell – the parish I’m attached to. 

We don’t have many publicly owned green spaces in Abbotskerswell, and our local tree warden, Amy, has already assessed these and initiated the planting of a community orchard, which I was thrilled to help with back in 2019. I’ve met with the Parish Council and agreed to help with an update to our biodiversity audit which will include some recommendations/actions with regard to how we can improve these areas for our local wildlife. But the spaces are small and as such are likely to have limited impact as far as mitigating climate change and species loss goes.

I therefore see my position as more of a communication based one. I want to encourage our local community to do more wildlife gardening and engage with conservation efforts in any way they can. This might involve simply signing a petition that will help to give greater protection to threatened species, or taking part in a citizen science project. There are things that we can all do, however big or small, and I see my role as an opportunity to help give people ideas.

I started off by writing a piece for the local parish magazine, which included a poem that outlined lots of different things villagers could do in their own gardens to support wildlife. But then I started to think bigger. What about a podcast? I’d always had a passion for performing and had hosted a radio show at university and loved it – so I decided to start “The Devon Wildlife Warden” podcast. In doing this, I could still create something relevant to our parish, but with the added bonus that it might also reach people from other areas – after all, we want the initiative to spread – and it already is, with people from other districts getting in touch and asking if they can get involved, too – great! 

Whether it’s challenging planning applications, enriching public spaces, helping with ecology fieldwork or simply putting a small dish of water out for thirsty bugs or mowing our lawns less often, we all can, and should do something big or small to help keep the Jenga tower from toppling.

Get in touch if you live in Teignbridge and would like to get involved with the ACT Wildlife Warden Scheme – it is in particular need of wardens for the Dartmoor side of the borough, but there is space for anyone and everyone in the area who would like to help. Visit the website or contact the scheme coordinator flavio@actionclimateteignbridge.org.

* ACT’s Wildlife Warden scheme would not be possible without the generous assistance of: Devon Environment Foundation; Teign Energy Communities’ Community Fund; Cllr Jackie Hook’s DCC Locality Fund; Dartmoor National Park Authority’ the Nineveh Trust; anonymous donors. Many thanks to all.

Choose peat free compost this spring

It’s spring, writes Lucy Oldroyd. The cold winds have passed. Surely, that is the last of the severe frosts. It is time to get planting! Trays of bright bedding at the supermarket, at the garden centre entice. Now for the compost. The bags are almost as bright as the bedding plants, but which one to choose? Which one is cheapest? Three bags for how much?

We are a clever species. We know the price of everything. But do we know the value of a bag of compost? A bag of dirt. It is trivial. Isn’t it?

How about the value of a peat bog? Less than one tenth of England’s lowland peat bogs remain. A scarce habitat home to unique animals, plants and insects. An important feeding and stopping-off point for native and migrating birds. A crucial factor in flood mitigation soaking up rainfall to release it back slowly. A huge store of trapped carbon, laid down over millennia. But as soon as the peat begins to drain, it begins to oxidise and emit that carbon back out again.

Our peatlands are the UK’s largest store of carbon, estimated at around 3.2 billion tonnes. That is more than all our forests. New licenses for harvesting peat are no longer issued by the UK government but extraction at existing sites will continue for years to come.

But we need peat to grow our plants don’t we? The Royal Horticultural Society disagrees and is working with exhibitors to transition towards no peat use at its shows by 2025. The RHS does not sell peat based composts and its nurseries and propagation areas are predominantly peat free. It is working with suppliers to replace peat-grown plants with peat-free ones in its gardens and to eradicate peat use in the plants it sells. 

Mark Gush, RHS head of environmental horticulture, estimates the RHS to be 98% peat free, the exception being some special collections. But do those of us without a national collection of pitcher plants or sundews really need peat? The RHS has lots of information on using peat free composts available on its website. 

The peat industry and the garden centres are wringing their hands. But this is so sudden, we need more time, they say. More people are gardening because of the pandemic so there is more demand. This is all eye-wash. Geoff Hamilton, of Gardeners’ World, began campaigning against peat in the 1990s. In 2011, the government set voluntary targets to end sales of peat-based compost for domestic use by 2020. It’s been a dismal failure. Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, says: “Countless promises have been broken and targets missed, with the result that precious peatland habitats are still being unnecessarily destroyed in the name of gardening.”

We are a nation of gardeners (not shopkeepers as Napoleon famously jibed). What power can a nation of gardeners show? If we cannot move mountains we have the power in our wallets to save peat bogs. We can petition the UK government to rescind peat extraction licenses. But that is a minor source of the peat in those gaudy plastic bags at the garden centre. Most of the peat we buy comes from Ireland or Europe. Here is a chance for UK gardeners to show leadership. What a role model for the world if we boycott peat! Let’s send a clear message to leave it in the ground. This spring don’t buy compost with peat. If the bag does not clearly state ‘Peat Free’ then it contains peat. 

Jessie Stevens eloquently stated the case against peat in her recent column ‘Call to Change’ (1st April) in the Mid Devon Advertiser and called on gardeners to begin a new era of gardening. Let us follow her call and now act for change.

Your choice this spring. What will you value? What will you save? Will you save a few pennies for a few bright ephemeral primulas? For a few pence more you can help save a unique habitat, an ecosystem, an irreplaceable source of biodiversity, a carbon store. What will you choose this spring at the garden centre?

Please sign the petition ‘Ban the use of peat in horticulture and all growing media by 2023’.

Wood burning stoves and air pollution

Wood burning stoves are in the news. They make a significant contribution to air pollution according to a recent government report. Wood burners and open fires together account for more than one-third (38%) of the tiny particles known as PM2.5 that are among the most damaging types of emissions for human health. That is more than any other source. Road traffic, by contrast, accounts for only 12%.

I’m not sure what to make of this. I like to fire up our stove on cold days, to supplement the oil-fired central heating, and we are thinking of adding a second stove elsewhere in the house to reduce our reliance on oil. Surely it is better to burn wood than fossil fuels? 

Well it’s not that simple. Wood is a renewable energy source as burning it is carbon neutral and doesn’t increase carbon dioxide emissions. But those PM2.5 emissions are a problem, both inside and outside the home. Open fires are worse than burners on that front, but many burners with doors are poor too. A recent study by the University of Sheffield showed that people who open the door to load a stove twice or more in an evening are exposed to pollution spikes two to four times higher than those who refuel once or not at all.

The problem is compounded by burning the wrong type of wood. Emissions from wood treated with chemicals or containing glue are seriously carcinogenic. Wet wood is also more polluting because it produces more smoke. A ban on sales of wet wood for households came into force in England in February.

Biomass boilers tend to be less of a problem than wood burning stoves, especially those that burn wood pellets. They are also more an informed choice than a nice-to-have accessory as you can’t sit around them enjoying the comforting warmth and glow.

I’m happy to take the indoor pollution risk of using a wood burner. But what about the particulates escaping up the chimney? Is air quality in Newton Abbot affected by that? Judging by a pollution map based on the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, the answer is yes. Domestic wood burning is the biggest source of air pollution due to PM2.5 in all the local towns.

This surprising fact has to be seen in the context of the huge reduction in air pollution over the past 50 years and the way the government measures it. Annual emissions of PM2.5 have fallen by 80% since 1970, mainly due to the falling use of coal and higher emission standards for transport and industry. The decline has levelled off in recent years though, as decreases in emissions from some sectors are largely offset by increases in emissions from domestic wood burning and use of biofuels by industry.

Wood burning stoves have become fashionable in recent years. They have also become more efficient and less polluting (in terms of outdoor pollution at least). The government’s report assumes stoves in use are mostly of the old polluting type, and that they are being used for 40 hours a week in winter and 20 hours a week in summer. This is based on a 2015 survey that also forms the basis of the NAEI. The government admits its estimates could be wrong by a factor of 10, so wood burning stoves could be making a much smaller (or larger) contribution to air pollution than the 38% attributed.

Whatever the numbers, Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at Imperial College and author of ‘The Invisible Killer – the rising global threat of air pollution and how we fight back’, is clear that burning wood, especially as a fashion statement, is not acceptable. In an interview with Environmental Protection Scotland he said even stoves that meet the eco-design standards that will apply from 2022 “emit the same amount of particles as the emissions from six heavy goods vehicles”.

That doesn’t sound like a neighbourly thing to do, even in my semi-rural village. In a city, it is definitely hard to justify when we know that air pollution is a killer. So my search for a clean alternative to burning oil to heat my house is leading in the direction of a heat pump, although that will be more expensive to install and run than another wood burning stove. If I was a more cynical person, I would suspect this demonisation of wood burning stoves to be a campaign aimed at prolonging our reliance on fossil fuels. That’s just mad though, isn’t it?

My Carbon Footprint

See the source image

I was brought up to turn the lights off when I left a room, to save both money and energy. I remember the three day week of the 1970s and the power cuts when energy was rationed. That early training may help me now as I start the work of making my home more energy efficient.

I knew when I bought my home three years ago that I would need to do this eventually as it came with an energy performance certificate rating of E, which is pretty bad. Then recently, I checked out some of the carbon footprint calculators you can find online. This was partly for my own interest and partly because my parish council has declared a climate emergency, and as a councillor, I thought I should look at my own carbon emissions. Well, that didn’t go well!

I don’t fly much and aim to keep it that way, so I score points there, and although I drive an old diesel car, I don’t drive it very far. (The electric bike we bought this year is doing increasing mileage!) The main problem is household consumption of electricity and heating oil, which accounts for nearly 40% of my total footprint. It makes my energy bills high too.

The first step in trying to reduce that is to find out which household appliances are the greediest in energy terms. I have borrowed a couple of meters to help with this and am gradually working through the house. Most of my appliances are quite old, so it may be worth replacing some. Even though a new fridge freezer, for example, comes with embedded emissions from the manufacturing process, it’s greater energy efficiency (and lower running costs) may make it a worthwhile purchase.

Next is an assessment of where the house leaks heat, which will hopefully help me decide what I can do to improve this. More or better insulation may be called for, or perhaps I can start thinking about whether to install a heat pump and retire my oil-fired boiler. I might be able to apply for the government’s Green Homes Grant to help with costs, or the Renewable Heat Incentive. 

It’s a steep learning curve and I will need help along the way to make sensible decisions. It has opened my eyes, though, to the importance of economising on energy wherever possible. It might help my bank balance too. A win win in fact!

Could you be a parish Wildlife Warden?

The ACT Ecology Group is looking for parish-based, volunteer Wildlife Wardens, writes Audrey Compton. They are needed to help support, protect and increase our district’s wildlife and improve its chances of surviving the ecological and climate emergencies we face. Wildlife Wardens need to love wildlife but don’t need specialist knowledge, we will provide training.

Having Wildlife Wardens will help our communities become more involved in the natural world, enhancing their physical health and giving them more joy and happiness.

Our aim is for all 54 Teignbridge parishes and Newton Abbot wards to have one or two Wildlife Wardens by the end of 2021. As our training capacity increases, we will recruit up to 5 wardens for each Parish.

Who can be a Wildlife Warden and what will they do?

Anyone who is interested in or knowledgeable about wildlife/ecology can become a Warden. You will:

  • Commit to giving your parish’s wildlife several hours of your time a month.
  • Look out for opportunities to protect, help and increase the wildlife in your parish.
  • Carry out practical work in your parish that will benefit wildlife.
  • Either work in a team or possibly train to lead local volunteers on practical tasks (or you could call in specialists from ACT Ecology Group).
  • Send ACT and your parish council a brief, monthly account of what you have been doing, so we can all share successes and difficulties.

Wildlife Wardens in neighbouring parishes could work together on joint projects. Wardens with special skills and knowledge might also help train other Wardens.

Unfortunately, we don’t have funds to pay for Wardens’ expenses. However, Wardens who are ACT members will be covered by our insurance.

Some of our existing parish wildlife groups will be Wildlife Wardens, organising work and sharing expertise. If there isn’t a local group, Wildlife Wardens can work together – and maybe even start a group.

Project areas:
A. Surveying and helping to improve and connect habitats.
B. Promoting organic wildlife gardening
C. Monitoring building and development within the parish and alerting ACT of any wildlife damage.

The Ecology Group hopes to provide free training in these areas:

  • Identification of all types of wildlife
  • Habitat management and connectivity: hedges, woodlands, meadows, verges, ponds
  • Farming and wildlife
  • Writing risk assessments – and working with them!
  • Wildlife gardening
  • Creating pesticide-free zones
  • Carrying out desktop surveys
  • Monitoring planning applications and developments.

We will stay in close contact with the Council’s Green Spaces Team, and collaborate wherever we can, but we are aware their resources are limited. We have support from Teignbridge District Council, RSPB, the Woodland Trust and Devon Biodiversity Record Centre.

We have been granted funding by Teign Energy Communities, Councillor Jackie Hook’s DCC Locality Fund and Dartmoor National Park Authority, and extend our thanks to them for this vital help. Among other things it has enabled us to appoint a coordinator for a few hours a week, who will ensure good communication and record keeping.

If you are interested in becoming a parish Wildlife Warden, please get in touch with our coordinator, Flavio Winkler Ford: flavio@actionclimateteignbridge.org