Challenging Habitat Blog

Today, I walked past the field in the Tamar valley – a route I have taken many times.

Today a sight deeply disturbed me: a stand of mature trees in the middle of the field had been reduced to half its size.

All around, farmers are cutting down the hedges. Not just brash, but also mature trees within the hedgerows that serve as perches for birds and shape the character of this AONB.

I understand that hedges are treated that way to comply with a higher level stewartship scheme, for which farmers get payment through the Rural Payment Agency for rejuvenation of hedgerows and fencing.

Whether or not the cutting of these emergent trees is intended or not by the Stewardship Scheme, I don’t know. I fail to understand the sense of it.

But cutting down a stand of trees is something else.

It is destructive and depressing in equal measure.

What about habitat, biodiversity, carbon footprint, amenity…?

Saturday is burning day!

Have you ever noticed the black columns of smoke rising to the sky in rural England on a Saturday evening?

Saturday is burning day for waste that isn’t legal to burn: bailing plastic, tyres, feed and fertiliser bags, plastic gloves, udder wipes, worming tubes…who knows what else.

The local council offices, the Environment Agency and DEFRA can’t be reached on Saturday evening, so nobody can report the illegal fire while it’s burning.

And in winter, plastic waste can be burned under the cover of darkness without having to stay up late…

… just as happened last night on a farm in the valley.

I smelled the acrid plastic fumes as soon as I stepped into our orchard before dinner, a stink that brought me right back to my childhood, when my dad burned the plastic wrapping of the blocks he built our house with.

That was in the early 1970s, and while the smell should have told us that all is not well with the practice then, detailed knowledge about the toxins released from low temperature open fires are now more common knowledge than when I was a kid.

Not that I want to excuse what went on on our building site – not at all! It was common practice then and it was wrong, even then. I am saying that we should learn something and change or behaviour accordingly.

Today, someone would have to try very hard to remain ignorant of the fact that burning plastic releases harmful chemicals into the air, soil and water.

Just one example of information freely available on the internet: Alexander Cogut (2016) has published a comprehensive overview over global open burning of rubbish, and at that time, approximately 41% of global trash was ‘disposed of’ in that way.

Do we really want to tolerate this on English soil? In 2021?

Cogut’s report highlights that the open burning of waste is carried out at relatively low temperatures and for that reason, releases a variety of pollutants. The main issues are:

  • greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane
  • particulate matter, which is air pollution that can cause severe cases of respiratory disease and coronary disease
  • persistent organic pollutants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans, all of which are known to cause cancer (carcinogens) and have been associated with causing other diseases.

Toxins are known to be particularly harmful to unborn fetuses, infants and children and can cause severe developmental damage in the young – in addition, air, soil and water pollution also damages ecosystems and wildlife.

Even if ignorance persists, ignorance is no defence in front of the law:

The Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006 classify agricultural wastes as ‘controlled wastes’ and it is prohibited to dispose of it by burning or burying. That includes, among other materials, plastic, foil, containers and even cardboard. Farmers have a legal duty to send waste off their farm, to be recycled, incinerated or go to landfill. Moreover, waste can only be transferred to authorised persons and a Waste Transfer note must be provided to show lawful disposal.

That’s a far cry from what happened last night!

Perhaps burning on site is permitted again since the UK left the EU???

Nope! Just checked – as of today, 17 Jan 2021 there are no known changes to EU legislation related to the Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006.

I am writing here about general principles, not a single incident near where I live – that was just a trigger to get this off my chest!

Saturday is burning day all over rural England!

Update: I wonder how much plastic is used to light wood burners every day ????

The Cornish hedges NW of Kit Hill are not trimmed yet and bare branches catch the rays of the sun, already low in the sky at 3 pm.

Almost like hoarfrost.


Its flowers are pretty but it contains, as many plants, some toxins that deter grazing.

To animals this can be a problem when consumed in hay, but fresh it tastes too bad to be consumed in quantities large enough to cause harm*.

Perhaps it is time to revisit control methods and common misconceptions…?


A shard of pottery in a field reminds me of something in the history of the valley I live in.

Market gardening in the Tamar Valley (Devon and Cornwall, UK) has a rich tradition of growing anything from snowdrops and daffodils to soft fruit and apples. The industrial revolution brought on the intensification of horticulture, with higher demands on the maintenance of soil fertility.

This is where ‘night soil’ came in handy: human excreta, collected by the night soil men from buckets, cesspools and privies in Plymouth and Devonport Dockyards. It used to be transported in barges upstream with the tide and spread around the fields (I just hope that the same barges were not used to transport the food downstream …)

What is the significance of this shard of pottery in this story?

Night soil also contained other wastes: discarded pots, plates and bottles thrown out and broken when no longer useful. If you are lucky enough to have a garden in the Tamar Valley, you are as likely to find a beautiful glass medicine bottle, a clay orange marmalade jar or any number bits of patterned dinner plates, as you are to pierce your fingers on sharp pieces of broken greenhouse glass.

I fancy this as a piece of traditional Cornish blue and white striped crockery from many decades ago…but that’s just a fancy guess.

One of my ‘pet hates’ is littering. There is absolutely no need for it. Fast food outlets are shut and we are instructed to not make unnecessary journeys and as a consequence, country lanes are not so much littered with single use coffee cups, crisp packs and food packaging that bear the golden arches or any other well-known brands.


Alas, the absence of ‘daily litter’ sharpens the focus on ‘permanent litter’ of the agricultural variety. From bailing plastic, twine and netting to fragments of plastic sheeting, sacks and containers, the day-by-day running of many farms relies on a wide variety of synthetic materials. Whether discarded deliberately or accidentally, they are found in hedges and on tracks, in fields and in ditches, make their way into water courses and out to sea.

Oh, and then there are the larger items – it’s not exactly littering, more of an illegal waste management issue: bits of machinery abandoned, dumped and stacked. Apart from the visual impact, over time they’ll shed paint, oil, fuel and disintegrating rubber …

Properly disposed of, waste can be a resource through recycling of materials – I can’t quite fathom for what purpose the agricultural industry, that relies on a functioning ecosystem to be successful, messes it up quite like that.

Rant over. A picture of ‘cheerfulness’ below…I wish I could send you its heavenly scent with it!

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