Thursday, 21 July 2016

Alfriston Clergy House: a sanctuary of stability

After two hours spent at the beach this morning, I was ready by midday to beat a retreat. The temperature was passing 30°C - the hottest day of the year so far. The advice was to drink lots of water and stay in the shade and to close blinds to help keep your home cooler. Alternatively, sometimes it is cooler still to leave the house and sit beneath a tree. That was all the encouragement I needed.

I have been nursing a bruised rib - the result of an accident involving a metal five-barred gate and a reluctant dog. The pain is blossoming with each day, so my plans for some 'epic' walking this week have been painfully deferred. Just as well, perhaps, given the heatwave that most of us are enjoying. A gentler pastime was required and my preferred choice of venue today was The Clergy House at Alfriston, where I intended to lose myself in a book in the shade for a couple of hours. "Have you visited us before?", asked the helpful guide. "Yes." "Ah, well you know what you're doing then!" I did; I had a couple of books under my arm and no intention to enter the cool of the 14th-century hall and instead headed for the cool of the garden.

I chose a shaded spot between a hawthorn and grey willow and by a stream edge which forms the back border of the property. A blue-green screen of Phragmites reeds and blue sky was all I could see when seated on the ground. There were no distractions and I intended to absorb myself within one or both of my books. The water was a hive of activity: whirligig beetles and fish fry meandered on and just below the still surface while a banded demoiselle - a beautiful emerald female - and blue-tailed damselflies danced just above it, resting for a moment on the reed stems. As I settled a large fly alighted on my leg (my body heat no doubt a glowing beacon). The fly looked like a picture-wing fly on steroids and I recognised it as one of the deerflies - members of the horsefly family. The part of me that likes to know everything there is to know nearly persuaded me to allow the deerfly to rest long enough to photograph it for identification later, but common sense won over before the fly gorged upon my blood. Although their fearsome reputation is well-earned, they are nonetheless beautiful, striking flies, and particularly so their eyes. It got the message and disappeared, presumably to some unfortunate livestock nearby.

A moorhen broke the silence with an explosive shriek, made me start, revealing its presence amongst the reeds just a few feet before me. A female mallard, the subject of the moorhen's scorn, hurriedly exited the reeds. A Cetti's warbler echoed the alarm a few moments later with its overloud aquatic gurgle, while a gentler reed warbler sang amongst the reeds somewhere unseen. This was the peaceful oasis I had hoped for. Two or three red admirals patrolled energetically above me while a skipper, meadow browns and various whites skimmed and floated back and forth. A mixed group of long-tailed, blue and great tits moved its way through the grey willow, one long-tailed tit venturing to within an arm's length of me, fearless, while inspecting one of the lower branches. I could hear some greenfinches in the canopy above and, above all I heard the cries of swifts as they scythed through the unbroken big blue, and then swallows too at a lower altitude. The air was almost still and carried the scents of subtly stagnant water and straw and intermittent sounds from the middle distance: occasional drones of light aircraft passing overhead, a farm vehicle being manoeuvred (a harvester?) and the bellicose boasts of distant woodpigeons. These sounds swelled and fell away, rose again and receded to leave just the hush of the reeds in the slightest air. All was well and I imagined how the protective embrace of the National Trust ensured this soundscape from day to day, year to year, and was thankful for this tiny pinprick of biodiversity. I laid back on the grass, in the shade of the hawthorn, and dozed.

I recalled a couple of news stories I had heard  in recent days on the radio which reported that the world's biodiversity had been found to have entered an unsafe level of decline and that June 2016 was the fourteenth month in succession that global temperatures have risen to a new record high. The usual warnings were given about climate change, global warming, rising sea levels, the loss of pollinating insects and the threat that ecosystems are becoming unable to support human populations. There is a serious concern that many people hear, watch or read these headlines without much thought about what this means in practise. It could mean not only hunger but starvation and thirst, not only illness but death, not only the collapse of economies but the collapse of societies, conflict for resources, riots, warfare, displacement, famine, disease, and ultimately silence. People cannot be blamed if the reality beyond the headlines cannot be grasped: we are consumers who have been failed by successive governments and exploited by big business, hell bent on reaping the fruit of their neoliberal endeavours without considering the costs to the environment and to successive generations. The public feel misrepresented, abused and lied to. We have become cynical and have lost faith that our leaders will work in the long-term interests of the environment and all who rely on healthy and functioning ecosystems. We feel powerless, disenfranchised and resentful. We have been spoon-fed summer movie blockbusters in which natural disasters have destroyed swathes of the Earth. Has this contributed to a numbness felt to the threat of Armageddon? In an age of instant gratification, global climate change occurs at too slow a pace or on too distant a shore for us to notice it. Do we literally have to wait until our feet get wet or until our stomachs cramp with hunger or until our doctors tell us there is no longer a cure before we demand of our politicians that action is taken or make personal changes to our consumption? I fear that this will be the threshold for change, but it will by then already be too late. Some island states will already have been claimed by rising sea levels, their populations made environmental refugees and immigrants shifted elsewhere (but not here!).

Some things need rescuing: the Clergy House in 1893, prior to its acquisition
The National Trust's full name is the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest of Natural Beauty. It was established in 1895 and the Alfriston Clergy House was its first acquisition, in 1896. It is a tiny property and this is a tiny dot amongst the 985 square miles of land holdings within its property. Other significant land owners in the United Kingdom include the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, various pension funds, utility companies, the Crown Estate, the RSPB, the various Wildlife Trusts and, in Scotland, the Scottish National Trust, the Duke of Buccleuch and Quensberry Estates and the Duke of Atholl's Trusts. Most but not all of these land owners engage in large-scale conservation and protection of their properties. This amounted to 9533 square miles in 2010, which is about ten percent of the UK's total land area of 94060 square miles. Only 6 percent of the entire UK falls within the greater protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Most of these and other 'benevolent' land ownerships are tiny pockets - islands of biodiversity - and, however rich they may be in biodiversity (and not all SSSIs are), they are too small and too fragmented and management strategies are not always successful or properly funded. Land uses between these ‘islands’ prevent the formation of green corridors which might link the dots together and allow the safe migration and genetic mixing of species. Fragmented populations and genetic bottle-necks are much less resilient to shocks and stressors - stressors which include unseasonably warm winters and extreme rainfall, early plant flowering seasons and droughts, changes in land use and even neglect of habitats and scrub growth.

Newhaven is a microcosm of this effect: for all its industry and commerce, the town has a relative wealth of 'open spaces' and wildlife reserves, including the 'three peaks' of Castle Hill, Meeching Down and Bollen's Bush, where rare examples of chalk heath exist, and others such as the Valley Ponds, Riverside Park, Drove Park, and the manicured Hugget's Green, a field at Bay Vue Road, Avis Field the cemetery and churchyards, and the recreation grounds at Fort Road, Lewes Road and South Heighton. These are not linked by green corridors. Areas of open land which might be used to create green corridors, such as that between Court Farm Road and the Newhaven Academy (Tideway School), are earmarked for development. Even the metalled surface of a road is an insurmountable obstacle to many species such as plants, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. The result is a series of fragmented 'island' communities which are less resilient to those environmental stressors listed above. 

In 1920, following restoration - little has changed in 100 years
When properties such as the beautiful, serene, little oasis at Alfriston are visited, often at times of stunning weather, one can be fooled into believing that the climate change deniers are right and that our wildlife is not in peril. But how many cuckoos were heard from the garden of the Clergy House this year when compared with that of one hundred years ago? Back then, did the trill of the turtle dove add another layer to the soundscape? How long since it was last heard here? Or the plop of the water vole? Things disappear very quietly and often without notice. It seems such a good idea to build over that piece of rough ground to relieve the need for more roads or parking or houses; but with the loss of those plants was also a field full of crickets, moths, flies and other insects which fed the spiders and voles and bats and birds. Those and other species were displaced and plunged into conflict with other populations for ever dwindling resources. We do not see or hear this happening; we don't see their decline; some of us don't understand; many do not care. As a society we will not realise the peril of this situation until we are engaged in the same conflict amongst ourselves - and by then we will also starve, fight and die. I feel there is no guarantee that even then we will see the error of our unsustainable ways and put things right. It's just not in our nature, collectively, to do so. Vested interest may yet see our demise. 

Back by the bank of the stream, the alarm call of the moorhen brings me back awake with a start. National Trust properties are special places of stability and good management. They hold in trust many historic and natural places. It is hard to imagine that the scene at the Clergy House has encountered much in the way of change during the past century, other than the decline in the soundscape of horses and carts and the rise of mechanisation. Most of the creatures are still present, but some have declined and some have disappeared, mostly unnoticed. The reed warbler twitches through to the front of the reeds and reveals itself. Above me a parent great tit is calling insistently to her fledglings and, after a minute or two of concern, they assemble and fly off together, safer in their family group. The hush of the reeds is the one constant. It is as though they are trying to bring something important to our attention.


Biodiversity falls below 'safe levels' globally, Imperial College London, 14th July 2016.

Hottest ever June marks 14th month of record-breaking temperatures, The Guardian, 20th July 2016 

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