… the loss of Britain’s wildflower meadows and grasslands is estimated at around 98 per cent. Have we lost our connection with the wildflowers and habitats that were once so common and supported our pollinators?
So asks Bees, Butterflies and Blooms a new three-part gardening and conservation series from the BBC currently being broadcast Wednesday nights at 8pm on BBC 2 – well first being broadcast anyway and then subject to the usual re-viewing opportunities.
Its presenter Sarah Raven according to the program’s website ‘is on a mission to halt the decline in honey bees and insect pollinators with insect friendly flower power’. Sarah Raven is also a writer and gardener and has her own professional business Online Garden and Kitchen Shop.
When I first checked this on the BBC iPlayer I also saw a program Bullets, Boots and Bandages – the BBC are going in for alliteration I noted and letter B alliteration at that – are they like each subsequent series of the erudition-and-beyond QI (one of many laid eggs from Stephen Fry) going to be working their way doggedly through the alphabet toward this end. I am looking forward anyway to the long overdue Beer Bicycles and Belfries.
Back to Bees Butterflies and Blooms. Sarah Raven is aiming to halt this aforementioned depletion in insect pollinators using Flower Power – by bringing flowers back into our British towns, cities and countryside. And this series sets out a crisis and quite an apocalyptic one at that. Sarah Raven describes it as a ‘quiet catastrophe’ – while we are busy going about our increasingly urban lives our farmlands and other rural-scapes have been transformed into soulless food factories producing ever-more efficient food stuffs but of increasingly uniform nature leaving our bees and other pollinating insects increasingly vulnerable to pesticides and parasites.
In Britain alone the loss of wildflower meadows and grasslands is estimated at a startling 98%. The loss of pollinating insects to extinction would be heart-rending enough but it has even deeper implications than that as it threatens our very food supply such is their integral part in its process.
The opening episode is titled ‘Villages Farms and Countrysides’ as it is in the ‘country’ that her campaign to reverse this decline will commence. The BBC iPlayer guide for this episode informs us that she hopes ‘to encourage farmers and village communities to help recreate a network of crucial habitats for struggling bees, butterflies and insect pollinators’. To this end she visits a village called Creaton in Northamptonshire – they will be her pilot as she seeks to convert the countrysides horticultural practices one village at a time. She breezily advises us that
if we can get Brits planting pollen and nectar rich plants throughout the country together we can get Britain buzzing again.
And she starts in the countryside because, surprisingly to me at least, this problem is less pronounced in our towns and cities. We see her in a field, a productive (being the keyword here) habitat of food but also a ‘wildlife desert’ as due to pesticides it is bereft of wildflowers and weeds the very life of our insect pollinating population.
She then demonstrates the effect of this on our everyday eating and diet by visiting a supermarket and filling up a shopping basket with food for a standard British breakfast – no not a half-eaten banana and a few swigs of coffee! – fresh fruit as well as fruit-juice and smoothies, jam, yoghurt, even coffee and chocolate (bees pollinate the respective Coffee and Cocoa beans) and then removing all the insect-pollinated items – all that was left was the wind pollinated food stuffs – wheat, oat – leaving us just with porridge and bread – this is the fate that lies in store for a British breakfast – a Scottish breakfast! Cue the ever-young strains of Big Yellow Taxi as Joni Mitchell coos its one of many sage lines
Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone
Sarah Raven’s next call is her first to Creaton – chosen not because it is as typical as any other British village but because of all the villages in Britain it is the one with the largest depletion of pollinating insects – it is in its village-greens, verges and even church-yards where the wild-life has been mown and tidied out of existence. Sarah Raven is as knowledgeable as she is passionate about the subject – as she wanders through a Creaton church-yard with the head of the Parish and other parishioners in pursuit she lists off all and sundry wild-flowers that she casts her eye upon – the rest of her troupe, not very convincingly I thought, nodding their heads in agreement. I was nodding my head too, and I was watching alone!
We then get some history – back near-seventy-years to the end of the second world war and the modernising of food production – meaning taking small-scale agriculture and making it large-scale industrial. Part of this meant creating ever larger fields by removing the previously connecting hedgerows. And it is in these hedgerows and the verges of land adjoining them that the insect pollinators use to live and flourish.
We get some science too. Being advised that it is not just the lack of pollen-producing wildflowers but the lack of diversity in them too – bees for example requiring a variety of flowers to build up their immune system. Professor Simon Potts (of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Science at the University of Reading) explains the symbiotic relationship – a greater diversity of wild flowers a greater diversity of bees, a greater diversity of bees a greater diversity of wild flowers.
We return to Creaton and a parish council meeting. We are first shown sepia photographs of the village at the early part of the twentieth century with naturally wild village greens and Sarah Raven asking us and them if they will ‘re-embrace its wild-side’! The parish council require more convincing than that and consider a tie-in with the UN 2010 Year of Biodiversity – when this series was initially filmed – and creating a pause in their progress – for further consultation must now be had! Meetings about meetings comes to mind.
The program then cuts away to a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Reserve in Dungeness, Kent and Doctor Nikki Gammans of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust . We discover that there are now 25 species remaining, 2 of which are now extinct and a further 7 now endangered. Dr Gammans speaks also of a symbiotic relationship – between farmers and bees – as the farmers help the bees to thrive the bees in turn help the farmers produce richer crops.
We are then given another stat – an estimated 84% of our crops in Europe are dependent on insect-pollinators and especially bees and without this our food chain could collapse.
We are then advised of our role in re-establishing bees in our national life. We are encouraged to collect wild-flower seeds for our own domesticated gardens. Though there is perhaps a rub – that it is assumed we all have homes with gardens. I myself live in a first floor flat with not even a balcony to lay out some seed trays for. And as much as I love bumble-bees, not quite to the extent that I want them living unconstrained about my home. But I digress.
We then spend some time in Sarah Raven’s undomesticated garden. We see her cleaning the wild flower seeds by dividing them from their petals – this is not quite my hope for a wild garden – rather untended growth while said wild gardener heads indoors for a more sedentary urban pursuit like a hot cup of tea and even hotter game of scrabble on his iPad while the Lesser Knapweed and St John’s Wort are left to get on with it. While Sarah Raven is cleaning these seeds we learn by way of some nature and nurture that her father was a botanist and an artist combining both loves in wildflower illustrations.
We then revisit Creaton in September to catch up on progress or even if there has been any progress. If you consider meetings about doing things but not actually doing those things has progress then there has been progress. So Sarah Raven then seeks parishioner persuasion with a people-pestering-paper-petition (see I can do uncontrived alliteration too, well okay then contrived alliteration). Most of the parishioners seemed more than happy to sign this petition if perhaps succumbing to the seductive persuasiveness of a BBC camera crew lurking just outside of their eye-shot.
Having successfully gathered and armed themselves with seeming sufficient signatures it was expressed that they could sympathise with the hitherto reluctance. Mmm – you would think the building of dens of iniquity were being proposed for their village rather than a verge of wild-flowers on their village green and little-seen church-yard back-waters. The invasion of the flowery margins!
A Northamptonshire farming family the Farringtons had also been brought on board. The head-farmer Duncan Farrington in particular requires far less cajoling to see both the ecological and economical benefits of re-introducing strips of wild flowers alongside his main crop of arable fields.
As noted Sarah Raven is leading by example and we see her commencing the sewing of her wild-garden in Autumn – this being the optimum time for both annuals and perennials to be sewn – I can see you all nodding your heads in a pretence of understanding you urban lot!
The final quarter of this opening episode jumps forward to May 2011 allowing us to see the progress of the various wild flower projects. The farmer’s field will need a second year for the perennial flowers to establish themselves against the hardy arable weeds. The Creaton village did eventually decide to commence with their project with the tiny baby steps of an area of the village-green being allowed to go wild and native.
The head of the parish council is then called on for his reading on proceedings to date. He shares that a lot of the villagers ‘quite like it’ – an underwhelming sort of endorsement if ever there was one! – and just for good measure adding ‘that there are other’s not so favourable’! Against that though they have instigated a project to increase wild-flower growth in the villagers own gardens as part of a new group ‘Natural Creaton’
Remembering too that Creaton is the program’s pilot and that Sarah Raven is wanting every village in the UK to follow suit – tiny steps indeed.
In the second episode Towns Gardens and Britain in Bloom she will be taking this challenge to our towns and cities and asking that the Britain in Bloom Competition, the UK Garden Industry and Royal Horticultural Society join her in this endeavour. I look forward to seeing how she gets on. And am hopeful that her cause blossoms with this BBC broadcast – sorry but an irresistible pun should not be resisted.