A little grazing goes a long way
THERE'S a concrete bunker dug deep into one of the highest hills in the Scillonian archipelago which plays an important part in how the fabulous natural landscape of the islands is preserved.
In fact, the taxi driver who took me to the bunker reckoned it might one day be the only place where people live in the Isles of Scilly.
At the moment, it plays host to conservation volunteers who travel to the islands each year to help the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust with its vital work preserving and enhancing the natural environment on the five inhabited isles and the great host of uninhabited islets.
But there's a gathering tide of thought that climate change might soon devour most of the latter, and consume large parts of the former.
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The archipelago's planning officer recently described Scilly in this newspaper as being "the Maldives of the Atlantic". The one-metre rise in sea levels predicted for the end of this century will have devastating consequences for the islands – and some locals fear that the onslaught of fiercer, more regular storm surges triggered by climate change will be hitting the low-lying isles much sooner than that.
Indeed, staff at the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns almost all the land in the archipelago, have just taken delivery of a detailed new report commissioned from Bristol University looking into the local ramifications of climate change, which they will be digesting – and discussing with interested parties – over the coming months.
But this article isn't about a contested landscape that is being fought over by the tides and seas of the future. We focus instead on how the past has shaped the present – and why the natural environment of the islands needs all the help it can get.
As has been the case in so many of these articles, the story is all about perception. To the untrained visitor's eye, the beautiful wild heaths of the islands appear to be just that: beautiful wild heaths. But they, like the wild hilltops of Dartmoor and Exmoor, have been moulded by the hand of mankind and his grazing animals.
If the heaths were left to their own resorts, they'd soon scrub over and become choked with impenetrable mono-crops of brambles and gorse, which aren't much use to wildlife or anything else.
As Scillonia's many prehistoric remains bear witness, mankind has been dwelling on the islands for a very long time, scratching out an existence with the help of balmy temperatures and bountiful seas. The gorse and bramble didn't stand a chance – as long as there were plenty of mouths, both animal and human, to feed.
What has changed in recent years is that almost all the food consumed in these isles located 28 miles out into the Atlantic is imported. But in historic terms it was farming that changed the landscape – first one way, then another. For centuries, the farmer-fisher folk of the isles survived on what's best described as a subsistence living.
It is believed the crofter-style farmers still kept a breed of small black indigenous cattle that could cope with the exacting conditions on the gale-blown open heaths. They obviously weren't the cleverest farmers in the world – there was much hunger and occasional starvation – they even ate limpets, which they called "sea beef".
But a man called Augustus Smith changed all that. He was the indomitable Hertfordshire squire and banker who leased Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall back in 1834. Smith soon had the locals better organised so that they were developing proper gardens and growing vegetables.
It wasn't too long before cash crops, most famously the delicious Scillonian early potatoes, were making real money – and soon the islanders were creating little fields all over the landscape, bordered by classic Cornish "stone hedgerows" for protection against the ever-present wind.
Over a time, there was a realisation that scented narcissi could be more profitable than potatoes – and the winter flowers still make an important contribution to the Scillonian economy today.
But again things have changed. When I first visited Scilly 34 years ago, there was much more farming in evidence – now you see little patchwork fields choked with brambles all over the archipelago. Tourism now rules the roost.
"Market gardening – that's the big difference compared to today," says Brian Jenkins who, now retired in his mid-seventies, once described himself to me as "one of the last crofter farmers" in the isles.
"There were 13 viable smallholdings (on Bryher) – but that's all gone. Finished. Nearly everybody up there now is involved in tourism," says Mr Jenkins who now lives on the main island of St Mary's. "There were quite a few of the smaller smallholdings had dropped out when I started work in 1950. Some fishing – some market gardening. We ought to have been called crofters because that's what we were more than anything else.
"I suppose air travel worldwide changed it, because you could fly in flowers from Kenya or Australia or Israel or anywhere else faster than you could get them from here.
"And also the land was worn out. Very, very tired from one crop (flowers). We did use seaweed. Yes indeed – the best fertiliser that has ever gone on the land. I'd put 150 loads – a ton to a load – on the fields. I don't know of any crop or plant that dislikes seaweed."
Nowadays very few people harvest the seaweed, or anything else much for that matter, on Silly save for the famous scented narcissi. The lifestyle of the crofters or fisher-farmers is but a memory enjoyed only by a handful of older men and women in the isles. And so the landscape has altered from one that's been intensively farmed to one that has the "wild" appearance that so many tourists love.
But if tourists are key to the sustainability of the islands, it seems odd that so little is spent on protecting the thing they love best – the wild environment. Very few visitors, for example, realise that the heaths they like to walk across are a managed environment looked after by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.
It was to talk about the charity's work that I visited the aforementioned bunker to meet the organisation's volunteer and education manager, Julie Love.
"We care for 60 per cent of the landmass of Scilly," she told me. "That works out at about 1,958 hectares, spread over the inhabited islands (except Tresco), and includes all of the uninhabited islands."
As for the history of the landscape, Julie says: "It's completely manmade – in the past, people would have cleared it and farmed the fields. On these headlands, which are too windy for crops, they'd have put animals out for grazing.
"So every inch of Scilly was used in the past for some kind of farming activity.
"But things have changed. They say in ancient times there was a small black cow – it could have been something like a Dexter, we're not sure – nobody really knows. Obviously it would have been a good milker and could have been a traditional breed that would have grazed on poor ground. But eventually very few people kept animals – they went into potatoes, then flowers.
"Grazing – it's very important," she says as we wander down across the recently cleared paths of the Garrison headland on St Mary's. "In the past there were even records of grazing animals on Samson and Tean (both now uninhabited) – so they'd use every bit of available land they had."
Julie pointed at the thick gorse cover that can soon choke a landscape if it's not grazed.
"Some people say we've always had gorse, but if you look at old photos you see how it's slowly marched up the hill. It's just a mass of one plant. But variety is the spice of life – you find the most insects, the most wildlife, on the edge of (such) habitats."
Just over 20 years ago, the Duchy began to realise that the wild landscape was changing in the islands and that a specialist organisation should be dedicated to looking after it.
Julie explained: "The Wildlife Trust started in 1985, when the Duchy felt that it couldn't look after the coastal fringes as well as one organisation could, so a charity was set up to look after the land that wasn't farmed.
"We pay one daffodil a year for our rent – and we are five years in credit at the moment because we gave them a bunch," she laughs.
"In 2000, we set up a volunteer centre because we need loads of people to help us and there was nowhere for them to stay."
The Woolpack Volunteer Centre, part of an old gun emplacement at the Garrison, now houses up 13 volunteers who come to stay and work for periods of between two weeks and six months.
"Grazing has always been on our lips," says Julie. "This landscape was created by grazing – so how do we go about it? In 2003 we were lucky to get a Heritage Lottery grant which helped us to pay for the infrastructure which helped us grazing our heathlands. It helped us pay for electric fencing, the trucks, the tractors, the water bowsers – all the infrastructure to help us look after our animals
"We thought really long and hard about which sort of animals we should have. Obviously it would be a traditional breed of animal that would do well on poor ground, but we also wanted something that would look appealing – especially the cows. We wanted them to be profitable so we could enter the meat market as well, so they weren't just conservation grazers. And also we wanted to protect pedigree lines, so we decided on pedigree Red Ruby cattle and pedigree Dartmoor ponies.
The two graze in different ways, she explained. "They compliment one another."
Volunteers created firebreaks in the areas of gorse, and the ponies and cows were then brought in to graze.
"That project finished last year and we were really fortunate to get Higher Level Stewardship [under the Natural England grant scheme] for 10 years and that helps carry on our grazing.
"We have four Dartmoor ponies on St Mary's and the trust has a head of 12 cattle spread over Bryher and St Mary's," said Julie. "On St Agnes, the animals are owned by a local farmer who uses the extra land to produce milk for ice-cream and also on St Mary's there are a couple of farmers who graze on trust land. On Bryher we graze Red Rubies and eight Shetland ponies."
It's a lot of work for an organisation that only has three members of staff. "We couldn't do it without volunteers," shrugs Julie. "And we are always in a dilemma: how do we promote the fact that people are on trust land?
"We don't want to put up signs everywhere – that's not the nature of Scilly – but how do we actually promote the fact that 60 per cent of the landscape here is managed by the Wildlife Trust? We need the funding. We have to rely on grants, but they do run out and we have to carry on our work.
"We want to do other things as well, like education and guided walks – the more money we have the more we can share all this with people."
I put the changing landscape question to Duchy land steward Colin Sturmer and asked if he thought Prince Charles would be interested in stimulating agriculture in order to come to the aid of the Scillonian landscape in the same way as he's recently done on Dartmoor.
"We're going through exactly that process at the moment," commented Colin, who is due to retire from his post in a couple of months. He explains that his successor, Chris Gregory, was involved on Dartmoor, and is bringing those skills to Scilly.
"We're looking at the question holistically, looking at the reintroduction of grazing animals for the isles and looking at the whole picture," said Colin. "We are looking at the possibility of an abattoir, marketing, and so on.
"Many of the fields are being under-used and there is a need for conservation grazing. It could also provide additional income to agricultural tenants here – so there is much to discuss."
It could well be that these beautiful islands will soon look more scenic than ever until, perhaps, the violent tides of global warming turn this into an even more contested landscape.