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The Life of an environmentalist: Rugby anthems, space laboratories, run-ins with the law, and perfumes (oh yes, and a few sheep)!

Rugby anthems…

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

The opening verse to the iconic ‘Jerusalem’ always triggers a wry smile for me. Don’t get me wrong it’s one of my favourite pieces of music which never fails to stir a sense of connection to this land we call home – but two observations. Firstly, it’s a bit of a silly question; the available evidence is fairly compelling that Jesus didn’t ever set foot on English soil. Secondly, as an ecologist I always feel a sense of loss over England’s ‘mountains green’ and ‘pleasant pastures’. It’s not that we don’t have fields or mountains anymore but they are now a mere shadow of those which William Blake would have known when he first penned the famous words in 1804. Over the last 200 years British landscapes have been transformed. The irony is that much of the change has gone unnoticed, the mountains are still ‘green’ and the rolling fields of our countryside remain ‘pleasant’ to a casual observer but, from a biodiversity perspective, they are dying landscapes. To explain where I am coming from… a bit of background.

Space laboratories…

It was 1996 when I finished my university degree, still none the wiser about what I actually wanted to do with my life. I had a BSc in biochemistry under my belt but knew that a career in a lab, doing scientific research wasn’t for me. I was fascinated by the complexity and wonder of the natural world (which is probably why biochemistry appealed in the first place) but didn’t have a clue about how a biochemistry degree might open doors to anything that really appealed to my idealistic early twenties self. Hence I somewhat fell into a 3 year PhD with the Natural Environment Research Council – not out of any great desire to add letters after my name but more because it was offered, it didn’t involve that much time in a lab (I moved to a greenhouse)… and I didn’t have any better ideas!

Three years later, after a lot of fun with some very cool machines at the Rutherford Space Science laboratories – looking at ways to monitor the effects of pollution on plants from space – I realised that I really did need to get a ‘proper job’. By this time I had figured out that I wanted to do something to protect British wildlife. Lots of job applications (and knock backs) later I finally landed my first job in the conservation team at the Environment Agency in 1999 as an ‘Area Habitats Directive Co-ordinator’.

The law

The Habitats Directive was a new (and somewhat ground-breaking) piece of legislation which fundamentally transformed the level of protection offered to natural habitats (and species) across the UK. Unfortunately this strict level of protection only applies to our ‘top tier’ of protected wildlife sites referred to as ‘Special Areas of Conservation’ and ‘Special Protection Areas’ but it’s a huge improvement over what had been in place beforehand. The interpretation and application of a part of our law referred to as the Habitats Regulations became my new world; I had no idea of the extent to which these regulations would influence my career going forwards. A job at Natural England followed and then work for a small consultancy before launching my own business, DTA Ecology, in 2015.

‘Habitats’ are not a sexy. It is much easier to get folk passionate about species (a baby orangutan clinging to a charred tree that was once rainforest is a much more powerful image than one showing just the charred tree) but the unsexy reality is that the only way to protect species is to protect their habitats. Natural habitats underpin everything the natural world has to offer; lose the habitat and the rest follows. Hence why I am passionate about natural landscapes and I am incredibly fortunate to now have a job doing something I love – my utmost to ensure our natural habitats here in the UK get the protection they deserve (and are legally entitled to).

My job is wonderfully varied as the Habitats Regulations apply across all decision making scenarios meaning I can be advising on disturbance effects of a proposed new airfield one week and the air pollution impacts of a proposed cattle housing shed the next. As a company policy I only accept work from public sector clients to avoid any conflict of interest so I also do a lot of work on policy development and guidance for Government clients.

Perfumes

When my husband Jon and I started talking about a range of natural British perfumes I knew that a range inspired by the natural landscapes of the British Isles was the right fit for us – and ‘Scents of Nature’ was born. Back to William Blake – and Jerusalem – I am often dismayed by the lack of awareness over the level of decline in British biodiversity and a big part of this is that it all looks ‘ok’. The mountains are still green and fields are pleasant enough but a blanket of landscape amnesia has settled over our nation. By way of example we enjoyed a family hike up Snowdon in Wales a couple of years ago. The walk was long and rewarding (we were lucky with the weather and enjoyed amazing views). The mountain is still ‘green’ (see left hand photo below) but the photo in the middle shows what happens when you put up a fence to keep the sheep out and you can see a different green – a green that is ‘alive’ and will be awash with other colours as the flowering plants come into season. The photo on the right is taken from the Central Balkan National Park in Bulgaria, home to over 2340 species of plant and designated for the same habitat types as Snowdonia. The difference between the left and right photos is overgrazing. Rare montane habitats are still present in Snowdonia but they are clinging on, to crevices and ledges that the sheep cannot reach. Overgrazing has slowly transformed the vibrant and colourful landscapes that existed and we have collectively forgotten what it used to look like.

The good news is that the middle photo provides hope, the seedbank is still there and the landscape could return to much of its former glory if sheep numbers are reduced to appropriate and sustainable levels. Don’t get me wrong, grazing is an essential part of natural ecosystems but there needs to be a balance and currently that balance has tipped in the wrong direction.

The changes to our landscape have happened slowly, a consequence of thousands of imperceptible changes which, individually, have gone largely unnoticed. The gradual removal of hedgerows from British farms was subtle and drip-fed into local parishes such that few residents raised more than an eyebrow. We have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s and the swathes of rye grass that now cover most of our ‘green fields’ have replaced complex species rich meadows that supported an unimaginable array of insect and invertebrate populations and so on up the food chain.. Whilst we can enjoy the landscape views of green rolling fields as we drive along the motorway, do we realise that there is more life in the motorway verges than in the fields themselves?

It’s not all bad!

After 25 years ‘on the job’ it’s not all doom and gloom. Political and public awareness of biodiversity decline has moved slowly up the agenda and I have great hopes for the next generation ‘Z’ – that my two daughters belong to – they are far more aware than many that went before them. The new Environment Bill which is crawling through parliamentary approval (largely due to Covid than any intentional delay tactics) brings some exciting opportunities. A new policy approach referred to as ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ has potential to deliver large scale benefits if it is implemented properly and delivery is properly monitored and enforced but last minute proposed amendments to allow the Habitats Regulations to be reviewed are concerning (as explained by a blog from the Wildlife Trusts alongside a warning not to mess with ‘the crown jewels’). Re-wilding initiatives are gaining ground and the Government is finally coming around to a recognition of a need for greater control and regulation of agricultural activities. The intensification of agriculture is a necessity with a growing population but the lack of regulation and control means that this has occurred at great cost to our natural habitats.

I shall continue to do what I can to influence decision and policy makers, but my hopes for Scents of Nature is that we can do our bit to raise awareness generally of the importance and beauty of the natural landscapes of the British Isles. I hope that you enjoy our new range of natural British fragrances but, more importantly, I hope that they reconnect you in some sense to these precious but threatened landscapes that inspired them… and William Blake all those years ago.

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