An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Joe Clements is Conservation Assistant with the Lowther Estate.
Tell us about your role.
I work on the Lowther Estate in Cumbria as a conservation assistant. It is a very varied role that is centred on regenerative land management. The estate has been very intensively farmed in the past but about four years ago, it started to be managed in a much less intense way to allow the land to recover. We’re also doing a lot of nature conservation on the land. Much of the work is about restoring natural processes. For me, that involves lots of practical conservation work from meadow restoration to working on rivers and wetlands as well as restoring thorny pasture. There’s also a honey business on the estate and I’ve recently joined the small team of beekeepers! I’ve learned that honeybee colonies fluctuate all the time, depending on food availability week to week. People talk about the June gap in horticulture but it isn’t just horticulture that is affected – there’s also a June gap for bees when there are few flowers and so little food. It really opens your eyes to how the need for a diversity of plants in the landscape.
Views of Lowther ©Joe Clements
You trained as a horticulturist so why have you moved into conservation work?
I never really planned it or intended it to be that way, and it’s not that I don’t like gardening anymore. I do and I have a garden at home, which I love to work in. Put simply, I read a book about rewilding and it got me thinking in a different way. I realised that there was this whole other way of viewing the British countryside and that there was a lot happening over the garden wall. Gardens are fantastic places for nature but you realise that there is much more land over the wall and much of it is not in a particularly healthy condition. I think once I started feeling that drive to do something on a bigger scale, it was hard to carry on working in gardens.
Can you tell me about how about your career so far?
I grew up in the Cumbrian countryside, and I always loved nature and the outdoors. My dad’s a gardener and my parents both loved being outside. I always thought I’d like to be a marine biologist or something like that, like a lot of kids do, as I loved nature but it’s quite hard to know what to do with that passion. I did a lot of gardening with my dad and enjoyed it so it seemed like the direction to go in. I did some work experience at a local garden, Levens Hall, which is an amazing garden and a really nice team. After an apprenticeship there, I was lucky to get into Kew to study the Kew Diploma. That was amazing as well but in a completely different way. It really opened my eyes to the diversity of people working in horticulture as well as plant diversity and the different ways of doing horticulture. While at Kew, I did a small amount of plant ecology and went on an ecology field trip to North Wales with the unbelievably enthusiastic and knowledgeable Nigel Brown. I think that did trigger something for me as Nigel is so knowledgeable about all natural history from geology, to climate, plants, and animals – everything. After Kew, I went to work for a landscape garden company in London because I felt at the time that I knew a lot about maintaining gardens, but I’d never really built one. It was a great company and team, I learned a lot but my interest in nature conservation was growing. I’d been in London quite a while and was also keen to return to Cumbria. So I came back to Cumbria and joined various conservation groups as a volunteer to get some conservation experience. This ultimately led to me getting this role at Lowther – a dream job.
Should more horticulturists work in conservation?
Some conservationists view gardening in a negative way – gardening is control and landscapes shouldn’t be controlled. In the first few months in this job, I was very aware that I was a gardener in a conservationist world, and I felt a bit embarrassed about it. As time goes on, I see the value of gardening: it isn’t the answer to nature conservation, but there is a clear role for it. I’ve used a lot of the skills I developed in my horticultural career. One of the things we’re doing at work is species reintroductions. We have a beaver trial and we’re also trying to captive breed white stalks to reintroduce them to Northern England. But beyond that, there’s a huge task to be done in reintroducing plant species because plants are the basis of the whole ecosystem. They are the autotrophs that create all the energy in the food web from the sun. Life is dependent on plant diversity. While there isn’t one way to do nature conservation and the local context is important, without plants you don’t have anything. We are in an upland environment, quite disadvantaged in terms of agriculture and it’s been very intensively farmed for a very long time. The plant diversity is extremely poor. You need horticulture to reintroduce plant species because they’re vulnerable to extinction, if they haven’t already been lost. It needs to be done in a sensitive way, using local provenance, genetically varied, and you don’t try and force things to grow where they don’t want to grow. We’re reintroducing thorny scrub landscape, made up of species like hawthorn, blackthorn, brambles, etc. There isn’t a lot of it around bit it is the first step towards establishing woodland and forest. We’re reducing grazing to a sustainable level where thorny scrub can naturally establish, possibly with additional planting. Grasslands are also important and we have a few lovely little pockets of calcareous grassland and upland hay meadow. Both contain some beautiful plants. Often the best bits are along the road verges as you drive through the valley but they are small and vulnerable. If we can collect seed from these small areas and distribute beyond the verges, I don’t think this can really be a bad thing.
Where do you think your career will lead you?
I don’t really have a plan. I’m not really thinking about my career right now. I’m thinking about how much there is to do here. I want to settle down and enjoy what I’m doing, especially after moving so often around London!
Are there any big projects on the horizon or is it an ongoing, gradual process?
It’s an ongoing process but every project is a big project here. There are about 6500 acres (over 2500 hectares) in regenerative land management on the estate so it is a big job. Every time we restore a meadow or try and establish thorny scrub in an area, it’s usually on a big scale. It is going to take a while to do.
The project has been going four years now, with lower intensity cattle grazing already resulting in more wildflowers managing to grow taller and flower. While there are already some nice plants appearing, it is going to take many years to recover so there will possibly be some help at some point to speed the process up.
Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to do something similar to you?
I was told off the other day by someone for leaving horticulture. I don’t know whether I have left horticulture and I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to leave the industry. If conservation is something you are interested in, I’d suggest reading up on the subject and volunteering with a range of organisations to find out more about the opportunities available.
Would you have done anything differently career wise if you could?
No I don’t think I would do anything differently. One things leads to another. You might think you are planning it and you know where you are going but something happens and turns you onto another path.
Do you think there is a disconnect between horticulture and ecology?
I think it can be incredibly confusing. I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned, which I will happily admit to being completely ignorant of in the past, is ecological functioning and how important this is for a landscape. I remember thinking that plant conservation in the UK was a little pointless as it isn’t a vast or diverse flora. If you want to conserve plants, you probably want to do it in Madagascar or the Amazon. But it isn’t just about how rare something is or how diverse a habitat is, it is how that ecosystem functions which is about how all the parts come together to create a healthy, varied landscape with opportunities for different plants and animals. That is why we have a biodiversity crisis – we have simplified landscapes so reduced the niches available to plants and animals. Dandelions are not rare in the UK and often disliked but I have taken a photograph of a dandelion with about 10 different species of insects feeding on it. This all contributes to the rich tapestry of life! All landscapes, including gardens, can contribute by creating different niches for different plants and animals to survive.
Can you tell us about your favourite plant, tool and book?
I was really tempted to pick a plant that is a really important plant for insects, but I’m going to go back to before I was obsessed with nature conservation. My previous obsession was growing succulent plants outdoors in the UK. I used to try and punish all these succulents by trying to make them survive outside in winter in Cumbria. I have ended up with a small range of plants that tolerate the cold, and and one of these plants is an aloe called Aloe polyphylla or the spiral Aloe. This plant grows on high mountain slopes in Lesotho in southern Africa. It is pretty hardy but I’m yet to test one outside in a Cumbrian winter. I’ve grown about 20 from seed so it is now worth taking the risk!
I don’t really have a favourite tool but my dad gave me a sickle earlier this year that I haven’t really tried out yet. I think they’re quite a cool tool and want to find different uses for it.
I’d like to pick two very different books. When I finished my apprenticeship, I felt I didn’t know enough about plant science. I read this book by Chris Beardshaw called How does your garden grow? It concisely and clearly explained plant biology, soil science and so much more, providing a good grounding in plant science. If anyone is starting out in horticulture, I’d recommend it to them. The second book is Isabella Tree’s book Wilding which is about the Knepp Estate in Sussex. It made me realise that there is hope for the countryside and got me interested in nature conservation.
What is your own garden like?
All gardens are a fantasy. My fantasy is that all succulents can survive in Cumbria! I love rock gardens and alpines so I have a little rock garden and a greenhouse for growing the alpines and the succulents. I’ve got a little wildflower meadow and am hoping to do something with prairie-like planting. A pond might go in there somewhere too. I think it is a combination of horticultural fantasy and providing a home for nature. Although I think it’s great to have native plants in there, it doesn’t hurt to have exotic ones provided they are non invasive species. You can really extend the season in terms of pollen and nectar availability.
Given your last comment and new role as a beekeeper, what do you think of Himalayan balsam?
That’s a terrible question to ask me. I’d have to say it’s terrible! There are lots of beekeepers out there who really love balsam for that extended flowering but in a healthy ecosystem, there should be plants that do this.
Are you monitoring the success of the regeneration projects?
It’s at quite an early stage still but some surveys have taken place, mostly birds and invertebrates. I do note down my observations of what is flowering or what I see when I’m out and about, and going forward, there will be more surveying.