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The global gardener: An interview with Jeremy Purseglove

Words: Simon Wicks

Jeremy Purseglove has spent a lifetime creating habitats that work for both people and nature. The environmentalist tells Simon Wicks how we urgently need to find a sustainable balance to pull the world back from the brink.

Everything starts with a garden. Nowadays, it’s a 17th century cottage garden within sight of Rutland Water nature reserve. Rich, lush and sensual in the summer heat, its thick ranks of poppies, globe thistles, dahlias and bergamot simmer with bees. A large red dragonfly darts purposefully above the recently dug pond while Jeremy Purseglove enthuses about how he has created much of this in just a year since .moving from Cambridge with his wife, Sue.

As a child, however, the ‘garden’ was the majestic Botanic Garden in Singapore, where his father was chief botanist and where a young Purseglove began to nurse a lifelong love of plants and habitat. This he has converted into a near 50-year career as an environmentalist indulging his love of “landscapes, gardens and wild habitats” and, as he writes in the recently published Working with Nature, “looking for practical ways to protect them”.

Describing himself as a “broker for nature conservation with civil engineers”, he explores the complex relationships between human beings and their natural surroundings and seeks thoughtful compromises that allow the two to co-exist.

“Fred Pearce (science journalist) called me a ‘global gardener’,” he beams. “I find it rather nice.”

‘Gardening’ has taken him from the peatlands of Yorkshire to the cocoa farms of Trinidad. Working with Nature records the best of these experiences, offering case studies that show how, even amid the ravenous growth of intensive farming, what remains of wild nature can be allowed to flourish alongside human beings. It’s a conscious cultivation of habitat. It’s gardening.

Sparing and sharing

Though broadly optimistic, the book highlights the fathomless greed of human beings who will destroy nature for a profit. Purseglove reserves particular disdain for the intensive farming practices destroying the British landscape that did so much to shape his imagination.

“In our generation, money and technology have driven this ferocious change in the landscape,” he laments. “But I'm old enough to remember the landscape of the 50s and 60s. And it is shocking to see – there’s a photograph in the beginning of my book of the cereal field of the little tiny trees, back there, and they are the last of the hedges. It’s appalling, particularly if that’s done with subsidy.”

Farming is at the heart of the book and of Purseglove’s manifesto for change. His grandfather was a farmer and, though nostalgic for the habitats that traditional land management created (think wildflower meadows and bluebell woods), he is under no illusions about how tough it can be.

Yet it is preferable to the industrialised farming that rips out hedgerows and marginal grazing land to create gigantic monocultures in pursuit of profit at all costs.

Purseglove argues instead for a kinder, naturally richer and more sustainable  approach to land use built on principles of ‘land sparing and land sharing’; for the ‘set aside’ of a minimum of 10 per cent of farmed land for nature. He’s seen it work having designed a scheme in a palm oil plantation in Singapore, the last local stronghold of the Sumatran tiger.

“In our generation, money and technology have driven this ferocious change in the landscape"

Closer to home he cites the Allerton Project, a research farm run by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in Leicester. “They are not playing at it and they still have managed to do it [make a profit],” he stresses. “It's about moderating, not grabbing every ounce of profit out of the ground, but settling for 75 per cent of what you can get rather than squeezing it dry.”

Such approaches support the development of complex ecosystems that enable landscapes to be productive in perpetuity. For Purseglove the cycle of interdependence reaches its zenith in the rice, fish and bamboo farms of Bangladesh. Here he describes how farmers have created an ideal habitat for species that can jointly function as pest control, food and market produce. Meanwhile, the farmers use the bamboo to build homes. Nothing is wasted and everything has its place within a functioning, shared – and cultivated  – ecosystem.

Jeremy PursegloveLiving with nature

“My father was a botanist. For as long as I can remember plants and flowers have been at the centre of my life.”

The son of a botanist – and grandson of a farmer – Purseglove was born in Uganda in 1949 and spent a postwar childhood in the Botanic Gardens at Singapore, the Weald of Kent and a colonial bungalow in Trinidad.

He first pursued his love of literature at Bristol University before embarking on an MSc in landscape ecology design and maintenance at Wye College. By 1977 he was working as work as an ecologist with Severn Trent Water Authority.

"The way to change the world is to produce convincing examples of good practice and then promote them as standard practice"

From 1989 until retirement in 2014 he was an environmentalist with Mott McDonald, travelling the UK and the world “looking for practical ways to protect landscapes, gardens and wild habitats” from the damage caused by human intervention. He has taught environmental engineering at the University of Cambridge since 1990.

Working with Nature is part-memoir, part-blueprint, part-manifesto. It is written in a lyrical style that pays homage to Purseglove’s own inspirations – the great landscape poets of the English language.

Purseglove’s world is tangible, sensual and beautifully described. “Veils of warm rain” “hum”, “swarm”, “consume” and “dissolve”; “amid the glittering ranks of birch, the mysterious nightjar churrs to his mate”; rainforests are “swathed in their moist cocoon of ferns and orchids”.

“The words are the key, aren’t they?” he says. “Words and then images are the way to the revolution [in consciousness]. Without them, man would still be crawling around.”

In the book he spells out a more prosaic step to this revolution in consciousness: “The way to change the world is to produce convincing examples of good practice and then promote them as standard practice.”

Return to the wild

The emphasis on gardening is also an emphasis on the conscious management of habitat. What about the trend towards rewilding by triggering natural processes of habitat creation? Rewilding Britain, for example, argues that five per cent of the UK should be given over to full 'core' rewilding and a further 25 per cent to rewilding and natural recovery to varying degrees - that's almost a third of the land mass. In the book, Purseglove seems cautious, even though he has himself been involved in a full-scale landscape restoration project at the National Trust’s Wicken Fen reserve in East Anglia.

“I’m totally for it. It’s great,” he exclaims, to my surprise. “But I think it is one of the ways of looking after landscapes, not the only way. The parallel would be walking down the street. I love the front gardens of houses, but if every front garden was done to a formula it would be boring.

“I like to see the individual stamp on a landscape. If everyone followed the rewilding step, it would just be another formula.”

He goes on: “What I don’t think is that rewilding is anything you could say is a recipe for everywhere, particularly on a small island. I also love more managed landscapes.

“There is a thing about the total wild which is fabulous but doesn’t necessarily apply, like in Leicestershire or Rutland where you might have the hedges and orchards and an ideal integration of it.”

“I like to see the individual stamp on a landscape. If everyone followed the rewilding step, it would just be another formula”

Integration is a watchword in the pursuit of the healthy balance that allows us to take what we need from nature without spoiling it. Land management, Purseglove reminds us constantly, also creates beauty – for example, the wildflower meadows and bluebell woods that might underpin our sense of personal or even national identity.

Though ‘natural’ only in an oblique sense, they are intensely valuable and worth preserving, not least because they make nature accessible. By comparison, the totally wild landscape, as Purseglove explains in reference to landscape restoration at Humberhead Peatlands in Yorkshire, can be impenetrable.

Yet threats to nature are everywhere, from agricultural subsidies that encourage industrial farming to predatory land grabs in states with weak governance. How do we address these?

We talk about the regime proposed by Defra that would give subsidies to farmers and landowners for delivering ‘public goods’ such as flood prevention or wildlife protection. We talk, too, about the fragility of UK farming in the wake of Brexit and what this might mean for our landscape (it could go either way, we decide).

Purseglove argues the case for well-governed certification schemes for sustainably produced goods that can use the power of the market to regulate excessive greed. He is a fan of environmental impact assessments that add rigour to decisions about landscape harm, supporting the principle of environmental net gain. Pragmatically, his argument is that we cannot stop human exploitation of landscape - but we can regulate it and educate people to do it as well as possible.

In terms of planning, he bemoans the abolition of regional spatial plans and calls for a return to spatial planning.

Thinking must be done at the scale of landscape, in which “joined-up areas” cross administrative boundaries; “the way to get it right is not little isolated fragments, but corridors and links”.

Purseglove also cites the promise of clean energy and synthetic foods. I counter that it’s hard to be hopeful with threats to nature coming from all sides. But Purseglove is optimistic; it’s in his nature.

He has seen and made it work. The Extinction Rebellion movement is “terrific”. There is a growing environmental consciousness all around.

It’s not yet too late to save the world, but time is running out. What is needed, above all, is “love and understanding” to overcome “our own dislocation between the commodities we consume and the way they are produced”.

“I have met countless numbers of farmers and landowners who really do love their land,” he writes in Working with Nature. “This love, which in the dry language of a report would be described as sense of ownership, is surely the redeeming factor that may save the landscapes which can be managed in partnership with nature all over the world.”

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Photography | Tim George, UNP