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Virtuous circles: supporting natural ecosystems

Clare Finney explores how Borough Market and its traders are taking a holistic approach to environmental sustainability. This time: supporting natural ecosystems


It’s been 25 years since The Lion King debuted on the big screen, burning the Circle of Life onto our brains and Mufasa’s death onto our retina. The latter I wish I could forget; the former is an earworm that rears its splendid, spine-tingling head every time I am reminded of sustainability and the natural world.

Of course, it’s been in my head all morning – because what are ecosystems but small, interlocking loops which together make up the path unwinding? Farmers rewilding parts of their land to encourage populations of pollinators and natural predators; gamekeepers managing moors to support populations of vulnerable ground nesting birds and other wildlife; foragers taking just enough to feed themselves or those restaurants and retailers they supply, leaving plenty for wildlife and birds. These things all find their place in the circle of life.

We’re part of it too – not just as fellow animals but in the choices we make regarding food and drink, which have such far-reaching consequences. Even something so seemingly simple as honey has the power to support the ecosystem, or to detract from it. “The role bees, in particular honeybees, play in the ecosystem in general is that they are great pollinators,” says Sam Wallis of From Field and Flower, “and when they can forage and pollinate wild species, that helps sustain the biodiversity of plants and trees.” Bees also help farmers of fruit and vegetables to produce naturally abundant crops, she continues, “so a lot of beekeepers keep hives on farmland and orchards – provided the crops are not treated with chemicals, which can mess up their senses and those of future generations.” Married with bees, the organic farmers who are trying to produce the best, seasonal produce can exist “in harmony with nature, rather than going against it.”

It is, quite literally, a virtuous circle. Bees help the farmers by pollinating the plants; the farmers, in an effort to encourage the bees, are setting land aside for rewilding. “Bees are busy, so they want to find the richest forage they can and mine it. A field of wildflowers will attract them” – generating biodiversity, a richer, more flavoursome honey for both bees and buyers, and more pollination for the farmer. It is, as a healthy ecosystem should be, a win-win. Problems arise when either the land or the bees themselves are exploited, either by monocropping or by the more “cynical” beekeepers, who harvest as much honey as they can and replace the bees’ natural, nutrient dense source of winter food with sugar syrup; a deeply unsustainable practice which affects the colony in the long run. “We have a producer who will not be able to supply us with heather honey this year because the rainy weather affected the heather flowering so badly, the bees have only just got enough for themselves this winter,” Sam laments. “It’s sad for us, because heather honey is delicious and popular, but it is the perfect example of how it should be – of beekeepers with a strong sense of values finding a balance with nature and putting the health of the hive first.”

The same principle of never taking more than nature needs to sustain itself is as true of foraging as it is beekeeping, Noel Fitzjohn of Fitz Fine Foods tells me. “With wild garlic, for example, which will be coming into season in the next couple of months, if I pick too large an area it will take a year to come back – sometimes more – whereas if I take a small amount in a big area, it will regenerate easily.” This is important not just for the plant itself, but for the health of the soil and the rest of the ecosystem. “When I pick rosehips and hedgerow berries, I never take more than 10 per cent of what’s there because they are so important for wildlife. It doesn’t sound like much, but it mounts up quickly when you consider how much each bush produces.” He too is grateful for the number of farmers rewilding and restoring and maintaining their hedgerows. Biodiversity benefits everyone and everything, including the farms themselves.

Agroforestry in action

This is explicitly evident when it comes to agroforestry: the use of fruit trees in arable farming boost production, enriching and protecting the land in the process. “In East Anglia, where there are few hedges, farmers see it as normal for the topsoil to blow away periodically, but the trunks help decrease wind speed,” says Charles Tebbutt of Food & Forest. Meanwhile, the deep roots of the trees further reduce soil erosion, thereby retaining its stock of nutrients as well as adding to it via leaf litter come autumn. “Stephen Briggs, one of the leading proponents of agroforestry, talks a lot about the subsoil that cannot normally be accessed by arable crops,” he continues. “Because the tree roots go deeper, they suck up the phosphorous from the subsoil which is recycled when the leaves fall. This means the nutrients reach the topsoil without the need for excess fertiliser.” It’s good for the environment – less fertiliser is required, so there’s less run off and river pollution – as well as being conducive to larger yields.

The same message comes back time and again: producing food in harmony with nature is a win-win for everyone, while a mercenary, purely commercial approach to harvesting nature’s bounty will ultimately only ever be a lose-lose. “For us this is about working with small producers; family producers who see their work with bees as a partnership rather than something they just earn money from. Mass produced honey is adulterated – it’s easy to take for granted. But honey is precious,” Sam says passionately. For her, Noel, Charles and many other producers at the Market, the word bounty is key.

They take what’s in excess, so as not to disrupt – or in certain cases, to actively restore – the balance of nature. In contrast to the more faddish foragers, who can clear vast quantities of mushrooms, elderflower and the like, Noel is careful to ensure he leaves the lightest of footprints behind. Fungi in particular play an important ecological role, breaking down organic matter from plants and animals as well as serving as food for deer, rabbits, mice and insects. Knowing what to pick is perilously important, so this is inevitably the angle that gets the most attention. But knowing how much to pick – a knowledge borne of a long and initiate knowledge of nature, Noel explains – is important too.

For Noel and Sam, it’s about treading lightly. For Darren of Shellseekers Fish & Game, however, it’s about active management: culling those species which pose a genuine threat to the natural environment when in abundance and, through careful game keeping, ensuring that environment is maintained and secure. “We have a problem with deer in this country. There are no natural predators and while a lot of people stalk deer for sport, there aren’t enough doing it professionally.” What’s more, those in it for the thrill of the chase shoot stags rather than does, so the population can still easily explode. “If you have one stag and 40 females, you can have 80 more next year – and they are overrunning the place,” Darren explains, both in their own habitat and in ours. “Go into a woodland where there’s a deer problem and above head height it will be stripped completely. Eventually, there is no longer enough food to sustain the deer population, so they move onto farms and gardens.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough for both the woodland ecosystem and our farmers, in venturing into built up areas in search of food the deer will inevitably stray onto roads, posing a life-threatening risk to drivers and passengers. “We have a deer problem. Let’s eat our problems,” says Darren, who opposes bitterly the idea that any animal should be shot and then go to waste.

Natural ecosystems everywhere are under increasing threat. There is, in the words of Tim Rice, more to do than can ever be done in the way of sustaining them. But making sound, supportive decisions when it comes to our food choices seems an excellent way to start.