Despite all the thought I still come across the odd "curve ball". A friend once confronted me with a question that had something to do with justifying walls compared to oak trees and the effect waIls had on Badger runs, I suspect they knew my involvement many years ago in the formation of the Gwynedd Badger Group and managing a small woodland for nature conservation.
At the time I fumbled and flustered and gave some sort of answer. Now of course I have developed better arguments, of course I have never been subsequently asked about the effect of walls on Badgers!
As the DSWA leaflet ably illustrates walls can support a wide range of flora and fauna. As was mentioned in an earlier article in this issue, cloddiau have the potential to be mini nature reserves and their value can be such that we should be actively promoting this aspect of their worth. However I think that trying to justify dry stone walls themselves in these terms is a somewhat dubious process, no piece of wall - no 100 metres of wall - is going to be as valuable in terms of our native flora and fauna as a single oak tree.
It is of course not quite that simple. Our landscape and the habitats within it, whether they be woodland, fenland, moorland or whatever, are largely man-made or in the very least man-influenced. Walls are part of what is an intricate mosaic, more obviously man made than many of the other facets within this mosaic, but not actually more man-made. British natural history is important largely because of the diversity of this mosaic. As such, whilst one aspect might ostensibly be deemed more important than another, it is the whole that is of paramount importance and thus each of its component parts assumes greater significance than if viewed as a separate entity.
Another problem we face is the concept that a completely derelict wall, little more than a pile of stones, is of greater wildlife value than more complete walls. This is pretty much a fallacy as the little research that there has been would suggest that walls decrease significantly in the species they can support when they drop below 2 feet in height. It is also worth noting that insect species diversity is the traditional method for comparing the relative merits of trees with oak the king, yet almost any type of deadwood can support a more diverse range of insects than most live trees and yet no-one is mad enough to suggest that Britain would be a better place if we just let the woodlands gradually die out.
Linked to the derelict is best argument comes the 'if you repair a wall neat and tight it is of little value' argument. The wall has few nooks and crannies and is a relatively barren habitat compared to poorer quality repair. On the surface this argument is far sounder, and could be more difficult to refute.
A well built repair or brand new wall has a limited natural history value compared to an old wall, but then a newly planted area of trees is of little significance compared to the mature woodland it will hopefully grow into. Just as a woodland needs time to develop, so does a wall. An old oak tree might be valuable, but if there were no new oak trees there would be no old oak trees. In this respect we could even need to worry even more about walls as unlike woodlands walls cannot magically spring up overnight if left alone. If some wails are not built particularly well now they will not have the chance to become -at least in wall terms - mature, relatively rich habitats.
This brings us back to mosaics. Just as the landscape as a whole is a mosaic of component parts, each of these component parts is a mosaic in itself. If all walls were repaired to very high standards in the next 10 years we might have a problem, it is not going to happen. The mosaic of walls will continue with derelict, semi-derelict, good repairs and not so good repairs. All are valuable in their own right as part of the overall picture, a picture that suffers if any of its constituent parts or their components are neglected.
This of course all assumes that our current concept of landscape and nature conservation is a valid one. This is another can of worms altogether, it is after all an artificial set up and any decisions necessarily somewhat arbitrary, but if we do accept it as valid then surely we must accept the need to attempt to maintain its separate facets. Prioritisation is necessary because of limited resources but care needs to be taken to ensure that such prioritisation does not infer that any one aspect is much more important than another and that some aspects should be more or less ignored.
What of Badgers? If its an old wall and there are no obvious badger signs then its not likely to be a problem. If its a new wall or a collapse in an old wall that badgers just scramble over without leaving any obvious signs its a bit more complicated. I read somewhere that badgers can actually climb walls, so its not really a problem! A bit more seriously they most certainly can dig under them if they want to . I know of several examples where Badgers have caused the collapse of walls by tunnelling under them. In these instances any sensible person would see the cause of the collapse and surely build a suitable lunky on the run. I also know from experience that whilst badgers follow set runs they can also wander through fence lines etc. at will especially close to the set. It is quite likely that as soon as you build the lunky they choose a new route and tunnel away, I suppose you would just have to keep up with the repairs! As to what you could do in the instance I came across on one Badger survey where there were several entrances to a set seriously undermining a wall and adjacent barn. 10 years on and I still don't have an answer to that one.
Part of this article was first printed in the BTCV's North Wales work programme.