THE NAME GAME
Having worked in the world of conservation for over a quarter of a century I have come to realise that it is just as prone to the vagaries of human whim and fashion trends that drive many other spheres of human existence. Perhaps the most obvious example is the switch from the self-explanatory ‘wildlife’ to the new-speak ‘Biodiversity’. Our government agency went from the Nature Conservancy Council (self-explanatory) to English Nature (bland but ok) to the oxymoronic Natural England (not much natural in England), but with some aspiration to ecology independent of man.
Of course long before biodiversity went into the dictionary, agricultural terms like ‘improved pasture’ made it plain where wildlife stood in the scheme of things, and will we ever escape from development? However biodiversity is also a term open to abuse as it has come to signify (above the microscopic) everything living, regardless of naturalness. This has led to reports showing how ‘rich’ urban biodiversity can be, with scant regard to naturalness. A blackbird in suburbia is still a blackbird, but for me a harlequin ladybird does not count the same as any native species displaced by urbanisation. Look for invertebrates in amenity plantings in inner London today and you will be hard pushed to find more native species than imports, with more new arrivals every year.
I believe this attitude has increasingly damaging effects on conservation, and the use of overall biodiversity regardless of origin is likely to pacify the average punter, as politicians (always on the lookout for statistics which can be given a positive spin) will fob off reports like State of nature¹, and highlight the net increases.
In the 1980s the old NCC seemed (to me at least) to have the laudable aspiration of keeping the most of what was considered native from declining and going extinct. Surely if something got here under its own steam it has more value than something we brought? (excepting deliberate re-introductions of former natives).
Some naturalists are even troubled by the efficacy of deliberate reintroductions to restore a species across its former range. The concrete lined pools I built for the Natterjack were seen as launch pads for colonisation of nearby semi-natural waters, not the be all and end all, but I have some sympathy with the voices of decent who are troubled by the artificiality of slotting species back here and there. However such views could be seen as short-termist. Isn’t a Red Kite or Capercailie any less exciting to see, simply because its ancestors arrived back in a cage?
Much has been written about the folly of certain drives for nature. Peter Marren amongst others have shown how the ‘Plant a tree in ‘73’ mentality has had a disastrous knock on effect for our native trees, not to mention the usual tears and recrimination from passing walkers, for anyone daring to cut down a pine on their local heathland!
Not so long ago you couldn’t read a wildlife trust magazine without an article about coppicing, obviously it provided the ideal coupling of positive management with a saleable product, but what exactly was achieved?
What is equally frustrating is the way that after a few decades we often arrive back at where we started and re-inventing the wheel seems…well….inevitable. I recently watched Countryfile and was treated to a segment on efforts to help ‘farmland birds’ which included actually casting seed out for them. A NE officer was optimistic that leaving special strips would help the birds…was I alone in thinking isn’t this what we once called Setaside, and how much was wasted in all the rebooting/start-up costs of such a reinvention??
Funding for research is also tied to what’s in the news. Acid rain was a huge story in the early 1980s, and hasn’t gone away, but has been put on the ‘been there, done that’ shelf.
One thing which has come out of the debate around the grazing revolution is the realisation that many managers have side-lined what worked in pursuit of a new in vogue alternative. Wholesale summer grazing is being used almost carte blanche on heathland, not always justifiably. Obviously driving around counting cows is more fun and easier than cutting and dragging trees and scrub off a heath, but as the former works why do both when (especially on small sites) the grazing stock often reduce structure and stop anything flowering! Dare one say because it means your site is in ‘unfavourable –recovering’ condition?
I am often asked how a site can be enhanced for wildlife, and in many cases my advice is to dig a pond or two. This is not to say we farm every square hectare to maximise heterogeneity, and have a little bit of everything. However I have surveyed many of our finest SSSIs and see money thrown at turning back the clock which could very easily produce far greater results on new ground. Pine plantations still cover vast tracts of our once open sandy areas, and can be cleared and quickly restored back to heathland/duneland.
LOWERING THE BAR
The worst trend in the 21st century has been the sinister and stealthy way in which the great con of SSSI condition assessment has lowered the bar for generations to come and gotten government out of paying for the real management needed to get sites back into favourable condition. NCC devised a system to protect the best bits of our countryside which for several decades was little more than a token gesture. NCC got more teeth after 1981, and direct deliberate damage declined but was replaced by decline through poor management and neglect. The result was a politically driven cop out employing an unscientific assessment process which sets out to make it seem like things are improving when the evidence for improvement at most sites is non-existent! The weasel words, ‘unfavourable recovering’ is the greatest con in the history of conservation in Britain!
THE RIGHT TO ROAM
The other great attitudinal change of the past 25 years or so has been the drive for public access. The Blair government brought in the CROW act, which for the naturalist in Scotland is a delight, but for the overcrowded south-east the effects are all too obvious.
Given the burgeoning dog population density in Lowland Britain, it is just no longer tenable to allow unrestricted access onto remaining wild areas without it adversely affecting the species and habitats present. When we enter a stately home or museum we don’t expect to be given carte blanche to walk wherever we like and prod and poke the art and fittings. LNRs in many cases could be renamed dog toilets, and SSSIs especially those with breeding bird interest will be damaged by visitor pressure, placing the site managers in the impossible position of having to promote public access and prevent damage to the SSSI. I have surveyed Oxshott Heath on and off for over 15 years, and on my last visit in 2013 was attacked twice by out of control dogs, and in a two hour period counted 67 dogs including 9 running around amongst the heather despite it being bird breeding season. A massive increase in both people and four-footed pressure at a site whose main aspiration is to bring back the once frequent rare heathland breeding birds!
As visitor pressure increases wildlife suffers, simply through the moron factor: Ponds get Crassula, floating pennywort, goldfish, and more ducks. To the vast majority of the public a pond with these things in it, is still a place for wildlife!
A look at the parks in Greater London show how there is a critical mass below which the effects become catastrophic. The larger parks like Bushy and Richmond still have superb biodiversity, but all have areas from which the public are excluded (and are sufficiently large to have quiet corners even at peak visitor times), and these are particularly important for flower visiting species. In contrast, trying to sell biodiversity ahead of amenity has been an uphill struggle in the inner London parks such as Hyde, and Kensington Gardens, where rough bushy and grassy areas are likely to be taken over by undesirables, which the Police seem reluctant to tackle.
Do places with limited public access have more species than those open to the public?
I compiled a RDB of species on land owned by the Ministry of Defence, and it is no exaggeration to say that for many of our rarest species the red flag is of immense value. Obviously military activity does involve human intervention, but dangerous things like bombs and bullets mean huge buffer zones are needed, and these act as outdoor laboratories where the positives for wildlife are very evident.
Re-wilding has become the latest fashion craze, and for the uplands presents a vision which I for one think is a fine aspiration. But when it comes to the overcrowded lowlands is anyone really confident that the rich private land owners will be remotely interested in handing over control? The example of Knepp Castle Estate shows what can be done, but how long before the market is saturated with deer-watching safaris, venison burgers and boar sausages…. and profits and grants dwindle, and another trend goes out of fashion??
In my area the Forestry Commission have recently replanted a very obvious ancient woodland with conifers (despite supposedly having a policy not to do so), as has Bourne Woods (an area of former lowland heathland), despite the RSPB showing how readily dry heath can be restored on adjacent land. Rewilding seems a pipe-dream when the FC with all its green ambitions cannot be compelled to lead by example. If they can’t what chance a profitable shooting estate?
Does a pretty open landscape that is attractive to the majority of human visitors have more value than one with the most native obligate species? In other words, is native biodiversity (in its appropriate home) more important than cultural landscapes (whatever they are)? It is tragic that we have arrived in a situation where we have to choose between the two. Areas like the North Yorkshire Moors are managed for a very few (mostly one) species (and stunning views), but species richness more than quadruples in peripheral areas in the absence of continual regular burning/grazing. Here many county rarities and declining communities are squeezed between improved pasture and grouse rearing.
At University I remember asking the class for a show of hands if they thought that spending money on species that they probably would never actually see worth-while. Every hand went up (perhaps unsurprisingly given they were environmental studies students). This was 30 years ago in what was the bad old days when most of those present would struggle to find a job in their chosen field. Many volunteered as a way into a poorly paid job. A decade later the revolution of ‘species protection’ created a whole new service industry masquerading under the name of ‘Ecology’. Thousands now make a living moving stuff out of the way of development, and mapping decline. Alongside this we also have the paradoxical situation where landmarks like the RSPB reaching a million members, and Countryfile getting a primetime TV slot, not reflecting a concomitant improvement in nature’s lot. Indeed I never thought things could ever go back to the bad old days of the 1980s when Nick Ridley was talking about turnstiles on nature reserves and nature staying only if it paid its way! …
Economists have finally sunk their claws into biodiversity, and unless you have been living on Mars you will have heard the mantra of Ecosystem Services, the latest way to justify the existence of species and habitats (which don’t otherwise pay their way).
For decades we’ve been told we need the rain forest because it might have a ‘cure for cancer’. Today its role as the ‘lungs of the Planet’ is a justifiable example of ecosystem services, but with flooding the hot topic of recent winters, planting trees.. any trees.. would be better for soaking up flood water than maintaining open heath or moor. Just how difficult will it be for clever economist types to show how palm-oil plantations are ‘carbon neutral’ and the ‘lungs of the planet providing a home for biodiversity’?
Why can’t we have nature reserves for native wildlife? The clue is in the name they are sites whose primary purpose is as a home for wildlife not for people! Roaming should be a privilege controlled by the needs of the species increasingly squeezed by our ever spreading influence.
The argument that people must connect with nature to care for it is at first sight a compelling one, especially as the city/ country divide keeps growing. However it is irresponsible to have policy shaped by the opinions of Joe Public or politicians who don’t have the slightest idea about ecology! Given a choice most people would happily walk through a pine plantation or secondary woodland as can be seen at sites like the Esher Commons, and don’t see any great value in the opening up and restoration of heathland, despite that being the reason for the areas designation as a SSSI. People are naturally conservative and what they have known for 5, 10 or 30 years is what they want to keep, and will often swear blind that the place has always been thus even when quite recent photos can prove otherwise.
The zealots who champion the Grey Squirrel and the Rose-ringed Parakeet have even played the xenophobia card against those looking to control these aliens: Showing how even political correctness can undermine the battle against the ‘sixth extinction’.
There is plenty of expertise to call on and it is essential that conservationists stand their ground and don’t let the bar drop any further. Many at NE made a stand, but as it stalled development they were crushed, leading to a mass exodus of talent.
Of course the factor which underpins everything and is never in fashion, in fact is rarely shown the light of day…. I refer of course to population control. You have more chance of raising paedophilia on the political agenda than mentioning population control. Instead of celebrating the time (not so long ago) when our crowded island’s population stabilised, we now hear politicians contemplating a UK population over 100 million! Then they wonder why so few have any faith in them anymore! A simple question that no-one seems to ask is: Name one way in which having more people makes the quality of life in Britain better??
¹ RSPB (2013) State of Nature. RSPB, Sandy