Conservation needs Change

This a continuation of the series of blogs stimulated by the re-wilding and conservation debate at the Linnean Society on Wednesday.

I looked at how people’s relationship with nature has evolved to the point now where we can more or less choose which nature we want, and which we do not want. This “can do” freedom means that for the most part, people choose a very limited range of nature, either for pleasure (pets, garden plants), food (just a few species of grass and the odd domesticated animal), fuel and fibre. Much of Nature has been increasingly “engineered out” of our lives at all levels.


 At the same time it is becoming crystal clear that we cannot afford to live without nature – this is the basis of the Ecosystem Services argument – the argument goes that we need to place a (financial) value on nature so it can be properly accounted for in society, or perhaps more accurately, the economy. To my mind this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Nature has not been properly valued by society because there is a fundamental problem with the way Society places value on things ie using financial values. We need to change the way we value Nature, rather than try and used flawed economic tools to value it.


How could we do this? Take land, for example. Land in Britain is incredibly expensive – farmland has trebled in value in less than a decade. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, land is an increasingly attractive asset class for investors looking for a safe haven from global economic turmoil. Secondly the Common Agricultural Policy guarantees that landowners receive a subsidy payment just for owning farmland. Thirdly, farmland is exempt from inheritance tax. All of these three factors combine to increase the value of farmland. What does this increase in monetary value mean for the nature that does or could or used to live there? The increase in value inevitably concentrates land into an ever smaller number of ownerships. As loans are taken out to purchase land, the need to repay those loans drives land-use intensification. As land-use intensifies, there is less room for nature.

CAP fail

Many millions of words have been written about the CAP and its impacts, and I will not revisit them here. Suffice to say, the CAP has been an almost unmitigated disaster for nature, notwithstanding the very limited effects of agri-environment schemes. Once again CAP reform has utterly failed to even slow down the continuing damage done by intensive farming to nature. Without a fundamental reform or indeed abandonment of the CAP, little can be done to mitigate the impact of intensive agriculture on nature.

Not our Inheritance

 Why is agricultural land exempt from inheritance tax? Is it simply to enable large rural  estates to hang onto their land from one generation to the next? Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the western world, but at least there is a vociferous campaign to redress this inequity. Figures are harder to come by for England, but recentish research suggests 0.6% of the population owns 50% of rural land.

George Monbiot in a previous existence ran an excellent campaign called The Land is ours.  A reduction in the value of farmland will reduce the pressure to manage it so intensively and let nature back in. So reform is needed of the CAP (how many times…); the freedom of speculators and investors to influence land management just for financial returns, at public cost; and inheritance tax reform to reduce financial incentives to manage land for private benefit at public cost.

Towns and Cities: Bringing nature back home.

Much has been written about the disconnection between people and nature, in particular our children. Yet we can do so much to bring ourselves closer to nature and we can achieve far more for nature in our towns and cities than in rural areas. Nature can be incorporated into new developments for example, through Green Roofs and high quality greenspace. We can, with the political will, transform our public spaces into nature-rich areas. I’m not a great advocate for planting pictorial meadows or beds of cornfield annuals, not because they aren’t valuable and beautiful, but because they are a pain to manage long term. It would be much easier to transform the thousands of hectares of amenity close mown grassland into wildflower-rich areas, either meadow or not – and yes why not have some scrub?

Municipal road verges could explode with a riot of perennial flowers supporting bumble bees and butterflies, cut just once or twice a year saving money too.  Such a transformation of our public spaces would not be welcomed by all – as there is a tendency to prefer tidiness over nature. Still, if Local Authorities continue to lose funding at the current rate, they will simply not be able to afford the luxury of close mown grass for much longer.

On Wednesday George suggested that every new housing development should have some wild land incorporated in it. I like the idea – but pointed out how difficult it is to “engineer” the feeling of wild. Effectively what he’s saying is let’s have some naturally-regenerated woodland in new developments – it’s a great idea.

Consumers or Citizens?

What about us, the consumer/citizens/subjects of the UK? What part do we play in this matter. Every decision we take has an impact on nature, whether it is the type of transport and domestic fuel we use, what food we buy, and how many old smart phones gather dust in the backs of cupboards. How can we decide which decisions are likely to benefit nature or not. I think it should be possible to work out a biodiversity footprint for every product, every pound of potatoes, every smartphone. The danger of course is that these get simplified to the point of being counterproductive. Take biodiversity offsetting – please – someone take it away! The “metric” is a habitat-hectare  – all the sublety of variation between different sites supporting similar habitats is lost, boiled down to a single metric.

A Biodiversity Footprint

Supposing that it was possible to create a biodiversity footprint metric that was realistic, it should be possible to develop a system whereby those products with the greatest biodiversity footprint were taxed (or banned if their biodiversity footprint was too great), leaving those with the lowest BF to be cheaper and more likely to be purchased. I have to say I am not a great fan of using market-based approaches to benefit nature, but the truth is that products are bought and sold in markets of various types; and this would go some way to redressing the  “market failure” where the external cost to nature is not incorporated into the price of a product. The cost to nature extracted through taxation would then need to be ring-fenced and returned directly back to activities which benefitted nature.

Tax and Regulate

Taxation and Regulation seem to be dirty words these days. Governments fall over themselves to adopt this position that regulation is bad for Society, taxation stifles growth and entrepreneurialism. Corporate cheerleaders constantly harp on about the need to remove regulatory burden from businesses. The message seems to be that Regulation (and of course taxation is a form of regulation) is like a disease in the economy – it has inculcated itself into Government and perpetuates itself, vampirically sucking life out of the economy and therefore society. The media happily play along with this charade, all too aware that regulation has come knocking on their door recently.

The truth is somewhat different. At best, Regulation protects public goods (such as nature) from private (and sometimes public) exploitation. The Wildlife and Countryside Act for example, protects our finest wildlife sites (SSSIs) from being turned into intensive farmland, quarries, housing developments and new roads. It took a very long time to actually achieve this (over 50 years since the first Act created SSSIs in 1949). and during that time countless SSSIs were lost to those very things. True, Regulation can become very bureaucratic and the bureacracy can soak up all effort leaving practically no public benefit – the BAP process is a good example of this. However, this is not in itself a good reason for getting rid of Regulation.

The combined effects of land reform and a taxation and regulation system that places nature at its heart, could see the current continuing loss of nature reversed, but this will take a long time.

As I wrote yesterday we can take action now, by re-distributing the land that is already in sympathetic, or at least potentially sympathetic hands.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, animism, Beavers, biodiversity, Common Agricultural Policy, conservation, ecosystem services, environmental policy, European environment policy, farming, Floodplains, Forestry, Forestry Commission, greenspace, housing, management, neoliberalism, NFU, Owen Paterson, public goods, public land, regulatory reform, semi-natural and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Conservation needs Change

  1. rob yorke says:

    Rabble rousing stuff Miles (similar to others at the Linnean Soc debate) but littered with assumptions.
    At times I sense the whole conservation movement are happy to bash farmers alongside any hint of landownership: while happy to quote extent of their ownership when positioning themselves as the only savour of nature.
    Many farmers, unrelated to NFU rhetoric, are quietly doing good for nature. They don’t dare let anyone on to survey their land in case of interference: partly explains why State of Nature only based on 5% species.
    There is much work to do with farmers on many fronts – bashing them hardly assists!
    ‘Land-use intensifies, there is less room for nature.’ Not necessarily when more untouched land spared for nature. See my last tweet as on train ahunting hedgerows for the pot.
    Don’t agree with George too much!

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Rob. I’m not an advocate of Proudhon – I think it does make sense for land to have owners – but as with everything, when land ownership is concentrated in a very small place, private interests overwhelm public ones.

      I think many farmers are doing something for nature – but the frame through which they (and practically everyone else) view nature has changed to such an extent that sowing a few wild bird seed crop margins is seen as “job done.” Unfortunately some conservation NGOs also push this line.

      Landowners in general are reticent about letting naturalists on their land in case they find something which subsequently restricts their freedom to destroy it. Where does the balance lie between private vs public interest?

      Careful you don’t fall in with the “it’s all farmer-bashing and therefore has no validity” fallacy. You could call it an “argumentum ad agricola” fallacy, except I am sure the ending is wrong. Corrections from classicists please. Farmers occupy a unique place of responsibility, having far and away the greatest influence over the terrestrial environment and the nature it (used to) support.

      The whole sparing vs sharing debate has not really got going properly in the UK – though HNV is clearly one way of advocating sharing.

      I am sure you will continue to see clear water between George and I.

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    Great minds ……..! I had a letter published in the Independent in March 2001 where I put forward a proposal for having real National Parks, owned by the nation, rather than the compromise conglomerations of farmland that we do have. I noted that the money to buy the land was available – the cost of BSE would have bought about 640,000 hectares, almost the same amount as the current area of broadleaved woodland. Estimates of the eventual cost of FMD varied between £1-9 billion which, even at the lower end, would buy us 140,000 hectares, a useful sized forest. Using the annual farming subsidy under the CAP each year, I reckoned it would only have taken about 11 years before the nation owned all the grazing land. If that was too ambitious, then I suggested using the money from the then Countryside Stewardship Scheme that could buy 22,000 hectares a year.

    Like you, I have also pointed to the Public Forest Estate for its potential to offer areas of size for re-naturing (I’ll go with that word, Miles, even though it means something different to me as an ex-Biochemist!). In fact, one of the responses I made to the consultation on the future of the PFE in England in 2009 was highlighted in the evidence of the findings:
    “The proportion of publicly owned land in England is very low by comparison with countries
    around the world that have successful and highly regarded protected area programs that provide a range of recreational opportunities as well as refuge for wildlife i.e. Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa etc. As the public body with the largest amount of publicly owned land, the FC are in a position to argue the case for developing a new and comprehensive protected area system in England, with the multiple uses and multiple benefits that it would bring, and especially providing an experience of wild nature that is rarely available in England now. An aim must also be to create the “ancient woodlands” of the future in England, increasing our woodland cover from the low end in Europe that it is at the moment”

    I noticed on the RSPB blog version of your article that “Red Kite” had left a comment calling for development of a “road map” for re-naturing. We have a starting point for our discussions. There is a paper from over 30 years ago that made startling proposals for re-naturing the Isle of Rhum National Nature Reserve, as an example in the uplands, and Thetford Chase for the lowlands. The idea was to develop a new type of reserve to satisfy a public demand for an experience of nature that transcended just a walk in open country, by there being “the presence of at least one large spectacular species which would almost force itself on human awareness”. The two contrasting landscape examples were to show the different policies for choice of species, habitat enhancement, and the zoning of public access that may be necessary.
    Nevard, T.D. & Penfold, J.B. (1978) Wildlife Conservation in Britain: The Unsatisfied Demand. Biological Conservation 14, 25-44

    The paper is rich in information and approach, including comprehensive tables on the classification of the habitat requirements of large European mammals in relation to the need for wild conditions, or whether they would cope in landscapes under forestry and low intensity agricultural use. There is also a listing of potential of candidates for mammalian introductions to Rhum. Lynx are amongst them, described in the paper as an “important aesthetic attraction”, the potential carrying capacity of 4-11 lynx sustained by “small ungulates, large rodents and lagomorphs” and fluctuating with available food supply. The authors explain that lynx prefers woodland and broken country and note that the main habitat manipulation on Rhum had been the prior afforestation in 1968 of a substantial part (30%) of the island, using native species. They presumed that this woodland would eventually cover 3,800ha (35%) of the island in a broken pattern in its northern half, but that there would be areas of woodland of smaller size in the southern half of the island.

    On wolves, they took a minimum satisfactory size for re-instatement as the area necessary to support a viable population (10-15) of adults. They calculated this to be an area of 10,000 ha. On that basis, Rhum (11,000 ha) could accommodate 14 wolves. Similar calculation on habitat requirement led to an estimate of 21 Brown bear, and 26 beaver. They pointed out that Rhum is isolated from the mainland by 24 km of sea and from the nearest island, Sanday, by 5 km. Thus an effective barrier to immigration and emigration by terrestrial plants and animals is already present. Furthermore, this barrier also provides a means of facilitating and controlling public access.

    This paper and its concepts need to be updated, and with other potential locations thrown into the mix.

    Miles, I notice that you seem to have adopted Pleistocene “rewilding”? Article 22 of the Habitats Directive does put an obligation on member states to study the desirability of re-introducing species in Annex IV that are native to their territory where this might contribute to their conservation. Lynx, wolf and bear fit into that category. However, as you would expect, I don’t see Straight-tusked elephant, Aurochs or Irish Elk mentioned in Annex IV because they are globally extinct. In fact, Article 22 has a prescription against deliberate introduction into the wild of any species which is not native, and so this would preclude bison for the UK. It also does for the horse, but then there are no extant truly wild populations anyway, unlike the bison. Moose should be reinstated, but it is not in Annex IV.

    The moral obligation to reinstate megafauna, even if we could do so, revolves around a need for a clear determination of their extinction – which, as you know, is contested. I find it amusing that most stasis conservationists cling to a human cause for extinction while arguing that humans are still part of nature, even though our differentiation as a species from mammals predates the alleged “overkill” of the megafauna. If you follow the thinking of the stasis conservationists, then their extinction must have been “natural” and thus we have no obligation to reinstate megafauna. So, the forest bashing that the stasis conservationists really are obsessed with has no validation!!!

    Steve Wolverton wrote a telling letter a few years ago about the fascination with Pleistocene “rewilding” in America, but it holds true for pretty much every continent. As he says, the extent to which Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions were the result of overkill is hotly debated:
    “re-wilding may simply represent exotic wilding (biological invasion) of North America based on poorly founded environmental ethics”

    Wolverton, S. (2010) The North American Pleistocene overkill hypothesis and the re-wilding debate. Diversity and Distributions 16: 874–876

  3. milesking10 says:

    Thanks Mark – for, as ever, a fascinating comment.

    I talked to Clive Hambler after the LinnSoc Debate about straight tuskers. He said that had only been raised as an issue as a “thought experiment.” But I think it runs much deeper. It strikes me that the Pleistocene incarnations of the forests in what would eventually become the British Isles, would have been very different places to the Holocene version, not least because the Holocene forest never had a chance to proceed through all the phases its previous incarnations had, due in part to Mesolithic people’s rapid intervention. Also, the presence of the big Pleistocene beasties would have created a much different type of forest – perhaps closer to Vera’s vision! Vera may have got it right, just for the wrong interglacial.

    What does this mean for now and the future? Of course, we can’t bring back the globally extinct, nor should we – regardless of whether they were extirpated by humans or not. We have to think about re-naturing (yes I know what you mean about it’s other meanings!) in terms of the processes that ought to be occurring, to enable the biodiversity that depends on them to flourish. So, if there aren’t any giant Elk, Aurochsen or Straight Tuskers around, what else will do the job?

    I was aware of the Rhum proposals, as a student at UCL in the 80s it was brought up quite a bit – indeed the students used to go to Rhum for a field trip to discuss such things (before my time.)

    I like the idea of re-naturing the Isle of Wight. African Forest Elephants might just survive there all year round, with a winter shelter (cave?).

  4. rob yorke says:

    You know I bash farmers (ELS wasted tick box exercise etc) as much as those conservationists with high ideals but little grip on reality. No fingers pointed.
    Read some more stuff by Steve Redpath re dialogue & engagement to achieve goals.
    The British public I’m sure would like a big beast reserve but do find it hard to walk through a field of cows or venture far into a wood.
    Great discourse bwtn you & Mark but hard for the ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’ to grasp as they shop at Tesco.
    Ps forest cover turn of the century was circa 2% – now 12% – so we are edging in the right direction.

  5. Andrew says:

    I confess to not having read the acres written here about inheritance tax but I would add something.
    You seem to want to do away with the inheritance tax relief on land. It will be an interesting experiment.
    There was a reason for this as well as to protect the landed gentry.
    When I learnt my agriculture 50 years ago farmers “farmed for their sons”. They kept the land in “good heart” by keeping adding manure and controlling weeds so they did not get too bad etc. They practiced crop rotations which helped the aforementioned. We did not need EU regulations to achieve these ends.
    We have drifted away from this as we can add fertilizer and sprays and rotations are stretched. We can grow high value crops on what were then difficult poor sandy heath lands virtually using hydroponics with irrigation. All things which conservationists decry.
    You could of course regulate against it with a great bureaucratic effort which the EU has in its management requirements but how effective this would be.
    Despite popular bloggers there are a lot of farmers who farm for nature and like a nice environment and the thought of handing this on must play a part.
    The possible outcome as the land is cycled through owner faster is worth a conference. Would it end up in the hands of large stock market holding businesses???
    Anyway a nice experiment pity I won’t be around to see the unintended consequences.

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks for the comment Andrew. There may have a day when it made sense to give family farmers tax relief to hand on the land to their sons to carry on the tradition. I’m not sure how relevant that is now – and what makes farmers different from any other family business? You could in theory try some way to exclude the small family farmer from IHT coverage – say have a lower threshold of 300 acres perhaps – that’s a decent sized family farm (with land worth about £3m).

      I would also suggest looking across the water to France. They have a very different system of land ownership and inheritance – the Napoleonic Code. And although that causes all sorts of consequences, they have a far larger number of family farms than we do.

      I am interested in this idea of many farmers farming for nature. And I have met many through my career who do care deeply about nature. I think one of the problems is that Nature, like Wilderness, is a term which can have many different meanings – almost whatever the person using it feels like it meaning. I’m not saying that conservationists have ownership of the meaning of Nature (though I think some think they do), but it does make conversations more difficult.

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