Nature Conservation: barking up the wrong tree?

I wrote this article for the latest edition of ECOS, the magazine of the British Association for Nature Conservationists (BANC).

You can see all of the articles in this edition of ECOS here. The article was my response to the question

“How can the spirit of nature conservation be re-energised in coming years, and what’s needed to bring more direction and more clout to conservation…?”

There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of the conservation movement. The “movement” if indeed there is one movement, has grown extraordinarily during the nearly 30 years I have been involved. I make no claim for having had anything to do with that. Organisations such as RSPB, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts (collectively) boast hundreds of thousands or millions of members, all signing up to pay their monthly direct debits for nature (or free car parking.) TV wildlife documentaries garner millions of viewers gasping in awe at the spectacles presented in ever, higher definition. Governments fall over themselves to be seen as the greenest. Companies enthusiastically sign up to deliver biodiversity action plans or to place natural capital at the heart of all their decision-making.

Yet at the same time, over the same period, nature continues to decline, to disappear – in some cases the decline and disappearance is accelerating in lock step with the increased support for it. Farmers proud to have lapwings nesting in their arable fields simply cannot believe the farmland bird statistics that show unambiguously the birds which were formerly too common to bother with, are now at risk of extinction. And for them, they see things improving compared with their parents’ generation, blissfully unaware of Shifting Baseline Syndrome.

Legal protection has been partially successful at “holding the line”. Places rich in nature have been protected from development by the European Nature Directives, at least in part. And Sites of Special Scientific Interest have gradually received stronger and stronger protection through a series of wildlife protection laws. Outside of protected areas, formerly ubiquitous wildlife habitats such as lowland grasslands have gone entirely from some counties; and hang on in tiny, unsustainable fragments in others. The 25 year experiment in “renting nature”, known as the agri-environment schemes, has not worked out so well – delivering only illusory gains for nature, and seems unlikely to survive another round of CAP reform.

And what nature are we trying to conserve? Species, and the habitats that support them, were created by and dependent on agricultural and forestry systems that have long gone. We try and recreate facsimiles of these systems – for what purpose? Yes many are beautiful (at least to our eyes) but are there not better ways of providing a future for nature in Britain, than looking to a past now gone?

Rewilding is one such approach – looking to create a more “natural” ecosystem, by bringing back large extinct mammals and birds. The scale needed for these systems to work is eye-watering, especially given how small and crowded these islands are: the only real options are in the uplands, which are themselves highly contested landscapes; it’s difficult to see the shooters and shepherds giving up these hard-won hills without a seemingly fitting fight to the death.

The real paradox with rewilding is that it is people who need rewilding, far more than land. Until people rediscover just how much benefit they derive from nature, nature will always struggle to be recognized. I don’t mean benefits as framed by the economists language of ecosystem services, let alone natural capital.

Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital frame nature in terms of economic gains, profit and loss, financial risk. Investors will only be interested in the aspects of nature that can be quantified, commodified, monetized. Everything else will be thrown into a pot labeled “nice if” and ignored. So the carbon locked up in a forest, or the water that could cause downstream flooding, will shine brightly from the natural capital balance sheet and profit and loss account. The beauty a child sees in the flap of a butterfly’s wings will not even register.

The benefits of nature that really count for people are the things that create sensory, emotional and spiritual connections with nature. Few people are interested in nature because of facts or statistics. People are interested in and develop connection with nature through personal experience, and if not personal experience, through sharing stories about other people’s personal experiences.

Most of us in nature conservation (not landscape conservation) have tended to downplay the importance of stories and emotions, let alone spiritual connections with nature. We focus on this rare species, or that “important” habitat or that this place is very diverse; or that tonne of peat sequesters so many tonnes of Carbon Dioxide. Is this displacement activity on our part? These facts and figures mean very little to most normal people. They probably make very little difference to politicians either, who are mainly concerned about what the normal people who vote for them care about.

How do we get more people interested in nature? We need to focus our efforts on nature where people live. Is there much point in encouraging people to drive from their homes to a nature reserve, so they can empty their dog there? Great for the dog, but better to ensure that there is plenty of high quality nature in their local park, which they can see every day. Better to work to get really good large areas of “wild” land incorporated into new housing developments.

We need to work to incorporate nature into everyone’s everyday lives. And this is the crux: it’s not “rare” nature that counts. It’s common nature – street trees, green roofs, colourful flowers in planters on street pavements, turning boring amenity grassland parks into riots of colour.

We also need to change the language we use – it’s too late to stop the demise of the semi-natural (outside of a few museum piece reserves or patches of landscape).

We should mourn its passing, create ceremonies to remember it, in the way we remember the fallen of wars on Remembrance day.

We need to start talking positively about nature and what it means to people, celebrating the joy and wonder that nature provides us with, the inspiration it provides for art, music and writing. And we need to start talking seriously about the spiritual value of nature to people.

This is what we will be doing through People Need Nature ( People Need Nature is a new charity, which will be highlighting the value of nature to people for its spiritual value, for things like the inspiration it provides to writers, artists, musicians – indeed all of us. And it will promote the value of nature in the public realm, where nature is accessible for everyone. We will be working with individuals and communities across England and Wales on projects to celebrate nature and also carrying out research and advocating the importance of nature to people for its sensory, emotional and spiritual values.

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.
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21 Responses to Nature Conservation: barking up the wrong tree?

  1. Ian Whittaker says:

    There are many points here that I agree with, particularly about improving the nature of the environment where people live. This applies in rural as well as urban areas as much of our countryside, while pretty, is a biological desert. Nature is about more than pounds & pence and I applaud the aims of People Need Nature. I am not a spiritual person but the wonder and awe of constantly getting to know and enjoy nature is something I’d be far worse off without. But it also makes economic sense in the longer term to protect the world’s bio-diversity and the environment that is inextricably linked to that. Most conservationists – we must think of a better label than that to reflect the true aims of those who want to make the world a better place for all to live in sustainably – nowadays understand that saving the panda, tiger or hen harrier is a proxy for protecting the environment. We can’t do one without the other. Alone, nature reserves, re-wilding or invigorating a love and passion for nature will not do the trick. We have to continue to make the case that there are longer term economic benefits whether that is on a global or local scale. Part of that means challenging those who dismiss “conservationists” as tree-hugging townies out of touch with the realities of life in our countryside, or food production or just making a living. The irony is, the opposite is mostly true. We can come up with better ways of farming our land that are good for the economy and the environment; we can demonstrate that intensive management of land for shooting is not sustainable or economically sound; and that there are more environmentally friendly ways of predator control. But to do so, we have to be able to understand the costs and benefits and what that means for people in practical terms and get that message across. It means we should always have an eye on the big picture and the fact that everything is connected in our environment so we can make more effective interventions. For the “ordinary” person, whether on the street or in the country lane, showing the wonder of nature is a must but I suggest “conservation” will only work if we present its widest benefits so it becomes second nature. Everybody is a conservationist then.

  2. Katherine says:

    With Ian, I also disagree with parts of this post. But first, I’d like to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that we need to bring nature back to the places people use in their daily lives – the urban green spaces that are often just a scrap of grass with the odd tree at the boundaries. It scares me how many of my friends think there’s just one species of grass! Increasing the number of people exposed to the joy of spotting a song thrush or hedgehog is absolutely crucial.

    However, I don’t think this should be at the expense (no pun intended!) of the natural capital agenda. We need both approaches. Yes, people tend to be more motivated to protect nature when they enjoy it and love spending time in it. But business, planning, and other large decisions tend not to be made on that basis. At that scale, you need to be able to build a business case for spending money on nature (or for not making money by protecting nature rather than building on it). And for that, we need natural capital valuation.

    I don’t disagree that natural capital valuation will be difficult, controversial, and will sometimes get it completely wrong (we’re only human, after all). But to have a system (as we do at present) where nature is not valued at all in decision-making has led to, as you say, absolutely everything being thrown into “a pot labeled “nice if” and ignored”. At least with natural capital, habitats and ecosystems are likely to have a greater chance of being protected and consequently support the butterflies and other species that will inspire the next generation.

  3. Miles King says:

    This is a comment from Donal McCarthy at RSPB (in a personal capacity): These comments are transferred across from twitter so it may appear a bit disjointed.

    Legal protection has been v. successful in reducing loss of most wildlife sites relative to what would have happened without it. What has happened outside of protected sites is not due to a lack of effort by conservation organisations. The initial focus of 20th century conservationists was rightly on saving the most irreplaceable sites. UK species and habitats not “created by” traditional farming/forestry, but many got on better than they do now thanks to the less intensive methods used in the past. Rare/threatened species and wildlife-rich habitats are important to many ‘normal’ people, contrary to what this article claims. Related concepts of Ecosystem Services/natural capital not limited to those aspects of human well-being/nature relationship that can be monetized. Statement about abandoning remaining semi-natural habitat is defeatist and dangerous. Might as well give up on conservation. More effort needed to make nature more accessible, but doesn’t have to be at expense of our most wildlife-rich sites. Statement about abandoning remaining semi-natural habitat is defeatist and dangerous.

    Might as well give up on conservation.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks for your comments Donal. Of course I have written this piece to elicit debate and so I’m delighted to receive your comments, however critical. it’s also worth bearing in mind that I had a 1000 word limit so that inevitably curtailed some of the reasoning behind statements that may appear rather bald. In fact, pretty much everything I have writtein in this piece appears elsewhere in other blogs posts.

      You make a number of points which appear to contradict things I have written, but actually don’t appear in the article eg about legal protection. Nor did I suggest that the loss of nature ourtside protected areas was due to a lack of effort by conservation organisations.

      Nor did I suggest (anywhere) abandoning remaining areas of semi-natural habitat. We should cherish the places that are left, accepting that they are tiny vestiges of what once was ubiquitous; but be clear-minded about the fact that we are never going to return to those past landscapes. We need to look forward to how people can live with nature, in nature, but in different ways.

      Perhaps I worded it badly, but semi-natural habitats are, by definition, created by the interaction between human activity (over thousands of years) and wildlife. And the wildlife that, until recently, thrived in those conditions, was pre-adapted to do so. So in that sense, historic farming forestry and other human activities created the conditions for a particular group of species to predominate. I accept that, for birds, rare or threatened species are important to many people. But that is in part because of the way that rarity is defined, but to a much larger extent reflects the asymmetric interest in birds, compared with the other 99.9% of species native to the UK.

      I have written widely about Ecosystem Services, Natural Capital and monetization, so you can get a more in depth feeling for my views elsewhere on this blog.

  4. Donal says:

    I’ve re-ordered below my comments on some of the points made in this article:

    (i) Legal protection has been extremely successful in reducing loss of most wildlife sites relative to what would have happened without it. What has happened outside of protected sites is not due to a lack of effort by conservation organisations. The initial focus of 20th century conservationists was rightly on saving the most irreplaceable sites…without those efforts, very little at all of interest would be left.

    (ii) UK species and habitats were not “created by” traditional farming/forestry, but many got on better than they do now thanks to the less intensive methods used in the past.

    (iii) Rare/threatened species and wildlife-rich habitats are important to many ‘normal’ people, contrary to what this article claims.

    (iv) The statement about abandoning remaining semi-natural habitat is defeatist and dangerous. If that is the approach, we might as well give up on the whole idea of conservation. I agree that more effort needed to make nature more accessible and to tell positive stories, but doesn’t have to be at expense of our most wildlife-rich sites

    (v) The related concepts of ecosystem services/natural capital are not limited to those aspects of human well-being/nature relationship that can be monetized.

  5. PNN will be a useful initiative I’m sure, however the main reason for the loss of biodiversity in developed countries has been agricultural intensification.

  6. dayetucker2011 says:

    Ironic that here in Scotland a land grab by rewilders is threatened. Yet years ago our ex Environment Minister Mike Russell who had moved to the post of Education Minister embedded Citizen Science into our schools and communities. His objective was to ensure a culture of local care and appreciation of our local environments as early as possible and on a continuing basis. A sense of local ownership would lead to respect for and care of our local environments. The vision was also that this would lead to a closer link with all things natural whilst also building a central data base of information collected by local people.
    The Central Scotland Green Network, is one of 7 National Projects and also links communities with their natural environment. The vision for the CSGN was to transform the dying industrial landscape blighting the Central Belt and improving the lives and health of the majority who live there. Tree planting, path creation, landscaping, community projects and more form a major part of the CSGN, but all link people more closely with their natural environment.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks very much Daye. Hopefully with as much space available, there is room for some rewilding as well as bringing nature and people closer together where they live.

  7. Steve Hallam says:

    Hi Miles. I thought I’d be in a minority of one, but find that Ian and Kate’s views are broadly in line with mine. It seems to me that the thinking behind People Need Nature is spot on, and I hope this initiative is successful – the more that we can get people emotionally engaged with the nature all around them, the better for both them and nature (I spent a happy afternoon yesterday watching the various species of tit empty my garden seed feeder). I also totally agree with your views about the importance of personal experience and story telling.

    But at the same time, as you know, I think that an effective way to put a ‘price’ on the value of nature (and I appreciate that we’re a long way from this at present) will strengthen its perceived value when government is taking the tricky and messy trade-off decisions that it has to do. So I guess that puts me in the natural capital camp. I actually see the two approaches (pseudo-economic and emotional engagement) as complimentary, not alternatives.

    Where it appears that you and I are a long way apart is in our views about what it is in nature that can / should be priced. Specifically this is the viability (and, perhaps, legitimacy) of trying to put a price on the emotional experience of engaging with nature. There’s a consistent stream in your writings that indicates to me that you feel that the joy of experiencing nature is something that cannot (should not?) be ‘degraded’ by having a price attached to it. Therefore the only benefits of nature that you think can / should be priced are obvious economic benefits such as carbon sequestration, water capture, and so on.

    But in my view there are already many examples of where an essentially emotional experience is priced very successfully – the theatre, sports games, theme parks, concerts and so on. Purely from the aspect of the emotional impact on the person experiencing each one of these, I don’t see how they are fundamentally different to experiencing nature. In fact, putting aside all the ethical issues, zoos arguably straddle the divide between nature and any other leisure experience. And all of these are priced. So I don’t see any fundamental objection in principle to putting a price on the benefit of nature that covers not only its economic benefits, but also its (almost certainly greater) ones of human joy. Perhaps not in my lifetime, in practice, though!

  8. Hi Miles, I enjoyed this article – and the well considered comments resulting from the debate. I’d love to know anyone’s thoughts on quantifying nature in a different way that will ultimately benefit conservation in the long run.

    I don’t have a conservation background and I can’t tell you how many types of grass there are. But as a mum of three, I can tell you that the kids are where we need to be focusing our efforts.

    I work for The Wild Network and we are focusing our efforts, as are many larger NGOs and partners, such as Woodland Trusts, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, RSPB, on children’s everyday wildness.

    On an everyday level we do need to place a value on nature, which allows parents to give children the time outside that they need. This lack of nature is a huge, systemic problem, with so many issues, from stranger danger, to education, health, car/traffic concerns, right through to tech. But most often the kids do want to play outside. It’s their busy schedules, their ‘quantifiable’ additional maths lessons, or similar.

    As others rightly point out, above, we can find nature anywhere even in the cracks in the pavements, but getting people to do so is the hard part. Getting families to slow down is difficult. So many parents drive not simply because of safety, but because they have activities scheduled on other sides of the town that mean walking isn’t viable within their busy days.

    But getting parents to understand that walking to school through a green belt, or via the park, is as important for your kids as that ballet class, or football club, is very hard. We fight with our schedules every day. If we could somehow quantify to parents that 15 minutes a day of Wild Time equated to an extra 15% at GCSE English, we’d have the problem solved! There would be queues for the woods!

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks very much Natalie. I’m looking forward to meeting Mark next week to talk about how we can work together. I agree we need to develop ways to value nature other than in monetary terms – perhaps we need a campaign to redefine natural capital in these other ways.

      I was walking back from the shops yesterday through our local green space and was delighted to see a mum and her two children there (with the dog) – the children were having a great time trying to climb up what had become rather a muddy slope and were very muddy themselves. The mum was jokingly saying to them “I can’t walk with you two looking like that!”. They were all having a lovely time. That’s what we need more of.

      • dayetucker2011 says:

        Every school should have a Forest Schools Trained teacher. Forestry Commission Education Initiative. Outdoor Education.

  9. ashmoonfruit says:

    Great article. I hope all this stuff is widely and strongly supported. But, I think our efforts are futile. Worthwhile, inherently, but futile. I’m reminded of George Carlin’s words about the civil rights movement. He’s talking about violent revolution, but if you imagine that he’s talking about natural disasters stopping our species in it’s tracks (which he also did), then it fits well:

    “If I had to say to you what is the answer is, I would say massive bloodshed. I really would. I don’t really, honestly, deep down believe in political action. I think the system contracts and expands as it wants to. It accommodates these changes.” … “So… the only way you cure that… death, bloodshed… I don’t advocate it… but I see that it’s really the only answer.”

    I don’t advocate or look forward to it either, but it’s not my or humanity’s opinion that counts. Nature has the final say.

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