Exploring the Ethics of Conservation and Farming

Wareham Forest

This weekend I was walking through Wareham Forest, an area of woodland and open heathland in Dorset, with a good friend of mine and we pondered many questions, something I enjoy doing when walking. These discussions led me to think about the ethical implications of what I have chosen to do in life. As someone wearing two distinct hats in terms of interest – farming and conservation – many of the decisions I will make now and in the future will have distinct ethical considerations, sometimes set against each other. It is true that all decisions, no matter the subject, have ethical implications but they all have their own distinct flavour and when it comes to the environment there are a whole host of specific implications which need to be considered. Environmental ethics is a field of study in its own right and this post will only touch on some of the issues that the field engages with. The point of it is personal reflection, not to analyse a whole field.

Nonetheless, it may be useful to first of all briefly explore the background to environmental ethics. The first major environmental philosophers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir – all Americans (although the Scots may claim Muir as one of their own) and figures who I garnered a fascination for during my undergraduate days at Bristol. Leopold’s position suggested that we should ‘maintain the integrity and complexity of systems for sustained use’ (Hambler, 2004). According to him diversity is a necessity and we break it at our peril. Furthermore, we would be committing a crime of time and stealing from future generations. Another position may point to a more utilitarian perspective, arguing that the environment should sustain the greatest number of humans (and non-humans) for the greatest amount of time. Future generations could again be held in high regard using this perspective. Another might look at things in a purely aesthetic manner – that natural beauty in the eyes of the individual should be sufficient reason to conserve a place.

Biodiverse alpine flora

From a personal perspective, when thinking about how landscapes or habitats are managed (for example how my family manage our 1000 acres of Essex countryside) the ethical considerations explained above must be considered. Any land management decision has implications in the short and longer terms upon a multitude of species. They also have implications in terms of yields and food production which in a farmed landscape must be a key aim – ultimately farmers are food producers.

‘Does every species have an intrinsic right to exist?’

I believe that in an ideal world, from a species perspective, each and every species would have an intrinsic right to exist. However, in practice this is difficult and it is nearly impossible to ensure the survival of every species so that all survive in the longer term. What is more, biodiversity has always and will always rise and fall and what is important is the equilibrium that results from the complex associations and interactions between species, not just the survival of individual species. In fact it may be in the interests of biodiversity in the longer run if certain species (our own springs to mind) were more limited in abundance. What we can do as conservationists is work to ensure the future success of as many habitats as possible, that are as biodiverse as possible, and to construct corridors between these habitats to allow species to migrate between habitats.

‘Since the 1970s 60% of farmland species have declined in abundance and 34% have declined strongly.’

This said, the ‘rights of species’ have to be balanced against the tangible needs and rights of people living today (Hambler, 2004). People need food and one of the key things in policy makers minds (and the minds of farmers hoping that food prices will rise at some point) is a rising global human population. Would it be unethical if farmers did not produce enough food for this population? Is it their global duty to produce enough food even though this will almost certainly have wider implications on the biosphere? Difficult questions but questions which must be considered. The problem of farming is that it has a direct impact, perhaps more than any other land use, on the nature of the biological diversity of a place.

Conservation headland by an arable field - copyright Michale Trolove
Conservation headland by an arable field – copyright Michael Trolove

The exception to the above is any landscape which has been cultivated for thousands of years – ‘farmland habitats’ in their own right. In the UK, species such as lapwing, skylark, yellowhammer, brown hare, bumblebees and cornflowers can all be sustained through sensitively managed farmland. However, most (certainly not all) farmland is not managed with wildlife in mind. Since the 1970s, 60% of farmland species have declined in abundance and 34% have declined strongly (according to the State of Nature Report). Arable plants are considered the fastest declining group of plants in the UK. Another startling statistic to come out of the State of Nature report is that 62% of invertebrates on farmland habitats have decreased since 1970.

It should be said that these declines have not been seen across the board geographically and on farms that have engaged well with agri-environment schemes, particularly those that have been on targeted higher level schemes in recent years, there have been improvements, in particular some locally significant or endemic species, such as Sea Hogs Fennel in the area of my own family farm in Essex. Six metre wide uncultivated margins, conservation headlands, beetle banks, wildflower and birdseed sown fields, fallow areas, proper management of hedgerows and species targeted projects have all helped to improve the state of nature on certain farmland habitats. However, the issue has been that not enough farmers and landowners have been actively involved in these projects. The more basic schemes have not seen the results hoped for. Success will only come in broader scale projects and connecting projects together through constructed landscape corridors.

I went slightly off the point above but it hits to the heart of environmental and agricultural ethics in that how we manage land directly implicates the land manager on an ethical level. The farmer philosopher, Fred Kirschenmann, has engaged with many of these issues for a long time (far longer than I have been!) and if you have a broader interest in this subject I suggest you read his book ‘Cultivating an Ecological Conscience’, in particular his ‘theological reflections whilst castrating calves’, an essay in this work. Kirschenmann’s TED talk on soil is also certainly worth watching:

In recent years we seem to have reached an approach whereby the precautionary principle governs action. This suggests that conservation action should be delayed until all scientific doubt is resolved (Hambler, 2004). However, in the case of species extinctions we may not have the time. Action based on the best possible evidence may be the best option. Land managers working on a local level are the best people to make these decisions, based on local knowledge, knowledge of species implications and consultations with ‘experts’. By acting on a personal, local level, the ethical implications and considerations become more important as they become personal to the person making the decision.


In my ramblings I find that I am moving towards a position of ‘deep ecology’, without meaning to. ‘Deep ecology’ advocates a ‘biocentric’ position (as opposed to an anthropocentric – human centric – position) in which non-human life is given moral rights. Indeed, even landscapes and abiotic features should be respected according to the deep ecologist. In an ideal world I see benefit in this position but that is the problem – if we lived in an ideal world there would be no need to write this post! We need to balance conservation of the landscape with exploitation of the landscape to fulfil our basic human needs. The key ethical implication for human land managers is deciding when this balance has tipped too far to one side and living with the implications of that decision.

This century, the world faces two major land-use challenges: how to halt (or at least slow down) biodiversity loss and how to feed a population increasing by 75 to 85 million people each year. These issues affect not only large corporations, governments, academic and research institutions and civic institutions. They affect the individual on a personal ethical level and when that individual is directly involved in the land sector in some way the personal implications and responsibilities become very real. We should all consider these ethical implications and whilst they shouldn’t shy us away from acting in a certain way they should be considered central for moving forward.

Hambler, C., (2004) Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

3 thoughts on “Exploring the Ethics of Conservation and Farming

  1. Ben:

    Just to be clear, the Hambler reference you’ve made is:

    Hambler, C., 2004. Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

    Not finished reading yet – and have to run to something else… but I will comment on one aspect:

    ‘Does every species have an intrinsic right to exist?’ – For me this question is answered in the positive only if we also acknowledge that every species has a right to go extinct. Indeed I would argue that every species has an obligation to go extinct if it ‘loses’ in the competition that is evolution. Habitat has a value and if another species makes better use of resources and the two find themselves in direct competition for resources – the fit should survive just as the less fit must yield the field. It’s brutal, but necessary.

    Looking forward to finishing this one up. 🙂

    1. Yes, that’s the Hambler reference (apologies I didn’t list it beneath the post!). Thank you for your comment. Indeed, ‘right of extinction’ – an interesting way of putting it – is important to acknowledge.

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