The British Conservation Model: irrational, unambitious and afraid of nature?

A couple of years ago the Linnean Society brought together George Monbiot, Clive Hambler, Miles King and Aidan Lonergan from the RSPB, to discuss and debate future options for British conservation. The debate, including q&a lasted about an hour but is well worth a watch. It may be nearly two years out of date but the issues it covers, including rewilding, engaging children with the natural world and the fundamental question of how best to ‘manage’ conservation policy, are still very much relevant and in the eyes of those interested (sadly it’s probably going too far to say ‘in the public eye’).

Monbiot’s views are well known, outlined in countless articles in the guardian, in speeches and in his 2013 book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. He is an energetic speaker and steadfast in his views although it is good to see Miles keeping him in check now and then with the occasional case made for heathland landscapes and the value of certain species that contemporary conservation practice protects. Clive Hambler’s presentation is rapid and all encompassing but stick with it as there is some good stuff he engages with (I had to pause at times as I went through making notes!). Aidan Lonergan is, perhaps predictably, more supportive of the status quo and makes a good case for current practices but it is still overwhelmingly clear that change of some sort is required.

Some of my favourite phrases/points from this debate:

”Conservationists are afraid of nature”  (Monbiot)

”We are approaching the end of the age of the semi-natural” (King)

‘We sometimes suffer from cultural amnesia – our uplands always used to be places of industry’ (King)

‘We are losing a species a month in Britain’ (Hambler)

‘We need to assess what we mean by favourable condition’ (Monbiot)

‘Our nature reserves should be hubs from which we can build’ (Monbiot)

‘Why pay farmers to manage grass margins around arable fields which will be ploughed up in a few years?! We should spend money elsewhere for better biodiversity results’ (King)

‘We need to rewild our children’ (Monbiot)

‘Lawton should have called his report ‘Making PLACES for nature’ not ‘space for nature’ (King)

In addition, there were some super points from the floor involving subjects as wide as vegetarianism, how to best engage with landowners and education.

Personally I continue to have great hope for the future of conservation despite the many challenges we face and the near continually depressing figures recorded regarding the relative health of our native species and habitats. What we require is a degree of rewilding as well as a national conversation regarding how we manage our land and our landscapes. Understanding needs to improve and engagement and application need to take place on a local level, with local people engaged with projects in their own areas. We need to think big as well as acting in a targeted and effective way that involves as many people as possible. There are numerous people doing some fantastic projects to benefit the natural world and the communities that benefit from a healthy natural world. We should not be too pessimistic and ignore this good work.

I would not go as far as saying that the British conservation model is irrational nor are conservationists ‘afraid of nature’. However, I agree that the current British conservation model is unambitious. We need a vision that encompasses an image of how we want to see and use the British landscape in a way that conserves the natural world and improves its vitality.

To engage with A Focus on Nature‘s ‘Vision for Nature’ campaign click here.

2 thoughts on “The British Conservation Model: irrational, unambitious and afraid of nature?

  1. Thanks Ben. I think there is definitely fear out there – even paranoia. Look at the resitance to re-introducing beavers in Argyl. One landowner complained they will eat all the fish. If only that could happen then Britain could claim to have a newly evolved mammal to make up for all the ones we have sent into exile or extinction.

    We have got to think big like Monbiot and push the boundaries. But we must also think left field: e.g. ‘when in a hole keep digging’ – we need quarries and more quarries – to build the new houses whose absence is a national disgrace. Quarries= abandoned holes in the ground = some of the wildest spots in the countryside (that’s before planners had the hideous and absurd idea to landscape them)

  2. Beavers of course would eventually benefit the aquatic environment downstream of their dams which are well known for their filtering and purifying effects. This process is aided by the reed and swamp vegetation that develops where the animals have slowed up stream and river flow. Having seen their work in Norway it is clear that the European beaver creates wilderness areas (in this case wilderness within forest wilderness). Here fish thrive. There are also many unusual semi- aquatic and terrestrial plants which celebrate the sunlit glades along with hordes of invertebrates amongst the felled willows and birches where these natural foresters have been harvesting for bark fodder and building material.
    One of the most important results of Monbiot’s vision is to release the imagination and try to get us to reconnect with our stone-age past which is not that old (an hour ago in evolutionary time). And if we look to places like Romania we can see modern man alongside a semi-wild countryside with bears approaching the edge of towns; lynx, wolves etc. not far away and beavers doing their flood control and water purifying work along the rivers; all very sophisticated and all driven by their voracious chewing and eating habits.
    Indeed beavers are something to be feared if they were to suddenly mutate into carnivores.

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