The most unnatural conservation policy possible


The European scene for wildland is so much more fertile than here in Britain (see Wild Europe (1)) with its better sense of wildland, the extant populations of large carnivores (2) and the visions of continental-scale ecological connectivity. The conservation industry will say this has little relevance for Britain, but they are just the little people of the moment. I can reach back into the recent past, and find far greater visionaries than them.

One such was Frank Fraser Darling. He studied for a PhD at Edinburgh during the early 1930s on fleece development in Blackface sheep, travelling the Highlands and Islands for his research. He later won a small fellowship to study red deer in Wester Ross, and in 1937 his book ‘A Herd of Red Deer’ was published. Moving to Priest Island off Wester Ross, he studied the social behaviour of gulls, and he went on to do the same for seals. He also began to develop ideas on how derelict farm land in the West Highlands could be brought back into production (3).

In 1947, he completed the Collins New Naturalist volume ‘Natural History of the Highlands and Islands’ and he was invited to direct ‘The West Highland Survey’. He saw that detailed report as 'an essay in human ecology’ (4) but the independent and unorthodox opinions he expressed were not well received. At a time when government wanted to maximise production, Darling saw that the Highlands and Islands were “a devastated landscape”, and that there was an urgent need for restoration before humans could sustainably use the land, a theme he would often return to during later work in North America, Mexico, and Africa.

The unpalatable message of “a devastated landscape” - and of a “wet desert”, another description of Scotland ascribed to Darling - are often taken issue with. That there has been a much richer ecosystem in Scotland is beyond dispute when set against the range of extinctions that are only now being redressed through the reinstatement of such as the sea eagle (5) and beaver (6). Darling foresaw that need in Wilderness and Plenty, his Reith lecture series in 1969, when as well as protecting what was left of the worlds relatively untouched areas, he said there was a need for the rehabilitation of the existing degraded environments in which so many people live (7). He was talking about wilderness by then, recognising the reality that “Most people will never know true wilderness although its existence will not be a matter of indifference to them”. His sense of what those wilderness environments could bring was evidenced by his acceptance that it was a moral obligation “to ease out the living space and replace dereliction with beauty

While in Alaska in 1952, Darling worked with Starker Leopold in undertaking an ecological reconnaissance to assess the potential impact of economic growth and technology on the natural resources of that territory (8). Starker was the son of Aldo Leopold, the latter considered by many as the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system (9). The influence on Darling of the Leopolds – father and son - and that of the landscapes in which they traveled, can be seen in the vision of wilderness in this paragraph from the Reith lectures, which is certainly worthy of the father himself:
“The ecologist sees the decline of the great natural buffer of wilderness as an element of our danger. Natural wilderness is a factor for world stability, not some remote place inimical to the human being. It is strange that it has been so long a place of fear to many men and something to hate and destroy. Wilderness is not remote or indifferent, but an active agent in maintaining a habitable world, though the cooperation is unconscious”

Foretelling a better future

A few years later, in 1976, ornithologist Bruce Campbell was invited to write about the prospect for wildlife in Britain 50 years in to the future. To my surprise, he identified back then many of the contemporary characteristics of ecological connectivity and rewilding (10).

Campbell began by lauding the recommendations of a report from 1974, sponsored by the Countryside Commission, which had traced the changes that modern farming had been making to the landscape of lowland England (11). The report had quantified the loss of farmland trees, concluding that the quality of farmed landscapes could be improved by planting up unproductive areas with trees, such as steep slopes, damp patches, stream banks and soil boundaries. The recommendation in the report that the new planting could be linked to existing valuable features to form a network of tree or shrub cover and wildlife habitat in the landscape, is a prophetic forerunner for the concept of ecological connectivity.

He thought it was vitally important that there should be no further loss of broad-leaf tree cover in lowland England and, wherever possible, it should be increased. He mentioned the positive outcomes for the value of woodland in the landscape of the Wytham Wood survey, a long term study of a large, ancient woodland near Oxford. The study talked about the high faunal diversity of woodland habitat, demonstrating to Campbell that “no further proof” was required for this functional re-vegetation of farm landscapes. He proposed as well large areas of woodland in the “bare hills of the north” alongside retained areas of moorland and bogland. His hope was that after the 50 years of his forecast, the relative proportion of open country to woodland would have been worked out in a national plan.

Campbell also mused on the potential of reintroducing lost species such as beaver, wild boar and “conceivably wolf, which could be a natural control if red deer became too numerous”. He was thus foretelling the release of beaver in Argyll last year (6), and also recent journal articles speculating on the reintroduction of wolves to the Highlands of Scotland and their potential effect on deer numbers and behaviour (12, 13).

It is difficult to know how Campbell’s views would have been received back then. I’m not even sure how formed the conservation industry was. However, if we shift forward through the 80s, it appears the rot set in when it was realised that fencing off areas to protect them from people disturbing the flora and fauna, also took away the extractive land use that created the artificial landscapes in the first place, and in which this odd nature value was found (14). Thus it was regarded that the only places where non-intervention worked, was on the seashore, the odd mountain top area, and cliffs and ravines, where natural forces held sway in what are primary habitats. These were areas outside of extractive use. In all other “protected areas” the artificial or secondary habitats relied on livestock grazing or other forms of extractive use such as coppicing or mowing (i.e. a surrogate for hay cropping). It is thus a tragedy to me that in order to study say natural woodland processes, you would have to find a ravine somewhere that had been difficult to extractively exploit or manage. Campbell's vision still has 15 years to be brought to fruition, but it is hard to see at the moment it being implemented under current conservation dogma.

How we are seen

We can get an outsiders view of this approach to nature conservation that developed in Britain from a rare opportunity provided by Norman Henderson. He wrote an article that took a look at wildland and nature conservation in Britain through the eyes of someone with experience of the American and Canadian situation. Dr Henderson, a Canadian, is Executive Director of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan (15). However, in the early 90s, he lectured in environmental economics at the University of East Anglia in the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE). While there, he wrote a discussion paper, subsequently published in Ambio, that revealed striking differences in conservation purpose, and in interpretation of what is natural (16). In Britain he believed, diversity, historicism, and a concern for favoured species had been the driving forces behind a conservation ethic dominated by environmental manipulation and intervention management. Concern for conservation in North America usually expressed itself instead in exhortations not to interfere with natural processes, the outcome often symbolised by wilderness.

Henderson believed that although "wilderness" was difficult to define precisely, it was commonly regarded to be a place where natural processes governed environmental change and man was at most a spectator or visitor. Wilderness was thus visualized in opposition to civilization, as an antithesis but, when viewed positively, as a compliment to the physical and social structures of man. He saw a continuum with wilderness and civilization as opposing endpoints.

When considering the role and value of wilderness, Henderson thought it difficult to demonstrate that wilderness was a necessary component in the full health of an individual or nation. However, if that could not be demonstrated, it could instead be reasonably postulated that some proper balance of civilization and wilderness was desirable. Thus he opined that many American conservationists would be disappointed to see that people in Britain seemed not to suffer any serious signs of wilderness deprivation:
“If they are deprived, they are certainly not concerned about it”

This then was the core difference in attitude that he identified between Britain, Canada and the United States. Wilderness had not recently existed in Britain and therefore had not been a domestic ideological factor. On the other hand, wilderness had been perceived as threatened and valuable by an increasing number of people in the United States since the 1890s, whereas wilderness had been perceived as superabundant until recently in Canada.

Henderson took a quote from the American Conservation Foundation that reflected on the works of the great wilderness advocates Muir, Olmstead and Leopold, and which was a caution about the historical loss of wildness:
"The most frightening vision these writers conjured up was the prospect that, because these special places [wilderness and natural areas] influence us in ways we don't even fully understand, their disappearance might even cause future generations to lose the capacity even to know what they are missing"

Henderson argued that this was the situation in Britain, that we may increasingly not know what we are missing, and we certainly will never know if the overwhelming conservation approach is to manage out the dynamism of natural processes.

It bears repeating that Henderson regarded the “British compulsion” to intervention management, “complete with justifications”, as anathema to Canada or America. It went to what he diagnosed as the dissonance between that management approach and the wildness of land. He remarked that “as the natural world is nothing if not dynamic, the British predilection to maintain environments in a steady state could legitimately be viewed as the most unnatural conservation policy possible”

He also believed that the British injected confusion into conservation issues by pretending that certain manmade features in the landscape - the much touted cultural dimension of those features aesthetically in favour - were somehow "natural" in order to legitimise their protection. Amongst those favoured features would be field hedges or sheep, or inorganic and completely unnatural elements such as stone barns and walls. He warned that it was only a small step from that to the widely held view that farmers themselves are "natural" elements of the landscape. Thus he considered that the term "natural" in Britain was applied to whatever object, species, or landscape the speaker wanted, very much with reference to the particular point in time that suited them.

Henderson finished by observing that voices of dissent from the consensus in Britain on nature management were rare, and that the proprietary of nature conservation by manipulation was not questioned. While his point of view of the British approach to nature conservation was distinctly challenging to its dogma, this should not obscure his equally important message, that an experience of wildland in Britain was only as good as the wildland itself – in Britain, we risk being content about our experience of wildland, but in the absence of any informing contrast.

I contacted Norman Henderson to see whether he still held those views. He maintained that the lesson from conservation practice in North America is that active landscape manipulation, the default conservation approach in Britain, is not automatically necessary, and that there is a deep-seated bias in Britain to "manage" what need not always be managed:
“Landscapes and ecosystems can get along quite well without a tinkering, gardening, hand! I was amused in Britain at the contorted rationalisations people sometimes engaged in to try and cover up what were really simply cultural or personal landscape preferences with an aura of scientific conservationism”

Protecting wild nature from dogma

For too long, the nature conservation industry has dominated the approach in Britain towards nature protection, and Norman Henderson is right that voices of dissent from the consensus are rare. But the burgeoning conflicts between local people and arrogant heavy-handed conservation dogma has exposed just how self-interested the conservation industry is. The real problem is that we don’t have a sense of a national system of protected areas in Britain, as they do elsewhere, and the national strategy is pretty much to leave everything to the decisions and actions of the conservation industry. That also just isn’t the case in the rest of Europe as a recent example from France shows.

In the summer of 2007, the French President launched le Grenelle Environnement, where State and civil society combined between July and October in public debate, workshops and roundtable discussions to define the key points of public policy on ecology and sustainable development, and develop a five-year roadmap for the future. Government, local authorities, trade unions, business and voluntary sectors, where all involved and the outcome was to set ambitious goals that included (17)

  • Creating a green belt network (green corridors) and a blue belt network (waterways and bodies of water, together with surrounding areas of vegetation).

  • Develop a national strategy on protected areas and open three new national parks.

It should be noted that National Parks in Europe are totally different than those in Britain as their aim is to protect whole ecosystems as wild areas, not just stick a ring around farmland on map as they are here. What is important about these roundtable discussions is that those two goals were subsequently incorporated into the action plan of the national strategy for biodiversity, evidence of the power of the process when ordinary people are involved (18):


1-1 Protect key elements of the national ecological network

1.1.4 - Complete the network of 9 national parks through the creation of three new national parks: Mediterranean, lowland hardwood forest, wetland”

Another example of a process of engagement leading towards a strategic plan for ecology and sustainable development has arisen in Wales this year after Jane Davidson, the Environment Minister, released a written statement in which she said she wanted to (19)
“work with all our partners to develop a new Natural Environment Framework. In order to carry out this work we will build on existing strong and positive collaborative partnerships by working closely with the public, business and voluntary sector”

The Minister saw this as a means to find new ways to meet the challenging targets for 2010 set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, which Wales like many others had failed to meet. The Welsh Assembly Government was therefore going to take the opportunity over the coming year to fundamentally refresh the approach to Biodiversity and Nature Conservation by reviewing the ways in which the Wales Assembly Government was currently tackling aims and objectives.

By the end of 2010, a Natural Environment Framework (NEF) would be published that would outline the new ways in which the challenges would be addressed. The NEF is being drafted with input from a wide range of stakeholders in Wales and it is intended that it will be available for consultation with the general public in September 2010 when a major conference on biodiversity would be held. In the meantime, an open session took place recently in Cardiff where people were welcome to give their views.

Prior to that meeting in Cardiff, a “narrative” had been written by the Welsh Assembly Government Natural Environment Framework Programme Team, and was circulated amongst NGOs as the basis for ongoing discussion. It took a rather utilitarian, anthropomorphic approach to nature protection in terms of what benefits it has for us, but it highlighted the need for a new approach (20):
“We need to be able to harness the public’s desire for the services the environment provides with the programmes of action we undertake to conserve our ‘natural capital’, including the ‘keystones’ of ecosystems: biodiversity, soils, water etc. To do this we need to bring forward a clear focus on conserving the valued benefits, rather than simply the components, of ecosystems and put a new emphasis on the ecosystem as a whole, rather than its components”

The consideration of whole ecosystems is, of course, the antithesis of the traditional focus of biodiversity in Britain. Thus to secure underlying resilience there would be a need to move the focus away from processes and targets that gave species and habitats priority on the basis of their rarity and decline, the conservation dogma, since that would not be a good way to prioritise species essential to ecosystem function.

It is interesting to note that the Ministry for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality in the Netherlands reached a similar conclusion a few years ago (21). In a policy paper, a new approach for conservation was announced that focused on groups of protected species in their habitat rather than on individual species, as was the practice. They had realised that the single species policy did not always prove effective. The new habitat-based approach was about a protection regime that benefits a range of species. It would be targeted at habitats supporting a number of threatened species which makes it much more effective, and many more, less endangered species were likely to benefit as well

One of the key questions in the narrative paper for the NEF was whether enough was known to be able to identify the “keystone” species and habitats that underlie Welsh ecosystem function and resilience. How far did the present large numbers of priority species and habitats in the UKBAP meet this need, if at all, and if not how could it be ensured that the right species were being identified and acted on? The example was given in Wales of western oak woods, complex systems in which threatened species such as pied flycatchers, may or may not be as critical to ecosystem health as are the oak trees themselves.

I found this narrative compelling reading, if only that it broke the mould of conservation dogma, that the “priority” species had to be maximised in managed landscapes. Instead, it was hoped for a move towards a whole ecosystem approach rather than species and habitats, and hopefully this will be thoughtfully discussed during the deliberative process that has been set intrain by the Wales Assembly Government. There is the question of pre-emption, that the public will be consulted on a document drawn up by “experts”, rather than the experts advising the public when they are called upon. This is not a subtle distinction when considering that the UKBAP was solely derived from expert opinion, and as such had very little claim to be representative of public will.

If Wales can do this (properly), then so can we all. Carry on as we are, then the children of the future in Britain will only know wild nature as a field full of sheep.

Mark Fisher 3 July 2010

(1) Wild Europe, Self-willed land, June 2009

(2) Large carnivores know no boundaries: The European populations of large carnivores at a glance, Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, IUCN/SSC

(3) Frank Fraser Darling, Biographies, Highland Naturalists

(4) Darling FF (1955) West Highland survey. An essay in human ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford

(5) East Scotland Sea Eagles, RSPB

(6) Official Home of the Scottish Beaver Trial

(7) Wilderness and Plenty: The 1969 Reith lectures, Frank Fraser Darling, BBC 1970. ISBN:0563092815.

(8) Aldo Starker Leopold - A Biographical Memoir by Robert McCabe National Academy of Sciences, 1990

(9) The Leopold legacy, The Aldo Leopold Foundation

(10) Campbell, B. 1976. The prospect for wildlife, in Future Landscapes, MacEwan, M. (ed), Chatto & Windus ISBN 0-7011-2170 x

(11) Westmacott R, Worthington T, 1974 New Agricultural Landscapes CCP76, Countryside Commission Publications ISBN-13: 978-0902590175

(12) Nilsen, E.B., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Schofield, L., Mysterud, A., Stenseth, N.C., Coulson, T., 2007. Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Series B, Biological Sciences 274, 995–1002.

(13) Manning, Adrian D.; Gordon, Iain J.; and Ripple, William J. Restoring landscapes of fear with wolves in the Scottish Highlands Biological Conservation 2009. 142: 2314-2321

(14) Peter Marren, 2002. Nature Conservation. A review of the conservation of wildlife in Britain 1950-2001. Harper Collins

(15) Staff Profiles, Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative

(16) Henderson, N. 1992. Wilderness and the Nature Conservation Ideal: Britain, Canada, and the United States Contrasted. Ambio 21: 394-399

(17) Environment Round Table: Initial conclusions, le Grenelle Environnement special issue/November 2007, Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Spatial Planning, France

(18) Action Plan for Natural Heritage: 2nd programming period 2008 to 2010, National strategy for biodiversity, Department of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Spatial Planning, France April 2009

(19) Submission from the Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing, Scrutiny of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Environment Strategy and Implementation, SC(3)-12-10 Paper 1 : 26 May 2010

(20) The Natural Environment Framework for Wales: Narrative 2, Natural Environment Framework Programme Team, Biodiversity and nature Conservation, Welsh Assembly Government June 2010 – contact Diana Reynolds, (ESH - ECM) Diana.Reynolds@Wales.GSI.Gov.UK

(21) The habitat-based approach - A new species policy, Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Netherlands 2007