REFLECTIONS: What Wildlife Needs And How To Provide It
Pelagic Publishing, 2023, 193 pages
Paperback: £19.70 | ISBN: 9781784273903
Review by Edward Grierson
In the world of conservation, Mark Avery has a reputation as a pugilist. He’s happy to engage with subjects that others are hesitant to approach; and not just engage with them but confront them head-on. Avery is uncompromising with the positions he takes, willing to go further than many conservation organisations. Fighting for Birds, hist first book, was uncompromising in its suggestions that the RSPB drop the ‘royal’ part of its charter. A Message from Martha, his second book, boldly explained how our turtle dove could end up like the passenger pigeon. And of course his third book, Inglorious, was forthright in its critique of grouse shooting, and its call to ban the sport.
This approach has earned him a lot of detractors, including conservationists who style themselves as moderates. But his positions are clearly informed by his decades of experience in conservation. Radicals like Avery are needed – they stretch the arguments and the strength of feeling, allowing the moderates to negotiate and seem reasonable, making headway in the messy world of conservation politics. And given the current pitiful state of Britain’s nature, some radical change is very much in order. So when Mark Avery writes a book about what nature needs and how to provide it, we should all sit up and pay attention.
In Reflections, that uncompromising honesty is there from the very first sentence. Avery lays down that “our collective response to wildlife is the sum of around 68 million people’s relationships with wildlife”. Everyone is included in the struggle to protect our declining wildlife. “Those relationships are ours…because they depend on how we allow our taxes to be spent, how we spend our money on goods and food, and the extent to which we support conservation charities to do their work”. His point is clear: the current state of nature in Britain can’t just be blamed on the Government or corporations. All of us have played a role, and we won’t get the change we want if we don’t all commit to making it happen.
Our own responsibility and influence is the thematic hook of Reflections. Avery brings things full circle at the end, imploring us to be cannier about which charities we donate to, and to be more proactive at holding them to account. He ends it by saying “engage your brain, and your muscles, and get things done”, a payoff which makes the book satisfying to read.
Avery doesn’t spend much time dwelling on his projects or his stances. He assumes that you’re familiar with these, and broadly agree with them. If you don’t, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this book. So he doesn’t go into too much detail about driven grouse shooting; he acknowledges it, briefly explains the issues, and assumes you’ve read his blogs and books on the subject.
Readers who are familiar with these views might find some parts to be shocking. His willingness to trap house mice, and his frank admission that “our attitude to wildlife can vary with circumstances”, might seem at odds with the Mark Avery we know from a career with the RSPB and befriending nature in his blogs. But it’s perfectly in keeping with the Mark Avery who advocates banning driven grouse shooting. They’re both cases of radical pragmatism. Both are motivated by a recognition of problems in the present system, and a need to make tough decisions to rectify this. This can mean setting mousetraps to keep the house rodent free or banning driven grouse shooting to create more wildlife rich uplands. This radical pragmatism is Avery’s guiding principle. It informs all the points made in Reflections, and the stances he takes outside of it.
The book also excels at breaking down the industry jargon, which Avery is fluent in from his time as a professional conservationist. We learn the difference between LNRs, NNRs, SPAs and SSSIs, as well as the different bird and nature surveys, what they tell us, and what they don’t cover. And while Avery is very informed on this subject, he’s willing to admit to gaps in his knowledge, namely insects and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, these gaps in his knowledge also lead to some of my biggest criticisms with this book. Avery admits to marine conservation not being an area of expertise, which is evident later when he lists our marine protected areas as a great conservation success. It’s an assessment I can’t agree with, given the 200,000 hours of trawling and dredging that went on in our Marine Protected Areas in 2019 alone.¹ Other readers might find similar points of contention in this book, based on their own specialty subject.
His thesis that, for all our small successes in conservation, the overall picture is one of decline, certainly resonates, and not in a good way. If you’re invested in environmentalism and ecological restoration, it’s easy to hear about individual success stories, and think that a great social and ecological revolution is on the horizon. Every community based renewable energy project in the Outer Hebrides, or closed-loop farming village in Portugal, or legal victory for an indigenous Amazonian group, seems to be a sign of a radical shift. But the years go by, and we’re still in the same purgatory of neoliberalism and consumer culture. Of course, as Reflections reminds us, we all bear responsibility for the world we have. The loggers, oil drillers, and fast-food outlets are responding to our demand.
Some people might be tempted to dismiss this as Avery complaining that not everyone agrees with his view of conservation. But if they read the book, they’ll probably find a lot to agree with. While Avery does criticise the farming and shooting sectors, his biggest complaints are directed at his own side.
Conservation NGOs are just as guilty of lacking in radical thinking or brave action. A more proactive and outspoken conservation sector, which fought more to enhance what we have, could have stemmed the loss of our wildlife. Many readers might also agree with his criticism about how our NGOs are distributed. Several mammal species have their own dedicated NGOs, while Plantlife oversees all the UK’s plants and fungi. The geographical area which different organisations cover is also inconsistent. There is one RSPB for England and Wales, but 42 Wildlife Trusts, mainly county based in England, yet only one RSPB and one Wildlife Trust for all of Scotland.
That said, some of Avery’s criticisms about this subject are contradictory. Smaller NGOs occupy a weird place in Reflections, which argues that overstretched charities are a big issue, while also worrying about charities being too specialised. Plantlife is simultaneously too small to make much meaningful difference and too broad to look after all plants. Would separate charities for orchids, conifers, ferns, and sundews be a good idea? After reading Reflections, I think it would. But the book itself seems to be in two minds about this.
Nonetheless, Avery proposes a solid set of solutions to combat our declining wildlife. Some of these will be familiar to anyone involved in conservation: rewilding the uplands, giving Local Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest equal levels of protection, reforming farm subsidies to support nature-friendly farming. Other suggestions are more daring; most notably, his proposal for a public body to buy up land. Land buyouts were a priority for our NGOs in the twentieth century. It was obvious that the more land they owned, the more wildlife was under their protection and influence. In Avery’s view, forgetting this has been the biggest failure of British conservation.
Which brings me to perhaps my biggest issue with the book: it underestimates the pace of change. A lot of NGOs are aware of the issues he brings up. Not only that, they’re also acting on them. The enthusiasm with which they’ve taken up rewilding demonstrates this. There may be issues with individual sites or groups stretching the definition of rewilding. But the fact that our charities are willing to embrace a method which enhances nature, rather than just preserves it, should be encouraging.
Plenty of NGOs have other, equally radical policies. The RSPB and Wildlife Trust’s joint support for licensing driven grouse shooting may be tamer than Avery’s proposed ban, but I doubt they would have taken this stance 15 years ago. Adopting this position was no doubt inspired by Avery’s own campaigning. Both organisations, alongside the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, led calls for a ban on lead shot, which shooting organisations are now adopting. Nor are they as oblivious to land acquisition as Avery claims. At the time of writing, the RSPB has launched a crowdfunder to purchase 75,000 hectares of land.² The Wildlife Trusts have also launched their 30by30 initiative, which includes buyouts of fenland, peatbogs, and many other habitats.³ If they aren’t as bold in buying land as Avery would like, perhaps it’s because others are picking up the slack. Reflections briefly mentions the buyout of Langholm Moor by the local community trust and Heal Rewilding’s crowdfunded buyouts. But it doesn’t do justice to community buyouts. These are now a major movement in conservation. As of 2021, 211,998 hectares of land in Scotland was owned by local communities, with the Langholm buyout being the largest yet.⁴ Similar movements are now developing in England. Even Labour have sporadically engaged with it.⁵ The need for more land buyouts certainly hasn’t been lost on the British public.
Overall, Reflections is a book you should absolutely read. All of us will go into this book with strong opinions about Avery and his ideas. We might finish the book with equally hardened views about the ideas it contains. Everyone will have at least one preconceived attitude challenged, and will also challenge at least one of Avery’s views. What’s important is taking our own conclusions from Reflections, then turning those ideas into concrete action.