ECOS 39 (2): 50 Years of Tribal Warfare

Reflections on a career working with the rival factions of landscape protection and nature conservation

Based on a 50 year career in the sector, this is a personal account of tribal differences based around institutions, recalling how two of our conservation tribes – landscape people and nature people – have worked together (or not) over the past 50 years.

To understand the story that follows, we should begin with a little history, recalling how the landscape and nature tribes originated. They have their origins respectively in the two great intellectual movements of post-Renaissance Europe: the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement. Thus the Enlightenment fostered a mood of scientific enquiry and a search to understand the natural world; while the Romantic Movement sought meaning in nature and celebrated its impact on the human spirit. From the Enlightenment, one can trace a line through Gilbert White, Charles Rothschild, Arthur Tansley, Charles Elton and Julian Huxley to the emergence of nature conservation in Part III of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. From the Romantics, came Wordsworth, Ruskin, Patrick Abercrombie, Clough Williams-Ellis and John Dower, leading through to Part II of the 1949 Act.  There was an access sub-tribe as well, which ran militant campaigns (e.g. the Kinder trespass of 1932) before combining with the landscape-lovers to make the case for National Parks.

Of course that’s far too neat a summary to describe a set of complex currents that gave rise to the modern conservation movement as we know it. But it shows how deep its varied roots extend into the soil of history. Because of this, landscape people and nature people – like members of all tribes – have their heroes and cultivate their myths.

The early days of the Countryside Commission – tribal indoctrination

I was born into the landscape tribe, greatly influenced by my mother as a landscape painter. Like many in the tribe, I was trained as a geographer and a planner. Lacking a scientific education, for many years I felt a little in awe of those whose view of the world had been shaped in that (as I thought) more rigorously disciplined way. But I was enthusiastic about the countryside and excited to join the newly-formed Countryside Commission in 1968, which was at that time based in Cambridge Gate, a Victorian terrace overlooking Regents Park. I was recruited by another geographer/planner, a charismatic Devonian, Reg Hookway. At that time he was the Commission’s Chief Planner, but would soon become its first Director.

We were busy with the agenda of the Countryside Act, creating Country Parks where townspeople could have access to the green spaces around towns: “honey pots” we called them rather patronisingly. But we also carried forward the responsibilities of the former National Parks Commission to be the national voice for parks. And it is here that I first encountered a clash of the tribes.

In 1969, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – a body I got to know much better later – had passed a resolution at its General Assembly in New Delhi. This tried to get international agreement on the definition national parks and other protected areas. It specifically called on Governments not to designate the following as National Parks:

an inhabited and exploited area where landscape planning and measures taken for the development of tourism have led to the setting up of “recreation areas” where industrialization and urbanization are controlled and where public outdoor recreation takes priority over the conservation of ecosystems (1)

And it also asked countries which had called such areas “National Parks” to re-designate them as something else.

A leading light in IUCN was Max Nicholson. (Max died in 2003, and since he was active well into his nineties, I am sure many readers of ECOS will recall that he was a vigorous advocate for nature conservation who never took ‘no’ for an answer). He had been Director General of the Nature Conservancy until 1966, a body that Reg tended to see as a rival to his Countryside Commission. Max came to Cambridge Gate to convey to Reg Hookway the message from New Delhi. My room was next door to Reg’s. The walls were quite thick but not thick enough to muffle the blazing row that took place between two Alpha males. Max stormed out, having been told by Reg that no way would he be party to such a crazy idea as to rename our national parks in order to appease a bunch of ill-informed nature enthusiasts from other countries (shades of Brexit?).

My sympathies were certainly with Reg. The Nature Conservancy (as it then was) was a very influential body, and I shared his view that they were in some ways the Commission’s competitors. But I also thought of them as out of touch with the general public – our clients – who wished to get out into and enjoy the countryside.  I think that view (a mix of mild envy and slight contempt) prevailed among quite a few Commission staff at the time.

Broadening horizons and questioning assumptions

A few years later my narrow and ill-informed understanding of the full potential of nature conservation was challenged. I went to the US and Canada as a very privileged participant in a six-week international travelling seminar of their National Parks, which took us from Banff in the Canadian Rockies, via Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite to the desert parks of the South West. That seminal experience opened my eyes to the grandeur of nature, though conversations with some local conservation staff left me feeling uneasy about their inability to see beauty and interest in more humanised landscapes.

The excitement of this trip led directly to my working for four years with the Kenya-based United Nations Environment Programme and then three with IUCN outside Geneva. I was de-tribalised as a result. Working alongside natural scientists of various hues, I found that I could no longer see myself as a member of one group, feeling superior about the other. In fact I felt rather irritated that these different ways of looking at the world still existed, especially as they did not seem present to anything like the same extent as separate interest groups in other countries.

Re-engaging with the Countryside Commission and seeking common ground with NCC

So I was in some ways psychologically ill-equipped when I returned to the UK in 1981 to lead the Countryside Commission as their Director General. I can confess now that – on arrival – I did not fully share the ethos at John Dower House, the office in Cheltenham to which the organisation had moved a few years before, since there still seemed to be some rivalry towards the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC). However, I had more pressing things on my mind: Michael Heseltine has decreed that the Commission should become an independent body, but that its budget and staff numbers should be cut. I had to deliver this – an experience that sadly many managers of conservation bodies have had since.

By the mid-1980s, both the Commission and the NCC in Peterborough were facing the same challenge: the impact of modern farming on the landscape and wildlife of the countryside. The Environment Minister, William Waldegrave, had called agriculture the “engine of destruction” in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in 1984, driven – as he saw it – by wholly inappropriate financial incentives (2). So we found ourselves talking more and more to the NCC. They had to contend with proposals from farmers to drain parts of the Somerset Levels, we had the Broads Authority looking to us to help them save the beautiful Halvergate Marshes from the same fate.

Tribes come together to resist a common enemy. In responding to the conservation threats of the 1980s, our landscape people and the NCC’s nature people joined forces. Building on the Commission’s success in the Halvergate Marshes in running a project of behalf of the Government, and which pioneered conservation payments to farmers, the NCC and the Commission formed a joint team to develop the Environmentally Sensitive Areas programme. This selected the sites and drew up the land management prescriptions. Introduced in 1987, ESAs were eventually designated for 22 areas. All were important places in both landscape and nature conservation terms, though some (e.g. several of the national parks) had only a landscape designation, and others (e.g. Breckland and the Test Valley) had only nature conservation labels. But taken as a whole, the ESA programme, which also included places as varied as West Penwith, the Clun Hills, the Pennine Dales and the Broads, was the first truly inclusive way of recording and safeguarding the special places in rural England: it was a monument to de-tribalisation in the conservation movement.  

Around the time of the crisis over the Halvergate Marshes, the Commission was making its case at a public enquiry into the designation of the North Pennines as an AONB. Though we were successful in securing the designation, the critical examination we were put through (“Please Mr Phillips, it is not enough to say that it is obvious this area is beautiful – I put it to you that you need to explain to the Inspector why it is beautiful”) revealed a thinness in our case. We responded by publishing series of reports that described the landscape character of AONBs and other areas; and – with input from many excellent academics and consultancies – we developed the techniques of landscape character assessment (3).

The next stage in this work was to roll it out across the country. So was launched Countryside Commission’s initiative, rather grandly called the New Map of England. A pilot project in 1993 was followed by Character of England regional volumes (4). This was however based essentially on a geographer’s way of seeing the world – geology, land form, history, artistic and cultural associations. The key ecological dimension was missing and could only be provided if we reached out across the tribal divide to our NCC colleagues who had been developing a parallel initiative around the mapping of natural areas. Input came too from English Heritage, which added their data bases on historic land characterisation. The result was a map of “Joint Character Areas” (the “joint” a tribute to the tribes working together) (5). Later this became Natural England’s 159 National Character Areas – a truly cross-disciplinary description of the character of the whole of England, with guidance for planners and land managers.

While we found ourselves working much more with the NCC during my later years with the Commission, the tendency to reactivate tribal instincts was always there. My Chairman, the late – and much admired – Derek (Lord) Barber, reflected the suspicions of some farmers and landowners that the NCC was populated with conservation ayatollahs. He publicly contrasted their staff, whom he likened to ‘monks’, with the more buccaneering, entrepreneurial team at the Commission, which called ‘pirates’. As the designated pirate-in-chief, I felt slightly embarrassed (but admittedly also a little chuffed) by this comparison.



When – a few years later – it came to the first unsuccessful attempt to merge English Nature with the then Countryside Agency, I found myself on the opposite side of Derek, who spoke in the Lords against the proposal in 1994 (6). He had long feared the Agency’s pragmatic style of doing things, and the tribe that it represented, would be swamped by the more numerous and more dogmatic nature people in Peterborough. I thought the division was artificial and out of date: 50 years after the 1949 Act, and at the time when unified agencies were being established in Scotland and Wales, the merits of merger seemed overwhelming, though it took till 2006 before it came about in England.

Re-connecting with the international scene

I left the Commission in 1992, and became more involved with IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). Here again the tribes were at work.  The battle was fought over the very issue that Max Nicholson and Reg Hookway had argued about in Cambridge Gate 25 years earlier: the classification of protected areas. The WCPA developed IUCN’s system of protected area management categories, which aims to set out international standards as to what a protected area is and how they should be categorised according to their management objectives and governance structures. The value of such a system is that it provides a common language for all site-based conservation throughout the world, which can be used in setting international standards, exchanging data and information, drawing up legislation, training manpower and developing conservation strategies at various levels.

There are six management categories, ranging from wilderness and strict nature reserves to multiple use protected areas like Protected Landscapes – the category into which Britain’s national parks and AONBs fit. Following a review of the categories in 1994, I was keen to see more emphasis in IUCN’s work on the Protected Landscapes model. Working with a bunch of colleagues from all parts of the world, we advocated the wider use of this model, which we believed would complement and reinforce the essential role played in conservation by the more strictly protected places like the US national parks and strict nature reserves. In 2002, we drew up international guidelines for the management of Protected Landscapes (7).

Soon there came a backlash. A Canadian academic and an American conservation campaigner argued that – in advocating the wider use of a model of conservation that focused on lived-in, working landscapes – IUCN was in danger of selling out to the forces of development and undermining the efforts of nature conservation around the world (8). They clearly saw Protected Landscapes as an inferior conservation model to stricter forms of protection for much more natural environments. To my mind, conservation needs both (and many more) protected areas models if we are to find some kind of balance between humankind and the natural world. The ensuing dispute was quite ill-tempered at times and it was not only about landscape v. nature people. To some it was about whether a European or a North American view of nature should prevail; whilst others argued that the key was what made sense for other parts of the world.

In the end there was a sensible compromise that kept Protected Landscapes in the IUCN family of six protected areas categories (9), but it was made clear that they had to deliver better for nature conservation. I have been involved since in trying to roll out the agreed international guidance on the protected area categories within the UK through a project sponsored by IUCN’s UK National Committee, Putting Nature on the Map (10). In so doing, we have been at pains to emphasise the nature conservation value of national parks and AONBs and the obligations that this places upon the managers of these places.

Taking stock of the tribes in 2018

Today, it may seem as if the landscape and nature tribes are less far apart. After all, we have created national agencies that straddle landscape and nature; and national planning for the environment should provide an over-arching context within which all conservation tribes can find their place. But I fear that even now the tribes are sometimes at work; and like a deep fault, which we thought long buried, they can still cause tremors. Scratch a staff member of NE, SNH or NRW and you are as likely as not to discover the echo, at least, of a tribal allegiance or hear grumbles about some of their colleagues whom they suspect of never having quite thrown off their allegiance to the predecessor body from which they came.   

There are other tribes in the conservation world, but the ones here described have the deepest roots and are perhaps the most profound and enduring.  They reflect different paths of education and training, and have been reinforced by 70 years of UK legislation and institutional working. Yet when set against the massive environmental challenges of our time – climate change, fast dwindling biodiversity, pollution of all kinds, and the alienation of people from the natural world – it often seems an irritating and unnecessary division. Nature is an integral part of landscape; landscape provides a way of seeing nature in context. Neither landscape protection nor nature conservation is superior. Both approaches are needed if we are to relate to the natural world, and to each other, with respect and understanding.


  1., Resolution 1, Definition of National Parks (page 153)
  2. Sheail J. (2002) An Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain Palgrave/Macmillan (Chapter 6)
  3. Countryside Commission (1987) Landscape Assessment: A Countryside Commission Approach, UK Countryside Commission, Cheltenham.
  4. Countryside Agency (1996) National Character Area Regional Volumes Countryside Agency
  5. Countryside Commission and English Nature (1996) The Character of England – Landscape, Wildlife and Natural Features, CCX 41. Countryside Commission, Cheltenham
  6. The full debate can be read here:
  7. Phillips A. (2002) Management Guidelines for IUCN Category V Protected Landscapes/Seascapes IUCN Cambridge
  8. Dearden P. and Locke H. Rethinking protected area categories and the new paradigm in Environmental Conservation 32 (1): 1–10
  9. See Dudley (2008 ) Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories IUCN
  10. UK National Committee for IUCN (2012) Putting Nature on the Map: A Report and Recommendations on the Use of the IUCN System of Protected Area Categorisation in the UK IUCN/UK



Adrian Phillips is a Vice President of BANC, former Chief Executive of the Countryside Commission (1981-1992) and chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (1994-2000)


Phillips, Adrian “ECOS 39 (2): 50 Years of Tribal Warfare” ECOS vol. 39(2) 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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