ECOS 39(6): The people’s manifesto for wildlife – solid ideas or flaky ideals?

The wildlife manifesto launched by Chris Packham is a lengthy wish list in need of honing and clarifying…

The messages and the messenger – fumbling through the fog

With Chris Packham as its spokesman, lots of undeniably worthy ideas, and pot shots at everyone’s favourite environmental villains, this document addresses the increasingly urgent need to take action for the natural world. It provides analysis and possible solutions to what are seen as the most urgent issues, although the scale and scope of these varies from the very small to the impossibly large. It is labelled as a first draft, and indeed there is a call for further contributions and ideas.

I found it quite difficult to get to grips with. For a start it is much too long (57 pages) and seems over-designed: funky artwork, reminiscent of New Naturalist dust jackets, framing pages of sometimes dense copy. There are some simple messages, such as ‘Let’s end the war on wildlife’, and a sort of conservation creed with several paragraphs beginning with ‘I believe…’. It is not entirely clear whether this is the collective mantra of the authors or is intended to be adopted by all of us. Likewise, the title is somewhat presumptive: ‘A People’s Manifesto’ suggests the result of some sort of democratic process or series of events, but the evidence is that the contents are a distillation of the thoughts and experiences of the various contributors.

The editors have tried to pre-empt reviewers such as myself by saying that the contents of the manifesto “… are not dry and dull” and implore people to read the document themselves. When they do they will find, amongst many other things, a lot of goodwill towards farmers (but not the National Farmers Union), outright hostility to the grouse shooting fraternity, and some controversial ideas relating to cats and dogs.

Recognising self interest

There is one glaring piece of spin. It is claimed that “This manifesto is immune from lobbying. It has not been influenced or funded by any vested interest groups.” Really? Maybe this is a blind spot for the conservation movement. The organisations, and people working for them, endorsing and supporting the manifesto would benefit enormously if its proposals were implemented. There would be research contracts, commissioned surveys, projects, new funding, and all manner of things which would lead to an expansion of the nature conservation sector, including increased employment. That this is for the public good as well as some private gain does not change the principle.

Image: Richard Allen

Scattergun proposals

The 200 ideas, or proposals, are listed in groups of 10 or so under the headings of Ministries, each of course with its own Minister. They give the impression of being taken from a brain-storming session’s flip charts. A couple of examples will serve to demonstrate the extremely narrow and extremely broad ends of the manifesto’s proposals.

There is a Ministry of Food and Farming. Two of the proposals for this Ministry are:

  • Reform the tax system to ensure tax benefits are only provided in return for public goods.
  • Pay farmers a fair price for the food they produce in return for producing it much more sustainably.

A moment’s thought will reveal the enormity of trying to implement these complex proposals. The former means taking on the tax system (which, in any case, thinks it is doing what is asked already) and the latter requires instigating market interventions on the scale of a soviet republic. They make leaving the European Union look straightforward.

Conversely one of the simple proposals for the Ministry of Natural Culture and Education is:

  • The BBC to make a major documentary series addressing the biodiversity crisis. (I wonder if the BBC should still be the media outlet of choice in today’s on-line world.)

Then there are the general wish-list ideas or proposals. Good luck with such as these:

  • Zero tolerance for sexist or racist trolling in wildlife social media discussions – perpetrators should be outed and penalised (under the Ministry for Social Inclusion and Access to Nature).
  • Clean-up air, soils and water and prevent pollution – healthy environments are essential for trees to thrive, combat disease and live long lives (under the Ministry of Trees).
  • Every primary school in Britain to be twinned long-term with a farm as a means of ‘growing’ farming into children’s lives, and also for them to shape farming in return (under the Ministry for Young People in Nature).

The functions of the 17 so-called ministries are not well separated. In the spirit of a first draft I would suggest a different framework for a second draft, re-arranging the 17 as follows (this also saves me presenting these as a boring list):

First let’s have one Ministry for the Natural World. Then group the 17 suggested into four departments:

  1. Wildlife Policy, incorporating wildlife law, wildlife crime, wildlife welfare, lead ammunition, pesticides.
  2. Working Landscapes, incorporating food and farming, trees (but I would call it forestry), hedgerows and verges, urban, marine.
  3. Habitats and Species, incorporating re-wilding, upland ecology, wetlands (my addition), species reintroductions, wildlife overseas.
  4. People and Wildlife, incorporating natural culture and education, social inclusion, diversity, and access to nature, young people in nature.

This might make the manifesto easier to navigate and help iron out some of the overlapping.

Leadership and legislation

There are two big ideas on which I think we can all agree. The first is flagged up in the creed:

“I believe that an independent public service body should be established to oversee all conservation and environmental care and that it should receive significant, long-term, ring-fenced funding, so that it is independent from the whims of party politics and different periods of government. That body – LIFE UK – would thus address issues from climate change, biodiversity loss, landscape and conservation management through to wildlife crime, all of which (and more) are discussed in this manifesto. As the UK’s nations have devolved government, LIFE UK could be publicly funded with an independent tax akin to the BBC licence fee, payable by all UK adults and similarly scaled.”

This links to comments about the parlous state of the current statutory agencies. The manifesto makes the old mistake of slotting these comments into the food and farming section, as if nature is only in the countryside. Very 1980s. The suggested funding mechanism is surely a non-starter. The BBC licence fee is unpopular and under threat, and the Treasury has a congenital aversion to hypothecated taxes, of which we have very few.

The second big idea has been about for some time – it is the need for overarching new legislation. The headline action is that there should be “A new Environment Act, similar to the Human Rights Act, with the core principle that everyone, and nature itself, has the legal right to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being The new Act to impose a duty on public bodies and the courts to act in compatibility with it, and to enforce planetary boundaries and environmental principles – such as “polluter-pays” and sustainable development.”

One more thing – the manifesto calls for all nature conservation bodies to put aside self interest and work together to achieve the manifesto’s aims. So I did a test: I searched the Wildlife Trusts’ and the RSPB’s websites for the Manifesto. Neither site came up with anything about it at all.

Chris Packham and his colleagues have thrown down the gauntlet. Can we now work together to mould and shape the ideas here into a potent weapon with which to radically change people’s understanding of the natural world’s relationship to their lives, and that of the planet? And having done so engender changes in the way we treat it? Or is it all pie in the sky?


Peter Shirley has been dealing with nature conservation policy, funding and other issues for more than 30 years whilst working for, and volunteering with, the Wildlife Trusts. These views are entirely his own.

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Shirley, Peter “ECOS 39(6): The people’s manifesto for wildlife – solid ideas or flaky ideals?” ECOS vol. 39(6), 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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