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ECOS 40(1): ECOS revisited – highlights and lessons from the early years

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Editions Reviewed:
ECOS 1 (2), 1 (4), 4 (1)

Refreshed perspectives…

For many of us who work in conservation, in all its varying forms, we see our vocation as a battle. Those who work on the frontline, managing our natural resources practically struggle with increasingly encroached funding, opposition of the uninformed public and land use pressure. Those who have dedicated their professional lives to education face a largely apathetic attitude to the value of nature, and the people involved in arguing the standpoint of conservation at a policy and legislative level must constantly justify their inclusion when compared to more lucrative sectors. If there is one overarching lesson to be taken from reading editions of ECOS published almost 40 years ago, it is to take stock and appreciate how far the conservation movement has come. Whilst at times we may feel our plights are not given the recognition and respect they deserve; our circumstance is a far cry from that of our counterparts in the 1980s.

For the most part, reading the articles featured in these past editions invokes a feeling of frustration. Despite the skills, knowledge and expertise of conservationists at the time, the movement as a whole was in its adolescence. Conservation knew enough to be sure of itself and that its statements deserved attention but lacked the respect of existing sectors to be given much more than superficial consideration. This has led to the early editions of ECOS to focus themselves almost entirely on politics, policy and legislation as these are the areas conservationists are fighting to establish themselves in. ECOS was always intended to facilitate open discussion between all members of the conservation movement, however where policy is discussed above all else, we fall in to the trap of speaking in unnecessarily technical detail, excluding a huge proportion of interested parties as the context of how these strategic discussions apply to them is not made clear or accessible. Whilst there are articles within these early editions focused on research and conservation practice, they are in the minority. The focus of the frustration is Parliament, whether it is a lack of funding to safeguard countryside sites, insufficient legislation or the favouritism that seems to be shown to more profitable land management practices such as agriculture or forestry.

The opportunity to cast thoughts back to events in conservation that not only predate my interest in the subject but also my existence at all was an enriching task. The editions were incredibly enjoyable to read, with humour, provocation of thought and a huge diversity of contributors all built in. However, ECOS 4(1) had a singular and justified, albeit policy, focus – The World Conservation Strategy, and whilst this was an immensely important development, the edition discussing it was a challenge to digest. Many articles written here were technical, lengthy and dry, interspersing this with pieces on studies or practices in industry would have brightened the script greatly.

Gloves off

A consistent theme throughout the articles published is that agriculture and forestry are seen to be slacking when it comes to doing their part to maintain the biodiversity of the land from which they benefit. In one piece, titled ‘A Fairy Story’ David H. Gregson likens the conservation sector to a young boy, who’s supply of sweets depends on staying in the good books of Mr. Waters, Mr. Forest and Mr. Agricult. Master Conservation knows that in order to get more sweets, he is either going to have to grow muscles and take on the three men directly or be conniving and undo their braces and seize his opportunity to get past them. This comical section ends on a stern note “Unless Master C. starts growing some muscles, or starts undoing some brace buttons, nobody will live happily ever after.” Between then and now, both of those things have happened. Conservation has been able to state its case in all aspects of land management in the contemporary day, forestry and agriculture are now held to account in many elements of conservation. Several sources of monetary support and best practice measures for such businesses depend on demonstrating their environmental friendliness. With an ever more transparent world, many markets stand to be held to account by their consumers if they are putting profit before the planet.

Something that is striking in the early articles that seem to polarise them from that of the modern day is the tone in which some of them are written. It is convention that academic writing is purposefully written in a manner that implies a detached, objective neutrality. This is certainly not the case in the early editions of ECOS. Many articles leave all diplomacy firmly at the door, and in a way, it makes the pieces refreshing. It shows that the people taking the time to cast their opinions are doing so because they are passionate about the subject, not because they are merely seeking an opportunity to appear in a journal. The plain-speaking nature of the authors sometimes builds to being almost aggressive. Whilst we should encourage open, unhindered discussion, ECOS as a platform was almost overrun with such commentary. Throughout each of the early editions there was a driving focus on the opinions of individuals, who were often representing themselves rather than an organisation. This is something that we rarely see in modern conservation outside of online discussion groups and forum discourse where the expression of opinions at times is comparable to gladiatorial combat. There are few well known ‘countrymen’ that still occupy a limelight in the sector, instead we focus on the stand point of the wealth of organisations operating.

Persistent challenges

In a piece discussing wildlife conservation and leisure provision Chris Bull explains: “Although the needs for nature conservation are widely recognised the precise values of wildlife are not easily expressed.” This is an area that the industry has come on in leaps and bounds. Ecosystem services are firmly embedded in our rationale, and their worth has been identified and translated in to money. The struggle this article focuses on is one that is still very present, perhaps even more so today; the increasingly difficult task of getting families to enjoy nature, for children to immerse themselves in the outdoors. The piece discussed the numbers, ages and journey lengths of the people visiting nature reserves. Bull points out that although conservationists of the day were aware of the need for public support, there was a lingering air of conservation “elitism”, a sense that the general public were not able to comprehend the value of what they were accessing. This is something I believe we have moved on from, land managers readily encourage the public to use the countryside, often dedicating features to the wants of their visitors. Play areas, cafes and car parks are widely used to source funds for conservation. This helps to create a wider “general interest” in conservation. Whilst we have been able to specify the worth of our ecosystem services, the intrinsic value of the peace and beauty they provide remain individual to us all. What is important now is being able to harness the public interest and channelling it in to education and behaviour change to further safeguard our environment. Nonetheless, even with all the provisions made to foster the public, for many our countryside is disregarded, this challenge has not been resolved in 40 years of effort, perhaps in 40 more it will have.

Lessons for the future – critical friends

There is no doubting that conservation holds more sway than ever before. Although, I do not believe that any conservationist would say we have come far enough. This ambition can leave us feeling that we are not achieving as much as we should be. But when we reflect on the past, we realise how much our movement has grown, and whilst we may not have as much influence as we desire, the words of Chris Hall in ECOS 1(4) should help us all feel more optimistic for the future:

“When judging the effectiveness of a pressure group, it is not usually a simple matter of whether or not it achieves its stated objectives. It is important to assess to what extent things have begun to move in the right direction.”

I am not comparing modern conservation to a pressure group, the sector has developed in to a respectfully professional, highly diverse and inspiringly passionate cause. We have a plethora of organisations working locally, nationally and internationally to conserve and enhance wildlife and embed consideration for the natural world in all aspects of life. This range of action is our greatest strength, but it also allows for complications and confusion. In an article titled ‘The Need for Dissent’ Jim Hall emphasises that we must not be afraid to speak against one another, to hold each other accountable and to the highest standards. Only with this transparency and self-reflection can conservation continue to gain respect and make the greatest difference. Such a mantra encapsulates the ethos of ECOS amply, to provide open discussion of ideas, practice and opinion, sharing knowledge to further conservation. It has played a role in shaping the last 40 years and shall continue to do so.


Andrew Irving is a Local Authority Ecologist based in Buckinghamshire.

Contact the author

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Irving, Andrew “ECOS 40(1): ECOS revisited – highlights and lessons from the early years” ECOS vol. 40(1), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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