ECOS 40(2): Editorial: Nature conservation – the questions of meaning

Editorial by

Geoffrey Wain

As several authors note in this issue, we’re a broad community in the nature conservation camp. Our missions vary through work which spans restoration, protection and creation. The natural world can be categorised in many ways, across species, habitats, ecosystems, and more, with different management methods, varying reference points, and our own simple preferences for the wildlife we want to help.

Debates about meanings of nature conservation have been ever present, through the subject’s history and people’s careers. In the early phases of ECOS there was much attention to the purpose of conservation. There are no right and wrongs, but it’s wise to recognise your own priorities as well as prejudices, and the reasons for them.

In this edition we dabble again in these fundamentals. Alistair Crowle has a simple starting point – prime sites like SSSIs continue to wane, and need the most effort. He notes how this refuge of key species and habitats still needs the main call on our funds. Peter Shirley and James Robertson put emphasis on nurturing wildlife wherever we find opportunities, and helping create more functional, wildlife rich and robust tracts of land. All these approaches are vital and necessary of course, however they can be resourced.

From restoration to embracing new and emerging nature, we select different criteria to drive our work, from the more traditional concerns of rarity, fragility, and representativeness, to more pragmatic and opportunistic actions. Reflecting on his group’s remarkable achievements in the Southern Uplands, Philip Ashmole in this edition explains how the local potential of the habitat, was his focus. The ecology of his nearby hillsides seem re-awoken compared to many denuded upland landscapes. Philip’s stress on ‘potential’ for wildlife is a significant point. Often we might be more engaged in aiding nature’s potential rather than conserving it.

The essence of nature conservation is knowing what matters, to whom, and why. What matters globally, continentally, nationally and locally. And what matters in nature according to science, to the function of a place, and for people’s wellbeing. When we change and develop places, holding onto ‘what matters’ is the key.

Alistair Crowle in this issue is wary of the renewed clamour for net-gain. This is a mantra in the planning and development sectors, where ecologist advisers must assess the mitigation needs when wildlife is taking a hit. Alistair worries about falling for a weasel term, and allowing yet more token greenery. Yes, we must be streetwise, but in the blandest of places, and bleak starting points, we should surely give nature a springboard. We should look after the baseline nature, the resident slow worms and bats, and offer more than came before the bricks and mortar.

Proper net-gain, going beyond no net-loss of existing wildlife, would help the recovery of wildlife, and bring more people’s lives closer to nature.   

The meaning of conservation might change for all of us, depending on our geographical outlook and our life stage. In a later ECOS we will return to the topic, including with an urban perspective, and a reflection through a contributor’s career. Here’s to a meaningful 40th year. 


Wain, Geoffrey “ECOS 40(2): Editorial: Nature conservation – the questions of meaning” ECOS vol. 40(2), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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