ECOS 40(2): Nature conservation’s future – back to basics?

Protecting priority sites and species should remain our key concern. In the digital age we can exploit new ways to help achieve this.

Sticking with site protection

There will be some who will regard me as a dinosaur. I believe that the protected sites approach has been the main reason we have as much wildlife interest left as we have – despite the unprecedented losses of UK biodiversity over past decades.

For me, nature conservation should start with protecting what we already have. The last 70 years has largely been a period of identifying habitats that are of importance for their flora and fauna and notifying them as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) as part of a national series. Rightly or wrongly, in the UK we have placed most of our eggs in this basket.

Within England, there are around 4100 sites covering more than 8% of the country’s land area [1]. The process of notifying and ensuring the correct management of these sites has not been a straightforward one with further legislative changes over time to close loopholes and provide more effective tools for site protection.

Declining funds for the job

Austerity, following the global financial downturn has seen continued cuts to all the statutory nature conservation agencies in the UK. Natural England has suffered a 50% cut in funds since 2010 resulting in SSSIs not being monitored effectively along with a loss of continuity of contact with land owners who are responsible for the land on which SSSIs occur. We are entering a major phase of agri-environment scheme agreement renewals which is running in parallel with the development of a new, post-Brexit agri-environment scheme. The evidence-base for the benefits of management agreements securing environmental gain over the last decade is questioned in a recent monitoring report in Wales [2]. 

I take the view that in the absence of protected sites, the losses of our wildlife assets over the last 70 years, would have been even more catastrophic. Locations where more damage would have taken place are the coasts which are subject to constant recreational and development pressure. Elsewhere, habitats like northern hay-meadows would certainly have been lost to widespread silage production in the absence of the bespoke management that went hand in hand with SSSI designation. 

Pennine hay meadow
Photo: Tim Melling

Net-gain… Beware of new distractions

The problem is that the drive to notify and manage important wildlife sites properly has been replaced by the ‘jam tomorrow’ of new concepts like net-gain. This is aimed specifically at the built environment and not existing designated wildlife sites and has allure; any new development is required to take specific actions to benefit the environment, so that the wildlife interest of the developed area is in a better state at the completion of the project. This smacks too much of the Weregild or man-price. You pay your forfeit and your conscience is clear. Only time will tell whether the huge industry of professional ecologists working for developers will be able to deliver genuine improvements for nature through the net-gain approach rather than the token pond and a few trees. Whilst this approach is being trumpeted for the built environment, it is not too big a leap to imagine the argument that it should be rolled out for all developments, so that developers can do anything anywhere, provided they assure there will be a resulting net gain.

Photo: Alistair Crowle

Jobsworth conservation

There are more people working in nature conservation than ever before, despite of all the cuts associated with the global downturn from 2008. In both the statutory and private sector, there are more people working on reducing the impact of development and restoring or managing land for wildlife than ever before, yet by every measure [3] the wildlife interest of the country continues to decline. Why are we still failing to halt the slide? The easy answer is that the power of agricultural subsidy and the impacts of development out-guns what is available to counter them. But I am increasingly unsure that it is as simple as this. I believe that the issue is ‘integrity’.

Integrity can be defined in at least two different ways: the first is truthfulness or honesty. In his book Legacy, James Kerr discusses another interpretation and this can be described as being relied upon to get the job done [4]. In the business world, getting the job done is self-regulated, if the job is not done effectively, you lose money and ultimately lose your business; in nature conservation, if the job is not done effectively, there rarely appears to be a consequence for the individuals involved. The price is paid by the natural world in the form of insidious loss and decline of habitat extent or condition.

Examples of getting-the-job-done in nature conservation are signing a land-manager up to an agreement that you know will not achieve what is intended or for which there is no evidence that the agreed approach will work, but it ticks the box of getting the agreement signed or getting the money spent and you have completed your functional task. It may also mean carrying out a plant or animal survey in February for a proposed development. That might be completely the wrong time of year for the ecological survey, but you have got the job done. A planning consultation comes across your desk, the development area looks “quite nice” but you have no data, certainly not enough to sustain an objection, even if the will was there to object in the first place, so you let it pass: you have completed your task.

All these ‘getting the job dones’ add up to happy land-managers or developers, but at a price for the wildlife interest which continues to decline or be lost.

‘Getting the job done’ needs to be replaced by ‘getting the job done right’. This requires a move to the type of integrity that most people understand: having conviction of purpose and carrying it out honestly and openly. I think that because of the perception at least, many organisations lack integrity, a new force has emerged in the world of nature conservation.

Harnessing people power

In the past there were two main nature conservation groups: the statutory sector (public and government bodies) and the voluntary sector (Non-Governmental Organisations – NGOs). The NGOs would probably have viewed themselves as the conscience of the nature conservation movement and would selectively remind the statutory sector of an alternative view and if necessary, to use their own resources to make a point either in court or through a planning inquiry.

The development of social media has seen the emergence of a new independent force for the promotion of nature conservation.  This new phenomenon can be an individual or a group and two topical examples are the environmental campaigner Mark Avery and Wild Justice ( – an organisation set up to provide legal challenge on behalf of wildlife. In recent years Avery has relentlessly challenged organisations and individuals where he feels that there have been failings in how they have operated. Most notably in bringing two judicial review actions against Natural England. The remarkable thing about these actions is the speed at which Avery was able to crowd-fund the money to pay for his legal representation. At the time of writing, Wild Justice is crowd-funding to bring a judicial review of Natural England’s approach to the licensing of the killing of a range of bird species under a General Licence and another group is raising funds to bring a legal challenge against the Government for allowing off-shore exploration in an area important for sea-horses. These actions demonstrate that there is a great desire by a largely unknown populace, to place environmental decision-making at a much more rigorous level. Allied to this is a willingness to use Freedom of Information regulations to find out as much as possible about decision-making that takes place in darkened rooms of government agencies.

Direct action through digital tactics

The emergence of this new force signals something else. The growing dissatisfaction with not just the statutory bodies but the NGO sector too. The use of social media opens up communications to the large body of people who we know are interested in the environment but maybe not enough to join a specific environmental organisation. Avery and Wild Justice are especially interesting as they are campaigning for wildlife and nature conservation which is a bit niche compared to high profile topics like addressing climate change or removing plastic from the oceans. It will be interesting to see if and when other environmental organisations or even emerging ones, adopt the approach of challenging government through the courts.

We are in a strange time. The policy talk is all about the greenest government and working towards a 25 year plan to restore the environment, but the reality is a period of cuts to conservation’s funding and a move towards untried (read cheaper?) approaches to improve the environment. The SSSI series is bordering upon neglect yet it is where the majority of the rare and scarce flora and fauna are to be found. The political will to take protected sites seriously is currently absent. Can this be changed and if so, will it be by the government of the day voluntarily taking action or will it be the result of a legal challenge?


  1. Natural England
  2. Macdonald, M. A. et. al. (2019) Have Welsh agri‐environment schemes delivered for focal species? Results from a comprehensive monitoring programme. Journal of Applied Ecology.
  3. Defra. 2018. Wild bird populations in the UK 1970 – 2017
  4. Kerr, J. (2013) Legacy. Constable.


Crowle, Alistair “ECOS 40(2): Nature conservation’s future – back to basics?” ECOS vol. 40(2) 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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