ECOS 40(2): Nature custodians – facing our great paradox

The nature conservation sector has gained resources and influence, yet wildlife continues to decline. Where do we go from here?

Nature’s fortunes – all bad news?

In ECOS’s 40 years the nature conservation sector has thrived and grown beyond our wildest dreams. Unfortunately we are suffering from the dystopian nightmare that, despite this, nature is still experiencing continuous decline. Although habitat loss may have slowed, and in some places been reversed, apart from a handful of species, such as red kites, beavers, white-tailed eagles and various deer, the populations, range and diversity of many plants and animals are reducing. For some groups, such as insects and amphibians, total abundance here and elsewhere is way down on 40 years ago. Conversely there is much concern about species which are thought to be doing too well. Invasive species, especially non-native, are a constant concern; from American signal crayfish to harlequin ladybirds and Himalayan balsam, there is much doom-mongering.

It’s not me saying this – nature conservation bodies constantly publish gloomy reports. The Wildlife Trusts’ magazines, for example, are full of such tales. In the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust’s last magazine, the Chair, Richard Higgs said: “The loss and fragmentation of habitats has led to catastrophic declines in wildlife, with one in ten species facing extinction”. If this sounds bleak, we should think about how bad things would be without the expansion of the wildlife sector and the dedication and skills of tens of thousands of both professionals and volunteers. 

Good Old Days…

How has this happened? Of course, the world is a very different place than when I first worked for the Wildlife Trusts in 1987. Back then nature conservation was a much smaller and more inward-looking pursuit and profession than it now is. Most wildlife trusts for instance had only one or two staff and were typically called ‘naturalists’ trusts’. They were the province of predominantly amateur biologists, specialising in such things as botany, mycology and entomology, and were very parochial. Their focus was acquiring and managing nature reserves and protecting wildlife from the public.

The RSPB ‘did birds’ (they now do everything) and the Government provided a strong policy and scientific lead through the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC). This body also gave out research and other grants to those specialists. Everything was in its rightful place: wildlife lived in the countryside, people lived in towns and cities, nature reserves were private, and permits were needed to visit them. This was the legacy of an army of assiduous Victorian collectors and recorders, followed by the development of the biological sciences, including ecology, through the 20th Century. Our innate desire for order resulted in a fixed view of nature and continuing attempts to make it fit our ideas of what should live where, and how things should behave. Conservation focused on resisting and preventing change.

Nature in its place?

The trouble was that all this was not fit for purpose. Nature in the wider countryside outside reserves struggled, habitats were being destroyed and damaged, and farming and forestry were generally hostile to the natural world. In urban areas a new generation of nature conservationists was drawing attention to the abundant wildlife found there and (heresy upon heresy) encouraging the public to take an interest. Orthodox thinking then would no doubt have dismissed the lesser redpolls feeding now in my garden in West Bromwich as being ‘in the wrong place’. Conventional attitudes then are perhaps best summed up in this incident which I distinctly remember. At a Wildlife Trusts’ conference to discuss the priority species and biodiversity action plan work arising from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the then Director of the Somerset Wildlife Trust told everyone in no uncertain terms that all of us urban-based conservationists ‘would no longer have anything to do’!

In policy terms though the Rio Summit was, for a time, a game-changer in that it provided a context and purpose for public sector intervention, and a framework within which local, national and international organisations could work. The sustainability agenda set out in Rio’s Local Agenda 21 in particular gave local authorities a role at a time when central government was stripping them of functions and powers.

Professionalism and expansion – the pluses and minuses

Since the early 90s and the Earth Summit just about everything has changed. I suggest that the positive changes include the exponential growth of the conservation sector. This was fuelled by the increase in money available and the resulting recruitment of a host of professionals in fields such as marketing, membership recruitment, fund-raising, and media and publicity work. All, of course, in addition to ecologists and other biologists, public policy experts, planners and lobbyists. Then, with the increased infrastructure, there had to be human resources people, finance officers and administrators. We quickly moved from mainly amateur bodies to professional organisations.

In the wider world farmers, foresters and other land managers became more aware, and to a certain extent more willing, to take better account of nature. The Forestry Commission in particular has changed its ways and now favours deciduous and mixed woodlands over coniferous monocultures. Farm support has progressed from headage and crop payments, through payment based on land holdings, and on to rewards for prescribed outputs and outcomes.

Whilst we still have nature reserves, there is a realisation that wider countryside and urban area work is integral to all that we do. Critically the links to people’s wellbeing, instinctive love, and need, for nature have been made. Public engagement is a priority: we now have many citizen science projects, with days, weeks and months dedicated to different parts of the natural world. Tens of thousands of children take part in ‘nature activities’ in both formal education and with a host of NGOs. The elaborate functions of digital media allow us to indulge our passion for counting things.

Environmental education is one of my big disappointments. We have been engaging with children for four decades through school projects and such things as junior ranger programmes, Forest Schools, WATCH and conservation badges in uniformed organisations. Some of those early participants are now grandparents. Yet still we are told that politically the environment and the natural world are not high priorities for most people. The argument always was (still is) that children are the future, and inculcating love, appreciation and understanding of nature would instill a sense of responsibility towards it. Continued ignorance and the scale of casual, if not deliberate, trashing of the environment seems to indicate the theory does not work.

Funding nature – it’s all relative

Nature conservation is like the health service: it could infinitely expand its work without meeting the demands placed upon it. Hence every generation thinks they are starved of cash. Two things in particular though have been transformational – Landfill Tax community funds and the National Lottery. I was heavily involved in both, (the Lottery on both the giving and receiving sides). Forty years ago, if the NCC announced a £100,000 grant scheme for the whole country there was great excitement. But a few years ago, I was involved in the Big Lottery’s Community Spaces Programme, which disbursed £55m in three years to community open space projects, including nature reserves.

In 2017-18, according to their websites, the Wildlife Trusts collectively had an income of £143m, and their national office, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, received nearly £20m more. The RSPB had an income of £133m. Taking the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust as an individual example, in the late 80s they had, one, or perhaps two, full time staff. Their turnover was measured in tens of thousands of pounds. For the year ending 31 December 2017 the Trust employed 51 people and its income was just under £2.5m. (From accounts lodged at Companies House.) With partners they are currently engaged in a £4.7m project in the Trent Valley, and another in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-Under-Lyme worth £3.6m. There is absolutely no comparison with human and financial resource now and when ECOS was founded. Shifting baseline syndrome manifests itself in many ways.

Faltering agencies

Those are some of the good things, there are many more. On the down side, the Government’s lead role in nature conservation has virtually been abandoned. The public sector, with some honourable exceptions such as the Environment Agency, has abrogated almost any responsibility for nature conservation. This is exemplified by local authorities’ passion for hiving off parks and nature reserves to trusts and friends’ groups, and the canal network (a valuable wildlife asset) now being run by a charity instead of a public body.

Public agencies have been constantly disrupted. Where in England we once had the NCC, the Countryside Commission (later Agency) the short-lived National Rivers Authority and the rural development service within MAFF, we now have Natural England and the Environment Agency. Mainly UK wide operations have been fragmented by the creation of separate country agencies. Even the public/voluntary sector chimera Groundwork seems but a shadow of its former self.

Whilst this is going on nature has to cope with the reality of climate change, and chronic pollution linked to, amongst other things, pesticides, fossil fuels and plastics.

Of course, one of the things Government cannot abrogate is regulatory responsibility. Regardless of what will change as a result of leaving the EU, legislation means nothing if there is not effective regulation and enforcement. This should include incentives to go beyond mere compliance, as well as sanctions for breaking the law. The current approach of Natural England for a ‘light touch’, coupled with the noises Environment Secretary Michael Gove makes about binning rather than replacing European regulations, gives no confidence that reformed legislation will be worth the effort.

Having said this, we cannot ignore the work of Sir John Lawton with his ‘bigger, better more joined up’ approach to semi-natural places, or the Government’s much vaunted 25 Year Plan for the Environment, although this is not getting a very good press at the moment. Will we ever get to Thatcher’s “full repairing lease”, let alone the 2011 White Paper’s “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”?If we are to move from trying unsuccessfully to stem the losses to actually making progress, then business as usual will not do. I have no magic answer to the conundrum, but I do have some ideas as to what may be tried, and what may test us further.

Nature’s reality now – what can we do?

I believe we try too hard to constrain nature and make it fit our ideas of what it should be like. We could try taking a longer-term view and acknowledge that the earth and its natural systems are in a constant state of change, natural or otherwise, but the time scales involved are beyond our experience and understanding. Perhaps, therefore, we should focus on providing nature with the space and time to express itself as it will, and stop trying to make it do what we want it to. Encourage functioning new ecosystems and worry less about whether or not their components are native or non-native. 


In this context the President of the Royal Entomological Society, Chris Thomas, said recently: “Should we keep manicuring the Earth’s vegetation indefinitely to maintain the species that benefitted from past land management by humans, or ‘let go’ and accept that the denizens of historic landscapes are being replaced by colonists of modern ecosystems, such as suburban gardens?” To me this means worrying less about non-native species and conserving semi-natural cultural land use, such as coppice woodland and flowery meadows, and instead concentrate on moving forward from where we are. The various wider landscape initiatives, including rewilding projects are, in my opinion, on exactly the right track, not least because that was always the way we had to work in towns and cities.

An aside regarding the flowery meadows: for a time we stopped talking about them. Recently however I was at a Birmingham green groups public meeting, and there in the presentation was the old bullet point: ‘We have lost 97% of our flower-rich meadows’ Most of those meadows were gone by 1960, let alone 1980. Most of the people in the room will never have, and never will (except on some of our reserves) experience them. Much better to start with amenity grassland and show what can be done with it than hark back to historic rural grazing practices.

The policy and regulatory vacuum will be a hard nut to crack. More so now that NGOs who lobby for what is needed are accused of politicking and straying from their remits, even though the business sector does this all the time, and in a much more self-interested way. With government agencies muzzled, where will strong and independent institutions to hold government to account come from?

There is an increasing conflict between renewable energy schemes and nature conservation, an indirect consequence of climate change. From wind turbines to tidal barriers and solar farms, renewable energy is potentially very damaging to nature. I recently heard a previous exponent of renewable energy talking of his conversion to advocate for nuclear power, on both safety and land-use grounds.

Nature’s potential 

Overall though we really have to deal with the world as it is, not as something in the rosy mists of nostalgia we want to restore. Nature conservation today means realising what can be gained, not worrying about what has been lost, and accepting that species are on the move and their phenologies are changing.

It really is time to say goodbye to the past, embrace the present, and try to more effectively shape the future.


Shirley, Peter “ECOS 40(2): Nature custodians – facing our great paradox” ECOS vol. 40(2), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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