ECOS 40(2): The meanings of nature conservation: eco-engineering or letting go?

Birdbox in nature

Giving meaning to nature conservation means pursuing a diversity of practical ways to conserve wildlife.

How do we conserve nature?

When the Guardian published a grey squirrel recipe recently, among the responses in its letters page was a plea to leave grey squirrels and all animals alone, to “allow them to live out their lives in peace”. But does this attitude to wildlife demean it, denying its wild nature? Do the interventions which people make to get close to wildlife, using bird feeders and all kinds of paraphernalia, suggest they really want to leave wildlife alone?

BANC has for four decades provided a space in which its members can shelter and debate questions like this. It has done this through meetings, special reports and especially by publishing ECOS. The world outside has not been much aware of this debate, although sometimes concerns spill out into the wider media.

This edition of ECOS addresses the changing meaning of nature conservation from BANC’s inception to the present, with some brave souls grasping crystal balls to look into the future. My starting point is that nature conservation (which comes under many guises, including biodiversity, rewilding and so on) no longer has a single meaning; meanings proliferate as the central purpose becomes opaque. Why conserve nature, and how best to do it? Conserving nature in situ or ‘restoring’ nature beyond the boundaries of special sites?

Engineering habitats

I attended a conference recently (PLACE Conference, York, 6 April 2019) at which the speakers were asked to look back at the development of nature conservation and then forward at its prospects. The keynote speaker, Sir John Lawton, reviewed the history of nature conservation and identified an important stage in its development. This was when, back in the 1990s, conservationists first realised that habitats could be created outside nature reserves. He wondered why it had taken so long.

One answer would be that, in an era when funding for conservation was extremely limited, no one thought it was the right thing to do. It was not a question of whether you could, but whether you should engineer the landscape to create new habitats for wildlife. The battle was to save what we still had left. Creating new habitats was not the priority – or not seen as practicable. As Lawton pointed out, premier wildlife sites like Leighton Moss, which consisted of potato fields before 1914, and Minsmere, which was flooded to stop a possible German invasion, were created accidentally. The motivation (political will, funding, public support and so on) to take an area of land, the larger the better as this is much more cost-effective, and give it over to nature did not start to materialise until the 1990s. Three factors came together: there was little left to save, especially in much of England; awareness was growing about what an absence of nature meant for the quality of people’s lives; and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was available and responded positively.

I agree with Lawton about this significant if subtle transition. His contribution to the latest incarnation of nature conservation has been an important one. The review of England’s nature reserves Making Space for Nature, known as the Lawton report, with its mantra ‘bigger, better, more joined-up’ was published in 2010, attracted £7.5m of Government funding, and leveraged a further £40m for 12 ‘nature improvement areas’ in England. The funding finished in 2015. It was not replicated in other parts of the UK but it can be seen, for example, in the work of conservation organisations (the National Trust has been particularly impressive), farmers and landowners (through Farm Clusters) and the efforts of individuals such as the Burrells at Knepp in West Sussex, an outstanding experiment.

Reintroducing species

Alongside this ambitious and creative landscape-scale approach to nature conservation has come a shift of focus from habitats to species which was first initiated with the ‘species recovery programmes’ of the 1980s, and reintroductions such as that of the white-tailed eagle. It was boosted by the Biodiversity Action Plan process which came from the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 2001. Nowadays conservation organisations look for publicity and grant-attracting wildlife releases. Water voles, red squirrels, pine martens, beavers, chough, cranes, short-haired bumblebees, you name it, someone wants to bring it back somewhere. Some of these reintroductions, such as the large blue butterfly, have been valuable, not least in driving forward difficult but essential habitat management: the interconnected lives of invertebrates make in situ conservation essential. At the other end of the scale are some of the bird releases, following the ‘success’ of the red kite experiment. Soon Isle of Wight residents and visitors will thrill to the sight of white-tailed eagles.

Uncertain political futures

Back at the conference Laurence Rose, RSPB, is talking about the future. “If we need a conference like this in 2030, we will have failed”. That is a mere 11 years away. I doubt if very much will have been resolved in so short a time but I hope that aspirations to do so will continue. He called for a new conservation culture, which rejects loss as normal, rethinks field sports and land ownership, replaces farm subsidies with investment in land and makes public land work as public assets.

The conference was uplifting and, if I didn’t agree with everything, including the apparent belief that conservation on farm could be achieved by planting trees in Tuley tubes, it was stimulating, and it included a wise and very cogent contribution from Jeremy Purseglove. I won’t repeat what he said here about the scale and unintended consequences of drainage schemes, but he had several memorable phrases up his sleeve, such as ‘the awful sameness of the everywhere landscape’. No doubt you will find more of these in his latest book Working with Nature: Saving and Using the World’s Wild Places.

The centrality of the environment in human affairs is still not recognised: indeed it is highly vulnerable to economic and political tides. Predicting a future which may be changed by disasters at any moment is, I would suggest, for fools. Going back to the Earth Summit, this provided hope that the international community might cooperate towards saving our collective home planet, and that cooperation might serve the interests of social justice, given that the world’s poor and nature were in the same boat. There were powerful vested interests to overcome, but it was the global financial crisis of 2007-8 which sent the environmental agenda into full-scale retreat.

The tide of politics is producing turbulent water at the moment. Many argue that leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the resultant switch to public money for public goods will end the perverse subsidies which make agriculture so hostile to the environment. I advise caution. Did anyone hear Environment Minister Michael Gove saying he would consider bringing back ewe headage payments?

Will the environment count in the future?

In February 2019 the Institute for Public Policy Research launched a report titled This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown. “The mainstream political and policy debates have failed to recognise that human impacts on the environment have reached a critical stage”, it argued. “The historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake”. The report drew attention to the broad range and severity of the negative impacts of environmental breakdown on societies and economies around the world.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, one of the report’s authors Laurie Laybourn-Langton concluded that the roots of the environmental crisis lay in “the very way our social and economic systems are constructed”. The large-scale transformation needed to tackle the crisis also meant tackling enormous rates of inequality and required global cooperation. “I turned 30 recently and in my lifetime the scientific community have been warning leaders to act.” The report gives an arresting but unsurprising account of the point which has been reached in the fraught relationship between one species and the planet which created us.


So we know where we are, and where we’ve come from. Do we know where we are going? The trajectory, I think, is towards anthropomorphic public attitudes to select, favoured wildlife. There will be more tree-planting, which has little to commend it, filling up the countryside with plastic and denying the fact which stares you in the face wherever you are in Britain away from highlands and islands, that trees are outstandingly good at planting themselves. Climate change will dominate the environmental agenda, boosting the tree-planting lobby. There will be more wildlife releases (reintroductions), of variable real value. There will continue to be a decline in the quality of good remaining semi-natural habitat and the way special sites are managed. Also at risk is common or garden nature, which is only common in these oceanic islands; and all the fine details, the particular features which make our landscape so intriguing.

The good work of organisations and individuals will do much to arrest this slide, and there will be a shift towards new ways to ‘make space for nature’. The statutory sector will continue to lose funding and influence, although its independence will have to be restored at some time in the future. Farming, forestry and other industries, under the constraints of natural resource limits and with the opportunities provided by technological advances, will be encouraged to ‘eco-engineer’ the environment. Despite fine words, as in Dieter Helm’s new book Green and Prosperous Land, economics will remain hostile to ecology. Two very different ideas of home (eco), domestic versus planet.

Helping nature help people

Nature conservation serves many purposes and has many meanings. One of these, which must not be forgotten, is to help those whose actions affect nature, such as landowners, to see that their efforts are benevolent and not harmful to the non-human world which depends on them and, ultimately, on which we all depend. In a property-owning society in which the fate of nature is largely in the hands of landowners, the challenge is to find ways to encourage this group to let nature get on with the job of restoring soils, regulating floods and increasing the stock of human well-being. Incentives to landowners provide one string to the rainbow of different approaches being tried, from eco-engineering to letting go, which give meanings to nature conservation. Let’s celebrate all those who are finding practical ways to give more space to nature in the coming uncertain years.

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Robertson, James “ECOS 40(2): The meanings of nature conservation: eco-engineering or letting go?” ECOS vol. 40(2), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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