ECOS 40(3): Editorial: The designer wild

Editorial by

Geoffrey Wain

There’s a snake in our eco-paradise according to Richard Smyth in The New Statesman – looking amongst the wildlife movement, is that snake our sometimes bossy, doctrinaire attitude? If we are too pushy in our campaigns, perhaps this is why others refer to the Green Blob when they write their put-downs on the environmental lobby in the press.

We could shrug off these challenges and regard them as insults from different ideologies, but that might be complacent. Richard Smyth is himself a wildlife author, yet he brands other nature writers  as eco fascists. Well, not really – he withdraws the accusation late in his article, but we get the message. We might want to register this blow. We could heed a warning from a critical friend. There may well be a whiff of elitism and too much of a misanthropic tone in our pleas and our calls to arm for the sake of nature. Even in the way we describe the land and our ‘preferred countryside’, do we sometimes exaggerate and hanker after a perfect nature, which we ask people to defend and care for?

In this edition, nature writer Paul Evans (who receives a slap in Richard Smyth’s piece) guides us through current trends in nature writing. We might see lots of wildlife books piled up in Waterstones and no end to the popularity of this escapist literature, but meanwhile, the way nature is expressed and celebrated is under reform. Paul Evans suggests the dominance of the pastoral view of nature and the countryside has had its day. Different experiential writing is coming to the fore. Richard Smyth will hopefully support this trend.      


Paul Evans wonders if we even write about nature that is real. Too often we write and we read about our perceptions rather than the state of nature here and now, he suggests. Cue a recent offering from The Spectator, as journalist Matthew Parris steps out of his Yurt, and questions the fundaments of rewilding.  Glamping on the Knepp Estate, Parris was impressed at what he encountered. These shaggy, wildlife-rich pastures, left to their own devices in deepest West Sussex are actually the very type of dreamy pastoral landscape that nature writers could be accused of over-dosing about. Parris has spotted something else though. Is this landscape really left to its own fate? Is this actually self-willed land? Or is it a state of nature we yearn for – and welcome it being contrived by the landowners?

It’s a bit picky to criticise Knepp’s owners Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree for promoting ‘process over outcome’, but Parris does just this.  He feels the outcome is known enough, and there is less surprise in what happens, and the ecosystem that emerges, than we and the landowners let on. Parris sees a blind spot. He challenges the notion that people can conduct nature as something separate. He regards people as within nature, not apart from it. It’s an age-old argument, but if you take his view, then he is bound to be right – the wild nature of Knepp is a construct. It is a new fashion in nature, with plenty of wildlife benefits, but nothing that should be seen as ‘wild’.     

And in this edition, author Peter Shirley takes a parallel view to Parris. He applies these arguments to attitudes about so-called alien and native species. A broader, functional thinking about ecosystems doesn’t need such false boundaries he suggests. Sure, we need to recognise dire impacts of certain species, but ‘nativeness’ might be a dubious starting point for making decisions on land management or un-management .  Over 40 years of writing in ECOS we’ve had these same conversations in different guises, and little is new. But arguments which stick and which can hurt are worth revisiting. Brave projects like Knepp and elsewhere like Ennerdale, allow us to explore these points with real examples, and even to glamp within them. Our own perceptions of our own wildlife can benefit from these reality checks.      


Wain, Geoffrey “ECOS 40(3): Editorial: The designer wild” ECOS vol. 40(3), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

Leave a Reply