Thoughts from influential nature conservationists…

Clive Chatters

Career Highlights

I started my working life in the era of mass unemployment – the early 1980s – so my lasting highlight has been a continuity of employment, particularly by employers who have been flexible in supporting me. That aside, the highlights have arisen from the people I meet, especially those who see the world somewhat differently from me; there is so much to learn.

Of course, there have been particularly good days, such as when we prevailed in set-piece battles. Those days of planning inquiries into contentious developments are almost over, which is a shame as the public’s voice is now excluded from many important decisions.

With hindsight, what we won in those years was time and, again with hindsight, I’m not sure we went on to make the best use of that respite. It is so much easier to deal with the ‘here-and-now’ than to embrace the prospect of the long-term grind that is needed to make real, lasting change. Every day when I see someone walking down that hard path, it is a highlight, a beacon of hope.

How do you define nature conservation?

At its heart, nature conservation is about arranging the way we live our lives so that wildlife can get on with being itself. Even in highly urbanised countries such as our own, we may still aspire to secure nature as part of the daily working of the landscape. In a perfect world, nature conservationists should be unnecessary – one can dream! Obviously, in the real world we sometimes need to have emergency measures to safeguard a place or a species, which can be likened to intensive care units, but these must always be a step on the road to having wildlife out there in the community, doing what it does best without us. Intensive interventions by conservationists will ultimately be judged as failures if we cannot move on from them.

What’s the good news about wildlife and nature at present?

There is good news, over recent decades we have grown to understand that where we give nature a chance, then it is remarkably good at looking after itself. Parts of the conservation movement are growing in their appreciation of this big picture and what we can do to secure a healthy relationship with our cohabitees on this planet.

New Forest ponies grazing in wood pasture, in the shadow of standing dead wood.

Beyond the obvious of habitat loss and species decline, what’s your greatest concern in UK nature conservation at present?

At face value, the conservation movement is larger and stronger than it has ever been. On paper, our laws and policies are excellent (not that they cannot be improved, or better still, implemented). Yet, I feel that nature is at greater risk now than it was when I started my career.

There are accelerating global issues which emphasise the need to enable nature to cope with change. There is nothing new about climate change, sea-level-rise and all the other manifestations of our abuse of the planet. What differs from previous geological epochs is the pace of change combined with the fragmented and wounded state of ecosystems. Whilst we cannot solve the global crisis on our own, we know what we can do locally to help nature, not least embracing the Lawton principles of ‘Bigger, Better and More Joined Up’ landscapes. Where this is being done, we are already seeing dividends, but all too often we get lost in the excitement of novelties and ‘quick wins’; which are fun, fundable and prestigious. Yet in the long-term, what difference do they make?

We are in danger of diverting too great a proportion of our resources into the pursuit of the charismatic, marketable and socially laudable. If we really want to improve conditions for nature then we need to keep our eye on the big stuff and know that our job is mostly about living things which remain unknown and unseen.

My other concern is the risk of becoming institutionalised and beguiled by apparent opportunities to exert influence. I say this as someone who has worked in various roles in local and national government, both on the inside as an apolitical appointee and as an external lobbyist. The mantra of ‘never confuse access to power with influence’ is well worth remembering. Looking back over the last 40 years, the break-points in progressing nature conservation have come from highly motivated groups of individuals opposing powerful forces that would do harm to nature. Norman Moore, one of the inspirational figures in the early life of ECOS, promoted the view that the role of organisations was to support individuals who could effect change. In the end, it is people, not organisations, who make a difference. It is the legal challenges, the canny protests and the courteous confrontations that have moved us forward. There is little as effective as the prospect of a judicial review to help a government agency focus on the delivery of statute and policy. Similarly, High Court challenges resulting in case law serves to reset the rule book and provides certainty as to next steps. So many of the really good things that are happening in the landscapes I love can be traced back to hard-nosed actions rather than emollient partnerships. These are powerful tools which we are instinctively hesitant to use, but may yet serve us well.

If you had a limited budget on nature conservation in Britain, what would you prioritise and why? 

There is a limited budget in the conservation movement and, fortunately, no individual has control over it. One of the strengths of our movement is in the diversity of organisations and funding streams. However, that strength is only realised when we choose to work in concert.

Hypothetically, should I have a magic wand to direct resources I would invest in the human and physical infrastructure which underpins our most biodiverse landscapes. The vast majority of quality habitats and their attendant species are ultimately dependent on natural dynamism. That dynamism provides structural complexity and a full range of ecological successions, from old-growth forests to exposed mineral soils. Over evolutionary time, our richest habitats have benefited from dynamism driven by large herbivores combined with a bit of ground disturbance and the occasional fire.

At present, our limited elective budgets may best be directed towards sustaining habitats through supporting pastoral economies and the skills embedded in those communities. I use the plural ‘communities’ as many conservation bodies have become part of the pastoral economy. I wonder, nationally, how many livestock are owned and/or directly managed by conservation bodies, how many barns and byres and stock’men’ are now in our portfolio? We have a great deal to learn from longer-standing livestock farmers and commoners as to how extensively grazed, unintensively managed landscapes work. I hope that as the conservation movement grows in its practical management experience, we will see a renaissance in relationships between low-input mixed farming, pastoralism and wildlife conservation.

How do you feel about your input to the subject – what if anything has it achieved and would you do it differently if starting again today?

It is for others to judge success – as with all jobs I tend to see the ‘weeds in the garden’ and the next big challenge. If I was starting again? Maybe I would have been cannier in avoiding the life-sapping initiatives of central and local government which eat resources and produce little but process. Such a bold step would have released time to spend with nature and with those who truly understand the functioning of the natural world.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Thank you to ECOS for providing a platform for ideas and debate. If we are to progress then we need places to explore ideas, learn from one another and maybe even get it wrong amongst supportive friends.


Chatters, Clive “ECOS Interviews: CLIVE CHATTERS” ECOS vol. 2024 , British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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