Thoughts from influential nature conservationists…
My early research led to the eradication of goats threatening Aldabra and helped demonstrate that protected sea turtle and giant tortoise populations can recover quickly.
In contrast, I was amazed by the neglect of science in conservation management in Britain, the focus instead being traditional landscapes and popular species. With Phil Sterling I showed some invertebrates were devastated by removal of dense vegetation in coppicing – an early example of ‘evidence-based conservation’. With Charlie Gibson I worked on re-creation of limestone grassland, showing spider diversity does not co-vary with plant diversity. With Claire Ozanne and Martin Speight I found spiders more diverse and abundant in dark woodland cores than in open woodland. I survived researching the most taxonomically comprehensive examination of extinction rates in the world.
Much of my work is synthesized, with Susan Canney, in our book Conservation. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/conservation/EACADEC6E338F3CC084F4F6C52E10117
How do you define nature conservation?
The protection of nature from irreversible harm. This includes geodiversity such as the Severn Bore, barrier beaches, caves, fossil beds and cliffs. It can sometimes include sustainable use – if it is demonstrably sustainable and not just ignoring impacts elsewhere. ‘Nature’ is hard to define and measure – but less so than the dangerously ambiguous term ‘biodiversity’, and reflects what the location would be like without human activity.
What’s the good news about wildlife and nature at present?
Globally, awareness is increasing – with renewed effort to protect forests, wetlands and marine life. The Convention on Biological Diversity could work wonders – if enforced. In Britain, after decades of hostility from the conservation establishment, rewilding is gaining traction – basically a rebranding of globally conventional restoration. Naturalness, late-successional habitats, habitat cores, carnivores and connectivity are increasingly prioritized – appropriately since these are amongst the hardest things to restore.
Beyond the obvious of habitat loss and species decline, what’s your greatest concern in UK nature conservation at present?
The rise of ‘biodiversity offsetting’, ‘biodiversity mitigation’ or ‘biodiversity net gain’ nonsense. This is being used to destroy valuable habitats whilst creating a much larger area of much less valuable habitat. Experience shows it enabling loss of habitats that would take at least centuries to re-create, such as ancient wetland and old growth forests. In the USA valuable wetlands have been ‘offset’ with poor ones, yet we repeat their mistake. Some organizations still neglect evidence – for example British extinction rates show where the serious threats are and what habitats should not be offset.
‘Offsetting’ has even been proposed for tidal power in the River Severn, or wind turbine developments threatening seabirds – as if the habitats and species can just be shunted elsewhere!
If you had a limited budget on nature conservation in Britain, what would you prioritise and why?
The habitats with the species for which Britain has internationally significant populations. Irreversible global extinctions may occur if we neglect these. So: the Severn Estuary, Flow Country and other big wetlands, our coastal areas and temperate rainforests.
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’s very rewarding to see my research and teaching influence management around the world. Rewilding is taking root and I’m very satisfied to have worked on some of the foundational evidence for it. My work in the Seychelles and building the UK’s Overseas (Dependent) territories conservation capability has probably helped save many species. My highlighting the ecological impacts of renewable energy developments may save even more. And my long-term experiments on succession may help replace the tree-planting frenzy with more appropriate natural regrowth.
My main contribution may be teaching large numbers of great students from around the world to take a more scientifically objective and international perspective. They are having influence in many regions far more important than Britain – and helping Britain to catch up.
Starting again, I’d probably spend more time in the tropics – before it was too late for many sites and species.
Anything else you’d like to say..?
Thanks to my students and colleagues, who inspire and reward me with their enthusiasm and success. And thanks to ECOS and British Wildlife and Feral for publishing controversial ideas some government agencies and charities should have been open to all along. We could be a lot wilder in our actions for nature by now – but at least we’re on the way…