Thoughts from influential nature conservationists…

Mathew Frith

Career Highlights

They have been numerous, but include securing my job in 1990 as the warden for Sydenham Hill Wood, a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve, and managing it for five and a half years, working with volunteers and learning over time how that woodland ‘worked’.  Also getting appointed as the Urban Advisor for English Nature (EN) in 2000 (stepping into the highly respected shoes of George Barker), the work of which included reviewing the ANGSt (EN’s Access to Natural Greenspace Standards) and being part of the Government’s Urban Green Spaces Taskforce.  I would have stayed but I caught sight of a role at Peabody (Housing) Trust to improve its estates’ courtyards and greenspaces with budgets I’d never seen before. Between 2002-09 I helped oversee and implement many transformations to benefit the residents. Whilst at Peabody I also co-established Neighbourhoods Green as a programme to enhance the landscapes owned and managed by social landlords; alas austerity brought in by the Coalition Government killed it off in 2010. 

Since then I’ve been back at London Wildlife Trust bringing into fruition Braeburn Park as a reserve in 2014 (17 years after I had initiated it) and working with colleagues to establish Woodberry Wetlands, opened by Sir David Attenborough in 2016.  I was pleased to be part of the Mayor’s London Rewilding Taskforce, and working with others to start showing the possible steps to some landscape-scale nature recovery in the near future. I can’t forget either discovering a species of Impatiens in Cameroon (through Royal Botanic Garden Kew) and being awarded an MBE in this year’s New Year Honours for services to the natural environment.

How do you define nature conservation?

The actions taken by people to help protect, conserve and enhance nature, to help restore the abundance and distribution of species of wild fauna, flora and fungi, to restore and create (semi-) natural habitats in order to make more resilient ecosystems and other features of the natural world.  Underpinned by science nature conservation is a political act and has to work within the social, economic, geographical and climatic contexts of where it operates in order to best achieve its objectives.  Nevertheless, it is inevitably shaped by competing philosophies, fashions and human relationships, fall-outs and collaborations, which to me make it especially fascinating.

Matthew giving a talk at Woodberry Wetlands in 2015.

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

The success of some projects and programmes to restore habitats, especially large-scale rewilding, projects that inspire others (such as red kite reintroductions in the 1990s, beavers in this decade, Knepp in West Sussex, etc.)  Some species appear to be doing well almost indirectly of our actions, such as peregrine falcon, raven and great spotted woodpecker. 

The recent explosion of nature writing and very localised greening and rewilding initiatives across the country are testimony to how nature conservation has broken out of its older male white science-bound citadels, and has a much broader appeal.

The belated recognition of urban nature as being relevant, interesting and important. 

The internet and social media making it easier to broadcast information to a far greater audience than could have possibly been imagined 30 years ago – although it does have some downsides.

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

That for all the talk and strategies and plans published, government doesn’t really take it seriously. We barely have any MP or Minister who has fully engaged – bar Gove and Benn – since 2008, let alone any that appear to ‘get’ nature (as opposed to farming and shooting) in this country. The agencies – Natural England, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission, Marine Management Organisation – have been de-fenestrated and appear shallow in their expertise, and Defra remains a severely weakened Department. Brexit still poses a threat in legislative terms, and disrupting European cooperation on research, monitoring and sharing good practice. I also think without strong leadership from Government, society has occupied the vacuum to the extent there’s no clear direction to address the real problems in a prioritised manner, so we have beavers being released in London (as a priority for either London’s conservation needs or beaver introduction – I question it), and Natural England’s Green Infrastructure standards that want to achieve – laudable – multiple functional objectives everywhere. I’m being a bit flippant, but it’s become atomised, so that people and organisations can pick and choose their own actions and priorities with little context. And then we get Local Nature Recovery Strategies being developed but without any resources to deliver them. I’m not convinced that Biodiversity Net Gain will deliver that in our cities, despite Defra’s claims.

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

Within the existing legislative frameworks, providing good access to nature for those that would most benefit from it in urban housing estates and inner-city suburbs, creating climate resilient environments, and helping personal and communal wellbeing.

Greening our towns and cities would bring about significant benefits; we know how to do it, we need the resources and incentives to make it happen.

If there was a resource to introduce new legislation, then push for new laws to make it easier for Compulsory Purchase Orders to enable the acquisition of land to deliver nature recovery networks for the greater social and environmental goods that they could provide. 

Reduce the ability of unaccountable landowners to block measures that benefit society as a whole.

With a group from the Max Roach Adventure Playground, at Sydenham Hill Wood in the early 1990s. 

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?

I’d like to think I’ve made a bit of a difference. I still have ‘imposter syndrome’ after all these years – as I came into the wildlife sector after being a ‘failed’ musician, rather than the then more traditional routes (okay, I have a degree in Zoology but my childhood interest in the natural world was pummelled out of me doing that with its reductionist focus on biochemistry, genetics, statistics, etc.). 

I hope my passion for nature in our towns and cities has helped to inspire others, and the neighbourhoods Green programme at least highlighted the art of the possible, even though I eventually moved back to London Wildlife Trust.  I am looking forward to help making rewilding (in the long-standing BANC/ECOS sense) a possibility in the near future.

I’m often asked what I would do differently. At London Wildlife Trust it might have achieved different results if at the outset (1981), most of our resources were focused on education – of young people, adults, local authorities, politicians and other decision-makers. But we fell into the notion of being like other nature conservation organisations of the time by taking on nature reserves (I do see the importance of these, by the way). But I wonder whether we might have achieved more with a different and narrower focus.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I think that the combined actions of many many thousands of people since the 1940s (and before) to help protect, conserve and enhance the country’s nature has been totally under-appreciated by society at large. Most have worked at below average wages (or as volunteers) to help push back against the combined weight of intensive agriculture, industrial pollution, militarised forestry, development, a complacent horticultural industry, the indirect impacts of population growth and, increasingly, climate change – and the lobbyists working for the interests that wish to continue the status quo in Government.

Dedicated research, land management, campaigning, advocacy, education, public awareness raising, surveys and monitoring – all in their different ways – have been crucial but overall – despite the numbers that support the National Trust, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Wetlands Trust, etc. (greater than all those of the political parties combined) – we seem disregarded, and largely invisible. It’s either a vilifying focus on the more extreme fringes such as Xtinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, or sentimentalising good news stories about otters and flowers as if what’s actually happening (climate and nature crises) doesn’t exist.  I understand and support why Wild Justice and Chris Packham’s new campaigns have come about.

Although personally I’m quite relaxed about non-native species per se, we as a sector tend to get a bit alarmist about many of them. That said, I don’t see why nature conservationists should pay for the mistakes of the horticulture industry by the huge amount of resources, largely by volunteers, allocating to sort out invasive macrophytes and other plants from damaging habitats and other key wildlife features. Similar issues apply in terms of nutrient run off from forestry and agriculture, although some schemes are all too belatedly trying to address these – it’s mostly too little too late.


Frith, Mathew “ECOS Interviews: MATHEW FRITH” ECOS vol. 2023 , British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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