Thoughts from influential nature conservationists…
I’m flattered that anyone might consider the last 30 years of my life as a ‘career’ – I’d call it more of a learn-on-the-job roller coaster with an equal share of highs and lows!
I spent the best part of two decades travelling the globe taking pretty pictures of pretty animals and getting paid for it. When the bottom dropped out of the nature photography business, I was drawn to conservation storytelling, the camera being my initial tool of choice. A series of multimedia conservation projects followed, such as Tooth & Claw, a study of our relationship with predators; Wild Wonders of Europe, which in 2012 became a founding partner of Rewilding Europe, and 2020VISION, an early stab at the UK’s potential for landscape-scale restoration.
During this time, I learned a lot about ecology and land management, but more significantly, I became an unqualified yet reasonably experienced social scientist. Having interviewed everyone from grisly ranchers in Montana to equally grisly crofters on Scotland’s west coast, and most demographics in between, I’d like to think I’ve developed a reasonable grasp of the complex factors that make people tick.
This odd cocktail of storytelling, ecology and people’s social and cultural values, all fuelled the establishment of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, a rewilding charity that I’m now privileged to lead.
How do you define nature conservation?
I’ve never considered myself a ‘conservationist’. Trying to protect and preserve the fragments and threads of nature we have left never made much sense to me. Conservation has always felt like wildlife gardening – managing landscapes to preserve specific species, or habitats that are deemed to be desirable or important. Even today across many reserves and designated sites, the natural processes that drive all healthy living systems – vegetation succession, predation, scavenging, nutrient cycling etc – are often suppressed for prescriptive outcomes.
The stark truth is that despite notable successes, traditional conservation has failed to arrest and reverse ecological decline. I’d be happy if the word passed quietly into history and was replaced by ‘recovery’, ‘restoration’ or better still ‘rewilding’.
Peter Cairns promoting the ecosystem role of predators and wolves.
What’s the good news about wildlife and nature at present?
I hope that we’re beginning to move beyond pick and mix conservation – trying to save nature piece by piece. Landscape-scale ecological restoration, shaped and governed by natural processes, is gaining huge traction as we ramp up our ambition to address the dual crises of climate breakdown and nature loss.
Encouragingly, previously opposing views are coalescing around areas like river restoration and deer management. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but the tide is turning.
I’m also buoyed by the number of young people getting in touch with SCOTLAND: The Big Picture. For them, rewilding represents something that the traditional conservation narrative has deprived them of: hope.
Beyond the obvious of habitat loss and species decline, what’s your greatest concern in UK nature conservation at present?
Two things: ecological blindness and risk aversion.
The former is a consequence of our well documented disconnection from nature. It results in society normalising – even celebrating – degraded landscapes and impoverished wildlife populations. Having little experience of living alongside truly wild nature, we struggle to imagine anything different from our tidy, ordered landscapes; we are blind to the land’s ecological potential.
Risk aversion has become inherent in the conservation community. Paralysis by fear and politics stifles ambition and leads to inertia. I’m sure this will resonate with anyone familiar with the torturous story of the return of beavers to Scotland in the last 20 years.
If you had a limited budget on nature conservation in Britain, what would you prioritise and why?
The obvious answer would be to provide more financial incentive to land managers to embrace ecological recovery – a five or ten metre buffer strip along all watercourses would be a good start and would produce quick results.
More broadly, as part of the curriculum, I’d take every young person on an eye-opening, horizon-expanding, immersive field trip to Yellowstone, or perhaps Romania, as a cure for ecological blindness. I’d then challenge each student to convince me why we can’t have more wild nature in the UK.
Peter Cairns in his role as a nature photographer.
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?
When I think back to early conversations around rewilding, they were hugely raw and immature. We’ve moved on and although the prospect of change remains challenging for many land managers, it is happening. Native woodland is expanding in many areas; river catchments are being restored, species are being reintroduced. This is the work of many dedicated people and if I’ve played even a minor role in changing the narrative, I’ll be content.
Doing things differently? Fundamentally, nature recovery in the UK is not about beavers or wetlands – change rests with people and their attitudes and perceptions. Rewilding is 20% ecology and 80% psychology. Looking back 30 years, I’d have campaigned for less ecologists and more psychologists – people who understand how to disentangle society’s complex belief systems in order to influence behavioural change.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Many conservationists are nervous about the ‘rewilding’ word, but the reason rewilding has such broad public appeal is because it inspires hope; hope that wildlife can come back; hope that we can undo some of the harms we have manifested on nature; hope that we might imagine a better future.