ECOS Interviews: PETER SHIRLEY

Thoughts from influential nature conservationists…

PETER SHIRLEY

Background

In 1987 I moved from commerce to the charity sector, and in turn I was then Director of the Urban Wildlife Group, a national director of the Wildlife Trusts, and Regional Director for the West Midlands Wildlife Trusts. In 1995 I was awarded an MBE for services to nature conservation. After retiring in 2006 I chaired the National Lottery’s Community Spaces grants committee, which distributed over £50M to local projects.

How do you define nature conservation?

A multi-faceted pursuit to generally improve conditions for wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. The principal areas of work include:

  • Conserving, improving and expanding habitats (natural or otherwise) for the benefit of the species characteristic of or dependant on those habitats, whether they are ancient natural habitats, cultural semi-natural habitats (such as hedgerows or coppiced woodlands) or, particularly in urban areas, entirely artificial habitats.
  • Creating new wildlife-friendly sites according to local conditions and opportunities, such as converting old gravel pits to wetland reserves, or creating wildlife-rich places such as Camley Street Nature Park in the middle of London, the wildlife garden at the Natural History Museum, or the many nature parks and reserves on brownfield sites.
  • Encouraging and supporting individuals and communities to help, and provide for, wildlife as part of their day-to-day activities, such as gardening or managing land with different primary purposes, such as churchyards, parks and road verges, agriculture and forestry.
  • Communicating (including through formal education) the importance of nature for its own sake, its aesthetic values, and its fundamental importance to people’s health and wellbeing.  

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

It’s almost anti-intuitive, and certainly unfashionable, to refer to good news in this context. But in reality, there is plenty to celebrate. Nature is fundamentally resilient. Species have, and are, being brought back from the brink of extinction. For example, on a global scale, whales have been increasing in number for some time. More locally, re-introduction programmes for such as beavers, red kites and sea eagles seem to be working, and pine martens, buzzards, and deer are increasing in number without much direct help from us. We hear much about Nature’s losses, but there are increases in abundance and range in response to environmental changes, such as global warming, as well.

We also understand more about so-called pristine habitats. We are now aware that there are large areas of wildlife-rich habitats, such as the Serengeti and many areas of rainforest, that are in fact secondary not primary habitats. In other words, we are learning that nature is good at repairing the damage we do. This should provide pointers to future conservation action.

Another success is that we have broken nature conservation out of the prison of nature reserves. Forty years ago, they were still the prime focus of the sector, and nature conservation was generally a somewhat elitist pursuit. Now we have concepts and associated projects relating to green infrastructure, river catchments (Europe was always behind the USA regarding catchments) landscape scale conservation, and rewilding. Reserves are still essential, but perhaps now we should call them reservoirs. In addition, we are engaging, and being engaged by, people from all walks of life, in rural and urban areas, in nature conservation.

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

That the forces acting against nature are far more powerful than the mitigation and improvement that the nature conservation sector can bring to bear upon the problems. The sheer scale of such things as the impacts of global warming, transport infrastructure, economic development, agriculture and pollution, dwarf our efforts to turn the tide. The processes which should help to address this – well formulated policies, properly enforced regulations arising from those policies, and adequate resourcing of independent regulatory bodies – are weak, under-resourced and often entirely ignored. Outside that framework targets are continually set and missed. The frustrating thing is that while we know what needs to be done, and most of the time how to do it, Government is all talk: aspirations do not lead often enough to the action and achievement which would support and enhance the sector’s efforts.

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

I would seek to move the focus to conserving, enabling and maximising ecosystem functions and services. I believe we should worry less about the fate of individual species and habitats (many of the latter are not natural anyway) and more about how the species in any particular location relate to each other. The components are less important than the ways in which they interact. We need less attention on such things as whether or not species are native, or the degree of naturalness in the habitat, and more on creative conservation involving often unique assemblages of species which happen to find themselves in the same place. I think this would give greater value for money and other resources than, for example, repeating the pool frog saga, or trying to eradicate well established non-natives whose harmful effects are often exaggerated. ‘Nativeness’ is not a concept recognised by nature, and to me it is a shibboleth which absorbs too much of our energy and money. I would prioritise embracing change over conserving stability, allowing nature the flexibility it needs instead of continually trying to force it to be what we think it ought to be. What has been called ‘enabling the evolutionary dance’ through creative 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?

As a non-scientist, my roles have been as a backroom worker: lobbying, campaigning, building partnerships and relationships, and fund-raising. It’s not for me to judge, but I think that my main achievement has been to facilitate the work of colleagues by developing organisations, obtaining grants and other funding, ensuring appropriate training programmes are in place for personal and professional development, and persuading third parties like politicians, local government officers and civil servants that they need what we have to offer. Perhaps the most significant thing I was closely involved with was the environmental stream of Landfill Tax. This was not in the Government’s original plans for the ’good causes’ to benefit from the rebates. And that was a result of relationship building: the tip-off about the opportunity came from a director of one of the major water companies, who then made the introduction to the civil servants involved.

It is also very satisfying that the principles of nature conservation in urban areas, which I helped to develop, have become widely adopted elsewhere. Two elements in particular are now in the mainstream of nature conservation practice: landscape-scale conservation, and engaging people with the natural world in, for instance, their gardens, schools, and neighbourhoods.

Anything else you’d like to say..?

The sector has changed beyond recognition during the years of my involvement. It has grown enormously, with budgets and staff numbers which we could not imagine in the early 80s. But the more we have the more we need, and we complain about a lack of resources as vehemently as we did when we really didn’t have any. We have to beware putting the needs of organisations before the needs of nature. We are here to help nature survive and thrive, not for individual organisations to grow ever larger just for the sake of doing so.

Cite:

Shirley, Peter “ECOS Interviews: PETER SHIRLEY” ECOS vol. 2022, , British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-interviews-peter-shirley/.

One thought on “ECOS Interviews: PETER SHIRLEY

  1. Barry Larking says:

    ‘The sheer scale of such things as the impacts of global warming, transport infrastructure, economic development, agriculture and pollution, dwarf our efforts to turn the tide. ‘

    To which I would add population growth. But discussing this in public is well nigh impossible.

    There is otherwise much to welcome in Mr Shirley’s thoughts. There is a natural propensity to anguish among conservationists going back to the 19th century; ‘nothing is as good as it was’ – and actually not so good then either in truth. Mabey described the situation well fifty some years ago when he described conservation at that time as a game played by specialists with special rules on a private pitch. That has changed, thanks in large part to television and wireless. Larger numbers of people have been recruited to the side of at least caringa little. Unfortunately, I detect a possible threat to this engagement from purists driven to actions that alienate rather than persuade. Theatre is beguiling but as Yeats said ‘players and painted stage took all my love rather than those things they were images of’. Shirley’s aside about forming relationships across what might be thought of as major divides is a potent reminder of a productive process rather than confrontation and accusation.
    Innovation and imagination in conservation were markedly absent when I came across Ecos for the first time; the situation has altered a bit; however, old habits die hard. If you have been in a room with three conservationist you will have noticed the point scoring is in good health.
    I too am excited by the transformation that has actually occurred rather than losses endured – and we still have fights to win. However, my first encounters with nature were on a London common; thanks to satellite, and earlier aerial photography made available online, in the years since I was born this place of precious memory is now become a sprawling woodland.

Leave a Reply