I've just finished reading Mark Avery's latest book Reflections (Pelagic Publishing 2023). Readers will be familiar with Mark Avery from his earlier work Inglorious (Bloomsbury Natural History 2015) a book I strongly recommend you read. In Reflections, Mark reflects on the state of wildlife in the British Isles today. He charts where we're at and considers success stories, he goes on to highlight the challenges wildlife conservation still faces.
One of the surprising contentions in the book is how many people actually care about wildlife conservation in our country. Mark suggests that the number is something like 800,000. He arrives at this number through membership of wildlife conservation NGO’s and the associated volunteer activism. That is, membership of the 28 Wildlife Conservation organisations, he refers to The 28 quite a lot. He does, to be fair, dismiss quite a lot of the membership of organisations like the National Trust, of course, the National Trust does have a wide-ranging remit and many people simply join for the car parking! The National Trust is, however, a major landowner and could be doing a great deal more for wildlife, especially in our uplands. He celebrates the work of the RSPB and in the way the Wildlife Trusts manage the fragments of land they own. The Wildlife Trust’s are a group of separate organisations pulled together under one banner and this makes them ineffective at campaigning (we see a similar handicap in the mountaineering and outdoor community). There are other smaller, wonderful, organisations like Bee Conservation, Plantlife and Buglife who are all doing a fantastic job but with tiny numbers of membership and tiny amounts of money. If you pit the numerical and financial might of the Wildlife Conservation groups against those of, for example the oil and gas lobby groups, then it's insignificant. One of the most important lobby groups that wildlife conservation often butts up against is the National Farmers Union. The National Farmers Union is a well organised single voice campaigning for food production, though not always representative of all farmers, at the cost of wildlife.
It's hard to argue with Mark's experience gained through a lifetime working in Wildlife Conservation. He has well founded experience and evidences this in this book. Perhaps the most important chapter is the one about what wildlife needs and how to provide it; Mark outlines some alternative visions for a better future.
Anybody who follows any sort of news will recognise that any nature, or conservation, land designations seem pretty low down the list when it comes to protection of our wilder places. I'm not sure how many of these areas HS2 has gone through but any road or building project has a stronger government voice here then do these special places. The green belt is a great prize for house builders, and they are lobbying government and opposition hard to get access to it (where they can build more homes designed entirely around the motor car travel). Even when left alone these places are not well managed for wildlife, see the recent reports on the state of Dartmoor https://naturalengland.blog.gov.uk/2023/03/14/nature-on-dartmoor/ or the Wild Justice report on the state of our SSSI’s. https://wildjustice.org.uk/sssis/a-sight-for-sore-sssis-a-wild-justice-report/ Mark argues that an early step towards improving our country for nature would require better management and enforcement of our currently protected places.
His next proposal is to increase public land ownership. The vast majority of land in our country is privately owned and this contrasts with other countries where state ownership provides genuine Wildlife Conservation in genuine national parks. To leave wildlife conservation to private landowners is a dereliction of leadership by governments.
Proposal three is one with which we will be all familiar with and have some investment in; he talks about rewilding the uplands where we already subsidise farming. We know the uplands are not very productive in an agricultural sense. We do recognise that upland farming has value beyond just farming in terms of the cultural and economic impact, but increasing space for wildlife should com
plement and strengthen that, not threaten it. I was on Y Garn yesterday, the one in the Rhinogydd and it's a hill that is semi wild. There are large areas of heather, bilberry and bracken. It’s my contention that if these areas could be fenced out they would create wildlife refuges. We walked past some mine entrances that had fences around them and nature had taken over, the young trees and woodland plants were growing well and supporting birdlife. Further up the hill there are areas of steep ground with trees and woodland undergrowth.
I can't believe that fencing out this steep ground and the unproductive land that is covered in bracken would seriously reduce the numbers of sheep a hill can sustain. I'm not suggesting the entirety of our uplands should be fenced
out but there are definitely areas where a difference could be made. The irony here is this should be quite a good value scheme covered easily by farm support payments; it wouldn't be expensive. A modern fencing machine could drive around the unproductive areas and place fences no time at all, this is not back breaking, labour-intensive, time-consuming work anymore. I don't think the productivity would be greatly reduced and we are paying the farmers to farm anyway so why not pay them to leave some land alone. In five or ten or even fifteen years we will need to put animals back into these places to thrash through the undergrowth, but we can do that with cattle, horses and/or pigs.
Marks fifth proposal is about getting political. I've urged you before to write your MP or you MS. The responses are usually disappointing and are carefully crafted along party political lines, but we need to keep doing it. We, together, are the only lobby for wildlife and without us, nothing is likely to change. The other people Mark suggests writing too are the Chairs of the 28 to encourage them to engage much more in political lobbying and to try to this as one voice, not 28. And finally, you, and I need to support the 28 financially.
It just seems to me that massive change isn't required. I often say, when I'm out with groups, look at this landscape it has got all the components that nature needs, it has got mature trees, hedgerows, scrubland and pasture. It just needs a few small turns of the dial to make a significant difference which could lead to massive increases in wildlife, for without habitat, there is no wildlife. It is is not even really about large scale tree planting, it is about fencing sheep out of certain areas, it is about protecting hedges and it is about protecting mature trees. We can do this but we're up against powerful lobbies led by roads, oil and gas, the NFU and builders with their professional lobbyists.
Government does respond to lobbyists, so you need to lobby your government.
You can hear my podcast interview with Mark Avery on Outdoor Lives, available on all good podcast platforms.