Imagine if UK conservation managed the jungle

Okay, this is a somewhat overblown and perhaps slightly unfair analogy, but stick with me. It is said with a good deal of love and I think it illustrates a valid point. I also want to make it clear that this is not aimed at any group or person, but is an attempt to express a general frustration.

Imagine if UK conservation groups managed a bit of damaged rainforest. It could be the Amazon but I don’t want to get bogged down in the biology. The wildflower and owl groups might decide it was dangerously under-grazed and make a deal with local ranchers to bring in cattle to open it up. The bird people would start planting supplementary feeding crops and trapping medium sized predators. The mice and snake people would let the grass grow long and install piles of wood as nesting sites, but would step in to remove scrub every 5 years. Sport fish groups would moan about the otters. The butterfly organisations might look at the sugar cane plantations and conclude that they needed to be preserved as they were the chief home of the otherwise rare spotted white sugarcane fritillary. The monkey people would plant extra fruit trees, and worry that there were too many large eagles and other predators, and so for years stay relatively quiet about the hunting in their patch. Eventually a right-wing think tank would pop-up and say that nature was better cared for when there were lots of people and that really what the area needed was jobs and urbanisation. After a while the large animals would vanish, people would forget they had been there and the groups would settle into micro-managing their patches, raising funds from the public for their chosen species.

100 years later some rewilders might come along and argue that the whole thing was a bit artificial, uninspiring to the human soul, expensive to maintain, and that it wasn’t really working anyway because wildlife was still declining. A lot of people in the groups would secretly agree, and accept that things needed to be done differently, but most of the land would remain trapped. Any attempt to change, or re-introduce predators and other missing species, would necessarily threaten the delicate balance that the groups had established, where they could maximise their chosen species within their areas. Each group would conduct monitoring within its own boundaries, and so what would matter most would be what was within their borders. Some would even go as far as to claim that allowing the rainforest to return would be bad for biodiversity, using their chosen species as an example. Agricultural interests would largely back the conservation groups, since the lack of large animals and the widespread use of agricultural practices in conservation suited them pretty well. It was all very controlled, and hugely confusing to the public and policy makers.

In the background to all this the climate was changing. Some people pointed out that this made micro-managing any space for a set outcome a strictly short term measure, since it would likely all change in the next 50 years anyway. Everyone agreed, but still, efforts to talk about returning some of the land to rainforest, or even just setting it aside to become what it would now become in the new climate, was stymied and slow.

Sounds extreme?

In the UK the conservation groups have done vital work. I have and continue to support many of them. I am not diminishing that. In times gone by a key task was simply to preserve spaces for species to survive and many would undoubtedly have been lost entirely if not for their efforts. But the model we use seems expensive, and unsatisfying. It keeps nature caged, and fixed in formaldehyde. In my view it often relies too much on agricultural practices to maintain small patches of land, all of which may change in the coming years. We argue that this is appropriate because in many cases those traditional agricultural landscapes were richer in wildlife than modern ones, and sometimes those farm animals can replicate lost wild ones. This is all true. We also need food, and so we need farming, and that means we need nature friendly farming.

But making conservation reliant on agriculture, or on micromanagement, causes other problems. If you need lots of domestic livestock to maintain a habitat, it makes it very much harder to tolerate other, larger species – like lynx, wolves or wild grazers. Even smaller creatures like crows, eagles, foxes and badgers often fall into the cross-hairs. I am reminded too of the initially muted response of the many of the main conservation organisations to the reappearance in the UK of the beaver and the wild boar. Reliance on agriculture also acts a gatekeeper, frightening off people who might otherwise be able to play a role in creating space for nature.

Now it’s true that the UK lost most of its rainforests (and the rest of its natural habitats) a long long time ago. We are a relatively crowded island, so it is not simple. We cannot just create huge parks. But we do have the space for things to be much much wilder and to introduce some of the species we have lost. But it will require things to change and be flexible. This is scary, and I understand the fears of groups that are trying to defend their patches. We all do it. We are like the elves in Lord of Rings, trying to keep the growing darkness out from our little valley, and rightly fearful that any shift in position will be exploited by enemies.

But I think we can do better.

Of course we need policy change, and we need more nature friendly farming, but we need more land that is just not farmed, and to focus on simply creating more space for nature. Buying land of lower wildlife value and letting it be as ‘un-managed’ as possible. This may relieve the pressure a little, shifting focus away from turf wars over how to manage land of existing high-wildlife value, and create more space for experimentation. Which of course many people are trying to do, but its small scale stuff so far.

The conservation groups could also be a little more ambitious in their messaging, which too often seems about talking up the benefits of domesticated habitats in the UK, while championing wild ones overseas – all of which hugely confuses the issue in the minds of the public. Perhaps they can all more obviously recognise the incomplete nature of things, or the fact that what they are doing may be necessary right now, but ultimately the goal should be bigger.

It is this sense of hope, and the sense that we are engaged in something much bigger than simply keeping the darkness out, that I feel we need to win the public round. We have reduced wildlife to such a low state that in lots of people’s minds it is little more than garden bird-watching for the middle classes. We need to return that sense of awe and wonder which keeps untold millions glued to the wildlife programmes, watching, as one friend put it me, real wildlife.

And we – in the wildlife world – also need to lose our fear of change a little bit. This is tough, because traditionally in this space most change has been very bad.  Yet if we can leave nature to do its thing it will create something beautiful from anything. If a forest blows over or a field scrubs up, something wonderful will take its place. It might not be what we expect, but it will probably be better than we imagine. We can’t go backwards, but we can go forwards.


5 thoughts on “Imagine if UK conservation managed the jungle

  1. Love this post, thank you for sharing. I think the message is slowly trickling out, just wish more land belonged to the people who see the value in rewilding!

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  2. Habitats develop and are kept dynamic through a balance between natural succession and disturbances to that succession. Natural disturbances include, for example, storms, fire, browsing animals (e.g. deer) and, vitally, grazing animals. In Britain most of the natural grazers, aurochs and others, have been removed and in their absence natural succession proceeds largely unchecked. Over time this imbalance results in the loss of more and more habitat diversity and species diversity. This will happen in any situation and on any scale from small traditional intensively managed nature reserves to landscape scale areas of non-intervention rewilded land. Conservation grazing uses domestic animals to restore the balance, they are not perfect, but they are the best we have since aurochs and others are extinct. You say that “If you need lots of domestic livestock to maintain a habitat, it makes it very much harder to tolerate other, larger species – like lynx, wolves or wild grazers”; why does it? Were wild grazers available I’m sure reserve managers would be delighted to dispense with their expensive cattle, sheep and ponies, and I would be very surprised if any UK conservation organisation resisted the reintroduction of a large predator because of concerns about losing livestock. Conservation grazing is not ‘agricultural practice’, these animals are used because they are the best tool we have available to us to restore the balance of natural processes and maintain diversity, we are not, and do not want to be, farmers!

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    1. Hi Richard – thanks for writing – of course I agree that grazing is an important and essential component of the UK’s former native ecosystems. I think there is still some debate about the outcome of that grazing – e.g. Serengeti versus wood pasture versus Indian forest type situations, but personally I’m not too fussed.

      It’s not that I think that conservation groups would be upset about losing livestock – although actually I can imagine that some genuinely would, section of the National Trust for example – it’s more that I think that the system we currently have where grazing-for-conservation is so closely linked to agriculture is problematic, and I’ll try and explain why.

      Firstly, much of the grazing-for-conservation in the UK is still done by agricultural interests – either through countryside stewardship payments on farmland, or through leases or other agreements between conservation interests and livestock owners. Even on land owned by wildlife groups a lot of the grazing seems to be done by neighbouring farmers being allowed to graze for a bit. This is what I have done on occasion. This ties wildlife management directly into agriculture and means that any changes will be painful – e.g. you might need to end contracts or remove domestic animals if you then wanted to make space for wild grazers, and this would be controversial. You might even lose money from subsidies. Similarly it means that if wild grazers turn up they could be a headache and a conflict with domestic ones (I am astonished by the muted reaction of mainstream conservation to the re-emergence of wild boar in the UK).

      Another problem is that where grazing is used explicitly by conservation interests it still often seems to be at far too high densities, and obviously with no predators to disturb them. The number of times I have come upon land where there will be a sign on the gate of a bowling green flat field telling me the biodversity of that field is being maintain by X sheep/cow. I appreciate other forms of extensive grazing systems are better (e.g. Knepp, National Trust land near me etc), but these are still quite rare. Very often too the grazing is used to achieve a set outcome and prevent other processes from taking place – e.g. a sward of a certain height or to maintain habitat for a specific butterfly rather than to play a role in a diverse and unpredictable ecosystem. Again this reinforces the view that careful control is required to support biodiversity at all times, which seems overwhelming in this country.

      Thirdly using domestic analogues can obviously bring benefits, but I suspect reduces the incentives and space to bring in wild disturbers or predators. Because wild animals are unpredictable in a way domestic ones aren’t then as long as domestic analogues are seen as the best solution it avoids having to deal with those wild animals. (See also beavers in enclosures. It’s better than nothing, but far from ideal and arguably becoming problematic in its own right now.) Also the continued presence of domestic livestock can be a direct challenge. Reintroducing wild boar to an area with lots of rare breed domestic pigs would probably be seen as more controversial than releasing them in an area without them. Similarly if your grazers are actually just sheep owned by a local farmer, I suspect it will be very much harder to persuade those around you to accept the reintroduction of lynx etc.

      Finally – the real challenge is to overcome the mindset that we must manage everything so closely and with fixed outcomes, or that farming is essential to nature, rather than the other way around. Reliance on domestic livestock encourages land managers to think like farmers, it also means the public does not need to learn how to interact with wild animals. That is not really a problem of grazing – grazing will after all help with that – but as long as UK conservation is so entwined with the maintenance of agricultural landscapes restoration will be hard to achieve.

      Anyway, I’m not saying it is easy, or that I have all the answers. We need farming, and so we need nature friendly farming, but there should be a another layer of wildlife restoration which is not merely nature friendly farming. If we want to turn around the ongoing declines in wildlife we need to think bigger and wilder, in my opinion. I hope that makes sense.

      Best!

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