The tangled bank

This is quite a long blog – for you it’s a ‘cup of tea and two chocolate digestives’ blog, for me it was a ‘two glasses of Rioja’ blog.

And I write of the subject covered by Peter Marren in his thought-provoking opinion piece in the Independent last week (and the news piece written by Mike McCarthy on the same subject).

On Saturday there were three letters on the subject from Buglife’s Matt Shardlow, WWT’s Debbie Pain and Jonathan Wallace.

The gist of Peter Marren’s article was that the coalition government had removed some voices that could speak up for nature (the Sustainable Development Commission, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution) and silenced some others (Natural England, Environment Agency and Forestry Commission). This much is true (although some of the aforementioned bodies were never that good at speaking out – and others were clearly too good).

Peter went further and suggested that the NGO community had not risen to this challenge through a mixture of self-interest and sheer timidity, and that there was a need for a strong voice for nature conservation to replace, coordinate or out-shout those rather quiet NGO voices.

Which are these NGOs of which we speak?  There are quite a lot of them, in alphabetical order:

Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign Whale, Friends of the Earth, Grasslands Trust, Greenpeace, Hawk and Owl Trust, Mammal Society, Marine Conservation Society, Marinelife, National Trust,  National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife, Pond Conservation, RSPB, Shark Trust, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Wildlife Trusts,  Woodland Trust, WWF.

And although you could add or subtract organisations from this list it is already almost as diverse as the biodiversity these organisations aim to help.  There are the big and the small, the old and the new, the land-owning and the not land-owning, the campaigning and the not-campaigning, the single-species, multi-species, habitat-based and issue-based, the scientific and the off-the-cuff, the county, country, British, UK, and, to various extents, international.

Some organisations which used to be much more active in UK nature conservation, most notably Friends of the Earth, but also WWF and Greenpeace, are included in the list even though UK nature benefits mostly through their general work on sustainable development at home and abroad.

So this is the tangled bank of UK nature conservation – a diversity of organisations.  And like Darwin’s tangled bank it is a struggle for survival.  Is there grandeur in this view of life?  Anyone viewing the tangled bank of UK nature conservation organisations might think that they were looking at a bit of a mess.  But like species in the real world, nature conservation organisations will come and go, thrive and decline, wax and wane according to how well they are managed and what potential funders, including the public, think about them.  And we are where we are.

But what would nature think?  If you asked the sharks, fungi, dragonflies and hen harriers, how they would like things to be ordered, what would they say?  They might point out that there is a lot of replication and that surely there could be more sharing of resources.  They might ask that organisations at least think of where efficiencies could be delivered by working together better. And that is perhaps what we, as supporters of nature with all our hearts, and supporters of nature conservation organisations with our hard-earned money, should be asking.

Does nature benefit from this diversity of organisations, with overlapping overall purposes but subtly different perspectives, each spending money on membership recruitment, sending people to the same meetings, many buying land and managing their own nature reserve, each trying to figure out health and safety issues, each talking to the press and trying to comment on the same issues?

Might there be benefits to organisations, and benefits to nature itself, if there were more sharing of backroom resources in computing, land management, human resources etc?  It might be worth thinking a lot more seriously about these aspects of collaboration.

In the past there have been serious talks about real mergers – quite some time ago between the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB – but these seem unlikely to take place in the near future. One reason is that conservation organisations have drifted apart in their thinking.  The organisations listed above do not all think the same and that makes collaboration between them very difficult.  And I’m not just talking about the gulf between, say, Greenpeace and the National Trust, I mean between organisations with, at the face of it, fairly similar objectives and means of operation.  These differences usually focus around whether nature conservation is for nature or for people, how environmental organisations should relate to businesses, whether you measure success at all, and if you do, do you measure conservation success through the fate of species or habitats or through actions carried out.

But we haven’t yet considered Peter Marren’s big suggestion – setting up an organisation that could be a stronger voice for nature – what of that?

Peter’s thesis was that the current diverse crop of conservation NGOs have become self-serving, timid and irrelevant.  They pull their punches because they are too dependent on government funding, have become too international, have gone off chasing climate change issues or have simply lost the plot.  Is there any truth in this?  Yes, some, but it’s a harsh analysis to apply to all these diverse bodies equally.  Different parts of the tangled bank deserve different levels of opprobrium, and tempting though it may be, I won’t divulge what I know of the ins and outs of this subject.  But it is fair to say that, for example, different organisations looked with varying levels of horror and anticipation at the prospect of government getting out of NNR management, and then out of the timber business.  I think nature could be forgiven for thinking that some nature conservation organisations lacked a clear sense of what was best for nature cosnervation, and perhaps it was unenlightened self-interest that clouded their view.

The organisation that is missing from the tangled bank is the thoughtful, outspoken, raging-against-the-idiocy-of-it organisation – the organisation that is outside of government and outside of industry, which can say what nature needs in an uncompromising but authoritative fashion.  The organisation that has nature’s needs not people’s needs at its core.  The organisation that doesn’t say ‘it’s all about people‘ or ‘it’s all about ecosystem services‘ but ‘it’s all about nature‘.  This organisation could be FoE if it rediscovered nature.  But if it doesn’t, and there are no signs that it has, then there is, perhaps, an empty niche in the tangled bank of UK nature conservation organisations.  Not because the other species are bad, or inadequate or evil or hopeless – but because nature abhors a vacuum.

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56 Comments

  1. Mark,

    two thoughts (before breakfast so they're probably very ill though through!)

    1. Are we just increasing the diversity of an artificial ecosystem ie the system of conservation NGOs, because we aren't able to prevent the continuing loss of diversity in the "real world". In Freudian terms it would be a combination of denial and projection?

    2. Continuing with your Darwinist analogy, as the conservation NGO "ecosystem" has evolved from its original state, new species (NGOs) have emerged to fill vacant or overlapping niches. The system has developed organically in response to selection pressures and interactions between species/NGOs. And as you say, we are where we are. It's far from ideal.

    At the risk of stretching the analogy to destruction, perhaps we ie all the NGOs, possibly via Link, need to be thinking about "genetically engineering" a new species/NGO, as opposed to allowing it also to evolve "naturally". The engineering would make it "fitter" and able to outcompete the existing species/NGOs for resources, causing a number of them to become extinct. The new species/NGO may also be able to hybridise with some of the existing species/NGOs eventually assimilating some of their useful traits. The introduction of the GE species would disrupt the whole ecosystem, causing its functions to suffer temporarily, and at the end of the process the whole system would be considerable simplified. But perhaps eventually a very successful species would emerge, part GE, part derived from the original species assemblage.

    OK I give up now and look forward to a proper ecologist demolishing/developing my pseudo analogy.

    Miles King
    (not commenting on behalf of The Grasslands Trust)

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  2. John Miles

    Just a small classic example. My MP supported an increase of woodland in the uplands [as did the chairwomen of the Forestry Commission] and then the MP went with the farmers wanting more sheep back on the fells trying to claim that Bracken was expanding due to lack of grazing. The same Bracken that I wanted the trees to be planted in. Liverpool University had come out and said it was expanding in 10 years where I could show that areas back to 1940 had not expanded even with grazing removed. If NGOs can not come up with a joined up plan then what chance any one!

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  3. As a "retired" member of the NGO community I have been concerned for some time that organisations have lost their teeth as far as governments are concerned. Although campaigns have been successfully launched they appear too passive to me and the follow up when objectives are not reached is poor.

    This reticence to put up a REAL fight may well be because of cosy relationships with politicians and industry and the need for their funds. Many of these NGO's hide behind their membership when faced with difficult decisions. Many times I have been told the "we cannot do that because our members would not like it". As a member of several NGO's I cannot remember once being asked to have an opinion on a conservation issue - only requests for more money.

    There is no doubt in my mind that despite having enormous public support in terms of membership (compered with most other EU states) we have at best only slowed down the rate of loss of our habitats and biodiversity. There have been successes in terms of species where a big effort has been made but in terms of halting decline we have failed.

    There has been at times brutal competiton between NGO's and in the case of The Wildlife Trusts competition between counties for resources and credit. It would be good to clear the decks and start again but that prospect is unlikely. Closer co-operation between different organisations is obviously desirable but when personalities clash this often breaks down.

    There is no doubt in my mind that we have TOO MANY NGO's in the nature conservation field. Is is really necessary to have specific charities for plants or butterflies or indeed birds? It is true that discussions have taken place on mergers. I can now "come out" and admit to treacherously being part of clandestine discussions in the past about merging Wildlfe Trusts and RSPB. A formula could not be found on that occasion but that is not to say that one does not exist. The Wildlife Trusts themselves are a bit of an enigma. They evolved rather than were set up as 47 or is it 48 separate charities and operate as such while at the same time express themselves through the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. I know from experience that they would probably be stronger and more effective if they were one large charity. It is parochalism that makes the dream impossible.

    If we could reconstruct a really large powerful NGO that deals with all aspects of nature conservation we might begin to win. With such a disjointed array as we have at the moment there is likely to be little change.

    It was Chris Packham who suggested to me at least a year ago that he felt NGO's had largely lost their way and a a NEW APPROACH might be needed to get the nature conservation agenda back on track. If such a thing is attempted then it needs to have a different approach. It would probaly take years to construct something that went down the membership route. It needs to be something different. It has to be something lean and mean that does not require large amounts of funding. It needs to be the voice of all those people who are desparate that nature conservation is high on the agenda of governments.

    There is no point in duplicating what already exists. We need a different group with the ability to achieve a high public profile and the ability to ensure that governments listen to their views. The latter already listen to the RSPB etc because they have a large membership. So I ask myself do we really need to start anything new but instead ensure existing NGO's do the job they are paid for.

    What is also obvious to me is the increasing tendency to reinvent the wheel and go over ground that has already been visited. The bigger NGO's have more and more professional staff and although they are generally excellent people they are more and more divorced from the membership. My own experience shows that Trustees of NGO's are often not up to the task before them. They join because of their passion for wildlife but often are not up to the issues of direction and leadership required to steer their organisation on the right track.

    Is it not time that the often large memberships took a more active role within their organisations insisting that resources are used to take direct action to ensure that nature conservation takes primacy in everything they do.

    Whatever we need it sounds like - REVOLUTION

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    • Mark

      Derek - welcome and it's good to see the thoughts of such a knowledgeable and respected conservationist. Thank you very much for your post. I'll think about it and I'm sure others will too. I'll be interested to see if it attracts harsh or supporting comments.

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  4. These comments from deep within the echelons of the UK NGO community are intriguing at the least. Being a practitioner as well as now being based in France, the role of UK NGOs during the PFE disposal sell off and subsequently has been at odds with the common thread of thinking and certainly well established ideals in Europe, which are desperately needed to be extolled in the UK, where many where born. The fact that practitioners and other professionals are aligning themselves with grass roots campaigning groups which act as hubs, such as ‘Save Our Woods’, surely illustrates these new dynamics as well as illustrating the chasms which had formed throughout land management partly as a result of NGO dominance.
    In France the NGOs lack the power they do in the UK and certainly do not attract the kind of funding simply because the population at large will assist by time and effort for schemes on their own doorstep. The very thought of working as a volunteer beyond their immediate landscape is an alien and ridiculous idea. This may be down to cultural differences but I firmly believe it is much more linked to an inherent bottom up approach, rather than the favoured UK system of ‘top down’ or purportedly ‘expert led’. Some NGOs, perhaps unwittingly, have seemed to abuse this with a practitioner wearing a logo emblazoned fleece seeking more authority than his locally based private practitioner peer.
    As Ecosystem services and the ideals of the European Landscape Convention gain momentum in the UK it is time for the NGOs to help towards not just a single based voice for ‘nature’ but for the landscape as a whole. The NGOs role and future is ascertained due to their financial clout at the head of land based industry as a whole, but any further fragmentation of generalised ideals is simply counter productive and dangerous to themselves. But most importantly they will have follow the lead of Mark Avery in spreading their own personal opinion in a web dominated arena and join the wider debate – as some politicians and celebrities have realised. The manipulation of printed media is relatively easy, but it is impossible on the internet.

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    • Mark

      Pip - welcome and thank you for your first and very thoughtful contribution to this website.

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  5. Charlie Moores

    Mark, I suspect I'm about to rehash (and not very well) what you've just written, but this is such a crucial subject I feel compelled to chuck my thoughts into the mix. Having never been employed (for a long period anyway) by a conservation organisation but having set up an NGO in South Korea and interviewed or talked with many conservationists, it has always seemed to me that the reason that 'our side' (and therefore wildlife and biodiversity) loses out is that - unlike development or exploitation which is long-established and pretty simple to understand - conservation is relatively new and is still developing. It's as much a philosophy and/or deep-rooted belief as a science, and it therefore attracts scientists, activists who react purely on emotion, deep-thinkers, and all the world in-between. And many of them now want jobs in conservation. Universities are pouring graduates into the workplace, all of whom are passionate, believe that they've been taught or have discovered the 'new approach', and who are determined to carve out their own niche (or face long-term unemployment). The people that get to the top are either highly opinionated and will lead their organisation in one particular direction no matter what anyone else says, or will be appointed because they don't rock the boat too much and are considered a safe pair of hands' - but few are trained in managing people or organisations. All of us on 'our side' think we know what's right and we scrap like hell with each other. I've given up trying to really understand why, but on the surface it usually seems to be a rich mix of 'organisation loyalty', political paralysis, training differences, experiences on the ground, or personal beliefs. Chuck in the fact that we're still learning what works and what doesn't - and you would know this better than anyone I suspect but look at the changing ways that managers of National Parks have dealt with the indigenous people within the park boundaries, for example, or the debates involving landscape-scale conservation or niche, flagship species - and it's not surprising that everyone has their own views on what conservation is or should achieve.
    This would all be very interesting (and very worthy actually) but for the fact that while we argue about definitions and best-practices or refine what conservation is, wetlands are being reclaimed, forests felled, the sea emptied of fish and turned into a gigantic garbage dump, species of all sorts are disappearing, and a few development-minded individuals control more money than all the world's conservation organisations put together.
    Bringing conservation organisations, and therefore expertise, finances, and memberships, together as one lobbying voice is the only way 'our side' can hope to win, but I doubt that it will ever happen. There has, it seems to me, been a movement towards each other (the BTO and RSPB seem closer of late, WWT/Durrell/Peregrine Fund working for Madagascar Pochard, and the group put together to help the Spoon-billed Sandpiper are interesting examples) but mergers (=job losses and egos taking backseats) seems remote.
    It's a huge shame, but perhaps all part of 'conservation' maturing and growing up? Whether conservation matures in time to save very much remains to be seen, but one thing I do know is that we can ill-afford to lose voices at the top of our nationally-important conservation organisations at a time when they most need to be heard. Time for a Mark Avery-led ‘it’s all about nature‘ takeover methinks...(and where can I sign to join up)?

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  6. I do not think I know you Charlie but you have it on the nail. Taking a step back more than once I have considered that nature conservationists themselves might be the biggest threat to our wildlife. Forever arguing their point of view and actually doing sweet FA.

    I had an opportunity in my youth to work with Bert Axell as he created the Minsmere reserve. As a boy I asked him what scientists said about what we were doing. His response was typical of him "F*** the scientists if we wait for them to make up their minds there will be no birds left"

    It is more action and less talk that we need. We also need an element of risk taking too.

    A small but active group of publicists called something like "Voices for Nature" might be appropriate.

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  7. It's all very well saying let's have action, can't wait for science, but in the past that has led to ponds being dug into valuable wetlands, 'forests' being planted on high quality meadows and so on. Needs to be a balance between information and action.

    Biodiversity conservation is an irreducibly complex subject, about which there will always be lots of conflicting views because there are lots of different ways of doing it and lots of variables that affect it. So in that sense it is healthy to have lots of organisations involved, each with a different perspective. Where this falls down is in the political sphere, where complexity has few friends.

    It may be that a new approach is needed, with a new body that can be outspoken and get away from the bureaucracy and internal debates that can be so frustrating. But it's going to be a tricky balancing act to have a group can be outspoken on behalf of conservation, while maintaining support among conservationists and not being bogged down in having to get agreement from everyone concerned. A strong leader required!

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    • Mark

      Martin - welcome and thank you for your comment.

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  8. Dave Robinson

    There are some very interesting points being made on this subject. Whilst I'm a member of the RSPB my interest is not limited to birds but more greatly the habitats of the UK and therefore all species threatened or common. A 'universal' mouthpiece has to be the way forward for the NGOs but one that is impartial that can stand up for what is needed on both national and local levels. It does not need a membership base as the members are already there in the various NGOs part of whose campaign budget could be diverted to fund the 'UK diversity in conservation' lobbying group. I am no where near qualified to suggest who would run this organisation and many readers of this blog are quite possibly the people we need.
    At a time when the voices of conservation are being hushed we need to pull together and shout louder, so much depends on it.

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    • Mark

      Dave - welcome! and thank you for your comment.

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  9. Roderick leslie

    Re-organisation is THE classic tactic when managers (not leaders, they do know what to do) don't know what to do next. It occupies everyone's minds, takes up lots of time and by the time you get there you've forgotten what the original objective was.

    I think we're at one of those 'break points' where there is a quantum shift, something completely different to what's gone before. For me in the Forestry Commission it was the culmination of the Flow Country. For RSPB, I think the decision to get involved in agricultural policy (hard fought at the time, though almost everybody today sees it as a taken) was one and more recently the Biodiversity Challenge hugely sharpened an often rather wooly approach to species, perhaps epitomised by the success of RSPB's Bittern campaign.

    And, before wethrow the baby out with the bathwater, its worth remembering that the things we targetted - habitats and species -actually did rather well up to the 2010 target (perhaps not the Hen Harriers !) . Obviously, the wider environment failed dismally for biodiversity and there was also a failure in the rather muddy 'its all terrible' message that tende to come out from the NGOs.

    So whats to be done ? Simply objecting is looking a bit thin - at best you get back somewhere near where you started, but never beyond. And there really is no money for the sort of conservation action we're all used to. the scale proposed by Lawton sits alongside equally sectoral land grabs for food security, trees for low carbon and so on - and there isn't room. At the same time I'm increasingly horrified by how the 'big environment' agenda for climate change etc has turned out to be in direct conflict with the environment & biodiversity time and time again.

    The furture has to be about joining up, making land work harder, ofetn by doing less - absorbing floods, new wetland and woodland habitats, producing low-carbon fuel from wildlife rich habitat, better environments around our towns and cities, altogether a better country to live in - and as a result more competitive in a world where the UK has to compete with skill and ingenuity, not sledge hammer mass production let alone military force.

    And there's the rub - to get there we have to harness our skills, think big and broad and certainly not in the rather narrow techy ways we've tended to drift inot in conservation - and equally not the engineer-first approaches that seem to have lost us tidal power and turned everyone against on shore wind power and high speed rail.

    Can we do it ? I'm not sure. We've got to go way beyond simply weighing the demands of all the lobby groups and sharing out the spoils - and that's going to take both a breadth of understanding and then a brand of positive leadership I'm simply not sure is around at the moment.

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  10. CaperKylie

    I quite like the idea of a no-frills "wildlife-only" NGO. Its brand could be Naked Wildlife. It could offer membership for those that want to belong but send nothing in return, other than email news (written in a no-frills Arial font) and a link to a website.

    But it would still be filling a niche. And that's the thing - all these organisations occupy distinct niches. Not everyone will fancy the Naked approach. Some want the frilly stuff (membership packs, gift catalogues, campaign requests and even nature reserves that they can go and visit!), as a sign that they "belong".

    My guess is that "Naked Wildlife" would start with good intentions but, if it has any degree of success, it would eventually need the same back office functions that the others have, if only to "service" its supporters.

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  11. Gethyn Williams

    Government has to get used to the fact that these NGOs are not black or white partners or dissenters to their agendas. RSPB, WWF and others have to tread a difficult line between trying to enact long term mindshifts in Government thinking and protecting wildlife in the short term. It's a tricky balance.

    One approach might be to put more teeth into bodies like Wildlife and Countryside Link (cited in the Peter Marren piece) - a small umbrella of much larger groups with a new new, perhaps bolder campaign remit. (Full disclosure - I used to work for the Welsh equivalent).

    Through such a approach the NGOs involved get some strength in numbers cover. It's an old idea but typically tends to break down when the bigger members get territorial and don't want to cede campaigning ground to others. But like many above have said, clearly we've reached a point where we need to get over that.

    On the issue of too many wildlife NGOs - many other parts of the voluntary sector are also experiencing this debate. However membership is clearly a big factor and people like organisations whose aims match their personal, often narrow, interests. I therefore think you need this diversity in order to keep membership numbers high. But a little more effective collaboration would certainly be welcome.

    Thanks Mark et al - enjoying this debate.

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    • Mark

      Gethyn - welcome and thank you for a really good comment. WCL with teeth is certainly an option that has been discussed. I think it would be quite a good option too - one of several that might work.

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  12. Wren

    Mark, I follow this debate with great interest for a number of reasons. I spent the early part of my career in conservation working within the civil service (local authorites, English Nature), before working for a number of wildlife charities where I find my heart lies. I recently dipped my toe back into the civil service, via Natural England, and ran away screaming at how process orientated it had become. I am personally and professionally devastated by the (in effect) loss of our champion. This changes the game plan. In my relatively short time in the system, I feel an overwhelming urge to learn from you 'old timers' - I am probably the management of the future. I abhor duplication of effort, and I'm feeling desperate about the state of wildlife around me. What to do? I live in the 'greater countryside' fortunate enough to have yellow hammers and linnets breeding outside my house. Just when you think we've reached the ultimate low for regard to our wildlife, a double dip environmental recession calls. Time to up the stakes, not to naval gaze about how or whether to merge NGOs though no doubt innovative efficiencies could be found.

    Now a number of thoughts come to the fore: Why do we have two of the biggest players offering up alternative (?) confusing to government (?) visions of the countryside aka 'Futurescapes' and 'Living Landscapes'. I have a major problem with this from the perspective of its deviseness within the NGO community. I'm also convinced this 'competition' is being cultivated by government, both as a distraction and as some kind of perverse market approach to delivering best service.

    It's great that so many people join NGOs, but I think we've become blinded by numbers. I've got a million members; well I've got 4 million members; we'll I've got 40000. Blah blah - it has a role in demonstrating representativeness, but really, surely it's how many people you reach and the behaviour change you illicit that matters? Which brings me on to another point. I believe that a vast majority of people who join (mostly cause led) NGOs do so to offload guilt; a kind of personal offsetting excercise. Yes it brings in money to undertake effective and targeted action by professionals, who often then engages and educate the donor, but through this guilt transfer mechanism, people forget to be the change they wish to see in the world and lose their sense of personal responsibility. I like the idea of the 'NGO of the self'. On a broader political front, a WCL with teeth has to be the way forward - the diversity of approaches and expertise that exists amongst members are a major strength when tackling serious threats - but to better the effectiveness of WCL requires some big egos to get some perspective, and on the other hand some little birds to sing. The infighting stinks.

    Can we keep talking please. Here, elsewhere, whatever. Knowledge transfer is critical in these times, and to the future of the nature conservation effort. We will all be held to account. I'm not sleeping very well at night with worry about my yellow hammers!

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    • Mark

      Wren - excellent comment and welcome! A lot to think about there.

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  13. Miles

    Mark,

    excellent thread - long may it continue. I just picked this up from George Monbiot's twitter account:

    George is currently writing a book which "will accuse UK conservationists of grossly mistaken priorities". This sounds like perfect timing!

    While we can argue the toss about "governance" arrangements for the NGO sector, is there a bigger debate to be had about what exactly it is we are trying to conserve, and how to go about doing it.

    George is clearly enamoured of the re-wilding agenda, and there's something to be said for it. I don't personally feel that the debate between re-wilding and our predominant approach of conserving semi-natural systems has been thoroughly bottomed-out. In a way the whole Landscape Scale Conservation approach could be seen as a way of avoiding having this debate, because (in theory) managing semi-natural systems can continue within an LSC approach, while allowing a bit of natural ecosystem function to return. Or am I being cynical?

    Whatever, it does feel like we have an opportunity to do something now - perhaps spurred on by seeing the chasm between the political rhetoric (NEWP, Biodiversity 2020) and the reality (NPPF, recession, funding cuts across the board) widens ever more.

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  14. Vince

    I've read and re-read Peter Marren's piece in the Independant several times now and followed this thought provoking debate with interest. First, I should declare that I Chair a local Wildlife Trust (Staffordshire), so I could "tend to be parochial and member-focused" but I won't be here (too much) because the issues are bigger than that. I also have a sense of humour (if slightly dry) which is very helpful in the current political and economic circumstances. I particularly enjoyed the mild irony of Peter bemoaning Natural England's loss of its "bark" when he has ridiculed it (quite hilariously sometimes) elsewhere for so long. The musing's of "Twitcher in the Swamp" have quite rightly highlighted the gradual emasculation of the government's nature conservation body as it has morphed from the NCC through to today's Natural England. After the piece in the Independant I almost had the impression he used to appreciate NE!

    But to the point. Peter says "We need a new focus on wildlife . We need a new independant voice led by a powerful and knowledgable personality who can speak up for wildlife." etc. From my own experiences I'm far from convinced. Locally (or parochially depending on your view) I can see the difference Staffordshire and other Wildlife Trusts have made quietly getting on with working with other landowners and influencing parish, district, borough, county and unitary authority politicians as well as our MPs (and ministers when we have them as MPs on our patch). Did I hear a "so what"? Well, it matters for the wildlife outside my front door and in the field, wood and barn roof down the lane. The fact there are 47 Wildlife Trusts doing the same thing increases the impact at a level no other NGO or government body comes close to.

    Addressing some of Mark's points: Inefficiencies? Yes, but some wildlife trusts already share some back-office and front-line functions and this is developing. They are also pretty good at getting resources to the front line where it matters. Mergers? Never say never, but there are fundamental differences in approach between TWT (bottom up and more local) and the RSPB (top down and considerably less local), for example. I have heard others describe it, perhaps slightly unkindly, as democratic v authoritarian.

    Nationally it is a different game as that is where the national policy decisions are made. The issue here is that almost overnight this government has brought a virtual halt to the way we have become accustomed to them operating over the last 60 or so years at their interface with the natural environment. So what can we do?

    Well, we could march to Trafalgar Square and protest. Fat load of good that did the students last year, or the miners before them under a similar political regime.

    We could take up Peter Marren's suggestion of a new independant voice.
    Er, independant of what given all the inter-relationships and cross memberships that already exist?
    What happens if a significant number of "the people" don't like the suggested personality? Many of the known "names" have the marmite affect!
    What's the constituency that supports the independant voice? For politicians it's people and votes that matter.
    How could such a body get critical mass and credible authority in less than a three and a half year time frame to influence politicians when there is no money in their coffers to fund what you might want?
    Would such a body really be more effective and influential than the existing NGO's?
    Will it prevent extinctions - addressing the heart tugging final line of Peter Marren's article to encourage you to buy in to the idea?
    Given the apparent will of this government and the economic circumstances it faces and the impact of humanity generally, I doubt it.

    Or we could allow the people who are already working hard to influence government and politicians from the NGOs named in Peter Marren's article to continue doing what they are doing, lobbying hard, dealing with and responding to the circumstances and questions as they arise or are presented to them by government while continuing to improve the way they work together and coordinate their actions. It may not be as public or demonstrative as some might like but it can and does work.

    Apologies if this comment lacks intellectual rigour, great insight, or (for the benefit my colleagues in TWT) is off message. It's been a 19 hour day, it's 1.30am and I've not had my tea, but this discussion seemed to be going in one direction, it's important and it deserves more than that.

    These views are my own and not those of any body of which I'm a member, trustee or affiliate.

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    • Mark

      Vince - thank you and welcome! That's a very thoughtful contribution. I wonder whether others will agree with you.

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  15. Vince

    Interesting news this morning that Cameron has responded to the recemt NT media campaign, saying that the government will protect the countryside. Now we need to work the Lawton Review and Natural Environment White Paper in to the mix in a better way. I'm off now - work beckons.

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    • Mark

      Vince - yes but what did Cameron, greenest government ever, actually say? We'll come back to it later on this blog. I wonder what else happens today. Have a good day - I'm already at work!

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  16. Ebjno2

    Focussing on the big picture, it's undoubtedly true that we are failing to halt, let alone reverse, the continuing decline of biodiversity/ wildlife/ nature/ landscape quality [as per whatever terminology one prefers] across the UK.

    As someone on the fringes of UK conservation [in various strategic advisory capacities] and professionally embedded in international conservation implementation and policy, I have been dismayed by the lack of teeth displayed by much of the UK conservation sector on multiple issues and for various reasons. Worse still there seems to have been a tendency to bury our heads in the sand as to our collective failure to head-off and deal with the still increasing threats to our wildlife: both direct [..the Red Tape challenge is up next..] and indirect [..budget cuts].

    So, I'm delighted to see this debate and even more pleased that it was initiated in the wider public arena. It is – after all – this wider constituency who have to be made to realise how under threat our countryside and wildlife now really is, if we are to succeed in turning things around!

    Secondly, I agree that if a 'new' organisation is seen as the solution then it needs to be FoE-style with a firm focus on wildlife and, at the same time, I would urge caution in basing any such action on well-known individuals. In my opinion such people are better deployed as and when useful, in as media-savvy a way as possible. I would also suggest that if this organisation – whether entirely new, or just re-focussed – attempts to represent a collective view from the UK conservation sector [e.g. WCL with nashers] then it needs, from the off, to make a proactive effort to avoid going the way of IUCN internationally. By this I mean that it needs to ensure that it doesn’t become a competitor to its ‘member’ organisations; and that it needs to involve non-conservationists in setting its policies, etc. [to achieve the balance of science and pragmatism alluded to earlier].

    Finally, to pick up on the issue of size of membership influencing policy: I would suggest that there is a lot to learn from groups like 38 Degrees. They appear fairly lean but cover a broad range of issues and seem to be taken seriously by government e.g. on the forest sell-off, due to the number of virtual signatures they gather via various social media, and the way that they can collate their signatories’ views into policy priorities.

    Surely there’s some useful hybrid vigour to be found somewhere in this thread – who needs genetic engineering when selective breeding is that much more effective?

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    • Mark

      Ebjno2 - welcome and many thanks for an excellent comment. Catchy name (not)! Selective breeding also sounds more fun. Just a thought - 38 Degrees is, perhaps, better at saying 'no' than setting out an alternative way forward/ Or is that unfair? We do need to stop retrograde moves but also need to move forward - 'cos here is not a good enough place. What do you think?

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  17. Roderick leslie

    Mark - I think your last comment has hit a nail firmly on the head - and its reflected in many other comments either intentionally or unintentionally:

    'we need to move forward'

    A huge effort is going into chasing Government around the pitch and arguing increasingly detailed policies which common sense tells you are never going to happen.

    Lawton is great - so is Read suggesting 23,000 ha a year of new woodlands and a lot of people believe in food security, whilst the sectoral bid for flood control predicts to bankcrupt us all.

    What if we put them all together, trees and reedbeds working to reduce flooding, swarming with wildlife, saving some of the huge single-purpose budgets we're already spending ? What if, instead of following Government all the time, we were able to produce a powerful vision of life in England in the 21st Century ? A vision that would talk directly to real 38 degree signing people ?

    At the moment so much revolves like rather dim moons about the sun of Government - it doesn't have to be like that and it doesn't have to be about saint-like media figures - but about ideas that many, many people can understand and subscribe to.

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  18. Jane Douglas

    Perhaps NGOs should be considered in the wider landscape of all conservation efforts?

    Govts used to be sufficiently rattled by NGOs to notice an issue. Sometimes they would seek the quiet counsel of the state agencies of the day - who would have given Govt a face saving way to act. Never as much as NGOs may have liked, but far more than Govt and industry wanted.

    Now it's all very confused and Govt can and does exploit that.

    Govt needs two different types of body if it is to act in the interests of nature,

    In recent years, state agencies have campaigned like NGOs and NGOs have taken to talking softly with Ministers over lunch. One or two do practical work, but far too few.

    Ministers need fearless NGOs, fearless NGOs need state agencies whom Govts trust not to engage in the universally act of hated megaphone diplomacy.

    NGOs could easily be much more effective: back office sharing as already suggested.

    They could also achieve more if they spent less time courting Govt for their own organisational kudos and more on the task in hand. They need to be far less easily flattered by those in (temporary) political power.

    Lest we forget, reps of some NGOs shamelessly lobbied the then opposition to give them the responsibilities of state agencies and protected lands - forests, NNRs, SSSIs. When the new Govt said ok, the same NGOs backed out when the money was only what state agencies got. Cue pissed off Govt, now more wary of those NGOs.

    Influence comes with integrity and trus( - both have to be earned and both are easily lost.

    Yes the maze of NGOs risks diluting the effectiveness, but not as much as jostling for position and favour. The issues are far too important for that.

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    • Mark

      Jane - thank you and welcome. Very good points. I think your para starting 'Lest we forget...' shows that you know a fair amount about recent events. Thank you.

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  19. Vince

    I agree with Mark and Roderick, we need to move forward. I also think the government are rattled by the NGO's, they just don't repond in the way they used to. It's all part of the changed government landscape, where we have politicians now in office who have been only use to being in opposition rather than running the country and where two political views have formed a coalition. And there's no money. It's a frugal and tetchy political life and people argue with them. I bet they never thought it was going to be like this.

    I'm sure NGO's have had lunch in Whitehall. In my own experience through my professional life rather than NGO life, it ain't what it's all cracked up to be. If you raise your voice it echos around the room so of course you talk softly! In my NGO life, where minsters and permanent secretary's have appeared in a room or on a nature reserve from time to time, I failed to spot any fawning and cow-towing NGO big-wigs. Politeness extended to a guest, yes. It probably all sounds very civil but surely its better to talk and engage with government in a manner you would expect to receive? You can still make the points and if you find the position impossible you can walk out, as Fiona Reynolds did to some effect. It's more effective to choose the moment to make the point rather than engaging in constant noise.

    Full circle back to my point, could the "tangled bank" cope with another NGO? More then likely, yes.
    What if it was only a lobbying organisation? I'm still far from convinced it would add anything other than helping people who want a bit of a rant to take place in the public arena to feel a little better that something was being done.
    Are there lessons for the currently engaged NGO's? Absolutely, they probably need to be more open about how they are working together and better at putting the individual and collective positions in to the public domain more quickly and responsively. They may also need to take a half step back so that they aren't perceived as being too close to government.

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  20. Jon

    I have read this blog with considerable interest and found the items very thought provoking - many thanks ot all. Coming from an environmental consultancy background but with membership of numerous NGOs it is becoming increasing apparent that this kind of debate is long overdue.
    I agree with Peter Marren's arguments to a large degree - it is clear that the teeth have well and truly been extracted from Natural England's jaws over the years, and it is arguable how much bite they ever had. However, I do not necessarily agree that we need a new NGO to fill the gap. To use a commercial analogy, if a company sees a gap that it can fill then it 'adapts' itself so that it can fill the gap; it does not necessarily create a new company.
    In the UK, we have a surfeit of NGOs that have one overwhelming strength - public particiaption and awareness. They may fill slightly different niches - The Wildlife Trusts as a bottom up organisation; RSPB as bottom down; and the National Trust doing more general natural and cultural heritage focuses stuff; plus all the othes. But combined, these three organisations alone have a huge membership whose lobbying power is only just starting to materialise.
    What seems to be clearly lacking is a powerful wildlife focused lobbying organisation that can gain the ear of government in the same way that the farming and development sectors can.
    It strikes me is that what is needed is a 'Coalition' of these organisations that acknowledges their differences and similarities but identifies their common goals and then goes out to achieve them. The 'other' coalition is then far more likely to take notice. Perhaps in doing so, these organisations would receognise that they are first and foremost representing their members - something that sometimes seems to be not all that clear!

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    • Mark

      jon - welcome to this blog and thank you for your comment.

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  21. Rob Yarham (@wildaboutsussex)

    This is a much-needed debate, and it's much needed for the reason, as Peter Marren eloquently wrote, that there has been too great a loss of biodiversity in the UK - and abroad - for too long. That has to be the focus of any change to any of the organisations involved.

    Would the loss have been worse, though, without the work of these organisations – NGOs and state agencies – whose futures we're discussing, both on the ground and in the lobbies? I think the answer is probably yes.

    The question is now what would be the most effective – and efficient – way of reversing those declines from here?

    We need more concerted effort on the ground. That involves inspiring more local volunteers to (help) do the work, lobby local government and local opinion for more wild spaces and better habitat management – beyond reserves – all guided by professional conservationists from the NGOs and agencies.

    This is happening already, but it must be better coordinated, with locally targeted action. Perhaps more could be done to push Living Landscapes/Futurescape projects. (Why separate campaigns? I'll come to that shortly.)

    We all know that conservation all costs time and money, and requires legislative support. Lobbying central government (in UK and EU) is therefore a critical activity, and it helps if you can claim to speak for a large portion of the electorate (so you need to recruit lots more members!)

    Becoming larger creates its own problems of bureaucracy, remoteness from those volunteers you wish to inspire, and a tendency to focus on growth for its own sake (I speak as a volunteer whose many voluntary colleagues are increasingly put off by this). It also encourages a tendency to feel that cooperation with other bodies – for instance on the Living Landscapes/Futurescapes initiatives – will dilute funding, growth and ‘brand’. It may be true, but the objective of helping wildlife suffers.

    Most if not all NGOs do a pretty good job in their own niches. It’s just that they’re separate and don’t often speak – or act – together when needed.

    So I think the solution is fairly simple. We need a ‘council of conservation NGOs’ – bringing the current bodies together, large and small, to coordinate activity, pool paid and volunteer resources where appropriate, and lobby on a national and local level, leaving each organisation to do what it does best. I think that way, biodiversity will benefit. And economics will sort out if any mergers are needed.

    Of course, could such a lobby group take on the role of a silenced, weakened state agency, or out-compete the rich, industrial lobbies who appear in some Government departments to hold sway at the moment?

    As my mum often says, 'There are none so deaf as those who don't wish to hear.' We need central government that actually wants to listen. That’s the hardest to deliver!

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    • Mark

      Rob - thanks for your first comment here, I know you are a regular reader!

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  22. Rebecca Nesbit

    Thank you for the very thought-provoking post. I couldn't agree more that we need to move from competition to collaboration. But what would this 'super NGO' look like?

    I would like to see not one that is narrow minded, and ploughs ahead on the 'we love nature' basis without thought for science, but one that is grounded firmly in evidence and embraces society's challenges, including everyone in the solutions.

    I think there's a huge danger in going out as tree huggers and alienating anyone with a more mainstream attitude. Every single one of us does something that's bad for biodiversity (I own a computer, I'm using electricity to power it), and people need support in changing this - not finger pointing. This means including polluting businesses and individuals, and working with them not against them.

    I'd like a move away from 'saving pretty things' (which is valuable in itself, but only a very small part of conservation) to 'using science to help preserve biodiversity'.

    Am I being too much of a realist?
    What are we ultimately trying to achieve when we protect nature?

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    • Mark

      Rebecca - welcome and thank you.

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  23. A lot of the comments seem to come back to one thing again and again; the need for a strong collective voice, and one would assume a collective vision for that voice to ...er give voice to.

    We have Wildlife and Countryside Link, which in many ways is a very good organisation and in particular for those of us at the smaller end of the conservation NGO spectrum (and there aren't many smaller than us) Link provides the capability to engage with decision makers, whether in Whitehall or elsewhere, that we would otherwise lack.

    If there are things that Link could do better, then it's up to the membership, which includes all the august bodies that have been mentioned in the thread, to make that happen. I don't think there's much point creating a new collective though, when Link already exists. Link is effectively a Council of Conservation NGOs; it's a direct descendant of CoEnCo and the Council for Nature.

    Jane Douglas' point about political opportunism within the NGO movement in the past 18 months is well made. Of course it's inevitable that organisations compete with each other, for resources, kudos etc. But do we in conservaiton not all share a set of core values? Like all politicians, these politicians and their policies will be gone in a few years time; but conservation has to be about a shared vision and longer term aims. Link is good at fostering this search for shared vision, values and aims.

    Whether we need a new organisation or not, we do need to work harder to find those core shared values, and share them through effective and collective dialogue with the public, funders and decision-makers alike.

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    • Mark

      Miles - thanks very much for this. Yes, WCL could be the answer or an answer - but you are right to say that that depends on its members. And its membership is pretty diverse and includes much more than wildlife conservation organisations.

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  24. Andy

    Mark, you, Mike McCarthy and Peter Marren have started a long overdue and fundamentally important discussion for the future of our wildlife. So many good points have been raised in this thread, and we should remember the diversity of view. Whilst our experience, as seasoned veterans in the nature community (me particularly!), is undoubtedly valuable, society operates now quite differently from the way Max Nicholson used Government to slide into society's conscience the scientific importance of nature conservation. The views of the 38 degrees community, and how they are voiced, are important, even though I agree with you that this provides a check on extreme policy options, rather than enabling positive action for wildlife.

    And for me, it is just that balance which is important. Do we spend too much (overlapping and competing) effort on thinking we influence Government with clever lobbying, and not pay enough attention to the influence we wield by both raising the knowledge about wildlife (through great science) and taking action for wildlife, both of which enable wonderful, inspiring stories which have increasing traction with the public.

    I think our new voice for nature ought to consider carefully the breadth of influence we can bring to bear to get a better deal for wildlife, and not just think it is about shouting at Government to do different.

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    • Mark

      Andy - thanks for your first comment here and for the RTs on Twitter. I don't think that we need any new body to 'do' - that's probably where we 'just' need more cooperation and sharing of expertise and resources. I can't see that land management would be well served by another body. But there is a need for people to consider whether all the wildlife NGO lobbying is having as much impact as it might. I'll come back to this tomorrow (in a way that I hope will amuse some but may not amuse others) and then more seriously on Monday. Thanks again for your comment - keep them coming it's always good to hear what you think.

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  25. Graham

    If Goverment agencies have been muzzled and NGOs can't or won't speak up loudly enough, there is no effective political voice. The policies have come down from a coalition of two major parties and are a legacy of the third. Even the Green Party policies on wildlife and biodiversity are an uninformed and unintegrated mess. It just shows how far down the agenda wildlife is.

    Some of the existing partnerships and alliances are useful and productive but many just feather the nests of those involved. As the forestry campaign showed, there are new opportunities for mobilising interest and action and what we need is an independent campaign group or individual who can bypass the political system and criticise government and NGOs alike if necessary. The environmental movement and in particular Greenpeace set the benchmark in the past but have their interests in places other than wildlife these days. The problem is to find a clear issue which will inspire collective action.

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    • Mark

      Graham - welcome and thank you for your comment. My blog will return to this issue, tongue in cheek tomorrow, and more seriously on Monday.

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  26. Phil Espin

    Just a couple of points to add to a very thought provoking debate.

    1. I am a member of my local wildlife trust, RSPB and BTO for which I pay 3 subscriptions. If all these merged would I pay out the same total amount of cash to join one? I doubt it. The current tangled bank probably generates more cash for conservation that fewer more monolithic organisations would pull in. One of the keypoints about mergers in the commercial world is they generate more profit through cost efficiencies, getting rid of duplicated central staff. That could be good if the reduced costs generated more cash than reduced turnover but who is to say it would?
    2. If we in the UK are so bad at giving teeth to a voice for conservation can anyone point to another country that does it better that we could model ourselves on? Sadly I'm to parochial to be able to do this myself!

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  27. Streetweed

    Fascinating. The intricate and radical beauty of nature just might capture the imagination and trigger an ecological spring if we stop boring ourselves and others with ompromise, talking management babble and meaningless notions like sustainable development and hopeless causes like climate change. Come on comrades let's live and love and have a bit of fun - wildlife, wild life, you know you want it xxx

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    • Mark

      Streetweed -welcome and thank you.

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  28. George

    A fascinating read and an introduction to a debate which may be too late in reality.

    The huge amount of money directed towards NGOs allows them power but their over dominance results in further fragmentation of what they seek to preserve. The people are not stupid and are already beginning to ask questions as to what their money is actually spent on or why they bother volunteering for increasingly corporate models. As with the planning reforms, the fragility of the NGOs when policy changes are afoot highlights their lack of any real foresight towards a countryside as a whole rather than large amounts of money concentrated on small overly protected zones, which have soaked up most of the available finance with a disregard, an ignorance of areas, which are closer to population centres.

    Do we need a super NGO? I think and hope not, we need to see more allowance towards those who live and work in normal places, this cannot come by way of a centralised voice. I am guessing that some NGOs will struggle to relinquish any of their powers in what they feel to be 'their' territory, a status which has been assumed by them due to the memberships paid and fact that they are often now the most well financed sector within land based industry circles. There are many smaller NGOs who have been most succesfull in engaging with communities and it is they who will hopefully benefit from the mess the NGOs have got themselves into by accidentally distancing the population from both nature and a countryside that should be open to all and not pockets of manipulated waymarked 'interpreted' countryside that are the result of the NGOs work but merely illustrate fragmentation. Without people being taught to listen, nature stands little chance of ever being heard.

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  29. In Brighton (and Hove too, of course) there is amazingly still no local BAP to set the direction.

    The Local Council are taking advantage of this gap by pursuing their own agenda; with minimal involvement from local people or the Sussex biodiversity partnership. Massive tree felling and burning, creating a chalk heap on Preston Park (to replicate Downland!) and a bizarre mowing regime means we are replacing semi-natural biodiversity with some highly engineered artificial substitute. It’s not good.

    Follow Twitter.com/BrightonHoveBAP for more details.

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  30. Thanks for linking to my notation of Darwin's quote on the "tangled bank."

    Here in 2013, just reading the list of conservation organizations working in your neighborhoods gives me some heartening, deep in the bowels of darkest Texas.

    Good luck!

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    • Mark

      Ed - thank you!

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  1. Bits and pieces | | Mark AveryMark Avery
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