20 years back


20 years ago, a bunch of wildlife conservation organisations published a report on the state of wildlife in the UK and what should be done to protect it.  That report was Biodiversity Challenge and it made quite an impact – at least for a while.

Back in 1993 the UK government (and this was before devolution) organised a meeting to respond to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  The meeting was held in the Royal Geographical Society over a couple of days and the aim was to begin to produce a UK response to the Convention on Biological Diversity - a Biodiversity Action Plan.

The RGS was packed, and there were a variety of talks which I can’t really remember, and numerous workshops.  Three RSPB staff attended the meeting; Graham Wynne (the Director of Conservation), John Taylor (who was something like RSPB Head of Policy) and myself (RSPB Head of Science).

We attended every workshop we could between the three of us and made a single point time after time after time: if this is a biodiversity plan then its ultimate objectives should be framed in terms of biodiversity.

We were on a mission, and that mission was to change the way that nature conservation was done so that government signed up to nature conservation targets and objectives.  Targets have a bit of a bad name these days but they do have their place in life.  In particular, they have their place when you are spending money on getting things done – what looks like success?  And if you can’t tell people what success looks like then you probably won’t succeed.  The RSPB had been through this some years before and getting clarity about what we were trying to achieve had been very helpful.  When it comes to government action then it is quite convenient (for government itself) to be a bit unclear about what success looks like – then nobody can say that you’ve failed.  Our aim was for the UK government to commit to doing some good for nature.

We made ourselves a bit unpopular over those two days but that goes with the territory if you are an advocate.  Our points were glossed over or ignored in the feedback sessions and we each leaped to our feet when the members of the different groups were asked whether we had anything to add to the feedback and we each said something like ‘ we did also discuss the importance of setting targets, biological targets, so that we can judge whether we succeed or fail’.  I remember, quite clearly, the nervousness I felt at doing this in front of c400 people, but I did it.  This was, in a way, my first taste of advocacy.

We made our point, but it was only grudgingly accepted by the establishment – and it wasn’t by any means fully accepted by our NGO colleagues either.  There were further meetings where the idea of biological targets was explored further but we were told quite often that ‘it will work for birds but not for other taxa’.  This seemed like an excuse to us and so I drafted about 20 biological targets for birds but also plants, mammals, insects etc and sent them around to all the wildlife members of Wildlife and Countryside Link for comment.  Most organisations ignored us but several were grabbed by the idea (which is quite simple), saw its potential and asked to join in.

We came to a point where we failed to make enough progress with the statutory nature conservation agencies and we decided to produce our own shadow biodiversity action plan for the UK.  Six organisations spent three months writing that plan which was launched in London 20 years ago today: RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, FoE and WWF.

The document gave examples of how to prioritise action, how to set targets for habitats and species and how to write plans that would deliver your targets.  It was a guide to how to do nature conservation from practical action to countryside policy.

Being involved in Biodiversity Challenge was one of many thrilling episodes in my time working for the RSPB.  We worked very hard as it was a race to produce our report before the government produced theirs. It was a collaborative piece of work and no-one was in charge so there was a lot of discussion and negotiation.  RSPB produced the document so John Taylor and I were dealing with an internal audience of our publication team and our external collaborators as well as writing text and editing text sent in by others.  It was fun, exhilarating and worthwhile.  Friendships forged then have remained strong for the last two decades – both personal ones and corporate ones.

Many people contributed to this document but the authors were as follows (RSPB unless stated otherwise): Graham Wynne, Mark Avery, Lennox Campbell, Tony Juniper (FoE), Miles King and Jane Smart (both Plantlife), Caroline Steel (Wildlife Trusts), Tony Stones, Alan Stubbs (representing Butterfly Conservation), John Taylor, Chris Tydeman (WWF) and Robin Wynde.

The Foreword to the report was written by one of the elder statesmen of the nature conservation world, Sir William Wilkinson.  In his Foreword Sir William wrote:

This consultative document, Biodiversity Challenge: an agenda for conservation action in the UK, is a contribution towards the UK’s response to the Convention on biological Diversity. The document demonstrates the considerable agreement that exists across the voluntary conservation movement on the UK’s objectives for the conservation of species and habitats and how these objectives could be achieved.  The organisations which have compiled this document cover all sectors of biodiversity in the UK and and represent the concerns of their combined membership of over two million people.

The Foreword also pointed out that a biodiversity plan should: have clear objectives, plan for action, be followed by people taking action and that government should work with the voluntary sector on a joint programme of work.


That’s a somewhat personal view of the production of Biodiversity Challenge – I’ll write tomorrow about what went wrong (and right) and whether our work left a legacy. Miles King is also writing about Biodiversity Challenge on his blog.


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  1. Anne Langan

    Looking forward to tomorrow's episode. I like cliffhangers!

  2. Circus maxima

    The wheels on the bandwagon.....

    • Mark

      Circus - that's a bit spooky. I am writing tomorrow's follow-up blog and have just written the word 'bandwagons'.

  3. Thanks Mark. That was fascinating reading about the initial workshop - I wasn't there and had completely forgotten about its importance in setting the Biodiversity Challenge "Hare" racing.

    I will also write (probably tomorrow) about what went well and what went wrong - it might take me 2 or even 3 goes!

    • Mark

      Miles - I enjoyed your blog today. I've written about what went well and what went wrong too! Just reading it through now. Mine will be out at 6am - I wonder how similar and different our two blogs will be.

  4. thanks Mark - mine certainly won't be out at 6!

  5. Mud-lark

    There seems to be a flood of such reports with variations on message at regular intervals, State of Nature, even NEs own variation on theme, a veritable plethora from a 'new micro industry'.

    So when will the repetitive message be heard and more importantly be acted upon?

    Can we collaborate long enough to collectively deliver, Iolo spoke from the heart about action, where are the rest?

  6. johnthebadger

    Hi Mark,
    what a timely reminder. I didn't see this until just now but spookily was thinking of something similar last night - my partner attends the current TBG (And I used to sit on the WBG a long time ago) and last night, having heard her dispiriting reports back from the latest meeting I thought and how, if I was to in the near future attend a TBG meeting I could quite easily see myself at some point during the meeting standing up and saying, ‘what have you done to the beautiful partnership action process of team-work towards targets that we had going, for all its faults….., in the 10 years that I’ve been away – how could you do that?!’ it would seem that many of the youngsters and newbies in Defra (and some within Natural England?) need to be exposed to what we fought for 20 years ago, and how they've risked throwing the biodiversity out with the bathwaters.

    keep shouting....

    (I hope to return to the fold one day soon)



  1. Biodiversity Challenge 2 | Mark Avery
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