Biodiversity Challenge 2

bichallBiodiversity Challenge, an NGO document published 20 years ago yesterday, was a challenge to government.  It set out a way of thinking about nature conservation: set objectives, plan the best way to meet them, and then do it!

The idea of being clear, and ambitious, about what we wanted to achieve was a bit novel.

Here’s an example of a habitat target.  This was for lowland heathland:

Maintain and improve by management all existing lowland heathland (57,000ha) and produce conditions during the next 10 years to begin the process of heathland re-establishment on a further 6,000ha in Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey, Devon Suffolk and Norfolk.  The aims of re-establishment should be: to increase total heathland area; to increase the heathland patch size; to infill and reduce the edge/area ratio; and to link heathland patches.

That still doesn’t look bad to me!

And here’s an example of a species target.  This was for Altella lucida (a spider):

Maintain populations at only known UK site, in Dorset.

That seems pretty clear, at least.

What the partners involved in this work (six ‘author organisations’ and another dozen endorsing organisations) aimed to do was to provide a united front to government on what success would look like in nature conservation, but also to spell out the things that needed to be done to achieve success.  Those are still the elements of any successful plan – define what you want to achieve, work out the best way to achieve it, and then get on with it.

The publication of Biodiversity Challenge (and its second edition in 1995) helped bring wildlife NGOs together at a time when they needed a common voice.  The number of endorsing organisations rose from 12 to 33 for the second edition.  Government, in the last years of the last Conservative government, listened to us and this way of thinking was adopted to some extent by government and the statutory sector – somewhat unwillingly.  A few civil servants, and John Gummer (now Lord Deben) helped ensure that progress was made and that NGOs and government were working to essentially the same agenda.  Progress was maintained when Labour came into power in 1997, with Michael Meacher, being an enthusiastic ministerial ally.

So where did it all go wrong?

It didn’t all go wrong – there are some lasting legacies of this approach, but the success of the approach was also part of the reason for its failure.  Here are some reflections on what went wrong:

  • The approach of setting targets and planning action, in the hands of government, became an end in itself.  Huge amounts of time were spent in writing plans, consulting on plans and then shelving plans that were never implemented.  Everybody got very fed up with this and nature conservation became a chore rather than a joy!
  • The initial success of the ideas depended on a few people championing the approach inside government and from the NGO community.  Those people put a lot of effort into this at the beginning but some moved on, some lost interest, and some were promoted into areas where they couldn’t spend as much time on this. I’m a strong believer that human relationships, of trust, inspiration and collaboration, determine the success or failure of any complex human activity.  This activity went on for a long time and lost some of its key players.
  • Not everyone was signed up, inside or outside the NGO movement, and the detractors niggled away at the process (as was their right).
  • The approach was never perfect – what is? – but it did sweep people along because it was novel for a few years.  When it lost its novelty, some lost their enthusiasm and jumped on different bandwagons.
  • Devolution in Wales and Scotland didn’t help the process (from 1999 onwards, but actually having an impact even before that). I’m all for devolution, but one of its impacts in the early years was that anything that came from the UK had to be poked hard and redesigned in the devolved administrations.  There no longer was  a UK Biodiversity Plan – there were versions in different parts of the UK (which sometimes didn’t join up at all at the borders!).  In this case, devolution led to duplication and a slowing down of progress everywhere.  This was just unfortunate timing.

But it certainly didn’t all go wrong.  Nature conservation is still different as a result of Biodiversity Challenge.  Here are my claims on that count;

  • Some NGOs ‘found’ each other during the production of Biodiversity Challenge – the close working relationship between the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife developed most strongly during those years.
  • Some individuals ‘found each other’ too.  Without naming names, there are some of my colleagues in nature conservation who will always be able to get my attention, and an offer of support from me (and I know that I can count on them too) because of joint working through those times.  With so many nature conservation organisations in existence, it helps if people know and trust each other.
  • The idea of judging the success of nature conservation action by how much nature there is in the world is hardly rocket science – but it is better established as a result of Biodiversity Challenge.  Every time Defra or the NFU talk about the high coverage of ELS in English farmland someone will say – but what about the skylarks? bumblebees? badgers? or shepherd’s needle?  The farmland bird index, to a great extent, grew out of the process of setting targets and measuring progress (or lack of it).
  • Money did flow into nature conservation for a while. A government/NGO partnership (we are so far away from that these days!) meant that funding was available from industry, government itself and grant-giving bodies as all could see that this was a combined effort.  We have lost that position.
  • Some NGOs grew in stature as a result of their practical and pragmatic working with government.  I think that applied to the RSPB but not just to the RSPB.  NGOs won the respect of decision-makers for our determination, clarity of thought and ability to work collaboratively.


It certainly wasn’t a golden age – although I wonder whether there has been a five-year period when as much progress has been made as was made between 1993 and 1998 – but it was great fun.  And you do need fun in your life!

I wonder whether there are lessons for the way that NGOs work together these days – I’ll come back to that tomorrow evening.  I have written a rather birdy blog for tomorrow morning.


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  1. Thanks Mark for this insightful blog. I agree with practically everything in it. People tend to bash the BAP (no that isnt a euphemism) because of what it has become, forgetting, or not knowing, what conservation was like before Challenge. It is useful to set the record straight, but also to think about what may come next.

    I have taken a slightly different tack in my blog today, looking at how BC has changed the face of species conservation in the UK.

  2. andrew

    “ability to work collaboratively.” Conservationists would do well to remember that as well as befriending farmers. My deceased neighbor who retired from business and would do any environmental work as long as it was covered by the farm profits . He had a bit of marsh sssi and used to complain that the different bodies would come along and tell him different things. He was accommodating but he found that frustrating so imagine what a busy farmer would think.

  3. James Sterling

    Andrew I had similar on my farm, to the east side of the farm some fields would regulary flood and stay submerged all winter during the wettest months so I seeked advice and help on what to do, and boy did I get advice, I only seeked advice from one very helpful organisation who's advice seemed to be the right advice and importantly to me cheap and hassle free (less work on the plan and more on the farm for me). Intially things went well, we'd have a build up on the flooded fields of wildfowl and the dry bits some sort of wintering owl who's species name I forget, however by the spring/summer "word" had got out and I started to have visitors, not that I minded i enjoyed many pleasant chats about what species people had seen and had the odd "well done", even though I did nothing really, but then I suddenly started to have various trusts and charities starting to say I should do this,that and the other, one would say "chop some of the willow down and extend the reed bed" and another would come along "chop some of the reed bed and leave the willow" etc etc. I had enough and sat all the parites down for lunch.....jeezz you thought PMQ's was a rowdy affair, suffice to say not much agreement was reached and I was left with more questions then answers, sadly bird numbers of certain species did decline and I lost Yellowhammers completely despite my best efforts (they were my British canary and loved them), my Skylarks stayed stable BUT despite my efforts never increased, I'll still try mind, I've chucked up nest boxes and all sorts but my everlating impression was"to many chiefs and not enough indians" the small parcel of land I handed over to nature, I felt, was treated like a mini nature reserve (not that I was for me) by all the visiting organisations, it was never said but always felt like the parcel of land WAS THEIR's and was never used in a joined up manner with other farmalnd and habitat surrounding my farm, a missed chance? In the overall scheme, yes however not in my opinion I and few other brave wildlife enthusiast's enjoy what is there, just a shame those opinions and advice I asked seemed to me more like sharks during a feeding frenzy.

    Yours disgruntled farmer

    James Sterling

    • Mark

      James - thank you for your comment. Very interesting. Sorry you had a bad experience.

    • Jonathan Wallace

      I'd guess that the wintering owl was a short-eared owl.
      You were clearly ill-served by the ill-coordinated approach taken by the different parties that sought to advise you but hopefully that has not put you off trying to run your farm in a wildlife friendly way. It sounds as though you have had a reasonable amount of success so far even if not everything has worked out as hoped.

  4. Roderick Leslie

    I don't think BAP was a failure for one moment. I distinctly remember sitting with the pink and blue book over the quiet Xmas/NY period working out what the Forestry Commission should do for it - hard targets are good for deliverers, and BAP allowed us to deliver in a way which made it harder for general mumbling to undermine what we were doing. We went on to do over half that heathland target as well as stacks more - native pine and Atlantic oakwoods in Scotland, for example. So where did it go wrong ? In as much as it did, and I think most of the wrongness was that it wasn't refreshed at the right time, it was in that fatal policy vs delivery gap - it was those awful, endless Excel spread sheets that listed actions in an order that had no priority and may have suited policy lobbying but were of no earthly use to deliverers - I did say so at the time, to the CEO of EN, but never even got a reply (note Mark's comments about it all being about the conservation sector !). And then there was the 1,000 species - when the number of BAP species was raised by the demands of the NGOs - a total disaster - the senior civil servant in charge was completely bemused, not by any opposition to biodiversity, simply that he, like me, knew what was being asked was impossible and could only lead to decline, which of course it did. But BAP set new standards of objectivity & deliverability and probably the main 'end game' conclusion - reinforced by James' comments above - is that the conservation sector is hampered by believing that because it is on the side of the angels (which it is) it can do no wrong and doesn't need to seriously, critically examine what it is doing - in contrast to the Forestry Commission where at least some of us understood the organisation wouldn't be long for this earth without drastic change.

    • A prioritised and planned approach to conservation with shared ownership between government and NGOs that enables the effective engagement of the public, landowners and businesses has to be the foundation of any successful attempt to halt the gradual extinction of our wildlife.

      I have resisted (until now) the temptation to comment on this blog because I find it profoundly painful that we came so close to achieving such a system and now it seems so far away.

      This is not the place and perhaps not the time for me to write my autopsy of BAP , but as I was representing NGOs on the relevant commitee at the time I can correct Roderick on one point. The NGOs did not demand any increase in the number of listed species. The NGOs and the government bodies all agreed the listing criteria. When these were applied more species were found to qualify. The Government then clearly did not like the idea of a longer list but did not put forward a clear argument why if species A is about to go extinct we should act, but if species B is in the same position we should do nothing.

      NGOs certainly stood up for clear and fair application of the agreed criteria, but pressure on a simplistic numerical basis came only from Government.

      Perhaps there was a failure of leadership to resolve a dilemma in a way that the NGOs could be comfortable with. However, the species that I work with (or would like to work with) are all in jeopardy or are likely to be so, perhaps the failure in leadership was the failure to bite the bullet and find the couple of million pounds that would have got the ball rolling.

  5. John Goldsmith

    One can but agree with Matt Shardlow - the BAP process was an opportunity wasted - or at least I think this is what he is trying to say!

    I see few rare species in East Anglia that have made appreciable gains as a result of the BAP process, which is now vanishing into the sunset of the horizon behind us.

    If only the salaries of those who attended the numerous and lengthy meetings had been converted into cash to use on REAL conservation measures, not the occasionally good ideas simply committed to pieces of paper stored in filing cabinets (or on computer hard drives somewhere) - then things would be so much better.

    The process did, for just a few species, accurately document the historical rise and fall for say Natterjack Toads and Bitterns, and led to detailed monitoring for some species. It raised the profile of East Anglian heathland and subsequently a few have been harshly and inappropriately treated in the name of 'habitat restoration', and it will take decades for any surviving adder population to recover, even if the mustard-and-cress birch seedlings do get regularly removed (unlikely).

    However, we seriously delude ourselves if we believe that BAP brought worthwhile advances across the whole wildlife game-board.

    And the next cracking idea is.... ?

    John Goldsmith

  6. Roderick Leslie

    That's an interesting comment Matt - and I take your point. However, what I suspect most people in NGOs won't have been conscious of - and its very much the case still today - is just how much of a void there was behind the Government front: the ideas were coming from the NGOs and when you think of the qualifications of the civil servants (the very competent head of European wildlife was transferred to airport noise as a perfectly normal career move) its hardly surprising they weren't initiating much. The problem of the criteria & therefore length of the species list was very much with the NGOs - and I am very sympathetic to the problems faced in conserving the less flashy species - and seems to me to be an ongoing debate. However, thinking of the failure to move on effectively from the Biodiversity Challenge and the negative reaction to original thinking on big issues like grazing (the reaction to Dolman et als thinking on managing the Brecks, for example) I'm left with the feeling that conservationist have become rather flat footed and slow to react to changing circumstances.

    I still see Biodiversity Challenge as having been a big success and a critical stage on a journey that continues: nature doesn't actually belong to the Conservative party and they've been given far too much credit in terms of the arguments we are having for having not actually won an election - personally, I think we should continue down the track started by BC in principle if not in the rather confused bureaucracy it wandered into. And we do need to remember that a lot of the things BC shone the spot light on have actually done rather well.

  7. Serena

    Andrew: '“ability to work collaboratively.” Conservationists would do well to remember that, as well as befriending farmers.'

    James Sterling: "... a shame those opinions and advice I asked seemed to me more like sharks during a feeding frenzy."

    John Goldsmith: "If only the salaries of those who attended the numerous and lengthy meetings had been converted into cash to use on REAL conservation measures, not the occasionally good ideas simply committed to pieces of paper stored in filing cabinets ..."

    Roderick Leslie: "I'm left with the feeling that conservationist have become rather flat footed and slow to react to changing circumstances."

    These experiences very much chime with me as well. As an ordinary person, a 'member of the public' like many others with a long-standing interest in wildlife I am forever going along to conservation events where we are all herded along like a bunch of ignorant bums-on-seats by the 'experts' who betray signs of having little interest in working with ordinary people as genuine equals.

    My feeling is that if professionals are to have a hope of reversing the decline in wildlife then they will have to learn to share power more, actually listen to people, address their concerns and start understanding social and economic contexts better, work a lot more collaboratively with ordinary folk of all ages and backgrounds, encouraging and enabling people to develop their knowledge of species and habitats, and essentially building as wide as possible a constituency of informed and educated advocates for nature in every locale.

    Of course there must be already a few conservation orgs doing this to some extent at least, but not enough.

    It may be uncomfortable for some, but the fact is that development hardly ever works decently when imposed from the top down, and that if you want to improve the environment then everybody has to be helped to participate - on terms of equality.

    • Mark

      Serena - Happy Christmas!


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