Guest blog – Peter Marren

Following his article in The Independent, and the flood of views on the subject that have washed through this blog, I asked Peter Marren whether he would like to comment on the views expressed so far.  Here is his response:


When you embark on a new venture you feel very alone, so it is both a comfort and a huge encouragement to know that many people feel the same way. Briefly, we feel let down. Nature conservation in Britain has been under political attack for the past twelve months, and its defenders, to put it as mildly as possible, seem to have left the battleground. It is only now, as Mark reports, that some of the wildlife NGOs have decided they are not, after all, in favour of a developer’s free-for-all in the countryside; only, that is, after the National Trust has done all the hard fighting (whatever happened to courage of conviction?). It seems to me, and to many of you, that the existing system has failed. We need something better, but what?

To begin with the published letters in The Independent, Matt Shardlow, director of Buglife, points out that his offer (within a condominium of RSPB and two other wildlife NGOs) to meet Defra “to explain our concerns and strengthen our partnership”, fell on stony ground. Well, if they didn’t know before, they certainly know now. They are not going to get far with muffled coughing behind closed doors.

Dr Debbie Pain of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust says we are too insular and that conservation should address world issues. So it does, but the fact that central France still teems with nightingales does not compensate one iota for the loss of those harbingers of “easeful summer” in my Wiltshire village. Besides, does not charity start at home?

And so (skipping for reasons of space the briefer comments in the Indie) to the 50+ thought-provoking comments on Mark’s blog. Veteran conservationist Derek Moore is critical of wildlife NGOs, asserting that they have lost their ability to bark and bite, that they have become passive, obsessed with money (aka ‘resources’) as the solution to all problems, and that they tend to hide behind their membership just when leadership is required. I think he hits the bullseye. His concluding comment, that “nature conservationists are the biggest threat to wildlife” – and coming from such a source – should surely make every one of us pause. It occurs to me that my alter ego of Twitcher in the Swamp has been making much the same point for the past twenty years.

I also agree with the many comments to the effect that what we do not need is another NGO, least of all ‘a super-NGO’ either competing with others, or in some way acting as a mouthpiece for their corporate views. As Miles and Gethyn Williams note, that role exists already in the Wildlife & Countryside Link. Someone, not on this blog, characterised its recent utterances as greenish stodge produced in a blender. The compromised and corporate view of 25 separate bodies is unlikely to read like the Gettysburg Address. It follows that I do not think an umbrella body, a megaphone for the minnows, is the answer.

Martin Harvey is right when he says that it will be a tricky balancing act to get right: being outspoken on behalf of conservation while maintaining the support of conservationists. You have to agree, but isn’t it ironic that this should be a perceived problem! Rod Leslie, whom I admire for the clarity of his views and the energy of their expression, thinks we are at one of those break points when the plates begin to shift. I hope so. He points out, rightly, that the climate change agenda and that of wildlife have become hopelessly confused and even conflicting (as when they build windfarms on bird sanctuaries). He wants a broad and generous (as opposed to narrow and tetchy) view but doubts whether this brand of positive leadership is available at the moment. There I beg to differ. I can think of people who would be up to scratch.

Vince finds it ironic that Twitcher, who has so often poked fun at Natural England and its predecessors, is now wearing apparently new shoes as its defender. Point taken, but it was that body’s lack of conviction he was deriding, not its very existence. We need a state wildlife watchdog for the simple reason that we cannot do without one. Recent events have shown that.

Jon and others point out that we already have a surfeit of NGOs, which could have great lobby power if they acted in concert. I agree, but I do not think formal mergers would work because they work against the grain of human nature. We form societies because of a shared interest, and beyond that a shared concern. Not many people are equally interested in butterflies or sharks or fungi. There is more to a society, or a charity, than lobbying. All the same, I agree they might try a bit harder to cooperate and to produce joint press statements do not radiate half-apologetics and a quailing sense of insecurity.

Finally I agree with Graham that what we currently lack is a political voice. The attack on wildlife is a political issue because this government has made it so. We might not have much to learn from the Green Party, which is clueless about wildlife, but I think 38 Degrees has a lot to tell us about democratic power and how to exercise it. We need to start thinking more aggressively, about argument and democratic challenge. Too many rabbits, not enough stoats, see?

So to a conclusion. What do we need? Let’s say what we do not need. Not a committee, nor Trustees, nor a new NGO, nor a new umbrella body. We lack, and therefore need, a Voice of conviction. A voice that carries the respect and support of the wildlife movement without compromising its individual right to speak out. I am thinking in terms of an individual, or group of individuals, with resource to specialized knowledge, that might in some sense fill the emerging vacuum at the heart of the matter. In today’s environment, when so much depends on the effective communication of a few simple ideas, in the mobilization of thousands of unheard voices, I think it could be made to work. It isn’t up to me, of course. It will only work if enough people agree and sign up to it. A good public debate, as this blog is proving to be, is a start.


18 Replies to “Guest blog – Peter Marren”

  1. I like many others on here have used 38 degrees to win the forestry vote, the NHS and petrel prices. They already exist.

  2. I believe that some form of govenmental “NGO”! is required, ie a non departmental public body responsible for advising the government on matters concerning nature conservation interests, However, that is exactly what Natural England is supposed to be !!.
    I have very little faith in Natural England after having several times reported damage being done to SSSIs and being told we can not do anything about it as we do not want to annoy the landowner.

    Natural England seem to be driven by targets for BAP species or global warming without any common sense or logic being incorporated into their strategies. I could hardly believe what I was seeing when last year one of my favourite wildlife areas had been blanket sprayed with herbicide killing off the heather and bog myrtle over a vast area on Glasson Moss NNR . This was a fantastic area for dragonflies, spiders and many other invertebrates as well as adders and lizards. Their idea I believe was to kill off birch saplings so as to maintain the water levels in the peat moss and improve the carbon sink, but from what i can see all that has happened is that they have created a seed bed suitable for the germination of hundreds of thousands of unwanted birch seedlings.

    Peter you say that what we do not need is a committee but how else can the expertise needed for an advisory body be gathered together? Perhaps a quango run by and consisting of representatives from the environmental NGOs and scientific establishments could decide what policies should be adopted by the government and then have this reinforced through a lobbying organisation such as 38 degrees.

  3. Hear, hear! My own theory has been that the passionate about wildlife are not allowed to progress as far as they used to within these organisations and there is such a powerful emphasis on looking ‘corporate’ that considerable damage has been done to voices in the system. In the past, mavericks were lauded and valued. In current organisations they are a threat to the less convincing and once there is a block in place it is kept in place. Oh if that could be altered, then maybe the voices would have more confidence in their own position and be heard.

  4. Dave H

    I don’t think it’s ‘targets for BAP species’ that’s distracting NE. There aren’t any.

    NE used their influence to persuade Defra to quietly drop them (not that Defra needed much encouragement), almost all came to an end in 2010 and the species suffering so badly that they were added to the list in 2007 still don’t have any targets.

    NE does have quite a lot of climate change specialists, not sure what they are doing though. If they had more entomologists it might help some of the issues you identify, they used to have 14 and now have 1.5.


  5. I am both heartened and saddened by this thread: Heartened as this conversation is surely needed and it is time to accept that social media provides a new platform which can help to revolutionise the way we all interact to ensure the protection of natural heritage; I am saddened that the non acceptance of social media thus far as a tool to fill voids in terms of discussing and solving problems has thwarted any real progress; until a time when the government decide to introduce radical and potentially dangerous policy.

    We are all guilty of a stoicism that has failed the natural heritage we are all now custodians of.

    Is it not the case that we do not need to discuss whether we need a new ‘umbrella’ group but simply use the channels which have allowed the discussion to commence. This blog for example, facebook, twitter and elsewhere. These are not tools to publicise but tools to enable discourse. To talk of manipulating social media to suit the aims of existing NGOs and Quangos is to miss the point of what this new medium means. It cannot be manipulated and there are real answers available. For example the NPPF debate raging at present, one cannot fault the stance taken by the National Trust – but both they and 38 degrees are inadvertently guilty of shrouding the real issues, the voice coming from the ground, from communities as well as those who do not oppose the NPPF for reasons that need to be addressed. Which way does the government turn, who are they meant to listen to and is it any wonder they retreat to closed door meetings and a refusal to provide details of their decision making progress, (as exposed by the Our Forests group this week). Surely the time is absolutely right to simply allow for a evolving process, one where the websites / forums provide the platform and it is simply a case of the most reasoned voices winning through on their own merit. This obsession with having to create organisations is simply no longer relevant.

  6. On the political front I hope that the new Biodiversity APPG can begin to raise some of these issues more forcefully in parliament. Working cross party with back benchers who have biodiversity & the Environment as their principal focus, we should wield a stronger punch.

    1. Barry – welcome to this blog! The work that you and other MPs, of various political parties, do in Parliament is, obviously, of great value to wildlife.

  7. If it helps, some reflections from the NGO scene in Spain –coming on top of nearly 20 years working in and observing the nature conservation scene in Scotland.

    Time and time again, people here are agog at the reach, resources and diversity of conservation and countryside NGOs in the UK. Spanish eyes burn with admiration and envy at the mention of the millions of members in the National Trust, the RSPB, the Ramblers Assocation, the wildlife trusts, Buglife, Plantlife, organisations for beetles and butterflies, trees and seas. But maybe so long and so much has been spent smoothing the lobbying approach and perfecting the brands and the house styles that agility, improvisation and the attacking instinct have taken a back seat. Or people are more comfortable with the cosier side of their organisations’ work and ‘don’t want to make a fuss’. To quote a song from the early 70s..”hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way…”.

    Look around at the anger in the Daily Telegraph…put aside for the moment relatively minor differences with the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity….talk to social welfare groups..think about the pent-up rage which boiled over in the riots earlier this year. It’s time to take the gloves off and attack head-on the worst materialist values of the property-owning and share-trading democracy which were championed a generation ago and which have now brought western economies to their knees, provoking a worried closing of ranks amongst those who have most benefitted from decades of collective consumer hysteria…the institutions still moving and making thousands of millions of pounds every minute in the City.

    In terms of rural and environmental policy, Mr Cameron and his disgraceful government are turning the clock back many decades, to the Britain of before the town and country planning system, before the Forestry Commission, before the Nature Conservancy. Not even Mrs Thatcher with her massive majorities managed to do away with the critical balancing functions these institutions fulfil…or maybe, deep down, she knew it was simply unthinkable. And now a cynical coalition government is systematically dismantling the healthiest part of the quangocracy – that which examined and questioned the big decisions of government. What next – will they try to neuter the Select Committees? Gag the BBC?

    A word about the media. Hopefully the Murdoch and News of the World scandal have injected a bit of extra backbone and responsibility into the press. The broadsheets, at least, seem to be active and indignant on this front. Maybe the tabloids are too confused to know what to say. But if the TV chefs can mount frontal attacks on unhealthy school meals, overfishing and factory farming, then the Beeb now needs to get very angry about nature too. Panorama, Paxman, Today…yes, even the cuddly BBC Wildlife Unit (with due respect, Mr Attenborough) and Blue Peter. Movilize the NGO millions and get them to ask en masse why their outrage is not reflected on the telly.

    As you know Mark, here in Spain a new political party has been founded by the ex-bosses of Greenpeace and BirdLife, with many other disenchanted leaders and activists from social justice, trade union, academic and other backgrounds, because they were so sick of getting nowhere with campaigning and lobbying from ‘outside’ politics, with corporate party machines impermeable to what is really happening, and incapable of leading change in favour of connecting people with nature and wildlife because, quite simply, such change would shake traditional political parties to their foundations. And at the same time, thousands of people, critical thinkers connected by the new social networks, gather more and more frequently in Spain’s streets and squares, debating and approving clear and constructive proposals to improve democracy and dismantle anti-social and anti-nature government policies, exposing and shaming anti-social and anti-nature politicians for the Philistines and hypocrites that they are. We will see if this movement has any real impact when Spain goes to the polls on 20th November but it has been enormously heartening to see how civil society here is at last rearing its head and finding its collective voice.

    If your own political party (whether it’s insignia are blue, red, yellow or green) is failing you then don’t be resigned..get involved. And if you don’t have a political party, wake up and look around you. Observe and be very visible. Get very, very angry and make a lot of well-channelled and well-directed noise. Don’t just get involved with policy…get into politics..get into the faces of politicians and challenge them about people, places and values. What seems to be missing is a healthy dose of (Mediterranean?) anger and passion, or a lot more protestantism…in the sense of protesting. A new organisation isn’t needed but a new way of getting organised. Think about what that means in these days of social media and party machines obsessed with image and damage limitation.

    Whilst the disenfranchised and isolated in English cities were rioting earlier this year, their equivalents in Spanish society were joining and being warmly welcomed and vigorously defended in open public debates about social justice, immigration, free-market greed, education, health and environmental protection. Debates not organised by any NGO or political party. Think about that too for a moment. No, think about it for a long time, every day.

    If you are down at Plymouth Hoe don’t be surprised if Spanish ships appear over the horizon…this time the Spanish Armada will be coming to your rescue. Imagine it…the Spanish coming to the UK to talk about how to get organised… 🙂

    1. Dave – fantastic. Sorry about the delay in your post appearing – the spam filter must be anti-Spanish. Thank you for your very valuable perspectives.

  8. Thanks Peter for an interesting blog. I’m very pleased to see that the debate Mark started about the fact what we don’t need is another NGO is continuing. It was a stimulating debate at the time, and I thought of it again recently when I was talking with conservationist friends who I used to work with. My professional interest now is business and biodiversity and I told them about the challenges I faced of justifying the importance of conservation. It emerged that we had totally different motivations – do we protect biodiversity for its own sake or for humans? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that most people don’t even know their motivations, and before we can get anywhere with campaigning, we need to understand them.

    I agree entirely that we need an informed voice of conviction. But for that to hit home with people we need to know why nature matters to them. So I devised a 4 question survey which probed in different ways: ‘Why is biodiversity important to you?’

    It’s an important debate and thank you Mark and Peter for bringing it out.

  9. It was lovely to see Peter in action again on subjects he cares so passionately about…we last met in 1982(!) when I reviewed his new book A Natural History of Aberdeen for the Evening Express which he wrote after five years’ work with the Nature Conservancy Council. It’s good to see that a lot more people are getting involved in the debate today than they were back then… 🙂

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