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.