What’s in a name? Where is the movement?

Your votes in the poll on your preferred future name for the RSPB show you to be a pretty conservative bunch – no surprises there.  Almost two thirds of the 600+ votes were for ‘no change’ with the remainder of the votes split more or less equally between a name that would stick to birds but express the international nature of the RSPB’s current work (Birdlife UK) and a series of names which highlight the ‘wider than birds’ nature of the RSPB’s current work.

These results are quite similar to those I would have predicted but it’s the comments that are really interesting and will give the RSPB food for thought (indeed, I understand they already are!).

Some of the votes for ‘stay the same’ are because the voter wants the RSPB to stay birdy and others because the voter recognises that the RSPB has already moved on from birds but you don’t have to change the name – there are some issues and conflicts here.

The ‘birds’ or ‘all wildlife’ issue needs to be resolved within the RSPB and explained to us, the membership and potential membership.  No doubt this will happen soon, although the absence of a Communications Director for a year doesn’t help.  The search for a Fundraising and Communications Director has not yet borne fruit – surely a decision will be made soon?

Where the RSPB is heading is a matter of interest to many of us but it is also a matter of importance for nature conservation in the UK.  I’d still rate the RSPB as the most professional and effective nature conservation organisation in the UK and so what the RSPB does and says is of importance to all nature.  And boy does nature need help at the moment!

The voice of wildlife NGOs is quiet at the moment and the government is particularly weak on nature conservation – almost antagonistic to it.   There is a lot of private muttering but little public outcry from the conservation movement on the state of government disregard for nature.  Yes there was ‘buzzardgate’ and now the ‘badgergate’ rumpus, and there was a good response to the proposed changes to the planning system – but notice that all of these things are responses to government actions.  The nature conservation movement is on the back foot rather than on the front foot.  Stopping government doing daft things is one role for NGOs but there is a need for progress, not just a need to stop regression.

I have mentioned here the nature conservation movement, but, honestly, does it exist any more? The movement is fragmented – more a diffuse gas exhibiting Brownian motion than a river flowing strongly with apparent purpose in a single direction.

This is a time when we should expect the nature conservation organisations to find common purpose and a strong collective voice – but, as yet, they haven’t.  Wildlife and Countryside Link has tried to bring the movement together but some major players don’t want to play a coordinated collaborative game.  Meetings of Chief Executives have produced secret letters to Defra asking them to do a bit better please which are hardly likely to have sent a shudder through Nobel House.  The National Trust has lost its way on nature conservation and is changing its Chief Executive to an ex-Defra Permanent Secretary – is this likely to lead to an uplift in campaigning zeal? Some of the smaller NGOs are finding life particularly challenging in the current financial climate and we are likely to see some losses of players in the near future.

Unless the nature conservation movement can find a common voice that influences government then it should retrench and spend its time and our money (as a member of lots of such organisations) on practical conservation action such as nature reserves, reintroductions etc.  That would be a shame because the big leaps forward, the big wins, will come from influencing major areas of public policy such as agriculture, planning, fisheries, forestry, energy etc.  However, influencing these areas will, as never before, require concerted action from the movement.  If the movement can’t move then it should go back to its knitting and buy some more land.



38 Replies to “What’s in a name? Where is the movement?”

  1. And what are you doing to help change the world? It is easy to sit and criticise from the outside but that doesn’t help, does it? You probably think you are spurring on the organisations you are so dismissive of (you are very, unfairly, dismissive of the National Trust), but I would guess that reading what you’ve written here could make them feel a bit demoralised. So what are you doing, in practical terms, to make things better, other than sitting at home and firing off blogs? I like reading your blog but I don’t know why you always have to come across as if you know more than everyone else. Your blogs are filled with examples of the good things that other organisations are doing, so you contradict yourself when you make these sweeping generalisations.

    1. Linnet – thank you for your criticism of what you see as my criticism. This blog post does suggest a way forward – a concerted speaking out by NGOs. There are many within NGOs, some at the very top of those NGOs, who would like to follow such a course but whose wishes have been frustrated by others.

      I’m glad you like reading this blog, I like reading your comments.

  2. You are right I am amazed how quiet the NGOs are. It would be good to know why, is it the media not reporting stories? Is the focus of NGO too much on fundraising rather than policy? Does the G-ment have too much influence over their work?

    As you said I am surprised that the most I hear is in reaction to problems designed by G-ment? Where are the new ideas? Where is the fight and vision?

    Mark may be you need to return to mainstream NGO work – I might not agree with everything you say but at least you are passionate and proactive!

    1. Cowboy – thank you. My impression is that the media do not use NGOs as much as they did just a few years ago. I feel as though I hear much less of them on the Today programme for example. Does anyone else think the same – or even have any data on it?

      Let’s be fair, it is far easier to be outspoken from outside than inside. But, partly in response to the criticism by Linnet earlier, what I have written in this blog is being fought out/discussed/fretted over within the conservation movement at the moment. We, the public, will only see the outcomes of that discussion.

  3. The fundemental problem is that ALL the NGO’s have become too dependant on government grants and government funded projects. This gives government a degree of control over the behaviour of the NGO’s. A decenting voice is met with the threat to remove the funds.
    The break from this grip might hurt the budgets and the staffing at the NGO’s…which is something nobody wants to see…but how else do they get their integrity back?

      1. Perhaps the umbrella bodies (eg Plantlife) could become more overtly political and campaining- to draw fire away from the constituent NGO’s. But I have to admit that my preference would be for the organisations to which I directly subscribe to be happy to put their heads above the parapet.

  4. Linnet, a blog that pulled its punches would probably not make for very interesting reading and would have little influence. It is true that some great work has been and continues to be done by the RSPB and other conservation bodies but it is also evident that they could do better. This is a simple reflection of the fact that we continue to witness the decline of farmland birds, bumble bees, wild flowers and so on and on. It is surely worthwhile questioning what the conservation movement can do to address these issues more effectively. Better coordination of the various bodies involved and a confident and assertive public stance on key policy issues would seem to be extremely desirable at a time when the present government is clearly minded to sacrifice everything to its narrowly defined view of economic growth.

  5. Setting aside the outcome of the poll, I feel increasingly despondent at the apparent position many of the NGO’s currently occupy, particularly that of the RSPB. I say “apparent” as I’m sure , behind closed doors, they will be similarly exercised by the same concerns at what appears to be a lack of influence and positioning nowadays. But are they not deserving of this situation? There does appear to be a lack of profile, of firmly declared campaign targets, of action and what, one might even say, passion! There’s plenty of commentary, Blogs, cosy, and excellent, promotional material and the like……but it comes across as so very passive and lacking in declared resolve. I’m even convinced it’s not meant to come over as such so, clearly, some navel gazing is called for ( in my opinion it has to be said ). By this I accept that one of my personal expectations is of a high element of campaigning from our NGO’s , be against Government policies where necessary or on new initiatives. Such activities do happen, but how many of us still retain feelings of uncertainty on an absence of “declared direction ” and lack of corporate activity by our NGO’s?
    Take a look at the article Tom Fewins ( Parliamentary Officer, RSPB ) has in the current Liberal Democrats Conference Newsheet . It’s good, honest and factual and provides some firm thoughts the LibDems might dwell on. I wish I was as clear on what the RSPB itself really intends addressing in the near future. As Mark says, such clarity will no doubt emerge in due course and ,perhaps then, the next chapter in the role of our conservation movement will be clearer. It certainly needs it!

  6. On a practical point – check out the availability of domain names eg BirdLifeUK …. is available … and can be registered / protected for just a pounds!

  7. “a blog that pulled its punches would probably not make for very interesting reading”

    … and would not retain its readership. Comments could be a bit thin on the ground, too. You gotta tweak some whiskers!

    As for that BirdLife, I heard their first album and to be honest I thought it was rubbish.

  8. Mark, I’m sure you’ve advocated or at least floated the idea before (forgive me for not exactly remembering in which blog entry and probably repeating yourself back at you!) but if the option had been in the poll I might have voted to stick with RSPB, but also to launch a high visibility umbrella group under the banner of ‘Nature’s Voice’, using the RSPB publicity machine. It would have two main roles – membership services and publicity / distribution for any conservation NGO that wanted to buy in to the service, and offering a unified campaigning voice to government and the general public. It would surely save money to share costs on distribution? (and offer smaller NGOs the chance to pick up members – renewals for RSPB and Wildlife Trusts would automatically come with the option of ticking a box to join other groups using the same form, for example). And the total weight of numbers behind a joint group might even top the famous ‘one million members’….Clearly there are a lot of potential problems. But I agree that all we’re managing as a movement at the moment is firefighting – to win the really big arguments something probably needs to change.

    1. Chris – that’s taking some of the ideas in Fighting for Birds and elsewhere a bit further. A high visibility campaigning group which offered a unified voice to government could be what Wildlife and Countryside link would be. Trouble is, its members don’t seem to be unified and all want to be high visibility themselves. The latter is understandable but may not be best for nature. The former may also be understandable but is less easily forgiven (and may also not be best for nature).

      1. Herding cats is always difficult, even when they are all of the same breed.
        Unless they are Rag Dolls, in which case they will all lie down and be driven over.

  9. Aha, I thought so, though I haven’t yet read Fighting For Birds. My wife is a librarian and therefore insists that we read new books from the library, rather than buy them (though I sometimes point out authors have to eat just as much as librarians do!) – I’m pleased to say there is now a copy in the Hampshire library system, at Lymington I believe appropriately close to the wonderful Keyhaven and Pennington Marshes. So a double excuse for a trip to the coast soon.

    The trick would be to create such a group that didn’t dilute the individual charms and achievements of the NGOs which people quite rightly want credit for. And then to focus on the really big stuff for which you’d think there would be agreement – for example, the badger cull petition is important, no doubt (and I keep pushing it to friends and family) but how much more important would it be to get ten times as many people to sign a petition calling for the 2020 biodiversity goals to be urgently debated in parliament: in light of the many government policy decisions (or lack of decisions) which currently mean they’re highly unlikely to be met.

  10. You think Marks’ being rude to the National Trust ?

    You should have tried being a forester during the Flow Country – if you are Government and on the wrong side there’s really no holds barred. There are big issues here. They require big decisions – I’ve been there, I know and in the Forestry Commission we actually got the message it was change or die. So we changed and 20 years on a complacent, comfortable conservation movement couldn’t (and to an extent still can’t) accept that that change has resulted in the Forestry Commission being as much loved by a very large number of people as RSPB or the National Trust. Wildlife Link were debating ‘noone in this Government’s listening to what we’re saying’. I made the radical suggestion that they were listening to people over forestry – why not ride the wave ? Not a squeak. Similarly, I think the NT did a great job on planning – but objecting only gets you back to a couple of steps back from where you started – where we need to be now is presenting a powerful, innovative, positive vision of what we do around our towns and cities and for me that means building on the new nature reserves (RSPB, Plantlife) and woodlands (FC, Woodland Trust) that have developed over the last 20 years to build something much bigger & more exciting. the opportunity is there. Government isn’t going to do it: it’s not intent that’s the problem with this Government, it doesn’t matter how hard you kick you won’t get what you want because in terms of new ideas, real progress whether environmental or economic, you are kicking a vacuum – so lets have some real Big Society and get on and lead rather than just commentate.

  11. For what it’s worth – this is the way I see it

    1. RSPB doing OK – with the noisy Mr Mark Avery – Conservation Director
    2. Mark’s ‘public statements’ right or wrong – attract comments
    3. MA leaves RSPB
    4. Result – Much reduced ‘RSPB’ references / exposure in Media
    5. My Shooting Times had a least 3 reference each week to the said gentleman – (usually deservedly unkind!) plus some in the Letters Column
    6. RSPB Published Reports, etc – good or bad – right or wrong – have less impact – if any at all

    MA now wishes to change / shake up the RSPB Marketplace
    MA’s frustration manifests itself as a RSPB name change as a starting point

    It’s more fundamental that – the RSPB itself is not (now) firing on all cylinders – and it’s not just down to “Conservation” or lack of it.

    And that needs changing

    1. Trimbush – interesting analysis but, as so often, rather flawed I feel. The NGOs as a whole appear quieter and that may be, as has been suggested already, that the media are using them less for some (unknown to me) reason. Or it might be that they are craven – as has almost been suggested (though not by me). Or it might be something else. but with this government, this state of farming, this marine environment etc etc nature needs effective campaigning more than ever. And NGOs are still the most obvious and ‘tooled up’ means of doing that. The nature conservation movement is not firing on all cylinders. But I’ll continue to do my bit here too.

      1. The Analysis is flawed is it?

        You’ve convinced me now that it is not – I feel

        Indeed – according to you, Mark – and others here – the situation is much worse than I thought

        Two and a half year into a Coalition Govt and already it’s so so much worse; so many more Hen Harriers have gone missing under the current regime!!

        Why doesn’t the RSPB (£125 M turnover) consider going Public – issue some shares – get real!

        What was that rock song “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”?

        Ask yourself not what are you going to do for yourself today but for the Environment!

  12. I entirely agree that the NGO’s appear to have somewhat lost their voice – there may be audible whispers, raised voices in response to G-ment ‘silly ideas’, species and habitat threats etc but there certainly seems to be a heavy silence when it comes to an unified approach to addressing current issues. Funding restraints clearly impact priorities, and perhaps some prioritise creating a high visibility to their local constituency to maximise their membership, diluting their capability and resources to respond wholeheartedly in an integrated way. Many NGO’s are to be credited for their amazing commitment, drive and ingenuity on slender budgets. Whilst I don’t criticise RSPB for broadening the scope of their actions to promote the needs of all wildlife – quite the reverse, the wildlife trusts for one must surely feel nudged slightly aside. I believe rebranding RSPB is problematic – Birdlife UK (but rather knocks against BTO) might just about be acceptable – but to suggest a wider interest than birds within a title would surely undermine the wildlife trusts?
    The problems of co-operative working have ever been thus for all manner of reasons understood but, in current parlance, don’t we need to ‘get over ourselves’ ? Mark’s criticisms have their place. The conservation field might benefit from some respositioning to keep it current, effectively responsive and innovative. In the face of this G-ment’s aggressive economic interests wildlife needs us to be BOTH highly visible local heroes AND to learn the arts, and politics, of adding all our voices and actions to a highly visible, confident and directed public stance. Perhaps re-examining and retitling Wildlife and Countryside Link – it doesn’t actually sound very punchy? And if all parties don’t want to hold hands = weak links.

  13. as an RSPB member, I find it frustrating that I only ever see Mike Clarke’s freindly face in the quarterly magazine and if I go searching, on his latest message dated 26th July on the RSPB web-page. I think as members, we need to demand more and not feel like the NGOs are on auto-pilot and not in danger of shaking a few fists at government ministers or landowners who could do so much more.
    Given what you wrote on pages 196-203 and 285 of your book, I’m not sure how anyone who cares about birds can feel comfortable having HM as their patron – maybe I’m just not seeing the bigger picture though Mark?

  14. Last week I had a meeting – a walk around an SSSI – with a local (backbench Conservative) MP and a senior representative of Natural England. For what it’s worth, the MP said that he was always hearing from NGOs, mentioning the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB by name, but he never heard anything from NE, indeed he didn’t even seem to know what it was or did.

    I presume that marks a success for the government in telling NE to stop their policy, advocacy and publicity work and concentrate on providing evidence and enforcing regulation. But it does also show, albeit just in one minor anecdote, that an ordinary MP thinks he’s getting lots of stuff from the main nature conservation NGOs. With or without Communications Directors.

  15. I seem to see the RSPB and NT all over the place, so I don’t know what I’m reading that others seem to be missing. I get that the main point of this blog is to provoke but challenge the claim made by some here that it has to be provoking to be interesting. I read and watch a lot of things that are entertaining, but not remotely provocative! And I just don’t like it when I feel people are gratuitously poking at something to stir everyone up and get a reaction. All I’m asking for is a better balance of light and shade. I’m in my 30s and some of the people on here always sound a bit like they’re older and they’re just unhappy that times have changed. At least the NGOs are doing something. I’d rather see Mark encouraging more people to do something than having a go at those who are already trying. Why don’t you start your own movement, instead of sitting there asking where the movement is? Or is that harder than sitting in your cosy study penning blogs? I know I’ll get slated by your acolytes for this, but you sound like someone who shouldn’t mind being challenged back a bit sometimes?

    1. Linnet – there you are, sitting in your cosy study and criticising this blog (smiles, wryly)! You see, if you want to change the world you have to challenge it – and that’s what you are doing and that’s what I am doing.

      The main point of this blog is not to provoke – that would be very easy. And if you read through the blogs then you’ll find a wide range of different approaches. Read Thursday’s blog (it’s already written) which praises a well-known UK conservation organisation.

      Feel free to challenge me, but this is my blog and I will continue to write what I think. No-one is forced to read any of it – although over 5000 of you do.

  16. Surely it is now time for the NGOs to start talking with the Home Office and not so much to Defra and rather than a ‘collaborative’ voice look towards the formation of not another voice but a power – a policing service for conservation. Helping to relieve the strain of securing funds needed to police the rural protected areas where crimes against persons and property (which of course take precedence for taxpayers money) are outweighed by those against nature. There is a lot of criticism against the RSPCA, for example the selling of estate given to them with a wish to never sell, but they have a presence which has become indispensable in policing against animal cruelty. And who could argue that the RNLI does not actually police the waves also.

    The NGOs are facing growing criticism because their involvement actually costs taxpayers more, (the recent £700,000 forest panel report is such an example). Protest costs us all, a lot – prevention costs much less, but ultimately could result in a growing respect, and thus stable funding, for all NGOs who sign up and contribute towards a police force for nature during these times of austerity.

  17. I’m glad I managed to provoke you Mark! I don’t actually work in a study, I work outside, in conservation. I didn’t suggest that you always provoke (though others implied that entertainment and provocation are mutually exclusive – and I challenge that). My challenge to you was more that you’re barking up the wrong tree by trying to challenge NGOs, who are already trying to make things better. I’d rather you challenged the wider public to do more, instead of preaching to a bunch of people who ought to be converts. You seem to be a good communicator, so why not be more ambitious and be an evangelist for conservation in new places? They are the people who will create a movement, not people like me or others reading this blog.

    I don’t like hearing conservationists squabbling amongst themselves, arguing about who is or isn’t doing enough. I flog my heart out, every day, to make a small difference. I’d prefer it if new people made a similar contribution, however small. But I can’t reach those people. You can. You have a voice, so use it positively to enthuse new people.

    Of course you can say what you think on your own blog. I don’t remember saying that you shouldn’t. But don’t invite comments if you don’t want me to say what I think either. Saying “it’s my blog so I’ll write what I like” is a bit lame. It’s like saying you’ll take your ball away and is a bit childish. I’m not dumb enough not to realise that you always have the last word anyway! As you say, it’s your blog. But just because it’s your blog, it doesn’t mean that everything you write on it is automatically correct.

  18. Mark – may I make a small suggestion, that when you remove the voting buttons for the poll from your front page, would it be possible to preserve the page with the comments that accompanied the voting somewhere on your site? I’ve looked a few times for the original such page for the New Elizabethan Naturalists poll and whilst I can find various posts relating to the poll can’t see the one which launched the poll itself which had the largest number of the very interesting comments this topic generated. Apologies for interrupting the NGOs discussion with my off topic pedantry… or had it finished with ‘the Last Word’ ?!

    1. MK – what you suggest might be beyond my technical ability but I’ll see. Ah, I remember now – the trouble comes when i want to put another page/poll/survey up and then they may not all fit neatly on the top line of the webpage. I’ll see what I can do. Thanks for mentioning it.

  19. This thread may be a bit old now and no longer read but it seems pertinent to draw attention to the anouncement just made b the Grasslands Trust winding itself up. A sad event but possibly relevant to the question touched on in this thread and raised previously about how the conservation movement should organise itself, whether smal specialist organisations might be better absorbed into larger ones (or at least forming partnerships that help rationalise admin costs and such like.
    Hopefully Grassland Trust’s work and expertese will be able to be picked up by some other like minded organistion.

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