Guest Blog – It’s a marathon not a sprint by Alastair Driver

Reading Rhino with Rhino BeetleAlastair Driver has the honour of inclusion in Who’s Who for “distinction and influence” in the field of environmental conservation and is one of the most experienced river and wetland conservationists in the UK, with a growing international reputation in the field of catchment management. He became the first ever Conservation Officer for the Thames catchment in 1984, a role that he held for 18 years and since 2002 he has been the National Biodiversity Manager for the Environment Agency covering England (and also Wales until April 2013).

If you want to find out more about the conservation work of the Environment Agency, then please follow Alastair on Twitter: @AliDriverEA 


If you’d told me 35 years ago, after I’d scraped through beer and sport-fuelled university with an ecology degree, that I was going to make a living out of conservation I’d have suggested you should be sectioned. But there are now literally thousands of people out there who are professionally employed in conserving and restoring our still beautiful, but quietly ailing natural environment – in fact there are 200 of them in the Environment Agency alone.

Back in the late 70s when I was cutting my teeth on wildlife surveys, I remember my rugby mates expressing indignance that their taxes were paying for me to “count grass” and suggesting that I had “a girl’s job” – nowadays the bloke down the pub instantly recognises that people like me have a role in society which is both interesting and valuable.

The question is – are we conservationists really making any difference? The simple answer to that is – yes, but just as the environment has suffered near-death by a thousand cuts, so it requires healing by a thousand operations, and that takes time. You can’t spend 200 years knackering the environment and then expect to put it all right in the blink of a government.

Medmerry managed realignment scheme, Sussex.
Medmerry managed realignment scheme, Sussex.

And that’s where it gets tricky, because it is only through long-term sustained effort on the ground delivered by a mix of professional experts and world class armies of UK NGO- inspired volunteers and backed up by continually improving legislation and policy, that we will turn things around. But we are getting there. In the 30 years I’ve worked at the Environment Agency, I have seen amazing changes in both attitudes and action – changes that were beyond all my expectations. I would never have predicted that we would create as much as 5,000 hectares of new wildlife habitat in the last 10 years or that otters would be back in every county in England or that we would have a truly world class piece of legislation (the European Water Framework Directive) that requires us to get all of our rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries into good condition by 2026.

Despite all of these achievements though, the key message that the environmental community have yet to embed in wider society, is that we need a healthy environment to sustain a healthy economy. The problem in getting that message across is that, as the National Ecosystem Assessment demonstrates, you can’t get away with milking the environment for every penny in the short term and not suffer the consequences in the long term. What we need now is to be brave, to commit to long term strategies for environmental improvement and not to be distracted by economic recession from tackling the single biggest challenge facing our country – the balancing of a healthy environment with a healthy economy in the face of population expansion and climate change.

In the meantime, it’s never a dull moment back here in the Environment Agency – we’ve just created mega coastal realignment schemes at places like Steart Peninsula in Somerset and Medmerry in Sussex which will deliver fantastic new habitats for wildlife whilst reducing the risk of coastal flooding and we’ve got the Challenges and Choices consultation for the second round of River Basin Plans, which is your chance to tell us about the problems facing the water environment near you and offer us thoughts on solutions.

We have a wonderfully biodiverse planet to save, and everyone has a part to play in that ambition – but one thing’s for sure, it’s a marathon not a sprint.

Steart managed realignment scheme, Somerset
Steart managed realignment scheme, Somerset



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7 Replies to “Guest Blog – It’s a marathon not a sprint by Alastair Driver”

    1. Rest assured John, the work of the Agency embraces the whole of England! I have just returned from the excellent Belford Burn project north of Newcastle where, in partnership with Newcastle University, we have worked with natural processes to reduce flood risk and create habitat at the same time - check out my recent tweets for a sequence of images illustrating the range of interventions.

  1. "...thousands of people out there who are professionally employed in conserving and restoring our still beautiful, but quietly ailing natural environment – in fact there are 200 of them in the Environment Agency alone."

    Only 200? Presumably this is in the rather narrow sense of being specifically involved in biodiversity management? I would hope those staff involved in aspects such as pollution control, waste management and water abstraction are also committed to protecting the natural environment even if they cannot necessarily distinguish between a beetle and a buttercup.

    In all of these areas the Environment Agency is involved in issues that affect not just our quality of life but also the well being of our fauna and flora so it is essential that it has access to specialist knowledge and advice on this. I hope the 200 ecologists are sufficiently numerous and well resourced to be able to properly provide this advice across the whole range of the Agency's work but I fear that they are an easy target for the cost cutters.

  2. I always thought that it was an opportunity lost that the EA were not 'moor' involved at Thorne & Hatfield Moors SSSI / NNR.

    Staff we've worked with in the past and EA organisational ethos came across as being prepared to commission science and deliver management through evidence based analysis. Likewise enforcement when there was breach of regulations or legislation.

  3. enforcement when there was breach of regulations or legislation? you have obviously never phoned the environment agency about river pollution? i would be amazed if they turned up on the same day,let alone managed to enforce any legislation.

  4. I agree with Alastair, however, we have politicians who believe that building more houses will cure the depression because it did in America in the 1930s. Is this a policy dreamed up by the construction industry? We are already struggling to cope with power demands. That is why the country is being covered with "wind farms." Will more houses need more power, more gas, more water, more waste disposal etc. The recovery of the American depression probably co-insided with house building. Bank interest rates are the lowest for savers than they have ever been. People are spending instead of saving. This means banks have less money to lend house buyers and small businesses. Is it a good idea to destroy yet more farm land that we use to grow crops, for houses that the average person cannot afford? Governments are chasing themselves in circles rather than standing back and really looking at the problem. Until someone realizes what the answer is the situation will continue to decline. Only then will destruction of habitats begin to slow down and the pressure ease from wildlife.

  5. Two, no make that, three things....

    Firstly, "What we need now is to be brave, to commit to long term strategies for environmental improvement and not to be distracted by economic recession from tackling the single biggest challenge facing our country – the balancing of a healthy environment with a healthy economy in the face of population expansion and climate change."

    How many times, in how many ways and with the support of excessively overwhelming evidence will the same thing need to be said before your average man/woman/politician in the street actually gets this sufficiently for the necessary shift in the way we do business with the environment. And how much will we have already lost and how much will we then be incapable of saving as a result?

    Secondly, despite all the good, worthy and effective actions, we're still cutting our joint environmental throat faster than we're repairing past injuries or preparing for the impacts of climate change and expanding population. Sustainable development? There aren't inverted commas enough.

    Perhaps the greatest positive change would result if local authorities were to be forced to do what's already required of them by law in relation to biodiversity and the natural environment. Whilst we know that the present 'Government' doesn't like to impose itself on local democracy (other than where the Great Sandbag is concerned or in the run up to a general election) or at least not be seen to, it does seem something of a shame that the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the proliferation of other biodiversity conservation organisations, plus bodies such as the National Trust et al can't get round to highlighting the failure of local governments (some much worse than others) to deal in a responsible manner with the natural environment.

    And thirdly, all told, the Agency has done a generally excellent job since it came into being, and it's been my pleasure to meet and work with some excellent folk n what is now the biodiversity and fisheries team. The Water Framework Directive provides a shining example of the policy mechanism that ought to be driving our relationship with the environment, in bringing together different organisations and interest groups to work in support of whole catchments but those positive moves are undermined, undone or held back by what we (that's you, me and everyone else) allow and enable to happen elsewhere.


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