A rather fluffy gauntlet – the event

By Adam Morgan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Adam Morgan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last Tuesday a bunch of NGOs launched their ‘Response for Nature’ report (or reports actually – one for each UK nation) at an event in London.  I’ll comment on the reports later today but the event was a room full of wildlife conservation organisation staff talking to themselves.

There were speeches: from Steve Backshall, Josie Hewitt, Rory Stewart and Martin Warren.  The most important was that of the minister and the best was that of Josie Hewitt.

Steve Backshall set the scene very well and was engaging.  He said, on behalf of the 26 organisations involved in producing the report (for England) that ‘There is no doubt that the public is behind us’ and it is true that these organisations have a combined membership of over 6 million folk (the National Trust is in the gang this time around), but it might be that a large part of the public is in front of these organisations in wanting much more action than this report suggests – and quicker too.

Steve Backshall quoted John Muir very deftly ‘A grand harvest was wreaked while nobody sowed’ as a summary of where we are and then claimed that we are ‘…at a crossroads. A critical point’. It doesn’t feel like it really because there is no sign that we are changing direction. It doesn’t even feel as though there is much pressure on the brake pedal. No, if that was the crossroads we just sped through it without looking either way, slowing down for the junction or even looking at the map.

Martin Warren finished the speeches with wise and sound words about what needs to be done but in between we heard from the minister and the ‘young person’.

Rory Stewart’s speeches are beginning to resemble those of Rupert de Mauley –  ‘You’re all very challenging and we’re doing our best but it isn’t easy you know’ – maybe they have the same speech writer?  But they are content-light although they all finish with some words about how we are aiming for the best environment in the world. What nonsense! You do actually have to do something to be a world record holder whether it be in sport, or in the race to have the best environment. This country (let’s say England, but the UK is no better) is not even in training for this event and it’s unlikely to start overtaking other nations which are.

The minister’s speech also contained an odd observation of nature where he claimed to have seen a stoat, last weekend, continually returning to a nest to remove the chicks. Stoats do that, but the point of it was a bit obscure and the likelihood of there being an active birds’ nest in mid-October in Cumbria is quite low really. Oh well – it was one of the more remarkable parts of the speech.  And, unlikely though it was to be accurate, it was much more likely than that Defra’s inactivity would deliver the best environment in the world.

The room was mostly filled with the staff of the wildlife organisations who had put the report together. I didn’t spot any journalists, there were very few politicians (though it was good to see Kerry McCarthy and Angela Smith there, and Richard Benyon gave me a curt review of Inglorious (!)), and a few folk from the statutory agencies, NFU, CLA and Hawk and Owl Trust, but it wasn’t really an ‘event’ in the sense that anyone treated it as important. There weren’t many chief execs to be seen (which always sends the signal that it isn’t a very big deal (although I know that Mike Clarke was in Germany at the time)). Media coverage of the report was very low.  Organisations representing over six million people have spoken and nobody appeared to be listening.

"Bybyhandschuhe 2011 PD 05" by Bin im Garten - Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bybyhandschuhe_2011_PD_05.JPG#/media/File:Bybyhandschuhe_2011_PD_05.JPG
“Bybyhandschuhe 2011 PD 05” by Bin im Garten – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bybyhandschuhe_2011_PD_05.JPG#/media/File:Bybyhandschuhe_2011_PD_05.JPG

The wildlife conservation organisations need to take a hard look at their strategy – assuming that they have one. They are marginalised and have little clout with government as a whole – not even with Defra. Their profile in the media is low – and where they do occur the message is far too fluffy.  Why would anyone take any notice of them? They have to have great ideas and/or be active in the media to get government attention and to make a difference. They aren’t doing very well on either measure. They, we, are too easily ignored. Nature’s voice is very quiet – and government isn’t listening.

But the light inside the tunnel was Josie Hewitt’s speech (and remember that Findlay Wilde was the star turn at an earlier event). Passionate, straight-talking and with a touch of anger, it was the best speech of all. ‘We need to get a move on’ said Josie.  Too right – and we can’t really wait for Josie and Findlay to be running the show – we need NGOs to step up today (although yesterday would be better). Everyone said how well Josie spoke – but they will carry on regardless.



29 Replies to “A rather fluffy gauntlet – the event”

  1. When the England report came out I experienced a small blast of optimism. The fact that 26 NGO’s could actually interact and produce something resembling a united front looked at first sight like a breakthrough. However after reading the report I was somewhat underwhelmed by the content and was left with a sense that here was a group of organisations that doesn’t really know what they want or how to get it. Some inspirational leadership required I think.

  2. How depressing this all is.

    Elephant and rhinos are being killed daily overseas with impunity – and many other creatures few seem to care about.
    Hen harriers are killed or disappear here with impunity – and many other creatures few seem to care about.

    As for the minister’s stoat story – politicians ramble on with nonsense like this to fill up the time allocated – thus avoiding the real issue. Remember Owen Paterson and ‘his’ badger.

    Thanks for attending, Mark – and thanks to all of you for caring.

    1. Marian I read your comments and full heartedly agreed with them, then I came across one of those unexpected stories that make you think we don’t have to accept we are on a downward spiral, and it involves a retired Chinese Basketball player! He’s called Yao Ming, and since retiring has made a name for himself in fighting for wildlife. He’s had a massive impact reducing demand for shark fin soup, and is now tackling rhino and elephant poaching. How has he done it? Simply by showing the Chinese people what’s what – this is a shark, it’s wonderful and important, this is one that has had it’s fins cut off for some tasteless soup people pretend to like because it’s a status symbol. Repeat message for rhino and elephant. These are the consequences of peoples’, your, actions.

      It’s the way we used to do it in the west, when they showed rainforest being cut down for fancy doors or cheap burgers the prime example. Now what do we get, an iceberg melting because that’s Climate Change! Funny how the one issue that’s incessantly and stridently pushed upon the public is the one easiest for them to dismiss. Population growth, resource depletion, habitat destruction how often do they get discussed or shown on the news compared to CC? How easy would it be for a politician to dismiss these compared to CC? I think it’s actually a politician friendly subject compared to what have been the core subjects for the environmental movement for decades. And yet it’s become the focus for environmental and increasingly conservation bodies. I hate sounding like John Major, but certainly time to get back to basics. Yao Ming has shown that.

      A wee story to hopefully underline the relevance of his straightforward honesty. I was in Kelvingrove Museum a few weeks ago and saw a fascinating display – it questioned whether it was better to accommodate traditional Chinese medicine and try and reduce its effects on wildlife or simply criticise it in principle and aim at toppling it. The infamous case at the centre of this debate was the WWF’s attempt to reduce poaching for rhino horn by telling the Chinese people that the horns of the saiga antelope were a substitute – not that the whole idea of powdered horn of any kind having medicinal value was a crock of **** in the first place. Did this stop rhino poaching? No. It did mean the formerly common saiga which did provide horns as a byproduct of a genuinely sustainable harvest has now become a target for poachers and it’s population has crashed and it’s well on the way to being an endangered species – again.

      It may have been easier for Yao Ming to be honest about Traditional Chinese medicine’s effect on wildlife than a western agency, but it would have been the honest, brave thing for them tto do. It now looks as if it’s the only thing that will work. There must be a lesson to be learned there for the bodies currently trying to save the hen harrier and so much else. The brutal truth may not be comfortable, but it works, the sanitised messages going out now are infinitely more depressing, they don’t.

        1. Marian you know more about him than I do! Seem to be some very impressive activists making strides in Asia. It seems to be going stale here, but hopefully it’ll get back on track.

  3. The Minister must have thought…. “hmm, a few disgruntled folk, representing 6 million silent folk, Excellent! Job done, full steam ahead”.

    It will only change when there are 6 million disgruntled folk. The NGOS need to work together on a single issue that will motivate their members into action.
    Protecting peatlands might work?

  4. Wildlife groups call for more action to save wildlife. Hardly a story.

    Is ‘the public behind us’? I’m not so sure. Yes, quite a lot of people are fond of wildlife and the countryside, but many more feel passionate about sport, the health service and the traffic congestion they have to contend with every day. It comes down to relevance. Conservation NGOs talk about facts and figures, habitats and policies. Their messages often feel more hectoring than heartfelt.

    Of course, we need data to argue a coherent case. But we also need to stir people’s emotions, with stories about real people and what wildlife means to them. And we need to find more creative ways of showing the indifferent majority what they’re missing out on. And to make them care about what they’re in danger of losing.

    Yes, conservation NGOs may boast over 6 million members, but how many of those members feel engaged and involved in the fight to save wildlife? How many of them feel their stories, their views and their dreams for the future are represented by reports like this?

    So long as the conservation battle happens in ivory towers away from people’s everyday lives, conservation groups will continue to gather out of sight; talking only to each other, while the token politician pretends to listen.

  5. Interesting to know National Trust are in the gang this time round, especially regarding Circus Maxima’s comments about things changing when there are 6 million disgruntled folk.

    I have a close friend who has worked for The National Trust, now National Trust (wonder how much that genius bit of rebranding cost?) for many years. He deals with members on a daily basis regarding gardening/outdoor/wildlife/conservation issues and is continually amazed at how little knowledge and/or understanding the majority of this public has.

    If the NGO’s ‘really’ want to be a force for proper change ( as opposed to some peoples idea that they are now run by and for ‘career conservationists’ who look on their posts as a job and not a calling) then it would seem education needs to be the top priority.

    Taking the two of the largest members of the gang, the RSPB seem to be doing lots to promote education on wildlife/conservation issues especially in engaging kids (although as Mark says above, this just might be a generation too late) whereas the National Trust are massively focused on the historic building/gardening side of things and promoting some kind of past rural idyll that never existed.

    So when there are 6 million disgruntled voices something might change, just don’t hold your breath.

    1. Is the ‘Career conservationists’ assessment fair, sadly I suspect it is, at least from my experience. CEOs have to keep their pension pots being topped up so lots of fund raisers to bring in the project management funds, public engagement etc. etc. anything tangible for wildlife? Any conservation, as in challenging bad planning decisions? Yes, I’m sure there are lots of staff who would like to deliver these elements but they also need the salaries to pay the bills so, rock the boat & really motivate 6 million members, mmmmh?

      Of the 6 million, what proportion just pay the subscriptions to say they’ve done their bit for nature? It takes inspirational leadership to motivate for change and where are they? Packham, Avery, Williams – I still have all three talks / speeches ringing in my ears from the Birdfair but did the NGO take anything forward? Nice party in London for ‘Response for Nature’ – depressing, still being lost Nero!

        1. But what happened afterwards, where were the NGOs – oh yes, planning the follow up fluff?

          Iolo again at the ‘recent’ Birdfair, absolutely brilliant and better in parts because much was off the cuff rather than ‘crafted’, brilliant absolutely brilliant – more please:)

  6. In the meantime we need to do all we can to continue the fight and get into the public conscience. In “Inglorious” mark encourages us all to do what we can to raise awareness. I am continuing my battle with Iceland.They did finally respond to my questions,along the lines that you would expect,but they have now gone silent on me re the checking/sampling of their grouse re lead and Flubendazole. I gave them time to reply before I said I would start adding my concerns to their facebook Page. This I am now doing, so again can I appeal for a few of us to go on there and help me.

      1. I’m saddened by the Rory Stewart thread, why would he include the stoat story? Presumably it’s to flag up that ‘I’m one of you, I delight in watching wildlife, I’m singing from the same song sheet as you’ but then it’s just not a plausible story, it backfires and has quite the opposite effect. What it actually says is that ‘I’m just an other plonker of a minister trying to put a front on my real lack of understanding of the topic and issues’.
        Shame really I had been viewing his appointment with a touch of optimism.
        He falls into that annoying group of people who portray themselves as having a deep understanding of an issue when they haven’t even grasped the basics and I seem to have been meeting too many of them lately. It lacks credibility a bit like Beefy Botham and the like portraying themselves as the real country folk on the basis of heading out there to blast a shed full of birds from the skies!
        We really do have a lot of educating to do and as is often the case it’s not just the young who need it.

  7. Interesting to think that close to Rory’s home keepers are actually saying that they may stop killing stoats and weasels as they have got into so much trouble as the rabbit population has exploded! They should have left the Eagle Owls alone then!

    On this question of British folk not supporting the few [6million!] If the rest spend £5 Billion [not million] a YEAR on gardening with poisons, flowers with no nectar etc should the NGOs be aiming at this market instead of ‘pansing’ around the garden subject?

  8. Just wondering about the 6 million members figure – how does that count people who are members of more than one organisation? I’m sure there are lots of people who fall into that category, and if they’re all counted multiple times then the actual nature supporting constituency could be a lot smaller.

  9. As a ‘career conservationist’, I’m curious about exactly what is wrong with dedicating your career to conservation. (Or do you mean something different/specific in the use of the term?)
    No-one complains about ‘career doctors’, or ‘career nurses’. Instead it is understood that you need to pay and support professionals in order to deliver professional standards. Why should conservation be any different? Do you really think that you’ll achieve the change you want by restricting conservation to those who are fortunate enough to be in a postion to do this work for free? I’m not undervaluing unpaid activism – it’s very important. But we are all need to be part of the solution, and sniping at consultants and others who make a living working in ecology will continue to restrict conservation to the ‘fringes’ of mainstream activities.
    I agree with the overall sentiments though that the conservation message is often far too woolly and underwhelming, and ‘ivory tower’. Note the topic of the next CIEEM conference: Reconnecting People and Nature (3-4 Nov, Sheffield). Warning for those who find such things distasteful – there will be lots of ‘career conservationists’ present.

      1. ‘Nothing wrong with career conservationists’?
        Are you serious or a is this a ploy to generate ‘traffic’?

        1. I spent many years working for a leading conservation organisation. My colleagues were seriously committed to the cause. Many chose to pursue a career in conservation, rather than potentially more lucrative options elsewhere.

          Of course they’re not without shortcomings. As conservation bodies have grown, they’ve become increasingly bureaucratic, bloated and detached from their supporters. But that’s about leadership and culture, not commitment. In my experience the commitment of those staff has not wavered. Without their skills and dedication our wildlife and countryside would be in a sorrier state.

    1. Kate, you beat me to it, I was just about to post more or less the exact same thing.

      I’ve lost count of the number of site visits I’ve made where the householder/developer takes great pains to point out to me how much they love wildlife – feed the birds, member of the wildlife trust, watch Springwatch etc. – until you tell them that the bats in their roof or the newts in their pond are going to delay the development somewhat. See how deep their love of wildlife is then!

      How we address this misunderstanding of what “wildlife” is and what we need to do to protect it is a major concern. As Kate says, come along to the CIEEM conference….

      1. CIEEM, a ‘cc’ version of the NFU? A collective voice championing like Mark, Iolo & Packham et. al.?

        Each to their role I suppose, but if there were a cost benefit analysis as to rate of loss post increase in professional promoters (NFU, CA, CIEEM and the various professional bodies / advocates)?

        Collectively a collaborative endeavour?

Comments are closed.