Natural England looks for a scientist

NATURALENGLAND2The Natural England Board is looking for a scientist.

This type of role might once have looked quite attractive when Natural England was seen as an organisation that worked hard for the conservation of nature, but is now far less attractive when it is difficult to see Natural England as anything other than a rather weak arm of a government that cares not for nature.  Badgers anyone?

My rather cursory internet search kept delivering strategy statements about NE’s science (here is one which has some great gobbledygook in it) which tell us that Natural England ‘will be recognised’ for something or other.  The trouble is that NE is hardly recognised these days for existing, let alone for existing well. It has, quite deliberately, been largely absorbed into a faceless, formless and feckless Defra approach to nature.

What do these two sentences really mean? ‘We will have an evidence programme that is fit for purpose yet adaptable, responsive and innovative. It will be effectively co-ordinated with the programmes of Defra and other key players engaged in developing the natural environment evidence base.‘  Badgers anyone?

When one looks at Natural England these days one sees a shadow of its former self. It would be wrong to think that NE was ever perfect – it was sometimes a right pain in the butt – but it was once a pain in the butt that was demonstrably on the side of nature conservation and that is now much more difficult to discern.

This is where, if this were a conversation, one of us would say ‘But NE has a lot of dedicated staff, of course’ and the other would nod slightly sadly and respond ‘Yes but they aren’t allowed to do anything useful any more are they? There are real conservationists in the organisation but the so-called leadership of Natural England does not have a nature conservation ethos anymore.’

The world outside of NE remembers a much better former NE, and sees some of the same faces in the organisation, and wishes that it could recapture any of its past reputation as a force for good, but the reality is that statutory sector nature conservation is pretty much dead in England.  That is the fault of the government which from 2010 dismantled the ability of the statutory sector to do a good job. It isn’t the fault of NE staff, except the current leadership does have to carry some responsibility for not showing any enthusiasm for leading the organisation to a better place.

Although things could get worse – Liz Truss is said to be thinking about a merger of NE with EA. The best thing that happened to NE recently was that Dilley dallied in Barbados too long. Would even Liz Truss throw NE into an organisation which was so in touch with its stakeholders and customers (yuk! yuk! and triple yuk!) that its chair was watching the water lap the beaches while they watched it pour through their homes and businesses? Possibly, I wouldn’t put it past her.

At least a merger with EA would remove all lingering affection for the role of the state in nature conservation. It would be the final nail in the conservation coffin.

I just wonder whether it is even possible to get out of this mess. The corporate memory of how the state does nature conservation is even now almost lost. It’s another example of shifting baselines.  There are precious few staff in NE who remember what it used to be like and could rejuvenate NE’s conservation work.  There are precious few in the NGOs who now remember what it was like to work closely with the government sector to deliver nature conservation on the ground.  This government (mostly in coalition with the forgotten party) has dismantled statutory sector nature conservation – as it intended to do. We did all breathe a sigh of relief when NE wasn’t simply abolished but its current state is now hardly much better.

Natural England doesn’t need to look for a scientist, it needs a miracle. And they just don’t happen these days.

Is there anyone out there who is assembling the blueprint for rebuilding the ability of my taxes to deliver nature conservation in the fields and hills, rivers and seas of England?  If not, could someone please get on with it?


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71 Replies to “Natural England looks for a scientist”

  1. It's hard to imagine Natural England now as the sort of organisation that Andy Clements would work for. (Behind the Binoculars p78)

  2. There are still quite a few of us about who worked for the organisation in the old days - i.e. while it was still the Nature Conservancy Council, now there was a name that actually meant something. In the late 80s we had the double scourge of Thatcher plus Nicholas Ridley as Sec of State for the Environment - it was difficult to say which of them I loathed more and Ridley seemed intent on undermining our very existence. However, the thing that finally prompted me to leave was wandering into the office very dejectedly on the morning after the 1987 general election (and yes, we all knew what would happen, but that didn't make it any easier) and someone having cause to phone up head office in Peterborough where they found that the senior bods were - I kid you not - having a party to celebrate the result. So it wasn't exactly all plain sailing back then, though obviously it was still a million times better than now!

    1. Ridley smoked like a chimney. This gives rise to the nebulous rumination: ‘rydde’, cleared; ‘leah’ , wood. Is there some sort of epigenetic connection here? Whereas Thatcher…… let’s not go there.
      Etymology, and all that stuff, way above me head. I used to think that ‘conservative and conservation’ were related. Or was that thought the product of some kind of Arcadian dream?

  3. I read that NE were looking into large scale tree planting on the uplands. If that goes ahead they will clearly be an enemy of the campaign to ban driven grouse shooting.

      1. Well Mark - they are talking about maybe planting 100 million trees on the uplands and Oliver Letwin and Liz Truss have expressed support for the idea.

        Sounds good? Or bad?

        The idea of course is to help reduce flooding by making the land better able to absorb rain fall. Needless to say there might be other benefits too - a more bio diverse landscape (perhaps unless we get a monoculture of trees), better carbon capture helping to reduce climate change perhaps?

        It's quite obvious that such a development would be bad news for you and your grouse campaign because pinning the blame for flooding on grouse shooting toffs is central to it. Anything that helps alleviate what you claim to be the downsides of Grouse Shooting also helps damage the prospects of a ban.

        The idea of landowners and conservationists co operating to achieve conservation goals is an anathema to campaigns which thrive on division. It really is pretty simple.

        I would urge everybody that supports co operative effective conservation measures as opposed to your old school divisive class warrior tactics to sign this petition.

        Considering the support already expressed for this idea by Natural England, Liz Truss and Oliver Letwin it has a real chance of success. Instead of just attacking them why not encourage them?

        And let's have a real worthwhile debate about the merits and issues around tee planting and getting a more diverse and ecologically friendly upland landscape for everyone to enjoy.

        Of COURSE you wouldn't accept that such and approach makes sense Mark.

        It doesn't have a clearly defined enemy.

        It is not divisive.

        It has a real chance of success and of delivering real conservation benefits and improving people's lives.

        So in short no political capital for you.

        So what trees should be planted and where and how? All good questions for discussion and for NE to help research.

          1. So what would you think about a combined package of measures to help change the upland ecosystem? What might such an approach entail? And what's your view on natural regeneration vs tree planting? It's easy to say more trees = good but is it as simple as that? Oliver Rackham (RIP) famously said tree planting was a threat to natural woodlands - was he right?

            One of the factors getting in the way of natural regeneration is sheep - another is deer - another of course is swaling or moor burning. Should moor burning be banned or better regulated? Changing the way people shoot grouse isn't going to have any effect in my neck of the woods but there is still swaling so it is clearly a wider issue than that. Is swaling always a bad thing? We've had natural fires in the upland involving damage deep into the peat can they be avoided by more managed burning / scrub clearance?

            I feel all of these things are highly complex issues and perhaps none of us actually have all the answers, I know I don't, but that's what science is all about isn't it?

            And what about deer management - we have George Monbiot's "Trees for life" charity organising deer drives involving it appears whole herd slaughter of deer chased out of blocks of woodland is that the best approach - is that 'rewilding'?

            Could landowners - including grouse moor managers have a positive role in any of the above?

    1. Giles - I simply say this: planting trees is not nature conservation, it is an admission that nature conservation has failed. It's also a disaster waiting to happen given what we know about modern tree planting and the tree diseases it brings with it (and as you rightly say creates monocultures or depressingly unimaginative 'standard broadleaved mixes'). Now creating the conditions where 200 million trees could naturally regenerate - that would be something. 200 million saplings stuck randomly in the ground will just be washed away in the first storm after they're planted and take all the value, meaning and beauty from the landscape with them. This smacks of our friend Paterson saying he was going it was okay to destroy ancient woodland because he'd just planted an arboretum. It's just a political stunt designed to get Truss and Stewart out of a whole they and their predecessors got into by cutting the flood defence budget, having no plan to manage land properly to mitigate flood risk as per the Pickering example, and indeed encouraging GHG emissions to go through the roof and thus completely buggering up the climate.

      1. MK - I do very much agree with a lot of that however in my view we will always have a semi natural landscape. I'd actually be rather horrified at the prospect of an Exmoor or Dartmoor completely clad in trees. However I also think we need to engage with these people. WRT GHG emissions - personally I think it's easy to find bogey men to blame - these things are all our responsibility both in terms of blame and in terms of finding solutions - admittedly some more than others.

  4. I think the "evidence programme fit for purpose" that they have in mind is a political one, i.e. they require someone able to comply with policy based evidence making or selection.

  5. Giles your comments re "The idea of landowners and conservationists co operating to achieve conservation goals" is one that we all wish you and your ilk had followed over the years. But you chose not to and that is why so many of us are now calling for a ban.

    That too is quite simple really!

    1. Could you also detail how you feel I have not co operated with conservation efforts? You say I haven't done so over the years. I am genuinely interested in how you believe I haven't.

      1. Giles, the problem is that you appear to be an exception.
        Over the decades I’ve met just one, possibly two, landowners who are genuinely interested in conservation. They also do conversation which is rare amongst that privileged community.
        Sorry, to be fair, if my cap is in hand, farmers and landowners will sometimes do a good line in subtle condescension. (No thanks. Even being told to f- off is better than that. At least it’s honest).
        That said, I wish you well with any further genuine cooperation.

        1. Murray - rest assured many farmers (in the lowlands at least) prove to be very keen to do things for wildlife on their land where it's feasible to do so. They're busy people, and in my experience (based on giving first Countryside Stewardship then HLS advice to quite a few farmers over two decades) farmers are quite happy to have someone visit and talk through options. They'll do things that aren't too demanding. In my experience they just need a bit of nudging. That said, there are antagonistic farmers, just as there are antagonistic bank managers, school teachers and nature reserve wardens. And then there's the NFU - crazy bunch.

          Giles - you'd be hard-pressed to find conservationists who wouldn't like to see more trees and shrubs in the uplands - though many (myself included) dislike the idea of large-scale tree planting. Natural regeneration or enhanced natural regeneration (where we speed things up a bit by transplanting locally-sourced seedlings, and sow seeds) is far better. You're critique of Mark's position above is silly because you misrepresent Mark's position.

          Intensive driven grouse shooting is hugely damaging and is a land-use unfit for the uplands. It should be banned.

          1. I’ve met with some of those farmers. The trouble is that the amount effective dialogue tends to be inversely proportional to the number of hectares owned.
            Back in the 1980’s the NCC predicted that the new Wildlife and Countryside Act and its ‘conservation by consent’ would not work and that species populations and biodiversity would eventually crash.
            Look what’s happened now. Take an ordinary walk in the arable countryside and these days it’s a sick joke – even here, in places like The South Downs National Park. The only thing increasing in this so called ‘wonderful bucolic setting’ is all pervasive air of smugness, (at least for some – house and land prices went up by 30% last year). "Yes we love the view too. And do you know, on a clear day, you can actually hear the raspberries."

          2. Frustratingly, I have to concede you're correct Murray. The Wessex Downs are also pretty much as devoid of all life except winter wheat too, except on Salisbury Plain Training Area where farmers were kicked off by the military some time ago and nature abounds.

  6. To quote from pages 61-62 of Inglorious:

    'Thus, in the post-war period up until the 1990's, management of moors for grouse shooting..........protected the uplands from large-scale afforestation by forestry companies attracted to the uplands by low land prices and favourable tax regimes. We owe a debt of gratitude to grouse shooting for preventing more of the uplands being desecrated by the worst of plantation forestry with exotic conifers.'

    You seem (in your book at least) to agree with the point Giles is making.

    1. Pete - I do. Who said I didn't? Oh, I know - Giles said I didn't.

      Although, if we were still living in the 1990s then things would be different, and Inglorious maybe would never have had to have been written. There are another 240 pages or so after those sentences...

      It's so useful to me that so much of what I think is written down, it should make life so much more difficult for those who want to make up what I believe.

      1. "I know - Giles said I didn't." I do some times make little jokies - but never the less there is a grain of truth in some of what I say IMO 😛

  7. Slightly off topic:
    The ministers include Liz Truss.

      1. Well it is obviously an almost insoluble quandary as to how we maintain our society in a sustainable way. The survival of the human ace probably depends on it! I see no easy answers.

        1. Giles , my Dear Chap - don't get The Glums now the days are getting longer. Just pop over to Population Matters and see how what the neo-malthusian misanthropes are up to - or just wait for them to appear on your telly with the answers. They'll be along soon - they hardly miss a night! If theyr'e not, it's because they are off visiting some otherwise pristine part of the world just to make sure that no-one else is there spoiling its pristinenessness apart from themselves.

    1. Whatever happened to local decisions on such matters?

      Politicians & promises don't appear to be worth the paper they're written on?

      If we culled NE & Westminster majority, what would be lost?

    1. Andrew - of course, immediately after I have seen you eat 75g of sea salt followed by 75g of thyme.

      Would you like to tell us all why toxic lead ammunition should continue to be used - assuming that you think it should?

  8. Obviously, what has happened to NE is the fault - and intent - of the current Government. despite everything, important work continues - just not in any contentious areas and certainly not where new money might be needed. In any criticism it is worth remembering that 'degrade then destroy' makes cynical political sense - erode the effectiveness and reputation, then abolish. BUT we surely do not want to lose a dedicated conservation voice in Government however weak - it'll be easier to resuscitate than completely re-invent.

    As for the management, the top people have been put there to implement the cuts. I've read a number of senior civil servant's CVs recently where the boast is not about the good things they've done, but about what they have closed down. That seems to be the fashion.

    And through it all the conservation NGOs - as I pointed out recently - still go on about how important it is to work with Government - the 25 years plan for biodiversity and the Hen harrier plan being two examples. There seems to be a complete, sclerotic inability to move on - mirrored by the discussion over trees in the uplands: the Flow Country was 25 years ago, the objectives we are talking about are totally different, and the trees that need planting in upland areas can and should be planted (or naturally regenerated where (rarely) seed trees have escaped the ravages of sheep & burning) first and foremost to slow the flow, and only after that for multiple benefits including potentially timber and certainly wildlife.

    1. Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor: forestry and wood - the sector’s trade body - , said: “The terrible floods, especially in Cumbria, demonstrate that Government has to look at more than just flood defences. We need to hold rain water in the hills so that the peak flow of water is reduced, helping flood defences to do their job.
      “Planting productive forests manages water flow, while also helping wildlife, providing alternative income for farmers and locking up carbon - another very relevant current issue given the climate talks in Paris”.

      The forestry industry has not changed at all over the last 25 years. Productive forests mean 90% sitka spruce. Planting sitka spruce requires ploughing fragile peat rich upland soil. It is hopelessly naive to expect anything else. At the very least large scale conifer forestry should be put under the planning system.

        1. Yes, you're right Alf - because the forest sector and its trade body is really just a bunch of small children who can't possibly be expected to do the right thing themselves. They must be 'engaged with' else of course they'll never even realise that there are tree species other than sitka spruce.

  9. I agree with Roderick Leslie. I think we should avoid falling into the deliberate 'degrade and destroy' tactics of this sneaky government.

    Its also worth remembering that if NE was to disappear, then the protection for all those SSSIs, SACs and SPAs goes with it...the labels might still be on the land but without a small army of people implementing the legislation the protection is gone. Government may be deliberately weakening this protection (see Paul Barrett's comment) but don't underestimate the day to day stuff.

    1. Greenfly - I think Richard Mabey made a similar point in an introduction to an updated edition of The Common Ground - written at the time Thatcher and Ridley (see Lisa's comment above) abolished the Nature Conservancy Council in the very early nineties - or maybe it was nice Mr Major, I can't remember.

      1. So, NE staff were all lined up & threatened with the establishments metaphoric 'corporate Purdy's', or rather politicians were confident that pensions would win over principles?

        Yes, I know .... there were some once upon a time who would work quietly away in the background but wake up, Rome is burning & Nero really is fiddling ....

  10. "We will have an evidence programme that is fit for purpose yet adaptable, responsive and innovative. It will be effectively co-ordinated with the programmes of Defra and other key players engaged in developing the natural environment evidence base."

    Means heavily reliant on anecdote, no-doubt.

  11. Within three days of being sworn in, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau unmuzzled his scientists: <a href="".

    'Nuff said.

  12. The Natural England Board meeting on 2 November 2016 is open to members of the public (to be held in Cambridge).
    A date for your diary Mark? And plenty of others too.
    Might be an opportunity to show our interest in our nature and the Government's Nature Agency.
    Do NRW & SNH have open Board meetings too?

  13. Interesting post, but whilst I largely agree with it, it would be interesting Mark to hear what specifically you think Natural England should be doing instead at both a local and national level. If you were in charge of writing their delivery plan for the next year, based on their current resources, what would it say?

  14. As an ecologist I've almost completely given up on NE. For a long time I've been advocating a change of approach re Great crested Newts (GCN) to work on boosting the meta-population and stop the plastic fence approach. They finally grasp the nettle to develop the idea then pass the responsibility for managing the newly created 'newt reserves' and associated admin to Local Authorites. That's a joke considering the state most councils are in with the draconian cuts they are suffering.

    Here in NW England the 'heartland of the GCN' most of our councils have got rid of their Ranger Services and have stopped managing most of their wildlife sites. We have more massive cuts to come and the situation will only get worse. This does not fill me with confidence and sounds once again like the Government telling NE what to do.

  15. NE is in a terrible state, but it is not beyond repair and whilst I largely agree with the general thrust of this blog, I do think your being overly pessimistic about the future Mark.

    If, and admittedly that's a big 'if', NE can ride out the current Govt's cynical policy of 'degrade and undermine' then it would be entirely feasible for a willing Govt to rebuild the organisations functionality. It wouldn't be easy but it is possible with enough political will and strong leadership.

    Re the mooted merger of NE and the EA - I'm not entirely convinced that in principle the merger of many EA and NE functions would be a bad idea - it all depends on the detail and the objective. If the objective was purely to reduce public spending then it would be disastrous, but if the objective was greater integration on very important issues such as flood defence / nfm, water quality etc then that surely has to be positive.

    Interesting blog and some pertinent comments, despite the unfortunate plethora of cretinous guff from Giles.

    1. Ernest - many thanks. I'm sure Giles will be happy that you noticed him.

      Some mergers of agencies are almost inevitable if they all get smaller through cuts - just as a merger of Defra and DECC (or something similar - perhaps worse) is also inevitable in the long run.

      the result depends on who is where at the relevant time. But nature tends to get the thin end of the deal. And the trouble is if the discussions happen more and more in secret (as they would if NE and EA merged) then we, the taxpayer, never gets to see the conmpromises being made. But NE is currently so feeble it isn't standing up for much anyway.

      1. In mergers the biggest organisation always dominates. The merger of EN and RDS was disastrous as the RDS managers' culture of pleasing farmers/landowners/government largely won out. If NE is now merged with EA, nature conservation will be totally lost amongst a bigger agenda.

        Nothing is inevitable. Why can't there be a campaign for restoration of a proper statutory nature conservation body? Why are the NGOs silent on this (as much else)?

    2. What an utterly stupid thing to say!

      It's perfectly obvious that his posts make sense and that the more his posts make sense the more shallow minded people on here will try and dismiss him.

      If part of the argument for banning driven grouse shooting is that there are two few trees on the uplands then obviously having more trees on the uplands will damage that argument. That is so obvious to be a truism. Moreover if part of the argument is that it is leading to wildlife crime and the near extinction of Hen Harriers then any reduction in wildlife crime and increase in Hen Harrier numbers will damage the campaign.

      Can anyone tell me why either of the above two points could be considered 'cretinous'?

      1. Misrepresenting the arguments once again Alfonso, only this time under a different name. very odd.

        Don't you have better things to be getting on with?

        1. What do you mean "under a different name"?

          If you feel I am misrepresenting the arguments then why not explain how? My understanding is that it is argued that shooting driven grouse leads to an upland environment that helps cause flooding and that more trees/shrubs on the uplands would lead to less flooding. Is that not the case? Moreover that it encourages wildlife crime including shooting/poisoning of Hen Harriers thereby significantly reducing their numbers. Is that not the case?

        2. From what I am aware one of the arguments against DGS is that it leads to a treeless 'monoculture' this is because of the way heather moorland is managed by moor burning &c. Trees and shrubs can create channels in the soil allowing it to absorb mire water when thee are heavy downpours. This is not of course by any means the only argument.

          More trees can also have other benefits such as increasing carbon capture.

          George Monbiot has written extensively on this.

    3. From the little i know, NE seems like a lost cause.
      If George Monbiot is correct, which i have no reason to doubt, NE has been infiltrated by many who have or have had a conflict of interest against the very values NE was supposed to uphold.
      Maybe it is better if it is disbanded so something new can be created from scratch. Surely the swing will come even if we have to wait for a new government.
      If NE has been compromised i wonder how many other agencies have also been.

  16. Messi - you clearly haven't been to Salisbury Plain in the last 10 years. It is overrun with livestock. The military use parts for exercises but it is now "managed" by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation who are getting the farmers to grub out all scrub, to restore the chalk grassland - which has been disastrous for all but a few species. Equally, there is no military police presence now, just a few volunteer wardens, so no protection for scarce wildlife (Lapwing, Curlew, Stone Curlew) from dirt bikers, egg thieves etc. They have also decided that they will issue no new permits for interested conservationists to be able to access the Plain - so as the current holders die off there will be nobody following on to provide the surveys of wildlife that currently take place.

  17. When formed from English Nature, the Countryside Commission etc in 2006, Natural England had a budget of c. £500M. Today it has a budget of £198M (with a real value around a third of what it was a decade ago). Last year its Board evinced disappointment at the level of morale amongst its staff.

    There seem to be a raft of conservation scientists in academia in England yet no concerted response to government (mis)handling [badgers/marine environment excepted]. Looking back over the last decade, there are certainly things that could have been done so much better. Looking forward, it would be good to see more influence being brought to bear over the next 10 years. (It remains to be seen how much actual impact the Natural Capital Committee has). Ditto the nature conservation NGOs. (Wildlife and Countryside Link almost forgot about biodiversity for a while).


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