Guest blog – Wildlife politics by Lizzie Wilberforce


Lizzie gained her enthusiasm for wildlife from her family during her childhood, growing up  in Bristol. Conservation volunteering soon became a passion, and she then moved to Wales in 1996 to study at Aberystwyth University. Since 2003 she has worked in nature conservation in the voluntary sector in Wales.


It was Politics with a big ‘P’ that resolved my childhood fascination with wildlife into a career in conservation. It may be politics with a small ‘p’ that drives me back out. Whilst I can see the wasteful, and arguably cowardly capitulation that would represent, resisting that urge is increasingly difficult.

Growing up in the 1980s, it was environmentally catastrophic policies and powerful negative campaign imagery that fed my zeal: hedges being grubbed out, meadows disappearing, and species extinctions. I looked around me and thought, ‘I can change that’. All I ever wanted to do was work for a conservation charity.

I’ve been ‘living the dream’ now for thirteen years and have risen to a managerial post in a conservation charity. During this time and the prior ten years, during which I volunteered, I have experienced a sea change in the environmental charity sector.

Much of the change I have seen stems from the inevitable professionalisation of such organisations. Groups once driven by small bands of committed volunteer naturalists and campaigners are now run as businesses by full time staff. Whilst the old guard may bemoan this change, there was little  choice for charities if they were to survive. The advent of ever larger grants, such as lottery funding, and the need to protect charities from financial risks such as those imposed by our increasingly litigious society, have come at a high financial and bureaucratic cost, as they have in every sector.

The consequences of this ‘professionalisation’ for environmental charity employees are many and various. We have, in some cases, lost eclectic and charismatic free spirits who drove the early development of the movement. We get better salaries, and more career opportunities, but we are more likely to be generalists than specialists, and we have to deal with the media, fundraising, health and safety, and advocacy as well as being natural historians. Despite their necessity in a changing world, these changes have also helped induce criticism of charities being too process-focussed and industrially self-sustaining.

Fortunately though, it’s undeniably still a passion for wildlife and a desire to secure change that first brings people to the job. For most of us, it’s ultimately a religion. It’s a fundamental belief in the value of life other than in human form, and its right to exist in something approaching a natural state. We all start with the aspiration of putting right what we believe is wrong. For me, that deep belief and determination still exists, but it is increasingly hampered by the circumstances in which we operate.

When I look at what hinders me, day to day, it’s not actually the grand political machinations of our time. Certainly, we still face governments that dismiss the environment as little more than bolt-on, feel-good work for strong economic  times, but when was that ever any different? What now causes me extra obstacles, frustration, anger even, are the unnecessary barriers put in my way by people and organisations on my own side of that debate. The politics with a small ‘p’.

I keep reading that we live in a ‘post-evidence’ world: a world of soundbites, of advertising, of the all important self. What saddens me is that in our fight to be heard, and in a resource-poor environment, we have turned these curses of the modern age on ourselves- and at great, but ultimately avoidable, cost.

Over the last ten years, across the suite of charities and agencies with which I regularly work, I have seen all manner of damaging behaviour defended as activity necessary to raise the profile of a project, or organisation. I have seen charities use slogans that are ecologically illiterate, just because the appeal of their simplicity is deemed more important than a nuanced but accurate message. I have seen charities quietly try to out-bid each other for land acquisitions. I have seen attempts to supress criticism of agencies failing in their statutory environmental duties because of the importance of the funding relationship. I have seen innumerable press releases from all manner of charities dispensing with accuracy and moderation in their description of a story, in order to trample their competitors to the front page with a cute picture and a feelgood headline.

In the meantime, commentators within our own field are looking at our work and saying, “Where are you when it counts? You have lost your courage; you are failing to take a stand.”

The irony is that behind the soundbites a huge resource is routinely invested in the ongoing work of these charities. Every day, hundreds of reserve managers go out to work and maintain the nature reserves in their care, and hundreds of staff visit schools and run activities to engage the next generation with what we believe matters most in this world. The enormous resource that this demands, and the work itself, is almost taken for granted, despite the massive step forward this represents from the environmental movement of half a century ago.

Rightly, we are judged, and scrutinised; it informs our priorities and choices, it stops us making mistakes. However, there comes a point where public ‘friendly fire’ is excessively damaging. Nothing we have achieved is ever enough until wildlife ceases to decline and disappear. The enormity of this already weighs heavily on any of us who regard conservation as our vocation, and so we bear the judgement and try harder- but the soundbite-unfriendly, costly, essential work goes unreported, whilst we are publically criticised by peers on how vocal we are (or not) their latest cause célèbre.

Ultimately, we all work in a sector with a huge financial and societal mountain to climb, with barely the resources to begin the task ahead. In that context, perhaps the collateral damage of competition seems rather inevitable, yet I remain convinced that in the competitive promotion of our personal micro-causes, we heap misery upon ourselves. The proliferation of medical charities over the years seems largely to have led to the celebration of the advances they have secured and the contribution they have made, not bitter recriminations from experts in their own field as to why they have not already persuaded the government to triple the NHS budget, and created a nation of health freaks.

The only people who gain when we fight, criticise our colleagues, dumb-down, dispense with integrity in favour of popularity, and undermine each others causes and approaches, are those whose vested interests are threatened by environmental awareness. Each headline that diminishes our colleagues diminishes the message of our movement, and our micro-politics are helping decision makers to dismiss us. The diversity and history of our movement can and should be a strength, and we need to find a way to recognise that the many individuals and charities all have different but equally valuable roles to play. We must work better together in spite of our differences. If we each stop trying to be the loudest voice, who knows, we might find that together we might actually be able to say something that makes more impact than the sum of our parts. We might garner support. We might find the energy to lift our eyes to where they should be; on the horizon.

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21 Replies to “Guest blog – Wildlife politics by Lizzie Wilberforce”

  1. There are some big claims here - I'd be very interested to read about some examples of what the author alleges.

    1. Start with 'Vote for Bob' and 'Give Nature a Home' magazine and TV advert re cute and dumbing down, soundbites etc
      Next see if you can obtain a list of Gov contract work handled by our main nature charities and ask yourself if there could be a conflict of interest.

  2. Brilliant piece, accurate and to the point.
    I was removed as a Volunteer reserve manager of 25 years for saying as much, out loud.
    It's really so refreshing to find someone saying how Wildlife charities really work and operate. You end by saying:
    "We might find the energy to lift our eyes to where they should be; on the horizon"
    BUT will they ever see the future of the environment and wildlife we should be protecting?

  3. I've worked for two conservation NGOs for a total of about 20 years, and been a trustee of one, and still work in the sector though not now for an NGO.

    NE is neutered and seem to have lost most of its most effective staff, certainly at higher levels. Who then will speak up for the natural world if the big NGOs no longer have the guts to do so? Over the last few years I have been profoundly disappointed at the failure of the NGO sector to speak up. Personally I don't think this timidity is down to fears about grants, I think its some deeper cultural shift towards a more risk adverse way of doing things.

    Not wanting to upset people is laudable, but in times like these the bigger risk in not challenging your opponents is that you end up alienating your friends. And make no mistake, they are opponents. They're very good at winning, they fight dirty, and they are not partners.

    The WTs in particular are hardly ever mentioned in the national media any more. I'm a member of two, because they do very good work locally, but nationally I'm not sure what they stand for any more.

    RSPB used to be a formidable campaigning organisation, but now, going by the DGS debate, they're a political laughing stock.

    The time for talking nicely is past. Please, RSPB and WTs and the rest; find some balls and fight. This is not the time to husband political capital. It's time to gather together as allies and fight. With our backs to the wall it's time to believe in the justice of our cause and fight for it. We're being overrun, and its now or never.

  4. Hear hear, Lizzie -- couldn't have said it better myself. Your blog puts into words a frustration I've felt for a long time now and have never been quite able to articulate.

    I have to admit to having many of my own issues with the conservation sector (I too have spent my entire career working for wildlife NGOs, sharing one stint with you!) but I’m always saddened by the seemingly relentless stream of ‘friendly fire’ my life’s calling seems to attract. I would hope the vast majority of my colleagues across the sector share my passion for the natural world, my enthusiasm for inspiring others to value it as I do, and my determination to defend it from outright threats, attrition by apathy and unintentional damage alike. As a human behind the faceless organisation, it can therefore be hard not to feel hurt at the suggestion my efforts are paltry, meaningless or in some way motivated by a selfish agenda, whether personally or as part of a collective. On occasion it has caused me to question my purpose and my achievements, as I'm sure many others have in the face of such domestic challenges.

    Having said that, I wonder if I would have the understanding of the barriers, the limitations and the disappointments at the heart of much of the work I do were I an otherwise well-meaning layman. Probably not. I can understand why the criticism, dismissal, and sometimes anger, is directed at the charity struggling to right the wrongs than those committing them in the first place. We need to do better at communicating the difficulties we face.

    If only I could share your words with just one detractor the next time they reach for the keyboard to lambast those charities working to make a difference. Would it give them pause? Even when they don’t succeed, I have to believe NGOs are trying to do the right thing, which is more than can be said of many others with a vested interest in our natural resources.

    For myself, I will certainly keep fighting.

    1. "Even when they don’t succeed, I have to believe NGOs are trying to do the right thing, which is more than can be said of many others with a vested interest in our natural resources."

      I think a balance needs to be struck. Being well meaning is not enough by itself and NGOs should not be immune from criticism if they are not getting things right. Whether their finance comes from members' subscriptions, donations, government grants, landfill tax money or lottery grants they are spending our money and we have a right to expect to see it well spent and achieving positive results. Having said that it is important to remember we are on the same side and criticism should be offered (and received) constructively. This does not always happen and occasionally the criticism of the RSPB and other conservation organisations can be somewhat intemperate when they do not pursue exactly the strategy the critics wish.

  5. ...and a partridge in a pear tree.
    Certainly the word 'politics' fits well with this story, coz I was falling asleep reading it!
    For my simple mind - a layman's version please.

  6. Clarity and profound sincerity in this timely piece. All of us who feel about nature in the same way as Lizzie must hope that she ,of all people, does not give up the fight.
    I say this as someone who has bitched about bonfires and ragwort and scrub clearance so THANKYOU Lizzie for reminding me of the bigger picture.

  7. A cracking article Lizzie, well done.

    When I think back to some of the staff in CCW when I joined back in the day (we both know who we are talking about!), 'free spirit' doesn't even come close. Yet they were formative influences on me. But who would employ them today?

    Your article reminds me of a cartoon on the office wall of the first reserve I worked on. Charlie Brown is saying 'Doing a good job for the environment is like peeing yourself in a dark suit. It gives you a warm feeling, and yet nobody notices'.

  8. Amazing to see present staff claim 'politics'! Back in the old days I saw a senior staff member damage an SSSI for extra funds! That is remove trees so a grant was given for a whole area not minus the trees still standing. The first people I complained to was Natural England [or what ever they were called in 1990]. 'Best not to Rock the boat' I was told. I then went to the Peak National Park and they told my employer! I was in the wrong and was suspended!!

    The warden doing the damage was never 'told off' and staff above him, still work for the RSPB even though they should have been sacked at the time for a 'cover up' No I was in the wrong and had to resign due to another warden not having the guts to support me. ' I don't want to damage my career' was his response. Of course I never got another job in conservation again. I think the word is 'Black listed' for rocking the boat.

    Just the other day I was talking to an old warden [57 year old] retired due to the lack of job satisfaction!!

  9. A great blog. Well written and it exposes serious failings. I too have reservations about conflicts of interest, and some of you may have read what I wrote on Mark's site a few weeks back -- this is in line with Lizzie's I think:
    As someone involved in the days when FoE was being founded, it is pretty depressing to see the overall dumbing down and crass fundraising that has emerged over the past 50 years. But there are huge pressures to do it, and it has been hard to resist. But so far I think we have managed at WLT -- with support of people like Mark Avery and Chris Packham who are prepared to put their head above the parapet.

  10. Good article, if slightly depressing. I would be happy if we had less educating the public and more buying of land. NGOs need more money so how about tapping the rich who profess to be interested in wildlife.

  11. Looking in from the outside at your underpaid profession, it seems that inter-charity rivalry is the last thing you need on top of your burgeoning day to day paper work. Lizzie, thanks for all you do, not just out in the countryside, but in an office somewhere, sitting at a desk, researching, negotiating, planning, managing, assessing, form filling and doing loads of other tedious mental stuff.

  12. 'The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change' - Bill Clinton

    Conservation hasn't really adapted to 2008-10 - financial crisis & change of Government. Lawton was right that we need more space for wildlife, but wrong in putting a price tag on it that looked silly even before 2008 - and in assuming that land use change on that scale should be for wildlife only.

    At exactly the same time David Milliband advocated something quite different: an objective, rather than sectoral, led approach that looked for economic gain, not just public spending. His ideas were buried by the subsequent Foresight project on lands use, which took a sectoral approach, each bidding for what Milliband had rightly described as a 'zero sum game'. But the natural Capital Committee (members of which I suspect advised him) picked up the ball and ran with it - and welcome cracks are starting to appear in the concrete edifice of flood control. NCC may not be just about wildlife, but how much space is there for all the things we want from simple wildlife to re-connecting society with the wild, in the 250,000 hectares of wilder land they advocate around our towns and cities - and with a +£500m per annum benefit tag they are talking the sort of hard economics that current politics focusses on.

    Here is the test: is Rainham Marshes (1) a great nature reserve bravely swimming against the tide or (2) part of the pilot for a completely new way of 'doing' the surroundings to our towns and cities ?

  13. This was such a well written and insightful read. Speaking out as I have for practitioners I was labelled a protagonist by a well known NGO in my sector of land management and subject to quite extraordinary abuse by the PR team - I was told when I complained that 'All is fair in love and campaigning', which is not true when one of those campaigning is not being paid to do so. Clearly it all comes down to money for too many in the upper echelons of some NGOs. And the wider economics are a massive problem beyond that discussed here. Consider the land management practitioners in general who are subject to an increasing monopolisation of their industries - and some NGO PR teams are only to happy to plagiarise good ideas for their own, particularly those which would aid community engagement, (leading to another question as to how exactly a National organisation can genuinely aid those in a community if their own interests at at odds with the needs and wishes of a community - offsetting being an example).

    England has the highest value land in the world, it enjoys more funding towards the natural and heritage elements in it's landscapes than anywhere else in the world - so how can the acute problems that exist actually exist? Somebody somewhere is making an awful lot of money and the NGOs need to make sure it is not their top people who are blamed - I am not sure they can prove otherwise.

  14. Having spent most of my career in wildlife conservation, there is much in this I agree with. And one or two points I'd take issue with.

    When I reflect on my time at a leading NGO, the thing that depresses me most is how much time and energy were wasted on meetings and reports that failed to achieve anything meaningful for nature conservation. So much valuable resource is stifled by internal procedures and politics. It continues today with repeated, internally focused 'change initiatives' that sap the motivation and goodwill of those involved. Many of them want to make a real difference for wildlife, not eke out incremental tweaks to the status quo.

    What isn't changing is the continued decline of much of our wildlife. Despite great efforts by some excellent and committed individuals, NGOs have failed to make a meaningful impact beyond the converted and to campaign together successfully on the big issues.

    Yes, there are lots of fine, collaborative projects on the ground. At the centre, they appear more intent on competing for profile and support, than implementing an effective strategy for saving nature. They are also in denial of much of what I've said, not least because of an institutional reluctance to seriously question what they do and whether they are having the impact they should with the resources available to them. I can see now that I was also guilty of some of this during my time.

    That's my rant over for now... I'm putting my hard hat on.

  15. Superb article - a must read for anyone involved in conservation. Especially if considering a career there: don't raise your expectations for integrity and common purpose too high. Exactly the feelings conveyed here which mean I an not sorry to have left Natural England after 31 years. For views of an old lag, see my first two blogs on leaving, on my website


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