Ian Carter has worked as an ornithologist for more than 25 years. He was involved with the Red Kite reintroduction programme in England and has a keen interest in the conservation of raptors, bird reintroductions and wildlife management more generally. He is particularly interested in human attitudes towards wildlife and the complex ways in which they interact with science.
Conservation 21: Natural England’s Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century – by Ian Carter
I wrote something in the November issue of British Birds about the seemingly endless stream of conservation strategies and prioritisation exercises to which we are all subjected these days. I thought it might be interesting here to look, more closely, at one example.
I doubt it is intended to last for the whole of the 21st century. But, for the short term at least, this is what Natural England staff are now working with when trying to justify the work they do on the ground. If you take out the pictures it’s a little over five pages long so it’s easy enough to read through the full version.
It contains plenty of words that everyone involved in conservation could hardly fail but to agree with, under three ‘guiding principles’: Creating resilient landscapes and seas; People at the heart of the environment; Growing natural capital.
But the document also contains some rather more troubling statements. They all come under the banner of the ‘outcomes approach’ and this is what makes the strategy very different from others that have gone before it. It is made very clear that what is being outlined reflects a major change in the way the organisation should be working. It is essentially about giving people who want to undertake activities that will impact on wildlife more of what they want, more of the time. The ‘outcomes approach’ is defined in the strategy as ‘delivering better long-term outcomes for the environment by understanding people’s interests and needs, and working towards a shared vision.’ The ‘better outcomes’ bit might sound quite hopeful but consider some of the detail within the text. To keep this short I’ve picked out just three examples but there are plenty more along similar lines:
‘We need to work with people and stakeholders to explore the best options to achieve resilient and healthy landscapes and seas. There will always be a range of perspectives and options, our aim should be to find the best one, not define the right one’
You might think that the ‘best one’ and the ‘right one’ would be the same thing, but apparently not. The ‘right one’, which is not the aspiration remember, is presumably supposed to be the option with the best possible outcome for wildlife, with wildlife conservation as the primary perspective. The ‘best one’ must mean the least damaging solution that everybody can live with – the one that takes full account of the full ‘range of perspectives and options’, including those of landowners and developers. Perhaps there is another way to interpret this rather odd form of words but, if there is, it’s not clear to me.
‘….our ambition for securing environmental enhancement will move at a pace that endeavours to bring people with us through sustainable, long-term solutions, rather than imposing prescriptions to meet arbitrary delivery timelines.’
This, surely, is code for proceeding more carefully and more slowly when trying to persuade people to meet their environmental obligations, in order to try not to upset them too much. ‘At a pace’ could, of course, be an aspiration to ‘go a bit faster’, but read the rest of the sentence; the references to the ‘long-term’ and a promise not to impose ‘arbitrary timelines’ make the true meaning clear enough.
‘We need to understand how to align statutory conservation ambitions with the wider objectives of the people we depend on to achieve them in any given place. We need to become more fluent in other people’s language.’
The statutory parts of Natural England’s remit are the things it is obliged to do under the legislation. Even here, there is apparently scope for compromise. It is cunningly worded but try replacing ‘align’ with ‘water down’. And if you think substituting words is taking a bit of a liberty, consider what else ‘align’ could possibly mean given the words that follow it; fluency in the language of ‘other people’ is hardly going to lead to a strengthening of ambitions for wildlife.
You can already see examples of this changed approach on the ground, perhaps most egregiously from an ornithological perspective in the Bowland Fells SPA. Here, conservation ambitions have been sufficiently ‘realigned’ to allow the culling of the species for which the site has been designated. Fluency in the language of others has been closely allied to illiteracy in the language of nature conservation. We can expect more along similar lines in future, not least because the Bowland case has been used within Natural England as a shining example of how this new approach should work.
As others have pointed out, Natural England remains an organisation with many staff (including some senior managers) who are doing all they can to achieve gains for wildlife, despite what is written in this strategy. And whilst I’m far from convinced, maybe there will be occasions when trying to placate landowners or developers does produce the hoped-for benefits for wildlife in the longer term. If so, it would be good to see some examples. Judgements should be made on a case by case basis but if you can find ten minutes to read Conservation 21 you probably won’t come away with too much optimism for the future.