Guest blog – Digging Holes by Alick Simmons

Alick Simmons is a veterinarian, naturalist and photographer.  He lives in Somerset. He has written six previous guest blogs here – click here. His Twitter handle: @alicksimmons

Encouraging a recently ringed crane chick to rejoin its parents. Photo: Alick Simmons

I’m a conservation newbie, an ingenu trying to compensate for a terrifying lack of experience.  Although I’ve been a wildlife nut since my early teens (and a proud former member of the Young Ornithologists Club) my primary calling was veterinary medicine.  I spent over thirty years in Government steeped in exotic disease, animal welfare and public health.  When I left public service in 2015, I set out to try to draw together my interests with my experience.

I started volunteering with the RSPB.  On the practical side, living on the edge of the Somerset Levels and Moors, I get to survey snipe in the dark, to catch baby cranes at first light and to clear crane nest sites.  In 2016, I became a trustee of Dorset Wildlife Trust.  A little later, I was invited to join the Wild Animal Welfare Committee and recently I’ve started to advise two conservation NGOs on animal welfare and ethics. It’s all very exciting but I can’t help feeling that I don’t quite fit. Perhaps it’s the impostor syndrome. To counter that, I’ve collected together a number of observations. They might appear disconnected but the common element is they reflect my limited experience of UK conservation culture. 

Clearing a nest site for common cranes. Photo: Alick Simmons

Enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism:  Everyone I’ve had dealings with in conservation shows boundless energy, commitment and joy about the work they do.  There are no exceptions.  And that’s irrespective of the position they hold in the hierarchy.  They are receptive and appreciative too.  I’ve been thanked for my cack-handed efforts more times in just 4 years than in thirty as a civil servant. 

UK conservation NGOs (and perhaps all land managers) can’t leave things be:  For every conservation worker that’s digging a hole at one end of the reserve, there will be another filling one in at the other.  I think its part of a tradition that dates back to medieval ditch digging and a belief that nature can’t look after itself. This contrasts with Finland where most reserves consist of several hundred hectares boasting only an observation tower, a small car park and a wobbly boardwalk between the two. No hides, cafes or gift shoppes. And no one digging holes or filling them in.  My sort of place.  Of course, incessant tinkering may simply be a consequence of the NGOs trying to wring the best out of the tiny pieces of land we get to call our reserves.  On that note:

Wobbly boardwalk in Northern Finland. Photo: Alick Simmons

Why are so many nature reserves in the south of England parcels of land that other people no longer want?:  Worked out peat works (Ham Wall), former open-cast mines (Priddy), flooded gravel pits (Cotswold Water Park).  Or reservoirs. They’re all (mostly) lovely but wilderness it ain’t.   It’s hard not to conclude that the conservation community picks up the pieces once the land is exhausted and it’s of little other use.  Of course, there are exceptions such as Morden Bog and Arne but what about some sweeping and swoon-worthy National Parks like the Royal or Yellowstone?  Places where you save for a decade just to visit?  And just down the road, please. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t mean Exmoor. On that note:

What is a National Park?  I’m not sure.  I know ours have a different status to National Parks in most other countries and in England they are not primarily constituted as havens for wildlife.  I could live with that if there were other large, lush and vibrant publicly owned run and sites in the UK.

I’m a wildlife nut.  I’ve been birding all over the UK, much of Europe and several other continents.  When overseas we head for the national parks, for the space, the scenery and the diversity of wildlife.  Would I recommend foreign birders visit our national parks? Probably not.  With the exception of the Cairngorms, they are not worth visiting for wildlife.  In any case, would you really want them to see what goes on?  Grouse ‘farming’, industrial-scale pheasant rearing and shooting, fox-hunting, snaring, trapping of birds and mammals.  No, if you want to see wildlife it’s on reserves run by conservation NGOs.   And the argument that we haven’t space for large reserves is nonsense.  As Benedict MacDonald says in his fine book, ’Rebirding’, Snowdonia and the Serengeti NPs are similar in size. If we had the will we could do it.  Isn’t it to our shame that we have nothing like Yellowstone, Kruger or Keoladeo Ghana?

Why the risk aversion?  The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and yet the barriers to get re-introductions approved are extraordinary.  No wonder people just do it.   Take the beaver:  Introductions began in mainland Europe in the 1920s (!) and now there are at least 157 reintroductions in 24 countries. The only western European states not to have restored the species in a free state are Lichtenstein, Montenegro, Italy & Britain.  You might excuse Lichtenstein since it only has enough room for one beaver, and Montenegro since it has only been a sovereign state since 2006.  What’s our excuse?.   I accept the argument that people need to be consulted, especially those likely to be affected by the introduction, and the need to assess environmental impact. But that doesn’t explain 100 years difference.

Why the secrecy?  Why the lack of consultation?   Contrast the glacial pace of re-introductions with similar interventions involving wildlife.  Not only are local residents not consulted about badger killing but the authorities do not even inform us that we now reside within a kill zone.  The need for secrecy is cited.  And then to rub salt in the wound, tens of millions of non-native birds are released without so much as ‘by your leave’. 

And there you have it.  If you have a proposal to release a tiny number of (previously native) mammals expect to grind through years of protracted process while the authorities consider your application.   But live in an area where badgers are being driven close to extinction or where countless non-native birds are released to ravage the environment, you’d better get used to being ignored because you don’t count.  

Killing wildlife for ‘conservation’ is messy and rarely backed by evidence. Land management for game and agriculture and, to a much lesser extent, conservation involves killing some wildlife.  I won’t go into illegal killing; many people know the issues better than me and Mark’s blog does an excellent job of exposing some atrocious activities.  There’s plenty of legal killing but being legal doesn’t mean that it’s always necessary or even humane.  Spring traps, poisons, snares, live traps and shooting:  What’s it for?  Where’s the evidence that it works?  What’s the exit strategy? What competences are required?  How are operatives held to account?  Where is the training and supervision?  Where’s the scrutiny? 

I’m confident that where NGOs have to intervene (killing crows protect dwindling numbers of curlews, for example) they do the job well as I see the evidence but the others? Who knows?

And why differentiate between species? I share the outrage at the killing of birds of prey but where’s the outrage at the use of anti-coagulant rodenticides?  Rats bleeding to death internally over several days is horrible.  I realise that there are differences in public perception but never forget that sentience is now recognised in a whole range of species and that crows are probably smarter than dogs.  We can do better for our wildlife.

Who really has influence to effect change?  Whoever it is, it doesn’t seem to be the ordinary citizen. As a former civil servant, I am used to the system where Government consults stakeholders on its proposals.  The responses were always considered carefully and recommendations made to Ministers taking into account their nature and number.  I’ve tried hard to counter the cynicism shown by organisations and individuals who take great pains to respond carefully only to have their views rejected time after time.  Perhaps animal health is different, but after working on several responses which cover wild animals and conservation which appeared to have not the slightest effect, I now find it hard to disagree.

It’s a sad fact that, for the ordinary citizen, Judicial Review and Freedom of Information requests seems the only way to get anything done. Which is why I support Wild Justice.

In conclusion, if there is a common theme to these apparently disconnected observations, it is this:  The citizen lacks influence over the land, its management, its wildlife and the laws that govern it.  We need better access, more and better space for wildlife, more influence over its management, more re-introductions and a genuinely evidence- based and ethically-robust approach to wildlife interventions.  

Then perhaps we’d need to dig fewer holes.  And stop filling in others.

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31 Replies to “Guest blog – Digging Holes by Alick Simmons”

  1. "Killing wildlife for ‘conservation’ is messy and rarely backed by evidence."

    and just how many common cranes does he think would be successfully fledged in this country if it was not for fox culling in their nesting areas?

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    1. Richard B - your comment is a brilliant example of a suggestion of a general truth being countered by a suggestion of a single exception. Whether or not your point is true (and it certainly has some truth to it) Alick's much much much wider point can also be true. Would you like to come back with another 20 counter examples?

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    2. Fox control has been necessary in Somerset simply as so many of the cranes, having been hand-reared, are young and inexperienced. As they gain experience they cope with predators much more effectively.

      In the longer term given sufficient, suitable habitat cranes (and other species of conservation concern) would thrive in numbers despite the inevitable predation.

      Finally, I seek sustainable and robust solutions. If you know of any conservation problem, other than the removal of non-native rodents from seabird islands, which has been resolved simply by killing the species deemed problematic, I’d be keen to hear of it.

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  2. Alick, thank you very much for this. I have been on a similar journey myself and have come to a similar set of conclusions. One thing that I have been pondering over the last couple of weeks is whether some forms of public protest (including supporting Wild Justice and similar) may be the way that citizens can have an influence.

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    1. Yes, i agree. It Is very sad that we have to take legal action not only against Defra (ie the government) but against bodies that should be protecting nature - Natural England. It is a good idea to give Money to NJ and also to make donations on behalf of others as birthday or Christmas presents to Heal the Nature trusts etc But the real problem is structural - the government is made up of non ecologists who are too closely connected with those who own Land and have enormous wealth and power. The wording of the Brexit agreement on environmental standards reveals the environmental rottenness of the UK government and their willingness to make money at the expense of nature to repay their puppetmasters and why the case for a Federal UK has become so strong. So do two things. Give money to those who buy Land for nature and oppose the government 's thinly concealed plana and never ever vote Conservative.

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  3. Thank you for a thoughtful and considered blog, Alick. Your final point that:
    'The citizen lacks influence over the land, its management, its wildlife and the laws that govern it'
    is well made and helps explain the feeling of powerlessness that accompanies the anxiety caused by our degraded landscapes. It is a sad truth that the battle to protect and enhance what natural assets remain in the UK is likely to be fought as much in the courts as on the land itself.

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  4. An excellent and perceptive post, Alick. I guess the 'can't leave things be' concern is directly linked to the next section of the post about the fact that so much of our wildlife is largely confined to small parcels of land that are not required for anything else. If your wildlife has room to spread its wings in large areas of wilderness then succession is not a problem; it is simply a natural process. Other natural processes such as fires, floods, landslips, grazing, browsing, wallowing, digging, tree-barking, beaver-damming and so on, maintain diversity and prevent the whole landscape reaching a uniform climax. On a pocket nature reserve things are different. If you are the manager of one of the few remaining sites for a rare orchid, say, it would (surely?) be irresponsible to allow succession simply to take its course and permit the orchid to disappear beneath a sea of scrub. Tinkering is a necessity to try and maintain the conditions to preserve these rare jewels.

    Of course this means that we cannot consider our reserves to be 'wilderness' or even entirely natural and it inevitably means that at times we end up digging a hole in one place whilst filling one in somewhere else as we try to maintain the conditions required to preserve different 'target species'. It also means that sometimes the good we do for one thing will often be at the expense of something else; a mad conundrum that requires reserve managers to play god.

    Undoubtedly allowing large areas of land to run truly wild as a kind of British Yellowstone or similar would obviate the need for this tinkering and who would not welcome that? It seems to me that we are most likely to achieve this in the uplands somewhere. It would be great if we could succeed in this and the conservation NGOs and government should definitely have the ambition to try, but it is perhaps telling that your comparison was between the areas of Snowdonia and the Serengeti rather than the Serengeti and somewhere in Kent, Surrey or Warwickshire, say. In the densely populated and agriculturally fertile lowlands we can hope to see a few more 'Knepps' but it seems unlikely that we will get any really vast areas of wilderness. If this is the case, those pocket nature reserves will continue to have an important role to play and we will need to keep tinkering in order to ensure that the rare plant and animal species they host can cling on.

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    1. Thank you. I have reluctantly come to accept the need for the micro-management of small reserves. As you say, in many cases succession would eliminate the reason for the original designation.

      I deliberately used Snowdonia as an example because that’s the one in Benedict McDonald’s Rebirding. But I am open to other areas being considered. There’s scope for a largish NP on the Somerset Levels but in any area it would require changes to ownership which would need to go far beyond the medieval distribution of ownership that prevails across much of England. If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth reading Guy Shrubsole’s epic Who Owns England?

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  5. You make many good points and I shall be reading your suggestions again for quite a while. The point about reserve managers not being able to leave things be is the one that really resonated with me. They're always jumping in there with their generic prescriptions for management, usually before they even know much about the uniqueness of their site.
    Perhaps conservation organisations should have a rule that a staff member can't do any work on a piece of land (or write a management plan) until they've spent at least 100 hours there just being and experiencing the place and it's wildlife - at all times and all round the year.

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    1. "They're always jumping in there with their generic prescriptions for management, usually before they even know much about the uniqueness of their site."

      Can you back this up with some evidence? I would certainly not wish to suggest that reserve managers always get it right or even that management prescriptions are always thought through sufficiently but your suggestion that reserve managers 'usually' act without an understanding of the uniqueness of their sites strikes me as arrogant and unfounded.

      As I suggested in my earlier comment, leaving things be is fine if we have large wilderness areas in which natural processes can unfold as they will, but whether we like it or not the present situation for much of our wildlife is that it is restricted to relatively tiny parcels of land that are often isolated from each other by vast oceans of unfavourable agricultural land. If we leave these sites to do their own thing, this will all too often result in the loss of the species that made them precious and provided the reason for the reserve to be established, but what replaces them will not be of equal value.

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    2. Yes, pretty much agree with all that, therein is the inherent problem. Not one advisory person in 6 years that has visited this farm has ever done any rewilding or been personally responsible, yes they’ve read the books, have fancy titles and can use PowerPoint, but give then 1000’s of acres and they’re a fish out of water.

      They stick rigidly to the advice they’ll give to a farmer – this isn’t a farm! All of us here have been shocked on how little they know about the Natural World all around us.

      Our reserves are the same, my argument with all the big charities is you can do more, you don’t need buckets of funding to start projects, just the enthusiastic inducement of management and staff to get off their arses out of the warm offices and try things.

      This article has expressed many questions, some I can answer, the others are more to do with complicated inherent relatationship that society has with nature. We are and have been for a considerable amount of time out of balance with the Natural World and that is down to our sociality exploitive avarice, we have created a conservation industry and a land management system based on financial reward not on an equal relationship with those species that wish to share the same space.

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    1. Don’t they indeed! That brash being burnt may not be needed on that particular site but would be much needed elsewhere. With volunteers on hand, it would not be hard to move it to another area where it would be useful. But people do love to stand around burning stuff. These are probably the same people that rail against moorland burning or are saddened at the lack of insect life. Please think before you go for the easy option.
      Good blog btw Alick.

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      1. Interestingly, in my local woodland reserves the Trust volunteers use the brash from hazel coppicing to build berms, edging the rides, which provide masses of habitat for insects and low level nesting birds and mammals.

        Lots of complaints about how unsightly they are (usually from the same people that don't see why they should keep their dogs on a lead in a nature reserve) but an ecologically sound usage.

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  6. A very well argued report.
    Your references to Finland reflect my experiences from living 60 years in Sweden.
    Having been brought up on a tenanted mixed arable and livestock farm in the 1940s and 50s I feel that the UK has not progressed at all in the official attitude to nature conservation because of the continuing influence of the landed gentry and corporate dominance regarding the use of land and farming.

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  7. A very interesting piece Alick, being an island has advantages but from a conservation point of view it may be a disadvantage. We have managed to exterminate our larger predators such that mammalian meso-predators like Fox, Pine Marten and Badger are top of the tree, yet we didn't do the same to the herbivores except for Aurochs, Shelk and perhaps European Elk. So we have an imbalance due to deer numbers which is not helped by introduced species of deer. We need those top predators back to make the system function without our interference, however if we were not an island this might happen naturally , certainly for Wolf THE deer predator look what it did for the health of Yellowstone. Yes we have to reintroduce things and look how ignorant vested interest is holding up real progress on beavers never mind anything else. Our national obsession with so called sport shooting and farming everything to within an inch of its life is the problem be that in NPS or lowlands and whether we like it or not it is these folk governments have listened to. Its fairly recent that a retired keeper in the Yorkshire Dales decried reintroduction of predatory birds that his Victorian forebears got rid of and he was lauded for it! Time we and all conservationists got angry, noisy and more radical or we will get nowhere. You only have to mention the words or word rewilding here in the sheep created wildlife deserts of Wales to get an apoplectic reaction from the sheep farming mafia, time they didn't hold sway unchallenged or we will have no wildlife at all outside tiny reserves. RSPB and GWCT have shown farming can be wildlife friendly but even they seem small voices against a modern goliath.

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  8. The key issue is agriculture policy. In 1947 the one priority for the land was to feed a starving Europe. It isn't now, but 70 years of that presumption has led even conservationists to see it as either right or inevitable - and has pushed nature into the corners farmers don't want. It's reflected in the conservation response - which is to try and modify farming to leave some space for nature, rather than questioning whether all land should be intensively farmed at all. The conservation reaction to Knepp where (very intractable) land was simply taken out of conventional farming was mixed and conventional conservation still holds the project at arms length - no mention, for example, in RSPB announcements about modifying farming for Turtle Doves that maybe there is another way. In the Scottish Beaver disputes I'm waiting to see the suggestion that growing potatoes in the floodplain may be the problem, not the Beavers.

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  9. Great blog, but the Serengeti NP isn’t the same size as Snowdonia NP, it’s the Masai Mara Benedict refers to in Rebirding.

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  10. I thoroughy enjoyed this blog and the interesting comments and can only, rather glibly. add one observation. You say at the beginning that
    "I’ve been thanked for my cack-handed efforts more times in just 4 years than in thirty as a civil servant."

    Perhaps your employers, duly paying you for your efforts, expected less cack-handedness?

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    1. I ended my career as the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer so I guess the view was that I wasn’t cack-handed. And I was paid. My point is to illustrate the differences in culture between the public and 3rd sectors. There’s only one way to reward volunteers and that is to show appreciation of their efforts. In my experience, the organisations I am involved with do it very well. Other organisations, private and public, would do well to emulate them. Because on the rare occasions that I was rewarded over and above my monthly pay it put a spring in my step for days.

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  11. I think the key issue for conservation in this country is that our governments do not believe in it. Their focus is on "the economy stupid" and they really do not care.

    Natural England has been starved of funds and emasculated: it is no champion of our wildlife or the environment. Governments love the fact that we volunteers are the key contributors to conservation, through funding bodies like the RSPB, and getting out there and doing it at our own cost.

    I am a ringer: apart from my annual permit I pay for all of my rings, with a little help from Forestry England. Each year I ring about 3,000 birds. That costs approximately £750 in ring costs alone, never mind the costs of nets and other equipment, out of my pension. As I understand it, in Australia the state governments pay for the lot.

    I know it is my choice - but the government are happy enough to use the data that is collected to inform policy (or not, as in the case of the current load of vandals and wildlife killers).

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    1. One of the other things I should have mentioned is how much I admire the work done for 'free' by NGO volunteers. Everything from reception to running gift shoppes and cafes, surveys, ringing and, yes, digging holes. Even my advisory work is gratis. We do it because we enjoy it and because we want to make a difference. It makes a formidable army of potential influence on politicians. We just need to organise better. A lot better. Start by shouting 'Listen to Us' - or you'll see us in court.

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  12. Interesting observations and thought provoking indeed, thank you. And thanks for all you do voluntarily Alick, thank goodness for people who care.

    Nature conservation is a tough gig for those of us "in it"professionally (no disrespect meant to those who aren't).
    The UK is the most nature depleted country in Europe, species have declined beyond belief in the last 40 years and yet nature watching is possibly more popular than ever.
    On the face of it, we've failed. 1000's of highly committed individuals have worked hard to achieve what? More people interested, probably yes. More abundant nature, definitely not. But what if we hadn't been trying? I'd like to think things would be a whole lot worse and that we continue to do some real good despite an overwhelming feeling of despair within the sector some of the time as people, specifically the powers that be, just aren't listening.

    Nature conservationists are damned either way...as professionals we've seemingly failed (& often blamed as such) so why do we (& the eNGOs we work for) deserve the British public's hard earned charitable support in donations/membership subs? But with little government (tax payers) support, how can we continue to keep the decline in nature at bay and indeed try to increase nature abundance, things that we are all desperate to do? Nature is in free fall DESPiTE our efforts, not because of them; Gov policy, landowners, industry & ultimately consumerism are the reasons, in my humble view. How can the eNGO sector stop that or be expected to?

    As you rightly say, enthusiasm, and commitment to the cause are everywhere in the sector. Very hard working (whether in offices or at the coal face, (both are needed and those that think that's not the case are deluded)), inspired and faithful charity workers should be applauded for trying hard to turn the tide, against all odds and in the face of tough challenges. Yes we take a wage, but thank goodness we have! And at least we are doing something! Digging holes and then filling them in again we might be, but until nature is viewed as something we live within and alongside that's irreplaceable and worthy of significant cash, well-meaning charity supporters in this country will continue to fund well-meaning charity workers to dig holes and fill them and nature conservation will never move on beyond it's current status quo.

    However, I've no doubt that should we be given the significant level of resources needed to tackle the decline in nature, eNGOs would rise to the challenge and the boundless enthusiasm and commitment we all have would be channelled brilliantly. Let's hope something changes soon for nature and all our sakes.

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    1. Well said. Conservationists and conservation NGOs should certainly not be above criticism and it is perfectly legitimate, for example, to question whether any particular problem is being approached in the right way or effectively enough, but the snide comments from some quarters questioning their very motivation and commitment seem to me to be very unfair.

      I am sure that were it not for the efforts of the conservation movement, broadly construed, things would indeed be very much worse for wildlife than they currently are, horrendous though that may be to contemplate. Sadly, arraigned against the the efforts and resources of conservationists are the much greater resources of governments, landowners, corporations and others who are determined to squeeze whatever 'value' (defined in purely monetary terms) they can from every square centimetre of land while the majority of the public sits by in apathetic indifference. Given this, every little parcel of land, wildflower, bird and beetle that has been spared from development represents a small battle won. Without these wins the overall war would already be lost.

      Alick is right that we need to be much more ambitious in terms of leaving land aside to nature and we should certainly try. But achieving this cannot be done by the conservation bodies on their own; major shifts in government policy will be needed which, in turn, requires the attitudes of the public to change too. For this to happen we all need to do what ever we can to keep our MPs, councillors, and our fellow citizens aware of what we are losing and why we cannot afford to continue losing it.

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  13. A really interesting blog and comments too. As a land manager for the National Trust the habitats I look after are mostly cultural remnants of previous land use, chalk grassland, lowland heath and coppice woodland. The heath for example has most likely been tinkered with for 500 years if not more. Cutting, digging, grazing and burning amongst other uses. I've always assumed that what we do replicates as close as possible these uses. This work produces a lot of brash and we try and, now, burn as little as possible. We make habitat piles, dead hedges, logs, stakes and binders. We do get our volunteers to help us move stuff but a pile of brash 10m3 is alot, and our volunteers are few and too be frank most of them are over 70 and find dragging things tiring. I know I do at a relatively young 43.

    What I would like to see is the acres of improved pasture surrounding our places to be allowed to scrub up. Thus balancing the scrub clearing we do for species of conservation concern.

    One thing I would say about the idea of wilderness in USA and parts of the African continent are that a lot of them where places were humans lived and who tended/managed the land that the settlers 'discovered'. Robin Wall Kimmer's book Braiding Sweetgrass is a good place to start reading about the First Nation Peoples and how they lived.

    I also feel that the focus on rewilding the land in the UK misses a trick as we need to rewild people too as ultimately we are parts of the same whole.

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  14. Excellent refreshing article and so many constructive comments. I suspect that the 'new' land management contracts for England and whatever comes for the other federal states will either be severely financially limited or the same competitive box ticking of previous agri schemes.

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    1. Thank you. While the potential of ELMS to improve biodiversity and bio-abundance is considerable, I can’t see any way for the citizen to exert any influence over the details. Sure, conservation NGOs will have some influence but as usual it will be farmers groups and the NFU in particular that hold the whip hand. I find that profoundly dispiriting, given that ELMS funds will derive from taxpayers many of whom have interest in conservation.

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