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
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.
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:
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.