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Hedgehogs – you couldn’t dream them up really could you?  If you hadn’t seen one (you have seen one haven’t you?) then would they seem any more likely than the unicorn?

Hedgehogs seem to be getting rarer for a variety of reasons here, here and here)  – one of which might well be that badgers are partial to gobbling them up.



Come on chaps!

I’ve been thinking, off and on, about the marine wildlife riches around Pitcairn Island since the meeting at the Royal Society last week. It was wonderful to get some comments on this blog from Pitcairn Islanders too.

I hope it’s not too presumptuous to think that the case for strong protection of the marine wildlife, supported as it is by the whole human population of the Pitcairn Islands, should rapidly come to pass.

But it’s becoming clearer to me that the way that the UK government handles the UK Overseas Territories is far from ideal.  This is a classic situation where responsibility is shared and therefore disappears through the cracks between government departments.

My main interest in the UKOTs is in their history, their people and their wildlife but clearly they are relevant to the UK because of their military value, economic value, and all sorts of other values.  And so we see that the Department for International Development has a hand in some of the UKOTs – the economically poorer ones like Pitcairn.  This always strikes me as being tremendously politically incorrect!  Why isn’t DFID involved with the poorer parts of Glasgow, Newcastle or London?  But that’s how it is, and the trouble with that is that DFID has a very poor grasp of environmental matters – ever since Claire Short got rid of most of the experts in her Department years ago. So DFID worries me.

Believe it or not, the Department for Culture Media and Sport also has a bit of a role as it has responsibility for World Heritage Sites – and Henderson Island, Gough Island and Inaccessible Island are all World Heritage Sites (along with the Town of St George on Bermuda).  DCMS has put forward St Helena and the Turks and Caicos Islands as potential World Heritage Sites too.  DCMS is the parent body for the National Lottery but has not given guidance to the Lottery to make money available for the UKOTs (you can’t buy lottery tickets in UKOTs (but then I have never bought one in my life)).

Defra recognises that the environment of the UKOTs is important and that what happens in those places can contribute to UK international obligations.  But Defra will say that it has little money to spend on the UKOTs and that the FCO is loaded with resources.  In addition, the Defra staff dealing with the UKOTs are split between terrestrial and marine branches and so almost everything about the UKOTs requires a meeting between people for whom the UKOTs are one rather small part of their already busy jobs.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office do see the UKOTs as important but will pass the buck to other departments whenever it comes to doing anything that the FCO feels isn’t their bag.  And that certainly applies to anything environmental.

The impression one gets, talking to people involved in the UKOTs, is that the variety of government departments makes life difficult.  Particularly when they behave like a bunch of kids with lots of  ‘it’s not me it’s him!’ thrown in.

Trying to sort this out is probably one of the reasons why the Environmental Audit Committee is investigating sustainability in the UKOTs right now.

In the recent (June 2012) Overseas Territories White Paper the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary wax lyrical about the interest and commitment of the UK to the UKOTs.  But both, rightly, go further.

David Cameron says: ‘We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited.’ – well said, Prime Minister!

And William Hague says: ‘We have not in the past devoted enough attention to the vast and pristine environments in the lands and seas of our Territories. We are stewards of these assets for future generations.’ – well said, Foreign Secretary!

I am happy to acknowledge that here two of the most senior members of the coalition government have sent the right signals, said the right things and thought the right thoughts.  But as with Directors General of the BBC, or Chief Executives of Banks, you also have to be a manager as well as a leader.  Saying it is not enough – you have to make it happen.

Delivering better stewardship of the extraordinary environments of the UKOTs is currently a shared responsibility of many junior civil servants distributed across Whitehall Departments and each with many other things to do.  So, my fear, is that it just won’t happen without a nudge from above.

I wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to spend more than a few minutes on this subject in his busy life, so here is the draft of an email for David Cameron to cut and paste and send to DFID, Defra, DCMS and FCO.

‘Come on chaps – get a grip! The UKOTs are important to us and we are making a bit of a meal of all this.  I’d like you all to come up with a plan for some real action on environmental progress.  Some ideas that will make us look good (we are struggling a bit on that ‘greenest government ever’ thing) and which tick lots of boxes for contributing to international agreements. If it’s going to cost a few million quid then so be it – we need some good news on the environment and I’ll tell George to look for some money down the back of the sofa if it’s needed.  Come back to me with some ideas in a fortnight.’

There you are PM – cut and paste – and send!


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Book review – Nature all around us by Beatrix Beisner, Christian Messier and Luc-Alain Giraldeau

This is a lovely little book: small in size but great in scope.

It is subtitled a ‘guide to urban ecology’ but since ecology is the same everywhere it is a guide to ecology which has been approached through the everyday sights and sounds that surround those people who might think that they are most divorced from the ecological world.  It’s a good idea and it’s well done in this book.

Written by a variety of authors the 25 chapters take the reader through the ideas of niches, competition, ecological services, predator/prey relationships, evolution by natural selection and a host of other ideas by way of cats, lichens, spiders, dandelions, gulls and pigeons.

The authors live in North America so the gulls are ring-billed gulls and the squirrels are gray squirrels but those slight differences won’t detract at all from the enjoyment of a European reader.

Jargon-free but ideas-rich this book would appeal to anyone from the age of about 15 upwards.

Available on Amazon and published by University of Chicago Press.


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Guest Blog – Why we need to change if we really care… by Ralph Underhill

Ralph Underhill worked on planning casework and water policy at the RSPB for seven years, before joining the Public Interest Research Centre where he is working on the Common Cause for Nature project. He would like to hear your thoughts on this piece and would like anyone interested in the project to get in touch.









Gordon Dam, Tasmania. By JJ Harrison (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation is a dam. It tries to hold back a tide of potentially damaging impacts, that, if unleashed, would overrun the natural world and destroy the wildlife we care about.

With the increasing challenges brought on by economic development this dam is reaching its limits. Numerous biological indicators (such as this) are showing that the cracks in it are widening and water is spilling out at a rate not previously seen.

To date, the role of those working in the conservation sector has to been to try to maintain the integrity of the dam. Whenever a new threat emerges (be it a new infrastructure proposal, breeding failure on a particular reserve or a damaging government policy) it creates a fresh crack and we rush to stem the flow. Although some water gets through, it is never as much as would have done if we weren’t there.

We are making a difference, yet somehow things continue to get worse.

Placing our emphasis on threats as they appear is entirely understandable. It would be naive to suggest that reacting to immediate threats is not a key role in conservation – without it we would surely have lost a whole lot more. However, the cracks in the dam are now increasing, both in size and number. Our reaction has been to try and grow the number of supporters we have in order to allow the conservation movement to employ even more people to plug the gaps as they appear. We haven’t had the time to look at the bigger picture, and think clearly about what it is that builds the pressure behind the dam in the first place.

As conservationists, we have questioned the extent to which we can feasibly address some of these bigger issues, most of which we have traditionally seen as far outside our remit and very hard to influence – alienation, consumerism, disconnection from nature, advertising and the dominance of economics in the media – these are all things that contribute to people’s indifference. It has been considered pointless to waste time and resources on such issues when these could be usefully deployed on addressing an immediate threat. Any attempt to take focus away from the immediate crisis will inevitably allow the cracks to get bigger, letting more water through which will damage our rarest species and habitats.

In short, the desperate nature of the situation has focused our minds on the cracks, the short term. If we don’t examine what is feeding the reservoir the final result is inevitable: the dam will break…
But there is hope. There is much within our power that we can do to raise the priority of conservation on the political agenda. We can create a long term vision that puts conservation on the front foot and begins to tackle the big issues we have previously been scared to approach.

Over the past few years our environmental legislation has faced a continual onslaught, always being portrayed as a barrier to development. Campaigns remain centred around stopping a threat, rather than highlighting the intrinsic value of nature and the benefits of an existing law or policy. This makes sense from a short term perspective: threats are numerous and if left unopposed could lead to huge damage. But in the long term this failure to set the agenda will inevitably mean we are just left waiting for the next attempt to undermine our position.

Furthermore, because we engage in the government’s processes policy-makers always get a head start over us in framing the debate: for example we must partake in the “red-tape challenge”, even though the regulation we are defending serves a public good. Many successive governments have successfully framed regulation as something ‘bad’ and a barrier to progress, making our position more difficult from the start. This reactionary approach also makes it significantly harder to point to the fact that existing legislation is actually inadequate in terms of halting biodiversity loss. The end result is that we are forever on the back-foot and in some cases using the negative frames provided to us by government, such as engaging in the airport expansion debate from an economic perspective (see here).

Hang on a minute, what happened to the whole reservoir thing?

The common cause for nature project uses social psychology research to show that we are overlooking a huge area of knowledge that could help us. It is an attempt to look at society as a whole and highlight the issues that we need to work on in order to encourage people to care about nature. It is an attempt to examine why the water is entering the reservoir and how to stop it.

Of course, it is clearly not the case that we have completely ignored everything feeding into the reservoir. Clearly conservation NGOs are different and some have taken the first tentative steps towards a new direction for conservation by highlighting the increasing lack of connection with the natural world. However, this is just the start. What are the other systemic reasons for the build-up of water in the dam? Consumerism (viewed by many as the only indicator of a healthy economy and even a way of contributing to conservation charities); the widespread framing of anything of importance in purely economic terms; diminished access to nature, and the probable impacts of advertising on people of all ages. Like it or not, if we really want to stop the decline we must engage in these big issues. To ignore them is to stand and watch as wildlife gets washed away as the dam finally collapses.I am not suggesting that conservation should ‘go it alone’ and try to sort out all of society’s ills on its own. What I am suggesting is that conservation broadens its remit and works in partnership with other NGOs from other sectors. If we are to have any hope of having wildlife worth saving twenty years from now we must ensure that we stand against those things which make it harder for people to understand and appreciate the intrinsic value of the natural world. It has been shown through research that those factors which serve to erode public commitment to action on conservation are closely aligned to the things that undermine public commitment to tackling a wide range of other challenges – from international poverty to social exclusion at home. If we set aside our differences and work together we have a better chance of changing some of these in the long term.

Our infatuation with consultations relating directly to the environment means we focus almost all of our energies on Defra, a single department that is one of the smallest in government. Tackling the issues mentioned above (such as advertising or accessibility to green space) requires us to widen our focus, but also represents a good opportunity for the conservation sector to broaden its relevance. With a broader appeal and with more public resonance the conservation sector may be able to apply pressure more effectively to other government departments. Furthermore, the more integrated the conservation sector is and the closer its working links with the entire third sector, the more relevant it will appear, potentially increasing its influence, opening up new funding opportunities and members.

We are at a crucial point, we can still save our wildlife, but only if we try something different, something radical, something that might just might work…



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Butterflies in the landscape, and a Christmas present too

I’m sorry I can’t attend the launch today of a marvellous report by Butterfly Conservation

Landscape-scale conservation for butterflies and moths – lessons from the UK is a superb document about how to do nature conservation.  Few of our UK conservation organisations could produce something so impressive in terms of demonstrating how to conserve threatened species.  What this report demonstrates for butterflies and moths illustrates some general truths for nature conservation as a whole.  And the Defra Ministerial team could do far worse than to book a summer’s day out with Martin Warren and his team to learn something of how nature conservation works on the ground.

Everyone talks about landscape-scale conservation but how many have done it?  Is the term even useful?  Maybe it is, but I suspect it means different things to different people at different times, and has become a slightly meaningless catchphrase.  At least Butterfly Conservation define their understanding of it in this report as being ‘ the coordinated conservation and management of habitats for a range of species across a large natural area, often made up of a network of sites‘.  That’ll do, although others might define it as ‘a nature reserve whose far side is a long way away‘.

Whatever we call it, successful conservation often involves geography as well as botany and zoology.  It’s what you do and where you do it that matters.  For insects in particular, their continued presence in a landscape depends on enough of the right management happening in enough places which are close enough to each other so that overall the species hops from place to place from year to year but is never completely snuffed out.  This is illustrated really well by the story of the heath fritillary in Blean Woods over a 7-year period, where the butterfly’s occupancy of the wood tracked the management that was done.  It’s a beautiful illustration of how detailed understanding of the species’s needs is, in this case (and isn’t it usually?) the key to successful targetted conservation management.

Marsh fritillary By Júlio Reis (Original file) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The story of successful conservation of marsh fritillaries in Dorset is also a classic.  Twenty-five years of study and practical action have led to big increases in population levels in chalk grassland areas where appropriate grazing has been encouraged by agri-environment schemes.  Chalk grassland populations have increased because the ESA scheme encouraged the right type of cattle grazing whereas wet grassland populations have declined a bit because grazing is more difficult to arrange.  Now that the ESA scheme has come to an end, the continued success of the marsh fritillary depends largely on the HLS scheme.

You should read this report and Butterfly Conservation should use it to persuade others.  If Butterfly Conservation had ten times as much money, then I would feel a lot happier about the future of our butterflies, but even as it is they are doing a fantastic job.  Are you a member – gift membership available as a Christmas present if you move, or drop your hints, quickly?

Maybe those Defra Ministers need a present – in fact they do!  So I’ve just bought Richard Benyon membership at the knockdown price of £14 and asked him to renew the subscription himself next year.  Why don’t you buy Owen Paterson or David Cameron or George Osborne or Ed Miliband or your MP Butterfly Conservation membership? Think of it as a £14 donation, or tell yourself that your chosen MP will emerge as a fully formed butterfly lover some time in the future.


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