Looking back at the various things I’ve written over the years I notice that a lot of the best stuff went into email and other written conversations with other people; the ideas discussed often never making it into public expression in these soapbox blogposts. The style of writing is also somehow freer, more direct and easy-flowing, even though I still spend lengthy periods preparing and crafting my responses. You also get a truer snapshot into whatever processes the correspondents were going through at the time, without the fear of making embarrassing trip-ups in the public eye… At least until some shmuck decides to publish them ;) At least until recently didn’t people pay good money to read the letters of men & women they admired? Put your deep conversations up into the public sphere!
Recently I’ve been corresponding with Mark Fisher, who has a website called ‘Self-Willed Land: Advocacy for Wild Land and Nature‘. I got in touch originally because I was looking for a sane analysis of the implications of the UK government’s proposed 40% cuts to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which threaten to sell off some of the National Nature Reserves (NNRs) to private, profit-oriented companies. I thought his response merited a wider audience, so I reproduce it here with his permission. Check out the Guardian link first if you haven’t already heard the story.
Long-time-reader-first-time-writer. I’m struggling with what to make of these new ‘budget cuts for the environment’. Here’s the Guardian article a friend showed to me with the warning ‘prepare to be outraged’, but I found myself strangely unmoved by the mainstream Greens quoted in the text. Sample from the statement sent to the government by ’25 leading conservation groups':
Reedbeds are dry and clogged with brambles; heathlands have vanished as scrub begins to take over. Wetlands have dwindled and rivers and canals have become clogged by invasive plants which threaten native species. The loss of money for wildlife-friendly farming has seen farmland birds resume their slide into extinction.
Then there was the usual bullshit towards the end about why we should care for the environment because it’s good for the economy (failing to recognise that an agricultural society is diametrically opposed to biodiversity practically by definition)… ‘You may well save a few pounds now but you will lose billions later’ – don’t these people know there’s a war on?? Don’t they understand the first thing about extractive ‘civilised’ economies? Pick a side already, Ahmed Djoghlaf!
I guess I’m fairly ignorant of the work these groups have done in the past and of the ‘successes’ they had thanks to their funding. I remembered you writing about the maintenance of heathland as an irrational, destructive process in some areas, and wondered whether other aspects of this kind of ‘conservation’ would be missed. I understand that privatisation has been a nightmare in every sector the Thatcherites and Blairites have introduced it over the last few decades. I just don’t bridle the way I’m supposed to when hearing about the Nightmare Takeover of brambles, scrub and invasive species. Can you help me articulate this different perspective?
Finally, assuming you do see a problem with these cuts, can you suggest a good way to fight them or point me toward any groups doing so in a non-capitulatory/compromising manner? The Guardian has been characteristically unhelpful in this regard (!) and none of my usual non-mainstream sources seem to be addressing the problem yet.
Yours sincerely, with thanks for all the great writing over the years
The key issue for me is the loss of opportunity if NNRs and the FC estate is sold off. It is not that I think they have any particular worth in terms of natural values at the moment, it is the fact that the kind of area protection of wildland that I would wish to see in Britain is much more easily realised if the land is in public ownership.
I have just finished a report for the Scottish Government on a review of the status and conservation of wildland in Europe. Everything I ever suspected about the crappiness of nature conservation in Britain is confirmed by contrast with the rest of Europe. I already knew it was crappy in comparison to N. America.
The basis of national protected area legislation across Europe is restriction on extractive activity, as well as public ownership. It is the difference between Primary, wild habitats that need no management intervention, and Secondary habitats that are only maintained through management intervention. It thus is about a separation of natural values from cultural values because the latter is inimical to the former. Public ownership takes away the burden on the land of having to give a monetary return. In Britain, the policy is maintenance of secondary habitats in multiple use areas, and the legislation – which is blind to ownership – is designed to ensure that happens, as is the UKBAP by the very choices for priorities within it that derive from Secondary habitats. A heath is a secondary habitat, and so is the other cherished landscape of the conservation industry – chalk grassland.
If we are ever to have substantial areas of Primary habitat other than the few scraps currently outside of extractive activity, then we need that public land as the land bank where the necessary ecological restoration can take place. Private ownership of land, even when supposedly in the benefical ownership of NGOs, always puts demands on it that cut cross non-intervention. Thus a private landowner will always want to make money out of their land, putting pressures on it that inevitably detract from wildness (even if it is just visitor services as a means of generating income), and the NGOs will want to “manage” the land for their single interest eg. birds, butterflies etc.
It is argued that ecological restoration will reduce biodiversity and make landscapes inaccessible – the Nightmare Takeover of brambles, scrub and invasive species. These critcisms are firmly rooted in the ideology of the conservation industry and the expoiters of land. That some other reality can exist is never allowed as it cuts across their vested interests. This is the dead hand that holds back any better prospect for wild nature in Britain. The fact that it is just prejudice is never pointed out. I will be writing shortly about the locations in England I have been to recently where human intervention was withdrawn or has not been a factor. They give the lie to this prejudice. It is of course, not in the interests of private land owners or the conservation industry for this other reality to be acknowledge because it will reduce their incomes – Higher Level Stewardship subsidy for private landowners, and all the public funding that the conservation industry hoovers in each year. For the latter, it also takes away their reason for being. Personally, I believe any funding cuts to the conservation industry can only be goods news. As to the farmers, there is no evidence of the rate of compliance with stewardship schemes, and so the funding they get doesn’t achieve what it is supposed to do anyway.
There is no coalition of people supporting the realisation of Primary habitats in Britain. I wish there was. That there are people with similar views is shown by some of the comments on articles in the Guardian. A Wildland Network was set up in 2005, but it fizzled out because it was split between those that wanted to take an uncompromising stand, and those that that didn’t really have any comitment to change. There are individual projects where there are people with some inspiring vision, such as Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood in Scotland. There are individual action groups who are fed up with the way the conservation industry is destroying their local wild nature. One of the most articulate is the Blacka Blogger (see http://theblackamoorsite.blogspot.com/). I helped set up a Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University as the means to do the work to provide evidence for a policy base for wildland in Britain. The Scottish Gov. report and its recommendations for Scotland is the first major outcome from that, and we will be bringing out a second report with a greater European focus. The latter has got us an invite to talk to the Environment Directorate in Brussels, which confirms what other people in Britain have recently found that continental Europe is a much more fertile ground for wildland policy.
Unfortunately, there is nothing in any of that which has sufficient edge for it to forestall an impending sell-off. But then again, there is no guarantee that there will be a change in nature policy that will seize the opportunity provided by public land for a national system of protected areas that is worth its name.
Hope this helps.
continued in the comments…