This coming weekend will see the first conference organised by A Focus On Nature, the network for young nature conservationists in the UK. The title and theme of the gathering – Vision for Nature – is a timely one. In a fast-changing world, we need some idea of what we’re aiming for: to paraphrase an excellent comment on my last blog, “we always need to be questioning what our vision is.” In the run-up to the event, a number of bloggers are tackling the subject. The two pieces I’ve read so far, from Peter Cooper and Ryan Clark, are both excellently written – exactly what I’d expect from alumni of the country’s finest secondary school and university respectively, though by happy coincidence I’m extremely biased on both counts.
What I’m about to say – hastily typed between preparing for a two-week trip abroad and tending to a cat with a dislocated toe – is more of a reaction to their ideas, amongst others, than an attempt to come up with an original vision of my own, but to be honest that’s my preferred style. This is a vision for nature, not mine alone, and I don’t claim ownership of it any more than I’d be comfortable changing the title of this blog to include my name – though I suppose every writer must stoop to self-promotion eventually!
Where was I? Ah yes: Peter Cooper’s ‘Half Britain’ is an E. O. Wilson-inspired vision of a future for this country where the uplands have been turned over to natural processes and repopulated with megafauna, creating a dynamic mosaic of habitats connected by new wildlife corridors. It’s admirable, exciting, and more achievable than it initially sounds, though it will depend on the mass of public opinion coming round to the idea of ‘wildland restoration’, the more specific and less irritating name Peter gives to rewilding. As he points out, this will need to be a ‘people project’ or it won’t succeed at all; conservation rarely does when the people piece of the puzzle is neglected.
Where I would differ with Peter, if you could call it a difference, is mostly in matters of presentation. He almost entirely talks about mammals. I don’t dislike mammals, far from it, but tend to think and talk more about birds and insects. Not just out of personal preference, but because these are by and large the in-your-face animals accessible as part of our everyday experience of the world.
Secondly, Peter will forgive me, I hope, for pointing out that he often discusses what conservationists have been ‘doing wrong’, whilst suggesting the ways us young guns are going to come in and shake things up. But the ‘old’ generation haven’t got absolutely everything wrong; in fact, I could point to any number of conservation success stories from the past 50 years or so. Perhaps you could focus on the failures and accuse those who came before us of lacking ambition, but I’d prefer to say that they’ve done their best with limited resources and in the face of significant obstacles.
My fear is that too much talk by the conservationists of the future about how great we are, and how wonderful our vision is in comparison to the supposedly stale, overly cautious paradigm of the old guard, risks alienating the very people we have most to learn from (not to mention those who will be interviewing us for jobs!). There’s a fine line between passion and hubris. Not one I’m suggesting anybody in particular has crossed, but it’s worth watching out for.
Lastly and most important of all is the question of what happens to the other half of Britain. What becomes of the places where the wild things aren’t, or don’t so obviously seem to be? We need to grow our food and build our houses somewhere, but does this mean writing off half to three quarters of the land surface of Britain as an ecological desert? If most of Britain’s population have little to no everyday experience of wildlife, can we expect them to support a grandiose plan for protecting it elsewhere?
Well, it is of course not only possible to farm productively and protect wildlife, but some of Britain’s most cherished species actually depend on the farmed environment. If we wish to retain them, sustainable agriculture must form part of our vision. Urban areas have their place too. Perhaps not as famous as the turtle dove and its ilk are the many rare invertebrates that thrive in so-called brownfield sites, often on former industrial land. Indeed, the ability of seemingly unpromising scraps of land to harbour remarkable invertebrates, whether scarce ones or common ones of great beauty, is extraordinary.
The ambassadorial potential of these back doorstep wildlife encounters has yet to be fully realised. I think it’s also fair to say that getting to know the depths of beauty within the undervalued fauna and flora all around us ought to be a priority at a time of increasing concern about the carbon costs of tearing around to see charismatic megafauna. That’s why I was so pleased to see the second vision statement that popped up, from Ryan Clark, focussing on the little things that run the world. The trend towards local thinking amongst established popular nature writers like Stephen Moss (Wild Hares and Hummingbirds) or Mark Cocker (Claxton) is also encouraging.
We shouldn’t forget, us lucky Brits, that we live in perhaps the world’s most idyllically beautiful country. It’s not the most dramatic, extreme, memorable or exotic of landscapes, but it is surely the most comfortable, and one we shouldn’t let go of lightly. I’m a great admirer of the classic British patchwork of small woodlands, hedgerows, fields, byways, meadows, parks, villages and towns. It’s not nearly as inhabitable as it could and perhaps should be, for both wildlife and people, but given careful planning and a bit of collective willpower I believe truly living landscapes, as the Wildlife Trusts would call them, are within our grasp, and that on the surface they needn’t look so very different to the ones we live in today. They won’t (all) have wolves, but they’ll be rich and rewarding places nonetheless.
And why stop at landscapes? A single hedgerow, road verge or garden can harbour worlds within worlds, every bit as complex and dynamic as a re-wilded upland national park. You just have to look through the right frame: it’s all a question of scale. Restoring the wild in these everyday places is not as glamorous as talk of bears and wolves, but it’s a worthy task for conservationists of the future. So when we’re done arguing about big predators, let’s talk about unsexy issues like lawnmowers, domestic insecticides, littering and small-scale building projects, about the millions of front gardens paved over for parking, of the countless unique habitats lost to greed, neglect, or abandonment. Maybe the best place to go looking for a vision is wherever we happen to be starting from.