Before I complete my migration from the RSPB to start my new job as BirdLife International's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, I want to offer some final reflections from my decade as Conservation Director. It will be cathartic for me and hopefully useful for you.
I started this job three years after the credit crunch, with a new coalition government at Westminster seeking to tackle the deficit through major public spending cuts and I leave in the middle of a global pandemic, with the UK outside the European Union and debate still raging about the future of the United Kingdom.
In this period, the severity of the planetary crisis has come into sharper focus yet the political response remains inadequate despite the growing anger and concern expressed by an increasingly mobilised public offering new tactics (from groups such Extinction Rebellion and Client Earth) and new voices (especially from the mighty Greta Thunberg but also the Nature Friendly Farmers Network).
Conservation thinking has been challenged and, rightly, continues to evolve to embrace concepts such as rewilding and exploit new technology such as tracking devices, drones and social media (whose use increased exponentially this decade).
And what about the RSPB? While we refreshed our brand, updated our logo, changed the name of our magazine and strapline, and inevitably made a range of internal adjustments, the heart of what we do has not changed. We continue to aspire to Total Conservation (a bit like the “Total Football” played by the great Dutch team of the 1970s) by investing in science to improve our understanding of the natural world, doing practical conservation, influencing change in public policy and inspiring people to take action for nature. It is rare that we ever do this on our own. We find common cause with others and it is through forging deep collaborations that we often have the biggest impact.
In my final series of reflections, I am going to comment on how we have applied each element of this toolkit and will offer some thoughts about what this means as we enter what the UN has branded the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.
But today, I want to talk about values and beliefs because these guide the work of our charity and can explain the decisions we make especially about when and with whom to collaborate but also why conflict is inevitable and often healthy.
The RSPB is science-led. But conservation science itself is guided by a set of values and beliefs. We value the rare and the threatened because we hold a belief that all species have a right to exist. We value both wilderness (such as primary forests) as well as those habitats that have been shaped by humans over hundreds of years (such as hay meadows). We even place differential value on species which may have been introduced by humans hundreds of years ago (such as corn marigold and corncockle which probably arrived in Britain with the Romans) and more recent introductions (such as New Zealand pigmyweed) which can cause serious harm to native biodiversity.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly feeding on corn marigold courtesy of Jenny Tweedie (rspb-images.com)
Our actions would be different if we didn’t believe that nature has both intrinsic and utilitarian value. If we were solely utilitarian, it would be unlikely that we would invest so much effort preventing species “use-less” to humans from becoming extinct. That said, conservationists’ rarely use moral arguments about species’ right to exist, instead we tend to rely on arguments about the value of the services that nature provides for free to humans such as clean water, flood protection, carbon storage, inspiration and improved well-being. We have even created new language to describe this utility as ecosystem services, natural capital and now nature-based solutions. This can get cut through even within hard to reach places like the Treasury, but nearly always need to be supported by action to mobilise people that simply love nature especially because these people are also voters. The recent Wildlife and Countryside State of Nature campaign is an excellent example of how to do both.
Like any organisation or group of like-minded people wanting to work together, the RSPB aligns behind shared values and beliefs. That doesn’t mean we are clones – far from it, we have our own preferences where some believe that we will only save nature by changing the system or mobilising the public in ever increasing numbers, while others would invest more in nature reserves and taking direct action to save threatened species working with local communities. These are healthy debates but, in the end, we must settle on an approach that we believe will give us the biggest bang for our finite conservation buck.
Yet, it is abundantly clear that others in society do not share our values and beliefs which is why conflict is inevitable. For many, commercial interests determine their actions while others fight for the rights and welfare of individual animals. Of course, the RSPB respects these different values, but when they compete with our own, and when we believe the law (itself a reflection of society’s values) is not being upheld, we will take a stand. This explains why we continue to fight inappropriate development as we did to defend the nightingales at Lodge Hill from new housing or the dunes of Coul Links threatened by a new golf course. It also explains why we undertake lethal predator control as a last resort whether to prevent the extinction of threatened seabirds from invasive non-native rodents on islands like Gough or to protect ground-nesting birds like curlew which are vulnerable to native predators likes foxes and crows.
We benefit from experts outside our organisation, whether the QCs that fight our legal battles or animal welfare experts that volunteer to be part of our Ethics Advisory Committee. The RSPB is better informed and makes better judgements as a result.
We are transparent about what we do, sharing information about all the cases we are fighting and publishing annual figures about vertebrates that we have controlled on our reserves and how that is guided by the latest science and our own policy. If we are not prepared to talk about this publicly, we shouldn’t be doing it. The RSPB approach has stood up to the most intense scrutiny which tells me that we probably have it about right. I'm sure that the RSPB will continue this approach.
As the world gets ever more complex and volatile, as views become increasingly polarised and as the planetary emergency intensifies, I contend that values and beliefs will still matter. In the eye of the storm, values and beliefs provide the frame for our arguments. They feed conviction which, in turn, provides the energy to keep going even in the face of enormous challenge. And energy is what we shall all need this decade when we need to be at our absolute best.
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