Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome David Fursdon, a farmer and landowner in Devon. David chairs the newly formed SW Rural and Farming Network and the established SW Chamber of Rural Enterprise. He is a Commissioner of both English Heritage and the Crown Estate and a former President of the CLA.

You invite me to suggest the one 'big thing' that can be done to kick-start nature's revival. I believe that it is to have courage but probably in a different way than you might expect and I explain why.

 In a world of competing pressures on land use; in a society with expectations of permanent economic development and in a democracy we will only improve the state of nature if the ideas of how to do this are acceptable to a wide sector of society. This means these ideas must be acceptable to those that create jobs as well as to those that have no jobs and to those that have expectations and aspirations in economic terms as well as to those for whom nature comes above all else. This means that we need to learn to stand up for nature in a world full of humans. While we live in a world where human needs have not been fully met, limiting the ambition to do so can only succeed if there is a convincing case around which a consensus can emerge.

When this is coupled with the effects of climate change (and I see little appetite for the self-control measures that mankind will need to take to slow this) we need to 'get real'. This means:

  1. Prioritise the 'big wins'. We have to find a way of evaluating our priorities and what is really important. Preserving the Amazon rainforest is an example. The preservation of an iconic species may be another. There may be yet undiscovered plants that hold the key to cures for human disease and must survive or landscapes where the case for protection rests on the solace they provide for holidays or the inspiration they provide for art or poetry. We will not be able to do everything that we wish. Perhaps there are some situations where we can accept loss of nature. We need to state publicly when and why this is. We need to be able to identify where the needs of mankind with its myriad set of economic, societal and cultural needs, comes first.

  2. Ditch the fanatics. There is a tendency for organisations involved in making the case for nature automatically to support each other come what may because there is an unwritten rule that not to do so would be disloyal- whatever the strength of the argument. This makes it hard to be honest and self-critical. Membership organisations can be too polarised and frightened of the economic consequences of open debate or compromise to argue effectively the case for (or against) nature. Leaving it to zealots though is even more dangerous. Some of these are contemptuous of human need. They need to be robustly and publicly challenged.

  3. Deal with the difficult issues. Examples of the sort of challenges that need proper debate include churches where the continuing protection of bats may make the church unusable; grey squirrels where the propensity of the young males to strip bark kills the trees on which other wild life depends, harming the carbon balance and making it uneconomic for the owner to plant more; what is an acceptable rate of loss of songbirds to domestic cats; whether there are optimum populations of successful species (e.g corvids) particularly if such a population threatens other species; the disturbance of archaeological remains and building foundations by burrowing animals and the hi-jacking of some protests against some developments that would have created jobs by spurious environmental concerns to disguise NIMBYism. Some of this can only be debated properly with the benefit of research which needs to be undertaken even where we might worry that we won’t like the outcome.

  4. Work with financial reality. We have to put a price on nature one way or the other. This is a natural corollary of point 1 above. This enables us to engage with the rest of mankind who see their lives and livelihoods in economic terms. This means developing further the concept of public goods and their valuation. It also means accepting some economic realities (e.g. that farmland birds will change as farming techniques change) and working constructively with others to find solutions.

If you run a business you have to take hard decisions about priorities such as making people you like redundant; ceasing trading with a friend because you feel that they are in financial trouble or promoting one person and not another. Standing up for nature should also involve taking difficult decisions about priorities, about fanatics within our midst, about publicly debating difficult issues and understanding economic realities. Have we got the courage to do so?

Do you agree with David Fursdon?  And what would be your One Big Thing for Nature? 

It would be great to hear your views.

  • A logical way of looking at things, David - but, like so many lobbies today have you considered that you may be talking to yourself (and your own social group who I know will agree strongly with you) ? Have you considered the long term risks to farming & landowning because in talking to yourself you are completely failing to communicate with the urban majority ?

    Taking a slightly different view of your 4 priorities:

    1. Go for the 'big wins': How about 5% of our lowland intensive farmland in a less intensive use - which might provide both hard & soft benefits to the wider population ? For example, land used to absorb the impacts of flooding (previously exacerbated by the land drainage campaigns of the 60s and 70s) which also saves some of our biodiversity reduced now to almost nothing, wet grassland waders for example, provides new access land close to where people live, low carbon fuel from woods planted to slow the flood.

    2. Ditch the fanatics. How on earth did the landowning/shooting community allow those Buzzard licenses to go through ? For the sake of killing a dozen Buzzards those two estates have done immeasureable harm to a countryside industry whose trajectory in an urban society is as surely towards extinction as English hen harriers.

    3. Deal with the difficult issues. Like obeying the law and not illegally killing protected birds of prey, perhaps ?

    4. Work with financial reality. That farming is one (the ?) most heavily subsidised businesses in the UK and has been protected against any cuts because our (the taxpayers) money is currently channeled through the EU (which many of the beneficiaries in the landowning community seem violently opposed to). Fine for landowners to do what they like with their own money - but pretending that the taxpayer subsidy is theirs and theirs alone and untouchable is ludicrous. I agree very strongly indeed with David that we must urgently develop the concept of public goods so that land managers can be paid for what the environment needs - and what the people paying want  - so when I suggest farmers farming water rather than crops, they should be paid for it - principally from money we are already spending.

    As is so often the case with CLA and NFU, in trying to push the landowning agenda I think David has presented a very predjudicial view of landowners and the environment - he does no service to the thousands and thousands of land managers who care deeply about the environment and do a great deal for wildlife.

  • Mike gives us a glimpse of a pragmatic approach to reversing nature’s decline – a nature, the role and place of which, is subjugated to a ‘reality’ in which the varied and demands of mankind take precedence.  It is no surprise, therefore, that there are difficult decisions to be made that will come at a price – a price, one suspects, which will be borne by nature.  For this is no place for zealots ‘contemptuous of human needs’.  This is the habitat of the realist: the scientist, the researcher and, doubtless, the accountant and the banker  - a place in which nature will have to be measured, quantified, commoditised even, to give it due place and value in the world.  Doubtless well-intentioned, I am left with the pervasive feeling that in this ‘brave new world’ nature will exist for the benefit of mankind, or it will not exist at all.  Apparently, the nature here will serve as a key for cures to human disease, be available to inspire our art or poetry, and will provide solace for our holidays even.  I’m sorry but I cannot warm to this prescription for reversing nature’s decline – rather, I prefer that we should be exposed to the ‘dangerous zealot’ - touched and inspired by the wonder of nature and preaching a vision of its sanctity - than we ‘get real’ and leave nature to the tender mercies of such pragmatism.