There is a new book out tomorrow that captures the current zeitgeist to drive nature’s recovery.
It’s called Rebirding and it is written by wildlife television field director, conservation writer and lifelong birder Ben MacDonald.
It is a beautifully written, thoughtful and, yes, provocative book.
First documenting and diagnosing the decline of our wild birds, Ben then offers an ambitious and alternative vision for how we can create new economies for our towns and countryside with nature at their heart.
While I have to admit to occasionally skim-reading some nature books as they can turn into endless lists of unconnected stories, Ben has a structure that works, that builds an argument, that takes you from imagining the past to imagining our future.
As a result, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience – which is probably the goal of any writer.
There are challenges in this for all of us but especially to the ‘big six’ landuses in the UK: deer, grouse, forestry, dairy and sheep farming.
Ben’s gauntlet to the RSPB (and others in the nature conservation sector) is to be bolder in both developing and articulating a vision for our landscapes, back this up with tangible alternative economic futures; be aware of the limits of autecological research; to guard against an obsession with SSSI condition targets and micro management of sites; use common sense especially when it comes to insect decline and the implications for bird populations; recognise the perverse, unintended consequences of a target-led approach to nature conservation; embrace scale and messiness as sound ecological objectives; and spend more on land acquisition!
In some areas, I think we are doing exactly what Ben is advocating.
We are setting bold ambition for the amount of land that should be protected or restored for nature – from the current estimate of 5% of UK land well managed for nature to 20% by 2025; living the Lawtonian mantra of more, bigger, better and connected protected areas by focusing on a smaller number of landscapes where we can demonstrate major impact and inspire people to do more on their own land (we have recently settled on 37 priority landscapes as reflected in the image shown: red dots RSPB reserves, blue areas are our priority landscapes); retaining a commitment to double the extent of nature reserve network by 2030 from 2006 levels; and striving to win the argument for fundamental reform of the agricultural subsidy regime currently being debated as a result of the UK vote to leave the European Union.
In other areas, I didn’t agree with Ben.
For example, while we do aim to restore nature on a large scale and seek heterogeneity (often by developing great working relationships with neighbouring land owners for example in the Cairngorms and in Purbeck), where we have small, isolated pockets of land, I think we are right to maintain the mosaic of habitat designed to maintain species interest especially if the surrounding landscapes are devoid of wildlife.
Equally, I shall always defend the need for targets as they can drive action and accountability. What’s more, our approach to species recovery, which puts a focus on diagnosing the causes of decline before seeking sustainable solutions, underpinned many of the successes cited in the book such as bittern, corncrake and white-tailed eagle (which of course is now the subject of an exciting reintroduction on the Isle of Wight). These would not have happened without sustained commitment from the RSPB and its partners over decades, driven by targets set by governments and the generosity of a range of funders. Well-crafted targets allow you to take stock of progress and keep momentum going and that’s why we are so keen for new laws to include targets to drive nature’s recovery.
Yet, Ben is right that we can do more to scope and articulate a vision for how our rural economies can evolve to work for people and for nature. While we have done work to account for the value of our nature reserves and also to assess the contribution of nature conservation to local employment, I think Ben is right that we can and must do more to fulfil the potential of these economies of nature.
Ben concludes that we should do more in terms of winning hearts and minds while being bold in demanding change.
Rather serendipitously, Ben calls for a ‘bring back birdsong’ campaign just at the time when we are rolling out our ‘Let Nature Sing’ campaign this spring. Just as the Wildlife Trusts and WWF are doing through their respective Wilder Future and Fight for Nature campaigns, we want to find new ways to tap into people’s latent love of wildlife and translate that into action for nature. We are engaging our supporters in new and different ways but we are united in our desire for new laws across the UK to drive nature’s recovery and a new global deal for nature.
So, when not getting out into nature this spring, take time to buy, read and be inspired by Ben’s book. You could even play our new single of pure birdsong while reading.
But then and most importantly, then take action.
I’m very much looking forward to reading this, too.
The targets are already there – imagine 100,000 hectares of new wetlands when you think what Ham Wall and Lakenheath have achieved, 140,000 hectares of peatland restored, 250,000 hectares of woodland and other habitat around our towns and cities. They’re already on the table – the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee, rarely mentioned by conservationists.
Is conservation looking down the wrong end of the telescope ? Listing ‘conventional’ land uses like farming, forestry, grouse seems very 20th century when surely we should be talking carbon, water, quality of life. Lawton was right about scale – seriously wrong about large amounts of new public money and a nature only focus, when, on the scale we need, it will only be achieved by combining a range of values.
And it isn’t just about the uplands – the level of political capture primary producers have achieved is scary – even conservationists, without thinking, refer to food and timber as ‘production’ with the strong connotation that that is the dominant value and that any loss is an overriding concern. The money doesn’t back it: the near forgotten 2007 summer floods cost £3 billion in insurance payouts alone. Why is Mark Carney bothered ? Not, I fear by RSPB campaigning but by the fact that last year’s $24 billion insurance payouts for the California fires threatens the whole world insurance market.
I’m with you, Martin, on nature reserves. Conservation also seems to suffer from a ‘one road to God’ syndrome – if one idea is right others must be wrong. Rewildling and traditional nature reserves are entirely complimentary and conservationist need to understand that less intensively managed land around reserves – for example recreation-led community woodlands compliment and buffer, rather than compete with, land reserved for nature. There is only a problem if, for example, achieving SSSI targets becomes an excuse for not going further, engaging in the bigger debates.
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