Advice for a Young Conservationist

Dear Young Conservationist,

It’s always a pleasure to write to someone who is interested in wildlife conservation. I think the best way I can help you at the outset of your career is to give a brief overview of the history of conservation, then say something about where it may be heading in the future, and finally try and give you some general pointers.

As perhaps you know, wildlife conservation has quite ancient roots but it emerged as a major field of human endeavour in the 1950s and 60s when it was recognised that a more global response was needed for the decline in wild species and their habitats (old growth forests, wetlands, coral reefs and so on). A little later the scientific discipline of conservation biology came together with the aim of informing the conservation community, and ultimately the wildlife authorities, about the state of nature and about the best policies and management options for more effective conservation. Another job for scientists was to diagnose the immediate causes of species declines and spearhead new techniques such as camera trapping (where cameras and motion sensors are positioned on trails) and environmental DNA surveys (extracting DNA of wildlife from hair, faecal material or the blood meals of leeches and biting flies) to find out where hidden or cryptic species occur. The main effort by the wildlife conservation community at that time, and still today, has been focussed on slowing the rate of wildlife decline.

It is perhaps worth adding that these days the term ‘wildlife conservation’ is often included in the more general expression ‘conservation of biodiversity’. Beyond that we have general environmental problems to consider – see my blog Advice for a Young Environmentalist.

So the overarching concern of conservationists today is to reduce the impoverishment in biodiversity that we humans are bringing about. The immediate causes of decline are well known and have not changed much through the years:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation;
  • Species loss directly from overhunting and overharvesting;
  • Arrival or introduction of alien species that predate on, parasitize, spread disease or compete with local species for vital resources, or which otherwise change the local ecology to the detriment of native species; and
  • Ecosystem/habitat degradation from introduction of livestock, pollution or other human misuse.

To this list we can add a more recent arrival:

  • climate change with its impacts on ocean currents, weather systems, polar icecaps and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems (it is still hard to predict how climate change will manifest itself and how it will interact with the other problems).

Two underlying drivers are responsible for all the above:

  • Human population growth – this fuels demand for land and sea resources;
  • The western economic system that aims for year-on-year economic growth. It has been widely adopted throughout the world, fuelling demand for more land and sea resources and for short-term (unsustainable) extraction of resources.

The way it works is that these two underlying drivers are now causing intensive exploitation of the Earth’s renewable natural resources – such as timber, non-timber forest products, fish and shellfish, game animals and their products (like ivory and rhino horn), fresh water (including aquifers that are recharged by rainwater), soils, etc. The exploitation of these resources is often at an unsustainable rate. To give just one example, much of China’s agriculture is based on underground water supplies which are being extracted at unsustainable rates. Consequently Chinese food production is predicted to decline by 37% in the second part of this century placing an enormous strain on the productive capacity of the rest of the world.

In tandem with overexploitation of renewable natural resources, we have increasing exploitation of the Earth’s finite natural resources – these are the fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) and certain ancient underground aquifers. Burning fossil fuels is contributing massively to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and hence to global warming and climate change.

There are some important issues which make the above conservation problems even harder to deal with:

  • Different sectors of society have different ‘wildlife values’ and this causes conflict. For instance commercial users of renewable natural resources (like farmers and gamekeepers) naturally enough are interested in economic values and may attempt to exterminate wildlife which they see as pests or competitors; others who appreciate wildlife for its beauty or recreational value don’t like this (see my blogs Payment for Eden and Islands in the Gulf);
  • An enormous gap between the richest and poorest in society which ferments conflict over who has access to, and rights to harvest or use, wildlife resources;
  • Loss of local cultures which have used their local natural resources in traditional ways that are often more sensitive and more sustainable (but not all local cultures are perfect!);
  • A fundamental disconnection between people in modern society and nature. In fact this issue is like the ‘one ring that rules them all’ – it underpins all other problems. Ultimately the solution to the decline of wild nature can only come from a change in the human relationship with nature, which is what I talk about in The Storm Leopard.

So with this preamble in mind, how do we reduce conflict, improve conditions of the poor, protect other cultures and save biodiversity? These are deep and challenging questions!

Sea eagle by Mull

Sea eagle off the Isle of Mull, Scotland
Photograph by Jacob Spinks

Recently a new narrative has begun to emerge in conservation – ‘rewilding’. Rewildling began life as a useful word to describe the reintroduction of animal and plant species to areas of their former rangeland. The release of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Rum and European beavers in Knapdale are examples from Scotland. Some people are now using the term to describe the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems. Rehabilitation of the ancient ecosystem on Rum would mean a return to extensive woodlands (oak, holly, rowan, birch, hawthorn, aspen, Scot’s pine etc) supporting populations of wolves and bears. Rather than thinking about slowing the loss of biodiversity, rewildling is about recovering species and restoring intact ecosystems. It could revitalise economies and the ‘human spirit’ or, in less emotive terms, it could restore belief in ourselves and the motivation to create beneficial change in the environment. This idea has huge potential and I think it will grow in importance.

If I now try to answer your career questions in a more practical way, I would advise keeping a weather eye on the topics where the main funds for conservation are going. It’s a bit of a lottery trying to guess the future, but some of the hot topics emerging, or likely to emerge in the near future, are:

  • Climate change and the carbon market (the discipline ‘environmental economics’ looks at ways of reducing CO2 emissions and many other topics relating to markets);
  • Legal reforms in the environmental sector which are often a response to international environmental treaties (the discipline is ‘environmental law’);
  • Building networks of protection across large landscapes and seascapes with corridors, islands, habitat restoration, etc. (‘landscape conservation’);
  • Costing and budgeting ecosystem services (‘green economics’);
  • Developing better mechanisms for monitoring natural resources and their exploitation (this kind of work seems to be developing in three directions: (a) remote sensing by satellite to monitor all kinds of changes; (b) use of DNA and other molecular techniques to determine which species are present in the sample of material obtained and even where the species originated from; (c) networking of information using website-mounted databases, and also projects that use ‘citizen science’ and ‘crowdsourcing’;
  • Improving social mechanisms for solving natural resource conflicts and human-wildlife conflicts and other problems relating to governance of natural resources (taught in courses in the social sciences and in environmental economics);
  • Designing efficiency into every aspect of modern life – buildings, transport, lifestyle, communications and commodities.

Similarly it is worth reflecting on the regions of the world and the ecosystem where we might expect major expansion of environmental work and conservation. They surely will include Antarctica and the southern oceans, the Arctic and Northwest Passage, China and East Asia, river catchments, coastal waters, and various arid regions in relation to water management. The plight of rainforests and coral reefs will continue to be critical because of the enormous variety of species.

I’m not sure that all these word pictures are going to help that much, when I imagine what you really want is practical advice about what to do next? The real decisions are in your hands but I can perhaps offer a few tips. Study hard to get a good grasp of the basic set of concepts and associated jargon that make up conservation biology. Keep aware of the big picture (sketched above) about wildlife conservation in relation to human demands on ecosystems. Most importantly, develop a specific skill or specialization on top of your general knowledge about conservation. It will become both your joy, and bread and butter. It could be the skill to negotiate over resource conflicts, or to a design wildlife corridor, or for revising the laws that protects the legal rights of indigenous peoples. Skill in economics will be needed for costing the ‘ecosystem services’ being supplied by forest ecosystems, mountain ecosystems and coastal ecosystems; other skills are needed for monitoring pollution in Arctic waters, or for designing energy efficiency into different kinds of building or enterprise. Any skill that you find interesting and challenging, and which can be applied to the environment and humanity, is surely worth developing – teaching, taking part in wildlife surveys, animal care (of orphaned animals or oiled birds for example), leading campaigns, artistic interpretation, and so on.

A completely different approach is to become an expert on one species, perhaps a symbolic animal like the peregrine, otter or basking shark in Scotland, or if looking abroad, like the large cats (lion numbers are in steep decline), elephant and rhinos (constantly under threat from poaching) or the stunning river dolphins (also under enormous threat from polluted and managed rivers), and then that species can become a tool for much wider conservation applications to save their habitat and related species.

To get this extra skill means seeking out training either when applying for university courses or when working for a conservation organisation, or just in your own time by taking opportunities that appeal when they come along. The important point is that you need conservation knowledge and something. This something will give you an edge over others and will open doors that are otherwise closed.

Universities – many offer conservation courses. You will need to do your own research as the situation is constantly evoloving. Here in Scotland, Stirling is becoming a centre for conservation. Aberdeen University is also good and has the new James Hutton Institute nearby but that has more of an environmental than conservation focus. Glasgow University Zoology Department is strong on animal diseases in relation to conservation and has major research projects in Africa, and the University of St Andrews is strong on marine ecology and conservation. In England, universities with good reputations for conservation are: Cambridge (largest single gathering of conservation groups anywhere in Europe, I imagine); Oxford (it benefits from David MacDonald’s ‘WildCRU’ which pioneers new techniques like camera-trapping). The University of Canterbury is also very strong with its Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and it would be worth taking a look at the Universities of Lancaster and Exeter. I’m sure I’ve missed out lots of worthy candidates – so look closely at all of them and focus on what the departmental research staff are doing.

Whatever you choose, you will be engaged in one of the most worthwhile causes on the Planet; it may not bring you a great fortune in gold but it will reward you with a lifetime of brilliant memories and the fellowship of many excellent and committed friends.

Best of luck with your career,


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Ponticum and Me: An Alien-Plant Love Story

Ponticum at her most beguiling

Ponticum at her most beguiling

This afternoon I drove along a small winding road above the Kyles of Bute passing through a forest of rhododendrons daubed by nature’s brush with splotches of pink and purple. The flowers picked out the natural shape of shrubs and from a distance painted crimson contours across the tumbling hills. Rhododendron ponticum, to give this shrub its official name, translates from the Greek as  ‘rose tree of the Pontic Alps’ – the latter part referring to a range of forested mountains lying to the south of the Black Sea. The district of Pontus also has Greek roots with the meaning of ‘sea’ so what we really have adorning the hills of Argyll is a glorious thicket of the rose tree of the Sea Mountains.

Tunnel through the rhododendrons

An irresistible invitation to wander

As I drove, I recalled the fun I’d had as a boy exploring the coastal pathways in amongst the rhodies along the shores of Loch Riddon over fifty years before. In my imagination there were escape tunnels and dens where I might hide should a longship happen to come round the far island full of invading Vikings. And then I remembered the bumblebees that liked to visit the rhodie flowers in my school playground. Big bees moving about big flowers; it fascinated me. I made a paper snapper and captured one of them. It buzzed a lot and when I peered inside it had pollen on its legs. I let it go. Ponticum and I were chums well before I learnt about ecology and conservation. As my car rounded a sharp bend, I caught a glimpse of blue water below; next second a high rocky crag flashed by, glinting in the sunlight. Through my sunroof, I could see afternoon clouds massing above and before I reached Glendaruel the first drops of rain hit the windscreen. It was sublimely beautiful.

Below my road, along the shores of Loch Riddon, the conservation authorities are intent on controlling this invasive shrub. The language is heavy duty – hydraulic flails mounted on armed tractors bases, chainsaws that cut down the older tree-like shrubs and herbicides that can be sprayed or injected into stems to prevent regrowth. The common rhodie is no laggard. It spreads rapidly from seeds or more steadily as a super colony that sends out roots from drooping branches. As it covers the ground it shades out other plants, denuding the chuckling streams of invertebrates, robbing our native woodlands of specialised butterflies and even, we are told, starving out the sleepy dormouse. The fact that these little furry balls are entirely absent from the woods and hedgerows of Scotland should not detract from this oppressive list, nor should the fact that their distant cousin – the tiny large-eyed wood mouse which is present in the woods and thickets of Argyll – actually benefits from the rhodie. All thicket-forming plants impact on local wildlife as is surely self-evident but let us not be misled by this inconvenient detail. Afterall, the rhododendron is an invasive alien creature on the rampage, a fifth column of unstoppable triffids that is driving native wildlife from the land.

Pause, two, three… I should not get carried away on a wave of opposing narrative. Yes, there is a real need to control rhododendrons, especially in the national parks and reserves that are designed to protect native habitats such as the fantastic Atlantic oakwoods of the West Highlands. Heavy management may be needed here and I am not agin it per se, but I do take issue with our habit of demonizing plants and animals the minute we stumble across some conflict involving them and us. Conservation is not just about science (where impartial criteria determine which species are to be protected, and which eradicated), nor for that matter is it just about economics (which justifies conservation on the added value obtained from harvesting resources and selling services), it is about our appreciation of the natural world. In the time it takes for a cormorant to filch a farmed trout, a wild creature can be labelled  a pest on economic grounds. I object to the buccaneering dominance of economic values and scientific ones for that matter.  I seek holistic conservation which includes these values, and others – a sense of cultural and historic importance, of community ownership and of the artistry and beauty in nature. Against all scientific advice, I like to anthropomorphise my encounters with wildlife. It seems to me that we have much more in common with wild animals than those differences that divide us. This does not mean I am unaware of evolutionary theory and its stringent rules when I consider wildlife, it just means that I am communicating at more than one level.  So when I look at two species, one native and one alien, I do not just see the scientific distinction between them or accept the management consequences. I see the whole organisms and I empathise with them. I think we should all learn to see nature in that way. Before you label me as mad and a danger to the public, let me explain why.

Smudge 9000 grey_squirrel

Grey squirrel – does it have a place in the British countryside?
Photo – Smudge 9000

Take the grey squirrel. It is a fantastic little critter – full of talent and up to all kinds of tricks, yet because they are alien here in UK we are told they are vermin. The problem, as is well known, is that the greys are replacing our native reds. There is no room in the prevailing management narrative on these islands for enjoying the grey as a clever and endearing woodland creature, let alone for looking after it. Because of the force of this management narrative, our authorities do not expect objections from the public to their policy of trapping, shooting or poisoning them. The press seems to accept this line of argument. In fact anyone expressing an alternative view is likely to be dismissed as a sentimental, bunny hugging, city-living ignoramus who is completely out of touch with biological reality. The red squirrels on the other hand, because they are native, are the good guys. It is okay to want to cuddle them. You would not be denigrated for talking to Squirrel Nutkin if you met him in the woods, although some might think you a little nutty.

I don’t like this hard distinction between red and grey squirrels, which is somehow oblivious to the glaring fact that, genetically speaking, the two animals are 99.9% identical. Sure, only one species is native. The reds arrived in Britain about ten thousand years ago as the ice retreated.  Subsequent arrivals of new species on these islands (at least the larger ones) usually made it with a helping hand from our ancestors. The house mouse arrived with Neolithic people probably soon after the arrival of the red squirrel; rabbits arrived with the Romans as did fallow deer.  Many of these ‘aliens’ have been around for so long that they are accepted as part of our British wildlife. It is nor surprising that we have mixed feelings when experts tell us that they are undesirable and should be cleared from the countryside. Take for example the noble beech. This majestic tree was also thought to have arrived with the Romans and some woodland managers in the north of England began to fell the invading giants as if they were marching triffids. Now we learn from pollen analysis that the beech has been present in England since the last ice age. So it is okay to love them again. Presumably that means we should plant them out and help them along. But what if someone discovers that they actually arrived with the help of Neolithic tribes? Must we then hate them again?

Usually alien species cause little trouble. Out gardens are full of them. But occasionally, as in the case of grey squirrels, there is a serious conflict with some native species. When I first learnt (some 30 or 40 years ago) about the peculiar way that reds were steadily giving way to an advancing wave of grey squirrels, I didn’t accept the then popular view that the greys were more macho, possessors perhaps of a killer gene which enabled them to knock out the feeble reds directly. It seemed more likely that the persistent advance of the greys was mediated by some disease. The macho gene view still persists but there is now evidence in support of a disease explanation – grey squirrels carry a parapoxvirus which is fatal to reds. If this proves to be the principal factor, then one potential method for controlling the conflict would be to ask epizootiologists to develop an oral vaccine. Whether that would work with squirrels, I don’t know, but it would be a starting point for effective control without the madness of demonizing greys and cosseting reds.

Why should we even consider spending money on a vaccine when we can shoot or trap the greys and sort things out that way? In my view, caring about plants and animals is important. In fact I would say it is the single most important component of wildlife management, as well as being the least commonly practised one. Care should be at the heart of our wildlife management policies because every other kind of argument for looking after nature, whether based on economic services, sustainable resource use, the diktat of the European bird and habitat directives, or whatever else, is fabricated. Ultimately it can and will be dismantled when the pressure for alternative uses of species and habitats becomes strong enough. On the other hand, by nurturing our natural affinity for plants and animals, we can begin to protect them because of that affinity and because of our shared place in nature. In doing so, we not only protect our ‘brothers and sisters’, we protect nature itself and in doing that we prevent ourselves from going right off the mental rails. That is just my opinion of course, you will need to look at the facts and make up your own mind.

So that is why I love the rose tree of the Sea Mountains, just as I love the Scots Pine, and whilst I accept that he is a bit of a wild boy who needs to be reined in from time to time, Ponticum is still my chum, and I look out for him each year with eager anticipation.


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What is freedom?

And what is servitude? Not difficult questions for those living under tyranny, whether at home, behind prison bars or under the watchful eye of a ruthless state. But for those of us living in happier circumstances, fragments of freedom and oppression lie scattered across our lives like an abstract painting. Are you free? Is your partner? Your child? Your boss? Your assistant? How do we make sense of the confusion?

Mirosa painting

The Thames Sailing Barge ‘Mirosa’
by Anthony Blackman, 2012

As someone who loves boats, this painting of Mirosa, a Thames sailing barge, surging down river under a press of canvas speaks to me of one man’s freedom. I can imagine the skipper as a boy dreaming of owning his own sailing craft, and years later as the proud owner taking her helm for the first time.

Forgotten dreams

Sailing barges on the Thames River – abandoned, not forgotten
Photo by Mick Nolan of the Thames Sailing Barge Trust

There is little room for such dreams in today’s high speed world but we sometimes cling to the past, unable to keep the dreams alive, unwilling to let them go. These almost forgotten dreams are important. They may contain clues to the kind of freedom we aspire to, the kind we would hope to enjoy in an open society.

If we look again at Mirosa, we may find that her comely oak prow is pointing at the essence of freedom itself. What she teaches is that personal freedom is found wherever your dreams can be brought to life. That, I believe, is the heart of the matter. Freedom is found wherever people can bring their dreams to life, whether in the family, workplace, or society.

I was fortunate to grow up in the sixties and seventies when freedom of this kind abounded and Britain was a creative powerhouse. I am concerned that opportunities are dwindling today and age-old liberties are being curtailed. It prompted me to write a book . It’s not yet available but it tells the story of an old wooden ketch, Molio, which I found in a backwater and brought back to life.

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Payment for Eden?

‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ or PES is the latest mantra in wildlife conservation. It is not a new concept but was brought to central stage in 2005 by the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It takes the conservation movement another step on a journey towards its economic Nirvāṇa – conserved global biodiversity in the marketplace. Like its 1980 predecessor, IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy, it seeks to justify biodiversity over agriculture and other developments on the basis of monetary value.  It has borrowed the adage ‘if it pays it stays’ previously aimed at game animals and applied it to ecosystems. PES promises tangible benefits to people and wildlife but it has become mired in misunderstandings.

1. Definition bulge

In the first place PES has been saddled with an overly generous definition. It conflates real ecosystem services, like water purification, carbon sequestration and pollination, with the better-established ‘use of natural resources’ (timber, NTFPs, pasture, fish and so on) and other less tangible values of ecosystems such as biodiversity (species richness, rarity, endemism, etc.). Definitions are important and PES has swollen so much that it has become a double acronym: its other persona ‘payment for environmental services’ now growing in popularity. The concept is in danger of dissipating into a catchall ‘payment for any and every economic value of the environment’ or simply ‘environmental payments’. So a good start would be to revisit the definition and pin it down to something useful.

2. Panacea or pipedream?

Secondly, PES is used far too easily in the conservation literature as some kind of panacea for ensuring sustainable development and biodiversity protection. In the real world, it is difficult to implement because it requires change to firmly-established fiscal policies, systems of governance or trading agreements. Take REDD for example. It is held up in conservation writing wherever one looks, or so it seems, as a joint solution to deforestation and climate change. Yet even on its own terms, REDD (and REDD+) are not working. The market for forest carbon is tiny and the price has collapsed. We await agreements.

What price for tropical rainforest?

Take water provisioning by forests as another example. From my own experience in Africa and the Balkans, progress is not promising. For instance in one East African country where I was engaged recently as an environmental consultant, my counterpart (a national expert in forest ecology) asked a senior representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would in turn maintain long term water supply to downstream users of water in commercial farms and cities. The representative laughed saying that they were in the business of charging villagers for their use of water not paying them (see my earlier post – Post Rio Blues).  I don’t want to appear flippant or defeatist.  I simply wish to point out that a huge amount of work is required on fiscal policy, governance of ‘social-ecological systems’ and trading agreements in order to get PESs up and running. We need to face up to these real challenges.

3. Appropriation of the commons

Thirdly, the international development community is beginning to work with conservationists to open up nature-based markets. Suppose they are successful in putting PES into widespread use. What will be the consequences? One outcome we should be aware of is an expansion in the environmental influence of wealthy investors, multinationals and governments as they begin to purchase and profit from ecosystem services – the same goods that were once held as common property by local people and on which they depend for their livelihoods. By promoting open markets and international trade, PES threatens the traditional rights of local users of common property resources.

It might be argued that having ‘trees’ with PES is better than losing ‘trees’ altogether. But surely what we want is trees that local people engage with and wish to maintain. At the very least, the conservation movement should give equal weight to understanding and supporting self-governance of common resources, including the collective-choice and self-determination principles advocated by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues. (Here is an excellent radio interview with Elinor Ostrom, Njabulo Ndebele and Manju Kapur.)

4. Beware the economic boomerang

Rice terraces on forested slopes of the Himalayas prevent soil erosion
Photo by Eric Monfort

Fourthly, we should have reservations about a conservation rationale that is exclusively based on economic value. Why? For one thing, because economic value is like a yoyo: prices go up and down. An ecosystem that has high value for tourism this year may have higher value for wheat fields next year. If price is the only reason to keep a place wild, then wildlife will soon disappear. Furthermore, most ecosystem services can be duplicated in agricultural landscapes. Even those in a complex natural habitat like a tropical forest can be duplicated by ingenious farmers. As a previous post mentions (Tropical Rain Forests),  terraced rice paddies with a few shade trees and perhaps a reed bed at the bottom could provide most of the water retention and purification services of a catchment forest.

Beekeeping in the Yildiz Mountains of Turkey

The extra payments for this ecosystem service might, perversely, just tip the balance, making the conversion of forest to fields profitable. Similarly, replacing deciduous woodland with fields of angiosperm crops such as pulses, crucifers or fruit trees, together with suitable management of field verges and hedgerows should provide the nectar necessary for bees to deliver honey as well as pollination services.

Despite these problems, could PES be the only worthwhile game in town when it comes to dealing with developers? I think this is where we begin to approach the true nature of the biodiversity dilemma, which has more to do with ethical values than pounds and cents. Take an example in the news concerning the future of Serengeti National Park. Many have argued that the future of the park is safeguarded by foreign exchange takings that have great significance for the Tanzanian economy.  Proliferation of lodges and hotels inside the park has certainly raised the takings enormously over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, the government recently proposed road construction across the north of the park to provide a transport link between Lake Victoria and the Coast. Wildlife managers pointed out that a main road would soon require fencing and that fencing would prevent the migration of wildebeest. The inevitable consequence would be a collapse in numbers of wildebeest with a related collapse in large predators. The substantial economic value of the Serengeti National Park (and neighbouring Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya) would decline sharply.

This is about as strong a case for wildlife conservation through PES as you can get. Serengeti provides a tourism service, road construction will destroy tourism, and therefore the road should not be supported by government. How often will it be possible to mount a PES case against road building of equivalent strength? Few wildlife areas make as much money from tourism as Serengeti; most make little or none. Even so, the economic arguments for stopping the road fell on deaf ears. Government was contemplating a larger economic and political picture: the advantages of connecting the burgeoning Lake Victoria region to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean, and the prospect of massive agricultural developments and increased trade. What stopped the threat at the last minute was national and international outrage at the impending desecration of natural heritage. Government relented and agreed to construct a longer road that would pass to the south of the park. It was the sense of unique natural value in Serengeti, strongly communicated by concerned people in Tanzania and beyond which apparently swayed the politicians. No doubt wildlife economics played a supporting role in changing the heart of government, but not the primary role.

Faith in core values

PES offers some real benefits in the difficult task of conserving biodiversity. It can direct the attention of development planners to hidden uses of nature which might otherwise be overlooked. It can provide farmers with new incentives for practising wildlife-friendly agriculture. For instance, it may persuade some to leave an unploughed verge alongside streams or to plant a windbreak of native trees. If we include natural resources within ecosystem services (I’d rather not), then the profits obtained from their sustainable exploitation could ensure their long-term future. It is extrapolation of this kind of thinking which has positioned economics at the centre of conservation policy today. But this is where I part company with PES. I am worried by the narrowness of the economic narrative which now pervades the entire conservation movement. I think it will take us on a wild economic goose chase  as the market economy adjusts to future shortages.

Each society strives to protect what is vital: it cares for its children, the sick and elderly; it protects personal security, public health, electrical power, safe drinking water, and so on. Few nations entrust these vital concerns entirely to the marketplace; usually protection is a matter of policy.  Likewise a strong case can be made for protecting vital ecosystem services through policy, such as water supply. But what about nature in general? We cannot pretend it is all vital to our immediate wellbeing. Each society determines the level of protection it wishes to offer its biodiversity depending on its core values. It determines what wildlife it should try to keep and what wilderness areas. One of the most crucial decision-areas for us today, I believe, concerns our collective relationship with nature. Its variety, wonder, wildness and richness should be protected, not because of economics, but because they are vital to our imagination and our humanity. In the short-term we may do without them, but in a longer timespan our spiritual life will suffer. That bears thinking about. In the rush to develop wealth for a nation, the deeper truths are in danger of being forgotten. I would like  the conservation movement to promote a broader philosophy of humans and nature to guide our development planning and protect our biodiversity. It might start by putting its own house in order by restoring its faith in the core values of nature. That is where Eden begins and that is where its future lies.

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Badger Culling and the ‘Verminization’ of British Wildlife

“I can’t believe this is still happening – it was an issue when I lived in the UK a million years ago.” So wrote a friend of mine from Namibia this week when I mentioned that Nature England has issued a badger culling licence to landowners in Gloucestershire and another to farmers in Somerset.

Wild badger as captured by artist Eileen Soper

The cull of badgers is intended to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. Culling badgers is definitely not the right way to deal with the problem as I will explain in a moment. But the decision worries me for another reason. It marks a new assault on British wildlife by commercial producers that have already ‘verminized’ one after another of our native species. Culling of wildlife by game keepers has a long history with predators like red fox, stoat, hen harrier, peregrine falcon and many others facing the heaviest persecution. Foresters view red deer and roe deer as pests. Farmers growing crops add wild geese to the mix not to mention a huge array of insects. Now it is the turn of livestock husbandry. Without protests from the British public, commercial producers would surely win unlimited support from our parliaments for vermin control. It is a real threat to our countryside and our biodiversity.

Let me be clear. I am not against control per se. What I am against is trapping, poisoning, gassing and shooting wildlife when less invasive methods are available, such as better husbandry, smarter barriers to movement, improved vaccination strategies, and a host of other intelligent ways to control the interaction between wild animal populations and productive systems using our growing knowledge of wildlife biology. Nor am I asking farmers to foot the bill for testing out new control methods. This is the responsibility of government and our research institutions.

Suppose we give the green light to DEFRA and license commercial farmers to blast away until every son of a boar and daughter of a sow badger has been exterminated. What wild species will suffer the misfortune of being next in their sights? A likely target is migratory geese. They have the potential to carry zoonotic diseases – those that can be transmitted to humans. And after the migratory geese are exterminated, what then? This kind of management thinking – the culling of vermin – is a never-ending recipe for conflict between us and our natural environment.

Permit me to explain how I see the conflict progressing.

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper (Conté crayon)

In the first place we create the problem. In the case of poultry, we provide the incubator for the evolution of new diseases within industrial farm systems in Europe (and elsewhere) or in densely populated rural locations with poor animal husbandry, as for example in southern China, Laos and Cambodia. In the case of bovine tuberculosis in UK, we are responsible for spreading the disease to badgers. TB was first identified in a wild badger in 1971 on a cattle farm undergoing a prolonged herd breakdown (i.e. a prolonged TB outbreak). Since then bovine tuberculosis has been spread about England and Wales by cattle movements, both legal and illegal ones, causing infection of other badger populations.

In the second place, we reach for an easy solution – to cull wildlife. Not only is that something we find easy to do, but it has a big impact factor. Much of politics is about being seen to do something, apparently. In culling badgers, landowners and the general public see that government is definitely doing something drastic. It is easy to pretend that it will also be effective.

In the third place, we are left with an unintended consequence. Well I hope it is an unintended consequence. By creating a national acceptance of the need to continue killing ‘vermin’, our appreciation of British wildlife is diminished. Wild migrating geese are no longer the harbingers of the autumn months, but carriers of disease. Badgers are no longer the noble keepers of the wood but bio-terrorists. It is a dreadful negative spiral.

Do we have an alternative? Assuredly yes. The first thing to do in my opinion is to put away the guns and seek to understand exactly how transmission of the disease between cattle and badgers is taking place. TB is a respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis. The transmission rate is low. But how exactly does it occur? And what are the optimal conditions for transmission? We know something about that. It is transmitted primarily via the airborne route but it can also be transmitted via contaminated food or pasture. Beyond that the facts are few and far between. Is close proximity required for transmission of the bacterium from one animal to another via the cough aerosol? Is transmission more likely under moist conditions? Would UV lighting in cow sheds reduce transmission of the bacterium? Would an improved drainage system that provided a dry floor assist in reducing transmission? Are badgers attracted to cow feeding-sheds by the presence of accessible animal feed? Are there alternative ways of delivering feed to cattle that would reduce the problem? How about placing badger barriers around feeding sheds? Specially designed fences are needed to be an effective barrier against badgers; that may make them too expensive for large scale application but the cost of fencing a feeding shed should not be prohibitive. Could provision of areas of improved habitat exclusively for badgers (they are known to prefer earthworms) play a part in separating them from cattle? Could M. bovis be transmitted in blood such as in the placenta following birth? What are the management implications?

Illustration of Mr. Badger by Ernest H. Shepard for Kenneth Grahame’s The WInd in the WIllows

I have not studied badgers and no doubt there is much I have missed but surely there is room for further work on the behavioural ecology of badgers and livestock with regard to epidemiology. Such work would provide a rich context of information for the next step – implementation of effective cattle husbandry and non-invasive badger management to reduce disease transmission. This kind of research work need not be expensive: a few well-placed PhD students could do wonders. Currently Defra’s annual expenditure on bovine TB is in the order of £100 million. If 0.5% of this had been directed at focussed studies designed to answer these questions over the past 5-10 years, I am confident we would now know how to manage disease transmission successfully. A few well-placed grants today in the right hands – independent universities with a reputation for mammal and wildlife epidemiology research – could quickly deliver a herd and badger management system to supplement vaccination strategies of the future.

Returning to the current culling decision, what is government hoping to achieve? According to independent scientific studies, farm managers need to kill more than 70% of all badgers in an area in order to reduce TB in cattle by some 16%. If they do not achieve 70% dead, the spread of TB may actually increase as the disturbed badgers disperse across the countryside taking TB with them (Donnelly et al 2003; Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, 2007). Most people would agree with Lord Krebs that it is crazy to cull under these circumstances. After their uncompromising stance in favour of culling, the Welsh Government rescinded, accepting the scientific logic and opting for a system of vaccination instead. This courageous action is greatly to their credit. Scotland is free of TB but doubtless the same issues would arise should TB spread north of the border.

I hope the above convinces you that it is worth trying to find a different way to manage our countryside. (This is what I call for in my book, The Storm Leopard.) In relation to badgers, perhaps you would consider signing a petition being supported by guitarist Brian May to stop the cull. This petition will make a difference because 100,000 signatures is a realistic target and should get the issue debated in Parliament. Thanks from our furry friends. PS I used to have them visit my front door at night looking for peanut butter sandwiches – magic!


Donnelly et al (2003) Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature 426: 834-837.

Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (2007). Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence; Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB Presented to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs The Rt Hon David Miliband MP, June 2007.

Posted in Conflicts, Conservation, Nature, Values | 5 Comments

Laws of the Wapichan

I came across some customary laws of the indigenous Wapichan* of southern Guyana which I guess are not atypical of native American forest peoples. Calvin Martin describes similar kinds of beliefs amongst the Northeastern Algonquian Tribe (eastern Canada) in his marvelous book Keepers of the Game (University of California Press, 1978). So these are some of the Wapichan customs relating to their use of the environment:

Daniel Kinchin, a Wapichan elder and elected village head

  • We will maintain the abundance of game animals by: respecting doronainao mashapkiizi (homes of the grandfather spirits);
  • Grandfather spirit masters of the game animals must be respected and decorative animals such as the giant anteater must not be killed;
  • Announce your presence to the mountain spirits and do not disturb sensitive sites;
    • Do not cut trees with spirit masters and do not set fires nor make camps at sensitive sites in the forest;
    • Do not trouble sensitive pools with kadorara (water spirits);
    • Never carry away the belongings of the tapikinao watching over caves and burial grounds.


    Some might consider these kinds of belief to be based on superstition with little relevance to the way we manage our environment in the modern age. But suppose we think about this from a more pragmatic starting point.  What might the Wapichan’s belief sytem achieve in practice? It would presumably have avoided overhunting and overharvesting. It would have prevented excessive loss of forests. It would have prohibited pollution and sedimentation of lakes and rivers. It would have acted against the accumulation of rubbish in the vicinity of beautiful spots like waterfalls, viewpoints and majestic trees.  It similarly would have stopped desecration of caves and burial grounds.

    Suppose our modern culture could achieve just one of these things. I don’t just mean in a few protected areas or privileged zones but all across our living landscapes. Would we not celebrate and consider it  a great achievement? What comes across to me is that these customary laws have arisen in a culture that has learnt the necessity of caring for its natural environment. I don’t think we can truly look after ours, unless we learn our own similar way of caring. That of course will mean a culture that also cares for its own people.

    * Further information on the Wapichan at: < Wiizi Wa Kaduzu>
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Post Rio Blues

“Hi Martyn, I finished your book last night. It was wonderful. And sad. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your love of wildlife/the wild. You are more optimistic than I. I think the old-timer is right. It certainly seems to be enforced by Rio+20 and the everyday news.”

Thanks Erin, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I understand your feelings about the way things are going.  There is no point in pretending that we don’t have massive problems; on the other hand I think we are still some way off from the end-game that the Old Timer talked about. Don’t forget that conservation organisations around the world are good at releasing press briefings on biodiversity declines. It is after all how they raise funds.

Twenty years ago, following the 1992 Rio Summit, one of the two legally binding agreements opened for signature was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The biodiversity narrative back then concerned genetic resources and chemical diversity in rainforests. We were told that the forests could be ‘mined’ by pharmaceutical companies and turned into economic powerhouses of the future. It didn’t happen. It was the product of over-optimistic, head in the clouds, thinking. Fortunately it didn’t prevent other good work being undertaken on behalf of CBD on species conservation and protected areas. Agenda 21 also arose within the 1992 Rio Summit to promote sustainability in its many aspects. It led us to the main outcome document of Rio+20 “The Future We Want”.

How does Rio+20 compare with its older sister? I agree with you that the results are disappointing. Did the conservationists get it wrong this time? Personally, I think the problem is more that we expect too much from global Conventions and don’t do enough to make things work at the local level. Maybe I should explain that. Much of the professional work of conservationists that I come across is taken up with formulating new policies and then presenting them with impact. They devise strategies for countering the effects of climate change, curbing expansion of Asian markets in wildlife products, monitoring the spread of alien species, and assessing the impacts of commercial farming. This is sophisticated and important work. Linking all this together we arrive at today’s narrative on biodiversity which is about ecosystem services. Forests are a source of water for farms and cities. They absorb carbon dioxide. They yield timber and non-timber resources. They attract paying tourists. They provide a habitat for many plants and animals. They have value for these and other services.


The amazing grey mangrove (Avicennia marina).

Therefore, the argument goes, we need to sustain biodiversity for the sake of the economy and livelihoods into the future. These arguments appear in the Rio+20 working paper “The Future We Want” (see section V. “Framework for action and follow-up”, sub-sections “Oceans and seas” and “Biodiversity”). Whether this narrative proves to be any more successful than the previous one will depend on hard slog at the local level by those who put words into actions. This I think is a bigger challenge than signatures on bits of paper. When I was working recently in an East African country on a UN environmental project, my national counterpart asked a senior representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would in turn maintain long term water supply to downstream users of water in commercial farms and cities. The representative laughed saying that they were in the business of charging villagers for their use of water not paying them.


Clearing tree mallow on an island in the Firth of Forth to provide puffins with nesting burrows.


Happy puffin!

If we are to be critical of conservation, and I think it is important that we are critical, that we do expect clarity of thinking and effective accomplishment on the ground, it is in the latter part – the failure to put policy into practice – where we should focus. In my opinion, it is easier to devise clever strategies that can be ‘sold’ to politicians at Conventions and to the public in general, than it is to plant mangroves on intertidal mudflats in Southeast Asia, against the backdrop of ill-disposed shellfish collectors, or to persuade through two score meetings with disaffected UK fishermen why they should respect marine reserves for the long-term welfare of fish stocks, or to clear Japanese knotweed from the riverbank. Nature clubs, local branches of government, volunteers and temporary workers undertake much of the physical and dangerous work of conservation gaining small recognition or remuneration in the process. Perhaps conservation organisations and environmental departments could take a leaf from Mao Tse-tung’s LittleRed Book” and require all senior staff to spend stints in the countryside to experience manual conservation work at first hand as a foil to the ‘bourgeois’ tendency to prepare policies for others to implement! The manual work can of course be great fun and I seriously think all would gain from such a practice.

Another observation about good things that can happen where you least expect them  is that poorer nations  are often more open to new conservation initiatives  than wealthy ones where powerful vested interests feel threatened by new ideas. Far from being the problem they are made out to be, poor nations may be able to teach us something about how to live with nature if we care to listen.

I don’t know if any of the above adequately addresses your concerns, which I share. But let’s in any case not forget to enjoy nature whenever we can. We are as much a part of the wild Earth as the tiger stalking deer in the forests of the Russian Far East or the pink-footed geese arriving from Iceland over the estuaries and salt marshes here in East Lothian. We can and should let loose the wild side from time to time and thrill at the beauty and wonder of it all.

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