Conference for Nature

Unbelievably it is now four months since I finished the MSc, the big career jump and started work at The Conservation Volunteers. Since then, the blog writing has taken a bit of a nose dive.  Moving to Scotland on two weeks notice and starting a new job have taken up all my time and thinking space!

But today I have been to the RSPB Conference for Nature in Edinburgh, and it has got me re-inspired to write, and also got me joining up the dots of my jumbled career path.

Working for TCV has been a great introduction to a new focus for me on community engagement and development primarily in urban green spaces in Scotland.  It’s been a big contrast to my previous work largely in national parks overseas but at the same time refreshing to realise not only the differences, but how much is the same.

And for me it was summed up by one phrase which I heard again at the Conference today and must be repeated at almost every conservation and environmental conference across the world, “conservation is about people”.  So it was interesting that despite the prevalence of this view, the conference was not an hour old when the debate began to re-polarise, between people.  The particularly fraught area was over upland land use.  For me personally this was like returning home to the comfortable shoes of my previous 6 months spent looking at land use conflict in the Lakes so was satisfying to feel another point in my personal career dot-to-dot was being linked in.

It was also fascinating to see again how quickly camps were entered and battle lines drawn.  The message of State of Nature is of course challenging, 60% of species in decline, something needs to be done, something needs to change.  This is in many ways an inspiring call to arms, but so often what needs to change is… you, the nameless others. In upland conservation terms this can be easily portrayed as the agricultural, the forestry, the land managers, owners and users.

Of course there is truth in this.  Some forestry and agricultural practices have been harmful, landowners have a particular view of land use which as nature focused environmentalists we may consider harmful. But there seemed a certain irony that on the same stage where the disconnection from nature was being discussed as a major cause of our environmental problems, many of those such as forestry workers, farmers and large landowners, who, by the very nature of their jobs and lifestyles are very much more connected than so many urban people were being seen as, ‘the other’.

I am not, for a second saying that agriculture, forestry or landownership is environmentally perfect.  Simply that we should perhaps be focusing more on shared passions for nature, shared experiences of species lost and land management techniques.  The work I did in the Lakes constantly left me reflecting on the pros and cons of compromise but once again I find myself coming to the conclusion that without compromise, and an attempt to be inclusive and collaborative, that so many conservation issues are doomed to return to their polarised position and very little will get done.

I am also not saying that people should not have radical, strongly held views.  Ambitious plans such as landscape scale initiatives and rewilding are exciting, inspiring and I think very much needed.  But even here, whilst expounding radical, sometimes divisive ideas I feel there is need for compromise, for inclusive discussion and at the very least an acknowledgement that not everyone will agree and those who do may not be wrong, but just viewing the issue through a different lens.  If we really believe that our vision is right, and the most important of the possible lenses which could be applied to the situation, we have a responsibility to include, to engage and to try to bring these people with us, rather than push them further back into their box.

Overall though I was excited by the conference, there was lots of discussion of progress, lots of examples of good collaborative, partnership working.  Most of all I was excited to think that I am in a great place, working to engage more people, to excite them about conservation, to involve them in green spaces.  It might be going too far to say this is all that matters, but in the complex environmental jigsaw, more and more I think it is the critical piece.

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Trying to make the most of the last few

Trying to make the most of the last few days of cycling to work in the daylight!

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Lake District Futures – Reflections 5 – is compromise always the best solution…

I was chatting to a friend who also used to live in the Lakes who had recently visited some US national parks whilst on holiday to the States.  “The thing that is impressive”, he reflected, “Is that when they do things, they don’t mess around, there are no compromises”.  So National Parks in the States are huge, wilderness areas where previous residents have been actively removed.  UK National Parks, however, are a different beast and a delicate balance is required between the needs of residents and visitors whilst protecting the natural heritage, wildlife and ecology as well as the cultural history and traditions.

Many respondents to the Lakes Futures research emphasised the possibilities for compromise referring to a, ‘mixed palette’, ‘win-win’ situations and perhaps most strikingly, ‘have our cake and eat it’.  But is this compromise really possible?  Some people suggested maybe not:

  • “I was very torn between A and D. I would love it if things could remain unchanged, but would also love to see a strong ecologically improved situation.  I suspect these are not compatible.”
  • “Unfortunately there is no middle ground, you can’t do it in a half-hearted way… actually just doing what Europe offers at the moment and paying farmers to reduce their stocking level by say 20% achieves nothing”
  • “Talk of ‘sweet spot in the middle’ between wild and farmed is nonsense… the middle between a cultural landscape and wild is neither one thing nor the other. It just trashes what it really is.”
  • “we are getting a compromise which neither party particularly is happy with”

I am not suggesting that compromise be abandoned and we pursue some American style ideal of wilderness.  However the cultural landscape of the park, its wildlife and ecology and the livelihoods of local residents are all under pressure from competing land uses – so perhaps we need to look honestly at where genuine conflicts exists.  It is easy and politically expedient to talk of compromise, and of course seek them out where possible.  At the same time, do we  have to seek more innovative solutions such as zoning or simply accept that real success in one land use vision can only really come at the loss of another…

It is these questions which have kept me engaged throughout my research in the Lakes, I hope to be able to return to them throughout my future career and I hope the project and the posts on this blog had got some more people thinking about their answers…

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Lake District Futures – Reflections 4 – It’s not what you do… It’s the way that you do it

Much of the Lake District Futures project focused on the influence of perception, which in turn highlighted that it is not always what you do in land management but how you do it. It emphasised that at times, success, consensus and agreement rely as much on the connotations of certain words, and the ability to share ideas and find common ground, as on the detail of what is done.  A few examples to get you thinking…


  • The subject of implementation of agro-environment schemes came up regularly and there was discussion of farmers feeling, ‘de-motivated, and unappreciated, and disempowered’ and a ‘lack of trust, and a lack of understanding’
  • Many respondents talked of the need to develop schemes which engaged with farmers more and offered a greater sense of pride and satisfaction for the farmers involved.
  • Rewilding scenarios suffered from negative connotations of words like abandonment:
    “I think we are not generally going to progress too much, it is conflict straight away with that language, you either have rewilding and no farming, or farming and no rewilding, and I don’t think that is necessarily has to be the case…”
  • And a number of people questioned if the concept of ‘rewilding’ itself was helpful:
  • “It’s not about trying to turn the clock back, we are very clear about that”
  • “I am personally interested in the rewilding agenda, but I don’t think it is the right word, it conjures up images of reintroducing predators and so on, but natural processes are the key thing”

The future of the Lakes is a delicate balance between the needs of residents, visitors, resource management and wildlife, so gaining a good understanding of these connotations and perceptions is key in achieving workable compromises; which brings us to the topic of tomorrow’s final reflection – is compromise possible, and is it always the best solution…

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Lake District Future – reflections 3 – Wild, managed, natural, re-wilded

Respondents to the Lake District Futures Project showed a wide range of perceptions both of what the Lake District is like, and what it should be like in future, so a few more quotes and facts to get you thinking about your perceptions:

  • The majority of respondents saw the Lake District as a managed environment (60%), though nearly a third (30%) perceived it to be ‘natural’.
  • 34% saw the last 200 years as a period in which it had, ‘changed a lot’ whilst 46% felt it had ‘changed a little’ (don’t know, 11%; hardly changed at all, 10%).
  • This image of the Lakes as being natural, and not having changed is interesting and tends to influence people to want things to stay as they are.  At the same time it means many people do not realise the cultural significance of the long history of interaction between people and the Lake District landscape.
  • What effect would changes in the landscape have on people coming to the Lakes:
    Questionnaire responses to how changes in landscape would affect how often people chose to come to the Lake District

    Questionnaire responses to how changes in landscape would affect how often people chose to come to the Lake District

    So what would we like to see it as in the future? More wild, more managed, more for wildlife or more for cultural landscapes, local livelihoods or historic significance…

  • “for Monbiot this may be bowling greens with contours… for other people it gives them an enormous sense of liberation, of spiritual refreshment, wonderful views, highly complex sheep farming systems… they come to see lambs skipping in the fields, and pretty houses and the mountains “
  • “rewilding is happening in patches all over the place… by the end of this year we will have planted 15000 trees – it’s happening!”
  • “here, if you don’t like open fells, with 1cm high grass, then don’t come”
  • “people should be able to come here and see white tailed eagles and… have that sense that they are coming to a special place and not just… another slightly nobblier version of the countryside”

These are all powerful and inspiring images of what is, could and should happen in the Lakes, but, can they all happen together? Tomorrow… its not what you do, its the way that you do it…

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Lake District Future – reflections 2 – What is the Purpose of the Lakes National Park?

It is a simple, but fundamental question – what is the Lake District National Park for, what should it focus on and why do we have it – a few quotes and facts that show that the question is far from simple:

Wordcloud of interviewees answers, 'What is the main purpose of the Lake District National Park'.

Wordcloud of interviewees answers, ‘What is the main purpose of the Lake District National Park’.

So what is the main purpose of the park?

Questionnaire respondents said that the main purposes of the National Park related to protection and natural features (conservation and preservation, 60%; nature and wildlife,53%; landscape, scenery and views, 45%) with a secondary set focusing on sustainable development (sustainable economy for residents, 33%; access for recreation and enjoyment, 31%).

The quotes below from some of the interviewees demonstrates the range of different focuses and why it is far from easy to find solutions which meet all these competing needs…

  •  it’s a place people can come to get a sense of wildness,  space, the views and the terrain, the altitude and the Lakes…
  • to protect and enhance its unique cultural landscape
  • It should be about enhancing the ecological value of that piece of land…
  • It’s primarily for people – people linking with… outdoor space and… enjoy[ing] that space

So what is the Lake District about for you? Protecting the cultural heritage or developing an exciting adventure capital; supporting local residents or drawing in visitors; for wildlife or for people…

Tomorrow… is the Lakes (and should it be), wild, natural, managed… re-wilded…?

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Lake District Future – reflections 1 – The Lake District Now

The results of the Lake District futures research project seem to suggest our perceptions of the Lake District now, influences our choice of future scenarios for the Park.  So what do people think about the Lake District now – a few quotes and figures to get you thinking…

Positive perception of the state of the Lake District National Park

Questionnaire respondents rated ecological features and wildlife as good or very good:

  • State of ecological features – 51% rated ‘good or very good’ vs 12% ‘poor or very poor’
  • State of the wildlife – 49% rated ‘good or very good’ vs 7% ‘poor or very poor’.

Positive Reality?

This positive perception  is in contrast to the opinions of a number of the interviewees and  the impression given by the state of nature report.

“we’re really seeing all sorts of interesting, charismatic species in freefall… Particularly things like curlew, snipe, merlin …”

Rose-tinted glasses?

There was a suggestion amongst a number of respondents that there is a tendency to see the beautiful landscape of the Lakes, and see it as some kind of ‘nirvana’ where the wildlife and ecology must be in a good state…

“I think there is a perception amongst the general public that the Lakes is a wildlife oasis, which doesn’t necessarily match the reality”

“The Lake District is a devastated landscape; the high fells in particular are almost devoid of wildlife, with a severely limited biodiversity. This has resulted from chronic overgrazing by sheep… Few visitors appreciate this, or what the fells could become if managed for wildlife. Heavily subsidised sheep farming makes no sense either environmentally or economically.”

So is wildlife protection a major purpose in your view of the Lake District?  Had you always assumed the wildlife was flourishing in the Lakes?  Would you consider changes in the way the Lakes looked, if it improved the wildlife?

Tomorrow… what is the Lake District for…

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