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“Simon Says” – The Future of Farming & Wildlife – “We stand on the cusp of a revolution in how we protect and manage the countryside.”

January 5, 2018

(Image above © Tony Bates)

The future of farming

A couple of months ago I sat in one of Kingston Maurward College’s conference rooms on a dark November evening with 100 or so good people.  It was the AGM of the Dorset NFU (National Farmers Union).  I was there despite recently having disagreed with several NFU policies such as neonicotinoids damaging bees and pollinators, and of course the badger cull.  We are however supportive of farmers, recognising that sensitive farming can be a huge benefit to wildlife.  Farming and wildlife are intrinsically linked.

I may have been wrong, but I got a strong sense from the members there that the industry felt their livelihoods, legacy and calling was under sustained threat.  Many elements of the farming industry are in decline, yet it is one of the most important, if not THE most important profession in the world.  I for one like to have food on my table each day.

The concern that is being expressed more and more is that our current system of farming is not sustainable.  By sustainable I don’t mean in a general, fuzzy, non-green way as the word is often misused, but rather in both a quantifiable business and habitats sense.  Farm subsidies through the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), just as fishing subsidies through CFP (Common Fisheries Policy), though usefully providing financial stability, can serve to maintain an unfit, non-competitive industry that doesn’t need to look to the future.  Our farming industry deserves better than that.  Farming in this country needs to be prosperous, stable, dynamic and forward-thinking.  If it were all of those things it would also be sustainable.  Subsidies based purely on the amount of land you own (Basic Payments Scheme) lead to perverse incentives and can, in some cases, reward people for not protecting the future of the industry or the countryside.

A vision for a healthy countryside

A thriving, long-term farming industry has to be built on an environmentally sustainable footing where the health of the countryside is maintained and enhanced so that it is productive and diverse – protecting pollinators, building soil, valuing natural habitats, reducing flooding – the list goes on.  All of this amongst a commercially productive landscape.

The Wildlife Trusts, along with colleagues especially in the National Trust and RSPB, have a vision for the countryside and a plan to support farming.  The CLA (Country Land & Businesses Association) are making similar positive noises.  We have recently published a summary document that spells out, in both policy and practical terms, a way forward for farming in the UK: ‘What next for farming?’ (see link below).  For its own future, farming has to find a way to coexist and benefit from nature, not work separately or fight against it.

Into this debate comes our Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) Minister Michael Gove.  In a recent announcement, Mr Gove made a game-changing speech that, if followed through, will be one of the most important steps for wildlife and equally for farming in decades.  At an organic farming conference in Oxford he announced plans to reform the current EU subsidies regime to shift payments based on the amount of land owned, towards the public (aka environmental) benefits farmers deliver.  In a new regime to be phased in over 5 years he will incentivise farmers, for example to provide habitat for wildlife, create wildflower meadows and improve water quality.  His view agrees with what The Wildlife Trusts have been saying.  It also challenges those resistant to change, but embraces innovation and the development of new ways of ensuring a prosperous farming sector which contributes to a healthy environment and a healthy society.

This will mean substantial changes for the industry, but it will put them on a more sustainable, competitive footing which will also gain them more public support which has been flagging since the badger cull and agrochemical issues.  The Wildlife Trusts have calculated that it will cost just 0.5% of UK public expenditure (£3bn pa) to restore the natural systems that sustain us and indeed the farming industry itself.

Our aims for farming

Our plan, which Mr Gove seems to be supportive of, has eight aims:

  1. More, bigger and better natural habitats. Restoring and creating new habitats for wildlife to prosper. Some of this will come from farmland too marginal to be productive.  So this would help those farmers currently struggling on marginal land such as in parts of West Dorset.
  2. Thriving wildlife everywhere. Connecting habitats, restoring soils, replanting lost hedgerows.  Paying farmers to benefit nature and themselves, such as in central Dorset around Blandford where so many hedgerows have been lost.
  3. Abundant pollinators. For example managing 3% of arable land specifically for pollinators and banning neonicotinoids.  That way we don’t turn into China where pollination often has to be done by hand with paintbrushes.
  4. Healthy soils. Ploughing less often, increasing the organic content, ensuring plant rotation and replacing artificial fertilisers.  Nature and farming working together to boost long-term productivity.
  5. Clean water. Reducing the levels of nutrients and chemicals in our rivers and watersheds making our drinking water safer. Poole Harbour has a major problem with historic agricultural nutrients flowing down the Piddle and Frome rivers. Dorset farmers are working to reduce nutrient inputs, and this plan should reward them for doing so.
  6. Clean air and climate change mitigation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions – a useful measure of the efficiency of an industry.
  7. Flood risk management. I have long been calling for landowners to be paid for farming water. Hold water back away from towns and valuable crops in more natural catchments less likely to flood in the way we have seen at Christchurch.
  8. Healthy People. Mr Gove announced plans to reward landowners for improving access to the countryside, thus promoting exercise, enjoyment, health and wellbeing.  The Dorset LNP (Local Nature Partnership) is working with the NHS and social care providers to treat mental and physical ill health and prevent illnesses by getting people out into nature.  Landowners across Dorset can help with that.

A great leap forward

We stand on the cusp of a revolution in how we protect and manage the countryside on which we are all dependant, either for food, health or enjoyment.  I believe Mr Gove’s plans will result in a more prosperous, healthy and enjoyable country and countryside, and one where we are, finally after over a century of thinking we are above nature rather than a part of it, valuing our wildlife and environment as our life support system.

Further reading:

Click here to read – What next for farming? A future policy for land in England: investing in our natural assets.  The Wildlife Trusts.


“Simon Says” – Development: Don’t forget the environment

December 6, 2017

Changing politics

As a result of some focussed and relentless lobbying of MPs, the Wildlife Trusts and most of the other main environmental groups in the country including RSPB, National Trust, Woodland Trust etc, we are starting to hear some positive messages from government about protecting the natural environment, in particular Environment Minister Michael Gove.  Signs of national consciousness in our fabulous and vital natural environment are good.  We must only hope that Mr Gove, the sort of high flier that DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) does not usually keep for long, will not move up the ministerial pecking order before he has followed through on his commitments.

At a local level things are not looking nearly so good.  Indeed, there would appear to be a considerable mismatch between national and local policy and vision.  Within some sectors in counties including Dorset we are seeing a downgrading, or complete absence of, environmental considerations.  Now true, the environment departments of local authorities, Natural England, Environment Agency, the fisheries authority (IFCA) and others are doing their usual great jobs.  It is those responsible for economic development that do not seem to have got the message.  This, despite considerable lobbying and hand-holding from ourselves at DWT, other environment groups and the local environment bodies set up by government to champion nature – the Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs).

At the moment, as local authorities and business scramble to position themselves in a fast-changing political world, we are seeing a plethora of development projects being proposed and growth plans being published.  The development projects in Dorset focus almost entirely around infrastructure and housing, with a bit of sectoral development.  Nothing wrong with that in principle as some of these are much needed in Dorset.  The problem comes when environment and social or community needs are almost entirely forgotten.  As an example, the West of Dorset Development Strategy published recently gives no mention of environment or even farming even though Dorset is in their words: ‘The natural place to do business’.

Where has the environment gone?

What is happening here?  Where has the environment gone? Why is there such a disjoint between national aspirations and local actions?  Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend The World Forum on Natural Capital, held over a couple of days in Edinburgh.  During the more practically oriented sessions a light came on for me as to why we are struggling so hard to get an understanding of the value of nature and environment by some of the economic development and business specialists.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that natural capital is a relatively new concept that has been developed to explain, especially to economists and financiers, how environment fits within and is vital for sustained, successful development.  It is a straightforward parallel with financial capital.  In summary it is the world’s stock of natural assets.  As with money, you can build it up and live off the substantial interest or services the assets give you, such as clean water, food production, flood protection and pollinators, or you can erode it so you have less to sustain us in the future.

Nicola Sturgeon

(Above: Nicola Sturgeon at the Natural Capital conference © Simon Cripps/DWT)

Talking development

The Dorset LNP for instance produced a Natural Capital Investment Strategy to sit alongside the Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP – the economic development organisation for Dorset) Growth Strategy.  Dorset County Council (DCC) also produced a valuation of Dorset’s natural assets, worth over £1.2 billion per annum.  Our aim is not to stop appropriate development nor even to make it all about the environment.  We are merely trying to ensure that when a project is developed, such as a new road or housing scheme, environment and communities are considered in the choice of scheme, and are included in the plans to maximise the benefits of the scheme.  You need look no further than the Weymouth Relief Road to see how incorporating environment and community benefits into a scheme you get so much more than just a new road.  Our aim is to ensure that every single development projects results in more natural capital after than before.  Great for Dorset, great for you and me, and great for the success of the project.

Weymouth Relief Road © Phil Sterling

(Above) The Weymouth Relief Road © Phil Stirling

The trouble is that this just isn’t happening in Dorset at the level it should.  It would appear that many economic development people still see environment as a restriction on growth and development.  It isn’t!  At least not for well thought-through schemes in the right place.  The light that came on for me in Edinburgh was as follows and comprises 3 parts.  In summary it is a cultural rather than environmental issue.

Firstly, development organisations are often comprised of business entrepreneurs, as encouraged by central government.  They are great for understanding the needs of business and for innovation, but do not commonly have experience of policy, evidence-based reasoning such as science (except of course in technological companies), community needs and environment.  When formulating the needs of the county all of these elements are required, not just the needs of business.  There are though some great examples of innovation, environmental understanding and community benefit: Lush’s support for wildlife, particularly birds; Siemen’s Corporate Citizenship aims; Nestle’s global leadership in natural capital; the estate agent Domvs working with us on planning issues; John Lewis’s work on Brownsea; and long-term community and environment supporter Battens, a legal firm.  These all show environmental leadership that will benefit both wildlife and hopefully their company’s bottom lines.  They also show that no matter what your company does, it can play a part in securing Dorset’s or our world’s future.

Secondly, whilst central government, as I mentioned above, has been saying the right things, they are equally at fault because their departments don’t seem to talk to each other: BEIS (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) don’t talk to DEFRA who don’t talk to Treasury who don’t talk to DCLG (Department for Communities & Local Government).  Even within departments it appears that sectoral experts don’t talk to each other.  What then happens is a tendency for strategies without joined-up thinking and the local development agencies are required to just implement projects handed to them, without the opportunity or requirement to consider potential beneficial, or mitigate detrimental, impacts.  Natural capital thinking isn’t purely an extra, possibly expensive or restricting, element to bolt-on to a project.  It cuts across all elements of the development.  It therefore requires a culture of integrated and cross-cutting thinking that seems to be missing in our development agencies.  If they had it, the projects they chose would be more suitable for Dorset, better supported by communities, less damaging to the very environment that will sustain future benefits and would have far higher returns on investment.  The agencies would also be better protected against accusations of self-interest because the return on investment would have been transparently calculated using natural capital as one measure.

Thirdly, the Natural Capital Conference showed that what we need in Dorset and indeed across the UK are four, what I call ‘enabling criteria’, for successful economic development projects and strategies: 1. sound, reliable data (we have that in the form of ecosystem services mapping and examples of natural capital benefits); 2. an understanding of, and interest in, the value of the natural environment and communities (we are working on that); 3. regulations to ensure this happens (I don’t believe in self-regulation); and 4. possibly most importantly, leadership to drive forward something that isn’t business as usual, but will be vastly more successful.

Cultural blocks

Dorset Wildlife Trust and the many organisations and individuals that comprise the Dorset LNP will continue to work with the development agencies at various levels to ensure that natural capital is incorporated into their thinking, for the sake of nature, economic development and the people of Dorset.  This week I realised though that this isn’t just a problem of understanding that environment facilitates development, not hinders it.  It is a cultural block in society to thinking more laterally and to communicating between different cultural groups.


“Simon Says” – Should we reintroduce nature?

November 2, 2017

Ladybird Spider 1 © James Hitchen

(Above: Ladybird spider © James Hitchen)

Back from the brink

Much as the future of nature on our planet depends on the wealth of biodiversity, which includes creatures of all shapes and sizes from viruses to blue whales, it is often the charismatic megafauna that grabs our attention and spurs us to action.  Most people are far more likely to support the protection of giraffes than a cryptic wasp species.

Yet when you look at the range of species reintroduced by conservationists, they tend to be iconic, charismatic, sizeable beasts.  Here I am talking about restoring creatures back to where they once lived, rather than new introductions for a variety of well-meaning or dubious reasons, such as foxes for hunting into New Zealand, rabbits into Australia and cotoneaster to a lot of British gardens.  Nor am I talking about accidental introductions or invasives such as rhododendron, signal crayfish into Dorset rivers or japweed that clogs up the coasts.

All sorts of species have been reintroduced, including lynx, bison, beavers, wild boar, red kites, great bustards, sturgeon, brown trout, sand lizards, the large blue butterfly and ladybird spiders.  Some successfully, some less so.

The successful introduction of a species, such as the large blue butterfly, takes a great deal of work and resources: studies of habitat and food needs; impact assessments; disease risk implications; ecosystem impacts; garnering community support; licencing; monitoring; to name just a few.  With so many of our native species in trouble, why then are conservationists so keen on reintroductions?  This is a question that I have struggled with for many years.  Are reintroductions just a profile-raising gimmick? Are they a cost-effective means of repairing degraded ecosystems? Are we choosing iconic species when we should be reinstating something less charismatic?

The answer to these and other such questions is no doubt species and context specific, but many of you will have different answers and views.  Here are my views which you are most welcome to disagree with.

Otter 1 © Paul Williams

(Above: Otter © Paul Williams)

Why reintroduce?

So what are the reasons that we would want to reintroduce a species?  When I was in my first job working for The Vincent Wildlife Trust in East Anglia trying to find out why otters had died out in the area, my boss the famous Don Jefferies, gave me some good advice I’ve kept throughout my career.  I asked him why we spent so much money restoring otters to an area, when we could be looking after them better where they flourished.  He replied that you have to work the hardest at the fraying edge.  This is because that edge will always be frayed and will work its way back, just as the end of a rope unfurls.

This fraying edge principle is perhaps why birds and butterflies are reintroduced.  The red kite for example was persecuted by gamekeepers down to just 2 pairs in 1932.  In 1989 100 birds were reintroduced from the continent and legislation was tightened, so that there are now many kites, often seen down the M4 corridor.  Otters too, after misguided river management and hunting with hounds, slumped to dangerously low numbers and small isolated populations in the UK.  Now they are found in all of Dorset’s main rivers from the Fleet to the Avon.  Personally I think these types of reintroductions were more than justified as they link up isolated, genetically at-risk populations and reduce the risk of a local perturbation damaging the whole population.  DWT’s own work with partners to reintroduce the ladybird spider in Purbeck should help to safeguard the population possibly at that fraying edge in Dorset.

Another reason for reintroductions is that they are keystone species – that is they provide a critical role in the function of the ecosystem or provide a service, either to the ecosystem or mankind.  Included here might be lynx, wolves and beavers.  Usually hunted to local extinction, these species once thrived across the UK and since their loss the natural environment has changed, often for the worse.  The story of the introduction of wolves back into the Yellowstone Park causing the rivers to clean up, is famous.  The wolves caused the lazy elk population to keep on the move and not browse away most of the bankside willows that beavers needed.  The beavers made dams which changed the hydrology and improved the water quality.  There were some downsides, but a lot of benefits.  Anybody for a pack of wolves along the Stour Valley Way?  That would liven up a Sunday walk with the kids.

red squirrel tree © Paul Williams

(Above: Red Squirrel on Brownsea Island © Paul Williams)

Closer to home, beavers have been reintroduced into small areas of Devon and we are considering it here in Dorset.  Initial results have been amazing.  Providing they are in the right location so they don’t damage crops or housing, they have already been shown to reduce flooding downstream, substantially improve water quality and produce diverse habitat for everything from water plants and insects to fish.

I suspect though that some species are introduced for other reasons either instead of, or as well as, those above.  Several species are blatantly charismatic such as red squirrels, osprey, beavers, otters and lynx. They can tell a great story and gain media attention as well as support.

The pros and cons

There are several debates in the conservation community.  How far back do you go?  Should we seek aurochs grazing across Salisbury Plain – or rhinos?  What is the balance between funding reintroductions and protecting the species we already have and are trying to hang on to? Are reintroductions a key part of rewilding?

I believe if there is a clear ecological benefit, or you are seeking to restore that fraying edge, then reintroductions can be hugely valuable.  Only as a spin-off might they benefit conservation as a profile-raising figurehead.  I think also that there must be community support, and that means conservationists not taking too worthy a view, so that people impacted do not accept them – possibly leading to poaching at worst or a lack of support at best.  Beavers are a good example of this.  They can, if located correctly, have huge ecological benefits, but landowners are unlikely to be welcoming if they feel that once introduced they can never be touched or managed.  In some cases it may be necessary to relocate an over-industrious beaver.  If that is what is needed to get landowner support, then so be it.

What do you think?  Do reintroductions have a place in our countryside, or are we just hanging on to the past? What is your red line – squirrels, beavers, lynx, wolves, aurochs or velociraptors?  Do you have good or bad experiences of reintroductions?  Let us know on DWT’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

“Simon Says” – Saving nature – one meeting at a time

October 3, 2017

High seas negotiations at the UN in New York – © Dr Simon Cripps


Saving animals

In this monthly blog I have been trying to give readers an insight into what goes on behind the scenes in wildlife conservation and some of the issues that aren’t easily seen.  This month I want to deal with meetings.  No, please don’t stop reading – there’s more to that than meets the eye.  It doesn’t have to be like a script from the television series, W1A.

A previous Director General at WWF once told us that his young son was asked at school what Daddy did for a living.  He replied, “He goes to meetings to save animals”.  That is often how I feel at DWT, but does that mean I’m wasting my time and that of other policy-based staff at DWT?  After all, supporters give us funding to protect Dorset’s species and habitats, not to sit around in meetings drinking coffee and talking to people, don’t they?

In the world of conservation, this sort of policy work is though every bit as important as practical in-the-field work, but it is often not talked about because it either doesn’t sound like a real job, or might bore people.  30+ years ago I started my career as a research scientist, publishing detailed scientific papers.  With age as I progressed up the ranks I gradually took a higher level, less detailed approach, venturing into science-based policy.  Now I’m a full-blown policy geek, though I hope with an eye for practical application.


What is policy?

I must say I love it.  I love it because I can see what can be achieved for nature through policy and influence.  The Oxford English dictionary describes ‘policy’ as: a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual.  Why DWT and I need to work with policy is then in a nutshell, that it gives us as conservationists an opportunity to get across to other people and organisations (including ourselves as well) actions, ideas and concepts that protect wildlife.  We become the voice of wildlife at the table, which is one of DWT’s stated aims.  Instead of always fighting a rear-guard action in the field when ideas that are to the detriment of wildlife are put into practice (e.g. a badly placed new road or solar power plant), we can get the right ideas adopted much earlier on, often with far more broad-reaching effect.

This way of working doesn’t suit everyone.  Those that work at this level are much further away from seeing the results of their action being practically applied.  For instance, before moving to DWT I used to represent WWF on marine issues at the UN in New York.  We discussed very high-level issues, including what elements should be incorporated into a management regime for the high seas (the 50% of the world’s surface outside of national jurisdiction).  This was many steps away from protecting marine species locally.  The elements had to be defined and negotiated to be consistent with other priorities and policies across 100 or more nations.  If agreed, they had to be written into an international convention which took several years to be politically guided until acceptable to the nations by consensus.  Then the convention had to be converted into national legislation.  Even then management plans and operational delivery had to be in place before anything was implemented at sea.  After all that you weren’t sure that all of it would actually change the state of the seas and the species in them.  So many steps away from conservation success, but what a huge (in that case global) impact from working as a conservationist at such a high level.

Discussing wildlife policy with Oliver Letwin MP – © DWT

Working for Dorset’s wildlife

At DWT we have numerous examples of where attending meetings really does help wildlife.  I sit as a non-executive board member or panellist on several local or national groups, as do several DWT staff and trustees.  One such particularly influential group is the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA).  A government authority for managing fishing and fisheries.  I sit on the SIFCA as an independent member, not as a representative of DWT.  I was however appointed based on, or at least knowing, my conservation views.  The SIFCA decides on the policy and regulation of how fisheries in Dorset are managed, both for the sake of fishermen, but also to protect the environment.  By becoming a board member I have influence over which by-laws are put in place and what the SIFCA’s priorities are, such as enforcement against illegal and damaging fishing.  They also determine the management for fishing in marine protected areas – an extremely important wildlife issue.  This is an organisation at the cutting edge of marine management and conservation and so it is vital to ensure they have conservation interests to balance other agendas.

Another good example is our policy work is with the Catchment Partnerships.  They are set-up to take a landscape scale approach to the management of rivers and land that drains into them.  If you want to protect and manage our important Dorset rivers, such as the Frome, Piddle or Stour and the harbours they drain into, i.e. Poole and Christchurch, then you also have to manage the land around them.  By working at a policy level with a range of partners including Wessex Water, Natural England, The Environment Agency, The Country Landowners Association and many others, we can help guide the plans and aims, to ensure wildlife and the wider environment are protected.  We have for example been involved in formulating plans for restoring stretches of river according to defined policy aims, discussed the possibility of creating wetlands to improve water quality and protecting habitats in Poole Harbour from being smothered with algae.  All of this work needs policies (i.e. a set of aims, plans and actions) in place to guide the work and benefit wildlife and habitats.  By engaging with, and sometimes leading, these groups it isn’t then just us working for the natural environment, but also a range of other organisations.  This is a very effective use of funding from our donors and an opportunity to get more conservation work done than we could do alone.

Joining the dots

Another advantage of working in this way is that it gives us opportunities to make links between different, seemingly unconnected issues, that would benefit wildlife.  A few years ago who would have thought that the increase in the costs of mental health provision in Dorset would cause a funding concern in the NHS causing them to look for alternative means of giving people activities in a healthy, attractive, natural environment.  To do that, funding for nature reserves and natural activities becomes a health funding issue.  Making the links and looking for overlapping needs is a policy benefit some way from practical work, but the benefits to all are obvious, as long as someone who understands our natural environment is there to join the dots.

DWT fights above its weight when it comes to this type of influential work.  It isn’t as glamorous as some of the great work we do with say wildflower meadows or practical river restoration.  It also isn’t what a lot of people envisage conservation to be, but it is truly invaluable work and it is sometimes pretty exciting to see what can be achieved – saving nature a meeting at a time.

“Simon Says” – Is growth the main conservation issue?

September 8, 2017

Dogfish © Wikipedia

(Above) A mountain of dogfish on a trawler

Concerned scientists

Recently I was sent an email from the Union of Concerned Scientists offering me the opportunity to sign a petition in the form of a declaration from scientists calling on humanity to curb environmental destruction.  I tend not to sign up to such petitions that have the risk of being either so bland and all-encompassing, or so depressing and negative that they do not gain the support they are seeking.  This declaration was a little different in that it spelt out in very general terms what the problems were, but also provided a raft of solutions.  As a result, though it wasn’t word perfect and rather US-centric, I signed up.  I was one of 7,000 scientists from 135 countries at the time.

Reasons for the lack of progress of humanity becoming more sustainable and less damaging to wildlife are of course well known and include: climate change, fossil fuels, deforestation, agricultural production, and over-consumption, but lying behind this was a common root cause – unceasing economic and population growth.  This has an impact from global systems to Dorset species.

Talking about growth

Too many people on this planet as a whole, and in particular areas, massively increase the pressure on the natural environment causing the damage and problems listed above.  Why then is this wildlife-impacting issue not talked about and more importantly, tackled?  I even wondered whether I should write this, but the impacts in Dorset alone are huge, so I took a chance and took finger to keyboard.

A recent paper in Science (Crist et. al 2017) lists a number of reasons for the lack of focus on this as a primary cause of biodiversity loss: lack of agreement on the scale of the risk; the desperate dependence on the need for continued economic growth which requires an ever-increasing workforce and productivity; increased food production hiding the problem; and concerns that anyone talking about limiting populations may be talking about either eugenics, limiting migration, or taking away human, in particular women’s, rights.  I believe though that we must look at the continued dependence on economic growth and the explosion in our population if we have a hope of reversing the loss of species and habitats, from Patagonia to Purbeck.  Even in comments from reviewers of this article I see this can be a minefield, because care must be taken not to blame developing country populations and economies for what we have been through, that many answers have in the past been deeply flawed especially by undermining human rights, and that misinterpretation of actions needed could lead to, at worst racist views, and at best an insular approach, for example in relation to immigration.  I attempt to confine myself to issues related to wildlife rather than to propose economic and demographic solutions here.  Surely though such issues should be raised even though we don’t have all the answers?

Wildlife and food production

It was thought that populations would be kept in check by limits to food production, but the green revolution has allowed continued expansion.  Sustainable intensification, i.e. the application of culture (in developed and developing countries) appropriate technology may prevent more land being converted to agriculture and limit chemicals used, thus protecting biodiversity.  In Britain and Dorset how will the pace of technological advance in agriculture protect wildlife post-Brexit?  If we are decreasing domestic food production to feed our increasing population, because subsidies decline, then are we just shifting our natural environment impacts abroad?  Ice-free land used for agriculture has reached 40% of the Earth’s surface area.  How much more can we lose?

Dorset housing

In Dorset, housing development is a serious issue as the UK population increased by 538,000 last year to 65.6 million.  Bournemouth and Poole alone require tens of thousands of new homes, yet are limited by sea, heathland and green belt amongst many other things. I live by the sea and as I walk along the cliffs at dusk and see the lights in houses and flats I roughly estimate around two-thirds are second homes and lived in for only a very few weeks per year.  It is not just the physical impact of new housing potentially displacing wildlife that is a concern, but also the impact of many more people on sensitive habitats such as heathlands and boats on sea grass beds.  As economic growth continues the increased demand for energy is also taking land away from food production and wildlife with solar farms and bio-fuel crops becoming more common in our countryside.

The growth-based economic system we currently have requires that an aging population needs younger workers to pay for the older people who have already made their contribution to society.  This forces governments into a cycle of encouraging fertility rate despite having less space to put people and less resources to feed and maintain them.  We need an approach to maintain and enhance the productive capacity of nature to supply us with the services that are vital for our survival, from pollinators to cereal crops and clean water.

Upton Heath walkers © Tony Bates

People walking on Upton Heath, Dorset © Tony Bates, MBE

Tackling the problem

That though leads us to another underlying reason why I believe this has not been tackled.  Improved education, more widespread contraception technology and better reproductive health services are then nature conservation issues, as are the drivers addicted to economic growth.  As a conservationist, I have no competence in these issues and am willing to bet the reverse is the case.  This needs to be solved holistically at a level way above individual silos of competence.  Often, I have facilitated workshops where groups of conservationists are planning how to address conservation challenges.  Often an underlying cause of the challenge to wildlife is some element of economic growth or over-population, e.g. housing and infrastructure development, intensive food production, over-fishing, or visitor disturbance to name just a few.  We always put growth in the ‘too hard’ box and leave it to someone else.  But who?  Also, economic growth in some countries can help population growth rates to fall, but then there needs to be a return to sustainability.

A colleague I gave a draft of this blog to disagreed with most of what I have written here.  His view is that it is how we live rather than how many of us there are, and that sharing wealth around the globe is the best way to reduce family size and defuse the population time-bomb.  Another colleague was worried that this issue would cause readers to draw arrogant or inappropriate conclusions about population control.  That is not my intention with this short, simple article purely aimed at raising the difficult issue of growth impacting biodiversity.  What do you think?  Please send in your thoughts to our Facebook page or Twitter.  These are though only my personal thoughts, not the policy of DWT.

I believe that Dorset, the UK and the world need to develop and implement ways to decrease our economic reliance on growth which in the long run must be unsustainable.  The study of economics and population growth is huge and complex so I don’t have the answers, but evidence does point to growth as a major driver of biodiversity loss.

Further reading

Crist, E., Mora, C. & Engelman, R. (2017). The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356, (6355), 260-264.

Simon Cripps, DWT Chief Executive

“Simon Says” – Stepping Stones

August 1, 2017

Stepping stones

On this small island of ours where the population continues to increase, space is becoming increasingly limited and areas of protection are getting squeezed and isolated.  What would you say if I offered the UK a further 432,964 ha (over 1 million acres) of protected area potentially available to wildlife?  That’s a fifth of the size of Wales, or more than 1.5 times the size of Dorset.  Of course, we would all jump at the chance of getting hold of that much land if it could be wildlife friendly.  In fact, that is what we do have in the form of the 22.7 million gardens in the country.  What an amazing resource.

Of course, many of those gardens will be far from wildlife friendly, but pretty much all of them have a contribution to make, not just in the total area available to nature, but in forming stepping stones for wildlife criss-crossing the country.  In another sense they may also be stepping stones for people to entice them out into their natural environment.

Wildlife gardening is becoming quite a craze because it has so many aspects of interest to so many people.  It provides a beautiful location just out of the back or front door, somewhere to relax or play, exercise in the form of gardening or games, a hobby tending it, and to many the opportunity to get up-close and personal with a wide range of animals and plants.  The health & wellbeing benefits of gardens are well known, let alone the hike in house price.  For the same reason that I admit to liking zoos, I also think a garden helps people to relate to nature by giving them some ownership of the issue and some relevant knowledge.

Whatever your motivation

That, from the people’s perspective, is the point here.  You don’t need to be a knowledgeable entomologist or a budding (pun intended) botanist, able to identify and conjure up the Latin names of various species.  You can enjoy nature for your own reasons: from football with the kids to somewhere to drink a cup of tea in peace.  Whatever you do in your garden, as long as there is some nature, it isn’t important from the wildlife point of view what your motivation is.

For some ‘real’ wildlife gardeners there can be a little snobiness about decking, artificial grass, even outdoor sofas in the garden. Imagine that!  As far as I’m concerned if making the garden into another room of your home helps get someone out and interested in the green bits, then that’s a success, as long as it has something of use to wildlife.  However, like some agricultural land that looks green but is just a huge monoculture, even the prettiest of gardens can be barren because of a lack of the right infrastructure, poor choice of plants and use of chemicals.

DWT has a great wildlife gardening scheme.  The prize-giving element is supported by a premier group of garden centres The Gardens Group.  The number of people on the scheme and getting plaques is spiralling.  So why isn’t everyone on-board?  Recently I attended a talk by gardening writer Kate Bradbury who showed how she made a beautiful and useful wildlife garden out of a 5m2 mess of rubble and ugly terrace. If she can make an oasis for wildlife in the middle of Brighton then we can all do something, whatever our motivation is.

A wildlife garden border © Simon Cripps (Image at top of page: The wildlife garden at the Kingcombe Centre. © Simon Cripps)

So what’s stopping you?

I wonder if what is stopping yet more progress are a number of preconceptions:

  1. I don’t want a scruffy garden.  Wildlife gardens aren’t just the scruffy bits you don’t look after.  They can be filled with a range of beautiful plants that perform tasks such as shelter, pollination or food.  Also, if you do leave anything scruffy you can always blame it on the wildlife.
  2. I don’t have green fingers.  Many wildlife garden plants can be thought of as weeds in another context.  Easier to grow than some exotic prima donnas.  Impress friends and neighbours with the minimum of knowledge.
  3. 3. I don’t have time for gardening. A wildflower mini-meadow only needs cutting twice per year.  More time for a glass of Pino and a good book to the backdrop of tweets and buzzes.
  4. I don’t have space.  Anything can help, from buckets to baskets and the right sort of hedges.  Provide it and they will come.  A foxglove sticking out of a broken watering can makes you look very artistic.
  5. I don’t want the garden covered in vermin such as rats or slugs. Hopefully you will get more mammals such as hedgehogs or foxes – jewels in your crown.  Make sure you leave gaps in your fence for them.  You should get less pests because the ecosystem will be far more balanced.  A sort of miniature Serengeti out of your window.

Making a difference

I like the idea of stepping stones to join up the countryside again.  On a landscape scale we need to be linking nature reserves and protected areas together.  Towns, roads, monoculture agriculture, all help to isolate pockets of wildlife so that they are more at risk of collapse.  Conservationists need to be working far more with different groups of people and different types of land (and sea) to increase connectivity.  For us at DWT that already includes churchyards, schools, businesses, property developers, farmers and road verges.  What have we missed?  Are there more groups that support the natural environment, possibly without even knowing it?

Nature is too important to just be left to conservationists – professional or otherwise.  Nature and our natural environment is something upon which we all depend.  We all need to play a part in its restoration, whatever our motivations might be.  Your garden / yard / business property can all make a huge difference as we become squeezed into less and less place.

If you think your garden is wildlife friendly, why not send us some photos and you could get one of our “Wildlife Friendly Garden” plaques. Read more here.

“Simon Says” – Is Brexit good for the marine environment?

July 6, 2017

pot caught spider crab velvet crab dive picked scallops rod and line caught bass by E Rance

(Above – pot caught spider crab, velvet crab, dive picked scallops and  rod and line caught bass by E Rance)

Gove’s announcement

You will surely have seen the recent announcement by new Environment Minister Michael Gove that as part of the Brexit process the UK will be taking back access to our waters for fishing.  Many commercial fishermen’s groups have been rubbing their hands with glee because this could mean sole access for British fishermen to our waters, unencumbered by EU laws, restrictions and rights.  However, is this a good thing for the health of our seas and therefore for the fishing industry, including here, in Dorset?

As you can imagine this isn’t as simple as kicking foreigners out of our waters so we can fish them ourselves.  There are issues of rights, different agreements and management.  These must be sorted out if we are to move our fisheries onto a more sustainable basis.

The current situation

There are four main legal regimes or agreements which complicate matters.  From 0 – 6 nm (nautical miles) off our shoreline the living marine resources including fish, shellfish and algae (let’s call them fish stocks for short) are exclusively fished by UK fishermen and managed, usually very well, by the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).  In Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight we have the Southern IFCA.  They were set-up under domestic legislation through the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act.

Our Southern IFCA is particularly effective and, despite limited resources, is doing a sterling job of balancing the socio-economic needs of commercial fishermen with trying to restore and protect the health of the marine environment on which their livelihoods are dependant.  They set-up regulations based on good science and consultations, and are overseen by local ‘boards’ comprised of people from a wide range of groups and interests.  I for example sit on their board.  So far so good for 0 – 6 nm.

From 6 – 12 nm fishing is managed by the MMO.  Access to fish foolish enough to stray further out than 6nm is governed by the 1964 London Convention which allows fishing boats from France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland to fish our waters in return for access for our boats to fishing grounds in other countries.  These countries are estimated to catch about 10,000 tonnes of fish per year.  Issues such as overfishing, bycatch and habitat damage still occur in this zone.  Gove is proposing that we leave this agreement.

From 12 – 200 nm is our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is in practice rather less than exclusive as it is governed by the once infamous Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).  However, in recent years the CFP has had some success in curbing some of the more damaging excesses of the fishing industry for example by setting catch limits and tackling bycatch.

We should also not forget the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  It states that countries which share stocks need to collaborate on their conservation.  That is relevant for the UK because many fish species wander around without the slightest regard for national boundaries or Brexit.

(Above – Anchor scars on the seabed at Lyme Bay © Peter Tinsley)

Is Brexit good for the marine environment?

So back to the original question, “is this a good thing for the health of our seas and therefore for the fishing industry?”  If it is to be good for marine conservation and thus for our fishing industry then several things need to be in place.  The CFP has brought order out of chaos, particularly in recent years, and is slowly dragging fisheries back in the direction of sustainability.  Some way to go yet though.  It is extremely important that CFP regulations are translated into domestic legislation post-Brexit.  Regulations that govern: fishing effort (number, size and power of boats); bycatch limits (hopefully catch rather than landing limits); catches (species, size and quantity); and protected areas.  If these aren’t put in place extremely promptly after Brexit and enforcement put into place, such as fisheries protection vessels, then there will likely be a Klondike and our fish populations could be decimated for years to come if not forever.  Many such as bass and cod are teetering on the brink as it is, so we need to use the opportunity of setting up specific, targeted, relevant regulations.  I believe the fishing industry needs to take a long-term view and accept lower, safer, more reliably sustained catches in order that we can build up our populations again rather than fish them to the very limits.  Healthy seas are productive seas.  Brexit provides us with both an opportunity to take our destiny and marine environment into our own hands, but also to damage even what we have if the industry isn’t adequately regulated from day 1.

lobster Julie Hatcher Dorset WTsmaller

(Above – Lobster © Julie Hatcher)

Possible changes

Further, the IFCAs are doing a pretty good job of managing marine resources and the environment.  Their remit could be extended out to 12nm from the current 6nm, as long as they receive sufficient resources to do the job.  Combining this with an extension of the exclusion of large trawlers out from the current 6nm to 12nm could be a useful way forward.

I don’t know the figures, but if we exclude countries from our waters, our fishermen will be excluded from others.  Knowing what an aggressive fishing nation the UK is, that could mean a net loss of income for our industry, but perhaps that will reduce the impact of fishing on other waters and thus improve the environment there.  What will though happen if the big industrial fishing boats of the UK offshore fleet come back to fish in our EEZ?

Looking forward

Brexit could then be good for the marine environment, but only if adequate legislation and good management are introduced here to take over from lost CFP and London Convention regulations.  This is a great opportunity to get our shared marine environment back on a sustainable footing.  Let’s grab that chance and not be side-tracked by political pressure around nationalism and a misunderstanding about what is good for coastal communities.  Sustainability and a healthy marine environment is what we all need.

Kimmeridge Bay by Emma Rance (5)

(Above – Fishing boat in Kimmeridge Bay)