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“Simon Says” – The failures to turn around climate change

March 31, 2017

Europe’s biggest glacier

During a rest day on a skiing holiday to Chamonix in France this spring my family and I visited the famous glacier at the back of Mont Blanc – the Mer de Glace (sea of ice).  To get to it you travel up the mountain-side in a rack-and-pinion railway.  Once there you are blessed with panoramic views of France’s biggest glacier.  To continue down to the surface of the glacier you descend from the train station by cable-car built in the 1960s.  Imagine my surprise to learn that to get to the glacier itself you have to descend (and then climb on your return) 430 further steps down a hundred or so metres.  How incompetent of the engineers to build a cable car that stopped so far short of its destination.Mer du glass 1

As I climbed down all those steps it soon became evident it was not the engineers who were incompetent.  At regular intervals, I passed signs that indicated the height of the glacier during different years.  Even since I lived in the area 10 years ago there has been a huge retreat in the length and height of this fabulous feature.  From glacier looking up

The 1990 sign, just a quarter of a century ago, was a great height above the current glacier level (note the size of the people walking on the glacier).

In my lifetime this imposing, fabulous natural wonder has become a shadow of its former self.  The reason of course is climate change.  Never before have I seen climate change at such a personal, visceral level and it is pretty shocking. Glacier steps 1990 level

Backsliding on climate

This started me thinking about why we aren’t making more progress with combatting climate change.  We have known about the concept for several decades.  Science has, in recent years, been amassing more and more evidence that the cause is man-made – by burning fossil fuels at a hugely faster rate than they were originally laid down.  This “inconvenient truth” is therefore beyond reasonable doubt, as is the likely damaging effects on nature, our environment, people’s health and business.  The Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015) agreements marked important steps to protecting our planet and our own place within it. Since then though there has been considerable backsliding to the point where a US Republican government is actively rolling back Obama’s climate change actions.  In our own country, development funding is being hurled at projects with only the scantest of regards for climate change mitigation (reducing emissions).  Where climate or carbon footprints are actually mentioned, they tend to be entangled in cost savings for business rather than emissions reduction.

Why are we failing?

I have a, perhaps controversial, theory as to why we are losing ground, and it goes like this.  Reducing our carbon footprint so that climate change impacts are reduced permeates all aspects of our modern life.  We use energy or resources, which also consume energy, in almost everything we do.  Therefore if we are to make significant, meaningful changes to our carbon use that will bring global temperature changes below the desired 1.5°C change, we have to make significant, meaningful changes to the way we go about our lives and our businesses.

This is where I believe at least one problem arises.  Climate campaigners have in the past been too worthy and too aggressive.  Not all of course, but during recent years people and businesses have been made to feel increasingly guilty for living their lives.  Now admittedly most of us live well outside of anything that could be considered sustainable.  There is then no arguing with the need for us and our businesses to greatly reduce our carbon footprints in as many ways as possible, but I believe the climate campaigning has been too harassing and unrealistic.  If a goal appears unachievable then people give up.  Worse still, as we are currently seeing, business and some governments seek other theories and may even work to undermine climate change mitigation.  Environmentalism gets a bad name if it becomes too strident and this can cause the sort of backlash we are seeing at the moment.


Working with climate not against it

We need a balanced and reasoned approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation just as we do for so many other environmental issues.  We must find ever more innovative ways for working with communities and business rather than just campaigning against them.  The same end needs to be achieved, but we have a better chance of success if we look for overlapping aims and priorities.

Not all of this is bad because carbon emissions are inexorably linked to efficiency, which in turn is linked to cost savings.  Climate change mitigation is the smart commercial thing to do because it makes your company more efficient and competitive.  Working, as now to make available measures of success in reducing our carbon footprints and technology to do so, such as greater access to renewable energy and reductions in waste, is the way forward, not purely strident, guilt-laden criticism.

Playing nice won’t always get us there

The key is to provide the right incentives and disincentives to push industry and commerce in the right direction. In the case of market failure, where the invisible hand of the market fails to provide and protect public goods, such as a stable climate and oceans, there is still a need for government and the public to push it in the right direction. Much of it will be collaborative, but where the costs to specific industries (i.e. fossil fuel industries, transportation) and the profits being made, are too high, playing nice won’t get us there. The measures will have to be more drastic.  We the public can therefore make small individual contributions to reducing our own emissions, but the real power of working with individuals is harnessing public demand for change in industry so that they want to pursue the benefits of a more sustainable approach.

That French glacier may only be a highly visible symptom of the problem, but we must ensure we hand on glaciers to our children.  I don’t want to lose them on my shift.

DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps.

Photos (in order):

  • France’s Mer de Glace glacier © Simon Cripps
  • View from the glacier © Simon Cripps
  • Height of the glacier in 1990 © Simon Cripps
  • Climate change demonstration



“Simon Says” – Junk food

March 1, 2017

Something fishy

The tipper truck drove down the dirt track to a pretty typical municipal dump.  This one was in New Zealand.  As usual it reversed up to the edge of the ever increasing pile of waste and started to raise its huge carrier.  Immediately the seagulls got excited as the red waste started to slide out of the rear.  They moved in for scraps, but this time it was a Klondike for gulls.  Tonne upon tonne of fresh prime fish, thousands in number, slithered onto the dump site.  This was a sight that has stayed with me for years.  Not just because this was a wicked waste of limited natural resources, but worse than that it was a species of fish called orange roughy which can live for 150 years.  What had happened was a trawler had completely fished out a seamount in the Indian Ocean, taken the catch home, but had been unable to find a market.  The seamount may never be repopulated.  A shocking depletion of a natural resource that ended up as waste.


At the other end of the scale, we’ve all been guilty of throwing out food that is probably good but past its sell by date.  There are similar, if not so harrowing, stories of food waste from developed countries around the world – tomatoes, carrots, milk, the list goes on.  We’ve all seen farmers in front of piles of carrots too ugly to sell, or skips behind supermarkets filled with fine food a millisecond out of date.

Massive quantities

The quantities of food wasted are shocking:  40% of all food in the US, and 88 million tonnes per year in the EU worth 143 billion euros.  The UK is at the top of waste dump in the EU with 15 million tonnes of food wasted per year, 7.3 million tonnes  of which going to landfill.  The social implications of this huge waste are well publicised: 8.4 million UK families struggle to put food on the table, and we pay the higher prices that this waste maintains.  There is a strong correlation between income and waste with poorer households letting less go to waste.

But what about the environment?

The impacts on our environment are less publicised but are profound in Dorset and across the world.  Perhaps most obviously there is the waste of land that this causes.  Worldwide about one-third of farm land area is used to grow food that is wasted. Within Dorset that average may well be different, but the principle is the same.  A huge amount of land that could be used for nature and wildlife, either in whole blocks, or within current farming systems, has been lost because of the over-production necessitated by food waste.


Then there’s the resources that go into food production that are also wasted.  It takes about 15,400 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef and 1,600 litres to produce just 1 kg of bread.  Unbelievable!  Worldwide some boffin has estimated that 550 billion cubic metres of water are wasted on crops we never eat.  In this time of ever decreasing water resources at home and abroad, this has to be reduced.  Food that goes to landfill is not only a serious waste of a diminishing landfill resource especially in the UK, but is also a major climate change driver.  The lack of oxygen in a landfill causes gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and the greenhouse gas methane.  We have to do all we can to reduce such gases.  Think also of the energy that goes into food that is wasted in the form of fuel for tractors, electricity etc.


From compost heaps to mashed potatoes

The solutions are well documented but hard to achieve.  They need to be at all stages in the food chain from production on the farm, through retail, to disposal.  The French government banned supermarkets from destroying unsold food, obliging them to give it to charities or for other uses such as animal feed.  We have a lot more work to do to accept produce that does not look perfect.  Why waste a mountain of carrots because they aren’t a standard shape?  Many Councils including Dorset (9,300 tonnes per quarter) and Bournemouth (8.4 tonnes per day) separately collect food waste and Poole collects garden waste only, all of which greatly reduces the quantity of landfill, but that isn’t the norm in England, though it is in Wales which has a far better record.

I feel in Dorset and the UK, perhaps controversially, that this is a symptom that we don’t value or pay enough for food which does not reflect the environmental cost of production.  Farmers need to be better rewarded for their work and some of that reward passed on to protect the health of the environment from which the food is derived.  Conversely I don’t have much sympathy for a farmer stood in front of a huge pile of root vegetables to be wasted because they are the wrong shape.  We all have to get better at innovating and using other products such as diced or mashed veg, thus also value-adding the product.

Let’s beat this

Wasted food is a social, economic and environmental scourge of our modern society.  In these days of spiralling populations, greater competition for land, wildlife being squashed to the margins, and an ever more noticeably changing climate, this is one issue with big impacts for conservation that we all as individuals can do something about.

By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps.

Top photo – Orange roughy being dumped in New Zealand; middle photo – the Gussage stream (© DWT) surrounded with fields in Dorset; bottom photo – maize being harvested.

“Simon Says” – Trust me, I’m a doctor

February 3, 2017

twt_mywildlife_dorsetposters_tomfinnIt is said that we have now entered a ‘post-truth age’.  Many have taken this to mean that we cannot expect our leaders, politicians and public advisors to necessarily speak the truth.  Therefore we must be constantly vigilant to watch out for what is true and what is not.

I don’t think that is what the phrase means.  We are now, as far as I am aware, in a time in which truth, facts and expertise are less important than intentions and feelings.  In other words don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.  It is not that what is being said is untrue, it is more that the details of truth are unimportant to many people.  In a world where we are inundated with information in any format we wish, we seldom have time to study the detail behind the rhetoric.

Of course the classic example of post-truth is Trump’s promise to build a wall with Mexico.  Few of the less extremists believed that bricks would actually be laid.  Most of his followers appreciated the sentiment, and others believed it to be a metaphorical wall, but a wall nevertheless.fence-on-the-international-bridge-near-mcallen-texas-john-sullivan

(Above – Fence on the international bridge near McAllen, Texas. © John Sullivan)

This has a lot to do with us working in wildlife and environment.  Often what we propose is either a different way of doing something (e.g. basing the economy on natural resources rather than road infrastructure) or downright counter-intuitive (such as not culling badgers to reduce bTB).  Most of us in this business are scientists – we value a logical, reasoned argument backed up by facts and preferably data.  The problem is that not all of the world, not even much of it, seems to think that way.  Numerous behavioural studies and experience in arenas from marketing to risk management have shown that people frequently make decisions based on their heart rather than their head – even scientists.

Those of us who work to influence people to support nature and the environment need to work with this rather than fight against it.  I am writing this blog travelling back from a marine conference that was full of people bemoaning the fact that the government is not making evidence-based decisions.  Fishing quotas aren’t based on scientific advice; enough Marine Protected Areas aren’t being designated to form a coherent network; environment plays second fiddle to industry.  The list goes on.


(Above – Fishing boat at Kimmeridge © Emma Rance)

I believe the post-truth era gives environmentalists more opportunities than challenges, but we have to learn to take it in two steps.  We have to first win the heart and then the mind.  Once Nigel Farage got people to believe he shared their values and aims, those supporters were happy to leave him to work out the details of Brexit.  Using this philosophy the first step is to convince the audience, whether they be the general public, businesses, or MPs, to believe that we hold the same values as them and thus that we understand their hopes, fears and aspirations.  This has to be truthful or we lose credibility.  Post-truth does not mean lying, it means focussing on what people think is important rather than necessarily the data that proves it.

This works at a large or a small scale.  To convince the public that they should support the natural environment, or become members of DWT we have to make some broad messages about the value of the environment to their everyday lives, be that health, wealth or happiness.  Whilst, thank goodness, some people are motivated by the knowledge that an owl population has declined by 29% in 3 years, many are not.

We have to engage with the hearts of that majority with something other than technical evidence.  We are learning to do that.  The Wildlife Trust’s My Wild Life campaign was the first dip of our toe into that pool.  It showed that almost no matter what your priorities in life, a healthy nature would be good for you and yours.  It also showed that we in DWT are on your side to help with that. The next step is to give the facts once we have been trusted.

Another good example is our work through the Local Nature Partnership to influence economic development in the county funded by the Local Enterprise Partnership.  Our first step with the LEP was to generically show that we are not against the right kind of economic development and to agree common goals.  Once we have that understanding we can follow-up with specific facts such as the report on the value of environment to the Dorset economy.

If there is a backlash against political or intellectual ‘elite’, which we are seeing in the US and Britain, then even fact and science led organisations such as DWT need to work on showing we have society’s interests at heart, which we certainly do.  Logical, evidence-based arguments alone just aren’t cutting it.  This is no bad thing because fundamental to our view is that society is entirely dependent on a healthy nature with all the resources and services from food to wellbeing that it provides.  Post-truth forces us to be less elitist about the arguments we use and more fundamental in our approach.  Trust me, I know this, I’m a doctor.

By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps

“Simon Says” – Is conservation a good or bad news story?

January 5, 2017

whatliesunder-ferdi-rizkiyantoA recent article in The Guardian has sparked an interesting debate about how conservation messages should be spread.  The article entitled, ‘Planet Earth II ‘a disaster for world’s wildlife’ says rival nature producer’ reports on comments from a BBC Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games.  Martin’s concern, as presented, is that the hugely popular Planet Earth II series is, “an escapist wildlife fantasy” which does not show the damage to wildlife and our environment by humans.

Whilst there has been quite a backlash to this view and perceived criticism of the series, it is perfectly reasonable to debate how conservation is presented, though “a disaster for wildlife” is perhaps overstating matters somewhat.  In this blog I wanted to share with you some of the fundamental issues we grapple with in conservation that may not be obvious to the observer.  This is certainly one of those, i.e. should conservation be presented as good or bad news?

Good and bad

There are numerous examples of how this plays out in the media.  Elephants are perhaps the most obvious.  Few creatures are as impressive, majestic and iconic of conservation challenges.  As a conservation issue they are challenging.  Their numbers are diminishing, despite mammoth efforts, because of poaching and because they are big, hungry and require space.   Consequently all we tend to see are pictures of elephants rampaging through crops chased by angry villagers, or carcasses with their tusks removed.  In focussing on the problems we perhaps forget what a sensational creature the elephant is, its complex social structure, and its benefit to the ecology and economics of the regions in which it lives.

There are many other similar stories about wildlife or the environment with a positive or negative perspective: tigers and tiger poaching; whales and whaling; fish and commercial fishing; rainforest ecology and degradation; climate change and economic effects; coral reef beauty and pollution, to name just a few.


In all those cases and many others, including very often in Dorset Wildlife Trust’s work, we need to think carefully about how we present a conservation challenge.  This is often determined by who the target group is and what we think is likely to motivate that group to take the action required.  Even here though opinion is frequently divided because it is a central tenant of communications that an imperative or a jeopardy is essential to strike a message home.  True enough, if everything is perfect then why should action be needed, be that new laws, increased enforcement, fundraising, or political pressure?

My wife for instance often complains that all she hears from conservationists is that they are whining about problems and how guilty we should all feel.

Showing the wonder of nature

Winning the hearts and minds of people is a complex and difficult task.  This is why corporations spend millions on advertising and brand recognition.  Different people are motivated by different messages.  Some are persuaded more by logical, factual arguments, whilst others are more passionate or emotional and driven by messages to the heart.

The conservation movement as a whole has failed to engage enough people to support nature and the natural environment.  We construct clever, scientific, factual cases based on clear imperatives, but does that always work?  Clearly not.  Our own government for example has shown that at the political level decisions are not evidence-based.  Even the US election and the Brexit referendum showed that people commonly voted from the heart rather than as a result of factual information.

There is a place for awe and wonder to show people what a wonderful natural world we live in and to inspire love and support for it.  I like to think of myself as a logical scientist, but actually if I look back, much of what inspired me to a career in conservation was a love of the sea (specifically Poole Harbour), visits to the zoo, and stories from Hans & Lotte Haas, Jacques Cousteau, and most importantly of all, Sir David Attenborough.

The Planet Earth II series with its stunning photography, animal-based perspectives and engaging storylines has spellbound 12 million viewers.  Far more than the memberships of the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust together.  There is a place for such inspiration – to motivate a new generation that will hopefully do better than we did, and to engage the rest of us to take action when the opportunity arises.  I believe that to preach in such a series about the damage humans are doing and the perilous state of nature would have turned off many of the audience and reduced the pleasure of the experience.

A balanced approach

Sir David’s approach throughout his career seems to have been one of presenting a positive and inspiring picture.  We all like to be part of success and few more so than politicians who make so many important decisions effecting wildlife.  It was Sir David Attenborough that President Obama chose for that very public advice.  I though admire Martin Hughes-Games for bravely raising this issue as it needs to be discussed.

In DWT, as in many conservation organisations, we have then thought this through.  We keep our arguments rational, logical and evidence-based to maintain our credibility.  We constantly seek to present a solution if we raise a problem.  We need to show the imperative of the work we do in order to show the importance of taking action. However, we also need to have in place a fundamental love of wildlife and the environment for all of the above to work.  Without that bedrock of awe and wonder we risk not engaging people as they need to be engaged – through their heart.

By Dr Simon Cripps – DWT Chief Executive

Photos: (Top) What lies under © Ferdi Rizkiyanto


“Simon says” – How green is your belt?

November 30, 2016

view-to-poole-from-upton-heath-mark-heighesIf the broadsheet newspapers are to be believed recently, England is heading towards an era of urban sprawl and environmental degradation as developers get access to sacrosanct green belt land.  The Telegraph talked last month about 300,000 new homes in 14 green belts, and The Times last week revealed that Ministers had been urged to support building on green belt to ease the ‘housing crisis’.

Green belt – what it is and what it isn’t

As environmentalists it is obvious that we should be opposing this development isn’t it?  Well actually I don’t believe it is as simple as that.  First of all green belts are not just nature conservation designations.  They are a development planning restriction.  They aren’t a new concept either.  In his review of green belts for Dorset’s Local Nature Partnership (, Simon Williams described the history of the concept which goes way back to 1580 when Queen Elizabeth established a three-mile cordon sanitaire around London.

It wasn’t until 1947 and eventually 1955 that it became enshrined in our modern laws.  Not to protect landscape or nature, but ‘to provide a girdle of open space around major conurbations’.  The concept does not define the quality of the land to be protected, merely a line on a map outside which development should not normally occur.  Green belt is specified land around the country’s major conurbations, not just open countryside, and not around towns and villages as is sometimes thought.

What do we want green belt to be?

Probably few would doubt the continued value of preventing urban sprawl.  How would our country look and feel if it was one long suburban sprawl from London to Liverpool, as it is around Tokyo?  You may have a different view, but I for one would prefer to live where there was a marked contrast between town and country, not a bland indistinguishable blend of the two.

It has been a criticism of green belt that it primarily benefits the more wealthy who can afford to live there – look at the New Forest for example.  Green belt can though be a huge benefit to urban residents if there is adequate access and it is of good enough quality.  DWT’s own Great Heath project is an example of this.  Heritage Lottery Fund supported the project because of the access it gave to communities around the conurbations of Poole and Bournemouth.

Currently the quality of green belt land on the urban fringe can include anything from internationally important heathlands to a pretty tatty mix of football pitches, pony paddocks and monoculture agriculture.  Nothing wrong with the latter three in the right place, but I think it is a wasted opportunity not to engage communities and get a wide range of people out on high quality green-space in the vicinity of where they live.  Look how popular Moors Valley, Brownsea Island, Upton Heath and Badbury Rings are.  All close to the conurbation in Dorset.

In these days of kids becoming increasingly isolated from nature, the population becoming more obese, and increases in mental ill health and fitness related illnesses, we need more natural places for people to exercise or relax and to recharge our batteries.  Green belt can do that, but not used as it is today, i.e. purely as open land to separate towns.

A green belt for people and nature

So let’s then think about how green belts could be better set up and used so that they benefit modern-day communities, not just for a single use.  That requires that we give up the concept of green belt as sacrosanct.  Easy for us, but much harder for councillors and some MPs who have been elected on a ticket of defending green belt to the death.

The first thing to ensure is that the size and connectivity of the green belt is not eroded – it is not just the green part of green belt that is important but also the belt.  Government has talked about a land-swap, though CPRE has concerns as they say it is far easier to get land for development than to set aside land as green belt.  I like the idea of land-swap because it retains the size and connectivity of the green belt, but admits that the exact location of the 1955 designations may not be as relevant today.

Developer pays

Securing land for public use, dedicated to local authorities or environmental organisations, and for funding improvements to the quality of green space is hard to come by these days.  Improvements to access, bike paths, restoring habitats, interpretation, land management, fencing, etc., all cost money both in the initial set-up and ongoing management.  If people are to use the land and enjoy nature, the quality of the experience often has to be improved over what is currently on offer within our green belts.  Who is going to pay for this?  This is where developer contributions come in, in the form of a green belt levy, mitigation costs, or more formal overarching section 106 agreements (legal planning obligations).  This funding must though be used for nature and environment and not just siphoned into other levies for example for new roundabouts and bridges.  There needs to be a net gain for the natural environment.  Simply opposing development at all costs will not generate the benefits that have the potential to improve quality of life, health and wellbeing.

So in summary, my personal view is that in certain, controlled circumstances development on green belt land can be a good thing for the environment and for communities, but we must ensure that the amount of green belt land does not decrease and the quality of the land in terms of nature and amenity increases – paid for by the development itself.  We may not be able to stop progress, but we can certainly make it a force for good.  What do you think?

By DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps

Photo: View to Poole from Upton Heath © Mark Heighes

Wildlife Skills communications week in Devon

November 21, 2016
Lake at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Lake at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Last week we went on our second residential of the traineeship, down to Devon. It was a great week filled with important training where we learnt new skills and challenged ourselves. Over the course of the week we got up to a variety of activities.

On our arrival in Okehampton it was good to catch up with our fellow trainees. After sharing what we had been up to over lunch it was time for our first activity of the week, a high ropes session. Facing our fears, we managed to complete several teamwork tasks including climbing a Jacob’s Ladder as a group. We had to work together helping each other to get our team as high up the ladder as possible in five minutes. In the evening, we had a presentation skills training session where we were given useful tips on how to deliver an engaging talk to an audience. We could take things from this session to use in our own presentations we had prepared for this week.

Tuesday was spent cracking on with our training, this time though we were learning all about communicating through the media and how to become social media gurus! The evening session gave us a chance to practice our presentation skills, presenting to the rest of the group about our favourite aspects of the traineeship so far. Delivering a presentation can be a bit of a daunting task so this was a great opportunity to practice and improve at it.

It was time to get out and about on our third day. We took a trip to Meeth Quarry Nature Reserve where we were given a guided walk of the site lead by the Devon practical trainees. It was interesting to learn about how the former clay quarry has become a haven for wildlife with its range of habitats from its lakes and ponds to its woodland and grassland which are grazed by ponies. We also took part in a practical conservation task to restore a pond. A mass of trainees made light work of clearing scrub and digging the pond base out, even the rain couldn’t stop us!

Pony at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

Pony at Meeth Quarry, copyright Lizzie Parris

We were joined by Chris Salisbury from Wildwise who delivered a workshop about storytelling. To begin the session, he told us a short story whilst playing an instrument called a tank drum. We all listened intently, captivated by his voice and the accompanying music and gestures. The session involved a few different activities to get us thinking creatively and understanding the power of storytelling in engaging people with nature and wildlife.

Our final day provided some glorious sunshine for us to take part in a guided walk lead by one of Devon’s trainees to Black-a-Tor Copse National Nature Reserve. Black-a-Tor Copse is a good example of a high altitude oak woodland in Britain and was a new type of habitat for us to experience. Many of the trees here support nationally important lichen and mosses.

Stream on Dartmoor, copyright Hazel Pittwood

Stream on Dartmoor, copyright Hazel Pittwood

Dartmoor, copyright Lizzie Parris

Dartmoor, copyright Lizzie Parris

Engagement trainee Hazel really enjoyed the training week and reported, “The highlight of our Okehampton training week for me was Black-a-Tor Copse.  I loved spending time amongst the gnarled oak trees of the ancient woodland, draped in lichen and moss. If ever I saw a place that resembled the domains of faeries and other folk of fantasy tales, this was it! Our eyes were met with an entire spectrum of lush greens. A Red Admiral butterfly glided past and came to rest on a branch, furiously vibrating its wings to warm up. The adjacent stream provided a peaceful soundtrack to our visit and the low autumn sunlight illuminated the glowing golds, yellows and reds of the other trees nearby. It was quite simply a magical place to behold! Other elements of the trip I thoroughly enjoyed were our visit to Meeth quarry and our practical task there (restoring a pond), hearing what my fellow trainees have been up to when we all delivered presentations to each other and the session about using storytelling skills as a way to engage people with the wonders of the natural world.”

Black a Tor Copse, copyright Lizzie Parris

Black a Tor Copse, copyright Lizzie Parris


Lizzie Parris, West Dorset Practical Conservation trainee

“Simon says” – Marine Protected Features

November 3, 2016

undelute-ray-peter-tinsley-2In this blog at the beginning of each month I hope to be giving some topical insights into what goes on behind the scenes in conservation and environment.  I will try and be thought-provoking and sometimes even controversial, but I hope not divisive.  The views expressed here are not necessarily the policy of DWT, but are my own thoughts laid out for you to judge – for better or worse.  Please pass this blog on to your networks if you found it interesting.

Marine Protected Features

I have been an oceanographer / marine biologist for all my career and so I constantly strive to ensure that marine conservation is not the poor cousin to the work we do on land.  There is however no getting over the fact that humans are, with a few notable exceptions like Jacques Cousteau and Duncan Goodhew, a terrestrial species, so we have to work that much harder to raise the profile of the importance of the massive range of ecosystems that cover two thirds of our planet and are vital to our very survival.

Whilst marine conservation and management has its particular challenges, such as a lack of ownership and the famous ‘tragedy of the commons’, we salty types like to think we are every bit as advanced in our thinking as those poor individuals constrained to working on land.  The subject of my blog this month has both positive and negative elements to it, and I leave you to judge which prevail.  As an optimist I side very much on the positive side of the great progress made.

Decades ago in response to the decline of some notable species, plans were set up for their protection and recovery.  These plans were targeted at the species of concern, often to the exclusion of other species.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on the nature of the plan and the species.  The problem with such a focussed approach is that all life coexists in ecosystems within which there is a myriad of inter-relationships.  Hence a change in one element of the system can cause unexpected consequences elsewhere.  A good example of this is the damage caused to bees by neonicotinoids used to control aphids.  Another example is that over £300 million has been raised for tiger conservation because people generously donate to iconic species rather than less sexy ecosystem processes.  It is though the latter which need to be addressed to protect tigers, such as habitat destruction, watershed management and prey abundance.  As Dorset based conservationist Mark Carwardine says, there is a place for both approaches.  Certainly though, targeting on just one species or element of the ecosystem has considerable limitations.

Moving then back offshore, this lesson does not appear to have been learnt by national marine legislators – and it drives me up the wall.  The story goes like this.  The EU Habitats Directive (long may it live in a post-Brexit world), seeks to conserve key rare, threatened or endemic plants and animals.  Good start.  Over 200 habitat types were also identified for protection.  Better still – sounds promising.  At sea a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) known as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) were identified and designated by member States across Europe.  These SACs were augmented by a national network of MPAs called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) under UK law designed to protect a representative range of nationally important features and provide an ecologically coherent network. An aside here is that I don’t know anyone brave enough to suggest what an ecologically coherent network actually looks like.

This all sounds wonderful and indeed it is and is long overdue.  Whilst the areas set up to protect the features in the SACs and MCZs are way less than the 40% of sea area recommended by Prof Callum Roberts, they are adding up to a significant area of protection.  Dorset in particular appears to be leading the way both in designation and regulation.  The government and our fabulous local regulator the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA) should be proud of that as it will help restore the health of the sea and increase productivity for fishermen.  Now that we are at the stage of actually regulating for their protection however, usually by local fisheries bylaws, comes the regression to a bygone age of conservation.  In order to avoid legal challenge, which may or may not be successful, by groups opposed to MPAs, the locally written bylaws can only protect the features (species or habitat) in the MPA not the whole MPA itself.  Bonkers.  The local regulators, who do their best to balance conservation and commercial interests, have their hands tied by national legislation.

There are several consequences of this bizarre step.  Firstly, it means that the size of the protected areas, designed and dimensioned to form a coherent network, is very much smaller than envisaged and may well not be sufficiently large.  Secondly, the risk of damage by activities the bylaws are set up to limit, such as bottom trawling or aggregate dredging, is far greater as they will be allowed within the MPA right up to the feature.  Thirdly, an ecosystem comprises a range of habitats and so protecting just one is a risky strategy.  In the Great Barrier Reef, research showed that the featureless sandy areas between reefs were vital for the productivity of the coral reefs themselves.

This feature-based approach at sea is years behind conservation thinking.  We must get the government advisors like JNCC to recommend the changes in law to protect our valiant local regulators and move to a more ecosystem-based approach, especially in such a fluid, high energy environment as the sea, by protecting and enforcing good management in the whole of the MPA.  If not we will need more MPAs and a greater area under protection.  Far better to protect not just the species or feature, but the function and inter-relationships ecology relies on.  We’ve made great progress of late, and the network we have, though imperfect, will restore our degraded seas, but with just a little more thought and leadership at a national level we could end up with a system of MPAs that has the best possible chance of sustainably managed seas.

Image:  Undulate ray in Dorset © Peter Tinsley