ECOS 38 (3)

The middle classes are now holding back conservation. Conservation bodies should appeal to new categories of the population to get backing for public funds for wildlife protection.

 Marginalising nature conservation

The austerity agenda that has been running for 10 years or so has been a cloak, in my view, for a move to ‘small government’. It has not just been about balancing the books, but rather a political belief that some services should be performed by civil society, if people want them. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was a big nudge in this direction. It’s plain to see that nature conservation is part of that optional category in spending priorities.  

Supporters of this harsh approach despise regulation. For example, I have attended many meetings over the years where representatives of business have said that their members are in favour of nature conservation initiatives as long as it does not bring with it more regulation. This is especially true of farming organisations and it is still farming practices that are the biggest barrier to improvements in the fortunes of our much diminished wildlife.

Progress of sorts

So, nature conservation has been pushed onto the voluntary sector, which in turn has fared really well in many respects. There are lots of successes to point to, such as the now huge area of land in the UK managed by voluntary conservation organisations. It is not enough though. We must have strong regulation and contributions to nature conservation from national and local government.

In 2016 restoration grassland forming part of Muston Meadows National Nature Reserve in Leicestershire was legally ploughed and the ditches deepened, the land having been taken out of Higher Level Stewardship by the farming tenant. Presumably growing crops is more lucrative than grazing land in a government grant scheme. The SSSI land was not affected, but a lot of wildlife was lost. Photo:  Michael Jeves

Of course, Brexit is a real opportunity for us to improve protection for wildlife and we must try to do that. But it will be well down the list of the politicians’ priorities from what we saw in the debates leading up to the recent General Election. Michael Gove is unlikely to be very interested in his environment portfolio and probably will not last too long either, like his predecessor. Relying on science, as argued by Peter Shirley, will not work unfortunately. We have been trying that for decades, as Michael McCarthy passionately pointed out in his excellent book The Moth Snowstorm. When it comes to wildlife we need other arguments, because much of our wildlife is not important to the economy or ecosystem services.

A new constituency for conservation?

I think that we need a new approach that takes into account the views of people outside of the usual white British middle class communities, because we just do not have enough support as things stand. Ironically, perhaps, it is the white British middle classes who are traditionally most resistant to legislation and regulation, as well as the higher taxes which we need to fund nature conservation effectively. It will take time to develop any new approach and Brexit may get in the way.



Head of Conservation, Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust.  The views expressed here are his own.   

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