Going Viral – Nature moves into the 21st Century

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all that good social media stuff. It’s a huge part of how most of us live our daily lives in the 21st century. Environmental charities are just about starting to cotton-on to this fact and there have been a range of movements, campaigns and ‘virals’ aimed at pushing the environmental agenda. But do we risk losing sight of what the ultimate objective of these is?


Bob: Fluffy idealist or sinister tat peddler?

#VoteBob – it’s the latest in a line of marketing exercises dreamt up by PR departments of our environmental charities. It’s about time the sector embraced the 21st century, it really is. And I do admire the sentiment, but I have definite reservations about the aims behind it.

It does not take long to figure out that Bob is no independent squirrel, working for the good of nature. Behind him he has the might of one of the largest charities in the country, the RSPB. I’ve no issue with this being an RSPB campaign, but the disingenuous way it is portrayed as some kind of grass roots movement alarms me. It smacks of a stealthy attempt at spreading its tentacles into other areas, such as with the recent ‘Giving Nature a Home’ move they have made away from mere bird fanciers to defenders of nature everywhere. Why not say straight up that Bob works for the RSPB?

Having said this, the links to the RSPB site are all over the Vote Bob website as it proudly displays itself as his biggest supporter. But I think the most telling issue I have with this campaign is the merchandise. Right there, next to the button that you can click to ‘Vote for Bob’ is the shop. Support Bob by buying a fluffy toy, T-Shirt or mug! And of course these redirect straight to the RSPB shop.

Just to get this straight, I’m completely behind the move of environmental charities into the world of online marketing and viral campaigns. I’m not a complete luddite. I’m expressing this opinion in a blog for Christ sake. But I do query the motive behind #VoteBob and some of the other recent campaigns. The aim of marketing is unquestionably to bring in more revenue and the primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of, y’know, actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine, and one I’m sure I will return to soon. There is something about the #VoteBob campaign that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. And I think this is my main issue with Bob, beyond my obvious concerns that it is merely a way to drive yet more cash to RSPB. It’s a missed opportunity. Vote for Bob and vote for nature…and that’s it. Click a button, show your support. You don’t even have to actually go outside and embrace nature, support any specific measure or policy, or even understand any of the problems the environment currently faces. It is the equivalent of having a huge ‘like’ button for nature.

So what can it achieve? Bobs stated aim is that a Vote for Bob is a vote for nature. I laudable message, certainly. But where’s the meat? How will he support nature? What methods will he use? Bob believes that by getting lots of people to ‘like’ nature he can get it on the political agenda. And indeed, MPs can also sign up and back Bob. But how does getting MPs to sign up actually push the many different agendas and issues on the environmental spectrum? I asked Bob (through the medium of Twitter, he’s a very technology-savvy squirrel) how it all worked. He replied:

So far, so vague. If you were a politician and you found a nice campaign with a groundswell of support and no actual solid commitments and agendas, wouldn’t you sign up for it? It is a no lose situation. There is nothing here to hold them to or to call them out on at a later date.

Yes, there is a place for this kind of marketing to promote the work of charities, but it cannot replace policy. But Bob is a very cute and fluffy figurehead, and I’m sure he will sell a lot of merchandise for the RSPB. Is Bob anymore than a vote to salve your conscience, a sop for your principles and ethics without having to actually leave your desktop? Is this environmental activism for the 21st century – to battle fracking, habitat destruction and development one twitter follower at a time? It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire.

This all reminds me that I need to rewatch ‘Project Wild Thing’, a recent documentary about reconnecting children with nature and the danger of screen time. It’s probably the most ‘successful’ of the recent media led campaigns in terms of people signing up online (I don’t think I need to highlight the irony of this point, though it appears I just did). I will post about that hopefully next week.

*Authors note – Red Squirrels have it tough. If habitat loss, squirrelpox and invasive species weren’t bad enough, they’ve now got leprosy to deal with. Bob, why not make the first item in your manifesto signing MPs up to back methods for your own protection, such as removing disease vectors?


Social Stigmatising of the Invasive Species Issue

Authors note: This piece has absolutely nothing to do with immigration or racism. If you find something in it that endorses or opposes your view on these subjects, you have misread it.

Invasive species have been getting a rough deal recently. And not from where you might expect. Ecologists and Conservationists have long known about the danger of invasive species, not just their effect on native habitats and species but the homogenisation of the landscape that can result from their unchecked advance. Recently though, a number of other people have started getting in on the act, and for all the wrong reasons.

Nigel Farage: Not an ecologist

Nigel Farage: Not an ecologist

As the issue of invasive species and the detrimental effect they can have on ‘balanced’ ecosystems has increased, there are those who have sought to profit by putting forward their own cultural and social spin on a scientific problem. It bears repeating, the issue of invasive species is not analogous to any human social equivalent, and to say otherwise betrays only scientific ignorance or a wilful misrepresentation for ones one pernicious means (Farage, I’m looking at you and your ilk). It’s an issue all ecologists must be versed in and vocal about on every opportunity, lest we be tarnished by association with right wing rhetoric.

As an example of this tarnishing, proposed culls of grey squirrel have frequently been discussed in connection with words such as fascism and racism. This piece, as just one instance, makes the assumption that one animal is being hunted ‘based solely on the colour of its fur’ (it most certainly isn’t). It also goes on to state “have the three hundred people who joined in the hunt not yet made the connection between this cull and a little thing called racism?” I would hope that they haven’t, because there is no connection and I should not need to expand on why there is no connection. Throwing out the word racism in these situations is lazy, irresponsible sensationalism.


Grey Squirrels: Not to be confused with humans

But it’s not just fringe bloggers who are guilty. Oh no. Take Chris Packham for example, who here voices concern that we might be ‘distracted by a small band of lunatics who are insidiously bogged down and blinded by sentimental racism’ when discussing well meaning efforts to eradicate invasives. For someone whom for many a layman is the face of the wildlife sector in the UK to start throwing this word around where it might stick by association to his fellow professional conservationists and ecologists is downright reckless. But then articles like this are probably the reason Packham is getting worked up (it is not surprisingly from the Mail). Lets look at the opening paragraph to this piece of work: ‘If there was a band of illegal immigrants that cost our economy an estimated £14m per annum, carried a fatal disease that killed off most of the indigenous population and threatened our wildlife and woodlands too, wouldn’t you be keen to go to war with them?’ And there it is, right on the first line – the conflation of illegal immigrants with an invasive species. I also admire the wonderfully inflammatory use of the phrase ‘go to war’ in this paragraph. Sorry, admire isn’t the right word is it? Abhor. I think that’s the one I was looking for. It is both insidious and as subtle as half-a-brick in a sock in its underlying meaning, but that is another issue.

So it seems we get it from both sides. It is curious that the misrepresentation of the invasive species issue as an analogue for immigration and racism sees conservationists allied to perennial foes and vilified by our traditional supporters. Suddenly we find that politicians and certain sections of society who would normally be against our aims and objectives, lest they stand in the way of ‘progress’ are siding with us while those who would normally be our supporters (the left-leaning, the liberal) find themselves in the opposite camp. This may be an overgeneralisation, but it is certainly galling to be referred to as a racist by someone like Packham. It is unfortunate, as I understand that the aim of his piece is to express a similar view to mine (namely, that there is no place for racist thought in invasive policy), he goes too far and by discounting a viable and scientifically driven project like grey squirrel removal, he risks the public similarly discounting and vilifying other such measures.

Some of this stems from a poor versing in scientific thinking in our mainstream media (all the more reason why Packham getting caught up in this is unforgiveable). And there is unquestionably a larger overarching issue here of the misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise, of scientific principals to drive social and cultural policies. The trickledown and take-up of these themes by the general public is a real problem. I have myself been accused of setting a poor example for children when discussing the differences and problems caused by invasive species for their native equivalent. It’s certainly a sensitive topic, but unfortunately one we will have to deal with increasingly as these cultural issues gain a wider audience. On that occasion I explained exactly what the problem was and I hope it clarified things. So please, if you hear anyone make a comparison between invasive species and immigration or racism, take the time to correct them. It’s not big and it’s certainly not clever.

Red Signal Crayfish

Red Signal Crayfish are native to North America and Canada and were originally imported to areas of Scandinavia to boost native crayfish stocks devastated by a ‘crayfish plague’. Ironically, the new imports were found themselves to be carriers of the plague without actually being susceptible. That is irony, isn’t it? I often find myself forgetting the point at which coincidence becomes irony. They can live around 20 years and are able to breed after 2 or 3.

The main impacts on native species are on the White Clawed Crayfish, which have suffered dramatically since the introduction of Signal Crayfish in the 1960’s, dropping by an estimated 95%. Disease is the main reason, although there is also an argument that the more aggressive Signal can out-compete the White Clawed and is more tolerant of pollution.

red signal crayfish

Red Signal Crayfish – Tasty, if you can catch them

So is there a solution in this case? There are a lot of variables to deal with and it currently doesn’t look too great for the White Clawed Crayfish. Cleaning up our waterways to improve potential habitats would help, but that’s a much larger problem. The plague is the main issue here and it does not seem as though the White Clawed Crayfish can offer any opposition. Mortality rates are nigh on 100% in European crayfish species and other options are limited. One glimmer of hope may be gleaned from the very vector of their devastation. Signal Crayfish and other North American species have developed resistance to the crayfish plague, so theoretically the chances are that this could also occur in European crayfish species, however as yet no incidents have been recorded. Is there any way we can realistically intervene to save the species? Small breeding colonies are being promoted in areas of Yorkshire and Bristol, but as the Signal crayfish becomes more and more ubiquitous in our waterways, is this an occasion where we are throwing away resources against an irresistible force?

It would be negligent of us as conservationists not to try, and there are ways in which we can co-opt the public into helping us. And after all that dry information about plague resistance and lifecycles, here is the interesting bit: They’re incredibly tasty, and easy to catch.

A few years back, when I was a volunteer with a wildlife charity in London, we started to find Signal and Turkish crayfish in the Regents Canal. In a waterway already packed with its share of invasive species (Aesculapian snakes, Red-eared Terrapins, and, apparently now snapping turtles) this wasn’t really a surprise. In fact it would have been a much greater surprise to find the native White Clawed Crayfish in a polluted, stagnant waterway such as the Regents. Still, we devised a number of methods to catch them, ranging from bacon on the end of a piece of string to willow-weaved constructions resembling old eel traps. They were all pretty ineffective, but there are much better DIY ideas out there if you have a look around. In other places I’ve found it much more straightforward and you can sometimes literally scoop them up out of the water (if you are careful). It is definitely recommended that you purge any you catch by keeping them in fresh water for a few days. I have previously done this in a reconfigured steel bin in the back yard. My wife was not impressed.

So could we ever remove it? With many of our waterways to polluted or eutrophied to sustain populations of native crayfish, would there be any point in trying to remove the interloper? It’s a long shot, but when conservation can be this tasty, it’s worth a go.

If you are thinking of fishing for Red Signal Crayfish, which I thoroughly recommend, then be sure to contact the Environment Agency first to gain permission.

Volunteering in the conservation sector is evolving, what changes will we see in the next 5 years?

Volunteering is in flux. Those looking to volunteer and what they are looking to gain from it are changing. The volunteering market is becoming competitive and as organisations that rely and thrive on our volunteers, the conservation sector needs to change how and what we offer our volunteers.

Since I was last a regular volunteer, I’ve held two roles that have worked with hugely varying groups of volunteers. As a Senior Project Officer with the London Wildlife Trust, I managed a select and skilled group of volunteers mostly between the ages of 20 and 35, all career orientated and looking to get their first toehold in environmental employment. Most recently, working out in Epping Forest on the fringes of London, the volunteers were hobbyists, generally retired, white, middle-class and generally long-term. This is what the volunteering set up was largely geared towards, but even here in a bastion of traditional conservation volunteering, the intake was moving away from the stale, male, pale stereotype. It would be simplistic to break conservation volunteering into this dichotomy; young vs. old, short-term vs. long-term, careerist vs. hobbyist, but it is certainly a theme and making sure we offer opportunities for both is a key theme in modern volunteer management.

When I first started in the sector with the London Wildlife Trust as part of their graduate trainee scheme in 2008, I came in with a very definite approach; gain as much experience, skills and training in as wide a range as possible in order to get my first job in the sector. I was also working on an ad hoc basis at the time, so my input could be varied and irregular. My experienced mirrored a number at the Trust at the time, as many of my generation began to face up to harsh realities and looked to find ways of expanding and improving their employability. 6 years on, volunteering has changed yet further and it is important that we address our attitude towards volunteering and acknowledge the social, political, cultural trends that influence it. Two key reasons for a change in psychology in the intervening six years can be summed up by two phrases: ‘Big Society’ and ‘Games Makers’. Firstly, the Conservatives made a claim to be the moral defenders and creators of the volunteering movement, while continuing to cut funding and support to voluntary organisations. The notion was widely ridiculed and a backlash ensued, but this benefited the volunteering movement not a bit as it became tainted by association amongst those of a liberal and altruistic nature who would generally be the mainstay of volunteering. Then Games Makers gave every prospective volunteer a distorted and skewed view of glamour and zeitgeist, media interest, general goodwill and approval. Dispelling these notions is key to the future of volunteering: reaffirming the value of volunteering divorced from any political connotations; stressing the need for hard work, commitment and desire and demonstrating that the role is not being used as a replacement for paid staff.

My early experiences have shaped the way I look to manage and work alongside volunteers now as I look to improve what I can offer, learning from what worked in that first experience of volunteering and adapting what did not. I believe an iterative approach is essential to getting the right volunteering set-up for each organisation. To this end, feedback and an openness to exchange of thought and idea as a two-way process should be intrinsic to any volunteering offer. Consideration should be given, depending on the size and scale of the organisation and volunteering community, to setting up a volunteer council, through which constructive comment and evaluation can pass in both directions. This allows volunteers to become involved and invested in their own management and allows for the divesting of some roles normally taken on by the volunteer manager, with obvious benefits on time and finance.

That early hook in the volunteering offer is key in retaining new recruits. Any new volunteer is offering precious time and they need to know that they are committing to both a worthwhile cause about which they are passionate and to an organisation that will support them. For me, this was as simple as a tools talk on my first day and the instruction to pay close attention as next time I’d be asked to talk about one of the tools (if willing, a non-pressure environment is also key). This signalled to me that I was no free labourer but an appreciated and involved member of the team, capable of making valuable contributions to the running of the day. The next time I volunteered I duly took on my part of the talk and this is something I readily incorporated into my own future projects. That first induction session can often play a role, and again represents an opportunity to divest a role to enthusiastic and capable volunteers by getting them involved in inducting new volunteers. I have recently toyed with the idea of implementing a personal development plan for each new volunteer at this stage, giving new volunteers targets to reach for, much as an appraisal or Personal Development Record would do for a regular paid member of staff. This may not be of interest to our ‘hobbyists’, but a short-term ‘careerist’ would value the opportunity to identify and rapidly gain skills and isolate areas requiring training.

Feeling valued is the most key part to retaining and developing our volunteers. The exchange between organisation and volunteer needs to be two-way and as fair as possible with obvious benefits to both sides. Offering a wide program of training and varied volunteering opportunities is imperative; scrub cutting is a valuable exercise but a week of it will disenchant even the most hardcore and dedicated. Advocating the involvement of as many different personnel within an organisation with as wide ranging skill sets as possible to set up a year long volunteering program is a key step to delivering a program of training sessions, mentoring opportunities and volunteering projects. This has obvious value for our careerist as they look to improve their employability, but our hobbyists should not be discounted and expanding the skills of long-term volunteers helps to enhance the delivery in a number of areas.

A former colleague worried about such program being open to abuse by those not willing to put in the hours volunteering and just turning up for training sessions, suggesting some form of reward scheme for training. This is an interesting idea but not one I would support and risks turning volunteering into a competition, creating a further bifurcation between our long-term careerist and short-term hobbyist, not to mention creating an administrative headache. But this attitude attests to an antipathy that can often exist between paid staff and volunteers. From a volunteer’s perspective, and this I have seen increase as charities become further stretched, much irritation can arise when volunteers are utilised to fill previously paid positions under the guise of internships or training. Likewise, staff can see volunteers as at best a drain on their time and resources and at worst a threat to their own positions or future prospects. This, again, is another area where a ‘volunteer council’ can assist, giving voice to these concerns. By involving both sides in the discussion, the value and necessity of the volunteering offer to both volunteer and organisation (and by extension, organisations staff) can be communicated.

The logistical future of conservation volunteering offers will also need to move with the times. Volunteering officers can be hugely skilled in practical areas, this should be encouraged and setting up an intuitive database with a simple and accessible interface can reduce time on administrative duties. Volunteer records I have come across in previous roles have ranged from impenetrable databases to back of a fag packet scribbles. Online means should not be discounted and new initiatives in volunteering will predictably revolve around our screens as organisations utilise social media and new software and applications. Online software such as those supplied by Better Impact will increase ease of monitoring, feedback and administration while applications such as Blue Dot will offer the opportunity to gain rewards through volunteering interactions, the use of which should certainly not be underestimated when encouraging a more techno-savvy demographic. What are now becoming ‘traditional’ forms of social media, Twitter and Facebook, will need to be kept on top of and can have drastic publicity benefits if managed proactively but mismanagement can draw the ire of those with a negative volunteering experience.

Accreditation for training will be a future area of interest for many conservation charities as they look to improve their offer, both for the sake of the volunteer, but also for the publicity and reporting value of such schemes. I believe this will be one of the key areas of advance in conservation volunteering offers as more and more conservation charities begin to provide accredited training schemes in environmental management, community outreach and areas such as species identification.

Care should be taken to ensure volunteering is not undertaken for its own sake, to drive up numbers and hours of volunteers. These are ineffective measures of success, despite the temptation to deal in quantitative values that aid our reporting and fundraising and look great in press releases. A more useful indicator of success of a volunteer offer, given the increase in short-term volunteers, might be those moving into careers in the sector, training sessions delivered and attendance levels, reports of projects completed, volunteer satisfaction, qualifications gained etc. By these means, we change the measure of success of our volunteering offer not as hours achieved but what our volunteers have achieved in those hours.