How the Public View Conservation Works – the Need to Improve our PR

As conservationists, many of the practical measures we take on our nature reserves and green spaces are often unsightly and can appear drastic. When reserves are popular with visitors, and in particular long-standing local residents, this can lead to negative perceptions of the organisation if the rational behind such actions are not thoroughly disseminated to the public and where possible, the local community consulted on the need for interventional measures.

Scrub is a particular area of contention. Scrub cutting and clearance is an everyday part of environmental management, and despite recent leanings towards rewilding it will more than likely always be so. Deciding which areas of scrub to be cleared and which areas to leave for songbirds and invertebrates is a key consideration when working towards enhancing biodiversity. This can lead to dual, competing issues amongst our visitors and managing their reaction is pivotal in gaining the good will that strengthens the long-term future of reserves.

‘Public opinion towards scrub is ambivalent. On the one hand some can perceive it as symbolising neglect and untidiness, while on the other it is valued for high densities of songbirds, its attractiveness to butterflies and the colourful displays of flowers, foliage and fruits. One of the great challenges is to raise public awareness and understanding of the value of scrub and the need to manage it. Better interpretation of its traditional uses and value for wildlife and the landscape will help to achieve this’

The Forum for the Application of Conservation Techniques

In an overly simplistic representation of our two competing issues, we can characterise public reactions to conservation works as inclusive and exclusive. Neither is wrong and both opinions must be respected and addressed appropriately. A third position, ignorance, is one that we have all encountered, but is usually easily disabused through education. These two stances amongst visitors exemplify the ‘park’ vs ‘wilderness’ debate that many of us will encounter. Family visitors and those outside the local area often express inclusive reactions to practical measures, reacting favourably to improvements in infrastructure that aid the visitor experience.

‘I was really pleased to see the investment made to (the site) in parking, pathway & structures around the lake which I feel has been some time in coming (the same can also be said of parking facilities). I hope more of this can be done to other parts of the forest to encourage broader use of the area as I feel it is often under used even by the local community.’

Visitor Survey response: example of an inclusive response

pollard

Ugly trees

For some members of the public, scrub (particularly bramble, gorse) can often be seen as untidy and as a barrier (physical and psychological) to fully enjoying green space. For example, a recent questionnaire survey of visitors to a site I worked at flagged up statements about the woodland looking ‘untidy’ and ‘unkempt’ because of the prevalence of scrub. The site is a huge public space, should it not therefore be managed with these opinions at the forefront? This would be foolhardy and in all situations due consideration should be given to the overall biological health of the forest. The flipside to this is the reaction to freshly cleared and strimmed areas of scrub which can initially be a visual shock to those acquainted with an area and look more unkempt still to newcomers, aggravating those of both a inclusive and exclusive bent.

Visitors with exclusive opinions are often locals and long-time visitors with an interest and knowledge about the site. To them, new facilities, footpaths etc. are often anathema and risk despoiling their own private reserve by encouraging other visitors. This is perhaps overly harsh, and many opinions can be centred around concern about loss of biodiversity or impacts on a favourite species. Any new conservation work is viewed with suspicion and responses can be actively hostile with active sabotage not uncommon.

Pollarding, coppicing, grazing, tree felling, tree planting; they can all result in negative reactions, often through lack of understanding fostered by poor communication and publicity. Pollarding is a key historic component of managing some ancient woodlands. However, judging by some reactions I have come across, there is a level of anger, distrust and confusion about the important role it plays in preserving trees and creating habitats:

Why are so many old trees being felled? Ordinary people are not allowed to build on green belt but many old oak trees are being felled. This is a disgrace!’

I hate the way you’ve lopped the branches off trees.’

‘What is this current craze for butchering trees by cutting branches taking place? it looks awful’

We must improve social knowledge about interventionist conservation measures through the tools we have available; social media, updated and accessible websites and clear interpretative panels for our inclusive visitors, consultations and face-to-face discussions for our exclusive visitors. If our visitors are not given the information about practical conservation works in a proactive, not the more traditional passive approach, we risk losing the PR war. Without the support of our local communities and even irregular visitors, we will be resigned to battling for their ecological future alone, an inevitably futile endeavour.

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