Is Environmental Education Ruining Nature For Me?

Things have been a little quiet on Adventures in Conservation recently (I know, I know, this has obviously had a devastating impact on you all, for which I can only apologise. I can only hope your Christmas was not ruined pondering just what the hell had happened to me). For the last month or so, I’ve been getting to grips with some new nature reserves and areas of woodland to monitor and manage, so my hands have been a tad full. But it was while wandering one of these sites that I finally felt a surge of inspiration to propel another aimless missive into the void.

Recently I’ve been questioning whether an environmental education – or working in the sector – ruins one’s enjoyment of the nature. I’m beginning to suspect I was better of ignorant and happy. As such, this week my walk around one of the new (old), spangly (muddy) areas of woodland under my dominion followed a familiar pattern:

Ah, Compartment 1. Management plan says Ancient semi-natural woodland. Lot of cherry laurel in here, bit of bloody Rhododendron too – we’ll need to get that bugger cut, treated and cleared. Not sure we can afford that.

Rhodi

Bah!

Comp. 1a – Glade: Well, it might have been a glade once upon a time. When was this last cut? It’s scrubbed over. Bugger. Chalk it up as a volunteer task.

Comp. 2: Management plan says there is a excellent display of bluebells here in early summer. I bet they’re bloody Spanish.

Comp. 3: ‘Local volunteers have been working to cut back encroaching woodland into the meadow area’…Gods, need to teach them to cut back to ground-level. Place is a trip hazard!

Comp 4: Coppice. Lapsed. Do we have the man power/volunteer will to bring this back into rotation? Probably not.

Comp 5: Secondary woodland. Backs on to housing. Green waste over the garden fence. We’ll have to have a word.

Crassula

Gah!

Comp 5a – Pond: Shopping Trolley. Overhanging vegetation on all side. Is that Crassula? Oh bugger, that is crassula.

And on and on and on. It’s possible that learning more about nature – or perhaps more specifically, getting overwhelmed by management plans, habitat designations, schedule of works etc. etc. – has taken the joy out of it all for me. Or, to quote someone much better at this stuff than I: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Or something like that. Perhaps I should just stop being such a curmudgeon. After all, this week I have been paid to – amongst other things – fall in a stream, plant trees, cut trees down, burn things, peer into hedgerows, and generally gad about making a nuisance of myself in a picturesque woodland. Things could be a lot worse. I once boxed cheese for a living.

Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

Rewilding has been making a big splash again recently. With the recent Monbiot book ‘Feral’ and the formation of a brand new organisation – ‘Rewilding Britain’ – encouraging (very tentative) talk of charismatic big beast reintroductions, it is now firmly on the environmental agenda. Broadly, rewilding advocates a removal of altering anthropogenic factors and a ‘hands-off’ management technique, allowing the area in question to develop of its own accord without predefined outcomes. This may involve the reintroduction of flora and fauna previously removed or lost due to human influences. The basis for re-wilding has many appealing facets from a conservation perspective, not least the relaxation of the interventionist approach widely implemented in many natural areas, which serves to reinforce the dependence of endangered species on anthropogenic interference. Re-wilding may also be seen as a measure for ‘redressing the balance’ of destructive human activity over the past few millennia. The enforcement of a re-wilding ethic is not without its negative factors though, including the complexities of removing human needs and influence, uncertainty regarding outcomes and issues over the true nature of ‘wild’.

Though not a new concept, increasing dissociation with the land has brought about a romantic longing for something wilder, something to breathe some life into the mundane and everyday. This has advanced the desire to improve and expand wilderness areas and, though it is oxymoronic, to increase areas of wilderness for public enjoyment. This begs the questions how could the population at large benefit from these new wildernesses without visiting and experiencing them, and therefore sullying their intrinsic wildness? Any rewilding project would ultimately always be judged from an anthropologic perspective and therefore not truly wild. However this, many would argue, is still a vast improvement on the current provisions of nature reserves pegged to one permanent ecological habitat type.

Lynx - Soon coming to a woodland near you...

Lynx – Soon coming to a woodland near you…

This in itself is an issue though. Conservation practitioners are accustomed to an interventionist approach. From working in and alongside conservation organisations and with professionals and volunteers, my experience has been of an underlying desire to meddle, to be seen to be doing something, often to attempt to placate or secure funding or improve visibility of the organisation in what is becoming a crowded market. Can that desire to tweak and interfere by advocating practical approaches just be dismissed? If this is what our professionals are trained to do and have the skills for, can they resist the urge to exercise those skills? I have even heard from some the worry that advocating a ‘hands off’ laissez-faire approach would result in fewer jobs in the sector, particularly for those with a practical background.

Furthermore, the question arises regarding the actual results of re-wilded areas. With pristine wilderness no longer in existence in the UK, the outcomes of re-wilding are no longer the true representation of a natural habitat. With invasive species spreading and anthropogenic changes to nutrient levels, climate and species composition, certain species may come to dominate where they would previously have been negligible or absent. It must be judged whether the prospect of this is preferable to a static-interventionist approach of holding a site in a preferential condition for a few select species. During re-wilding these species may disappear from a site, but should this be discouraged? If the wild state of an area is unsuitable then it is surely not worthwhile maintaining it in an unnatural condition at great expense for ill-adapted species.

So much of conservation writing and rewilding theory is nostalgia. How can one have the right to be nostalgic for something one has never seen? The ideal of wilderness is a profoundly human creation. Where once areas of wilderness were viewed as inhospitable regions fraught with danger, the romanticism of groups like the Sierra Club and John Muir have transformed these in modern day thinking into areas of virtue, untouched by human influence. Industrialisation, accompanied by scientific and cultural advancements in recent human history has served to place the rural idyll on an ideological pedestal

An important question to address when considering re-wilding is what do we want from our environment? What is deemed as a favourable condition is ultimately determined from a human perspective, and ideas of restoration can rest as much on social traditions, such as aesthetic value, as scientific theory. An issue occurs when areas are left to re-wild and then fail to conform to expected anthropogenically defined outcomes, and a desire to once again manage the area to fit these standards is likely. A lack of preconceptions regarding outcomes with respect to species and habitat composition is necessary if re-wilding is to be truly embraced, indeed the prospect of an environment with no ‘outcome’ and a flux of successional stages should be accepted and expected as natural. In the UK, this will be particularly low with a population accustomed to a history of a managed landscape with farming and forestry being prevalent. The timescale for a return to a defined baseline condition may be a matter of decades, in many cases longer than the lifetime of those involved in site management. A need for visually obvious progress and an innate human desire to see achievement may often compromise re-wilding efforts.

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

OK, not quite. But it’s in my image library and I need to break-up this text, so give me a break, yeah?

A main issue with rewilding theory is defining a baseline for restoration. This has and will continue to be an area of debate between proponents as some species are looked on more favourably than others due to such esoteric data as their first appearance in the pollen record of peat bogs or the last recorded sighting. It has been argued that due to the historical pastoral use of land and anthropogenic shaping there is no relevant specific baseline for ecological restoration. My two penneth sits with defining this baseline around the disappearance of the land bridge with Europe, but such issues are minor quibbles. There are much more serious barriers to rewilding within the conservation movement, and that’s before the notion is even brought fully into the mainstream.

The big stumbling block

Much greater, more practical, stumbling blocks stand in the way of the rewilding movement though, especially in the UK. Big questions such as ‘where’ and ‘who pays’ need to be addressed. Logically, this will involve the traditional discordant wrangling between environmentalists and the farming lobby as the only areas now feasible for rewilding are the uplands of Wales and Scotland. Unsurprisingly they are likely to be at loggerheads again as each lays a claim as the defenders of an idyll. For the environmentalist, this idyll is a less tangible desire for a rawer natural experience, for the farming community, this idyll is the quintessential British landscape of pasture and crop.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Sorry. Wrong again.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
― Aldo Leopold

Now, slowly but with gathering pace, the rural community is more willing to see and be told otherwise. Opponents push the notions that rewilding and in many cases the environmental movement is sentimental and unrealistic and it is true that there is a certain sense of collective guilt assuaging associated with rewilding measures. We all, rightly, have drilled in to us the damage our actions have wrought on the natural environment, though environmental education still lags in its position and importance at our secondary schools. But the main opponents to the rewilding ethic are not themselves averse to conjuring up a romantic idyll as a counterpoint. When arguing for the continuation of marginal, heavily subsidised upland farming, the farming community will talk of families owning farms for generations, of hard work and honest toil of salt of the earth types, of man’s intrinsic link to the land and the loss of community. These communities are already failing economically, and in many places are no longer viable with the growth of global free markets. Therefore would these subsidies not be better served supporting environmental practices that may have greater long-term value and support just as many jobs in tourism and conservation? Conservation will only succeed when the owners of land are paid to manage it in the public interest. They will need to be led by the nose, in most cases by waving money under it, and this may be the true issue that consigns rewilding to the dustbin as an exercise in conservation wishful thinking.

Positives for Rewilding

There is a future for rewilding though. Subsidies for marginal farming will undoubtedly become more stringent and many marginal farming communities are likely to disappear as the next generation look elsewhere for a career. And if you are looking for an example of how it can work, even in an urbanised area, I recently visited Zealandia on the outskirts of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Surrounded by an impassable fence, the 225Ha reserve sits in a valley in the suburbs of Wellington and has removed all invasive species from the site and reintroduced some rare flora and fauna. It is heavily geared towards visitors and public engagement, aiming to educate while also providing a reservoir and sanctuary for endangered native species, but retains a wilderness ‘feel’ as the rear two thirds of the reserve have minimal paths and access, ensuring that the public largely remain in the front third, where facilities and hard paths are plentiful. Securing such a large area of land near an urban centre is unlikely in the UK, but perhaps this represents a future ‘shop front’ idea for the rewilding movement, such as we are seeing the start of at Knapdale in Scotland. Future sights for such reserves are plentiful (Snowdonia, Cumbria, Yorkshire etc.), and perhaps this tourism based approach will be the first step towards a wilder Britain.

Catch It, Kill It, Eat It – Is It So Wrong to Enjoy Hunting?

The man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him.’ Aldo Leopold

The disconnect between plate and animal for the average consumer in the modern industrialised nations is huge. How can we appreciate where our food is coming from when for the most part we only see it in its final form, sterile and packaged? Is the art of hunting, killing and eating your own food an essential part of what makes us human, or have we civilized beyond this point? It is undeniable that the majority of people around me have never had the visceral experience of killing ones own food; many would undoubtedly be repulsed by the act. Is this civilization, or is it shirking of responsibility? By ignoring the source of our food, do we seek to abnegate ourselves from any moral guilt or squeamishness around the intensive farming and iffy welfare, which comes as part of the cost for our cheap and readily available meat? Do we owe our food the moral responsibility of at least having some knowledge and first hand experience of their conversion from living beast to dead meat?

That’s a lot of questions and there is always the possibility that I’m getting on my high-horse after reading too much Leopold and Walden, Maybe I’m feeling a regression towards my rural upbringing, but I can’t help but feel I am missing out on something, some kind of hereditary hunting fever.

I'll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

I’ll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

My own feelings on hunting are varied dependent on form, target and other, perhaps less definable qualities. For reasons not worth expanding on here, I am pro-deer, anti-grouse, fox-largely-pro-with-caveats, and badger-largely-anti-with-caveats. I have an understandable vocational tolerance of hunting for conservation measures but have developed an abhorrence of farmed hunting, again largely on conservation grounds. Hunting as a tourist pursuit I dislike, hunting for subsistence (in a first world country) I can tolerate, but I have no first-hand experience of either, so speak from a position of ignorance (something you must be familiar with, I hear you cry). One issue riles up my peers more than most, and one that has particularly been applied to fox hunting but would be relevant to all forms – the enjoyment of hunting for hunting’s sake. It is seen as immoral and uncivilized, an outdated and redundant primal instinct. I’d argue that this innate response is not a regressive one, but an intrinsic part of our future. Why shouldn’t we enjoy hunting and killing things? We’re hardwired to divine a sense of achievement, satisfaction and maybe even enjoyment from a hunt well concluded. We are at a point in our development where our level of civilisation has (for the most part) advanced beyond our innate primitive drivers and desires. Like trying to incorporate digital software into analog hardware, conciliating the atavistic part of our psyche with our enlightened social structure is prone to breaking down and may require occasional release of our internal ‘monkey brain’.

As such might it not be good for everyone to kill (and eat) something at least once in their life? I remember visiting an abattoir as a child, it was not traumatic in the slightest, as I was always aware of the journey taken by the food on my plate having grown up in a farming community, but this experience certainly drove it home. If every child of 10 were taken on a similar visit, well, there’d probably be a few more vegetarians, but if every teenager was offered the opportunity to learn how to catch, kill and eat their own food, the sense of entitlement many feel towards their protein may dissipate. I know from the inner-city groups I have worked with that many would jump at the chance (a fair few more would run a mile, mind). Radical (and likely to draw the wrath of many a parent), but the act of killing their own food could be an important lesson for our children. I will stop well short of claiming it as a release valve for pent-up barbaric inner desires and a cure for social ills such as gang violence, but engagement with the environment at such a crude level would promote conscientious shopping at the very least.

A requirement to understand the origin of the bacon in your sandwich may have absolutely no relevance to your enjoyment of it, and you may view it as an unnecessary burden to subject yourself and your children to. And in the 21st century, you may be right, but I would consider the renunciation of this knowledge, and further than this, the denial of the instinct to hunt, to be a denial of what has made us the human race we are today. But enjoying it? Maybe this is a taboo too far in a supposedly civilised society.

Destroy Urban Wildlife Sites to ‘Save Our Countryside’?

This post started life as a post about the value of Brownfield sites for urban wildlife. That was until I stumbled across the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s ‘Save Our Countryside’ charter. I wholeheartedly agree with the charter. Almost every word of it. Almost. Our countryside should be protected from development, of course it should. It’s only right that people start to get a bit jumpy when word gets out that someone is trying to punch a hole through the green belt.

I promise, that after this post I will have a long run of posts that do not lay into, lambast or otherwise pick holes in another environmental organisation’s latest campaign. No, I will heed my own advice and talk about the positives to be found in the environmental movement and how the latest conservation measures or outreach activity offers real hope for a brave new world where all things are possible for all people and our wildlife thrives unmolested by Yahoos with guns or well-meaning lefties with petitions. I promise. But for now, for today, I wanted to address the narrow-minded, ‘make it someone else’s problem’ agenda pushed by one particular line of this charter.

You could easily dismiss the CPRE as NIMBYism writ large and given a voice, albeit a voice that, like some Hitchcokian blackmailer, has tried to distort itself by holding the handkerchief of environmental protection and public interest over the mouthpiece. A handkerchief made up of bits of twig, fur, and carping indignation (Yes, I may have been reading about Simile and Metaphor this week). Well, you could. I’m not saying I would, though. I’m happy go lucky and like everyone. Especially potential future employers. But the ‘Save Our Countryside’ charter is surely a good thing, protecting our environment and wildlife from the rampant developers and profiteering…you know what, I can’t even be bothered to finish that sentence. You can construct your own one using the words ‘Capitalism’ ‘economy’ ‘ecocide’ and ‘libertarianism’ if it makes you feel better. I’m not Naomi Klein. That stuff just bores me (and more to the point I don’t understand it).

Anyway, dragging myself back on topic, I thought this was an issue I was, for once, totally in line with. Then I looked at the CPRE website again, and thought, hang on, just what are they trying to protect here? Is it wildlife? Is it the environment? Or is it farmland and a non-existent rural idyll? Are they really saying that they want to protect farms, those famous hotbeds of biodiversity, from development? Look at the CPRE website and you will see that their interpretation of the countryside is one of rolling farmland and picturesque villages. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is when you scout down the charter a little further that you find my particular bone of contention:

Don’t sacrifice our countryside
‘Our open spaces are being destroyed unnecessarily. Previously developed brownfield sites should be re-used first.’

Cornfield or derelict mill and stream. Hands up which one you think is more biodiverse?

Cornfield or derelict mill and stream. Hands up which one you think is more biodiverse?

I think this the nub of the argument right here. CPRE would rather see new housing crammed in to every space of our cities, to the detriment of some of our most diverse sites for wildlife, than see the urban sprawl encompass surrounding farmland and, possibly, swallow up a few of those picture postcard little villages of an England that once was. Fair enough, but I think targeting Brownfield is a huge mis-step. Why target Brownfield sites? It’s as if they have been asked the not unreasonable question ‘if not here, then where?’ and have plucked an answer out of a hat without really thinking about it. These sites are crucial in our cities as reservoirs of wildlife and as connections between different areas of greenspace. They (and green and open space in general) are also vital for the health and well being of our urban populations. Is the answer to our burgeoning housing crisis to fill-up every remaining square foot in our cities with more housing? That can’t be the only answer. Of course, this all comes under the banner of a larger argument about population control, but I’m not about to touch that one with a barge pole. Not yet. But there must be places of low biodiversity in both rural and urban settings that would be more suitable for sensitively considered development.Brownfield or Greenfield

Now, I must declare my own allegiances and interests here. I grew up in the countryside, and despite my line above about farmland generally being barren wastelands for biodiversity; I generally support farmers against the many slings and arrows many in my sector would throw at them. Farmers, individually, work harder and care more about the environment than many conservationists I know. But collectively, as part of a Union, say, they can be mighty destructive. Add to that external pressures and it is only right they get a bit uppity when anything endangers their livelihood. But market forces and Union machinations in the agricultural sector is yet another post for another day. For the last eight years I have lived in London. I have often felt caged, hemmed in, and greenspace and frequently, Brownfield, has been my outlet. These are the sites I have improved my species ID on or searched for reptiles, not the open spaces of our parks or the farmland I grew up around. Unfortunately, through my education and experience in the sector, I can’t see the rolling fields of farmland as something to be treasured as I once did. Unlike the CPRE, I do not see these as a positive for wildlife and am using this as an excuse to crowbar one of my favourite quotes into this article:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

This is not a call to concrete over the rural heartland of England. It is a call to not underestimate the environmental value of something just because it is in the city and has been labelled as ‘neglected’. That’s why I would like the CPRE to reconsider the wording of their latest campaign to ‘previously developed sites of little or no biodiversity potential (as judged by a specialist in the field) should be re-used first.’ (OK, so they might need to come up with something a little snappier, but marketing was never my strong point.)

Nature Blogs: Ruined by Hipsters

If you are working, volunteering or looking to get ahead in conservation, if you have a vague interest in nature and a good camera, and perhaps more pertinently if you are a middle class urbanite with a pokey garden and pretensions of being a writer, the chances are that you’ve got a blog. Chances are your writing is littered with simile, metaphor, imagery and dirty great chunks of purple prose.

Stephen Poole last year wrote an article describing nature writing as bourgeois escapism, but I’d certainly like to distance myself from what was an ill conceived and scientifically naïve rant (comparing the issue of invasive species to immigration and the EDL is a common retort by those with an axe to grind against environmentalists but it is misguided and offensive, serving only to highlight the authors ignorance). Indeed, Poole’s argument was subsequently dismembered by both Mabey and Monbiot, and if I were looking for an example of what I admire and look for in modern proponents of the genre, I would not go much further than these two. It is the idealisation of nature with which I take issue, and a large portion of the guilt for this idealisation must be left at the door of urban-centric media and enthusiasts in east London flats who fancy themselves the next Emerson or Thoreau.

Yes, I understand that I am opening myself up to claims of hypocrisy, but I’ve never understood why you would have a cake and not eat it.

Gratuitous picture of a cake. Which I ate.

Gratuitous picture of a cake. Which I ate.

There are different groups worth exploring here: those who would classify themselves as writers and those who would classify themselves as conservationists. When done well and with something to say, both have merit. However, those with a different agenda now saturate the genre. New media has a lot to answer for, but the production of content for contents sake has diluted the quality of real nature writing with regular missives about the joys of watching urban foxes frolic in your backyard. If you have an interest in the natural environment, you may not want to hear from a Shoreditch hipster with a sudden epiphany about nature (or epiphany that nature writing is the next gravy train). Practitioners in the sector are much more likely to hold your interest. There are many underrepresented areas in nature writing that I personally would love to hear from. Where are those who are in or work with the farming industry to improve biodiversity on farms? Where are the writings of those working at the sharp edge of conservation? But the genre has been overrun, and the majority of those who write about nature now would fit Poole’s charge of indulging in escapism. It is certainly true that much of the content now produced fits a certain demographic in terms of writer and audience.

Maybe I am speaking overly from the perspective of a scientist and practitioner, but I see the role of nature writing as educational, not just an excuse to describe a list of nice things you have seen in verbose, flowery prose. This does not hold the interest unless you are Wordsworth, and you are not. This whimsy and romanticism of nature writing, particularly those of the urban-centric, often neglect to inform and educate. Anthropomorphism and simile are rife, comparison of ecological players to cultural touchstones rampant. If I see another piece comparing, say, the world of insects to Game of Thrones, I may put my fist through the screen*.

But my complaint is not new. Even Thoreau, worthy but impenetrable to a modern reader, was accused of sentimentalising nature. It may be inescapable for an urban society to yearn for a (seemingly) more wholesome and natural lifestyle. It may be an idea, however, to live, breathe and try to understand at least a small part of the many areas of the natural world worth writing about before sitting down in front of a keyboard and pouring forth an assault of prose on the wonders of a wildflower in a concrete jungle. Too much is an image half seen, the wider picture not comprehended or even contemplated. A simple nature=good, man=bad narrative pervades and any human element appended with an adverse adjective, an elegiac phrasing.

I understand that not every writer can be Carson or Wilson, offering a reasoned, engaging and researched piece of work without becoming dry. Nature writing certainly lends itself to the aesthete, but purpose and clarity should not be eschewed in the name of verbosity dressed as art. A tough act to follow, but Aldo Leopold, a better writer and a better naturalist than Thoreau, shows the perfect balance of evoking natural imagery and sensations while educating and

The author: A bearded hipster wannabe?

The author: A bearded hipster wannabe?

drawing the reader in to his world. For a beautiful example of how to write up a citizen science project, read 65290 or Sky Dance. The prevalence of nature blogs risks making the most unique natural spectacles humdrum and ordinary through doggerel. Good nature writing like Leopold elevates the commonplace in nature into a spectacle all of its own through insight and compassion for his subject.

And yes, I do realise the irony of trashing nature writing on a nature writing blog. This is, to some extent, a pre-emptive hoisting by my own petard. I’m also an occasional hat wearer and beard have-r and I use the word ‘elegiac’ at least once in this post, so what the hell do I know?

*I’ve resisted the urge to link to some of the worst offenders, I’m not that mean