Green Elephants

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a ‘brilliant idea’ must be in want of a fortune. And with that rather laboured introduction, I think it’s only right that I get straight to the point: The Garden Bridge. Or rather, the Garden Bridge and its ilk.

green elephants

I’ll admit, for once I am feeling quite smug about this week’s title

Everyone’s got a ‘brilliant idea’. Take me, I have about five a day (although admittedly nutella-bacon sandwiches might not have been the product of a Spike operating at the peak of his mental powers). Problem is, these days an idea can very rapidly go from ‘in here’¹ to ‘out there’ thanks to Bloody Twitter, bypassing the much neglected ‘actually thinking it through logically’-stage. If you’re a famous person, a person with a lot of pull or some influential friends, or just a ruddy loud mouth narcissist, these ‘brilliant ideas’ can very quickly develop into a bit of a bandwagon.

It’s true there is now a generation that ‘like’² things. Wildlife charities are desperately (and occasionally embarrassingly) trying to make hay out of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and to an extent projects like the Garden Bridge or London National Park City³ feed on them, like bloated, green, trunked pachyderms. Or something.

Green-y, fluffy-on-the-surface projects tend to do quite well out of this click button, armchair conservationist demographic. There’s a definite sense of ‘It’s Green, yeah, let’s do it!’ – and kudos to them for taking that groundswell of ‘likes’ and turning it into something more solid. My concern is that the why is all too often subservient to the what. There’s a line about could we and should we in here somewhere.

Take the blasted Garden Bridge (no, please…), with its £60M of public money and £3.5M of annual maintenance costs in perpetuity (and just for comparison here, the London Wildlife Trust with their 400+ odd hectares of nature reserves and an annual expenditure of around £2.5M…but let’s not get lost down a Garden Bridge cul-de-sac). It sounded like a great idea when you first heard it, but then you scratched beneath the surface, you realised that they’re closing libraries in Lambeth, and you started to wonder…what is this adding? What are we actually getting for our money here?

Particularly as we are now in the age of the Kickstarter, these projects can quickly crop up and before long a few people have slung a tenner at it and it has gathered some momentum. Green walls at bus-stops? Sure, that’ll work. No problem. I mean, you might want to avoid putting them on any night bus routes… Or a milk-float-potting-shed? Why not? Or, rather, why?

I’m not really sure where I’m leading with all this, except that I’ll shortly be announcing the launch of my new pop-up nutella and bacon sandwich bar. Donations welcome.


¹ *Taps head thoughtfully* – Sorry, the blog now appears to come with added stage directions. It’s a multisensory experience. Sort of.

² And, by the way, feel free to ‘like’ the blog. If only for the positive affirmation it will give me. It absolutely, definitely will not achieve anything. Although the key difference between Adventures in Conservation and the National Park City, say, is that I’ll carry on regardless of whether people ‘like’ it or not. So there.

³ About which I was briefly positive before reverting to type. I’m still largely confused about just what this will achieve and how.


Camley Street – A Revisit

Don’t look back. You can never look back”

Don Henley

1- camley

Me loitering outside my previous place of work before the restraining order

If you ever find yourself in London, baffled, as I am, by the sheer vibrant greyness of it all (no that is not an oxymoron), then it’s worth reminding yourself that in amongst all that grim, concrete hustle and bustle, London is one of the greenest capital cities on the planet. Indeed, if you’re rolling straight off the Eurostar at St Pancras then right there, a short stroll from the platform, is one of the best examples of the tiny little green nooks and crannies that exist throughout the frequently overbearing behemoth of England’s capital – Camley Street Natural Park.

I apologies that this post my have begun with all the tepidly verbose prose of a Lonely Planet review. No, I have not taken to heart all the frequent pleas from readers to be ‘less curmudgeonly’. But I do think Camley Street is something worth shouting about.

A brief admission of self-interest here: Camley Street is somewhere close to my own heart, just as it is close to the very heart of London (oh good grief man, listen to yourself would you?). A lot of my formative experiences in urban conservation and outreach occurred there. I volunteered and later worked at the site. My Logan’s Run themed 30th birthday was held there (I did, indeed, ‘renew‘). It is a great example of what I’d phrase ‘shop-front conservation.’ There’s some interesting bits of natural habitat, even the odd notable species, but it is a site most definitely managed with public engagement at its core. This is no bad thing. In fact it is an ideal use of the space. But now, it’s becoming something different.

I recently revisited the site and realised all was not quite as I remembered it. The hills were higher when you were young, and all that. Perhaps it was because I worked and volunteered there with some great people who are no longer there (I’m sure the new volunteers and staff are great, but they are mostly strangers to me), but it seemed less alive and full of possibilities. I found myself ambling around the site pointing at things and saying to myself ‘I made that’ and then picking out the inadequacies in my own handiwork.

It’s possible memories and subsequent experiences have slightly detracted from the place for me, it’s possible I object to the artistic viewing platform that’s been installed at the southern end, it’s possible I’m royally peeved that my kingfisher bank has been flattened a year before it would have finally offered a suitable habitat for the occasional visitors that make it even to this darkened corner of the Regent’s Canal. It’s possible I’m annoyed that there isn’t yet a blue plaque with my name over the gate.

There’s been a major development going on in the old warehouses the opposite side of the canal. The area has well and truly shaken off its rather dubious reputation. Very soon, a footbridge will link the new development to the north of Camley Street. A new visitor centre will replace the ‘charming’ and somewhat ramshackle old cricket pavilion that currently performs the role. Will Camley Street keep its character? No doubt the levels of footfall will increase immeasurably. More people will through-route from the London School of Arts buildings to the railway stations. More people will discover this wonderful sight and the wonderful work the London Wildlife Trust do there. But it will never be the Camley Street I remember. That’s the nature of urban reserves like this and I should be glad.

Some Sage Advice for #Volunteersweek

Hey, it’s volunteer week (sorry, #volunteersweek), and as you know (actually you probably don’t), I do love to piggyback a blog post all over someone else’s PR.

Like most of us in the environmental sector, I have attained my lofty position on the back of some hard (and some not so hard) graft as a volunteer. Post-graduation, I found that my qualifications were not the magical key that would have potential employers in the sector knocking down my door (ok, I suspect I’ve mixed metaphors here. If I have the key, why are they knocking my door down…? Never mind). All that academic brilliance was of no consequence next to the huge, gaping void in my ‘experience’ column.

4 - Gunnersbury Triangle

Badger branded

I asked around about this – ‘welcome to the environmental sector’ they said. And so I found myself bumbling about at the London Wildlife Trust as part of the (now sadly defunct) graduate trainee scheme at their Camley Street reserve (a space I now occasionally visit if only to point out to bemused members of the public that ‘I built that’).

I was very fortunate to have some excellent, patient, knowledgeable and perhaps overly trusting staff through my year of volunteering at LWT. When I first started volunteering, I was very much on the ‘careerist’ side of the volunteer dichotomy. I had a slightly mercenary view about what I was willing to do. Now any volunteering I do is primarily for the satisfaction. I have become a ‘hobbyist’ volunteer in my dotage. As volunteering develops, the environmental sector will see an increase in the former class of volunteer. As such the volunteering experience really does depend a great deal on the outlook of the staff that manage this ‘resource’. For starters, as soon as they use the phrase ‘resource’ to describe volunteers, you can probably be sure you’ve found a wrong ‘un – Volunteers are not a commodity to be calculated only in terms of their hours for match funding.


The Black Badger – A note to the London Wildlife Trust: The huge great dents down its side were not of my doing.

As a volunteer I was given the opportunity to expand my skills and ability, to take on responsibilities and new projects, to develop my own ideas. Most importantly, I was taken to the pub frequently. I can’t state how important this last point is for volunteer cohesion, retention and happiness. The way I was treated as a volunteer is something I have tried to continue in my own career, firstly when I became a member of staff at LWT and in every role since.

But the volunteering world is not all sunshine and rainbows, particularly if you’re using it to get a toehold in the sector. Be wary. There will inevitably come a time where your skills and experience are at such a level that you might find yourself doing, or being asked to do, things for which someone might reasonably expect to be paid. Don’t be kidded into thinking that as a volunteer, you should just be grateful for the opportunity and get on with it. Perhaps you should, but don’t ever believe that you aren’t in a strong bargaining position. My advice is to always ask what you are getting out of it and what you could get out of it.

There’s a bit of advice me mam always gave me about being nice to people on the way up – and I can’t stress this enough to all you volunteer managers out there. I’m forever coming across former volunteer I managed; one even recently interviewed me. This does further illustrate the importance of volunteering in such a small pond as the environmental scene in London. I really can’t understate this. People forever use the word ‘networking’ as a benefit to volunteering, but it is the friends I have made – friends who just happen to now work in different environmental organisations all around the country – that have been one of the biggest advantages, both on a personal and professional level, to my time volunteering.

There Has Been a Bank Error in Our Favour

With a fiscal insertion that is, frankly, eye-watering and involves sums of money it is beyond my tiny, maths-spastic, brain to comprehend, the Premier League has recently been awarded £5.2Bn in TV rights for the next 3 seasons. Like me, you probably find it difficult to comprehend just how much money that is, but as I guideline I just did a quick land search – you can buy around 100 hectares of mixed woodland for £500,000. Now by my rough maths you could therefore buy an area of woodland around twice the size of Yorkshire. I think. Honestly though, I wouldn’t trust my maths.

I’m preaching to the converted here, I know, but if you were to somehow gauge the amount of time spent and enjoyment gained by people experiencing the natural environment, it would far outstrip that gained from a season ticket to your standard Premier League team, even if that team happened to be the 03/04 Arsenal, replete with Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira. Indeed, nowadays I’d much sooner shell out a few quid to watch a bunch of ecologists attempt to kick a ball around (or engage in any kind of competitive sport for that matter) than sell all my worldly possessions to watch the Gunners capitulate to their standard last minute defeat as they surrender a 2-0 lead at home to Leicester. Given the ecologists I know, I can guarantee it would be a much more entertaining game, though for quite different reasons.

communitychestIt’s that, well, green space is always just there, isn’t it? Unfortunately that’s the view far too many members of the public hold, as I’m sure we are all well aware. But just imagine for a second that there has been an almighty balls-up at the bank (yeah, just imagine that) and that £5.2Bn has accidentally been redistributed to a handful of environmental charities. Now we’ve got it, what the hell are we going to do with it? So here are my top 5 suggestions for spending our fortuitous winnings:

1. Rewild the uplands

Monbiot pushes this in Feral but it’s been a notion at the forefront of British conservation a lot longer than that. Wales and Scotland have many upland areas that have marginal viability farming. Many highland areas of Scotland are run purely for game (with detrimental human impacts on raptors and anything else that might possibly interfere with the production of more game) Compulsory purchase of Highland estates from some of the non-resident oligarchs that have scooped them up in recent years would allow a large scale rewilding effort with the reintroduction of charismatic megafauna and the possible re-establishment of the Caledonian forest.

2. Plant up more woodland

Following on from the above, imagine being able to re-establish the Great North Wood or extending the New Forest?

3. Re-meander rivers, allow to flood

If we could purchase large areas of riverine land, we could breakdown the restrictive man-made banks on our rivers where possible and allow flood plains, backwaters and meanders to re-establish. This would not only encourage wildlife but also have great benefits for the population of the Somerset Levels (much greater than knee-jerk dredging).


Thierry applauds your noble if misguided intentions

4. Start buying up golf courses. Just because. I flew in to Heathrow last month and was astonished by the amount of green-space given over to golfers.

5. Evacuate the Isle of Man and leave them as an experiment in rewilding (OK, I’m not entirely sure we could really afford to do this. I’m not sure what property currently runs to in the IoM. I’m pretty sure that, unlike everything else on the island, it is not a good 10 years behind the mainland). Maybe the Wallabies will take over.

What do you think – overly ambitious? Not ambitious enough? There were plenty I could have added (I wasn’t sure whether you can actually ‘buy’ areas of the ocean) but I’ve aimed for brevity for once. I know, I know, it’s all pie in the sky stuff, but I think it’s an important exercise to consider – if we don’t consider what our ultimate, dream outcomes are, then how can we move towards them?

This picks up from a thought I had recently while watching UKIP: The first 100 days – what would the first 100 days of the government of Spike look like? Thinking about it, there would probably be about the same level of rioting, I’m not sure people are ready to discuss population control quite yet. Maybe I’ll write that one up next month…