What is “conservation” and who is it for?


Even before the referendum, it was becoming clear that all sorts of conservation NGOs and hangers-on were exercised over the possibility of Brexit and what the implications would be. Now that our exit is confirmed, those same worthies have gone into overdrive about the awful prospects that lie ahead for UK conservation and the environment. Many have said that the prospects are all bad and that the ‘environment’ will be low on the list of government priorities. The cynic in me suggests that their principal concern is the loss of their jobs.

As if that was not enough to be going on with, conservation (or conservation-type) issues are afflicting the nether reaches of the public consciousness. These can summarised as a short list:

  • Rewilding – i.e. the release of Lynx and Wolves into the British countryside.
  • Rewilding in the sense of banishing sheep from the uplands and replacing them with trees.
  • Grouse moor conflicts with Hen Harriers.
  • Culling of Black Rats from Lundy, Stoats from Orkney and Hedgehogs from North and South Uist, all in order to save various birds on their breeding grounds.
  • Reintroductions involving Red Kite, Great Bustard, Sea Eagle, Common Cranes, beavers and others.

And all this has somehow got mixed up with farming and public perceptions of farmers that are often extremely negative. The grouse shooters and game shooters are equally held in low esteem, despite their protestations of conservation effects or activities.

So what exactly is conservation?

In the sense that we mean it here, my dictionary[1] says: “conservation (noun)… preservation, protection or restoration of the natural environment and of wildlife”. The Oxford Dictionary of Ecology [2] gives more detail:

“Conservation The maintenance of environmental quality and resources of a particular balance among the species present in a given area. The resources may be physical (e.g. “fossil fuels”), biological (e.g. “tropical forest”), or cultural (e.g. “ancient monuments”). In modern scientific usage conservation implies sound biosphere management within given social and economic constraints, producing goods and services for humans without depleting natural ecosystem diversity, and acknowledging the naturally dynamic character of biological systems. This contrasts with the preservationist approach which, it is argued, protects species or landscapes without reference to natural change in living systems or to human requirements.”

There are several verbs in both of those descriptions: preservation, protection, restoration, maintenance, management. This suggests that conservation is an extremely active, interventionist process. Most conservationists would wholeheartedly agree that conservation involves a lot of hard work. Within Allaby’s definition, there are also a number of implied conditions (‘social and economic constraints’; ‘goods and services for humans’) where conservation is conditional upon human needs. In other words, in the broadest possible sense, the only reason conservation happens at all is because we humans need it and want it to happen; and furthermore, are prepared to do what ever it takes to achieve it.


What does conservation do? – and has it worked? 

For many years, conservation was all about establishing ‘nature reserves’ in order to protect a particular species or groups of species. Larger scale projects included the establishment of National Parks, such as Yosemite in the USA, or the Peak District National Park in the UK. Legislation has also played a very important part in the preservation aspect, because it has protected certain species from being hunted or destroyed. The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) is an example of protection of many species of animals and plants within the UK. It was a successor to various Protection of Birds Acts which established the principles (and the success) of legal protection. Wide ranging legislation such as this reaches right into the heart of land-use planning for example. The success of legislation in preventing the local extinction of many species of birds has been profound. With the combination of nature reserves and the legislation, the RSPB has halted and reversed the decline and extinction of UK breeding birds such as the Great Crested Grebe, Avocet and many others. A further extension to this was the realisation of the effects of organochlorine pesticides, PCBs and Mercury upon birds of prey populations[3]. Subsequently, organochlorines and many other substances were banned from agricultural use in the UK and other countries. The result has seen an explosion in numbers of birds such as Peregrine Falcons (which were said to be reduced to 50 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK by the 1960s). Peregrines are now once again breeding all along cliff tops and even on tall building in big cities. St Paul’s and Salisbury Cathedrals now each have their own resident pair of Peregrines.  The dual approach of having refuges, legal protection and banning harmful chemicals has worked for many species.

However, public discourse makes it clear that laws and fencing off of random pieces of land are not sufficient on their own to undo what is often perceived to be decades of damage done to the natural environment by farming and other land-use practices over the last few decades. Activists and the media are constantly harping at what they perceive to be unstoppable environmental destruction.  There is evidence that they have cause for their complaint. The BTO studies of populations of wild birds show that huge losses have occurred since the early 1980s. This gives some justification for alarm.


Figure 1 – Populations of wild birds in the UK since 1970. (Screengrab from British Trust for Ornithology website)

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In this figure, both farmland and woodland birds have dropped alarmingly, but the biggest drop is in farmland birds, which have halved in numbers from the early 1980s. Although all groups of birds have declined since the mid 1970s when detailed records began, the political emphasis has been upon farmland birds.

The UK is not alone – these drops in farmland bird populations have been recorded across much of Europe. So, of course, the question is asked ‘What is going wrong?’. Inevitably, the focus has been upon the intensification of agriculture and the use of pesticides. Accusatory fingers are regularly pointed at farmers who are blamed for the losses in biodiversity on the land that they farm. However, as farmers do exactly what governments tell them to do via regulation and demands to increase the efficiency of their operations and increase output, it soon becomes clear to the objective observer that the conventional conservation policies of nature reserves and legal protection are insufficient to counter the declines. Naturally, many critics of farmers have failed to look this deeply and their reflexive response is to blame the farmer for everything.

Who gets the money?

The response of the conservationists has been to demand a huge increase in research and for changes amongst agriculture – not least to an agricultural support system which created milk, grain and butter mountains. Reform of the Common Agricultural policy followed, farm support was taken off commodities and placed upon the area of land actually farmed. Farmers were not the only beneficiaries of this change. Golf courses, equestrian centres and, of course, conservation NGOs all benefitted from the changes. Greenpeace Energy Desk reported the top 100 recipients of CAP payments in 2016. Their intention was to show the number of billionaires receiving public funding simply because they own large tracts of agricultural land. However, their research is more interesting if it is examined for the large charitable conservation NGOs and public bodies such as English Nature:

Figure 2 – Top 100 recipients of CAP monies split into private companies and conservation NGOs and Natural England. (Figures derived from Greenpeace Energy Desk calculations, June 2016)

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As can be seen, the conservation and charitable NGOs receive roughly a third of the biggest CAP payments. In their latest analysis of payments for 2017, Greenpeace have again drawn attention to the rich-list recipients whilst failing to draw attention to the biggest beneficiary, the National Trust, which is head and shoulders above any other body on the list. the National Trust received  a massive £7,640,996 according to this report published in June 2017. It begs the question that if all this public money is being put into conservation, then why is it not working? If between £25 million and £30 million of taxpayers’ money is being shovelled into conservation NGOs each year, then what is that money being used for? Why are the genuine conservation outcomes that we are all looking for, as poor as they appear to be?

A few clues to the expenditure of these large sums of money can be found by visiting any National Trust local offices or yard, and observing the amount of transport and machinery, along with the number of people sitting in offices in front of computers. That equipment would be the envy of many a small farmer who has to scratch about and make do with ancient worn-out kit that is only held together with a few patches of paint and baler twine. Meanwhile, much of the physical conservation work carried out upon the nature reserves by these huge NGOs is actually conducted by supervised gangs of volunteers. This contrasts with the farmer who usually does the work himself – often quicker and more efficiently.

Reintroductions – and eradicating the introductions.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of habitat management done by conservation NGOs. In addition, there are programs for reintroducing species which have been lost from some areas, and where conditions are now improved to support those  species. The RSPB has been particularly active in terms of reintroducing such things as Cirl Buntings, Red Kite, Great Bustard, Sea Eagle, Corncrake and Common Crane. From small (or even zero) breeding populations of each of these species, there has been a gradual increase into viable populations. The example of Red Kite is a particularly obvious success. From small numbers of Swedish and German birds introduced into parts of England and Scotland from 1989 onwards, Red Kite are now widespread in most parts of the Midlands of England, as well as much of Scotland. The once tiny remnant population of Welsh birds has now expanded considerably. Birds are not the only examples of reintroductions – the Field Cricket has been introduced back into Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. Likewise, the Short-Haired Bumblebee. Quite often, the introduction of a few individuals from another  population into a small isolated population will be enough to improve the genetic diversity, so that the population once again becomes viable.

As a contrast to the reintroduction of species because of a perceived loss of native populations, there is the vexed issue of what to do when species which are being protected upon a reserve are constantly attacked by predators; or where the habitat is being destroyed by herbivores. This kind of dilemma has faced the RSPB in several contexts. Problems of habitat loss caused by grazing deer at Leighton Moss meant that some Red Deer had to be culled. This caused a good deal of public outcry, because some people felt that a conservation organisation should not be killing animals, but preserving them. A similar problem at RSPB Arne in Dorset occurred when Sika deer began to eat themselves out of house and home.

Other examples of the RSPB being involved in extensive culling have arisen when programs to eradicate rats or mice on islands where those rats have been accidentally introduced by humans. When rats become too numerous, they set about destroying unique seabird populations. This has happened on Gough Island in the South Atlantic with mice that are so numerous that they are estimated to kill up to 600,000 chicks in a year. The RSPB has organised an eradication project which is expected to start in 2019 and hopefully will be completed in 2021. Similarly, rats on South Georgia have been successfully eradicated and seabirds have returned to breed in big numbers.

Nearer to home, the RSPB has been involved in similar programmes to eradicate rats from  Lundy and Shiant Islands in the Hebrides. However, the species of rat in this case is the Black Rat (which is much smaller than the Brown Rat) and is now itself an endangered species within the UK. This demonstrates an ethical issue revolving around two species which involves a choice between them. Criticism is levelled at the RSPB because their priorities are birds and that birds are more “attractive” than rats. So the birds get the protection, but not the rats (who in numerical terms are at least as deserving of protection as the birds).

Despite the RSPB’s apparent enthusiasm for culling or eradication of inconvenient species, they have conversely expressed strong objections to other organisations or people who wish to cull species of birds  or animals. Examples include their objections to culling Monk Parakeets in Borehamwood, culling gulls in the Ribble estuary because of bird strike risks, and objections to badger culling because of bovine TB. Here, the ethical choices of conservation organisations are thrown into stark relief because of their apparent hypocrisy over the issues around killing those species which may or may not be in favour of one organisation or another. We begin to see that the acceptability of culling, and indeed conservation itself, is very much in the eye of the beholder. One man’s conservation may amount to another man’s habitat destruction.

This philosophical dichotomy is nowhere as stark as the RSPB’s refusal to co-operate with a scheme to control and relocate Hen Harrier nests on grouse moors. The Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan was set up  by the RSPB, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, and the National Parks. The plan is led by Natural England. The RSPB has withdrawn its support from the scheme on the grounds that, despite the scheme, Hen Harriers are still being persecuted on grouse moors. It is worthwhile looking briefly at some of the circumstances surrounding the problem:

Hen Harriers were eradicated by persecution from mainland Britain by about 1900, only a few pairs remaining in Orkney. Given protection, they spread again into mainland Scotland and then into England. As their numbers increased upon grouse moors, their favoured habitat, they once again became subject to (illegal) persecution. Given the huge economic and ecological contribution that English grouse moors bestow upon our uplands, this conflict needed to be resolved, because legislation and enforcement proved inadequate to prevent this persecution. The problem hinges around the fact that one pair of Hen Harriers on a grouse moor of adequate size, will not do much damage to Red Grouse numbers. However, Hen Harriers have a habit of roosting communally in winter, and sometimes breeding polygamously, with one male serving up to three females[4]. When this happens, grouse numbers are depleted rapidly and the moor becomes uneconomical to shoot. An important part of the Joint Action Plan was to trial a brood management scheme which moved harriers or their broods to a rearing facility away from the grouse moor. The young would be reared in pens until fledging when they would re-join the wild population. No lethal control would be used.

Strangely, the RSPB did not like this aspect of the plan, despite doing many similar things themselves for Great Bustards, Red Kite, Common Cranes and so on. After the first season of the Action Plan, and a very poor success rate for English Hen Harriers, the RSPB concluded that more persecution was taking place. This indicated to them that the grouse moor ownership and management were not taking the plan seriously, so the RSPB withdrew their support. However, as their support for the whole scheme seemed to be rather lukewarm at best, there is a lingering suspicion that they were looking for any excuse to back out of supporting the scheme.

At the same time as the RSPB deliberations were taking place, i.e. during the course of 2015 and 2016, a former Conservation Director of the RSPB, Mark Avery, waged an online war against the grouse moor fraternity. On the 12th of August 2015, he published an extremely partial book about the problem[5] which was curiously selective in the evidence that he considered whilst building up his case. Avery instigated a Parliamentary petition demanding a total ban on driven grouse shooting. This petition produced 123,077 signatures. Evidence was taken by the the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee before being debated  by the House of Commons EFRA committee. The proposed ban was rejected by the Secretary of State. Avery’s campaign has been criticised as divisive. It could even be judged as counter-productive to the conservation cause as it has helped to polarise the debate considerably – and may even have contributed to the RSPB’s withdrawal from the  Joint Action Plan. However, as both the publication date of Avery’s book and the petition were both timed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season, the ensuing froth and bluster did a thoroughly good job of increasing book sales. Avery’s book marketing strategy cannot be faulted.

The other skins in the game.

It is not just the big conservation NGOs who “do” conservation. Thousands of smaller organisations such as the county naturalists’ trusts and other organisations devoted to specific groups of animals or plants are an important contribution to our conservation and natural history heritage. These groups often revolve around a few experts in a particular field, such as bumblebees or spiders. Butterflies and moths have a large following of amateur and professional lepidopterists; the coleopterists pursue beetles with enthusiasm; dragonflies are spotted by birders with time on their hands; and so on.

However, the groups that are often left out of the conservation circle of righteousness are farmers and the countryside sporting groups. Farmers manage about 70% of the land area in the UK. Grouse moor and deer stalking takes place over 11,750 square kilometres of Scotland, upland England and Wales. Game shooting and other country sports take place on farms all over the country. Public and private forestry occupy about 10% of the land area. The Ministry of Defence owns or holds rights over 424,100 hectares (or 1.8% of total UK land area).

Figure 3 – Map of British grouse and deerstalking moors (screenshot from GWCT website)

All of these groups manage blocks of the British countryside in ways which have an impact upon conservation aims, even though the principal purpose of these groups is not conservation per se, but which impact the semi-natural environment simply because they occupy large areas of land.

Figure 5 – Use classification of UK Ministry of Defence held land. (Screenshot from MoD website).

Note that the largest proportion of land held by the MoD is for training. These are often large tracts of land which are usually not farmed, or only moderately so. By definition they are remote and wild places and hold large numbers of species that are of considerable conservation interest. Aside from training grounds for tanks and artillery, local MoD commands are often keen to assist conservation groups to ensure that these wild places are maintained in such a way that they make a large contribution to the overall conservation effort of the UK.

Are farmers to blame for absolutely everything?

Farmers are often criticised for being responsible for all sorts of environmental problems, including loss of biodiversity from the British countryside. As Figure 1 above shows, there is some cause for concern. However, it is wrong to assume that farmers are careless of the wildlife that exists on their land. Many are active in establishment and maintenance of areas which are of high conservation (or archeological) interest. Many have game shoots upon their land and look after the woods and cover in the interests of their sport. Inevitably, this means that those farmers with sporting interests create land which is often of higher conservation interest than those that don’t. Many farmers engage directly in conservation or environmental work which benefits biodiversity in different ways. This results in claims for CAP monies under the various environmental stewardship schemes:

Figure 6Area of UK farmland under higher-level stewardship or targeted agri-environment schemes.

Figure 7 – Area of UK farmland under entry-level stewardship.


Taking the figures for 2014 from Figures 6 and 7, this would suggest that approximately 7 million hectares are under entry level schemes; and a further 3 million hectares are under higher-level schemes. This gives a total of 10 million hectares of UK farmland being under the various inducements to improve biodiversity. The total utilised agricultural area for the UK is 15,686,440 hectares in 2010 (Source: Eurostat), so this would suggest that just under two-thirds of UK farmland is thus enhanced for the benefit of the environment and at the expense of the taxpayer. But, once again, referring to Figure 1 above, it is clear that all this effort and expense by conservation organisations, amateur enthusiasts, farmers, grouse moor owners and the rest has resulted in a decline of 50% of farmland birds since the 1970s. If it is assumed that bird life is a good proxy for many other species of plants and animals, then this paints a dire picture of the environmental health of UK farms. Who is to blame for all this?

The critics of farmers (and there are many) will point to the farmers and say that the farmers are simply not doing what they have been paid to do by the taxpayer. But this can be quickly dismissed because the Rural Payments Agency in England (and their equivalents in the devolved countries) are particularly savage when it comes to penalising farmers who they believe to have claimed for for something they have not done. RPA farm inspections are extremely thorough and are predicated on looking for opportunities to penalise the farmer. So, if the farmers are doing the work that has been prescribed by all the advisors and regulatory authorities then the system for enhancing farmland biodiversity must itself be at fault. The farmers have merely done exactly as they have been told by the experts and authorities.

The farm payment system, along with all of its environmental bells and whistles, are a product of thousands of man-hours of earnest discussion, inquiry and debate by agricultural and environmental experts – mostly within the confines of the European Union. The rules have been subject to lobbying by the environmental NGOs and political fudge by member states. And yet, despite all of this consensus, it is still manifestly failing to achieve any real improvements. At least, that is the message trumpeted by the environmental lobby, who continue to point their accusatory fingers at farmers.

So, if we are to expend vast amounts of taxpayers’ money on agri-environmenatl schemes, then what are the outcomes? Do these outcomes represent achievement of the desired goals? As far as I am aware, only one of the governments in the UK have bothered to try to answer this most fundamental of questions. The current Welsh scheme for agri-envronmental payments under the Common Agricultural Policy is called Glastir. In common with it’s English counterparts, this has entry level and advanced levels depending upon the eligibility criteria. The Welsh government instituted the Glastir Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (GMEP) which has established a baseline for subsequent monitoring, as well as assessments of progress against historical data from previous agri-environmental schemes in Wales. This has been carried out by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology on behalf of the Welsh Government and their report for 2017 is here. Briefly, the report shows: “…. there are two to three times more indicators improving (26-30%) than declining (8-14%) in the short and long term, with the remaining 60% showing no change.” So perhaps the situation is not as bad as the media and politically motivated environmentalists would have us believe. However, we do not know this for certain for the whole of the UK, because only the Welsh government has bothered to find out. Unfortunately, comprehensive and useful though it is, this study is at the level of Wales. It would be even more useful if it provided direct feedback to the individual farmer, being the person on the ground who actually does the work – and that is where feedback is most valuable. Nevertheless, the GMEP provides the basis for improving the outcomes from agri-environmental schemes at both farm and national levels.

Are the conservation NGOs any use?

On its website, Naturenet lists about 60 different organisations responsible for conservation in one way or another. The list is not exhaustive because it misses out the shooting and country sports bodies, but gives an idea as to the scale of direct conservation activities in the UK. For example, for 2015/16 the National Trust reports an income of £522 Million; likewise, the RSPB reports an income of £100.7 Million. It is clear that conservation is big business in the UK. When the international perspective is considered, conservation and environmentalism are vast industries with immense power. Over the course of my lifetime, the number and size of conservation organisations have grown dramatically. Their incomes have burgeoned. Nature reserves have been acquired and management for the intended purpose has proceeded apace. Their lobbying power has increased beyond all measure and their influence on legislation and environmental policy has grown commensurately.

And yet, according to the State of Nature 2016 report, Britain’s wildlife is in a parlous condition. if we have spent all this money, both public and private, upon conservation organisations, both public and private, then why are we not seeing a better return for our money? Some clues to answer this question may be found in some of the designated nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Of the one million hectares of land in England designated as an SSSI,  38.5 % are classified as ‘Favourable’, 55.8% classified as ‘Unfavourable Recovering’ and the remainder as ‘Unfavourable’ or worse. Whilst this suggests that the majority of these sites are recovering in some way, it nevertheless suggests that they have been a lot worse in the recent past. Certainly, I can think of one particular tract of south-facing chalk downland in Dorset, owned and managed by the National Trust, which instead of being covered in sheep-grazed turf and Common, Adonis and Chalk Hill Blue butterflies, is actually covered in rank gorse with very few butterflies. There are rumours of SSSIs in Scotland designated for their Red Throated Divers, managed by the RSPB, and where the divers have long since departed.

Other clues to answer this question lie in the increasing criticism levelled at the RSPB for their apparent hypocrisy in failing to recognise the part that shooting and other country sports have in the management of highly diverse habitats and providing the stronghold for many remarkable species such as the Curlew and the Golden Plover. This website asks a number of very reasonable questions of the RSPB. But perhaps the most telling is its calculation of the actual amount the RSPB spends upon managing its nature reserves – a mere 24%; whilst 26% is spent on fund raising, 40% spent on research, education, lobbying and PR, and 10% on administration. in other words, most of their expenditure is on people in offices, not on the birds.

Further criticisms are levelled at the RSPB, because they have installed a massive wind turbine at their headquarters. They argue that is in the interests of generating their own electricity and for cutting their carbon footprint. A cynic might remark that the real intention is to garner the handsome rent available to the owners of land upon which these things are sited. The RSPB argue that they have considered its siting so as to avoid bird collision, and that they program it to stop turning at night when the wind speeds are low so as to avoid chomping bats. However, the RSPB has been a vigorous opponent of wind turbines in many places because of the risk these things pose to bats and birds. The charge of hypocrisy is inescapable.

Whilst the above examples have concentrated upon the RSPB, it must said that there are probably many instances of similar conflicts of interest that apply to other NGOs. All in all, there is much evidence that nature conservation organisations have lost their way and are in danger of forgetting what they are there for.



The application of conservation principles to legislation and land use has had many significant successes over the last 70 years or so. Many species have saved from ultimate extinction by conservation effort. Whilst it is perfectly true that much is still to be done in terms of altering human cultural mind-sets – there are still totemic issues such as the continued poaching of rhinos and elephants for their ivory. Nevertheless, examples such as the almost complete cessation of whale hunting has allowed most species of whale to recover in numbers. There is now a growing tourist industry based around whale watching; it seems almost as if the whales have forgiven us for our excesses and some now seem to enjoy the attention from humans. National game parks in Africa have understood for many years that tourism brings in money – and that money helps the wildlife and the habitats to thrive.

However, not all species are interesting or photogenic enough to stimulate tourism; and tourism has its own environmental impacts and hazards. Legislation is is not always effective and may in some instances be counter-productive. For example, a  ban on the use of glyphosate for spraying off arable weeds such as Blackgrass Alopecurus myosuroides, might require more toxic chemicals to replace it, as well as a wholesale return to ploughing which destroys large numbers of earthworms. Potentially, UK soil health could decline again, where many farmers are presently seeing an improvement. Another agro-chemical instance is with the banning of neonicotinoid seed coatings. This must be replaced by more toxic synthetic pyrethroids which, because they are sprays, have a far greater effect upon bee and insect populations than the coated seeds. Clearly, there can be many areas of conflict between the priorities of food production and that of conservation.

Conflicts with farming and shooting aside, it is becoming clear that the rate of conservation successes has slowed down. With the possible exception of future improvements in the island eradication of rats from oceanic or remote islands, the conventional conservation techniques of reserves, legislation and reintroductions may have reached the point of diminishing returns – at least in the UK. This leaves us with the lasting impression that the conservation NGOs are now desperately top-heavy in terms of staffing and budgets being spent upon marketing etc. The big UK-based organisations of the National Trust and the RSPB fall into this category of apparently having lost their way. International organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have long since divided into just two activities: lobbying and fundraising. There is no actual conservation or environmental work done by either of these organisations, and has not been for many years. Both now seem to be in the business of taking EU taxpayers’ money and raising charitable donations by selling photographs of fluffy animals printed on glossy leaflets – a kind of “Give us your money or the baby seal gets it” approach to marketing. It seems almost as if many conservation NGOs have drifted into becoming large employers of mediocre environmental science graduates who spend their lives in front of computer screens, and having little contact with the environment that they are supposed to be conserving.

But there are grounds for optimism. The Glastir Monitoring and Evaluation Programme and the State of Nature 2016 reports linked to above are both prepared from information and techniques developed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a division of the Natural Environment Research Council. CEH have international recognised expertise in developing continuous long-term monitoring for levels up to landscape and beyond to national levels. Furthermore they are independent, but co-operate with universities and other research organisations. The two reports show that this kind of research can be very effective in monitoring and developing policy at national level, and down to farm level. Perhaps the biggest problem with agri-environmental payments to farmers to date, has been that the results have not been objectively measured and tested – resulting in policies whose utility in terms of effective conservation benefit are unknown or even counter-productive. Furthermore, some policies have been enacted for limited periods and then ceased, despite the possibility of beneficial results. Until hard information becomes available to farmers, who can then use it to decide which outcomes they are prepared to work for, conservation effort on farmland will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair.

Meanwhile, other items of research, such as that from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, have shown that biodiversity on shooting estates and grouse moors is often as good or higher than that of neighbouring moorland managed by the RSPB. The principle reasons for this (muirburn and predator control) are not acknowledged by the RSPB for reasons of their own idealogical dogma. For conservation to move forward, the truth must be acknowledged and embraced by both sides in what has become an extremely fractious debate. This is not to say that the RSPB has been alone in taking a rigid stance. Many within the shooting lobby are equally stiff-necked. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that dogmatic adherence to the idea that any bird which is currently protected is immune to changes in the law – which may remove that protection in the future. Conservation has been so successful, as far as the Common Buzzard is concerned, that they are now extremely common everywhere in the UK. But they are also highly successful as generalist predators and can do a lot of damage to many ground-nesting birds. There are increasing occasions where there is a strong case for limited or local control of buzzards. Unfortunately, as things stand, the RSPB is completely opposed to such control, even where the case for doing so is compelling.

It is clear from the foregoing that conservation is a highly active process which engages many people in many different walks of life – and which uses many different processes to achieve it. But not all of this activity is entirely worthy. There is a good deal of job-seeking corporatism, froth, virtue-signalling and outright political manoeuvring associated with it. Conservation is a series of choices – human choices – where the arguments start just as soon as one set of humans gain ascendency over another set. We are left with ethical choices as to which species we should conserve and those which we should control. Those ethical judgements have to be made by humans in the light of the most complete and up-to-date information available.

At the beginning of this article, a definition of conservation was given which includes the concept that conservation is for human benefit. There seems to be an appreciation that the animals and plants which surround us are of value, not only for their own sake, but for the spiritual benefit of humankind too. Somehow, most of us seem to want to have some form of nature around us. There seems to be a huge, if poorly understood, psychological benefit to us. Without natural things and landscapes around us, we would be poorer creatures indeed. The human desire for natural landscapes has to be balanced against our own need to produce sufficient food from a finite area of land and sea. We humans have a duty to look after our planet and our fellow creatures, not just for their own sake, but for ours as well.



[1] Pearsall J (ed.) (1999) New Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[2] Allaby M, (ed.) (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Ecology, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[3] Cooke AS, Bell AA and Haas MB (1982) Predatory birds, pesticides and pollution, Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Monks Wood, Huntingdon.

[4] Cramp S and Simmons K (1980): Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol. 2, Hawks to Bustards. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[5] Avery M, (2015) Inglorious. Bloomsbury Natural History, London.



  1. ‘A few clues to the expenditure of these large sums of money can be found… with the number of people sitting in offices in front of computers’. I enjoyed your article and found it engaging and observant, but the dig at people who have to spend at least part of a day in an office on a computer was disappointing. I work in a museum and because my role is often *not* directly about conserving artefacts but *is* directly about interpreting them in lots of ways with and for visitors (producing exhibitions; giving talks to groups; training staff in how to engage effectively rather than boring visitors; developing activity programmes to ensure there’s something for local people to make repeat visits for; delivering family activities on archaeology etc. because families are important local visitors who will return again and again if there’s something worth visiting for…), I’m quite often derided and belittled on a similar basis as ‘people sitting in offices’. Those of us who have roles that have evolved and emerged in more recent years are also valid and to be valued.

    1. First, thanks for the comment.

      I admit to being a little unkind on the office wallahs. It is completely fair to say that all businesses etc require some form of admin or another. Indeed one of the complaints made by farmers is that they have to spend far too much time time in the office. But my point is emphasised by the suggestion that the RSPB spends only about 24% on reserve management (which itself will involve a fair bit of management) and therein lies the clue. The Head Office costs in most large charities is enormous and growing. Eventually, the original purpose of the charity becomes buried in the needs of the organisation to become self-perpetuating, until it’s only visible parts are the activities of the PR department. So I tend to view conservation NGO activity as being split into two parts: a) the actual stuff on the ground: fence posts being knocked in, walls repaired, trees planted etc. b) The admin which equals the rest. Again, I am being a little unfair because (for instance) the RSPB does a lot of research, and this tends to get lumped in with the admin because it involves a lot of computer stuff. This is one area where the farmer generally does not get involved with, by the way. Actually, in my book, research counts as the “doing real stuff” category.

      So I hope that helps.

  2. It does help. Bear in mind some roles, like mine, are both. I develop and deliver activities, talks, presentations, workshops etc. (which means I spend time in the office making resources, planning programmes, making posters, advertising via email and Facebook, writing talks, collating images for presentations…) I’m also writing reports to funders, collating evaluation, seeking support, writing orders etc. So I’m on the ground *and* admin; I’m in my 40s, I’ve been working since my early 20s, and I’ve been on the ground *and* admin in pretty much all of my jobs.

    I do take your point about charities and their growth and losing their way. It’s a little bit of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenario. Although we have many more charities than in the past, perhaps that’s better. Perhaps having lots of smaller but focussed charities mean their aims stay narrower, more focussed, and therefore more achievable. I have no idea how the RSPB can keep going with an ever-splintering message to the public: birds, birds of prey, giving ‘nature’ a home… Too much!

    1. You are right about the ‘splintering’ as large charities get even larger. The RSPB in particular sends out mixed messages in terms of its willingness to cull, or even eliminate, some pest species; whilst at the same time refusing to acknowledge that others may need to cull or just manoeuvre predators into a different place – the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan alluded to above is a classic case.

      I don’t know what the answer to this problem is, other than for other smaller organisations to keep banging away at the facts until we manage to get the supertanker of the mega-charities to change course.

  3. Are you sure your speaking of the same RSPB that we see, the degraded habitats, the disasters of the White tailed eagle , the inflated numbers of kites kept high with feeding stations , the decline of the Capercaillie, blackcock and a myriad of waders due to lack of predator control and a lack of cool burning. They see the red deer as a pest to be eradicated, shouting about the imaginary high population of red deer in Scotland, wanting to plant trees it seems everywhere there is ground available, while encouraging wild fire by their lack of heather burning. I see an RSPB out of touch with reality, they are far from the organisation they used to be when they actually looked after birds, they are protectionists now no longer conservationists, a threat to our wildlife and their habitats, a disgrace to their founders and their aims. It is all about the money, you won’t lift a hand without begging millions in funding, hugely inflated costings wasting lottery and public money, I left the RSPB many years ago when I saw what they were turning into and it has become worse allowing a small problem building into a huge problem sand then asking millions to sort it out as if you had no money, it makes me sick the declines you have achieved.

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