My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome Dr Robert Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter.
Biodiversity conservation as an end in itselfDespite a national fixation with natural history, Britain’s biodiversity is increasingly under threat. Some rare species have been saved by the targeted actions of conservation organisations, but wayside wildlife continues to decline. To restore a landscape rich in biodiversity, conservation may need greater recognition as a legitimate land-use in its own right. Biodiversity provides benefits for humanity ("ecosystem services"), but these are not the raison d’être for conservation. Biodiversity has to be an end in itself, rather than simply an attractive side-benefit of what else we use the environment for. Not convinced? Here are some reasons why.
Doesn’t Britain's wildlife benefit from existing land-uses?Before humans changed Britain’s landscape irrevocably, many species probably depended on natural disturbances to survive. Traditional management serendipitously created conditions where such species could thrive; but the margins of our intensively exploited landscape no longer provide sufficient habitat for these species. If we want nature to flourish outside nature reserves, then conservation may also need to be a goal in locations primarily devoted to other purposes. Funded landscape-scale projects, where conservation practitioners advise land managers or regional planners, could be essential to achieve this.
Don’t protected areas already conserve biodiversity?It sometimes feels like the business of conservation is to reduce declines, when in fact we should be dealing in recovery. Nature reserves represent a tiny fraction of Britain’s land area; designated sites such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest increase protected area coverage, but only a fraction of these are managed primarily (or at all) for nature conservation. Increasing the coverage of protected areas that are managed directly for conservation could help us to avoid consigning remnant biodiversity to a few reserves in otherwise hostile landscapes. Again, properly funded landscape-scale projects may be essential.
Don't planning regulations already protect biodiversity?Planning can play a vital role in safeguarding biodiversity: my own interest in wildlife was inspired by childhood visits to London's Green Belt. But mounting demands for housing increase the need to ensure the protection of important locations for biodiversity, whether greenfield or brownfield. We cannot dismiss legislation designed to protect biodiversity as "red tape". Where commitments are made to offset unavoidable losses of habitat, our aim should be improvements for biodiversity, rather than no net loss.
Aren't social and economic needs more pressing? The message needs to be made clearly that safeguarding biodiversity is itself a central part of sustainable development. By diminishing the importance of biodiversity relative to conventional "land-uses", we reduce the opportunities for nature itself to provide a host of services freely, affecting food, water, and our own health and well-being. We do not fully understand how biodiversity loss affects these and other ecosystem services: so rather than predicating conservation on measurable natural capital, why not conserve biodiversity for itself, now, before it is too late?
The tangible value of a nightingale’s song (or a cuckoo’s, or a robin’s) may be debatable, but the cost of its disappearance from everyday life would be intolerable.
Do you agree with Rob Wilson? And what would be your One Big Thing for Nature?
It would be great to hear your views.
Time for a Newsnight between Food Bank provider, RSPB & George Monbiot?
Leave the NFU out of this for now; it's too obvious..
or is it?
There is no One Big Thing for Nature apart from us and the way we live and expect to consume today. Land 'provides' food, wildlife et al and it's about to get a devil more complicated when China comes for our food and we start paying land managers to provide public goods (ecosystem services) such as upland flood catchment management, rural culture, carbon offsetting, soil management etc
To get a hint of all the land use demands we have to weigh up today, check out my 'journalistic' style debate paper (18k have read it for free!) and don't just leave it to conservation NGOs - step into the debate yourself!
Rob Yorke (twitter.com/blackgull)
'conventional landuses' are something we've created in the last 60 years, based largely on the WW2 near starvation of Europe and the desire to prevent uncontrolled urban sprawl. Institutions we set up in very different times seem to have acquired an almost religious solidity, probably because most policy makers have no idea where they came from and so are frightened to change them. Its both incredibly hard and incredibly easy to change the paradigms we work to - what you say about the green belt is so important - surely that is a top social value ? How big a step is it to making what the land around our cities does for the people of the city the very highest priority ? You can't give people a daily dose of wildlife anywhere other than where they live and you can't stop their houses flooding by changing land use in New Zealand. Yes, food and farming are very important and we really don't want to go back to the 1930s but it is crazy 60 years on to try and pretend that priorities and what we need from the land haven't changed.
I do agree with Rob Wilson. What he says is fine as possible remedies in the short to medium term but I think the issue of biodiversity loss needs some how to be addressed in the minds of the average person not very interested in the natural world and in the minds of the politicians/decision makers similarly not very interested in the natural world. Currently they are totally obsessed with economic growth, any sort of economic growth seems to be what they want. However it was Robert Kennedy, brother of the President who said that nations measure economic growth in the wrong way and wirh the wrong criteria. For example, defence spending, which may or may not be necessary, currently is a key part of economic growth. Where as actually it benefits no one in practice. Therefore changing the criteria of economic growth to include biodiversity improvement needs to be a key target. This isa very "tall order" and whether it can be achieved is questionable but I think we have to try.
On a seconf front and as a precaution, I do think this planet needs to start seriously addressing the issue of population control. With seemingly ever increasing numbers of people competing for scarcer and scarcer earth resources the outcome, by simple arithmetic, is obvious. Most people will become poorer. it is starting to happen now, and biodiversity will continue to be lost. If however , in the long run, this trend can be reversed it will benefit both people and biodiversity.