BB eye: The real conservation priorities

Published on 17 January 2018 in Editorials

by Ian Carter

The recent BB paper on IUCN threat assessments (Brit. Birds 110: 502–517) was an interesting and thought-provoking read, although I struggled to see how the results would be especially useful for bird conservation, despite assertions to the contrary. We seem to be awash with ever more refined and complex assessments of the status and conservation priority of birds (and other species). We now have a national IUCN assessment (to go with the separate European, EU27 and global versions), Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC), priority species under the Biodiversity Action Plan and the similar list under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). RSPB and the statutory conservation bodies have their own lists of priority birds that differ from all the lists above as well as from each other. It’s all very confusing and, some might say, unhelpful.

Is the Puffin Fratercula arctica a worthy priority for conservation based on the published assessments? It’s hard to decide. It’s ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction globally, ‘Endangered’ with extinction in Europe and ‘Near Threatened’ in the EU27. It was Amber-listed by BoCC3, Red-listed by BoCC4 and yet it is assessed as ‘Least Concern’ in Britain according to the recent paper. What about Greenfinch Chloris chloris? This species has been assessed as being of ‘Least Concern’ globally, in Europe and in the EU27, and was Green-listed by BoCC3 and BoCC4 (so far so good). Yet, in the latest paper, it was assessed as ‘Endangered’, as an extinction risk in Britain. The authors of the paper could, very easily, explain the reasons for all this but perhaps that is missing the point. These assessments are presumably aimed at a wider audience who are in danger of being left bewildered and confused.

The globally threatened Puffin: a Red-listed species of ‘Least Concern’ in Britain. Are we in danger of overthinking and over-resourcing conservation priority assessments? Roger Riddington

More broadly, conservation organisations seem to spend much of their staff time and significant resources on assessing priorities and devising ‘innovative’ new strategies for future action. Of course, all organisations need to have a clear plan. But, surely, we are overdoing the strategising and the priority setting.

The widely acclaimed ‘Lawton report’ Making Space for Nature (2010) resulted from a Defra-led review of priorities for wildlife sites in England. After several years of deliberation, the main conclusions as to how to improve the network of areas set aside for wildlife could be summarised in a few words. They have become something of a mantra in conservation circles: ‘more, bigger, better [-managed] and joined up’. Don’t get me wrong, the report is well argued and thoroughly researched. But I think that everyone involved in conservation was already aware of its main conclusions. It is surely self-evident that in order to have more wildlife we could do with more sites set aside for nature, and they would benefit from being bigger, well managed and as joined up as is possible in our modern, cluttered landscapes.

The burgeoning production of species status assessments and conservation strategies is not being matched by conservation gains on the ground. There are, of course, some notable success stories in bird conservation but the overall picture is of continued losses and declines. Contrary to Lawton’s recommendations, in many areas the sites rich in wildlife are increasingly ‘fewer, smaller, less well managed and more fragmented’, to turn the conservation mantra on its head. The HS2 rail link provides just one topical example of a new project that will further diminish our wildlife across a huge swathe of the country. Several major cities may become more effectively ‘joined up’ but the same cannot be said for the wildlife on either side of the route. To add to the conservation strategies, we have a multitude of lavishly produced reports to document the declines in wildlife that result from projects like this, and from the increasingly intensive ways in which our landscapes are managed. The State of Nature report (last published in 2016) is perhaps the best known but there are many others and birds are especially well served in this regard, being comparatively well monitored.

So, here in Britain, we enjoy one of the most thoroughly assessed, prioritised and documented avifaunas on the planet. And we must be close to the top of the league for the weight of strategy documents designed to benefit birds and other wildlife. Yet we also have one of the world’s most degraded and intensively managed natural environments. The direction of travel for the paperwork and the wildlife would seem to be in stark opposition. As the status assessments and conservation strategies become ever more numerous and detailed, so most of the species they describe continue to decline.

Is there any worthwhile point behind voicing these thoughts? I’m not sure really. Perhaps all this prioritising is just part of the way the modern world works and there is no escaping it. And perhaps a few decades from now when there is far less wildlife and fewer wild places to visit, our descendants will be glad that at least the declines were thoroughly documented; glad that the species no longer present were carefully prioritised into those at most immediate risk at any given time. Our grandchildren will be able to marvel at dusty shelves full of lovingly crafted conservation strategies and think wistfully of what might have been.

If there is a more serious point, then it’s about the increasingly unjustifiable levels of conservation resources consumed by all the theorising, prioritising and reporting; the staff time and money spent on trying to refine, ever more carefully, what conservation actions are required. From my experience working for Natural England, the resources allocated to this work have increased dramatically over the years and are now considerable, despite the huge declines in overall conservation budgets. One (semi-serious) suggestion is that conservation organisations should actually work this figure out. How much of the annual budget is spent on prioritising and strategising (staff time included) – during another year of refining the details of what best to do next? Could some of that usefully be diverted into helping to convert more of the priorities already worked out into action on the ground?

There is a difficulty with this suggestion. I fear that the endless prioritising, strategising and reporting has, over the years, developed into something of an industry in its own right, rather than, primarily, a means to an end. It has become the main occupation of small armies of our most talented wildlife specialists and their managers. As a result, there is now considerable inbuilt resistance to change. Particularly within government and its agencies, it is usually easier and less contentious to fund the production of yet another new strategy or reporting exercise, rather than concrete action on the ground that would achieve more for conservation but might not be universally supported. It will take a lot to change things but perhaps a starting point would be to crunch the numbers and publish the results.