by Garry Jones
Why conservation? This is about food isn’t it? Well, farming — but farming is about food?
My name is Garry Jones. I read zoology at Cambridge and have spent most of my career ever since — almost ten years – as a nature conservationist, in various guises and for several organisations. I now work for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. And here is my confession; I want to be a farmer. I haven’t always wanted this and don’t get me wrong, I will still always be a conservationist, but over the last year or so, a few things have clicked into place for me. So, when I met Colin Tudge recently (for me, the author of Variety of Life fame) and realised it had clicked for him some time ago, I could not resist his invitation to say something about why?
I’ll try to keep this simple and spare you detailed accounts and references (though they are there if you want more). Before I get too ahead of myself, there are two things I need to say. The first is to say something about nature, the thing we conservationists are trying to conserve – where is it? What is it? What has happened to it? The second – why it matters?
First, what are we talking about? We are talking species (animals, creatures for sure, but plants and fungi and bacteria too!) and assemblages of species in habitats (the places where things live) – ecosystems, some may say: woodlands, rivers, fields, mountains, seashores to everyday folk and all the stuff that they hopefully buzz and hum with. In England this means perhaps 55 thousand species, not counting all the microscopic stuff (because it is hard to count). So, everything from blue tits to caterpillars, hedgehogs, red foxes, oak trees, cod out at sea and rustling grasses halfway up a hill.
In the UK, we first started to seriously consider, perhaps worry, about all this stuff after World War II. We started building a lot more houses and we now had big industries and a large labour force to keep in work. So, in 1949 the fore-thinking (Labour under Atlee) government brought into place the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act which kicked off the whole idea of statutory protection for important wildlife sites. Though there has been tinkering of sorts, this remains essentially what we still have today. So what do we have?
We have what are called tier 1 sites. These are the National Nature Reserves (NNRs), Local Nature Reserves (LNRs), the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and more recently the European designations; Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and the globally recognised RAMSAR sites, specifically concerned with wetlands. We usually add to these those sites owned by nature conservation organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust. All in all, acronyms to one side, these sites make up about 7% of the land in England. On top of these are tier 2 sites; predominantly ancient woodlands and what are collectively known as ‘local sites’- and specifically known as Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs) or some other acronym. Not quite so well protected, these add another 6.5% or so, though there is some overlap; so for the sake of argument let’s call it a round 12%.
There is also such a thing as tier 3, which is the National Parks themselves and the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). These add a whopping 23.5% — but hang on a second. Many of the tier 1 and 2 sites are within National Parks and AONBs, so there is quite some overlap. Besides, tier 3 designations are not made for wildlife, they are made for landscape, so you can still have building and intensive agriculture, forestry etc. within them. For the purposes of describing the very best places for wildlife I have therefore discounted them and stuck with 12%. Urban gardens are also playing an increasing role, but have also been discounted for now.
Okay, so we have a pretty good idea of where the best wildlife is. We have monitored and recorded and identified and protected it… well sort of. Because actually there has never be a completely comprehensive survey of the entire countryside and maybe that’s just a ridiculous idea. But of the 12%, only 1-2% is in the hands of bodies that exist purely for nature conservation and we know this matters. For example, about 300 SSSIs are damaged every year in one way or another. So, even the most special, most protected sites are vulnerable.
Well, it’s still 12% I hear you cry, we have to farm and build and live somewhere. So, let’s try to put that into some context. If we try to compare things to just after WWII, it is not a good picture. We have perhaps 50% of what we used to have in terms of ancient woodlands, the same for marshes and fenland. It’s worse for chalk and limestone grassland (the sort that ripples its way up the A1 corridor near me), only about 20% of that remains and most shocking of all; flower-rich meadows, the sort that used to dominate the great English countryside and has inspired painters and poets for hundreds of years – just 5% remains intact. On a species level it is pretty bad too; only about a quarter of butterflies remain, little more than a tenth of water voles (think ratty from the children’s book, wind in the willows) and here’s a killer — just 3% of tree sparrows. Three percent, that means 97% have been wiped out. A quarter of all species, that’s more than 13,000 different sorts of plants and animals, are gone or under serious threat in England. The mass destruction of wilderness is not restricted to the rainforests.
So to my second point – why does it matter? First and foremost, if you have read this and taken it on board, there is a little bit of your heart, your soul (perhaps big for some) that pangs a little at the thought of such destruction. I am of no particular religion, but whatever way you look at it, this feels like an immoral act against the earth, against those with whom we share our planet. Okay, more practically, I look out the window, I see a tree, I feel better. I walk to work, I hear a bird sing, I feel good. I do this most days, it adds up, nature is good for me. You may do it too; if not, try it, it works.
Even more practically, natural systems, habitats, ecosystems, are really clever at doing stuff that we spend a lot of time and effort (and money) doing artificially. They clean water, they purify air, they keep places warm and sheltered, they keep places cool in summer. These things have been given the hideously human centred term ‘ecosystem services’ of late, but terminology and human importance aside, they do it anyway and it would and does cost us more, much more to reinvent it. [Serious experts have calculated that the total value of nature’s “ecoservices” is worth at least two or three times the combined value of the GDPs of all the world’s nations. Ed.]
And talking of things nature does rather well, we finally come to food and farming. Everything good you have ever eaten has come from nature. Every vegetable, plant, meat, milk, you name it has its direct origins in nature. Nature is the ultimate at making soil and growing stuff in it; farming is imitation, good imitation for sure, but let’s remember that nature and wildlife are presented to us, gifted if you will three times a day, every day to most of us and the other seven billion humans on this earth, almost without fail, by nature. I could go on, but suffice to say, it matters very much indeed, nothing could matter more. And that is why I want to be a farmer.
I have spent years observing, measuring, tinkering with and communicating nature to others. For years I did this without stopping to think about my place in it. Every species, every plant and animal has a role, a place, a habitat; that’s why we try to save, protect and conserve them. Then, about a year ago it slowly began to dawn on me; and it came back repeatedly, and stronger each time… what is my habitat? Why do my actions take without returning and why do they damage the environment around me where every other creature I can think of is in ultimate harmony — give-and-take; part of a system, a complex, interconnected system. Why am I, we, the odd ones out in nature?
I don’t have all the answers as yet, but I and more importantly others, do have some of the answers. The reason we feel out of place is that we have squished and squeezed and side-lined nature into 12% of the land and gone on building and taking in the form of intensive agriculture and forestry from the remaining 88%. The forces were huge; two world wars is not a trivial excuse. But it was the wrong solution and we need a new one, or rather we need to rediscover an old one, one that we already know works. One where nature has a place in the 88%, where there is complexity, give and take, where individuals are part of, not apart from their habitat – where they share habitat with everything else.
So, I want to be a farmer, a part-time farmer actually, and a part time conservationist; though one day I hope to have a word that that will allow me to say, I am a full time ‘x’, and it just mean both.
All very well, but how and where next? That’s what I’d like to open up some discussion upon right here. What ideas do we have to expand this 12% into something more sustainable? How can we make room in the 88% for nature? Where will farming (inevitably?) come into it and in what format? What about animals, both wild and domestic? What about people? I’ll start with some good news, because last year, only 62 years after the 1949 act, we finally got a bit more help from government…