A Little Knowledge...
A few weeks ago - somewhat to my surprise - I had a letter published in The Times. It didn't really seem to be about anything really important. They'd published a lovely big photo of a field of cornfield annuals and referred to it as a wildflower meadow.
This is a particular bugbear, and in truth actually does matter - the two are very different, one much inferior to the other, and they're increasingly confused. Wildflower meadows are so much more.
Anyway, I see this kind of confusion everywere, and it seems to be getting worse as more and more enthusiasts get into "rewilding". Like them, I'm not a trained ecologist or botanist or entomologist, but I do have a certain amount of practical experience and listen - have listened over the years - to people who know tonnes more about these things than I do.
I see many punters on social media trying to create biodiverse habitats, but many who are desperately short of practical and theoretical knowledge. They're all sorts - they're involved with natural capital businesses or have something to do with ESG at large corporates. They've set up a new tree planting NGO, which is improbably well funded. They like honeybees - there are other bees? They want to reintroduce terrapins and long extinct frogs.
In many cases it's as heart breaking as frustrating. These people are all genuinely keen to make a difference, but their projects are misconceived, irrelevant, and often expensive and even damaging.
Would You Hire A Photographer Or A Plumber?
One thing these folk have in common is influence, which is my first point. As we urgently try to rebuild nature in the UK the wrong people are driving policy and public opinion. They're generally well connected or they have a background in media. I had a tortuous Twitter exchange recently with a former TV producer and nature writer involved in a rewilding company who - it turned out - didn't know what a hedge was. Another guy advising sowing cornfield annuals in a corner of one of our National Parks turns out to be a wildlife photographer. I'm sure he's a very good one, but would you hire him to fix your leaking tap?
Who Needs Experts?
Secondly, there's been the failure of the people who DO know what they're talking about to be heard. There ARE specialists who can tell you all about unimproved grassland and peat bogs and ponds and rivers and hedges and orchards. They're just swamped. There are far, far too few of them. Botany no longer exists as a degree in the UK. I reckon there are fewer than 100 professional entomologists in the country, and they're scientists, for goodness' sake - we can't expect them to be great communicators too. Some are, thank goodness, but coincidentally.
Not only are there an incredibly small number of people who know the theory, there are a tiny number of people who can actually action it properly. How many fruit tree growers do we have left in the country? Proper foresters? Wildflower seed producers?
In any case, in the world of nature, as elsewhere, it's unfashionable to promote these kind of experts. The messages they bring are often inconveniently equivocal and nuanced. They witness a sometimes impossibly complicated and overwhelmingly depressing reality. We want easy wins, preferably featuring pretty flowers and beavers. We don't want to hear about the sanitary towels and used condoms the beavers are swimming through.
It's completely understandable to want a totally different approach to mending the horribly broken version of nature we now have in the UK. Our efforts to do so over the last 20 years have failed. What we desperately need now is more experts, to listen to them more and not less, and to amplify and action their recommendations.
This is a common theme running through what we try to do and through all the NGOs we support. Less ego and letter writing to The Times, more delivery. Come on people, we can do this.