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Conflicts in Conservation

Nature reserve sign and magpie

To many outside the field of conservation, it might seem like a load of knit-your-own-yoghurt types doing fluffy, tree-hugging things all day. Simply choose a species to help, fence off some habitat and keep it nice for them; job done. But this is far from the truth. Conservationists routinely have to make some incredibly difficult decisions about what they can save and how to do so. Improving the situation for one species can make it worse for another, for example. Conservation has also somehow found itself as a new front in the culture wars. Add to that the perennial lack of funds and it is clear that there are multiple conflicts in conservation, making it far from the cuddly field portrayed by some of the media.

Decisions, Decisions

One major conservation conflict is a result of the sheer complexity of ecological interactions. Species don’t exist in isolation and have an intricate relationship with a host of other organisms around them. This means that, put simply, if you change something to help one species, or solve one environmental problem, you might inadvertently upset conditions for other species or create new problems. One example of this is afforestation, or tree planting. You might think that it is always good to plant trees. They are excellent at storing carbon to help combat the climate crisis and support a multitude of different organisms, after all. As a result, the public often see tree planting as a quick fix solution to a host of environmental problems. But planting trees in the wrong place can be at best useless and at worst disastrous. The wrong trees put in the wrong place simply to tick a mitigation or offset box might not even survive to do what they were intended to do, especially if there is no subsequent aftercare.

Tree planting
Tree-planting in the right place can have huge benefits

Indiscriminate tree planting can also negatively impact vulnerable habitats or species. If a site doesn’t have an environmental designation, there may be no preliminary surveys carried out before planting begins. This risks the loss of rarer habitats, such as calcareous, unimproved grassland, to trees. Creating new woodland edge habitats also provides cover for predators to approach ground-nesting birds more easily than in open habitats. Some of these birds, including skylark, lapwing and curlew, are red-listed and are in desperate need of conservation measures themselves. While this in no way means we should stop planting trees to replace the huge amount of cover we have lost over the last 50 years, it does show that we need to think very carefully about where and how we plant them if we are to avoid causing more problems than we solve. The same also applies to renewable energy structures such as windfarms. Yes, we absolutely need them. But we must ensure they are in the right place so as not to impact vulnerable habitats or species.

Wind farm off Wick
Offshore windfarms should not be installed on bird migratory flyways

An Emotional Rollercoaster

As you can see, the sheer complexity of ecological systems means there are rarely any easy decisions in conservation. Even practices that seem pretty straightforward in principle can lead to a conflict between helping and harming species. Examples of these include the different methods of tracking species we want to help. We cannot save vulnerable species without knowing a huge amount about them but often the only way to get this information is to first catch a suitable number of study subjects, tag them with a collar, ring or similar and then monitor their movements for as long as the tags stay on. This process, though, can put a huge amount of stress on the creatures concerned. Researchers working to save the UK’s declining water vole population, for example, found that using radio collars on females caused them to give birth to a much higher number of male babies than female as a result of the resultant stress. This could have had serious consequences for their chances of recovery. As such, it is vital that conservationists weigh up the benefits of any actions versus any long-term harms caused.

Water vole
Putting radio collars on water voles causes too much stress to justify the practice

Those problematic decisions extend to culling. Many ecological relationships are now extremely out of balance as a result of human interference such as the removal of apex predators from a landscape, introduction of non-native species or severe habitat degradation. The result is often an overabundance of one species, or suite of species, at the expense of others. In the UK, for example, with no natural predators around, red deer populations are unnaturally high. Their overgrazing makes woodland regeneration impossible. Water voles, meanwhile, have been all but wiped out in many places by escaped and deliberately released American mink. Both deer and mink have to be culled to reverse the damage. For many conservationists, though, while this is completely logical on an intellectual level, it is extremely difficult emotionally. The vast majority of people who work in conservation, after all, do so because of their love of wildlife and the environment. Killing any creature deliberately is therefore anathema to this. It also involves convincing the public that it is the right thing to do, as well.

American mink
Culling American mink in the UK is essential if water vole populations are to recover

Counting the Cost

Carrying out the right conservation measures in the right place is crucial because of the financial pressures involved. Environmental bodies, whether governmental or charitable, have limited funds and so have to spend what little they have extremely wisely. Conservation, after all, isn’t just about setting up nature reserves. Remember that complex web of interactions? Well, working them out isn’t easy, which means that understanding how much a species has declined and why takes a lot of research and fieldwork. Only once you understand this can you put any practical solutions in place to help it. This all costs a huge amount of time and money. Tracking devices alone can cost hundreds or thousands of pounds. But fail to do that research and you risk wasting money on completely ineffectual conservation measures that do nothing to solve the actual cause of decline.

Dormouse surveying tube
Even surveying for wildlife, as here for dormice, costs vital funds

And that limited funding of course means that environmentalists can’t apply the same level of research and practical work to everything that needs help. As such, they are regularly forced to prioritise those species or habitats where what little money they have can make a difference over others. Protecting the environment doesn’t just rely on conservationists, either. Developers, land managers and farmers all have an environmental impact and have legal responsibilities as a result. However, some in this group, as well as some of the politicians involved in legislation, see those responsibilities as a financial constraint they are unwilling or unable to pay. The result can be a concerted push back against rules covering good environmental practice because of the real, or perceived, added costs to a project, despite the fact the long-term costs of not helping nature could be much greater. This in turn leads to conflict with the ecologists and agencies sent to monitor them and enforce legislation.

Newt exclusion fencing
Some developers see environmental protections, like this newt exclusion fence, as a financial constraint

People Pleasing

Public perceptions of particular species also cause problems when it comes to conservation. Ask any conservationist and they will tell you that it is easier to raise awareness and funds to save large, charismatic species like pandas or elephants. But when it comes to organisms with less pulling power, it is a lot more difficult. Invertebrate charities, for example, generally have to work a lot harder to engage the public because many people don’t think bugs are cute or important. This is despite the fact that insects provide a huge range of vital ecosystem services and are showing worrying declines. A perceived sense of dangerousness also puts people off. Sharks, for instance, generally have a terrible reputation because of films like Jaws and the use of language such as ‘shark-infested waters’. Although a very few species do sometimes attack, they do so much less than most people realise, and rarely fatally. At the same time, they face huge threats from hunting, bycatch and entanglement. All of this means conservationists often have to fight extremely hard for the smallest bit of support and, crucially, money. They then often have to justify the way they spend that money to a public that might not always understand all the complexities of an issue, as with the tree planting mentioned earlier.

Oil beetle
Invertebrates, such as this oil beetle species, are harder to raise funds for than cute mammals

As an island nation, conservationists also face conflicts over what is or isn’t native to the UK, i.e. here since the last ice age. Some of these arguments are influenced by what people would like to be native, rather than what actually is. Non-threatening species like the brown hare or little owl are deemed to be acceptable and there are no calls from anyone to turf them out of the country despite their non-native status. Beavers and wild boar, though, are a different story. Both are indeed native to the UK but were driven to extinction centuries ago. Both have also now returned to the UK. Beavers are back through a combination of reintroductions and escapes, wild boar as escapes from farmed populations. Both are contentious. Rewilders would love to see both back permanently in the wild as they have a range of environmental benefits. Farmers and landowners are frequently opposed, saying both beavers and boar cause too much damage.

Brown hare
Brown hares are actually non-native but have been here for over 2,000 years

Warring Factions

This leads us to an increasingly rancorous, sometimes literal, conflict. There has been a growing division between some land managers and conservationists over the last decade or so, creating a real sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Much of this centres around some members of each side believing they know how best to preserve the ‘countryside’ better than the other. Landowners, managers and farmers claim that they have been looking after rural landscapes for hundreds of years so are the only suitable custodians. They also often wrongly claim that all environmentalist critics are ‘townies’ with no real idea of how the countryside works. Conservationists, meanwhile, sometimes turn up to sites from outside and treat locals as though they know nothing about the landscapes they have lived in for generations. This, understandably, immediately puts people’s backs up. It also makes them resistant as a point of principle when conservationists ask them to stop doing something environmentally damaging, such as early mowing or hedge cutting.

There is an increasing divide between some farmers and conservationists

This growing divide has given voice to an increasingly vocal group who oppose various conservation and climate measures. These include rewilding on a landscape scale, such as natural woodland regeneration, along with the more contentious suggestions of predator reintroductions of species such as wolf and lynx. It also includes measures like banning driven grouse shoots and muirburn. Environmentalists say both of these would reduce raptor persecution drastically, help prevent flooding and prevent peatland degradation and the attendant carbon emissions. Land managers say they are preserving habitat for waders and creating jobs. The environment (and climate) has also been coopted as a new front in a culture war that some sections of the media seem to want to stoke. The result is a cohort of critics who oppose the whole concept, let alone the specifics, of conservation and climate action, calling them ‘woke’. And as debates become increasingly rancorous, they also become hugely over-simplified and ignore many of the complexities of the situation.

Red grouse female
Driven grouse shoots are a major front in the war of words between landowners and conservationists

Conservation: It’s Complicated

The field of conservation is full of conflicts, literal and metaphorical, big and small. Some result from the natural world’s complexities. Ecosystems are a web of hundreds and thousands of interrelationships. This means that if you change one element in order to benefit a particular species, you may inadvertently create huge problems for another. Other conflicts revolve around the limited financial resources environmental organisations have access to. Not only do conservationists have to make difficult decisions about what they can and can’t afford to do, they also have to justify spending to the very public providing them with that money. An increasing, and increasingly worrying, conflict, though, is that between conservation and those interested in placing the environment at the heart of their plans to start some sort of culture war. While there will always be disagreements between conservationists and land managers on some issues, if these are highjacked by those attempting to paint all environmental work as bad or ‘woke’, we risk never being able to find common ground.