All aboard for nature recovery?

Fortress to freedom – the new approach

There is a much more positive mood in conservation circles in England than for some years, a shift from fortress “conservation” to expansionist “nature recovery”. So, three days this week I have been in conferences hearing about legal targets for habitat creation and developers needing to implement biodiversity net gain; lots of models for where new habitats should be created; and the social and financial levers that might become available to stimulate action on the ground; also the inevitable debate as to how “nature recovery” should be defined. At both conferences there was discussion about the importance of targeting this new effort, talk of new land-use models, and on identifying what were the priorities for future research projects  by the conservation agencies, research institutes and university departments. All very laudable.

However, there is often a mismatch between the types of research, and research outputs, that fit with the current academic frameworks and what might be most useful to take forward recovery programmes.

  • Research that is likely to appeal to Research Councils and further the careers of the researchers tends to focus on novel situations and solutions; there is little kudos in repeating a study to see if the findings from a previous study are generalisable.
  • Researchers are encouraged to publish strong positive results in peer-reviewed journals that have high impact factors in the REF (Research Evaluation Framework); there is rarely any funding in the grants for the time to produce articles in magazines and journals such as Farmers Weekly, the Quarterly Journal of Forestry or British Wildlife that are more relevant to and more widely read by farmers, foresters and nature reserve managers.
  • We are meant to have halted decline and started to bend the biodiversity decline curve by 2030 which is only seven years away: can we afford to wait for the results from no-doubt excellent 4-year research projects before promoting action on the ground?

Cutting edge science, but does it help with nature recovery issues on the ground?

There is already a great deal of experience in practical nature recovery from past agri-environment schemes, from the work of conservation agencies and NGOs, and in the rewilding and regenerative agriculture initiatives that have sprung up over the last decade or so. In studies elsewhere this experience would be termed indigenous or traditional knowledge. Yet often in a British context this is dismissed because it is based on experience, simple observation and anecdote.

Land managers tend to be in a minority (if present at all) in academic conservation conferences; and those that do attend are usually those that are already on board with nature recovery. We spend a lot of time preaching to the converted and not enough time listening to contrary views. There is a need to shift nature recovery to being a valid major land-use, not something that takes place on the land that is not wanted for production, but we must not in the process denigrate those who regard food or fibre production as more important. After all we are wanting to have some of their land. If the currently unconvinced are to recognise the importance of particular areas for nature recovery (as seen through our eyes), we must also recognise and accept the value of those same areas as seen through their production eyes – at local as well as at national levels. Only then can there be a a dialogue of equals as to which takes priority.

Commercial plantations are not biodiversity ‘deserts’ and it does not help nature recovery to call them so.

My last reflection on these three days of discussion is that we do not give enough consideration to the impacts of ‘offshoring’ our environmental footprint, particularly for food and forest products. We need to reduce unnecessary consumption of short-lived wood products in the UK, but any savings should be first knocked off imports of similar products from countries with less regulated forestry systems; and then there will need to be uncomfortable decisions about whether the remaining environmental impact should be taken here or in China, or in Brazil, or Malaysia.

Is there an alternative way forward, to yet more targets, conferences and five-year research plans?  

Suppose we encouraged groups or individuals, just to get on and do things that they thought would benefit nature recovery (whatever they think that is) locally; to prioritise action with minimum interference (as in the early days of the COVID pandemic response). Such an approach might produce a greater diversity of outcomes, which might be more resilient to climate change than top-down targeted schemes which often lack flexibility. There would also be more local ownership of the activity. In effect this is how rewilding and regenerative farming are currently spreading, both of which are (in most cases) also making a contribution to nature recovery.


The role of regulators would be to weed out only the really unacceptable ideas, a light touch approach. Some of the schemes would fail and many would be sub-optimal (by our current judgements), but if this really is a biodiversity crisis it might be better to get 100 schemes underway now of which 50 fail, than to have 30 well-designed ones started in four years-time, even if all those would succeed.

The role for researchers would be primarily to monitor what was going on and respond to problems that arise, so as to permit the development of adaptive management across different schemes. The priority would be for them to provide quick responses, i.e delivered within a year, based around ‘best available information’ and expert assessment, not to ask for another PhD grant. 

We should aim to become the servants of nature recovery programmes, rather than seeing ourselves as their masters and mistresses.

3 thoughts on “All aboard for nature recovery?

  1. Yes, yes, yes. I am concerned that many landowners do not apply to DEFRA for grant-aided work because of DEFRA’s nightmarish bureaucracy. Do they hate landowners or is it a ploy to save large sums of money? This wall must be broken down too.


  2. To pay public money to private individuals is a complex business these days. In order that we (the public) can be reassured that our money is not being squandered there are a lot of checks required to ensure no double funding (and yes there might be too many different grant schemes), fraud and error (there are strict rules), value for money, avoiding deadweight (paying for stuff which would have happened anyway), avoiding unintended consequences, monitoring to ensure outcomes are delivered etc. No doubt things could be made simpler in places, but as Einstein said make everything simple, but not simpler. The old Agri-env schemes were simple, but all they did really was maintain the status quo (at best).


  3. Yes, it is the big dilemma and I dont know where the balance of risk versus reward lies. But as the Covid response showed, Government and Society do countenance a much greater level of risk with our money in a real crisis. So the question becomes how far up the ‘crisis’ score is nature recovery and carbon sequestration seen to be; and the answer at the moment would appear to be not very, so not much different to business as usual?


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