Nature conservation. We all (well most of us, anyway) think it is a good idea. Making sure that nature is preserved, conserved and kept in good condition for the next generation. Except, of course, despite decades of dedicated work, nature is not being conserved. It is shrinking. That is not to decry the efforts of those involved in conservation work – I am sure the situation would be a lot worse if we had done nothing – but it simply isn’t holding back the tide of human influence on the landscape and on the species that live there.
There are some species that are doing well, particularly those that are adaptable and can live with humans in towns and cities. But mostly, numbers are falling, particularly of specialist species that need a habitat that has taken thousands of years to develop – woodland butterflies, woodland birds, farmland birds, grassland flowers and plants, whole hosts of other insects and the creatures that feed upon them, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, fungi. Nature conservation feels like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a leaky bucket.
The problem is, nature conservation is seen as something that you do on nature reserves. But these will never be enough. They are too diverse, too scattered, not connected to each other, and much, much too small. And vulnerable. Nature cannot be preserved by keeping it limited to special areas.
Whenever I travel about, I very much get the feeling that human activity is only borrowing land from nature – the trees, bushes, grassland, shrubs, flowers, hedgerows and other habitats are sitting there, just waiting to reclaim what we have borrowed from them. Occasionally, you come across an old building, completely overgrown with trees, flowers and plants, providing homes for foxes, rabbits, birds and insects. Very frequently, it seems these buildings have been occupied until quite recently. We are only borrowing from nature, and borrowing for a short while. Nature has the power to take things back.
What we cannot do is borrow too much, in the wrong places. We need to recognise that we are borrowing, not taking, or dominating, or controlling. Nature needs to be put at the centre of everything we do, not shifted out to the fringes, where we grudgingly make space for it. It needs to be seen as a benefit for everybody, not a cost, not a regrettable overhead, not an unnecessary expense, not a drag on business and a brake on development. Putting nature at the centre means that everybody, in their daily lives, and in their businesses, need to think what they can do to make their lives friendly for nature. And the thing is, it doesn’t need to cost much, or anything at all. Even taking a human-centred view, there is plenty of research showing that a pleasant working environment, and an environment full of greenery and trees and plants, results in less sickness, better staff morale and better productivity.
We need to see development, such as houses and businesses, as fitting in around nature and not the other way round. They also need to be fitted in in the best way possible, and where damage needs to be offset, this needs to be high quality habitat, provided in the right place, preferably locally, and result in a net gain, and improvements in connectivity of habitats, so people can enjoy the benefits if they have paid the price of habitat being lost. And no habitat that is irreplaceable should be lost.
Ambitious targets for conservation will not be met without a fundamental shift in thinking. We fit in around nature, not nature around us. If nature is not put at the centre, then nature conservation efforts will repeatedly fail, and will habitat loss will turn into a rout. We will continue to bail out the sinking ship with a leaky bucket. Nature at the centre of all we do. It is the only way to stem the tide.