Reclaiming our wild heritage


Commitments to nature in party political manifestos


After I set out on this advocacy for wild nature some 14 years ago, I saw that the determined phobia amongst the media clique, as was so often exemplified by the incorrect use of the word wilderness, was a significant obstruction to the reframing that was needed in the public’s mind of the true value of wildness. I attributed it to the blindingly misinformed state of many journalists who, by their ill-informed reporting, were guilty of supporting the increasing harm that was being caused by the conservation industry through its managing of landscapes in ways that killed off any wildness. I started an occasional series that highlighted the backward use in the media of words like wild and wilderness (1). I also expanded on articles that were obviously based on blatant churning of conservation industry press releases and where the real significance behind the story was unrevealed. To complement this, I began to collect examples of the language of conservation professionals and their adherents, its wince-making condescension of nonsense “conservationspeak” jarring greatly with those who wanted to see wild nature have a greater influence in our landscapes (2). That my additions to these two have tailed off over the years is probably more a reflection of fatigue, rather than there being evidence of any real progress in developing a value system for wild nature, albeit that it is now – in the post-Monbiot era – a fashion amongst some to show support for “rewilding” (3). However, the rhetoric is far removed from reality, and the true meaning of ecological restoration for these people is allusive as ever (4-6). Nature writers fare little better, their lack of engagement with the realities of wildness resulting in a pervasive message that is an embellishment of what are essentially pastoral narratives, a misrepresentation that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding and a debasing of a value system for wild nature (7).

We should be better served by these journalists and nature writers when the farming industry and the conservation industry have such a dead hand grip on nature policy in Britain (8). The domination of agricultural interests, and a conservation industry supine in the face of that, even abetting it when it brings in money for them, has become the most ill-informed arbiter of policy on nature protection, of what wild nature can live and what dies, a regime that gives free rein to the prejudice of intolerance, as it almost always is with wild nature. The grip that the conservation industry has on nature policy is in being the brashest voice, the experts of the industry given credence when they themselves deny any real public participation, especially through a pre-emption in their consultative processes by documents drawn up beforehand so that the public’s response rarely gets a chance to re-shape them after they have been formed. Ultimately, though, it is about a political will being influenced by the public will, the notion of the Irish author and activist Mark Boyle that the time has come for the "Wild Revolutionary" to be introduced in to the political landscape to kick start a change in our culture so that it values wildness and wild nature (8). When I wrote about Boyle’s diagnoses, I absolutely agreed with him in putting wild nature into a political context, in breaking the pattern, and pointed to a forthcoming consultation on the framework for the Governments’ 25 Year Environmental Plan for England as at least an opening to insist that the fundamental principle of the existence and protection of wild nature becomes a policy of natural justice (8).

Stern strictures in how the plan should be implemented

I noted that there had been endless delays in the framework for the Environmental Plan being published for consultation so that I was tempted, when offered the chance a week or so later in January, to see a copy of the draft. However, a Written Answer appeared from Agriculture Minister George Eustice that the Government “will shortly be publishing for consultation two Green Papers setting out our ambitions for food, farming, and the environment” (9). I wondered how long “shortly be publishing” meant, but if it was only going to be a matter of a few weeks, then I could wait until everyone else had an opportunity to read and comment on the Green paper. About the same time in January, though, the National Capital Committee (NCC) published its fourth State of Natural Capital Report containing a surprising number of specific recommendations on what the plan should contain, and which had some pretty stern strictures in how the plan should be implemented and operated (10). Given that the NCCs main role was to advise Government on how to develop its 25 Year Environment Plan, it seemed odd to me that it would have made so many specific recommendations when the framework of the plan had already been drafted. Was the NCC expressing its dissatisfaction with the contents of the plan, or was it instead putting down markers for what influence it had had on that contents? Considering the current Governments attitude to EU Directives, and that it eschews the thought of any legislative restraints on land users, then the stringency of the recommendations suggests the former.

There was a reference to the Government’s Pioneer projects in one of the NCCs recommendations, as well as a number of mentions of a ‘How To Do It’ manual for practitioners. The recommendation asserted that the Pioneer projects were key to the implementation of the 25 Year Environment Plan, and needed to be progressed rapidly with “clear leadership, strong governance, clear reporting requirements and a valuation and accounting framework to help determine priorities, monitor progress and measure performance” (see Recommendation 5 in (10)). In effect, these projects, an early proposal from the NCC that had been taken up by Government, were seen to provide a test bed for the plan, promote learning about best practice, and establish models that could be adopted throughout England (12). I had seen mention of these Pioneer projects and the ‘How To Do It’ manual for practitioners in the various NCC meeting minutes (13-14) but had not really understood their full significance. On looking around, I found correspondence between Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the NCC that confirmed the location and types of projects (15):
““Catchment” Pioneer in Cumbria; an “Urban” Pioneer in the Greater Manchester area; a “Landscape” Pioneer in North Devon; and a “Marine” Pioneer across two sites, one in East Anglia and an additional component in Devon to complement the Landscape Pioneer”

There was also some evidence of these projects being picked up by organisations in those locations, such as Lancaster University after a competition (16) the Greater Manchester Local Nature Partnership (17) North Devon Biosphere (18) and Suffolk Coasts & Heaths AONB (19)(and see (20-24)). Each of the four projects were to be backed by a statutory agency: landscape by Natural England; catchment and urban by the Environment Agency; and marine by the Marine Management Organisation (11). It should be noted though that as unfunded projects that will run for 3 to 4 years, there was at least one notable statutory organisation that dropped out from taking a project leadership role, when the Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority were concerned that there was a lack of clear definition, and of availability of resources to fund the marine project (25). It finally decided that the project had a far broader scope than had initially been envisaged, and that without full funding being provided it could not be the lead Authority for the project in Suffolk, leaving the Marine Management Organisation to step in (26).

Where is the Green Paper?

The Pioneer projects and the ‘How To Do It’ manual also cropped up when the Environmental Audit Committee held a one off session at the end of February to examine the work of the NCC, and consider the conclusions and recommendations made for the 25 Year Environment Plan in the fourth State of Natural Capital Report (27). Dieter Helm, NCC Chair, answered questions from the Committee, and clearly showed a number of times his frustration at the delay in publication of the Green Paper (28):
“It is the Government that should be asked as to where the Green Paper is—and remember it is a Green Paper. The crucial thing, the plan, is the White Paper. As I understand it, that is promised by the end of the year. The Green Paper is designed to get people’s involvement in the drawing up of the plan and the later the Green Paper is the less engagement there is for the White Paper. I think it would be a serious problem if the White Paper did not appear this year…the real answer to your question is: that is what the Green Paper is for and that is why it is so frustrating that it is not out there. The idea was to get it out last summer. The reason you want these things out in the open is that you want to draw in all these ideas that people have…. without a Green Paper it is quite hard for the Government to engage in consultation”

He hoped that Government would accept the recommendation that the 25-year plan be an overarching framework and which is put on a statutory footing so that formal legal responsibility is created for delivering the outcomes. His justification for this was institutional issues about governance that were apparently not illustrated by the general plan, but had already come up in the Pioneers – “Who is in charge? Who is driving these things? Who has responsibility? Who is answerable for the delivery of those outcomes? Those are inevitable questions that naturally come up when you try it out because you find out what is missing”. Helm later brought up the issue of governance specifically of the Pioneers. He allowed that the Pioneer projects had only really got going last autumn, and so wanted to give them time to see what happens. His intention was to try to inject some general lessons into them over the summer, and then bring all the Pioneers together for a meeting to try to think about how these inform the 25 Environmental Year Plan (28):
“That is precisely why we recommend proper governance of these things. There are lots of different institutions, organisations and players that have something in the game, but what is not clear is who is in charge, where is the catchment plan now for the Pioneer?”

Helm gave his evidence to MPs in the morning and, by the end of the day, Mary Creagh, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, had written to the Secretary of State about the 25 Year Environment Plan (29). Creagh bemoaned the continuing delays there had been in publishing the framework (in effect, now the Green Paper) and reminded the Secretary of State that the Environmental Audit Committee had “recommended that the framework for the plan should be published and consulted on before Article 50 is triggered, so as to inform the Government’s negotiating position. This seems unlikely, raising the prospect of the Government entering crucial and time-limited negotiations with the EU without an agreed plan”. Creagh ended by saying that it was essential that there were no further delays, and asked when the framework and the final plan would be published? BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin was amongst others who picked up on this letter, and while he sought a response to it from such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, there was no reference to the National Capital Committee and its role in assisting in the development of the 25 Environment Year Plan, nor the recommendations that the NCC had made about it in its recent State of Natural Capital Report, or the evidence given to the Environmental Audit Committee by Dieter Helm, Chair of the NCC, and which led to Creagh’s letter to the Secretary of State (30). That this matters is because even worse evidence of poor reporting was to come from Harrabin.

The latest weasel excuse of the farming industry

Listening to the BBC radio news one morning a month ago, I heard a segment of the program where Harrabin explained that he had got hold of a draft of the 25 Year Environment Plan, and had given copies of it to an official of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and an employee of the Woodland Trust (WT). What woke me up was that Harrabin got them to respond to an example given in the woodlands section of the draft that said it was better to plant woods near cities than in the uplands. The NFU official bridled at the implication that lowland farmland should be reforested, asserting that the loss of food production would result in more food imports from abroad and which would result in the loss of more rainforest. Ever sensitive to what may be the latest weasel excuse of the farming industry to avoid any ecological restoration of its land, I could see that this approach would be playing on sympathies for the emotive issue of the destruction of rain forests in South America. It didn’t seem to me to hold great plausibility as a threat. The WT employee thought the afforestation of lowlands rather than uplands lacked common sense, and was surprised that the example in the draft appeared to be giving information to farmers and landowners on woodland planting, rather than informing Government on policy for woodland. It must have seemed to Harrabin that he had landed a significant blow to the draft framework, but I recognised where the woodland creation example had come from, and knew that Harrabin, and the stooges he had set up for the story, were missing the point.

The notion that it’s better to plant woods near cities than in the uplands is from a study in the second report of the NCC on the State of Natural Capital from March 2014 that explored integration of the economic value of Natural Capital into decision-making on the provision of Public Goods, and enhanced value for money in public spending - this report also contained the seeds of the idea for a 25 Year Environment Plan that was adopted as a manifesto commitment by the incoming Governement in 2015 (31). I had written about this woodland study a few months after it appeared, interested to see that when recreational values were maximised along with timber values in deciding where trees should be planted, then there was a dramatic shift in the prospective location of Britain’s potential new woodlands, bringing them off remote upland areas, and instead adding a green fringe of woodland around Britain’s major population centres, significantly improving water quality, and the non-market goods generating massively higher value for money that easily outstripped the foregone value of agricultural production (32). I wrote at the time that it was tempting to speculate that these lowland locations, and particularly their spatial distribution that appeared to create large groupings with higher woodland cover, significantly reducing the presence and influence of agriculture, could be a significant draw to burgeoning deer populations, and thus could be in the future ideal territory for re-establishing lynx. The bottom line, however, would be much more woodland nearer to people. So, to have Harrabin and his stooges trash this study without seeming to understand the significance of it, and why it was in the draft 25 Year Environment Plan, was galling and typical of the level of ignorance I have come to expect of journalists and the agriculture and conservation industries.

Harrabin wrote up his radio piece for the BBC News website, and so I could confirm what I thought I had heard on the radio (33). It gave me the names of his interviewees: NFU vice-president Guy Smith, who was now reported as claiming “loss of forests abroad” rather than the “rainforests” that he had said in his interview; and Woodland Trust conservation director Austin Brady. While Harrabin did give the figures from the study that showed the annual benefit of woodland creation in the lowlands at £564m was massively larger than the £66m of the uplands, he labelled it a “counter-intuitive conclusion” which had “baffled” the Woodland Trust that it’s better to plant woods near cities than in the uplands. He claimed that “environmentalists” thought the plan was “lacking in practical solutions”, but there was no mention by Harrabin of the Pioneer projects or the ‘How To Do It’ manual. Such are the dangers of trying to make a story out of a leaked document and incomplete information. I was restricted to leaving only a short comment below his article, and which explained why I thought it was bad journalism (see comment #44 in (33)):
“This a poorly researched. Woods near cities is from the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) based on the economic value of Natural Capital. The NCC is the advisory body for the plan and supports the four Pioneer projects that will be testing its delivery. NCC made a number of strong recommendations in Jan about the Plan. A more informed news story would have talked to the NCC, and not just NFU & NGOs”

A counter-intuitive conclusion turned into a virtue

I was able to leave a longer comment under the entry about the article on the BBC Science News Facebook page, and where I explained the logic behind the woodland creation study; that the NCC were assisting in the development of the 25 Environment Year Plan; that it was producing a 'How To-Do-It’ manual to assist those involved with Pioneer projects that will be testing methods to deliver the plan; and that the NCC report in January had made a number of recommendations about the 25 Year Environment Plan, a few of which I listed (34). I allowed that it was possible that the Government will ignore the NCC recommendations in the promised Green Paper, and again maintained that Harrabin should have talked to the NCC, and not just the NFU and NGOs. It is thus difficult to see what Harrabin had achieved with his stunt of seeking uninformed comment on a leaked document. As Dieter Helm said in his evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, the key action is to get the Green Paper out so that it can “draw in all these ideas that people have” (see above) – that is, all of us reading the Green Paper and commenting on it rather than leaving it to the uninformed in the farming industry and the conservation industry.

Farmers only know what they step in, or what their unions are prepared to tell them, but Austin Brady, as conservation director of the Woodland Trust, and apparently also responsible for external affairs (35) should at least have known about the woodland creation study in the NCC report. Perhaps he should talk more with his colleague James Cooper, who is Head of Government Affairs at the Woodland Trust (36). Cooper recently rewrote the Woodland Trusts six priorities for the 2017 UK Parliament to reflect the challenges facing the natural environment on the UK leaving the EU (37). The fourth priority - Trees for people at the heart of an environment that works for everyone – makes reference to the NCC study on woodland creation, noting the high value in excess of £500m in social benefits generated by “the creation of 250,000 hectares of woodland near to towns and cities”. So what was a “counter-intuitive conclusion” had now turned into a virtue. Excuse my cynicism when I note that the date of publication of these priorities was over two weeks after Austin Brady’s ignorance of the NCC study was shown up, because it begs the question of whether it was just a “bafflement” of Brady, or if it was a “bafflement” of the whole of the Woodland Trust until its ignorance was exposed. Either way, at least Cooper recognises the importance of the lessons of the study, and avers in that fourth priority that the ambition to plant woodland near to towns and cities “should be at the forefront of government plans to enhance the environment and boost nature’s recovery, providing opportunities for everyone to experience nature, irrespective of their wealth”. I can only but agree.

That the Government have now called a General Election (38) puts a hold on Government business, but when (or if) this Green Paper or any other consultation on a plan for nature comes along, we should all reclaim our wild heritage by ensuring that the political will hears our public will for wild nature, and that it is not manipulated by poor journalism, or drowned out by the farming industry and the conservation industry. I would also echo ecologist and writer Hugh Warwick, in his observation that the denudation of common forms of non-human life get lost with the obsession for “biodiversity”, that we should be looking “around to find leaders willing to take the risk to treat nature seriously; to recognise that the economy is but a subset of the planet’s ecosystem and to have the vision to see beyond the self-centred political cycle” (39). We need those “Wild Revolutionaries” in the political landscape.

Mark Fisher 13 May 2017

Commitments to nature in party political manifestos

Here are the various pertinent commitments on nature, distilled from the election manifestos of the three main political parties in England, given in alphabetical order:


- Devise a new agri-environment system

- Natural England to expand their provision of technical expertise to farmers to deliver environmental improvements on a landscape scale

- Improve natural flood management

- Maintain public forests and woodland in trust for the nation

- Provide stronger protections for ancient woodland

- Produce a comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan

- Take control of environmental legislation from the EU


- Defend and extend existing environmental protections

- Fund robust flood resilience

- Safeguard habitats and species in the blue belts of the seas and oceans surrounding our island

- Work with farmers and foresters to plant a million trees of native species to promote biodiversity and better flood management

- Keep our forests in public hands

- Establish a science innovation fund, working with farmers and fisheries, so that stewardship of the environment is founded on sound principles and based on scientific assessments


- Establish a £2 billion flood-prevention fund

- Pass a Nature Act to put the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) on a statutory footing

- Set legally binding natural capital targets

- Empower the NCC to recommend actions to meet these targets.

- Significantly increase the amount of accessible green space

- Create a new designation of national nature parks to protect up to one million acres of accessible green space valued by local communities

- Establish a ‘blue belt’ of protected marine areas

- Plant a tree for every UK citizen over the next 10 years

- Protect remaining ancient woodlands

19 May 2017

(1) ssenredliW - what does it mean? Self-willed land

(2) The nonsense of conservation speak, Self-willed land

(3) Trophic occupancy and the rehabilitation of the meaning of rewilding, Self-willed land April 2016

(4) The free for all of trophic rewilding, Self-willed land January 2016

(5) Unfinished business on rewilding - a comparison between Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe, Self-willed land May 2016

(6) Patterns and disconnections in nature, Self-willed land August 2016

(7) Breaking the pattern, Self-willed land October 2016

(8) Giving natural justice to wild nature, January 2017

(9) Agriculture: Finance: Written question - 61247. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

(10) Improving Natural Capital: An assessment of progress. Fourth report to the Economic Affairs Committee. Natural Capital Committee 24 January 2017.

(11) 25 Year environment plan, Andy Holden, Pioneer Programme Lead, Defra

(12) Natural Capital Committee, Second meeting 17 May 2016

(13) Natural Capital Committee. Third meeting, Nobel House, 12 July 2016

(14) Natural Capital Committee, Fifth meeting, 3 November 2016

(15) Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State, DEFRA, to Dieter Helm, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee, 24 August 2016

(16) Cumbria flood competition winners announced. Flood Risk Management and Modelling Competition. Results Updated 31 Jan 2017

(17) Greater Manchester Scope, Urban Pioneer September 2016

(18) Biosphere becomes a Defra 'Pioneer' area, North Devon Biosphere News 1 September 2016

(19) AONB Monthly update, Suffolk Coasts & Heaths AONB December 2016

(20) DRAFT MINUTES. Meeting of the Lake District National Park Partnership Wednesday, 5 October 2016 at 9.30 a.m. at the Low Wood Bay Hotel, Windermere, LA23 1LP

(21) Greater Manchester Urban Pioneer & Natural Course Project, Greater Manchester Combined Authority January 2017

(22) Key Environment Programmes: Urban Pioneer and Natural Course Update, Mark Turner, Natural Course GM Team Leader, GMCA, GREATER MANCHESTER PLANNING & HOUSING COMMISSION 17 January 2017

(23) North Devon Landscape Pioneer, Thomson, J., Natural England November 2016

(24) An introduction to the marine pioneer. Aisling Lannin, Marine Pioneer Programme Lead, Marine Management Organisation March 2017

(25) 26th Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority Statutory Meeting 2 November 2016

(26) 27th Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority Statutory Meeting 15th February 2017

(27) Chair of the Natural Capital Committee questioned, Environmental Audit Committee News 23 February 2017

(28) Oral evidence: Evidence given by Professor Dieter Helm CBE, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee. The Work of the Natural Capital Committee, Environmental Audit Committee, HC 1022 28 February 2017

(29) Environmental Audit Committee: Letter to Rt. Hon. Andrea Leadsom MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 28 February 2017

(30) Nature report should be released now - MPs, Roger Harrabin, BBC Science & Environment News 2 March 2017

(31) The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets. Second report to the Economic Affairs Committee, Natural Capital Committee March 2014

(32) Lack of natural control mechanisms - the missing lynx, Self-willed land June 2014

(33) England nature plan 'lacking policies', Roger Harrabin, BBC News 11 April 2017

(34) England nature plan 'lacking policies', BBC Science News Facebook 11 April 2017

(35) Austin Brady, Director of Conservation & External Affairs, Woodland Trust

(36) James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs, Woodland Trust

(37) Growing the future: The Woodland Trust’s six priorities for the 2017 UK Parliament, James Cooper, Woodland Trust 27 April 2017

(38) Theresa May calls for UK general election on 8 June, Anushka Asthana, Rowena Mason and Jessica Elgot, Guardian 18 April 2017

(39) Where have all the insects gone? Hugh Warwick, Guardian 13 May 2017

(40) FORWARD, TOGETHER: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future. THE CONSERVATIVE AND UNIONIST PARTY MANIFESTO 2017, May 2017