Natural Environment: a response to a draft vision

Why we value the environment

Our vision

Delivering the vision


General comments

This is a response to DEFRA, who sought comments on a draft Vision for the Natural Environment. The Vision was developed as a result of various stakeholder meetings between March and June 2005. The draft Vision was posted on the DEFRA website in mid-October, and the period for comments through an online Open Forum will end on the 18th November, 2005. DEFRA aim to finalise and publish the vision by the end of the year. To read the draft Vision, follow the link to the natural resources area of the DEFRA website

My response follows the format and the questions asked in the open forum comment form.

Discussion Topic 1: Why we value the environment
Please use this section to provide us with any thoughts on the ‘why we value the environment’ section of the vision

The values given in the Vision for the natural environment are characterized by an anthropocentric resourcism that objectifies all of nature, including wildlife, as human commodities to be used with little restriction. This is perhaps inevitable when the context of the Vision given by Defra is Natural Resource Protection, so that the values are related to resources for human benefit and survival.

To make a distinction, we should be asking ourselves the same question that Canadian writer Bruce Littlejohn asks his fellow citizens:
"Have [we] lost sight of the ultimate power of nature? Can we now see it only as a playground or recreational resource to be enjoyed occasionally, or in strict utilitarian terms - as a storehouse of natural resources that exists solely for our material benefit?"
Wilderness and the Canadian psyche, Littlejohn, B.,1991. pgs. 12-20 in, M. Hummel, ed., Endangered Spaces. Toronto: Key Porter.

Thus while the survival of any living species is dependent on the natural environment, there is no intrinsic right of the human species to assume that resourcism can be unlimited and all-encompassing, particularly if it encourages or supports an ethic of opportunism. There is a better nature in our human condition that rises above resourcism and to which we need to give greater attention because it offers much better overall protection to wild nature than a utilitarian self interest.

Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson coined the term biophilia to explain the innate affinity/sensitivity to and need for nature that we human beings have, engendered through our coexistence with the natural world for so many millennia. It is "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”. An extract from his book explains further:
"I have argued in this book that we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained."
Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species, Edward O. Wilson, 1984, p.139

Wilson, as an entomologist, would probably declare that we can find nature wherever we look – he has said "Most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine". Our appreciation of the natural environment thus depends on how "untrammeled" (wild?) nature has to be to meet the needs of individuals and society – and as importantly the needs of wild nature.

I would expand on Wilson’s thesis because our innate affinity for nature has to be wider than just a relation with living organisms because then it would omit the context within which they exist - e.g. the natural elements and their physical force, the natural geological and physical form and content of landscapes etc. - that also command affinity. Thus there is an innate reaction to/appreciation of unconfined rivers, shell-strewn sandy beaches, limestone pavements, sandstone crags etc.

Thus in common with a number of other responses, I find the values of the draft Vision concentrate too much on the human use of natural resources, rather than giving an emphasis to the intrinsic value of wild nature that has its own space away from the land that we utilise. There is no element anywhere in the Vision of an unmanaged/unused reserve/reservoir of wild nature (“resource potential”) in which nature can flourish and from which our used land is ultimately and reflexively renewed and regenerated. This is what will give our overall landscape the resilience that is needed to safeguard the natural resources that we are dependent on, rather than rely on the tolerated wild nature that survives alongside of and in spite of our land use.

Discussion Topic 2: Our vision
One of the main comments we received at the June Conference was that our vision needed to be ambitious and ‘visionary’. We have therefore included a set of more aspirational statements in the revised draft. Please use this section to comment on, for example, whether we have we got these statements right? Are we missing anything? Are these statements 'visionary' enough? – If not, do you have alternative suggestions? Does the draft vision set the right agenda and focus and does it provide clarity and direction at a high level? Are there areas of tension within the draft vision?

These aspirations verge on the platitudinous and, in the case of the first statement, on diversity, is distinctly underwhelming. It is not enough just to prevent further loss of diversity. As it is, our efforts to maintain diversity rest solely on capturing ecological snapshots in small or isolated reserves. We have become fixated with the compositional aspect of biodiversity, preserving components - whether species or vegetation types - with scant recognition of the ecological functions of these components.

We have an obligation under EU directives to re-introduce species lost due to human action so that we begin to "complete the community" of our post-glacial natural reserve. Amongst these could be beaver, wild boar, and perhaps the lynx now it seems to have been lost due to human rather than natural causes.

The re-introduction of lost species should thus be added into the aspirations.

Increasingly, a landscape-scale approach is recognized as being a more effective way in the long-term to maintain diversity in ecologically functional landscapes. Organisations with responsibility for land stewardship, such as the Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, English Nature and the National Trust, have in recent years adopted policies and strategies that incorporate a landscape-scale approach.

This landscape-scale approach should be in the aspirations.

At present, our wholly cultural landscapes offer little real hope that re-introductions of lost species would be acceptable or successful. There is a lack of sufficient type and scale of suitable habitat within which these mammals would be able to exhibit their normal behaviour, and without our need to manage or control them.

It is to be hoped that the adoption of landscape-scale approaches to maintaining diversity is broadened to encompass the creation of essentially unmanaged core wild land areas, linked by wildlife corridors, where these re-introductions can take place. These unmanaged wild land areas are also the “resource potential” from which our used land will be reflexively refreshed, as noted in the previous section.

Wildlland creation is the big idea missing from the Vision. It satisfies the need in such a Vision to have aspirations not just for the natural resources on which we directly rely, but also for wild nature itself.

Many countries have a wildland philosophy and policies that spring from it. Our lack of such a philosophy is ultimately due to the overwhelming historical cultural influence on landscape in Britain. However, organizations in Scotland have begun to grapple with this, producing policies or statements on wild land, i.e. John Muir Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and National Trust for Scotland. There is also a definition of wildland in Scottish planning policy guidance. (I have drawn together many of these definitions - see What is Wildland?)

The creation of landscape-scale unmanaged core wildland areas will require a policy framework and therefore an aspiration should be added for the development of this wildland policy.

Discussion Topic 3: Delivering the vision
This section is intended to set out in broad terms what needs to be done to deliver the vision. Please give us your views on, for example, wave we identified the right areas for action? Are we missing anything?
Do you think that Defra should apply the Ecosystems Approach across natural environment policy? What other integrated approaches could we use? What are their advantages/disadvantages?
Adoption of an integrated approach would take place on a progressive basis, and would allow time to develop our relationships with stakeholders. Do you have specific comments on how best to involve other stakeholders in this process?
Do you have any examples or case studies of where integrated approaches have been successful?

The Ecosystems Approach would seem tenable in relation to habitats/landscapes that are in cultural use, but would not have universality across future landscapes intended as core wildland areas. Moreover, the spatial and functional relationships between cultural land and wild land offer another set of circumstances that we are not prepared for. These go beyond and make inadequate our current systems of conservation through small-scale designations or single species action plans.

Other European countries have areas of greater residual natural character than in our cultural landscapes, and had the prescience to provide varying degrees of protection years in advance of our tentative (and ultimately unsatisfactory) steps with national parks. We should learn from these examples on how they balance various levels of extractive human use with the collateral existence of wild nature.

In particular, the approach of the PAN Parks Foundation – and the eight Protected Area Network (PAN) Parks they have certified across Europe so far - exemplifies good practice in bringing together the management of existing protected areas with their local sustainable tourism businesses. It provides lessons in how core wildland areas can co-exist with cultural landscapes since a core “wilderness” area is a key feature of a PAN Park. This untouched core zone, where no extractive use such as forestry or hunting are allowed, constitutes 30-60% of the land area of the individual PAN Parks and makes them different from most other protected areas across Europe (

Other responses have noted that the Vision addresses the marine environment, but omits farmland. Surprising for Defra, but consistent with the lost opportunities that were left ungrasped in the Curry Commission report on farming. The omnipresence of farmland in Britain is such that we cannot excuse it from making a significant contribution to nurturing wild nature. Entry level and higher level stewardship schemes are mechanisms that are an unfulfilled potential unless they are seen within the context of a whole farm plan and, better still, in a landscape area plan where farmers combine together.

As it is, whole farm plans became associated with bureaucratic administration rather than a landscape approach to habitat enhancement - which it could have been if the LEAF audit of integrated farming had been given strong backing, and with good financial support for FWAG to assist in the action planning. This is not an argument about different farming methods other than in the sense that integrated farming has shown the lead on proper whole farm planning.

The opportunity also to strengthen the trend of farmers grouping together in a coherent way - as they started to do in Countryside Stewardship Schemes - doesn't get any real emphasis in the new Higher Level Scheme. The ESRC funded research of Tim O'Riordan at UEA showed the benefits of farmers combining together to jointly implement whole landscape management, and by so doing enhancing their attractiveness (and giving greater justification in the public’s mind) for environmental subsidy (see Designing and Evaluating Sustainable Agriculture Landscapes, O’Riordan et al (2000) School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)

Discussion Topic 4: Principles
Are there any principles missing? Do we need to provide more guidance on these?

A principle of making space available for untrammelled wild nature to flourish is missing. At present, the wildland concept is little known within the mind of the British public which, being confined as a predominantly urban population, are most likely to “receive” their knowledge of wild nature second hand rather than directly experience it.

The Wildland Network came together this year to help people, organisations and policy makers understand the benefits of wild land and wild places. One of its objectives is to promote the establishment of complete ecosystems on a large scale, through research, advice, encouragement and education. The Wildland Network has the capability to assist in the production of any guidance that will need to be provided in support of a principle of making space available for untrammelled wild nature to flourish.

Discussion Topic 5: General comments
Please use this section to add any general comments that are not covered elsewhere in this e-forum.

The vision is wordy and somewhat platitudinous/repetitive. It lacks a separation between untrammelled wild nature and the natural resources we rely on, and it has no big idea on the former.

Many people with an interest in the natural world have only recently become aware of the development of the Vision, and of this consultation. There has been a considerable quantity of supporting information to absorb.

An impression is gained from the responses in some of the reports of the stakeholder meetings, and from the comments received in this forum, that the Vision does not fully suit its necessary purpose. Thus the commitment to a re-analyse the vision with a view to making changes will be inappropriate, and there may be a need to test a redrafted Vision.

I am sure that everyone who gives themselves the space and freedom to think across history, and for whom the future has to hold promise, will be patient and willing to assist. In particular, the Wildland Network ( and I suspect many other nature and conservation organisations, would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the development of wildland policy.

Mark Fisher, 15th November 2005