What’s the difference between a skylark and a curlew?

Curlew 190327

This is the second of a series of posts about conservation and project management. I’ll try not to be too boring and I promise you will learn something – I certainly have. I believe that this material contains some ideas that are fairly novel and are applicable to a wider range of problems than just nature conservation.

My intention is to put together a bunch of ideas that I can tailor to a variety of different audiences and present in a number of ways. If you want me to come and present this material, or tailor it for use on your blog or in your publication, then please get in touch.
In the first post in this series (here) I compared bitterns and skylarks and concluded that when we know what the problem is, have worked out a solution, have tailored that solution to the local context, and have worked out how to sustain that solution, then we can successfully deliver species conservation.

On the day that I started to write this post, skylarks were clearly trying to tell me that they were ok really. I walked for about eight hours, and for the majority of that time I could hear singing skylarks. I was walking the boundaries of a town in the Thames Valley and most of my route was past flood meadows, horse fields and waste land. Only a small proportion of the countryside that I passed was crop fields.

Skylarks and curlews are both birds. They are both brown and stripy, they have both graced dining tables in the past, and at certain times of year you are more likely to hear them than see them. The UK populations of both species are declining and conservationists are worried. However, the key difference is that with skylarks we have a solution, even if it doesn’t appear to be working, and with curlews we don’t.

For more information on skylarks, see my previous post (bitterns and skylarks)

The curlew is a large wading bird with a haunting onomatopoeic call. In summer, they breed in upland areas and on similar habitat in the islands of the north and west. In winter, they can be found in estuaries all around our coast. Their curlew, curlew, curlew cry is a sound that I associate with moorland.

Curlews have recently had their national and international conservation statuses changed to reflect their declining numbers and conservationist’s concerns. The UK holds 28% of the European breeding population and is an important wintering stop for curlews breeding further north, mostly in Scandinavia. There has been a 48% decline in the UK breeding population in the last 20 years and a 15% decline in the European population over a similar time period. (BTO, 2019)

The RSPB suggest that the reasons for the curlews decline in the UK include upland farming and drainage, forestry, and predation. It is also likely that the degradation of our estuaries has an impact on both the breeding and wintering populations. (RSPB, 2018)

There are lots of theories about what can be done, including the proposal that predators should be removed from important nesting sites. Several studies have shown that ground-nesting birds, like curlews, do well on moorland managed for driven grouse shooting. However, this seems to be to the detriment of other wildlife and ecosystem services (Wikipedia, 2019).

Removing conifer plantations seems to be having a positive impact on the numbers of curlews, and other moorland birds, in areas like Forsinard in north-east Scotland. As well as providing additional nesting habitat, conservations believe that fox and corvid predation is a problem where curlew nesting sites are near woodland.

On Orkney, curlew numbers are high in part because of the low numbers of mammalian predators. However, on some of the islands, curlew eggs are increasingly being predated by great skuas (“bonxies”) which are themselves recovering from persecution.

With skylarks we have a solution, but it might not be right. With curlews we don’t currently have a solution. However, the RSPB has been running a research project where they are trialling six different interventions, including predator control to determine which works best. I am convinced that this approach, which my former IT colleagues would call “prototyping” is right, but the conservationists and conservation scientists need to do a better job of adopting some of the rules of prototyping.

Prototyping, the idea that you try out a solution on a small scale to see if it works, is related to a project management approach called “agile”. In an agile project, you work closely with your customer to develop a solution quickly, and then improve that solution iteratively. Successful agile projects require teams of people with a range of skills working together full-time to achieve an agreed objective. The main difference from traditional project management is that the customer’s requirements don’t have to be well-defined in advance.

I contend that conservation projects where we can define the problem (the UK breeding population of curlews is declining), but we don’t have a solution should adopt the following concepts from prototyping and agile. Conservationists should identify a range of potential interventions and then create teams / projects to deliver each of those interventions. If an intervention doesn’t work, then it should be stopped immediately. If an intervention works, then that team should be asked what can be learnt and what can be done to improve it. As new potential solutions are identified they should be considered for future breeding seasons.

My theory is that different project approaches are needed for different types of conservation projects. For projects where we know what the problem is, we have a solution, and that solution works and is repeatable, then we must use traditional project management tools to ensure that those projects are delivered efficiently and effectively, and the solution is sustainable. For projects where we know what the problem is but don’t have a solution, then we should trial a number of interventions. During these trials, resources must be swiftly removed from interventions that are not working, lessons must be shared with all teams involved in that particular conservation effort, and the project teams must also recognise the context in which their solution works (e.g. skylark plots only work on arable farms where farmers are prepared to leave patches, they don’t work on flood meadows etc.)

References

BTO, 2019. BTO Curlew Appeal. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bto.org/support-us/appeals/bto-curlew-appeal
[Accessed 25 March 2019].

RSPB, 2018. Curlew Conservation. [Online]
Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/curlew/conservation/
[Accessed 25 March 2019].

Wikipedia, 2019. Driven grouse shooting. [Online]
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driven_grouse_shooting
[Accessed 08 April 2019].

 

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Reflections and Challenges

000311-01 Cake (2)
I started this blog on 11th March 2018, so it’s time for a bit of a stock-take.

In the last year I have contributed to a book on project management, and had articles related to conservation, nature and walking published in a number of magazines. In addition to writing this blog, I have also had pieces, including re-worked blog-posts, published on third party websites. I have also helped out a number of charities remotely, mostly with project management or governance. As I have done these things, I have learnt some interesting things about conservation, project management and writing.

I have a chronic back problem, where chronic just means that it isn’t going to go away. In October 2017 I suffered a relapse that left me struggling to walk. A year and a half later, and I am doing things that in October 2017 I thought I’d never be able to do again. I have walked more than 1400 miles in the last year and done physical conservation tasks for at least five different organisations.

For the second year in a row I am taking part in Country Walking magazine’s #Walk1000miles challenge. This fantastic initiative encourages people to take on the challenge of walking 1000 miles in whatever way they want. There are many inspirational stories of people battling health problems finding that the challenge changes their life. In my case, I have always enjoyed walking so the challenge wasn’t necessarily going to be about the mileage. In 2018, I chose to only count those miles covered in walking boots / shoes. This year I am challenging myself to walk 10 miles 100 times.

Towards the end of 2018, my father-in-law passed away. He was a gentle, kind, intelligent man, who could always be relied on for sage advice at turning points in my career. In November, he lost his battle against Alzheimer’s. Watching this clever, dignified man waste away mentally and physically felt like an inappropriate end to a life of kindness. Writing these words made me realise that I am only able to do what I am now doing thanks to his help and advice.

I am taking on the Chiltern Challenge in his memory and raising funds for the Alzheimer’s Society. I will be attempting to walk 100 kilometres (about 62 miles, or 6 of my 10-milers) in one go, over a surprisingly bumpy route that takes me from near our home to near where my father-in-law lived. The Alzheimer’s Society is one of the charities chosen by his family and exists to research into dementia care, cause, cure and prevention. You can find out more about the challenge, including how my preparation is going, and sponsor me at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/mike-coker1.

I have met some amazing people through my volunteering, all doing great things. I am in awe of the people that I do practical conservation work with, some of whom are more than a decade older than me and yet do an incredible amount of physical work in all conditions. I hope that I can be making as much of a contribution as they do, in years to come.

My main objective when I started this blog was to work out what can I do to have a greater impact for the nature that I love. My secondary objective was to work out what others can do, maybe through the organisations that they work for, the charities that they support, and the groups that they belong to.

In terms of my personal impact, I am trying to achieve a balance between practical action (mostly volunteering) and influencing others (mostly writing). In doing this I am also trying to balance making a difference where I live and making a difference over a wider area. Even if my impact is tiny in the big scheme, it is still positive and I can apply what I learn to influence others.

In terms of increasing the impact of others, I am convinced that improving the efficiency and effectiveness of volunteering is important. Over the next 12 months I will be trying to get more people volunteering for nature and to get conservation organisations to make more effective use of volunteers. There are a lot of positive stories that can be told about nature conservation in the UK, and the volunteers that have played an important part in many of these. Numbers of some species of birds, mammals, insects and plants have increased in the last few years as a result of targeted interventions made by volunteers. We can do even more if we get better at sharing current success stories. We can also make better use of the increasing interest in corporate volunteering.

Conservation volunteering is a way of improving the health and well-being of staff whilst having an impact that those staff and their employer can take credit for.
I am also convinced that we can make conservation interventions even more effective by becoming better at sharing resources, sharing tools and sharing knowledge. In the next 12 months, I will be focusing on the cross-over between my conservation knowledge and network and my project management knowledge and network. I started to explore one aspect of this in my last post (What is the difference …) and I will be writing more about this shortly.

Again, it feels like this is an area where corporate volunteers can play an important role.
After a year of my new “working” life I am fitter than I have been for 15 years, I have learnt some interesting things, met some amazing people and made some small steps towards achieving my objective. Here’s hoping that the next 12 months will be equally fulfilling.

What is the difference between a bittern and a skylark?

Bittern 190212

This is the first of a series of posts about conservation and project management. I’ll try not to be too boring and I promise you will learn something – I certainly have. I believe that this material contains some ideas that are fairly novel and are applicable to a wider range of problems than just nature conservation.

My intention is to put together a bunch of ideas that I can tailor to a variety of different audiences and present in a number of ways. If you want me to come and present this material or tailor it for use on your blog or in your publication then please get in touch.
Bitterns and skylarks are both birds. They are both brown and stripy, they have both graced dining tables in the past, and at certain times of year you are more likely to hear them than see them. However, the key difference is that bitterns are a conservation success story (in the UK) whereas skylarks aren’t.

Bitterns are heron-like birds that lead a secretive life in reed-beds. The male bittern produces an incredible booming sound to attract a mate. These booms can be heard up to 5km away and each male has his own individual boom. Bitterns died out in the UK in the 1800s due to a combination of wetland drainage and hunting. The bittern, although by most accounts not great eating, was a popular feature of upper-class dinner tables. It was also regarded as a creature of ill omen (Cocker & Mabey, 2005). In the early 1900s, birds from mainland Europe started to repopulate Norfolk. The English population peaked in the 1950s before declining again due to drainage of their preferred habitat. In 1997, only 11 booming males were recorded. Similar declines had happened across Western Europe (RSPB, 2017). In 2018, 188 booming males were recorded across 82 different sites (Birdguides, 2018), more than at any time since the 1850s! Most of these sites are reed-beds that have been created or improved since the 1990s, in many cases either with EU money or on land restored after mineral extraction. In 2017, I stood near a working gravel pit listening to three males booming in reed-beds newly created from older gravel-workings.

It now seems that all that we need to do is create new reed-beds within a bittern’s flight of an existing population and bittern numbers will further increase. My conservation colleagues tell me that it took 25 years of painstaking research to work out the optimal habitat for bitterns (water not too deep or too shallow, the right water conditions for plenty of the right prey species, plenty of reed-bed to skulk and nest in, etc). My project management colleagues point out that now we know the formula for optimal habitat, increasing bittern numbers is essentially an infrastructure project. In the words of Kevin Costner “Build it and they will come”.

Project managers have the tools and experience to deliver infrastructure projects. Essentially, project management tools ensure that lessons are learned from previous projects and the risks associated with any particular project are understood and mitigated. In the majority of cases infrastructure projects are delivered on time, on budget and to specification as long as the appropriate lessons, risks and requirements are taken into account at the planning stage.

The other thing that project managers have the tools to help with is putting in place the things needed to sustain whatever the project has delivered after the project has finished. Unfortunately, there are a number of pieces of new reed-bed across the UK where the resources have not been put in place to maintain them.

The skylark is a much smaller bird, somewhere between the size of a sparrow and a starling. Their preferred habitat is open grassland, and their UK population probably grew as woods were cut down and converted to arable land. They are best known for the spectacular song that they pour down from the sky, which has inspired poets and composers. Like bittern, skylarks were caught and eaten, with the skylark being a much more popular foodstuff, and even featuring in Mrs Beaton’s recipes (Cocker & Mabey, 2005). By the late 1800s declining numbers had made them more of a luxury foodstuff.

Attempts to conserve the skylark began earlier than attempts to conserve the bittern, with lark-catching banned in 1931. The skylark population seemed to stabilise for the next 40 years, before beginning a dramatic decline to less than a third of their 1970 population between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s. The rate of population decline has eased, but skylark numbers continue to fall in most parts of the UK (BTO, 2018).

Conservationists believe that the skylark’s decline is due to a number of changes in agricultural practices since the 1960s, including autumn crop planting, increased animal stocking densities, and the loss of traditional hay meadows. A solution has been developed in the form of the creation of skylark patches in crop fields. Modern farming technology allows small rectangles to be left un-planted, un-treated and un-cut in fields with minimal impact on crop productivity. The RSPB have demonstrated this approach on their farm in Cambridgeshire and have campaigned hard for this approach to be adopted by arable farmers (RSPB, 2018).

At first glance this would appear to be another infrastructure project, which should be as successful as building reed-beds for bitterns if project management tools are used. However, the success of this approach to skylark conservation relies on changing the behaviour of the people who farm this land. I have had the pleasure of meeting some remarkable farmers who have embraced this approach and increased skylark numbers on their land. However, they are in the minority. The majority of farmers are focused on efficient production of crops and not the conservation of a small brown bird. To borrow a quote written about nightingales “And sadly, it seems, without incentives and direction from above, most landowners, even those who are conservation-minded, rarely have the time, drive or resources to devote to conservation measures – even when they are as simple and rewarding as this” (Tree, 2018)

On the day that I started to write this skylarks didn’t seem endangered. In the course of a five mile walk I heard more than ten singing males, mostly in a two mile stretch of farm and wasteland. This made me ponder whether there are other solutions such as focusing more on waste land, or addressing the issues related to ground-nesting birds in general such as predation by foxes.

With bitterns, conservationists know what the problem is, they have worked out a solution, and as long as they learn from previous habitat creation projects, identify and mitigate the risks associated with creating bittern habitat in a particular place, and work out how that habitat will be maintained, we can have more bitterns. Project managers have the tools that allow these conditions to be met.

With skylarks, conservationists know what the problem is, and they have worked out a solution. However, that solution only works in certain places where those who manage the land are prepared to change their behaviour. We either need to add some tools to our armoury that will help us influence the behaviour of more land managers, or we need to look for a different solution.

References

Birdguides, 2018. Bittern numbers reach record highs. [Online]
Available at: https://www.birdguides.com/news/bittern-numbers-reach-record-high/
[Accessed 8 March 2019].

BTO, 2018. BirdTrends – Skylark. [Online]
Available at: https://app.bto.org/birdtrends/species.jsp?s=skyla&year=2018
[Accessed 8 March 2019].

Cocker, M. & Mabey, R., 2005. Birds Brittanica. London: Chatto and Windus.

RSPB, 2017. Bittern – Case Study. [Online]
Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/safeguarding-species/case-studies/bittern/
[Accessed 8 March 2019].

RSPB, 2018. Skylark Conservation. [Online]
Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/skylark/skylark-conservation/
[Accessed 8 March 2019].

Tree, I., 2018. Wilding – the return of nature to a British farm. London: Picador.

SANGs and fern-owls

Nightjar Dave Braddock

This amazing bird is a nightjar, whose folk-names include fern-owl, goat-sucker and dew-fall hawk. This scarce summer migrant hunts for moths, and other insects, at dawn and dusk and sleeps during the day hidden by its incredible camouflage. This probably explains why it was named fern-owl and dew-fall hawk. The males attract mates and defend their territories by making a strange other-worldly churring or jarring sound, which is where the name nightjar comes from.

Nightjars probably don’t nest in my local patch, but on rare occasions might be seen or heard here. However, the actions of the people that live around me play an important role in the future of the local nightjar population. Their preferred habitat is open sandy heath, and they nest on the ground. This makes them susceptible to disturbance by people and dogs during their breeding season.

I live close to the Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area (SPA). Thames Basin Heaths are the remnants of the sandy lowland heath that was common in this area but has been fragmented by development. Sandy lowland heath is the preferred habitat of the nightjar and many other special creatures. It has some of the strongest legal protection of any area of land in part because of the global scarcity of this habitat. One of the consequences of this protection is a proliferation of SANGs.

A Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) is a park or other green-space developed to compensate for new homes being built within five miles of the Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area (SPA) – https://www.tbhpartnership.org.uk/. I have counted eight of these new parks within a few miles of my house and am aware of at least one more subject to planning approval.

New houses bring people and dogs and many of the special species that make sandy heaths their home are easily disturbed by people and dogs. A well-designed SANG can deliver a range of benefits. For example, one under development near me will have a path suitable for runners, a community orchard, five ponds, and several areas of wildflower meadows.

You could conclude that this local piece of planning legislation actually means that development could have conservation benefits. Some of my local SANGs could lead to more biodiversity than existed on the farmland, golf course, and vehicle testing facility that were there before. The SANGs will also make that nature more accessible to the public.

There is currently little hard evidence that SANGs are reducing the levels of disturbance on the Thames Basin heaths. The new parks near me are proving popular with dog owners and there is no anecdotal evidence of an increase in the level of disturbance on the local heaths. However, discussions with local rangers and my own observations does make me wonder whether the SANGs are actually being used by existing local residents rather than new home-owners, and whether the new parks actually leading to an increase in the number of dogs per household.

One of the new parks near me is always busy even though the housing by that park is only half built. The car park is almost always full, which suggests that dog owners are driving from nearby villages. One of the reasons for this is that the new park is more attractive to dog owners and their pets than the existing facilities closer to home. This is not taking pressure off the heaths because these people weren’t walking their dogs on them anyway. As other parks open it will be interesting to see what happens. It is possible that the location and facilities of this one park may make it uniquely attractive.

Rangers from my local council believe that the average number of dogs per household are rising. They cite the increasing workload (and costs) of cleaning up after dogs (or should I say irresponsible dog-owners) as evidence of this, along with their observations of dog-walkers. They believe that the growth in dog numbers is faster than the growth of residents. I am not sure about this, but I do wonder if more dog-friendly infrastructure may have the consequence of more dogs.

Another benefit of the SANG planning legislation is that money from the developers is used to pay for rangers who educate people about the heaths and, with the help of volunteers, manage it. One of the challenges with the remaining areas of Thames Basin heath is that they are not large enough for natural processes to keep patches clear of shrubs and trees, and the large herbivores that used to help are long gone. Hence, the heaths have to be managed if we want to see nightjars, common lizards, dartford warblers and silver-studded blue butterflies. It will be interesting to see if the developer’s money is sufficient to maintain the current level of resources dedicated to education and management.

As recently as the 1700s, the nightjar was persecuted because farmers believed that it spread distemper to calves (Cocker & Mabey, 2005). This persecution was a consequence of the nightjar’s habit of feeding at dusk and dawn on the flies attracted to cattle and this coinciding with sickness spread by the warble fly. Similarly, the consequences of mitigating actions to address 21st century pressures on the nightjar may be increasing pressure on other nature and increasing the costs of conservation.

If you have the opportunity, I recommend that you join a summer evening nightjar walk to see and hear these incredible crepuscular birds. In my area walks are offered by the council, the local wildlife trust and the RSPB – check their websites for details.

To find out more about Thames Basin Heaths or local SANGs visit https://www.tbhpartnership.org.uk/

(The nightjar picture is copyright Dave Braddock)

References

Cocker, M. & Mabey, R., 2005. Birds Britannica. London: Chatto and Windus.

Improving the effectiveness of volunteering

180627-05 no adders

The secondary objective of my blog is to work out “… what we can do through the organisations that we work for, the charities that we support, and the groups we belong to. …”

Wednesday 5th December was apparently International Volunteer Day (UN, 2018). I am currently volunteering for five different organisations, mostly charities, all of which work for a number of other organisations, and yet International Volunteer Day passed me by. During that week, in a voluntary capacity: I chopped down and burnt gorse bushes; I advised on project management; I did administration associated with project delivery; and I helped develop a marketing campaign.

In hindsight, cutting and burning gorse bushes felt like it had the greatest impact. A group of volunteers cleared a large area of heath creating habitat for ground nesting birds, butterflies and reptiles. We saved the charity the costs of employing contractors and we did the work more sensitively than would have been the case with machinery. I recognise that contractors would have cleared the area much faster, and having volunteers doing the same work as the charity’s paid staff could be seen as de-valuing the work of those staff.

During that week I also witnessed a charity cancelling a volunteer work party because they were unable to find suitable work for the volunteers, and I saw the impact of a professional mentoring event weakened by charities dropping out at short notice. I have been inspired to finish this post by three instances, in the first weeks of 2019, of local authorities de-motivating their volunteers. This is not good enough – organisations that use volunteers must treat them better.

I have managed volunteers in the past and arguably I am managing them in two of my current roles. I recognise that it can be frustrating to manage volunteers, particularly when it does not appear to be part of your day to day job. However, volunteers can help you deliver more, they can bring freshness and fun to your work, and they will help you change your perspective.

As I researched this post, I was asked two questions: is there a difference between volunteering and working for free; and is there a difference when volunteers are providing their professional skills (i.e. skills they that they would normally be paid to provide)?

Volunteering is defined as doing something, unpaid, that benefits other people, groups or the environment, where the volunteer is not closely related to the recipients (NCVO, 2018). This feels like working for free, but ultimately the volunteer is in control. They will decide what they do and don’t want to do, and they are expecting to get something back. Volunteers are likely to be motivated by the desire to give something back, companionship, exercise, fresh air, etc. Hence, my conclusion is that there isn’t really a difference between volunteering and working for free, the volunteer is just looking to be rewarded in a non-financial way.

One implication of this is that organisations using volunteers need to be extra careful not to annoy their volunteers. It is much easier for a badly managed volunteer to walk away, than a badly managed employee. I have been trying to volunteer for three different organisations recently where I am repeatedly chasing staff for the information that I need to perform my agreed voluntary role. There is a danger that these organisations are not just missing out on potential volunteer’s skills and capacity, they may lose other forms of support. I am a member of one of these organisations and my experience has made me reconsider renewing my annual subscription. Worse still, some grants are only available to organisations that can demonstrate that they use volunteers effectively.

Most of the people that I volunteer with are retired, or semi-retired, professionals. I work regularly with an accountant, a lawyer, a senior HR person, a marketer, a pharmacist, project managers, and several IT experts. The majority of these people are not using their professional skills in their voluntary roles. Those that are still in employment are comfortable to have a clear divide between their work and their volunteering. However, if the conditions were right, I am increasingly convinced that most of us would be prepared to volunteer our professional skills. I am working with one organisation where the volunteers are doing exactly that, and collaborative-working tools are being used to harness these skills, and deliver projects, wherever the volunteers are located.

Working with that organisation has helped me realise just how many other organisations there are that are trying to get us to volunteer our professional skills. It feels like the time is ripe for some rationalisation of these organisations.

If you are volunteering, remember that you are in control. If you are not happy with the role that you are being asked to do then discuss it with whoever is managing you. If they are not able to help, then vote with your feet. Challenge yourself to get a greater return on the investment that you are making with your time. Some of the most effective volunteers that I am working with are developing their skills, constructively challenging working practices, and learning about the impact of the work that they are doing.

If you are considering volunteering, then test out the organisations that you are considering volunteering for. If they don’t respond to your queries in a timely and helpful manner then consider volunteering for someone else. Make sure that you are clear why you want to volunteer and what you are expecting to get out of it (this might help – https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=201).  Organisations that are good at working with volunteers will offer some form of induction and will help you achieve the aims that you set for your volunteering.

If you are using volunteers, or thinking about it, then make sure that you have the processes in place to attract, manage and retain them. Encourage your staff to adapt what they do, and how they work, to accommodate and get the most out of the volunteers. Make sure that the contributions of volunteers are recognised, and that staff are rewarded for working well with volunteers. You can find more guidance at www.ncvo.org.uk.

I’d also like to see organisations getting better at sharing volunteers, and the equipment and other resources that they need. I am familiar with some of the barriers to making this happen such as insurance, lack of management skills, and accessibility. However, I am convinced that these barriers can be overcome as demonstrated by the success of initiatives like Back from the Brink (https://naturebftb.co.uk/).

This post develops some of the ideas that I wrote about in Conservation Volunteering . I am more convinced than ever that volunteers will play a key role in saving the nature that I love, but that organisations that use volunteers need to use those volunteers more effectively. I am happy to discuss the ideas in this post and help out organisations that are struggling to use volunteers to deliver nature conservation effectively.

 

References

NCVO, 2018. Volunteering. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/ncvo-volunteering [Accessed 11th January 2019].

UN, 2018. International Volunteer Day. [Online] Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/volunteerday/ [Accessed 11th January 2019].

Thank you (yes YOU!)

180706-03 Slimbridge sign

This post is to thank all the people that have helped me during 2018 as I started to work out how I can increase the impact I have for nature. Although, I am writing this blog for my own benefit, to help get my thoughts in order and to record some of the things that I learn along the way, it would not have been possible without the help of a lot of people.

Thank you to everyone who reads my posts, whether regularly or occasionally. Some of you have encouraged me to keep writing. Some of you have contributed ideas, or even the occasional quote. Some of you have corrected my mistakes. And, some of you have constructively challenged my thinking. Thank you all.

A couple of people have even told me that my posts have helped them deal with some of their own challenges. Thank you.

My blog has also proved to be a useful way of keeping in touch with some of my friends and even to make a couple of new ones. Thank you.

I recognise how fortunate I am to be able to do what I am doing with my life, and how for some of my readers being able to do something similar seems an impossibly long way away. So, thanks to those people who have given me the time, space and resources to do what I am doing.

The last year has also made me realise the amazing breadth of things that my friends are up to and has helped me recognise that I am not alone on my little quest. Despite the political uncertainties surrounding us all, I finished 2018 more optimistic than I started it. I also finished the year humbled by what some of you are up to.

I have also been encouraged by a lot of the things that I have seen this year that show how we can all make a difference no matter our circumstances. These range from individuals leading successful campaigns to hold our governments to account, to surprisingly small teams playing key roles in increasing the populations of certain endangered birds, butterflies, reptiles and insects.

If we each make a difference and encourage others around us to do the same then we can deliver what successive governments have only promised – a greener world for future generations. This short video conveys this message better than I ever could – https://vimeo.com/214288898

Can I influence those in power?

180907-03 Brown Argus

I have written before that donating is rarely the most effective way that I can have an impact (Donating to Nature Conservation). In this post, I ponder whether trying to influence my MP is actually a better use of my time.

Over the past few years I have written to my local MP about a dozen times, mostly about conservation campaigns. I have even offered my time to help him understand an issue better. I almost always get a response, and almost always it is the standard party line. This is disappointing because my MP’s background means that he knows a bit more about nature conservation than most of his peers. He almost certainly knows enough to be able to see the errors in the responses that someone at party headquarters has put together. My follow-up letters and emails pointing out these errors don’t get a response.

Recently I wrote to him about the People’s Manifesto for Nature (www.chrispackham.co.uk/a-peoples-manifesto-for-wildlife). This time I received a response saying that due to the volume of campaigns, he had adopted a new system and that a response would be posted on his website. After checking for about a month, a response was posted on his website closely matching the standard party response. This was even more disappointing as I had asked specific questions that went unanswered. I could write again and re-ask the specific questions, but I am not hopeful of getting an answer. This new approach to dealing with the concerns of his constituents seems to be of even less benefit to the people that my MP has a duty to serve.

Complaining about our political representatives appears to be an increasingly popular past-time. However, one of the things that I am trying to do with this blog is be more positive and constructive. I can see a number of possible ways of getting my MP’s support: threaten to un-elect him; join in a national campaign; create a local campaign; or focus on making sure that he does his duty.

My MP has one of the largest majorities in the conservative party and shows no sign of losing his popularity locally, so I will not pursue my first option.

About a decade ago there was a view that charities with large memberships could have an influence on politicians. An organisation like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with more than a million, had more members than all three main political parties put together, and could mobilise a significant proportion of that membership to write letters or phone their MPs. The rise of social media, and the response of governments to it, is one of the factors that seems to have reduced the power of charities to campaign in this way. MPs are still influenced by the number of people contacting them about a particular issue, but social media has made it so much easier for anyone to set up a campaign, so MPs can struggle to work out which campaigns to give any attention to.

One way round this is for charities to work together to get their members contacting their MPs. One example of this is conservation charities trying to make sure that the post-Brexit nature protection laws are at least as effective as the current one, for example – https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/campaigning/let-nature-sing-pledge/. One of the first steps in the UK government’s new 25 year environment plan is the creation of an environment bill, which will give a new set of campaigning opportunities.

Big charities are also victims of their own success. An organisation that relies on a large membership, such as The National Trust, has members with all kinds of political leanings and personal beliefs. Hence, running any campaign, which seems remotely political, risks disenfranchising large numbers of members. So the campaigns that they run tend to lack meaningful impact.

One way to get an MP’s attention is to do something that has visibility in their constituency. Turning up at their constituency surgeries is one option. Another option is to invite them to an event that gives them a chance to get some positive publicity, such as planting trees. There is a danger that a nature conservation campaign has less local public support and hence less appeal to an MP than a local campaign related to children, pets, or even the homeless (at Christmas).

Species Champion initiatives in Westminster and in the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish parliaments have been a success. MPs, and their equivalents, are paired with an endangered species that occurs in their constituency and helped to learn about that species and to raise its profile in parliament. You can find more information here – https://www.buglife.org.uk/specieschampions.

One of the things that defines the role of MPs, and I suspect all elected representatives, is a set of duties, such as the duty to represent their constituents in parliament. In some legislatures elected representatives have a duty to improve the economic well-being of their constituents. Given the health and mental well-being benefits of nature, it would seem to make sense for elected representatives to have a duty to enhance the nature in their constituency, which is what this e-petition is about –https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/229047.

While I have been writing this, I have seen a story about Californian crab fisherman taking oil companies to court to get compensation for the impact of global warming on their fishery, and an appeal to pay the legal costs of a campaign to stop a road development that does not appear to have gone through a proper environmental impact assessment. One way forward is to donate to campaigns to pay for the lawyers to make our elected representatives do the things that they should be doing anyway.

Perhaps this is why “active resistance” is being seen by some as the only option. Extinction Rebellion (https://rebellion.earth/) have been conducting protests in central London recently. The three basic demands of this organisation seem perfectly reasonable: for government to communicate honestly about climate change and other ecological issues and to fix policy inconsistencies; for government to enact legally-binding policies to reduce UK carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025; and for the establishment of a citizen’s assembly to oversee these changes. It is a huge pity that our elected representatives have not been willing or able to make the first two of these happen.

So, I will: be more selective about the national campaigns that I support, favouring those where charities are working together; be more active in relevant local campaigns, especially where there is an opportunity to engage my MP; and engage with a small number of campaigns that change the dynamic between MPs and their constituents with respect to nature conservation.

Postscript – The picture at the top of this post shows one of my MP’s constituents (a brown argus butterfly) benefiting from a local project (the creation of a new park), which in turn resulted from changes to national policy.