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On Dec 23rd 2000 I was in a meeting at the English Nature marine office in Peterborough. We were trying to reason with the conservation bureaucracy. The details do not matter. For 10 years I had been setting up the environment department within Associated British Ports ( a group of 22 ports that handled 25% of UK seaborne trade), and watching the inexorable acquisition of power by the environmental agencies and quangos and major professional environmental charities such as RSPB. Half way through the meeting I leaned back in my chair and thought ‘I do not want to do this any more’. Fortunately I had already told the company of my intention to retire, which I did in May 2001.


I care about the environment, but as the Duke of Edinburgh said in a recent BBC interview that “there is a difference between being concerned about the conservation of nature and being a bunny hugger”.

The conservation bureaucracy has extended its tentacles into many areas, often through the use of pseudo science and appeal to an emotional reaction to environmental events (for example by building their case round ‘cuddly’ species such as seahorses). No matter how much power they have the environmental professionals have sought more.


Isles of the West

Isles of the North

Go for it!  >>Go for it!i  >>Go Top

The situation is frustrating, and it is hard to see why it has happened. So for about the sixth time I re-read Iain Mitchell’s excellent book “Isles of the West” in which he explores the same issues with respect to the islands of the west coast of Scotland. It is fascinating because each island encapsulates a different environmental management issue in an almost clinically isolated form. The issue can be seen clearly. Such clarity cannot be seen in the crowded south of England where the issues tumble over one another. But the same principles apply. During Iain’s cruise, he challenges RSPB (who considered suing Iain), Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Lairds and makes a strong case for listening more closely to local needs and preferences. Towards the end of the book, he ruminates on what he has learned in a pub in Oban:

… I bumped into two friends who are quite senior in the Forestry. As the rain splashed in brightly lit puddles in the street, we discussed the problem of conservationism in the Highlands. Why has something so beautiful and wise in theory turned to dust and ashes in practice?

Jim, a forthright Scotsman , was of the opinion that it all came down to the peculiar character of the people that idealised nature, but from an emotionally safe distance. He gave the example of modern wildlife magazines which, he said, have evolved into a form of non-erotic pornography. Mother Nature is stripped of her modesty and exposed to the vulgar gaze. It is all cold, glossy, exploitative and lascivious. You may look, but you better not touch. They are designed for what he called the dirty anorak wing of the bird table owning classes.

John, an astute Englishman….took a thoughtful sip of his drink. His explanation was completely different. ‘The fact is that in Scotland today we have a sort of one party state’, he said. ‘There is only one view of conservation issues, whether it is birds, which I do not know a lot about, or Forestry which I know quite a lot about. This country is run by the Scottish Office so that, at a political level, it is not government and opposition, it is just insiders and outsiders, like a medieval court. Its not exactly democratic. Groups with serious lobbying power find it easy to get the inside track, whereas others, like your crofters, find it almost impossible. The result is that power devolves to careerists, like Jim and me, who have wives, children and mortgages and work for the quangos and the big charities. Local communities didn’t fight to begin with, when they might have had some effect, because they trusted us. Now we are solidly entrenched and they don’t fight because they know it is hopeless. We can do more or less what we like, or should I say what Edinburgh likes. The Scottish Office loves it.

Provocatively, Iain then pointed out that “In another country at another time both nature conservation and forestry had been popular concerns of a well-known authoritarian regime” (the Nazis). “Is there a connection”, he asked” between idealism and authoritarianism? Are people who do not trust others to behave as they want them to, inherently prone to ruthless compulsion in their dealings with fellow humanity? If the basic joy of life in the Hebrides is its freedom, both physical and spiritual, then the invasion of the conservationists must be the most serious threats the islands have faced since Culloden and the Clearances.” All three of them were horribly conscious of the ubiquity of the conservation bureaucracy. “

I believe the same sentiments apply with equal force in England.

I can also recommend Iain’s second book “Isles of the North” in which he cruised to Orkney and Shetland before crossing to Norway and discovering the more flexible and people friendly ways the environment is managed there.

I am not optimistic seeing much progress in my lifetime.