Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Betrayed by an act of despotism

Friday 23 September 2011 00:00

Why should a government set up and pay for an independent organisation that is likely to criticise it? In terms of realpolitik, of course, there is no reason whatsoever, which is why in tyrannies such bodies do not exist.

Yet we have prided ourselves in Britain on being more than a tyranny, and so the arm's-length quango which can tell the truth to power has been a valued feature of our society, considering that governments of whatever complexion do not always know best and can act out of base motives; and that sometimes public advice to them, official yet independent, is very necessary.

We have been particularly fortunate in this country that for more than 60 years nature conservation had such a quango on its side. When it began in 1949 it was called the Nature Conservancy; and then in the 1970s it had its research arm amputated and became the Nature Conservancy Council; in a ferocious row in the 1990s the Scottish and Welsh bits were stripped off and it became English Nature; and then in the 2000s it was reshuffled once more, and was rechristened Natural England.

Through all its different incarnations, this body maintained a single animating purpose: to speak up for wildlife. It was a miracle that with its independent advisory role it ever came into existence, and we owe it to the 20th century's most influential nature conservation figure, Max Nicholson.

Nicholson, the man who thought up the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1961 (helped by two other great naturalists, Peter Scott and Julian Huxley), had thought up Britain's Nature Conservancy 12 years earlier while a senior official in the post-war Attlee Government. Being in a powerful position as the right-hand man of Herbert Morrison, the deputy prime minister, he basically designed the beast himself from scratch, and slipped it through the government machine, independence and all; and for the six decades that followed, to a greater or lesser extent, it championed the cause of the natural world.

Now it is silenced, probably for good, as part of a stifling by the Coalition of all its independent environmental advice. Prompted by the cold-eyed zealot who is the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude – the man really responsible for the forestry sell-off fiasco earlier this year – the Environment Department has abolished its two advisory bodies, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission, and laid down that on all matters of policy its green agencies, the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency and Natural England, will henceforth Shut It.

This ruthless piece of despotism, barely noticed by the general public at the time of a teetering economy, has caused real resentment among many of those involved with nature conservation, which came to a head in the angry polemic by the naturalist and writer Peter Marren, published in The Independent on September 14. ("Our wildlife needs a voice".)

Marren's charge was that while Natural England has been silenced, the green groups and wildlife charities have lamentably failed, for a variety of reasons, to step in and hold the Government to proper account. This has ignited an impassioned debate in the conservation community, with many of its senior figures taking part, and you can find the debate in the comments appended to Marren's original article (, on The Independent letters page ( and also on the blog written by Dr Mark Avery, the former conservation director of the RSPB and now an independent writer and conservation advisor (

A wide range of opinions is presented, particularly in the Avery blog; most agree on the ailment, but have differing views on the cure. My view is that Marren's own prescription is entirely right. Britain needs a new champion for its wildlife. Not for the environment – let's for now forget the E-word, which has come to cover everything from waste management to carbon sequestration to cycle routes, and there are thousands of people pursuing all those.

The focus must be narrow. What we need is an impassioned voice to speak out without fear or favour for nature, for kestrels and bee orchids and large blue butterflies and wild brown trout. Others can shout about carbon footprints. (They already do, in their thousands.)

The new voice will probably have to come from a new body, although it must be small, a miniature think-tank, perhaps; the last thing that is needed is a major new organisation, (Marren himself writes among the responses: "What I think we need is not a new Natural England so much as a new Peter Scott"). But if the body be small, the voice must be loud. Can such a voice emerge, to carry on Max Nicholson's message and tell truth to power about the wildlife of Britain? Let us wait upon events.

As the dams go, the salmon return

A piece of good news concerning large dams, those economic quick fixes beloved of powerful governments which nearly always bring environmental disaster: the largest dam removal in US history is currently under way.

Two big dams on the once salmon-rich Elwha River in Washington State are being removed at a cost of $27m. When they were put in, early in the 20th century, they reduced the salmon population by a factor of 1,000; now a major river restoration is returning the river to something like its natural state.;

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