Guest Blog – Derek Gow: A statement to the next generation of conservationists

Derek and company

Today’s guest post comes from Derek Gow. Derek is an ecologist, farmer and specialist in reintroducing native species; he pioneered the captive breeding and reintroduction of water voles almost 20 years ago, is a key player in the return of beavers to Britain, and is currently working on projects to reinstate white storks to our countryside.

I have been lucky to work on Derek’s farm and field projects over the last few years, and recently he wrote the below speech for a Wildlife Trusts event. Keen to spread the message to a wider audience, I was happy to post it on his behalf.

Me and so many other young people are at a crossroads as we seek to spend the rest of our lives in nature conservation. How can we attempt to haul up the boat if it is already sinking? What follows is a plea to do better, think better, and to never give in.

* * *

Nature conservationists in the company of members of other land use groups are frequently as welcome as the onset of haemorrhoids. Like haemorrhoids, their presence can quite commonly be painful, is unappreciated and achieves little.

You are young and before you become serious, worthy and august, you must first of all consider whether you have it in you as an individual to become engaging. Can you wear funny hats with farmers? Can you drink beer with hunters and laugh at their jokes? Can you, in the company of commercial foresters, imagine a rich woodland diversity in the future while their philosophy remains firmly rooted in the dull, lifeless plantations of the past.

If you can’t engage you can’t enthuse, if you can’t enthuse you can’t inspire, and if you can’t inspire then you will not be able to persuade people to follow the course you or your organisation wishes to chart to whatever worthy end.

The dangers arising from the disengagement of people and cultures from the realities of life are massive. As individuals switch off from reality to exist instead in computer-based worlds of their own, communicating with them can become all but impossible. In urban-based communities the level of desensitisation for nature is also widely becoming complete. Modern children don’t wander off into halcyon woods to collect birds eggs or butterflies, climb trees or swim in secret streams. The challenge of persuading the bulk of human society, both in a national and planetary sense, that nature is vitally important is critical.

I have been working in recent years with Roy Dennis of the Highland Foundation for Wildlife on a number of projects. He has been kind enough to write the forward to a white stork reintroduction project, which is now literally poised to take flight. In his introduction he describes how the once wondrous migrations of the great birds on a seasonal basis, which was as regular as the beating heart of the earth, would have amazed our ancestors looking skyward. The spectacle they would have provided as they soared in their countless millions in the skies and returned clattering and trilling, screeching and singing to reoccupy and reclaim their seasonal haunts would have over-awed anyone on the ground.

We have lost this feeling. We cannot hear the beating heart any more.

Even for farm livestock this relationship has gone. I used to keep many more sheep and suckler cows than I do today. The death I saw when we did this was horrific. Heifers in calf too young giving birth to bulls too big, never being able to stand again after a horrendous first calving. Piles of dead sheep to be rendered every week when winters stretched out long, cold and dark well into spring. I will never personally partake in anything like this again. Even though I love the few cows we have left, I never sit and hand milk them with my head to their flank listening to their heartbeats. While I care for my cattle, it’s on an impersonal basis and though their life quality is high, the old relationship is nevertheless diminished. I’m not writing you about food production, yet I believe it to be true that farmers should seek to persuade that every mouthful you eat as a consumer should be a nature conservation and animal welfare based decision. Many examples show that we could create wildlife rich landscapes that revolve around farming, if only we have the will and the courage to change.

In this time of a terrible loss of nature, when its continued decline and destruction seems ever more assured, it is vital conservation leaders deliver a diet of inspiration.

Nature needs you.

If you are young, then you are the future. Myself and others in senior positions are either the past or the present. Although we can offer guidance and knowledge and it is worth listening to, some of the ablest of you young people must follow your own star.

I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. I can’t imagine the pressures that apply to you as individuals. Some of you may have supportive, wealthy parents. Some of you may not. Some of you may have to work very hard to summon your requirements of existence. You will all be caught up in the common worries of humanity. Will your football team win on Saturday, can you afford to buy a new car or dishwasher, or why won’t the dress you wore last year refuse to fit. These are the deeper worries of life.

You should be aware as you try to chart your future lives that a career in nature conservation will not be easy. The sector for the foreseeable future is shrinking and that if you choose as an individual to follow this path that your own future will be uncertain.

This will mean that many of you will not find employment.

Those that do are more likely to have dull frustrating jobs with organisations that once their embrace consumes you, will reveal themselves to be largely inert. They are commonly as frightened as mice of their own shadow and so timid that when it comes to the issues that really count, they would rather flee than fight.

This is no kind of a life and you will achieve little. Sure there will be glowing annual reports, awards ceremonies where flunkies of all categories distribute prizes for the vestigial accomplishments of themselves and their compatriots, but these events are in truth no more than a sham.

In the time I have worked in nature conservation, the greatest events have been the re-emergence of free-living beavers on the River Tay and on the River Otter. Neither was part of any official process although the paper has been shuffled to present this impression. Official process could never have accomplished it, and although we may now be in place where a footing that is more solid than this can be envisaged, I personally believe that it will require other events of this type in England, Scotland and Wales before the sullen, indolence of those obstructing this process is eventually over come.

This morning I walked in the sun through a beaver-made landscape. Birds sang in the trees. Daphnia twitched in the caramel water, butterflies flew through glades of wildflowers and fish swam where they could never have before. Beavers bring life. The ignorance of those saying they are not important and that their presence is frivolous is obvious. Like many parents, I took my children to see Moana, an excellent Disney film with a catchy soundtrack. As the Polynesian hero princess returns the stolen heart of the earth goddess to her, allowing her to breathe life back to into wastelands, as parents we sadly know this ending is commonly untrue.

By creating wetland environments that are highly complex and dynamic, beavers do this to landscapes that are largely ecologically lifeless. They are not a keystone species. They are a natural process in their own right. We now need to fight to restore them to Britain on a scale and with a vigour that we are utterly unused to. We need other people in other nations to help us to do so. We have become poor in our ability to help ourselves.

Beware of teachers who tell you what to think. Who teach you to follow in their wake. To be as they once were. To sing the songs they want you to sing. If you are the kind of individual who is passionate, who cares deeply for the environment and who will commit on a life basis to work hard for what’s right, then think for yourself. It is a true dictum that if you have an impossible job to do you must give it to the young because they alone do not know it cannot be accomplished. If you think your case to be right then ask for the wolf. Know your facts. The devastated landscapes of the uplands require a predator that is ruthless and forceful to destroy the deer populations, which rise to flay the forests of the future when the sheep are diminished. Understand your subject well. If you think it you must say it, even though there will be many others who will tell you that you are wrong.

While you must be both reasonable and adaptable, you must also on issues of importance be utterly committed to your will and your way. The Levantine battle between the agile, well connected farming lobby (which represents a miniscule section of the British population) and the gargantuan memberships of the Nature Conservation Communities combined demonstrates quite starkly how a tiny David can effectively kick the butt of a Goliath for over half a century.

Understand your subject well. Those of us who have worked on water vole conservation projects for quarter of a century understands that one particular organisation have developed and now embargoed a new conservation strategy. As its embargoed we have no idea what it contains, but believe that it is not supportive of captive breeding and reintroductions. This situation is odd given the demonstrable results of release projects such as those on the River Meon, the Dore, Arundel, Rutland Water and the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in the Trossachs. Clear experience demonstrates that this species relies on a complex interconnection between colonies for persistent survival. Once colonies are fractured and disperse, their ability to re-colonise landscapes that are ideal even when mink have been comprehensively removed is at best poor. Where they are utterly absent they can never return. Unless they are put there. The species’ burrowing and grazing activities where they are present at high densities is of huge importance as a creator of habitats for smaller riparian species. Its loss as a prey supply is of enormous significance to a host of wetland predators. Once many species have gone they cannot come back, and the rising techniques of re-introductive restoration will I am sure become one day essential if we wish to restore other species that are not yet considered. In south-western Britain this process might for example be the only option left for birds such as the curlew.

Failure to consider this demonstrates quite clearly that those compiling their strategies in cosy conversations in closed rooms are comfortable with failure, and utterly willing to recommit to the mistakes of the past. They are nervous of alternatives that they don’t understand and nervous of potentially exposing their own ignorance. The Scottish naturalist David Stephen once told me that the three most important words in the English language are ‘I don’t know’, and that if you repeated this mantra to people who were reasonable that they would reasonably help you. Once you have mastered those words you have a future. When I began my captive breeding career with them, water voles were estimated to number 1.2 million. The last national estimate suggested less than 300,000. The old solutions of fencing out livestock from riparian borders to allow sward redevelopment, to create ponds or to sporadically kill a few mink at random palpably failed where no water voles remained. Even where they did, they were commonly too weak and dispersed to recover. Although in the early days of effort we did not recognise these activities as a waste of time and resource, we sure as hell do now.

Albert Einstein considered the repetition of the same failed approach to a problem to be a mark of insanity. Are we really going to witlessly repeat these mistakes again? We will have to wait and see.

You will meet many people who are experts. Who profess to know a subject well. Some are truly able. Others are not. They sit in endless meetings, airing their pathetic viewpoints and achieve nothing. Don’t become one of them. Drive your projects. Know the obstacles. Overcome them before you start. Be determined. I was staggered to be told at a recent meeting regarding burbot that a project to restore this magnificent fish to eastern England is to date believed to have failed 10 times.

Be unconventional. A recent initiative to restore the white stork to England was unsupported by a local NGO on the basis of a tedium of detail that they never bred here in recent centuries. Evidence for the species presence spans back 360,000 years to the Pleistocene. As we can’t yet time travel, how on earth can we state emphatically that they never bred in times past?

You will meet many naturalists who delight in seeing bees and beetles, yet as they follow their flight through landscapes of destruction fail to realise that they now only inhabit the ruins of what once was.

The land I farm in Devon falls within increasingly lifeless landscapes with decaying communities and failing rural services. The countryside needs new ideas. The withdrawal of farm subsidies on a staggering scale is likely, and even if the impact of this process is staggered the old certainty that farmers would simply be paid a social subsidy to exist is no longer that certain. There should be no gloating about this. It will be a time of enormous hardship for some and if the New Zealand experience is mirrored perhaps even sad, lonely death for others. The nature conservation community must now rapidly build bridges to indentify willing organisations and individuals from the other land use sectors with whom to build partnerships. To create a platform from which they can clamour for resources which our government will not wish to distribute

The white stork project is not about the birds. It’s about regeneration of a species once destroyed. It’s about giving a colourful, gregarious, spectacular creature the opportunity to live once more amongst our houses, villages and cities. Alongside us. Together.

It’s about rekindling a symbolic hope, about joy re-entering our souls. It will awaken understanding on a ‘screaming baby’ basis amongst people who have never considered nature by filling their gutters with guano or by waking them bill clattering at 4am in the morning. They will not be able to ignore storks. Sure, some folk won’t like them. But many more will respond with delight, enjoyment and wonder. They will reengage with nature.

Do not develop into the kind of insect-like cipher of a nature conservationist who sits in offices trying to figure out how to stop projects of this type. Who obstructs anything they dimly perceive to be innovative. The effort, commitment and energy required to raise these projects from ground zero is exhausting. It is sickening when they are imperilled by malevolent stupidity.

Look to the lands of your enemies to find your dearest friends. Many farmers are great people already. Good practical nature conservationists. Many more need to grow up and become part of society, but the promise offered by collaboration with this sector is tremendous. Farmers are practical people. They are used to delivering results, not windy reports, computer models and feasibility studies that will be forgotten long before they are left to lie rotting on a shelf. They might if organised, motivated and trained make a better job of nature conservation than many nature conservationists by providing a more grounded approach less likely to squander resources or repeat futile mistakes. They are or have been individuals who have continuity of tenure in landscapes where the funding streams for nature or the career aspirations of conservationists render their presence ephemeral.

Does the potential to collaborate extend to other older land use organisations? Probably. Change is coming there as well. The possibility that in Scotland it will be Scottish Land and Estates who become the deliverer of golden eagles to the Southern Uplands is incredible. Old persecutors turning new champions. Their approach and involvement is critical. While the raptor persecutors in the north and the grim brigands they employ would have no compulsion over killing an RSPB released eagle, they may very well have to think again before pulling the trigger on a bird which is put there by an estate. A change of dynamic that is both welcome and breathtakingly spectacular.

In the landscapes of the past a few decided in closed rooms and meetings what would live and what would die. The majority of people in wider society who pay their taxes with humility to support those who owned the land had and still have no voice. In the return of the beavers to the Tay and the Otter they found a voice through the media, and that voice said yes. The fossorial “nos” of closed meetings became distant and irrelevant and the voice of those that said yes became impossible to suppress.

The concept of viewing landscapes and the life they contain as culturally valuable for their presence, rather than the resources they provide, is a new human concept. It is perhaps less than a century old. Although species have been historically preserved in the past, they were like the European bison maintained for their hunting value and not for their ecological worth. Conservation – if it can engage with people in ever-increasing numbers – is a desperately required land-use dynamic of incredible value, be it driven to benefit species or to protect a primal resource. As an outlook for humanity it’s not going away, but it to needs to grow up and become more capable of achieving greater success.

In these challenging times changing landscapes will be critical to promote nature, but to do so conservationists must revert to enthusing and engaging. If you don’t own the land and can’t buy it all you must look for allies where old certainties crumble. In the fractures and cracks there will be opportunities that are golden, and conservationists must surge forward to grasp these as quickly as they can.

Beware of zealots. There are many false prophets who promise to deliver much and fail to produce anything at all. These clowns and chancers may just be simple fools or they may have a deeper more malevolent end. Watch out for them and do not get drawn into their folds of deceit.

The lodestars of the great people like Roy Dennis, Charlie Burrell and Chris Packham are obvious. Their inspirational stature is clear. Others will follow, like Roisin Campbell-Palmer and Tim Mackrill. Help them if you can.

There are other things I could have said and other subjects I could have covered. You are the future, we are the past. You will have as we decline the opportunity to build on the best of what we have done and to potentially accomplish so much more.

Don’t become dull ciphers or obstructive, myopic robots. Be always the person through life you wanted to be when you were young.

Die one day in the end knowing that you did your best, and that even it if was not as good as you might have wished, that you accomplished in your life what you could within the span you allotted.

Let your hearts sing.

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5 thoughts on “Guest Blog – Derek Gow: A statement to the next generation of conservationists

  1. A profound brilliantly penned down to Earth honest blog, but then we all know Derek for saying it “as it is”
    “The more we find out the less we know”

  2. A multitude of ‘heart-singing matters’ pour out of this – the largest one to me is not to sing more, but to listen without prejudice more and speak without rancour much more. Learn from how some of the current generation are messing things up by seeking war not peace. Conservation is about human choices – that means it’s political by default. Accept it early on, embrace the tension of differences, frame clever narratives and whatever, keep dialogue alive http://robyorke.co.uk/2016/04/harnessing-tension/
    Does ‘nature needs us?’ Derek asks. As many would say yes as would say no, so perhaps a little less ‘virtue signalling’ around extremists please, and more ‘quiet man’ common ground – for both human and nature’s sake.

  3. Very nice piece. It is most important to inspire the upcoming generation, make them want to help, to do the right thing. But I have been around long enough to recognise a malaise.

    I am one of the few farmers in my area of Scotland to actually do any significant conservation work, as my father did before me etc etc. However, in the world of the digital child, climate change obsessed, subsidy led world, along with painful political pandering, resources are so often misdirected towards futile solutions for non-problems.

    When I travel I see vast areas that have been stripped of their former woodland habitats and others over-drained. I also see intensive agriculture so necessary to feed the human population. I understand that only a wealthy nation can afford to ‘indulge’ in wildlife conservation. It is also apparent that a better educated wealthy country reaches a more stable population whereas a poorer increasing population puts pressure on habitats.

    While we are clearly at a crossroads as regards the balance between human need and the survival of wildlife habitat, I am concerned that REAL environmentalism and conservation has been hijacked politically and become a marauding out of control “Green Blob Monster” where greed, misinformation and political gesturing has forgotten what its really meant to be about – protecting the world and its environments IN BALANCE with human need.

    I would like to ask those more informed…

    1. Why not aim for a wealthy stable population?
    2. Why not make agriculture as efficient as possible with safe GM crops, improved methods etc to free up land for habitat restoration?
    3. Why not clean up our existing energy sources rather than obsessing over inefficient temporary Renewables that will never achieve what we want them to? (I had wind power in the 1990’s and biomass now so know the issues from first hand experience). I see no realistic future other than fossil fuels followed by nuclear.
    4. Why not be realistic about our changing climate, adapt as required as we have always done and direct resources towards more significant and relevant things such as those mentioned above and real hands on, down to earth habitat restoration on a significant scale? Not a few acres like I have but thousands of square miles!

    For example the value of subsidies soaked up by Renewables paid by consumers and tax payers is so mind mindbogglingly vast it could restore miles of natural woodland across our bleak Scottish landscape with endless benefits in the form of employment, wildlife, landscape, human amenity, timber and woodfuel.

    I personally would rather pay an extra pound on my electric bill to go towards tree planting than making some greedy land owner even richer or a city fat cat obese.

    Food for thought.

  4. Pingback: What is Rewilding anyway? Episode 1: Derek Gow | Pete Cooper Wildlife

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