Speaker: Stephen Parker

Stephen took us on remarkable journey through the changing approaches to nature conservation which occurred in Britain during the 20th century, before embarking on the new Pandora’s Box of wilding. He emphasised that most of the effort of conservation organisations during the last century was devoted to protection of individual patches of good habitat as National Nature Reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, or other nature reserves. We were treated to a wonderful photographic saga illustrating the great variety of wildlife that exists in such protected sites throughout the British Isles. It seems that conservation is doing a good job.

But Stephen provided figures from recent publications which show that in a broader context nature in Britain is not doing well. Farmland birds in particular have declined significantly, along with many other species. The often quoted figure of 97% of lowland species-rich grassland having been destroyed between the 1930s and 1980s speaks for itself. Similar figures are quoted for loss of lowland bogs. Stephen considered that our emphasis on protection of key sites as nature reserves is insufficient to ensure the survival of many of our threatened species. We are aware that the UK State of Nature report of 2019 makes extremely gloomy reading: The report reveals that 41% of UK species studied have declined since 1970.
Stephen then turned to the successes achieved with reintroduction of a few native species that were once abundant but either became extinct in Britain or severely reduced in numbers. Examples include White-tailed eagle, Beaver, Red kite, Great bustard and Large blue butterfly. Other possible, but highly controversial, proposals for future reintroductions include Lynx and Wolf. Programmes for Red kite, White-tailed eagle and the butterfly have proved remarkably effective.

If we can do that with individual species why not try whole habitats? Stephen’s visit to the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands demonstrated what is possible and he has been taking an active interest in the concept ever since. He argued that wilding whole landscapes has already become a component of nature conservation practice in many countries. His experience with Steart Marshes in Somerset shows clearly what is possible. Knepp may have seemed revolutionary to many people, but this former species-poor agricultural estate now holds significant populations of Turtle Doves, Nightingales and Purple Emperor butterflies. If Stephen is right wilding is set to become a normal part of nature conservation in future years.

Pandora’s Box? The possibilities are endless. Stephen certainly gave us food for thought.

For a wonderfully informative and inspirational book on the subject see Wilding by Isabella Tree, Picador 2018.

Report by David Goode