Reviews

“Conservation – success or failure – is cultural”

Framing Nature: conservation and culture by Laurence Rose 2020. Gritstone Publishing.

Cover of Framing Nature by Laurence Rose

A gentle reminder that this is a botany blog and whilst the reviewed book focuses on conserving animals it explores the relationships between humans and nature overall. 

The author, Laurence Rose has worked for the RSPB since 1983 and he is currently working on the Back from the Brink project which is an eight-organisation collaboration for threatened species recovery in the UK. Rose explains in the foreword that he writes about wildlife which he knows or have observed.

Overview

What can we learn from wildlife conservation and people’s attitudes towards nature? Quite a lot according to the Framing Nature: conservation and culture book! The author first focuses on the stories of  nine animals: the white-tailed eagle, corncrake, fox, badger, willow tit, field cricket, narrow-headed ant, otter and nightingale. In each chapter, the author observes animals across the UK – or in his back garden with the help of thermal imagery – and digs into historical evidence of human’s relationship with them, quotes poems, scientific literature and interviews, discusses solutions and hopes to recover or protect populations today and in the future. After two years travelling and researching, he shares his perspectives and reflections in the last three essays about politics, conservation and sets out a path for a new normality. Some of the species he mentions are well-known (e.g. foxes and badgers) but I have learnt a great deal more about the twists and turns how people first liked a species but then hunted them almost to extinction. The author takes on a journey, writing elegantly about the UK’s landscape and not just asking questions about conservation but providing answers – but one must point out the lack of plant examples!

Part 1: From white-tailed eagles to field crickets

The author begins the book with exploring the “Tomb of Eagles” in Orkney, Scotland where white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) bones were found from the Neolithic. White-tailed eagles were magistical and respected for thousands of years but the relationship with humans changed over time and led to the almost disappearance of these birds. Whilst the UK has a good reputation about conserving its wildlife, Laurence Rose discusses historical evidence, poems, acts by kings and queens which encouraged the slaying of birds and animals from the 14th and 15th centuries. The Tudor Act by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I is mentioned throughout the book which offered bounty for killing certain birds (e.g. ravens, kites) and animals (e.g. badgers, foxes) until 1863. The author shifts the tone of the gloomy history of white-tailed eagle population decline and from page 34, he writes about all the reintroduction efforts and reason to hope for this species. 

White-tailed eagle. Source Andreas Weith/WikimediaCommons

In the second chapter, the author reorientated to a less majestically-looking bird, the corncrake (Crex crex). He quotes columnists from 1902-1920 (on page 57) documenting the decline and disappearance of this regular breeding bird in the UK. Extensive questionnaire and research led to the suggestion for delaying hay harvest by farmers in exchange for conservation payments. While there are many debates about the EU’s agri-environment schemes, the number of corncrakes doubled as a result of good grassland management. The story of this little bird demonstrates that there are solutions “out there” to help species recovery.

The next controversial animal is the widespread fox (Vulpes vulpes). Texts from medieval times (page 90) and treatise from 1591 (page 83) paint the picture how controlling fox numbers became a social pursuit. The tales of twists and turns in people’s and the UK government’s attitudes toward these animals shows how important perceptions are in conservation efforts. 

Another highly political example is badger (Meles meles) culling in order to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The contradictory scientific results from last is discussed (page 100), revealing how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) manipulated and hidden some data to prove that badger culling is effective. Whilst the culling is to be phased out from 2020, “[…] the killing will be brought to an end when the politics dictates, not the science”, the author wrote at the end of the chapter. 

Planning a conservation strategy requires data which can be challenging to collect for the second-fastest declining bird species, the willow tits (Poecile montanus). These birds have been “undercover” in Britain for 221 years and closely resemble marsh tits (Poecile palustris)

As a plant biologist, I was overjoyed to read about Laurence Rose’s description of the woodland, the Broggs. “On the sparse patches of ground not closed by bramble, the grail-like husks of empty bluebell pods are scrambled over by the delicate climbing corydalis, a fumitory with spikes of fine, off-white, green-tipped flowers”, he wrote on page 131.

The eight other animals focused on in the Framing nature book (from top left): corncrake, fox, badger, willow tit, field cricket, narrow-headed ant, otter and nightingale. April Nobile/Bernard DUPONT/Drew Avery/Airwolfhound/Francis Franklin/Katya/Isle of Man Government from WikimediaCommons and Pixabay

After focusing on birds and mammals, the author writes about the importance and conservation of insects. The work of E.O. Wilson, Darwin and Rachel Carson are discussed throughout the book, and the author shares his experience with the conservation stories of field crickets (Gryllus campestris) and narrow-headed ants (Formica exsecta)

He described the road to the successful reintroduction of captive-bred field crickets and surveying sites for the endangered narrow-headed ants. Ant ecology is extremely complex and many other insects depend on them. Whilst a “Few [insects] are loved, many are loathed or feared, and all the others – some 40,000 species in the UK and perhaps 10 million worldwise – are simply disregarded”, he wrote. As the media coverage has been approving of featuring the importance of insects, people are now beginning to appreciate them more. 

The last two chapters in Part 1 of Framing nature focuses on otters (Lutra lutra) and nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). After the ban on otter hunting in 1978 (Britain) and 1982 (Scotland), people realised that increasing otter populations reduced water extraction from rivers and led to the recovery in brown trout and pike populations as well. “Otters are the embodiment of that belief”, he wrote on page 188 about conservation efforts. Whilst nightingale populations have been declining since the 1960s, coppicing has been important to provide a scrub of brambles, blackthorns and hawthorns. He described the battleground between conservationists and a housing project of 5,000 houses on prime nightingale habitat between 2011-2018. The proposal to build on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was eventually reduced to 500 homes which were not on SSSI area. A big win for conservation. 

Part 2: “[C]onservation – success or failure – is cultural”

The second part of the book consists of three essays on what we (the public, scientists, conservationists, organisations and the government) can do to conserve the natural world. Laurence Rose suggests the following: 

  • Stop normalising loss. 
  • Protection must mean protection.
  • We must reboot our relationship with other species.
  • We must stop privileging unting over conservation. 
  • We need a culture of duty-led land ownership, not privilege-led land ownership.
  • Rethink our relationship with the land. 
  • Votes at 15.

The answer to “what actually makes people feel connected to nature” is complicated and not well-understood (page 216). The author reflects on the latest demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion and the children’s climate strikes and ponders if Western conservation should learn from the approaches of indigenous people who describe nature in terms of relationships and connectedness.

In the second essay he writes about his travels to India and exploring people’s relationships with leopards (Panthera pardus fusca) in Mumbai and with Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) in Rajkot. I really enjoyed reading about something quite different than all the conservation projects in the UK. 

The final chapter is titled “Perspective” where Laurence Rose reflects on the whole topic of the book, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, Brexit and Covid-19 pandemic. He rethinks once again his previous suggestions and writes “if Brexit and Covid don’t embolden the conservation sector to promote and achieve bold and radical change, we will count it as a fail”. He finishes his last chapter with “After all, more common sense has been spoken by teenagers in the last two years than we have heard from the political elite in decades. Where’s the harm?”. 

Where are the plants?

Talk about people’s perception! Conserving an animal starts with conserving or managing its habitat. Habitat is made up from the microbes in the soil to plants which will make it possible for a species to hide, nest or find food from. Whilst plants are missing from the Framing Nature book, some of the Back from the Brink projects, led by Plantlife, do include saving the Cornish path moss (Ditrichum cornubicum) and Lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia)

Lesser Butterfly Orchid by Back from the Brink / YouTube.

Summary

Despite the lack of greenery – reading Framing Nature: conservation and culture is a great history lesson about the dynamics of wildlife conservation in the UK and offers hope for the future. I agree with the book’s review on NHBS, “Conserving wildlife requires a cultural shift, and Framing Nature is unflinching in questioning whether we are prepared to commit to it. Ultimately the book offers a message of hope to rebuild a mutually-beneficial relationship with nature. But we need to act urgently.” 

One urgent action could be to pre-order the book until 21 September!

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