Having better conversations in the the countryside to build trust. An edited version (within links) of my talk at the Rewilding Symposium in Cambridge 2019.
Humans seek patterns and I remember coming across a rock in the Black Mountains which I thought had been scored by ice from a glacier thousands of years ago. Only after a farmer told me he had “ploughed every field in this valley” that I realised the mark was from a plough, while on another occasion I helped an injured farmer thrown from his tractor as he cut bracken on a steep 45◦ slope. Why do I mention these two events?
Because as long as humans have influenced these remote hills, we become informed by history. Past policies loom long over us – especially those from the war and post-war years – and we must factor in reconciling policies that drove land use then, as to where we are today.
In 1861 the UK was the first country in the world when over 50% of the population started to live in urban areas and today, as an urbanised nation (90%), we have for generations lived in cities, moved out to the countryside and back into the cities. Disconnected from nature (as Alan Watson-Featherstone mentioned), disengaged from food, postcodes delivering us to street numbers, and the local taxi driver not taking me home because the lanes are too dark, too narrow. All of this creates the perfect frame for a stretched ‘Overton Window‘ – into which politicians and policymakers pitch as to what they believe reflects voters’ current concerns – how nature and farming should be equal, or that self-sufficiency in food is more important and how complexity should be dumbed down into simple binary choices.
This is a landscape of ‘rabbit holes’ all with their own ‘wicked problems’ – be careful if you go down one – it becomes a complete warren. In searching for realistic solutions, it pays to understand the past. It took patience to get hill farmers into the village hall to listen and engage with my talk on rewilding. Walking and talking with National Trust Rangers to challenge them on involving farmer tenants right from the beginning in co-ownership of the process, rather than inviting them in at a later stage.
And note. The people that need to be in the room may not be the same as those who want to be in the room.
Humans have retreated from being hunters as we’ve urbanised, fearing even to go near ‘rabbit holes’ on conversations around ‘hunting’ as we trawl fishmonger aisles of supermarkets, trap grey squirrels and ignore the Angling Trust campaigning for UK blue fin tuna to be hunted again on ‘catch and release’.
I argue a nature-based economy should embrace a sustainable harvest of wild meat through hunting or the utilising of a culled animal. Chairing a conference in Europe on wildlife conservation and hunting (CIC), Tovar Cerulli’s book (the vegetarian hunter) dwells on the intrinsic role of hunters as conservationists – yes, that’s me holding up a rabbit or a brown trout proudly declaring ‘this is my trophy!’ (even Monbiot gets hunter’s pride) – without having to disappear down the ‘rabbit hole’ of Cecil the lion when things went horribly wrong. Hunting for habitat (as Germain Greer said) is hunters preserving, enhancing and restoring habitat and so let’s not airbrush wildfowlers from the past for all the good conservation they’ve done (Sir Peter Scott), not ignore 18th Century’s Richard Jefferies as a gamekeeper naturalist, and of course laud a hero to many in the room – Aldo Leopold – hunter, naturalist, forester, conservationist.
We have more in common than we admit. At the Hay Festival, I asked the Soil Association’s CEO to speak as an organic farmer (not as head of SA) and so, sitting alongside an intensive chicken farmer and conventional cereal farmer, all felt freer to discuss commonality between themselves rather than be stuck in ideological silos. On another occasion, asked to chair a conference on pollinators at last minute, I arrived to discover a heady mix of a beekeeping MP, environmental activists, scientists, farmers and agrochemical companies. On asking them to take off their labels, not say for whom they worked, I asked for 60 secs from each on their love/expertise/knowledge on pollinators (before the MP had to depart). The feeling of relief in the room was palpable. Applying the same principle to a roomful of Young Farmers and Naturalists, we all discovered more in common to talk about as well as learn other points of view – including the good, bad and ugly on badgers.
Let’s not fear negative responses, but embrace tensions, channel them into different places.
Too often rewilding is used as a weapon against existing land use, not as a tool. When a farmer responded to my talk on upland land uses and rewilding with ‘you boy, thirty years I would have had your ‘guts for garters’, it enabled the room to open up on identifying what the real issues that concerned those in the room. It is better to be part of the conversation – as mentioned by Dafydd Morris-Jones – get it out there, rather than be overly British and tighten it down.
Using the right language is important. Size up your audience. ‘Heterogeneity’ (the quality or state of being diverse in character or content) may work for academics but not for farmers when talking about mixed farming rotations. Let’s not get hung up inflammatory phrases – industrial intensification, nature-depleted, chemical drenched – when it is diversity in which we are interested and to which Andrew Balmford was referring to at a landscape or farm scale.
Evidence is important but perception matters.
This book, brilliant: ‘What works in Conservation’. It’s got lots of good stuff. But that book may not work that well without studying…….this book ‘Conflicts in Conservation’. The two books go hand in hand, lots of issues, how to solve them – mainly all to do with human nature, not wildlife. Listening to anecdotal is as important as pursuing scientific evidence. Social science, long lost cousin of ecological science, is sorely missed and vitally required for ecological science which can fail to gain traction at grass roots without better collaborative conversations. Because rewilding is all about choices: what do we want, skylark or woodlark? Meadow or tree pipit? We can have better conversations – public opinion is not the same as public benefit, wildlife conservation is not animal welfare – it’s worth spelling out those differences.
There are some inspiring radio programmes which inform better dialogue for conservation. ‘University Unchallenged’ tests our ability to question each other.‘Tyranny of Story’ is about being aware of different narratives in the room at the same time and allowing an ‘Ability to disagree’ enables us to change our minds. There’s a brilliant TED Talk by Julia Dhar about starting debates on stuff in common and if anyone is offended by anything I am saying here in Cambridge, enjoy Steve Hughes’ wonderful skit ‘I was offended!’
To find out, let’s disrupt some of those algorithmic patterns that keep sending us down ‘rabbit holes’, tumbling through echo chambers ending with blind ultimatums ‘if you’re not with us, that means you’re against us’.
To have better conversations on conservation, my four pointers are:
1. Reconcile past land use policies as to why we are here today. Be informed by them.
2. Acknowledge complexity – as Mencken said ‘for every complex problem there is an answer which is clear, simple, and wrong’.
3. Let go of ownership – there is no moral high ground here, take off your label, loosen up on the ideological stuff.
4. Build trust.
Let’s seek to start more conversations on common ground because….we have more in common than we realise.
Contact me for ‘Rob Yorke Countryside Reconciliation‘ services