“Conservation bodies must learn to co-ordinate action”

Nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison on why public interest in wildlife is hampered by overlapping campaigns and initiatives from charities competing for attention. 

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It began in June, with a beetle. A friend from South London texted me a blurry photo: “LOOK! What on Earth?!?” read her text. “Stag beetle! Where?” I texted back. “Brixton,” she replied. “Do I tell someone?” And that’s when things got difficult.

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The first organisation that sprang to mind was the London Wildlife Trust. But while looking up its website I stumbled across the PTES (People’s Trust for Endangered Species) stag beetle count, then the GiGL (Greenspace Information for Greater London) Staggering Gains survey; someone on Twitter recommended iSpotNature.org, and someone else told me about the OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) Bugs Count app.

And, of course, there are local records centres and the relatively new iRecord hub, established by the Biological Records Centre, which contributes to the National Biodiversity Network. Some are allied, or share data with each other (though it’s hard for lay people to tell), but not all – and when you widen the picture to include records for birds, lepidoptera, plants and other wildlife, it’s clear the public has a problem.

Citizen science represents a massive opportunity – not just in terms of collecting data (though hardcore recorders sometimes distrust Joe Public’s sightings), but because of the way it can interest people in the natural world. Yet with so many places to send sightings, many of us are understandably confused.

Will submitting a record to two places result in a double count? Does that matter? Who knows. Muddying the waters further, some apps, surveys and campaigns have been set up purely for commercial gain: to ‘greenwash’ a brand, or to collect data about the users themselves. It’s a mess.

Part of the problem stems from the conservation landscape itself. This country has an unrivalled tradition of amateur wildlife recorders going back 200 years or more, all the way to Gilbert White; some early recorders set up societies, many of which still exist today. Alongside them is a huge range of environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs), some with overlapping areas of interest.

Add to that recent advances in technology and the absence of a unifying umbrella body, and it’s little wonder that the public finds itself besieged by recording sites, surveys, hashtags, apps and campaigns all vying for its attention. But current confusion about recording is only the tip of the iceberg. Talking to friends at various ENGOs, it becomes clear that our fractured conservation ecosystem is having a detrimental effect on public engagement and, potentially, the fight to protect habitats and reverse species loss.

Charities, which must compete for scarce funding, find it hard to forge alliances; campaigns conflict or overlap with one another; national organisations ride roughshod over the initiatives of local ones; totem species such as the hedgehog and honeybee are adopted by more than one group, diluting the message and diverting funding from where it can do the most good; and charities adopt big-business methods and focus on increasing their membership, rather than their conservation goals – which may be better achieved by letting another organisation take the lead for once.

In Britain we have an army of amazing people committed to doing whatever is necessary to save wildlife, but lack of collaboration often stymies their efforts. This has to change. Summer 2016 will see the publication of State of Nature II. The first State of Nature report was a landmark: 25 conservation bodies speaking with one voice to tell the story of the UK’s recent collapse in natural abundance. But it wasn’t long before some were at odds again, treading on one another’s toes and losing sight of the bigger picture – which isn’t whether they flourish, but whether nature does.

I’d like 2016 to be the year that Britain’s environmental organisations really start to work together for the common good. It is, at this late stage, our only hope.  

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