Does the succession of King Charles III mean we’ve lost one of the great conservationists of our time?
As Prince Charles, the new King Charles III was perhaps one of the great conservationists of our time. But will he be able to continue that work as king?
In 2012, Julia Aglionby – a land agent with an interest in how common land can be managed for the benefit of people and wildlife – was invited to meet the Prince of Wales. At that time, her friends, Hazel and Joe Relph were accustomed to hosting the Prince once a year at their Cumbrian bed and breakfast and farm, and as he grew to understand the issues affecting the Lake District’s famous uplands, he itched to get involved.
The Prince confided in Julia that he was tired of representing different organisations that were often at loggerheads with each other. “He told me, ‘They agree on most things, and if they worked on the things they agree on rather than arguing about the things they disagree on, we’d make an awful lot more progress,’” Julia recalls.
As a result of this conversation, the Prince became a patron of the Foundation for Common Land, where Julia is the executive director, and he has been working – largely beyond the gaze of the media or public – for it ever since.
And he’s not, as you might expect, just a name on the website – the new King Charles III has been closely involved in helping the foundation deliver its goals enhancing biodiversity in upland commons while also making sure they work for people.
In 2019, for example, the Prince was instrumental in pulling together some of Britain’s most senior conservationists and farmers’ leaders for a meeting in Ambleside. They included Beccy Speight (now chief executive of the RSPB, then of the Woodland Trust) and Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust, as well as representatives from government, the NFU and major landowners such as United Utilities.
“His expectations were very high – that people turned up, worked hard and came to an agreement. And the great thing is, we can hold them to it.”
At the time, an argument was raging (and still is) about whether the Lake District should be treated as a cultural or natural landscape – whether it should be farmed intensively for sheep or whether more space should be made for nature. Julia and the Prince of Wales thought it could and should be both, and they wanted these groups to agree to seek restoration of wildlife within the unique farmed setting of the Cumbrian fells.
“As a result of his involvement, we agreed a communiqué that was adopted by the Lake District National Park Authority,” Julia explains. “His expectations were very high – that people turned up, worked hard and came to an agreement. And the great thing is, we can hold them to it.”
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This sort of work doesn’t generate headlines. It doesn’t have the razzle dazzle of a big international climate change conference, at which the king spoke last year, nor does it court controversy, as he has in previous decades with comments about GM crops or modern architecture. But it is the nuts and bolts, the true coal face, of conservation – people who have a stake in land agreeing how it will be managed, now and in the future. In many ways, there is nothing more important, both in Britain and across the world.
It is extremely complex. It involves not just accepting people’s stake in the land and the inevitable compromises between managing for those people and nature, but also taking into account issues such as food security and climate change. “He doesn’t shy away from difficult issues,” says Julia. “He recognises the complexity of the countryside and the fact that we ask so much of it in a very populated country such as Britain.”
“He often worked past midnight, and there are stories about staff finding him slumped on his desk with post-it notes stuck to his face.”
This is confirmed by the veteran environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean who has written extensively about the Royal Family’s involvement with all manner of wildlife conservation and broader issues, and met both the new king and his father, the late Duke of Edinburgh, on numerous occasions. “He worked incredibly hard to get to the bottom of each subject,” Geoffrey says. “He often worked past midnight, and there are stories about staff finding him slumped on his desk with post-it notes stuck to his face.”
Craig Bennett, now chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, but who previously worked for the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (CLG), which brings business leaders together to tackle climate change, says the King has real passion for the issue and reads widely around the subject. “I find it kind of annoying that I work on these issues full time and have done for more than 25 years, and yet when I meet him he can still surprise me with something he’s read that I haven’t heard about,” Bennett says.
He has been prescient, too, highlighting the health risks of air pollution in a speech he gave as long ago as 1970, and talking about the importance of peatbogs in the 1980s. “He likened the UK’s lowland peatbogs to tropical rainforests, and he was slightly mocked for it at the time, but as time has gone by it’s been shown to be accurate,” Bennett points out. “At the time, companies dismissed the idea that they were important in the context of climate change, but now we know they’re more important than forests [as carbon stores].”
Britain’s new head of state is probably best known for promoting organic farming. His Gloucestershire-based Home Farm acquired organic status in the 1980s, and he subsequently launched a range of organic products that earned him – as he himself has gleefully noted – the outraged tabloid headline “A Shop-Soiled Royal!” Sales of his Duchy Originals products have exceeded £1 billion and raised more than £27 million for his charitable work, he told an audience at an awards ceremony in 2019.
Patrick Holden, who has been farming organically for nearly 50 years and set up the Sustainable Food Trust in 2010, advised the Prince on converting Home Farm and has worked with him for many years. “If you did a global survey, among people who know about this issue, about who is the most influential and important person who has shown leadership in the field of sustainable agriculture, King Charles would top the poll,” he says. “And he would head-and-shoulders top the poll.”
Natural England chair Tony Juniper – who collaborated with the Prince of Wales on his book Harmony, published in 2010 – argues that the now-King has touched on all the most important environmental issues at one point or another. He reels off the list – disappearing wildlife, pollution, food and water security, climate change, rainforests, the circular economy, sustainability and plastic waste in our oceans, as well as organic agriculture.
“The most important thing he has done is to highlight how they are not separate but faces of the same thing,” Juniper says. Harmony, he adds, is about how we must shift our collective world view from one where we see ourselves outside of nature to one where we understand that “Our society, our economy and our very civilisation are all embedded in the biosphere and that we have to sustain that biosphere in order to sustain human well-being. That environmental insight is his biggest contribution.”
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In more than 50 years of being involved with the environmental movement, King Charles has inevitably come under criticism. By convention, the monarch is politically neutral, as is any member of the immediate Royal Family. But Charles has repeatedly tested the water by lobbying the government on a plethora of issues.
Should he have got involved in controversial debates such as the genetic modification of crops? His opposition was partly rooted in a belief that humans were involving themselves in something that was properly the responsibility of God, an arguably unscientific viewpoint from a man who generally prides himself on following the science. But he was also concerned about the power and influence of multinationals.
More recently, some conversationists have highlighted the Royal Family’s failure to match what they say about wildlife conservation with how they manage their own lands – much of the criticism centres on the Royal Family’s continued penchant for field sports such as game bird and deer shooting, activities that almost by definition do not allow for ecological regeneration.
But there is also the stewardship of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has now passed to the King’s son, Prince William. A considerable amount of its land is rented out for unsustainable, intensive sheep farming, according to Joel Scott-Halkes of the environmental pressure group Wild Card, and tree coverage is only 6 per cent, compared to an average of 38 per cent across the EU.
“His support for ecologically devastating, low-yield sheep farming across Dartmoor – where rare temperate rainforest could and should grow – is no different from [Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro supporting cattle ranching in the Amazon,” Scott-Halkes says.
In Kent, the Duchy of Cornwall, meanwhile, has come under fire because of plans for a 2,500 home new town on the edge of Faversham. Environmental campaigner Beccy Smart says the development will swamp the area and reduce Britain’s food security by building over grade one farmland.
“I was really dismayed to find that the Duchy of Cornwall was behind this trashing of farmland and nature,” Beccy says. “Disbelief really. I have always been a big fan of [King] Charles and support the Royal Family, but you cannot be an environmentalist if you are building over green fields because that completely destroys what he stands for.”
Craig Bennett argues that if there’s one thing that a constitutional monarchy can rightly highlight in the course of their work, then it’s the environment. “This is an issue that isn’t alway dealt with brilliantly by politics which moves in short-term electoral cycles,” he says. “It’s not controversial any more, there’s widespread cross-party support but sometimes governments find it harder than they should to move forward on it.”
Juniper says there’s a case to be made that he has been, over the past five decades, the most significant environmentalist the world has known. “At some point, King Charles has had a role in moving the debate on with every one of the major environmental issues,” he continues. That’s quite an accolade from a campaigner who himself has played a major role in shaping Britain’s environmental movement, and one which – whatever your views on the monarchy – is surely hard to refute.
What now for King Charles?What he has said
“It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”
What this means
Most commentators believe he was mainly referring to his son Prince William, the new Prince of Wales. The heir to the throne has already shown an interest in issues such as the illegal trade in wildlife, and is now starting to take on the issue of climate change.
What experts say
Many environmentalists point out that there is no reason why the new King Charles needs to bow out from the debate entirely. The late Queen Elizabeth set a precedent for this by addressing the COP26 climate change conference last year, making a passionate plea for world leaders to properly address the issue for the benefit of future generations.