Practical, consensus building conservation as the water reaches boiling point

Paul Sinnadurai shares his key messages and challenges from the "Making a difference in conservation" symposium, from a "practitioner's" perspective

British Ecological Society image of sheep on uplands

Not having attended a British Ecological Society (BES) event for over a decade, the biggest reminder that I came away with is that you can learn little bits from experts and that practitioners’ expertise needs more airing, just as farmers’ expertise and observations need a voice. The distinction made between academics and practitioners was an uncomfortable one for me; I believe that practitioners are the applied ecologists.  I also learnt that the skills used by practical applied ecologists (let’s call practitioners this), codified in the Delphi technique, horizon scanning and structured decision making, are used regularly by them without being conscious of them in this way. We have to use these techniques all the time to find things out and to build consensus. Consensus is essential because without this nothing gets done: no permissions from landowners or consenting agencies, no cash and no work force, just empty, frustrated, and partial knowledge waiting to be applied!

We all know that you can only learn a small amount from other people’s experiences and that obviously you learn most from your own. Conservation is multi-disciplinary, blending know-how, prior experience, a bit of science rehashed from similar situations and occasionally applied directly to your own one when cash and time permit. It would be great to have more science up front but whilst it’s not there, and whilst academics working in applied ecology could and indeed should engage directly in hands-on conservation (and I mean whacking fence posts into the ground here, not just watching and monitoring our favourite creatures), scientists will continue to speak mainly to each other, rather than to the practical applied ecologists.

Conservation is mostly about the power of persuasion, which, helpfully, Gemma Harper stressed. Just as success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, so conservation is 90% persuasion and 10% practical conservation. Applied science fits into that 10%, whilst the 90% involves negotiation, mediation, listening and reflecting, consensus building, showing and telling, adjusting and revising, obtaining consents, applying for funding (now there’s a symposium topic worth pursuing), writing and consulting on plans and adjusting them following consultation, and achieving all of this whilst the perpetual fires that need to be put out crackle away just over your shoulder.

There are two genuine issues that separate practical applied from academic ecologists. The first is identifying the academic question (s) to be researched that will be of mutual benefit and that fit the demands of the Research Excellence Framework and the competitive research market. The second is having the right practical skills to do the practical jobs, e.g., identification, surveying and monitoring. How marvellous it would be if we could blend these two together. Discuss!

Finally, I wonder if the Symposium missed an opportunity to scrutinise conservation science and practice? As the world becomes smaller for us, it is becoming even smaller for vulnerable species, including formerly common ones, as they are confined to smaller and more fragmented margins. It’s distressing to see this pattern, already played out to its conclusion in Britain, being repeated elsewhere in the world. Conservation science and practice has been conditioned, Pavlov dog-style, to operate within these confines. There appears to be acquiescence that this is the only way to do things; that there’s an assumed natural order to it. We seem to be letting this happen as the water in the pan that we’re sitting in slowly reaches boiling point. Conservationists are forced to wrestle with scraps and with the policies, legislation and structural funding (e.g., agri-environment schemes and designated sites) that hold these scraps together.

Perhaps the BES should trigger a wider, global, and, importantly, public debate about the ecological resilience of this approach. The current debate being led by a popular polemicist could do with some ecological input. After all, if the confines weren’t there already I’m sure we wouldn’t recommend doing things this way. Yet this is the operating environment in which we learn, pass on, market and celebrate our craft. So are we the best scrutineers of it?  What are the more ecologically sound alternatives and must they rely only on money to succeed? Wilder, more naturalised approaches are being discussed: what’s the BES’s take on this? Discuss!