Saving Nature - One Meeting At A Time

René Zieger for Wikimedia Deutschland e.V.

In this monthly blog I have been trying to give readers an insight into what goes on behind the scenes in wildlife conservation and some of the issues that aren’t easily seen. This month I want to deal with meetings. No, please don’t stop reading – there’s more to that than meets the eye. It doesn’t have to be like a script from the television series, W1A.

A previous Director General at WWF once told us that his young son was asked at school what Daddy did for a living.  He replied, “He goes to meetings to save animals”.  That is often how I feel at DWT, but does that mean I’m wasting my time and that of other policy-based staff at DWT?  After all, supporters give us funding to protect Dorset’s species and habitats, not to sit around in meetings drinking coffee and talking to people, don’t they?

In the world of conservation, this sort of policy work is though every bit as important as practical in-the-field work, but it is often not talked about because it either doesn’t sound like a real job, or might bore people.  30+ years ago I started my career as a research scientist, publishing detailed scientific papers.  With age as I progressed up the ranks I gradually took a higher level, less detailed approach, venturing into science-based policy.  Now I’m a full-blown policy geek, though I hope with an eye for practical application.

What is policy?

I must say I love it.  I love it because I can see what can be achieved for nature through policy and influence.  The Oxford English dictionary describes ‘policy’ as: a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual.  Why DWT and I need to work with policy is then in a nutshell, that it gives us as conservationists an opportunity to get across to other people and organisations (including ourselves as well) actions, ideas and concepts that protect wildlife.  We become the voice of wildlife at the table, which is one of DWT’s stated aims.  Instead of always fighting a rear-guard action in the field when ideas that are to the detriment of wildlife are put into practice (e.g. a badly placed new road or solar power plant), we can get the right ideas adopted much earlier on, often with far more broad-reaching effect.

This way of working doesn’t suit everyone.  Those that work at this level are much further away from seeing the results of their action being practically applied.  For instance, before moving to DWT I used to represent WWF on marine issues at the UN in New York.  We discussed very high-level issues, including what elements should be incorporated into a management regime for the high seas (the 50% of the world’s surface outside of national jurisdiction).  This was many steps away from protecting marine species locally.  The elements had to be defined and negotiated to be consistent with other priorities and policies across 100 or more nations.  If agreed, they had to be written into an international convention which took several years to be politically guided until acceptable to the nations by consensus.  Then the convention had to be converted into national legislation.  Even then management plans and operational delivery had to be in place before anything was implemented at sea.  After all that you weren’t sure that all of it would actually change the state of the seas and the species in them.  So many steps away from conservation success, but what a huge (in that case global) impact from working as a conservationist at such a high level.

Working for Dorset’s wildlife

At DWT we have numerous examples of where attending meetings really does help wildlife.  I sit as a non-executive board member or panellist on several local or national groups, as do several DWT staff and trustees.  One such particularly influential group is the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA).  A government authority for managing fishing and fisheries.  I sit on the SIFCA as an independent member, not as a representative of DWT.  I was however appointed based on, or at least knowing, my conservation views.  The SIFCA decides on the policy and regulation of how fisheries in Dorset are managed, both for the sake of fishermen, but also to protect the environment.  By becoming a board member I have influence over which by-laws are put in place and what the SIFCA’s priorities are, such as enforcement against illegal and damaging fishing.  They also determine the management for fishing in marine protected areas – an extremely important wildlife issue.  This is an organisation at the cutting edge of marine management and conservation and so it is vital to ensure they have conservation interests to balance other agendas.

Another good example is our policy work is with the Catchment Partnerships.  They are set-up to take a landscape scale approach to the management of rivers and land that drains into them.  If you want to protect and manage our important Dorset rivers, such as the Frome, Piddle or Stour and the harbours they drain into, i.e. Poole and Christchurch, then you also have to manage the land around them.  By working at a policy level with a range of partners including Wessex Water, Natural England, The Environment Agency, The Country Landowners Association and many others, we can help guide the plans and aims, to ensure wildlife and the wider environment are protected.  We have for example been involved in formulating plans for restoring stretches of river according to defined policy aims, discussed the possibility of creating wetlands to improve water quality and protecting habitats in Poole Harbour from being smothered with algae.  All of this work needs policies (i.e. a set of aims, plans and actions) in place to guide the work and benefit wildlife and habitats.  By engaging with, and sometimes leading, these groups it isn’t then just us working for the natural environment, but also a range of other organisations.  This is a very effective use of funding from our donors and an opportunity to get more conservation work done than we could do alone.

Joining the dots

Another advantage of working in this way is that it gives us opportunities to make links between different, seemingly unconnected issues, that would benefit wildlife.  A few years ago who would have thought that the increase in the costs of mental health provision in Dorset would cause a funding concern in the NHS causing them to look for alternative means of giving people activities in a healthy, attractive, natural environment.  To do that, funding for nature reserves and natural activities becomes a health funding issue.  Making the links and looking for overlapping needs is a policy benefit some way from practical work, but the benefits to all are obvious, as long as someone who understands our natural environment is there to join the dots.

DWT fights above its weight when it comes to this type of influential work.  It isn’t as glamorous as some of the great work we do with say wildflower meadows or practical river restoration.  It also isn’t what a lot of people envisage conservation to be, but it is truly invaluable work and it is sometimes pretty exciting to see what can be achieved - saving nature a meeting at a time.