Silent Spring Revisited

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Silent Spring Revisited

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"Planners should take ecological advice on landscape development at all levels".  This is not an epitaph to the recent planning reform campaign in England, but the words of Peter Conder in 1967 when, as Director of the RSPB, he lamented the British Government's "lack of a strong conservation policy to ensure that there is some countryside left for us to enjoy".

I read these words in a new book by my colleague, Conor Mark Jamieson.  It is called Silent Spring Revisited and is published tomorrow.  I would argue that it is essential reading for all contemporary environmentalists.  As any current politician who knows their history will testify, there are lessons from the past which inform our response to today's challenges.  So as we try to save places like Hintlesham Woods SSSI in Suffolk (and many other sites from inappropriate development), it is clear that some challenges just don't go away but we need to get smart about dealing with them.

In providing a 50 year history of environmentalism in the UK from the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal work, Silent Spring, in 1962, Conor has provided a rich and important record of the triumphs and disasters experienced by nature, the RSPB and the rest of the sector.  It is in part an autobiography, and anyone who has grown up enthralled by nature, will enjoy the young Conor's early experiences of wildlife and how the interest turned into a healthy obsession.  Weaving in references to the music he was listening to at the time, it made me think that if Nick Hornby loved nature, he might write a book like this.

It was sobering to be reminded of the shock and near panic which befell the tiny nature conservation movement in the early 1960s when faced with "the slaughter being occasioned by the use of toxic chemicals on the land".  The impact of pesticides such as aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, DDT and others were having a devasting effect on wild bird populations.  "The Sparrowhawk all but disappeared from large areas of the lowland arable countryside.  The kestrel wasn't far behind".  The crisis "united falconers and conservationists in a common cause".  Years of campaigning followed before the government of the day eventually responded by banning the use of these chemicals.

And in this book there are countless examples of tireless campaigns and battles fought over many years - to clean up after oil spills, oppose new roads on SSSIs, fight for new laws to protect land or sea.  The stories are the stuff of legend for modern day conservationists, but it was great to have these events described in the the context in which they took place. Those of you that took part in these battles should feel proud of what you achieved.

But having read Conor's book, I was left with the realisation that there are some battles that don't go away.  My former boss, Sir Graham Wynne, used to sum up the nature conservation mission as to "stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest".  As I write this in 2012, we still haven't stop the rot (just look at what is happening to our migrants), we have failed to protect some of the best (at sea especially) and while we have started (for example through the RSPB Futurescape programme) we have a long, long way to go to restore the rest. 

But, that's the point about Conor's book.  If you love nature and want to do something to save it, then you just need to face up to the fact that this nature conservation business is your life's work - get over it.  And then do something about it. 

You could start by trying to save Hintlesham Woods SSSI, here's what you can do to help.

  • Sorry I may have not checked that ! It seems to me that the Precautionary Principle needs to be applied firmly here. If we are to be led by the science, and that is of course right, then the science of bee population collapse should not be being conducted in ongoing field trials at a continental level; the pesticide should be withdrawn until these issues are resolved under more limited trial conditions ! The PP is an essential principle of ecological law, non ?

  • Thanks Redkite.

    And Peter - I refer you to my answer I gave some blog comments ago.  We are concerned, feel more action in this area is urgently required.  If a ban is called for we need to guard against perverse unintended consequences of greater intensity of alternative pesticide use.  We will be led by the science and we are part of a IUCN committee looking at this.

  • But why has RSPB kicked can on nicotinoid pesticides down road of "more research" when 4 EU countries are moving to ban and Avaaz can muster half a million signatures to petition Bauer AGM?

  • Re Hintlesham Woods SSSI, I have e-mailed National Grid with my letter of protest and will be posting it, as well, today.