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Conservation in the 21st Century

The chief executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority Grant Moir ponders changing approaches to conservation and wonders whether we are at a pivotal moment in the history of the movement.

The concept of conservation has always been shaped by a range of philosophies. More than a century ago, in the United States, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot disagreed over how to protect the natural world: should public lands be preserved for wilderness or used sustainably for their natural resources?

Today, we are at another pivotal moment as we search for ways to achieve our conservation goals, knowing that the coming decades will be dominated by climate change.

John Muir (left) and Gifford Pinchot

In the UK, much of what has been achieved for conservation over the past 50 years has been done through habitat designations like SSSI’s or SACs or through wildlife specific protections in Nature or Countryside Acts.

This way of working focuses on individual habitats or wildlife and the need to protect populations that are rare or in decline. Measures have been taken, for example, to conserve wading birds, Capercaillie, Pine Hoverfly or Twinflower.

The big question is whether this approach can continue to deliver for us in the challenging times ahead or if it has reached the outer limits of its influence? Do we now need a different way of working?

There has been a real groundswell around the concept of re-wilding or landscape-scale conservation. In essence, this approach seeks to establish more natural processes that, it is claimed, will deliver better habitats which, in the long run, will deliver improved biodiversity outcomes and will adapt more effectively to climate change. It involves less intervention and less worry about individual species.

Old Scots pine surrounded by new regeneration

This is a very different approach to how we have traditionally undertaken conservation in the UK. To put it crudely, the traditional approach favours intervention and management while re-wilding means standing back and allowing natural processes to occur.

It is evident that the conservation practices of the past 50 years and these new approaches are not necessarily happy bedfellows. For those who have spent their whole life conserving Curlew, it might be hard to accept that establishing more natural upland systems with increased woodland habitats might mean less Curlew habitat. If a designation states that an area is important for a calcareous grassland, but over time rewilding leads to that changing to scrub, do we intervene to manage it and make sure it stays as a grassland?

Our natural inclination is to say that this is an over simplification (it is) and that one approach to conservation needn’t negate another. But, what if they can’t be reconciled?

Red Grouse

As we look beyond 2020, we have to ask ourselves whether more of the current system will deliver the changes that are undoubtedly needed to ensure that we play our role in addressing the worldwide biodiversity crisis.

The Cairngorms are facing these dilemmas. Only last week I was involved in a long conversation about predator control and Capercaillie. In the Cairngorms different estates are taking different approaches and it will be interesting to see what this means for this emblematic woodland species. Much of Scottish conservation has been built around intervention. Much of our land use in upland Scotland is dominated by interventionist philosophies designed to support deer stalking, woodland plantations or grouse management. How do these sit beside more natural processes and letting nature take its course? There is also, of course, the economic models of the uplands to consider and what different approaches might mean for communities, land managers and individuals in the future.

Pine Marten

There are no easy answers, but climate change means we have to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about how we do conservation and how we use land in Scotland.

The Cairngorms are right at the centre of the debate as they should be. We must think about these issues and ask how we can best protect and enhance the nature of the Cairngorms over the next 100 years in the face of unprecedented global change.

Red deer amongst the pines

I am not advocating a specific approach but we must be honest that these debates are real and need to be addressed if we are going to make progress over the coming years. Muir and Pinchot were never reconciled over their different philosophies but their debate at the turn of the 20th century made people think about the future. We need a similar debate about 21st century conservation.

If you want to get involved in these debates then please come along to the plethora of great events happening as part of the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend from 10 – 12 May. More details can be found at http://www.cairngormsnaturebigweekend.com/ and you can follow my musings on twitter @cairngormsceo

There’s a discussion thread around this article in our forum.

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