As part of a current on-pack promotion that Allinson Bread are running, UKNB has had the chance to interview Chris Packham, of Really Wild Show fame (if you grew up when I did) and more recently Springwatch and Autumnwatch amongst many many other endeavours.

Allinson are giving away 8,500 bird feeders in a bid to help bring Britain’s birds back to our gardens. All you need to do is buy four loaves of Allinson Bread, send off the on-pack tokens and you’ll be the proud owner of a brand new bird feeder. This on-pack promotion runs until the end of April and supports their brand new partnership with Conservation Grade, an initiative that works with farmers to encourage ecologically sustainable agriculture. From speaking to Chris it's clear that he's passionate about Conservation Grade and is keen to see more companies supporting it, and to see consumers supporting it with their spending power.


There was a lot to talk about, so I've broken the interview into a few instalments to be posted over the coming days. Follow the link below to continue reading the first part, which deals with the heavyweight issues of conservation today, but don't worry – more whimsical topics will follow!

Update: be sure to read the second and third instalments as well.


The questions, part 1

UKNB: Often when blogging about conservation efforts I find myself conflicted about whether said efforts are in fact 'correct'. It sometimes seems quite arbitrary to me that we should strive to push a particular species to a certain previous level of success (probably to the detriment of some other in the ecosystem). Or alternatively to try to maintain the status quo, when nature is constantly changing and evolving with or without our interference. I know this is topic that's close to your heart, so what do you think about this?

 Chris: My take on it is that, along with every other aspect of our lives, I don't think you can do everything optimally or with the greatest degree of efficiency and we should constantly review and reshape it given any developments and introductions of new ideas and new technologies. I fear complacency in any aspect of my life and I particularly fear it in the field  of conservation.

In the period of time I've been aware of conservation, so let's say from the early 70s onwards, increasingly obviously through that period, I've seen very much a different attitude with regards to the NGOs as to how much of a campaigning force they are and how much of a political force they'd like to see themselves as. I fear that they've lost some of their edge. Outside of the NGOs the government bodies have been successively cut by successive governments so what was English Nature, Natural England, DEFRA, MAF, Environment Agency have all been squeezed. They are collectively there to advise our ministers on the best course of action and their staff (including a great many who are highly respected and qualified) have diminished. CEH (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and before that Institute of Terrestrial Ecology – I go back years – have had some fantastic scientists that have been forced to find work elsewhere. So I feel on that account too.

All in all I suppose what I would like is for us to retain our sense of urgency and to ensure that we are acting optimally with the cash and resources that we have at any given point in time and I'm not satisfied that we are doing that. I think that there are some within the industry (because that's what conservation has become) who are more concerned about their memberships, their jobs and if anything (in the words of the Clash) they've got fat and old.

Through my privilege of working in the field, through television and meeting almost on a daily basis with conversationists, I know that NGOs such as the RSPB, The WIldlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation (I could go on) all have some extraordinary staff. These are people who are highly motivated, driven, qualified – who aren't content to carry on in the same fashion if it isn't the best practice and want to introduce new ideas. So I know that I'm not alone – I'm not the only one that feels a certain sense of discomfort. I know that there's a small body of others out there, but unfortunately I don't always see them being afforded the opportunity to make the changes that they need to.

The purpose for the TV programme we're making at the moment is very much a personal thing (I won't call it a rant – I'll try not to rant if I can avoid it) but I try to take a very pragmatic look at what we're doing and whether it's working. If it isn't working I ask why and then I ask are there any means by which we can improve it. In a fair number of cases I think there are, so I like to think of it as being creative criticism.

I don't think that any charity or any well-meaning body should be beyond criticism because of course people like the RSPB do a phenomenal amount of good work but that doesn't mean that everything they do is good – just by sheer probability it can't be, so someone has got to stick their neck out and say hold on a minute, maybe this isn't the best policy, and it's up to people like myself to do that. I always say to people (and Tweeted about it recently) I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to make a difference. I hope a positive one, so when I see opportunities and ideas that are working I'm very keen to champion them and to do what I can, in a very small way – I'm just one broadcaster for God's sake – to give them some help, support, publicity, profile, anything to see them get a wider acceptance and maybe be better employed. And if I see things that I think are definitely wrong and if I discuss them with others that perhaps know more than I about them and they agree, then again I think it's my duty to make sure that is profiled so we can slowly (rapidly I would say) erode them and move on. So that's the ethos behind my programme.


UKNB: But what about the practicalities? For instance in the recent Big Garden Bird Watch,  Sparrows are up and at the top of the list, but down on their 1970s number. The temptation is to say "we must do something – get them back up to that 1970s level!" But that's a bit arbitrary. What's special about the level they were at in the 1970s! How do we warrant what we should and shouldn't do?

Chris: I'm in agreement with you. You might be familiar with shifting baseline syndrome: I remember the price of a pint when I first bought one, so I now think it's expensive, however if you ask my Dad, he now thinks it's exorbitant, and my Grandfather (long gone) would have a heart attack and never buy another one looking at today's price compared to when he first bought one. So we are all unfortunately burdened by measuring the abundance of things through our own experiences of them.

As you point out, the sparrow numbers in the 1970s are of little more relevance than they are now or 100 years before, as we live in a very dynamic and changing world. The sparrow numbers at the moment reflect the world as it stands now, and their numbers are poor, and much diminished for probably a complex of reasons. I think the problem is that a lot of conservationists look through rose tinted glasses at yesteryear – their own yesteryear when they were young, or when they had good data from – and think that's what we should aim for. But I would argue that perhaps if they looked in the 1870s, the abundance of sparrows would have been many magnitudes greater than it was in the 1970s, so if that's their mantra, why aren't they acting to try and recover that?

I accept we live in the ruins of paradise – I still think there's a lot of beauty within it and we have to accept that it's changing. We're trying to wrap up little parcels of the past, and whether they're species with formal abundances or habitats that are no longer useful (in fact they're redundant) is a somewhat artificial concept. I think that we should be thinking far more creatively about how to manage new biodiversities where relative abundance of species is perhaps different that it is now or was yesterday.

We know for a fact that when we had sheep roaming all over East Anglia and Southern England it was skylark heaven. We also know that ten thousand years before when it was lime and ash forests there would have been only three or four of them around the beach! We've sculpted the landscape for the favour of species and then their demise on and on and on. Now we have a landscape where sheep aren't farmed and we've got agri-deserts that don't suit skylarks so their numbers have diminished. Well that's not surprising me, but what I'm thinking is that we need a future working landscape – we need a rural economy which is sustainable. We should be working on developing with farmers a sustainable economic working landscape which includes the richest biodiversity possible. That may have to be a new one and it may well not include the abundance of skylarks, partridges and stone curlews that we had fifty years ago because that environment has changed so radically. I think that if we're idealistic enough to think that we're going to turn back time, we should be out of a job. That's the sort of pragmatism I would hope to work with.

To be slightly more pointed about it, picking and choosing is something we do. I've ranted before about survival of the cutest and persecuted the panda and the dormouse accordingly, but really of course I'm playing devil's advocate here. I have nothing against pandas and dormice per se, but my point is really two-fold. Firstly to question how we motivate conservation – is it survival of the cutest? I mean no-one sticks up for the poor black rat do they! Also it's very much about where we spend our money. Should we be spending it differently? Because we have limited resources and always will have. I think there are constantly questions to be asked and we should have the courage to face the facts that we don't get things right first time, like in any other science or industry, and we should be able to put our hands up and say that didn't work, let's think of a new idea and test it until it does work.

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