Contradictions and Compromises in Conservation

Spring 2023

Introduction: In today’s complex world, the challenges of climate collapse, biodiversity crisis, and our relationship with the natural world demand our immediate attention. Recognising this complexity, we all still strive for simplicity meaning we often oversimplify the intricacies of these issues, leading to a loss of meaning and limiting our effectiveness for achieving progress never mind finding actual solutions. Conservation efforts, in particular, require us to constantly grapple with contradictions and compromises. In this article, we will explore several examples (experienced this week at Oxygen Conservation) that highlight the delicate balance we must strike between competing priorities in environmental conservation.

Balancing Access and Preservation: Ensuring that the environment is accessible to all while protecting its delicate ecosystems presents a significant challenge. While we want everyone to enjoy nature, the presence of people, vehicles, and recreational activities can damage flora, fauna, fungi and the very composition of the ground. Consequently, we face the dual imperative of making the environment more accessible to a broader audience while safeguarding it against potential harm – it is one of the reasons why our national parks and their leadership teams have a virtually impossible task.

The Tree Dilemma: The importance of planting more trees is indisputable. However, finding suitable land for afforestation becomes increasingly challenging when we consider competing needs such as agriculture, conservation of existing habitats, energy generation and development. Additionally, the use of plastic tree guards, often required for securing grant support, contradicts our efforts to reduce plastic waste and prevent its breakdown into microplastics, which can infiltrate our water systems and food chain.

Managing Invasive Species:The ethical dilemma arises when we acknowledge the need to manage non-native invasive species that pose a threat to native ecosystems. While we believe it is wrong to harm living creatures, addressing the impact of invasive species like mink on river systems, especially water voles and other small mammals, becomes imperative. Striking a balance between ecological preservation and the management of invasive species requires careful consideration, the collection of compelling data and almost always a compromise somewhere.

Native Flora and Chemical Intervention: Removing invasive plants, such as rhododendron, to promote the growth of native flora (especially around our incredible Atlantic rainforest) often necessitates chemical injection or mechanical excavation and burning. However, these methods conflict with our commitment to organic land management and our obligation to reduce carbon emissions. Finding a solution that allows native woodlands to recover without compromising environmental and health concerns becomes a complex trade-off.

Agriculture and Environmental Impact: Farming plays a critical role in ensuring food security, but conventional practices often harm the environment, destroying wildlife and impacting soil health. Paradoxically, these conventional practices increasingly jeopardise the very food security we strive to protect. Balancing the need for sustainable farming practices with environmental preservation is essential for achieving a harmonious coexistence but one that requires land owners and farmers to compromise and change.

Preserving Heritage and Ecosystems:Historic weirs and structures in river systems, like those found in Bath and Ludlow, are cherished for their cultural and architectural significance. However, these structures act as barriers to migratory fish and hinder the attainment of good ecological status in our rivers. Removing them could improve the natural environment but would have significant cultural and very likely structural implications. Finding common ground between conservation and cultural heritage preservation remains a challenging task, especially where the obvious comprises would almost certainly be worse. The installation of an engineered fish pass would require huge amounts of natural resource, produce significant carbon emissions and lock these barriers in place as a result of the additional likely public funds used to install the passage. The sad truth is that these structures rarely work, and where they do it’s not for long and under such a narrow range of flow conditions.

Respecting Local Perspectives: Respecting local people’s views and opinions regarding the natural environment is crucial, but defining what “local” means and reconciling diverse perspectives within communities can be daunting (maybe even impossible). The truth is also that in many communities it is these local land management practises that have resulted in environment damage and ecological loss. Take for example the burning of moorland to support upland grazing (or more accurately to access subsidies). These practices which can hold cultural importance yet can have adverse ecological consequences, exemplifying the intricate balance required when managing conflicting interests. How do we find the compromise in the apparent contradiction – I’m still working on that one.

We greatly appreciate those that take the time to reach out to us and offer their views – whether this is via our website or social media channels, by email or in person. We won’t always agree, but we will always listen.

Sports and Biodiversity: Engaging in activities that involve raising, stocking, and killing living things for sports is in my opinion inappropriate. It does however hold a significance importance for some, particularly in rural communities. The creation of environments optimised for specific species, like grouse or pheasants, inevitably have significant negative ecological implications.

The custodians of these landscapes are absolutely committed to the preservation and conservation of the environment that they feel is appropriate for these landscapes. From an environmentalist perspective this is perhaps the greatest contradiction as we would welcome the restoration of natural processes over the forced management of a landscape. Recognising the importance of cultural heritage while promoting biodiversity recovery requires navigating many similar contradictions and searching for compromises inherent in this context.

The Complexity of Organic Farming: Raising awareness about the benefits of organic farming has become increasingly important in recent years – we’re committed to all our land being organic. However, the transition to organic practices often comes with its own set of challenges and contradictions. While organic farming promotes biodiversity and reduces reliance on harmful chemicals, the process itself can sometimes contribute to a higher carbon footprint, especially during the transition period when supplementary feed might be necessary, and only available from further afield. Organic farming requires careful management to ensure that the ecological gains outweigh the potential environmental trade-offs. Finding innovative solutions to minimise carbon emissions during the transition phase and maintaining sustainable practices in the long run is essential.

The Ever-Present Contradictions:The examples provided above are merely a glimpse into the myriad of contradictions and compromises faced by environmentalists and conservationists on a daily basis. In the realm of environmental conservation, absolute rights and wrongs are rare, while navigating complex trade-offs becomes the norm. Balancing the competing demands of accessibility and preservation, native flora and chemical interventions, cultural heritage and ecological integrity, and various other dilemmas requires constant dialogue, critical thinking, and a commitment to collaboration.

Moving Forward: Acknowledging these contradictions and compromises does not mean succumbing to inaction or accepting defeat. Instead, it is an invitation to engage in thoughtful conversations, evaluate the potential consequences of our actions, and seek innovative solutions. The path towards sustainable environmental conservation will undoubtedly involve difficult choices and compromises that might themselves appear contradictory.

Conclusion: In the environmental sector, contradictions and compromises are a constant reality. Achieving long-term sustainability and conservation goals requires us to navigate the complexities and challenges posed by competing interests. By recognising and addressing these contradictions, we are trying to develop strategies that strike a balance between often-conflicting priorities (and apparent hypocrisy, often including our own). Although there are few easy answers or universally agreed-upon solutions, our commitment to delivering positive environmental impact for people and the environment will continue to be our guiding principles in our mission to Scale Conservation.


Rich Stockdale
Founder & Managing Director