February 6, 2021

“To renew the living fabric of the land so that it also replenishes the spirits of its human inhabitants seems to me as close as one can come to a single expression of the aims of a total conservation policy.” Richard Mabey The Common Ground

I first read those words, written by Richard Mabey in the early 1980s. It is strange to re-read The Common Ground after forty years. It is simultaneously out-of-date as to the details, and utterly contemporary as to the underlying concerns. At Mabey’s time of writing (1979), controversy was raging over the government’s plan to cull grey seals in Scotland, which had been suspended pending further studies. Commercial fishermen were complaining that the seals, whose Scottish population had been growing and now made up half the world’s total, were depleting fish stocks.

The government accepted their view without serious challenge and agreed to a six-year population reduction programme. Scientists and conservationists rallied to argue that the evidence to support such a plan was non-existent, and that the grey seals were being used as a scapegoat for bad fisheries management. The beleaguered Prime Minister, James Callaghan, had come into office unelected following Harold Wilson’s sudden resignation, and was struggling to hold his government together. 15,000 letters of protest at the cull were to convince him that this was a controversy he could do without.

For grey seal, read badger

For 1979, read 2019; for fisheries, read livestock; for grey seal, read badger. The respective public outcries had played out through radically different media. Otherwise, the main difference was the speed of response by the governments of the day, in turn a function of their hold on power.

One of The Common Ground’s biggest surprises is the simple fact of its existence. It was instigated by the Nature Conservancy Council so that people should know more about conservation “warts and all”, to quote its Chairman Professor Sir Fred Holliday’s foreword. NCC was looking to engender a public debate on issues that, despite their self-evident public interest, had too often been tackled using opaque processes behind the scenes. Mabey was given complete freedom to express his findings as he saw fit, and free access to internal documents and to NCC staff; and encouraged to speak to as many people outside the organisation as he wished. Such confidence on the part of a statutory conservation body would be unimaginable today; and was probably mis-placed then. Ten years later, Holliday resigned when the Thatcher government broke up the NCC with no prior consultation.

That act was a sign of how far the conservation community had come in the decade since Mabey’s survey. The 1960s and 70s had seen some of the first set-piece conservation cases to arise under the post-war site-based conservation legislation, in which an earnest scientific community went into battle hopelessly outgunned by the industrial giants of the day. In 1966 the now-defunct firm ICI chose the botanically and geologically unique Upper Teesdale as the site for a reservoir serving industrial plant 54 miles away on Teesside. A Parliamentary Select Committee heard evidence from both sides of the debate. ICI fielded barristers whose entire professional lives were spent in such a milieu. Facing them were scientists whose passion for the genetics of the Teesdale violet or the metamorphosis of dolerite rock into sugar limestone was made to seem exclusive and narrow-minded against future-facing rhetoric championing jobs and technology.

Teesdale Violet Viola rupestris
Hermann Schachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

They stood no chance, and were not helped by the legislation on which they believed their arguments were founded. For all the multiplicity of conservation designations available today, it was and remains the case that they are legally underpinned or undermined according to whether or not they are Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

New ways of thinking about landscape

Richard Mabey has consistently pioneered new ways of thinking about landscape, nature, place, culture and the labyrinth of interconnections between them. The Common Ground recognised the need to raise the standards of technical expertise, analytical rigour and public relations artistry brought to bear on issues of the day. At the same time, it reads like a prescient warning and a plea: not to rely so heavily on them that we ignore the human dimension on which long-term success depends. His entreaty to renew the living fabric of the land so that it also replenishes the spirits of its human inhabitants will have seemed old-fashioned and romantic to many in 1980. On the other hand, it could have been written yesterday.

Abridged extract from Framing Nature: conservation and culture

Richard Mabey was born on 21 February 1941. His first book, Food for Free (1972), while ostensibly about foraging, long before it became fashionable, was also an undisguised plea to remember where food comes from – nature. Most people still bought their vegetables from greengrocers and their meat from butchers, yet Mabey presciently saw the rise of the supermarket as the start of a decline in connectivity – between food and nature and therefore between nature and us. Thirty-two books later, his most recent is Turning the Boat for Home (2019). 

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