Robin Buxton, Patron of Wild Oxfordshire
“The challenge facing mankind is new, therefore it has no cultural roots; it is not enshrined in literature, ancient law or custom. We cannot base action on past experience.” (Norman Moore, 1987 The Bird of Time p223).
Norman Moore was the last survivor of the great post-war leaders of conservation that included Max Nicholson, Julian Huxley, Peter Scott and Derek Ratcliffe; the generation that rode Churchill’s wave of thinking and planning for a better Britain. They each had influence that is now unimaginable. Poul Christensen, then Chair of Natural England, said to me 5 years ago, and allowed me to include in my obituary of Norman Moore published in CIEEM’s In Practice (2016), “Would Norman have been allowed to develop such influence today? Almost certainly not.”
Partnership, whether locally to meet the challenges of Nature’s Recovery or nationally and internationally to keep our planet functioning benignly, needs leadership with real influence that is respected and empowered at all levels, with leaders sitting as respected equals in committees and round cabinet tables. We need to be, and be respected as, part of the Mainstream, the core partnership that sets agendas and shares power for society as a whole. Do we, the nature conservation sector, do enough to try to understand the agendas, priorities and language of the mainstream? Do we reach out to them on their turf or do we demand that they come onto ours before we will engage? Do we genuinely want to be mainstream too, with all the implications for give and take, negotiation and compromise, and the potential for (in my view) much greater impact? Or is sharing agendas with very different people too far beyond our collective comfort zone and ambition? At a local level, we are building relationships with this year’s new leadership in our County Council, and will continue to work with District, City and Parish leaders, as we have for many years.
Wild Oxfordshire was founded 30 years ago and launched as ONCF, Oxfordshire Nature Conservation Forum in 1993. It was designed as a framework for bringing all parties that affect wildlife in Oxfordshire together to agree priorities and focus action. Crucially farming organisations and local government representatives, along with conservation and countryside organisations, were included in the working group that thrashed out the Nature Conservation Strategy for Oxfordshire and I believe a lot of Wild Oxfordshire’s strength and influence stem from that breadth of participation. It had active support of senior council officers and politicians in Oxfordshire. Tensions and misunderstandings were inevitable, but strong common vision and leadership meant they were worked through, so forging respect and a habit of working together. Perhaps too much harmony and agreement can be bad for partnership; tensions and the tools and habits for dealing with them bring resilience and build respect. Wild Oxfordshire has been working with other organisations to set up the new Local Nature Partnership which will build on the foundations set by ONCF all those years ago.
So, what role can Wild Oxfordshire play now in shaping the relationships we need to develop? How can the experiences of bringing people and organisations together over 30 years be harnessed to the challenges we face? The newly-published National Food Strategy Report recognises that 75 years of industrial agriculture has transformed our food in many beneficial ways, but also the harm it has done to farmland ecosystems and the ability of our land to continue to produce good food indefinitely, as well as to wildlife. It is an invitation to recognise that all of us are in the same boat and future comfort and security depend on solving problems and meeting challenges of using land better. Nature Recovery locally will be dependent on active engagement by the farming community,and they are very high on Wild Oxfordshire’s agenda for engagement at leadership level, as part of our upcoming project on Nature Recovery Ambassadors. Following Brexit, farming will become politicised in ways it has not experienced for two generations. Budgets for financial support for farmers will be competing with all other national desires, health and welfare, infrastructure, foreign aid, environment. Will this be fertile ground for a new and equal partnership that enables well supported claims by agriculture that it is delivering or will the conservation community as “auditors” be cast as a bogey? It is up to us to build a strong, respectful and genuine partnership for the benefit, not just of conservation, but for all. Again, Quoting Norman Moore’s autobiography, The Bird of Time:
“Advocates of conservation who are accepted as sensible, balanced people have an especially important role to play in promoting conservation. There is no better advocate than a successful farmer who practises the conservation he preaches” (Bird of Time p227)
While much of a successful development of a happy partnership with agriculture has to happen at national level, grass-roots working relationships are vital too and this is Wild Oxfordshire’s greatest strength. Wild Oxfordshire must be hugely proud of the genuine grass-roots movement it has nurtured, supporting local initiatives and Local Groups. Some of these, such as the Evenlode Catchment Partnership are formal partnerships that show what is achievable when different interests find the common ground that unites them, respect each other’s particular priorities (and sensitivities) and work together. Others, some 80 groups, are even more local, parish scale groups, where enthusiasm, gentle leadership and knowing how much you can ask, and give, are essential elements of harmony and collective achievement. Sensitively supported with encouragement and technical advice, they are the bedrock of Wild Oxfordshire’s link to the people in our county who care and connect, wildlife and people, ambition and action. To end with another quote from Norman Moore’s The Bird of Time:
“For most people, an abundance of the relatively common and conspicuous plants and animals is more important than the conservation of obscure rarities”.