In the fifth article of Inside Ecology’s ‘Interview with an Influencer’ series, we talk to Prof. Alastair Driver, Director of Rewilding Britain (England and Wales) and former Head of National Biodiversity for the Environment Agency…
How did you get to where you are today?
It started with my dad who was a very keen naturalist – we lived in the Cotswolds, in the middle of nowhere, I was brought up in a 500 year old cottage near beech woods, so I spent my youth doing all of those things that are largely banned today, like collecting birds eggs and insects, and through that ‘traditional naturalist’ country way of life, I learned an awful lot about what wildlife was what – I had a strong upbringing soaked in natural history.
I then went onto university and took an ecology degree at Lancaster, which at that time in the mid 70’s, was the only university in the country that offered ecology.
After university, I managed to obtain temporary work carrying out wildlife surveys of rivers (river corridor surveys). After the temporary contracts, the work dried up as there wasn’t really any jobs to speak of at that time in conservation (the organisations associated with conservation back then were tiny, maybe one or two employees). So I got into fish farming for the Thames Water Authority in 1983 and soon after that, they created the first ever Conservation Officer job, covering the whole of the Thames catchment – that for me was the lucky break; I was in the right place at the right time, I had an ecology degree and a little bit of experience, and so I got the job. It just grew from there. I carried out that role for 18 years, building up a department that eventually comprised around 30 people by the time I left. We went from no budget whatsoever, to several million pounds being spent every year.
I then applied for and was offered the Head of Biodiversity position with the Environment Agency nationally, which I undertook for the last 15 years of my career. I retired from the Environment Agency in September 2016.
It’s unbelievable really if I look back and see how many people are now working in the field of conservation, compared to the handful that were doing it when I first started out.
As Head of National Biodiversity for the Environment Agency, what were your biggest challenges in that role?
The biggest challenge I think when working for a government agency or an arms-length body, is coping with the bureaucracy and the complexity of the funding. You have to learn how to work within the rules, but do so in a way which frees up the opportunity for people to do great things on the ground.
For the first 18 years when I was in a regional role, I was created, set up and oversaw projects on the ground – literally hundreds of restoration projects. Initially, it was relatively easy, there wasn’t much of a paper-trail needed; gradually, that grew out of all recognition and sign-off procedures became incredibly burdensome – to a certain extent they still are, although some have been streamlined. The challenge was being able to rise above that, be persuasive and imaginative and find ways of getting to where you needed to be, even if it meant going via a convoluted route to get the outcome that you wanted. I think it’s generally recognised that I was fairly good at that – I learnt the tricks of the trade as it were and I always pushed the boundaries of what the Water Authority / NRA / Environment Agency could and should do; sometimes I was considered to be a bit of a nuisance, but generally speaking I did get things done and eventually people would support what I was proposing. I should add that I built a fantastic team – when I started the Head of Biodiversity role, I had a team of four and when I left last year I had a team of 22, covering just about every skill that you can consider in the ecological world.
In addition, a lot of my battles were about making sure that biodiversity enhancements didn’t get cut from projects as time went on for financial reasons etc., or at least minimising when that did happen. Creating rules and policies, which reinforced the fact that it should happen was one way of achieving this – for example, in 1991 when I was still in the Thames region, one of the proudest achievements in terms of policy making, was creating a policy stating that in the Thames region, flood defences (as it was called then) would spend 5% of its maintenance budget on enhancement projects – that was pioneering at the time and the policy lasted 20 years and on average, about half a million pounds a year was spent.
Conservation at the time didn’t come with any significant money of its’ own. Government cuts meant that there was only enough money to pay for people, there was no money left over to do things on the ground purely for conservation’s own sake. I had to rely on other departments to contribute proactively to enhancement (beyond mitigation) – bearing in mind the ongoing reduction in biodiversity, and activities like flood defence and land drainage over time, which have cumulatively contributed to the reduction of biodiversity – with that backdrop of continual, steady decline, only mitigating for every new activity is not enough, you’re not stopping and reversing the decline.
What significant changes have you seen in the way that river systems and wetlands are managed?
When I started at Thames Water Authority, there were at least 500 people working in land drainage maintenance across the Thames catchment and several hundred people working on capital schemes – there was only one of me. All of those people had a job to do, often undertaking management with little logical reason for doing it in terms of flood management, it was done because it had always been done; for example, strimming banks and digging small agricultural streams to maintain land drainage for agricultural improvement – there’s no doubt that those kind of works have declined dramatically. Conservation wasn’t the sole reason for that decline, but certainly, conservation principles and the work of conservation people in the Environment Agency have helped to moderate that; there is far less happening now in terms of maintenance of watercourses than there was 30 years ago and that’s not a bad thing, there is now much more rationale behind what is and isn’t done.
There have also been changes in attitudes – most people that work for the Environment Agency care about the natural environment and will try to do what they can to improve things. When I first started, people were behaving more like ‘developers’ in their approach and weren’t that bothered about damaging the environment – there is now a cultural awareness that the Environment Agency is there as a guardian of the environment and is there to protect all aspects of it.
Ali’s Pond Local Nature Reserve in Sonning, Wokingham, scooped a prestigious CIEEM award – What does the reserve comprise of and how did it come about?
This was a project that I undertook in my spare time, and was not part of my day job; about 20 years ago, I persuaded the parish council where I live to commission a survey of the habitats in the village. Using the results of the survey, I was able to demonstrate that there wasn’t a village ‘green space’ that local people could use, apart from heavily maintained sports fields and the River Thames tow-path itself. I suggested that we create a village pond with a nature reserve around it as an amenity and a nature conservation attraction.
It went ahead and we subsequently managed to add another piece of land to the initial area through a planning agreement with a local school and so doubled the size of it to 1 hectare. It has proved to be extremely popular.
The reserve has a healthy population of great crested newt – there were no records of great crested newt in the village prior to the pond being built; when I was pond dipping with local school children three years after we constructed it, I caught a great crested newt; we then found the source pond in private grounds nearby. Subsequently, we’ve created four other ponds across private gardens and the nature reserve – they were all colonised by great crested newt within a year of their creation. We have gone from a population of around 50 newts in one pond, to a population in excess of 1,000 in eight ponds. We’ve done that purely by creating suitable habitat and making sure that there is connectivity by using hedgerows.
It’s a really good example that all we need to do for great crested newt is to create fish-free ponds and connecting habitat. In my view, they don’t need legal protection – we know what we need to do, we should just make sure we do what’s required at every opportunity through planning.
The site is well used by two local schools as well as the local cubs, scouts and villagers. It is a project that I am really proud of and has been created solely by raising money locally. It is managed by volunteers.
There are significant declines in biodiversity, despite existing conservation efforts – What can rewilding do to halt the decline in habitats and species, that traditional approaches to conservation aren’t managing to do?
Firstly, I fully acknowledge the contribution that traditional approaches to conservation have made – I have personally been involved in hundreds of projects, such as creating nature reserves and wildlife sites, so they do have their value and if it wasn’t for that approach we’d be in a far worse position than we are now. However, it is clear that on its own that is not enough to restore biodiversity or even halt the decline, so we need both – extensive large-scale ecosystem restoration where management is gradually reduced (which is what I mean by rewilding), with the introduction of relevant keystone species where the community is generally supportive, alongside the ‘pearls’ of traditional nature conservation sites that have kept certain species going. That is entirely feasible in England and Wales and is what I am working on at the moment, i.e. finding places to do that and talking to key local partners.
I have found that people are very happy to talk about rewilding, but they are not so happy to use ‘rewilding’ as a title of a project or headline associated with a project because of the connotations of wolves and bears, but we’re not talking about introducing these species in England and Wales, we are talking about, where appropriate, beavers, pine marten, possibly golden eagle, black grouse, possibly lynx in some areas – those species are feasible and it is quite likely that communities would support them. We certainly know that with regards to beavers, local communities have been very happy to have them in the couple of areas where they have been reintroduced.
What rewilding does, is bring a much larger scale of restoration than your average nature reserve; if you are working at that large scale, you don’t need to be too precious about what species appear where – it is ok to lose some species in one area because others will appear instead, and those species that have been lost in one area, will likely appear in another area. So the intensive management is not needed to maintain species in a certain place. Wicken fen is an example of this at a smaller scale. If you operate at a large scale, you have much more chance of increasing biodiversity and demonstrating the ecosystem services benefits such as flood risk management and water quality.
Rewilding won’t happen everywhere, but it is eminently doable and the time is right because of Brexit; the way that our land management funding is going, we have to move towards a ‘payment for ecosystem services’ approach and that fits perfectly with rewilding. At the same time, the traditional conservation efforts will still continue and gradually, the string of pearls are joined up and connected to extensive areas where management is far less intensive.
Rewilding requires effective and sustained collaboration between multiple stakeholders, landowners and communities in order to be successful – What are the incentives for people to jump on board?
We cannot undertake rewilding without community and landowner support. The ways I think we can persuade some local communities that it is worth trying, is three-fold and based on economic arguments – bearing in mind that the alternative to many of these areas is that they can’t survive in their current form without CAP [Common Agricultural Policy].
One way is a payment for ecosystem services approach, whereby, instead of paying farmers to farm for birds or for food, we pay for a range of public services e.g. carbon storage, flood management, water quality, and yes, food can still be produced, but in a different way.
Secondly, there is a restoration economy associated with rewilding – that is, you need to do things to kick-start the rewilding process, for example on peat bogs by blocking ditches, tree planting, constructing fences and removing fences depending on what stage of rewilding you are at, what the priorities are and where you are, along with creating wetlands, restoring rivers, reconnecting floodplains, and managed realignment around the coast – these are all various elements of rewilding and there is an economy associated with that because you need skills, contractors, machinery to undertake it and ideally you go to local sources for that. So there is a temporary (10 or 20 year) intervention economy.
Lastly, there is the eco-tourism element. If you are successful in restoring a landscape and you’ve got for example beavers, pine martens, eagles, otters, red kite etc., those charismatic mega-fauna are there in number, and you have a good chance of seeing them on a visit, that will attract people – we know that from work on ospreys, and studies associated with salmon and salmon fishing. An economy can be generated around these species.
So these three economic strands are a pretty compelling argument given current circumstances. If you had asked me this ten years ago I would probably have been arguing for rewilding for nature’s own sake, the pure intrinsic value of biodiversity, but sadly, that is not enough to convince people any more.
Can rewilding make a positive difference in terms of reversing the general public’s disconnect with ‘nature’?
I am not expecting that rewilding is going to change the sad downward spiral of disconnect for society as a whole. The vast majority will still not know the difference between a swan and a goose and I can’t see an obvious solution to that. However, what rewilding will do is draw more people out into the wider countryside and into places that currently are pretty uninspiring and low in biodiversity, due to being over-managed and over-grazed etc. in the past.
If people have the opportunity to go to a café and see an otter or a beaver, or sit in a hotel garden and see a pine marten coming to a feeding station, there’s a chance that families will be drawn out from towns and villages, that wouldn’t previously have been minded to do so – and that’s not a bad thing as people might be more enthused and influenced to go a little further next time. Every little step can help.
Rewilding efforts appear to be confined to rural areas – is there any focus on rewilding urban areas?
Yes – in prioritising where we might focus rewilding efforts, I’m deliberately selecting at least one or two areas where there is a strong urban connection. The most likely area for this is the Peak District because of the connectivity to Sheffield and Manchester, and the strong connection in terms of ecosystem services, particularly flood risk management and water quality. I’m looking for areas that will embrace the urban element as well, mainly through connections down river valleys into those areas.
What do you think ecologists and wildlife professionals should be doing more of to further their cause in protecting and conserving biodiversity?
I’ve seen change, which I am a little concerned about in terms of the NGO [Non-Governmental Organisation] movement as a whole.
When the NGO movement started, it was tiny as I’ve mentioned earlier and didn’t have much influence. It then grew significantly, particularly the RSPB and to a large extent the Wildlife Trusts, for example, and these types of organisations became pretty powerful, influential and strong lobbying bodies with government and government agencies. However, with time, as they became more high profile, they became partners with government and government bodies in many things. Those partnerships are very laudable because you need partnership and can’t do anything significant without that, but what it has meant is that they have become passive and less comfortable with rocking the boat – this is definitely where they are at now.
The big NGO’s today are pretty meek and mild compared with where they were fifteen years ago. Whilst there are benefits with being co-operative, sometimes a tougher approach is needed and I don’t think there is enough of that going on now. That is the kind of approach I tried to take, i.e. I tried to help government when they asked for my advice, but I wouldn’t be afraid of challenging them if the need arose.
What project or accomplishment do you consider to be the most significant in your career to date?
That would be winning the International River Prize for the Thames in 2010, which was then and may still be, the biggest environmental prize in the world – $350,000.
I fought really hard to persuade the Environment Agency to submit a bid for it – I was initially refused the opportunity, so I went back and one by one persuaded the senior managers that it was a good idea. I then led a team who put the bid together and we got into the final, which was held in Perth, Australia. We had to raise the money to go there as the Environment Agency wouldn’t contribute and you had to attend if you were in the final – I took leave from work, and came back with a trophy and a $350,000 cheque. We gave the prize money to a project in India, which contributed to the restoration of a river.
There was a massive sense of satisfaction and pride in that – I was one of thousands of people that contributed to cleaning up the Thames and hundreds of organisations over 60 years – the River ran to the point where it had salmon and otters back. Since then I have helped to set up a European river prize and subsequently I set up the UK river prize, which is awarded every year for world class examples of good catchment management.
Further Information: Prof. Alastair Driver is well known in conservation and catchment management circles. He was appointed as the first ever conservation officer for the Thames catchment in 1984 and held that role for 18 years. Alastair was Head of Conservation for the Environment Agency 2002-2016. Alastair is now Director (England and Wales) for Rewilding Britain. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and is an Honorary Professor in Applied Environmental Management at the University of Exeter. Further information can be found HERE.