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‘By Mobilising Their Members Onto the Streets, Is this a New Dawn for the Power of Conservation Charities to Enact Change?’

The influence of wildlife charities has been insignificant in the face of the financial and lobbying might of the vested interests profiting from nature destruction, writes Charlie Gardner

The ‘Restore Nature Now’ protest on 22 June 2024 in London. Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

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On Saturday, I stood in Parliament Square in the shadow of the House of Commons, listening to speeches from the great and the good in British conservation, while two peregrine falcons frolicked in the skies above. Behind me, the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 participants of the ‘Restore Nature Now’ march stretched up Whitehall, halfway to Trafalgar Square.

Members of the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and 350 other conservation charities and environmental campaign groups, they had come to London to give a voice to the voiceless and stand up for the natural world. And they did so by stepping onto the street and standing shoulder to shoulder with Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil.

The National Trust and Extinction Rebellion? It was an event as significant as that sounds – marking a historic shift in the way our nature conservation sector seeks to bring about change.

Alongside their core work of protecting precious places and managing threatened species, the country’s conservation charities have spent decades trying to influence policy in order to slow – if not end and reverse – our centuries long assault on the living world. They have conducted research and made sure their reports and policy briefs have made it onto ministerial desks, engaged in advocacy, and between them launched endless petitions and letter-writing campaigns. 

But none of it has worked.

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Populations of birds, insects, and other wildlife are in freefall. Our rivers swim with sewage, slurry and other pollution. And most of the protected areas we have set aside for nature are in poor ecological condition.

Worryingly, many of the environmental movement’s previous successes – the establishment of a legal framework to protect nature and regulatory bodies to enforce it – have been undone or weakened by the Government: environmental legislation has been undermined; the Environment Agency had been rendered toothless by budget cuts; and our system of legal protections for the most special, biodiverse places has come under political attack.

The gains of the past are being wiped out and, despite the desire of the British public for the Government to do more for nature and set us on the path to sustainability, we are being led rapidly in the opposite direction.

It is perhaps not surprising that this relentless assault on the natural world – which the RSPB has branded an “attack on nature” – has brought about such a shift in tactics.

For decades, the conservation charities have been trying to bring about change through ‘appropriate channels’, trusting that, if they supplied the evidence and made the will of their membership clear, governments would simply do the right thing, act in the public interest, and act to protect nature.

But policy-making isn’t about evidence or doing the right thing. It is about power and influence – and the influence of wildlife charities has been insignificant in the face of the financial and lobbying might of the vested interests profiting from nature destruction.

From the agribusiness and construction industries, to water companies and the owners of grouse-shooting estates – private interests have been fighting against environmental protections and they have done so not with petitions and scientific data, but with political donations and intense lobbying.     

By mobilising their vast membership onto the streets, the conservation charities now seem to recognise the primacy of power in policy-making.

While they may not have the financial clout or political influence of the corporate lobbies, their combined membership of millions of people is a huge potential source of political power – should that power be united, mobilised and manifested.

By taking to the streets in protest, by escalating from politely requesting change within the halls of power to standing outside them and loudly demanding it, these organisations have sent future governments a warning shot. They have understood that their power lies not in producing reports but in their enormous membership, and they are prepared to mobilise it.

Just as Saturday’s march heralded a shift in approach for the conservation charities, so I believe it does for many of their members.


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Though we pride ourselves as a nation of wildlife lovers, we have tended to be quite passive about it: we have made our direct debit donations every month to our favoured charities, and then sat back to let them get on with things. We’ve been leaving it to the professionals and watching on from the sidelines, but for the first-time protestors at Restore Nature Now, that’s no longer the case.

By stepping onto the streets in protest, they have acknowledged that this isn’t a struggle we can leave to others. They have taken it upon themselves to make their political priorities heard, and in so doing have elevated themselves from conservation supporters to conservation activists. It’s a symbolic step, but it’s usually only the first of many. 

The peregrine falcons that so thrilled us over Parliament Square are testament to the effectiveness of government intervention on the environment. The world’s fastest bird, the peregrine suffered catastrophic declines in the mid-1900s as a result of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which weakened its eggshells and left it unable to breed. Alerted to the problem by scientists such as Rachel Carson, governments responded by banning DDT, and the falcon made such a recovery that it now breeds even in central London.

The rest of nature could make a similar comeback, but only if governments put nature protection at the heart of policy-making.

Decades of traditional campaigning and conservation work have been unable to make them do that – but if our nation of nature lovers continues to blossom from passive supporters to active defenders of our natural world, that might just begin to change. 

Charlie Gardner is Associate Senior Lecturer at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent

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