Here in his last article for Wild Devon Devon Wildlife Trust Director, Paul Gompertz, reflects on what has been achieved, what has not and what the future for the county’s wildlife might hold.
I shudder to think how many millions of words I have churned out for the Devon Wildlife Trust during my 23 years working here, from passionate appeals to detailed terms and conditions of employment. But few pieces have been harder to write than this, my last article for Wild Devon as Director. Where to begin? And indeed, where to end? The swallows and martins are operating in large flocks over my house now, gathering by instinct for a journey some of them don’t even know they are going to make. In our rivers salmon are waiting patiently to spawn; their offspring will one day set off, alone and unguided, on a journey to their adult feeding grounds around Greenland. I have just walked through Cricklepit Mill to make a cup of tea, saw the dipper foraging in the leat and realised it had brought a smile to my face. The abiding sensation of my time here is one of wonder; I have had the privilege of sharing many wildlife sights and insights with people more knowledgeable than me and every one of them has added to an ever-growing awe at the myriad of wondrous, inventive and extraordinary ways in which Life manifests itself in Devon.
Success and failure
For someone who, not so very long ago, did not know that orchids could be found in the Devon countryside or that corals could be found off its coasts, the revelations afforded me by the privilege of being Director of DWT have been a source of huge personal fulfilment. There is, however, a profoundly gloomy downside to knowing that, if things don’t change soon – and dramatically – that same fulfilment will be lost to future generations. That sense of paradox has dogged my time here. I feel as if I have borne witness simultaneously to great success and great failure. When I was appointed in 1988, most of the targets I was set were organisational. I suppose there was an assumption that DWT knew about conservation; all of the challenge seemed to be about resources. So I was charged to ‘raise membership, raise money and raise the profile’. The first two are measurable. Our membership back then was around 2,000 (though records were a little uncertain!); it now stands at around 33,000. Our annual income then was about £100,000. Last year it was just over £3million. In those two areas at least we have had demonstrable success. And while it is hard to measure profile, in 2010/11 (a record year) we had 24 items on national TV and radio, on top of all our regional and local coverage. We weren’t doing that in 1988!
Two great campaigns
I did get involved in conservation, despite its absence from my list of targets! When, in 1989, a survey revealed that, of the remaining patches of Culm grassland not protected by being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, around 60% had, in a five year period, been lost or damaged, even I could see the need to act. Though resources were tight, we employed a Culm Grassland Officer. We lobbied for an about to be trialled agri-environment scheme – Countryside Stewardship – to use Culm grassland as a pilot habitat, and succeeded. We devised a broader scheme, called Green Gateway, with help from Devon Waste Management. We got both the County Council and South West Water engaged. We worked closely throughout with English Nature (now Natural England). Today we have ten people committed to the conservation of this most glorious of Devon habitats, home to the marsh fritillary, one of Europe’s ten most threatened animals. Our Working Wetlands scheme has already made over 1,000 farm visits, with many more to come. It has begun to restore large areas of Culm which had been lost to forestry and agriculture. And it was cited as an example of best practice in landscape scale conservation. That feels like success.
The Lyme Bay Reefs campaign feels like success, too. Ignorant as I then was, even I could see that the destruction being caused to pretty marine things (which I now know to call marine ecosystems!) was appalling. That campaign too began with the appointment of a project officer and built from there. It took 15 years, half a million pounds and a great deal of pressure on successive Secretaries of State and Fisheries Ministers to get 60 square miles of Lyme Bay Reefs protected – and set a precedent which I like to think was a key step along the way to the Marine and Coastal Access Act and the Government’s current commitment that ‘by the end of 2016 in excess of 25% of English waters will be contained in a well-managed Marine Protected Area network’ and that ‘by 2020 we will be managing and harvesting fish sustainably’. With goals in place like that, where does the sense of ‘great failure’ come from?
It comes from the insidious conviction that all that we are currently doing is too little, too late. The latest strategy document from Government admits that ‘over 40% of priority habitats and 30% of priority species’ are still declining. The latest report from the International Programme on the State of our Oceans (IPSO) tells us that ‘we have underestimated the overall risks and that the whole of marine degradation is greater than the sum of its parts’. Biodiversity 2020 – the Government’s new strategy to reverse the decline in wildlife – doesn’t pay a backward glance to Biodiversity 2010, the strategy which was supposed to have the same effect in the previous decade. The Secretary General of the UN Convention on biological diversity called that collective failure ‘a total disaster’ saying ‘no country has met its targets to protect nature. We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, amounting to a mass extinction of life’. Moreover, some of the strategy now being put forward is, to my mind, cloud cuckoo land. Our Government ‘rejects the outdated idea that environmental action is a barrier to growth’ which clearlyidentifies me as well past my sell-by date. It pledges to ‘improve the delivery of environmental outcomes from agricultural land management practices, whilst increasing food production’, a trick which will need more smoke and mirrors than I am able to imagine. This seems to me a classic example of a particularly profound insight offered up by Jonathan Porritt: ‘The single most important precept behind the very idea of sustainability – that we have to learn to prosper within nature’s limits, not beyond them – is still set aside by almost all and sundry as an irritating irrelevance’. I have taken to prefacing the talks I give with the observation that ‘I am grateful that, for most of my career in wildlife conservation, I thought there was hope’. It is partly for effect, of course – but there is a strong kernel of truth in there too. I need to stop because I have heard too much of it all before, seen too many false dawns, read too much glib political spin – ‘The Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it was inherited’, for instance, which simply won’t happen; you heard it here first.
An end and a beginning
I’m not the first to play their part in the work of Devon Wildlife Trust and be drained by it, and I won’t be the last. What matters is that the organisation keeps going. The task was even more daunting when our founders set us up; the downward trends were worse back then, and there was less willingness to listen. I am proud of the part I have played, but ready to stop. DWT will continue, driven by its goal of a Devon rich in wildlife, spurred by the growing evidence that wildlife is vital to human existence and that saving it is saving ourselves. I wish Harry Barton, my successor, every good fortune. And my profound thanks to everyone who has been involved during my time here. We made a difference together; the task remains.
You told us
Wild Devon tracked down three people who joined DWT as members in 1988 – the year Paul Gompertz became the organisation’s Director. We asked them their views of the charity after many years of membership:
I shall remain a member for as long as I am around and hope to become more involved now I am retired. Keep up your dedication and all your hard work.
My interest in DWT has been general, enjoying its various success stories. I think the appearance of otters at DWT’s Cricklepit Mill does stand out. I have always enjoyed being a member. In the last 23 years I have watched the growth and importance of The Trust and hope and believe it will continue with its all important work in the future.
Mrs M Steiner
The impact of DWT over the last 23 years has come in three overlapping areas: Acquiring and managing more nature reserves that broadly represent Devon’s variety of habitats and contain its most charismatic species. Continuing the work of environmental interpretation to create a more informed and more concerned public and thus sustain the work of The Trust. Practical assistance to private landowners to enhance the conservation potential of their land and integrate DWT’s reserves into a more wildlife-friendly countryside.
Can you help Paul?
Director Paul Gompertz is asking for support towards Devon Wildlife Trust’s Sustainable Fisheries Campaign, a subject very close to his heart. If you would like to make a donation, please contact DWT on 01392 279244 or visit www.devonwildlifetrust.org/latest-appeal/