The Curate’s Egg: my reflections on leaving Natural England, part 1


At the end of September, I took early severance from Natural England. NE and its predecessors have been my only permanent employer over a career of some 31 years, so it is a momentous moment for me, and time for a little reflection.

Although not encouraged to do so, I sent this email to all staff in my final week, hopefully to encourage them in their fight for nature:

I realise you may see several such emails in the near future, so if you don’t know me, or wish you hadn’t known me, or are simply too busy, please feel free to delete… 

I have worked with so many teams and individuals over the years that I have been unable to say goodbye to everyone. So please allow me the luxury of being an ‘old lag’, and let me reflect on the past and its relevance to now and the future. 

At the end of this week I shall be leaving NE, after nearly 31 years with NCC, EN and NE. In that time, I have been proud to work for the statutory nature conservation body, and am equally proud of what I have achieved. For example, some of the highlights include: 

  • putting Essex on the wildlife map;
  • being there at the ‘invention’ and subsequent roll-out of managed realignment;
  • securing developments that go beyond sustainability, like the expansion of Abberton Reservoir;
  • building strong and largely positive, productive relationships with the ports industry;
  • the safeguarding of Canvey Wick, and its subsequent rise to prominence as a major brownfield invertebrate reserve;
  • helping to get the Wildlife Gardening Forum up and running as an independent entity; and most recently
  • ensuring the sustainable deployment of offshore wind installations, making a huge contribution to our energy needs.

Of course, I could have done none of these things on my own – all have depended on the efforts of colleagues and partners. I have been especially privileged to have worked through much of the existence of the Habitats and Birds Directives, and to have used that elegant legislation positively to secure environmental protection and enhancement. 

We are now set on a very different course, as a result of Brexit, and the perversion of a ‘democratic’ process, informed by smoke and mirrors, half-truths and lies (at last I will be able to speak my mind!). Your job will be challenging, but please have faith and keep on fighting for all we believe in. None of us know the shape of wildlife protection in the future: although we can and will strive for equivalent or better protection for the natural world in the future, my fear is that it will be less favourable than the legislative environment we have enjoyed, albeit in an increasingly challenging way, over the past few years. I just hope that the independence of the Judiciary will survive attempts to exert political control over it – and that y(our) organisation will have the strength to use domestic judicial process (in place of the European processes) to support conservation efforts. 

My approach to our work has always been focussed around solutions and outcomes, an approach now explicitly central to the way we operate. And rightly so. But this is not without risks: there is a fine practical line between ‘solutions/outcomes’ and ‘compromise’. Whereas the first can be characterised and welcomed as ‘win-win’, the second is ‘lose-lose’, and something to be avoided if we are ever to start addressing effectively the attrition of our natural environment so apparent in last week’s ‘State of Nature’ report. So please resist the temptation to take an easy way out, and remember that compromise is (usually) a dirty word.  

I will be still fighting, albeit from a different position. The inner activist in me has grown immensely over past months, and I hope to be able to agitate positively to help attack the dark forces of neoliberalism, deregulation, intolerance and isolationism. Quite apart from that, I will be devoting time to enjoying being newly married, writing (several books in the pipeline), speaking, photography, and wildlife tours (mostly with Honeyguide and Naturetrek – I would love to see any of you on my tours). Doing what I do best, enthusing others about that which means so much to me – the natural world – and has given me employment, enjoyment and a reason to continue what seems at times a dispiriting fight. 

So goodbye for now, and good luck with your future efforts. Hopefully you will not have heard the last from me.

Thank you Natural England. It has (largely) been a pleasure…

This went out to some 2000 staff, and I was overwhelmed by the response – hundreds took the time to say goodbye and many reflected on my reflections. Perhaps significantly only one of these came from the upper echelons of senior management. In only one or two cases were those reflections anything other than positive. But what struck me was the number of folk saying how they wished they felt free to express their passionately held views, how they hoped the release of a new cohort of often experienced staff into the wild is going to make a difference. Others tell me they can only realise and release their passion by subterfuge, through the cloak of anonymity of social media accounts which make no link to their work for NE.

A few sample quotes:

I am glad to hear that there are a number of people who will be able to feel that they can speak freely soon and are willing to do so …

Thank you for being so honest and open – contrary to the current climate within NE

Thank you for voicing the thoughts of many (older?) colleagues about the direction that NE is taking, under the steer of our political masters

And if truth be known, I would have felt the same until now… perhaps senior managers in NE need to wake up to this simmering frustration and feeling of impotence which could and should be channelled into a passionate, articulate advocacy (evidence-based of course!) for the natural world and its protection and enhancement. To deny or discourage such free expression is plainly wrong; rather it should be nurtured, valued and brought forward to start to reassert the authoritative, informed, engaging voice we once had in EN and NCC. If I could include contributing to such a culture change within my legacy, I would be a very proud man…

To be continued…