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19 January 2022

“England is one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth”: Tony Juniper’s call to end binary thinking

The chair of Natural England explains why we can only restore nature if we stop playing off its survival against farming and infrastructure demands.

By Philippa Nuttall

Nature is in a bad state. England is small, land is in short supply and there are no simple answers to meeting competing demands. But by getting farmers, politicians, campaigners, gardeners and dog walkers working together, we can make a difference. That is the message from Tony Juniper, a long-time environmentalist activist and, since 2019, chair of Natural England.

“This is not a happy story,” said Juniper, 61, from his home office in Cambridge when we spoke via Zoom. “The losses are right across the spectrum, from insect populations crashing to the loss of farmland birds and the degradation of our rivers. But we can do better if we put our minds to it.” The reintroduction of beavers to English waterways and the return of the white-tailed eagle are two “good news” stories. 

For Juniper, however, the “really exciting” news is the government plan for a national nature recovery network. He believes the proposal can, through “a range of partnerships”, create space for food production, infrastructure and recreation, and lead to “net gains” for nature in urban and rural areas. 

At a time when growing numbers of people are demanding climate action, the decision by a campaigner to head a government advisory body may seem a surprising choice. (Juniper began his career as an ornithologist with Birdlife International before moving to Friends of the Earth and most recently heading up WWF UK’s advocacy work.) But he suggests otherwise. 

“The energy and confrontation that comes with activism has at some point to meet the cold reality of policy,” Juniper said. “Activists have been very successful, especially Extinction Rebellion, in putting the climate change question much more firmly on the political map.” But when activists’ demands start being turned into policies, things get complicated, he added.

“Activism can be quite straightforward: we all want climate action. But what does that mean in practice? In terms of budgets for insulation, for renewable energy; how do we square that off against consumer bills? Or what’s the fit between nature recovery and carbon capture?

“The frustration in the activism community is that simple messages, when they get into the space of being delivered, inevitably become nuanced. That is life and that is what we have to deal with. There is a wide spectrum of views. The activist one is vital and very influential, but it is not the only view.”

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We need to stop thinking in terms of binary choices: food production or farm birds, housing or meadows, wind turbines or nice views, insisted Juniper. “We need to move to a discussion with facts and nuance.”  

The potential to increase natural habitats without impacting food production is a case in point, he said. He cited the UK’s National Food Strategy, which found that the least productive 20 per cent of the least productive farmland over to nature would have only a 3 per cent impact on food production. “We waste one-third of our food in this country; if we reduce waste by 10 per cent that takes up the 3 per cent.”

In Juniper’s view, we have no choice but to change our approach. “This country is one of most nature-depleted on Earth,” he said. “We need to get policy right to encourage wildlife recovery and food production and healthy farm businesses that people can make a living from. That is the real question, not whether it is one or the other.” 

And stopping the decline in nature is not enough. “We need to hang on to what we’ve got and add a lot of what’s missing,” said Juniper. Government proposals are the right tools to “turn around” the situation, but policies and standards alone are insufficient. “There is a cultural dimension; the extent to which people are replacing natural grass with plastic grass is not a hopeful trend.”

Juniper recently authored a foreword for a paper by Policy Exchange on urban green spaces, which calls for a “blitz behavioural campaign”. Natural England doesn’t have a mandate to advise the country’s gardeners, but Juniper is increasingly asked whether it should. The one million hectares of garden in England are equivalent to the land protected as sites of special scientific interest.  

“During lockdown people fell in love with their gardens,” said Juniper. In addition to their health benefits and beauty, we should be proud of our gardens as places for wildlife to explore, he added. “I am particularly excited about the opportunities we might have in a whole street. The benefits of everyone doing the same thing, or doing different things; one person with a big native tree, another with a meadow, another with a substantial pond all connected along a street.”

Urban green spaces more generally are important for wildlife, helping towns and cities cope with climate change by reducing flooding and lowering temperatures during heatwaves, and for public well-being. “This could be woodlands, wetlands or scrubby areas that are rich in songbirds and insects. It could be a mixture with places for people to picnic and walk their dogs. We can accumulate many benefits through good design,” said Juniper. “But at the moment, things very often separate and perceived to be in conflict.” 

In a country the size of England with a population of 55 million people, accommodating demands is “quite tricky” and compromises will upset many. But Juniper’s background probably means he has a better chance than most at encouraging a more integrated vision of nature.   

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