Is Right to Roam the Best Way to Go?

Walking the coast path in North Norfolk

Nature conservation is an uphill challenge as human-induced climate change and the way we manage land degrades wild habitats and disrupts wildlife migration, breeding and feeding patterns. Now nature conservation could face another human activity issue in terms of the Right to Roam campaign. Their goal of “free, fair and informed access to nature throughout England” came a step closer when the Labour Party pledged to introduce a Scottish-style right-to-roam law in England. But while we might welcome the freedom to access nature regardless of wealth, how do we balance people’s health and recreational needs with nature’s health and survival?

Where we can roam now and what campaigners want

In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act gave us the right to roam across 8% of England’s countryside, including mountains, moorland, commons, and some downland, heath and coastlines. This figure doesn’t include private landowners allowing public access for walking, such as the National Trust and some farmers. In England, only 3% of rivers have a legal right of public access. Right to Roam (RtR) campaigners say these places are often remote and inaccessible to people in urban centres or people in deprived areas who can’t afford to travel. The RtR campaign wants rights of access to public and privately owned land extended to woodlands, all downland, green belt land and waterways, and to include other activities like wild camping, kayaking, swimming, and climbing.

Connecting with nature to caring about it

The Right to Roam campaign makes the case that people don’t care about nature loss because they don’t know what they’re losing. The solution to get people to care, they say, is to reconnect with nature from an early age and as part of our daily lives. But do we need extensive RtR to connect with nature?  

Many of us have opportunities to connect with nature in our local environment. While nature may be more difficult to access in cities, even there, local communities have created community food gardens and wildlife refuges in deprived areas. We need to preserve school fields, manage churchyards for nature, and open more allotments and safe cycle routes. With the help of organisations like The Wildlife Trusts, we can improve and enjoy the habitats we already have access to, including gardens and community green spaces.

The lockdown period was a watershed for the trend to ‘connect with nature’, but spending time outdoors doesn’t automatically lead to responsible behaviour and caring about nature. And does connection always need to be in person, or can books, videos, and wildlife documentaries help? I would love to see a capercaillie in the wild but am content to watch them on TV, knowing rare birds are better off with fewer humans in their habitat.

Nature for human health

Right to Roam campaigners highlight the importance of nature for people’s physical and mental health, especially with the rise in sedentary lifestyles and obesity. We need the space to exercise, they say. However, while nature is good for our health, we can’t blame the obesity crisis on a lack of access to nature. The RtR campaign also highlights ‘nature deficit disorder’, a condition affecting children deprived of access to nature. Our mental health improves in natural environments, but do children need access to the entirety of England’s countryside? Watch a child stomp in puddles, swoosh through leaves, marvel at a ladybird or watch a spider spin a web and witness their joy. We need to make time for children to observe the nature around us.

From my own experience watching birds, I understand the importance of nature to human wellbeing. But I’m concerned there is far more emphasis on human wellbeing than there is on nature conservation, more take than give. “In mind, body and soul, nature can heal us,” says the RtR campaign. But when are we going to heal nature?

Nature access for everyone with Right to Roam

The Right to Roam campaign points out that access to nature is often linked to wealth. This was evident during the pandemic when people with gardens or living close to green spaces had respite during lockdown while others were confined indoors. But do we need extensive RtR to provide fairer access, or would this simply open the countryside for activities requiring specialist gear and transportation?

In Norfolk where I live, Norfolk Wildlife Trust has purchased Sweet Briar Marshes in Norwich to create an urban nature reserve involving local communities. Other local groups help people access nature too, often for free, such as Mental Health Mates, Parkrun, Mind, and in Norfolk, Pathfinders and Norfolk & Waveney Wellbeing.

The RtR campaign says the lockdown showed us it’s time to open more of the countryside, but the lockdown period also showed what happens when you let everyone roam. Farmers reported people cutting across fields and dogs startling farmed animals, causing injury when animals stumbled down slopes.

Dog ownership has soared since lockdown; in 2021, there were 13 million dogs living in UK households. The phosphorus and nitrates in dog faeces and urine is raising nutrient levels, creating an abundance of hogweed and nettles at the expense of other plants and associated wildlife. Unleashed dogs disturb ground-nesting birds and trample nests, and dog walkers discard bags of poo. Responsible dog owners seem to be in short supply on managed nature reserves and parks, so what will happen with extensive RtR?​

In my mind, a more pressing need than greater public access to private land is for more landowners to become responsible and reliable guardians of nature. Maybe landowners would allow local groups to access and enjoy nature on their land if they help care for it. In this way, the impact on wildlife would be easier to quantify than a call to arms to seize our customary rights and go where we please.

Beech trees in autumn backlit by the setting sun

More access to green and blue spaces

The more people have access to waterways, or blue spaces, in England, the better these places will be protected, says the RtR campaign. They give examples where conscientious canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders collect rubbish while using waterways. But how many unpowered boats, canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards can a river take before wildlife behaviour changes or nests fail in the breeding season, and who will monitor this?

The campaign says most woodland with public access is Forestry Commission woodland, which is often pine trees, whereas deciduous woodland is more enjoyable for people. It’s a fair point, but can we trust people not to trample wildflowers and rare plants? This year, areas of ancient woodland on the Blickling National Trust estate were roped off to deter people and dogs from trampling through bluebells.

Many people live near green belt land, which could provide important open spaces with public access, says the RtR campaign. While much of this land is agricultural, we could still access the land taking care to avoid crops, farm animals, and buildings. I can see their point, and this may be the best way to increase RtR access. However, we would need to support nature-friendly farmers to create visible paths and signs along field edges, so people don’t trample wildflower margins and crops or startle farmed animals.

The campaign wants fragmented areas of downland to be accessible by allowing access across semi-improved grassland, which makes sense.  

People are mostly responsible in the countryside​

“By far the majority of people who come to the countryside treat it with respect,” says the campaign. This seems to be wishful thinking. I’ve seen trees burnt in a local wood when sofas were set alight, leaving behind metal frames and empty beer bottles. The landowner doesn’t have the resources to stop anti-social behaviour.

By the lake at Blickling National Trust, a man flying a drone over the reeds in winter was unaware he scared 300+ black-headed gulls off the lake. Dogs off the lead chase ducks, geese and their young, scaring them into the water. I daren’t think about the skylarks in the meadow by the Tower in summer.

At Holme Dunes, on the boardwalk, people with dogs off the lead walk past friendly signs about keeping dogs on leads when birds are nesting. Unleashed dogs dash under ropes at Holkham Beach, there to protect snow buntings and shore larks in winter. Likewise, at Winterton-on-Sea, dogs disturb little terns on nests and chase fledglings on the shoreline. The RSPB has spent considerable time talking to people on the beach with success in recent years. But when wardens are absent, people tend to ignore signs.

Of course, responsible ramblers, wildlife watchers and campers would much prefer to roam free, showing respect and awareness, and causing the least disturbance. But are we really the majority as the Right to Roam campaign would have us believe? It’s difficult to protect wildlife in places off the beaten track with public access.

Little tern nesting on the beach in Norfolk

Open Access land and PROW are not enough

There are 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales, but we have lost around 10,000 more miles of ancient footpaths from current maps. After 2026, no further applications to reopen ancient footpaths will be accepted under the CRoW Act, so these paths will be lost. Opening more of England would reduce the pressure on existing open access land and paths, says the RtR campaign, especially at weekends.

Rosie Pearson, Chairman of the Community Planning Alliance, sees no need for a Right to Roam law when we could improve the PRoW network: “Wouldn’t it be better to campaign for blocked rights of way to be made accessible, for new rights of way where there are none?” Rather than viewing the current rights of way as restrictive, Pearson suggests framing their use in a positive way, such as ‘Why not explore one of the 180,000 miles of rights of way and see what nature you spot?’ or ‘Help nature, stay on a footpath!’ or ‘Help nature by giving it space!’ 

PRoW paths are restrictive, campaigners say, preventing us from experiencing the flora and fauna we can’t see from the paths: “We need to feel at home in nature, to go to sleep under the cries of hunting owls, to wake up to the dawn chorus.” Extensive RtR may be better for humans, but what do wild animals think?

Rewilder calls for less access, not more

Simon Leadbeater, environmental consultant, nature conservation author, and rewilder, warns of a sixth driver of the Sixth Extinction: “the increasing public access and invasive recreation in the countryside.”

Leadbeater draws on personal experience of the impact of human access on wildlife. Having purchased Rector’s Wood in the late 90s, Leadbeater and his partner set about restoring oak trees and hornbeam hedges. But conservation isn’t just about habitat, it’s about giving wildlife breathing space. In 2017, they fenced six acres in the centre. They planted small-leaved limes and watched as hornbeam, oak, and beech regenerated. But what they also noticed was the animals were more relaxed with humans fenced out.

Selflessly minimising his own access, Leadbeater rarely walks in their woodland now other than to check on trees that might need care. He quotes research that likens human disturbance to habitat loss because it reduces the habitat available to wildlife. By contrast, human absence expands available habitat.

As human populations soar, Leadbeater is concerned about a continuous and uncontrolled human presence in woodlands and the scale of wildlife suffering as a result: “Access to the countryside does not only mean being allowed to visit a private individual’s land; it also entails occupying animals’ homes at best as uninvited guests and at worst as invaders driving them away… we have to navigate the perilous path between reconnecting with Nature, and allowing wild spaces to persist and thrive for nonhuman life, because of their inherent value and right to live.” 

Right to Roam calls for a cultural reset

Despite believing most people treat the countryside with respect, RtR campaigners call for a “cultural reset in which respect, care, guardianship and reverence for nature become the norm”. They propose that RtR should come with proper promotion of the Countryside Code through marketing, education in schools and signs in the countryside. It’s an appealing vision of a democratic, land-sharing utopia where people and nature live in harmony. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code, 135 pages long, covers every aspect of responsible behaviour for the public and landowners. But would people read the Countryside Code in England, let alone abide by it?

The RtR campaign holds up Sweden, Norway and Scotland as examples of countries where RtR is law and codes of behaviour protect flora and fauna, landscapes, farm animals, crops and local communities. The problem with such comparisons is that Norway’s land mass is much greater than England’s, but the population is far lower. Likewise, for Scotland. There are cultural differences to consider too.

Although Scandinavian countries’ culture is individualistic like the UK, they are more society and community focused. While the UK has a masculinity (MAS) score of 66 according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, Norway’s score is 8 and Sweden’s is 5. The higher the score, the higher the preference for achievement, assertiveness and material rewards for success. The lower the score, the higher the preference for cooperation, modesty, quality of life, and caring for the weak. With the UK’s high MAS score, can we trust people to behave responsibly off the beaten track and to abide by a countryside code, especially when, according to behaviour studies, we behave better when we know we’re being watched?

While RtR in Scotland works for most people, what about wildlife? In the Cairngorms, human disturbance impacts capercaillie recovery. Likewise, dogs off the lead disturb ground-nesting birds such as curlew, lapwing, and oystercatchers. Then there’s the problem of wildfires. Wild campers in Cannich are thought to have caused the fire at RSPB Corrimony.

The Right to Roam campaign’s vision is enticing. Who wouldn’t want to live in a society where people care about the natural environment and wildlife and behave responsibly in the countryside? But this is far from being the norm. All sectors of society, including the UK Government, will need to collaborate in a cultural change to give the needs of nature and people equal consideration.

To roam or not to roam?

Too many people are disconnected from nature and that needs to change, but wildlife needs sanctuary from human disturbance. Giving people an extensive right to roam without first educating them about nature is like letting dogs off the lead without training – we can’t expect them to behave how we want them to. In a biodiversity crisis with multiple pressures on nature, can we take the risk that free-roaming humans will behave responsibly? Surely, to restore nature, we need to keep areas for wildlife that are off-limits to humans while we get started on the uphill task of a “cultural reset”. 

First published in the North East Norfolk Bird Club’s digital newsletter for members (July 2023).

Look skywards for swifts back from Africa

Photo credit: Julian Thomas, North East Norfolk Bird Club

Swifts are back for the summer and Aylsham Swift Group is helping these extraordinary birds

Our special swifts are back from Africa, heralding summer and the time we can enjoy their short stay. Swifts have travelled from central Africa, crossing the Sahara and navigating storms to reunite with lifelong partners. Swifts tagged in Eastern England travelled an astonishing 14,000 miles after leaving the UK in the summer of 2010 and arriving back the following spring. You may have seen swifts already this year, skimming rooftops in joyful ‘screaming parties’ or soaring above our town.         

Swifts spend most of their lives airborne, landing only to nest and raise their chicks. After their epic flight home, swifts look for their nest site, but as buildings and roofs are renovated and gaps sealed up, exhausted birds find their nest gone. In their confusion, some birds suffer injuries from repeatedly trying to access their old nest site.
You may be lucky enough to have swifts nesting under your roof tiles or in the eaves. They cause no damage and leave little trace of their presence, so you may not even be aware. To raise their chicks, swifts travel to the best places to find insects, often above woodlands and waterways, returning to the nest with a ball of insects bound with saliva. Unlike songbirds constantly back and forth, swifts return less frequently – blink and you’ll miss them!
Since 1995, the UK has lost 53% of its swifts, and we are seeing fewer swifts locally too. Dick Newell, founder of Action for Swifts, believes the loss of nest sites is causing the steep decline in swifts in the UK. The RSPB says the lack of food is also implicated. Swifts rely on airborne insects and spiders, catching up to 20,000 insects daily to feed their chicks, but we don’t yet know the full impact of insecticides and the loss of insect habitats in the countryside and our gardens.

Inspired by Norwich Swift Network and Save Our Suffolk Swifts, Pat Grocott set up Aylsham Swift Group (ASG) to secure more nest sites locally. We give advice on external swift nest boxes (to buy or make and where to place them), and internal swift bricks for new and existing buildings. If you’re repairing or renovating your roof, consider asking your roofer not to install bird guards (also known as eaves combs), which block access under the pantiles and prevent swifts from entering their nests. We can also advise on how to adapt soffits to make nesting spaces for swifts without allowing access to your loft.

Swifts will soon have accommodation with the best views in Aylsham too. A suite of secure nest boxes will be provided in the church belfry in a collaboration between Aylsham Parish Church, Aylsham Swift Group, Norwich Swift Network, C T Baker Builders Merchants and local carpenters Carey Whiteman and Ken Seaman.

Aylsham Swift Group keeps a list of local sightings, so let us know where you see low-flying screamers or swifts entering tiles, eaves or nest boxes. If you find a swift on the ground, it’s likely to be an adult injured or exhausted, or a young swift that has left the nest too early, often due to extreme heat. Unlike songbirds, which are cared for by parents after fledging, a grounded swift needs urgent help. Gently pick up the bird and place them in a box lined with soft material – a shoebox is ideal or cover a see-through box to keep the swift calm. Contact ASG for details of the nearest specialist swift carers.

Follow us on Facebook at Aylsham Swift Group or Twitter @AylshamSwifts. If you would like to support the Aylsham Parish Church belfry project, our fundraising page is

Article first published in Just Aylsham, June 2023.

Is biodiversity net gain the way to stop nature loss?

Human survival depends on nature yet economic growth is destroying ecosystems and biodiversity. Should we put a price on nature?

Putting a price on nature isn’t a new idea. In Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet, Sir Dieter Helm measures and values natural capital in terms of nature’s renewable and non-renewable resources. Helm acknowledges that human survival and wellbeing depend on protecting and restoring biodiversity and ecosystems, and proposes a framework for sustainable economic growth that is politically and economically viable. It makes no sense to judge a thriving economy on GDP alone and ignore the impact of economic growth on natural assets. The Dasgupta Review: The Economics of Biodiversity says we need to account fully for our interactions with nature if we want to stop the overexploitation of natural resources, the decline in biodiversity, and the destruction of ecosystems we depend on.

Human actions have consequences for nature

You only need to look at past examples of human impact on nature. Take the historic draining of peatlands to make way for forestry, which has deprived us of vital habitats for wildlife, water retention, and carbon sequestration; the grazing of excessive numbers of sheep on the same areas of land, which has dramatically reduced the variety of flora and fauna; and the building of industrial-scale chicken farms in Gloucestershire, which has turned the River Wye into a dead zone.  

Sir David Attenborough’s foreword on the Dasgupta Review is a sobering reflection on modern livestock farming:

“Today, we ourselves, together with the livestock we rear for food, constitute 96% of the mass of all mammals on the planet. Only 4% is everything else – from elephants to badgers, from moose to monkeys. And 70% of all birds alive at this moment are poultry – mostly chickens for us to eat. We are destroying biodiversity.”

The Review points out that we don’t all experience resource scarcity in the same way. Communities living subsistence lifestyles are impacted by natural resource shortages. In the UK, air and water pollution may be more noticeable or the disruption to food and energy supply chains. Regardless, environmental problems affect us all, with land-use change and species exploitation being major causes.

Paying the price of land development

Surprisingly, even though 55% of global GDP relies on what nature provides, the cost of doing business isn’t being paid. But this is set to change in the planning and development sector later this year when biodiversity net gain (BNG) becomes mandatory under the Environment Act (2021). With the aim of ensuring developers pay the cost of nature loss, most developments in England will need to achieve a minimum 10% net gain to receive planning permission. Biodiversity at the development site will be measured in ‘biodiversity units’ calculated using a biodiversity metric, taking into account the extent, condition, distinctiveness, and location of the habitat.

How does biodiversity net gain (BNG) work?

Developers must either avoid natural habitat loss on land they plan to develop or compensate for the loss. They can do this by creating new habitat on the development site itself or off-site on land they own, or by buying units from land managers or statutory credits from the UK Government. Land managers, including landowners, farmers, local authorities, and habitat bank operators, can sell off-site biodiversity units to developers, either directly or indirectly.

BNG will create a market where ‘biodiversity units’ are bought and sold to deliver outcomes for nature and support economic growth. The sale price of BNG units will cover the following: management of enhanced habitat for at least 30 years; monitoring and reporting; ecologist costs, legal fees and insurance; and remedial work if the habitat fails to achieve the agreed condition.

Local planning authorities (LPAs) will need to approve a proposed development’s biodiversity net gain plan before work can start. Local authorities can even use their own land to deliver BNG, providing necessary requirements are met and conflicts of interest managed (a risky placement of trust perhaps).

Natural England supports BNG to tackle biodiversity loss

Marian Spain, Chief Executive of Natural England believes “Biodiversity net gain offers a new route for development of homes, businesses, and infrastructure to play its part in enabling nature to thrive, and to deliver nature-based solutions to climate change, water and air quality and flood risks. It can also help level up access to nature and provide accessible green space on the doorstep of new homes and further afield.” BNG has economic benefits, says Natural England in terms of long-term income opportunities for landowners, sustainable financing for habitat management, and job creation.

Will the promises of BNG be kept and who will check?

But not everyone is so optimistic. Researcher Sophus zu Ermgassen shared their concerns about BNG with the British Ecological Society: “Our net gain database shows that the vast majority of the benefits of net gain, as it stands, are being delivered through promises of small, high-quality habitats many years in the future, within the development footprint. If these promises of improved future condition within the built environment do not materialise in reality, then net gain might be associated with a considerable loss of greenspace which might actually harm nature overall.”

Developers must be held accountable for any failures to deliver the habitats they have committed to, says Sophus, which will require monitoring and enforcement. This is usually carried out by LPAs, but they often lack the expertise and funds. Furthermore, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) stresses that to ensure sustainable BNG, soils on a site must be suitable for the habitat that is to be created or translocated. 

Sophus also says habitat assessments must be robust to ensure biodiversity at proposed development sites is not undervalued. Bearing out this concern, a report commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts reveals shortcomings in the way HS2 Ltd assessed the value of nature along the construction route. Watercourses, ponds and trees were left out and mature species-rich hedgerows were given a lower value than the new hedgerows HS2 Ltd will plant.

Will biodiversity net gain deliver thriving wild places?

Referring to HS2, Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, expressed the importance of local places to local people and the impact of their destruction. “This vast infrastructure project is taking a wrecking-ball to wildlife and communities are in despair at losing the wild places – the woods, meadows and wetlands that they love – they will never get these back.” Sophus proposes that BNG is achieved by improving local nature networks and not just through on-site landscaping, which may deliver less biodiversity benefit.

Ready-made habitat in a box?

With the opportunity for businesses like BioScapes to facilitate on-site BNG, Sophus’ concerns are understandable. Developed by horticulturists and ecologists, BioScapes portable pods provide self-contained habitats to support biodiversity. This may be an easy solution for developers, but how do BioScapes units compare to more natural on-site and off-site habitats for biodiversity? Another issue is what protection existing trees or newly planted trees on site have after the developer has left. How many complaints by residents about leaves or shade would it take before trees on new housing estates are heavily pruned or removed altogether?

Is biodiversity net gain too limited in its audit process?

Then there’s the question of the scope of biodiversity net gain. Dieter Helm thinks BNG’s focus is too narrow and should include soil: “Biodiversity is not limited to above-ground bats, bees, birds and newts, important though all of these are”. To accurately calculate compensation for development, Helm would like to see carbon as well as biodiversity audits conducted for a site before development, and these compared to the economically most efficient option for the use of the land. Otherwise, there is an incentive for anyone seeking planning permission to degrade the land, leaving little biodiversity to compensate for.

This hot topic of the economics of nature was debated in a Curlew Action webinar recently, relevant not only to curlew conservation but nature conservation more widely. Guests discussed the practical and moral challenges and the benefits of putting a price on nature.

Curlew Action Chair of Trustees Roger Morgan-Grenville chaired the debate. Having helped with headstarting where the cost of each curlew released is £1100, he asked how we should measure value when a headstarted curlew is taken by a fox the same day. The answer may rest on whether we view nature as having only extrinsic value, a worth determined by humans, or whether we also consider nature’s intrinsic value, a worth in its own right.

Nature conservation needs wider investment

Professor David Hill, a founding member of Natural England, would prefer not to put a price on nature but believes a love for nature is not enough to make a difference. Hill says we need corporations to invest in biodiversity to fill the funding gap, which will only happen if they see value for their business. To address his concerns about provisions for wildlife in the planning and development sector, Hill introduced the concept of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) to the UK and set up The Environment Bank. Hill says that LPAs have no interest or capacity to account for biodiversity, so we need to make it economically visible.

Habitat Banks help developers meet BNG requirements

The Environment Bank aims to create high-quality ‘Habitat Banks’ to give developers an easy, risk-free way to meet BNG requirements by purchasing BNG units. Habitat Banks are created on land unsuitable for food production and where there is a significant opportunity for biodiversity uplift. These newly created habitats will include species-rich grassland, woodland, wetland, mixed scrub, or rewilded areas. Habitat Banks also provide landowners with an opportunity to diversify their business, which could offer a lifeline to farmers without EU subsidies post-Brexit.

Although BNG prioritises mitigation and uplift on development sites, it usually fails, says the Environment Bank. Local authorities don’t have the capacity to monitor habitats post-development, whereas the Environment Bank takes responsibility for monitoring for 30 years. Developers make a profit, farmers make a profit, so why shouldn’t there be profit in nature restoration, asks Hill.

Shouldn’t we value nature for its own sake?

Aside from natural capital, what about the value of nature for its own sake and the psychological and emotional benefits to humans? Joining the Curlew Action debate, philosopher John O’Neill, professor of political economy at the University of Manchester, is critical of placing an extrinsic value on nature because it ignores the intrinsic value. A curlew has value in itself, independent of its contribution to human wellbeing, says O’Neill. Concerned by the current economic growth model and ongoing biodiversity loss, he asks if this loss is simply due to a lack of funds for conservation. O’Neill is sceptical about “shifting bits of nature” via BNG and would like to see a shift in thinking, with development stopped in certain places.

What about the loss of nature to local people?

O’Neill says BNG creates a dependence because biodiversity gain in one area is dependent on loss in another. Off-site gains may not be like-for-like in terms of the habitat and wildlife lost on the development site. Furthermore, BNG does not make up for the loss of a special place for local people. How nature makes us feel matters. If nature loss in cities is near working-class areas, people have a lot to lose if they cannot travel to experience nature. There is no individual or community justice if biodiversity gains are elsewhere, and environmental losses often can’t be compensated for, says O’Neill. Whereas Hill favours mitigation of development, O’Neill would like to see restraint: a new service station on a motorway that destroys woodland is not a necessity.

Another way to fund nature restoration aside from biodiversity net gain was shared by Xanthe Caldecott. Founder of Green The UK, Xanthe explained they connect local nature projects with local businesses, helping them achieve their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals by funding local wildlife projects rather than the more usual climate-related carbon offset projects.

Will BNG validate destructive developments?

There are certainly challenges ahead in implementing BNG. We have witnessed countless examples of mature or even ancient trees felled or at risk of felling for developments, including ancient trees for HS2, mature trees for Plymouth city centre redevelopment, Coton Orchard for the Cambourne to Cambridge busway, and woodland with maternal roosts of rare bats in the Wensum Valley for the Norwich Western Link. Saplings are not a replacement for mature trees in terms of carbon capture, the life forms they support above and below ground, and their value to local people.

However, without an economic value for nature and buy-in from government and business sectors, nature conservation is likely to be limited in scale and longevity. As land ownership for nature conservation becomes profitable, we can only hope that ethical landowners, farmers, and businesses lead the way and that the BNG market will not be subject to the fraud seen in the carbon credit market and the greenwashing in CSR claims. We need a guarantee too that biodiversity net gain will be monitored and enforced for the 30-year period, otherwise, we will be poorer for this well-intentioned attempt to put a price on nature.  

Also published in the North East Norfolk Bird Club digital newsletter for members (May 2023). 

Images: Tracy Brighten

Iconic curlew evicted from our changing countryside

Having grown up on a council estate with tiny gardens and a father who thought birds were best eaten, it wasn’t until I had my own family that I started walking in the countryside and watching birds.

It was only recently though, having moved to Norfolk, that I had the pleasure of seeing a pair of curlews. I wondered how I could have missed this enchanting bird in the past.

I wanted to find out more about curlews and what better way than to read a nature memoir! Unlike me, nature writer and campaigner Mary Colwell is no stranger to the curlew call, nor why they may be hard to see. Continue reading

Can we justify culling some animals to save others? 

Bellbird on Tiritiri Matangi Island, New Zealand

Humans have a complex relationship with animals, ranking them in a hierarchy of utilisation and affection according to human cultures and values. While some animals are saved, others are slaughtered.

Depending on where you live in the world, elephants, rhinos and lions might be seen as endangered species to be protected or they might be used for pseudo-medicine, trinkets and trophies. Cats are beloved pets for some but for others, they are bird killers or meat. It can be difficult to balance cultural differences, species conservation status and ethics to find the best outcome.

But questionable cultural practices aside, even evidence-based conservation science faces an ethical dilemma.     Continue reading

Have you seen the latest Wildlife Blog Collection?

The Wildlife Blog Collection ebook front cover


Terra Incognita Travel’s first Wildlife Blogger of the Year competition was a resounding success with stories from nature writers around the world. I’m delighted to have my story included in their new wildlife blog eBook alongside other personal stories of wildlife encounters and conservation insights. The team at Terra Incognita describe below the idea behind the collection and what the judges—renowned conservationists, scientists, nature writers and filmmakers—said about the top stories. Continue reading

Jewel in the crown: New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin

New Zealand yellow-eyed penguin feeding its chick

Huddled behind the hide at the far end of Sandfly Bay, we shelter from winds whipping sand across the dunes. The sun is yet to break as we wait for yellow-eyed penguins to make their way from the headland to the rocks below. It’s a perilous journey from forest nests to ocean feeding grounds, and I wonder why a penguin makes this long trek across farmland each day. Continue reading

Terra Incognita Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018

Yellow-Eyed Penguin, native to New Zealand. Credit: David Brighten

Sponsored by Swarovski Optik, ecotourism social enterprise Terra Incognita Travel have organised a competition (details below) to find the wildlife blogger of the year. How exciting is that!

Thank you to James Common, Director of New Nature Magazine, for sharing his red squirrel encounter on social media that led me to Terra Incognita. Reading the variety of wildlife experiences and stories, I was inspired to enter my own: ‘Jewel in the Crown: New Zealand’s Yellow-Eyed Penguin‘. What an opportunity to be read by judges that include highly regarded nature writers, wildlife filmmakers, conservation scientists and environmental campaigners—that’s a prize in itself! Continue reading

Ocean plastic waste: be part of the solution not the problem

Our love for plastic and our throwaway culture is choking our oceans and wildlife, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Plastic waste washes up on beaches and injures ocean wildlife

Covering 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface and deeper in places than Mount Everest is tall, oceans have long been a source of fascination. Since Captain Cook charted the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century, returning with zoological specimens and botanical artwork that set the mark for scientific exploration, we have been learning about the natural world. Scientists are still discovering new species. Researchers and filmmakers travel to the most inhospitable places revealing the ocean’s mysteries in documentaries such as Blue Planet.

But sadly, today’s naturalists are faced with the impact of ocean plastic waste. Watching albatross parents feed plastic to chicks has been one of the lows of David Attenborough’s natural history career. But how did we reach this point and what can we do to help regenerate our oceans? Continue reading

Books to open your mind and improve your life

Books to open your mind

We all have favourite books. Some books explore the human condition, helping us understand ourselves and each other. Other books teach us about nature with fascinating stories of wildlife and wilderness. Books that have the power to change us are those that challenge our beliefs and offer new perspectives. These books can lead us to live a more conscientious and compassionate life.

I’d like to share some of my favourite books in the areas of health and wellness, sustainable and ethical living, wildlife conservation, and family and education. These books have enlightened and inspired me to live a more considered life. I hope some of these books may help you in your life too.  Continue reading

Education, communication and cooperation: a cornerstone for change

By Tracy Brighten

Communication and connection

Education, communication and cooperation form the cornerstone from which societies build and improve on past ways of living. Whether knowledge is communicated in schools or universities, through media, or within communities, families and social circles, it can prompt us to question our thinking and our behaviour.

With technology linking us across the world, the connection of people and the communication of ideas is a catalyst for global change. Through the internet, we can exchange problems and find solutions.

We are no longer living in ignorant isolation  Continue reading

Pollution from pipes beached in Norfolk puts wildlife at risk

By Tracy Brighten

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency says pipes washed ashore in Norfolk pose no danger of pollution. Are they unaware of, or simply ignoring plastic fragments scattered along the coast?

The MCA’s announcement on the pollution risk from four gigantic plastic bore pipes washed up on Norfolk’s east coach beaches was reported by The Guardian. Twelve pipes were being tugged from Norway to Algeria when they came loose after a collision with a container ship. While there are reports that the recovery operation is underway, no-one is talking about the plastic fall out on pristine beaches used by seals and rare seabirds. Continue reading

Little terns brave tides, dogs and falcons in Norfolk

The second rarest seabird in the UK, little terns face a bleak future without our help

EULife Little Tern Recovery Project

At a colony along Norfolk’s east coast where I’ve been helping as a volunteer, RSPB wardens are providing dedicated round-the-clock protection for endangered beach-nesting birds. The RSPB’s conservation work is part of the EU Life + Nature Little Tern Recovery Project involving eleven partner organisations, including the RSPB, Natural England, The National Trust, Cumbria Wildlife Trust and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. The recovery project has been crucial in monitoring, protecting and increasing little tern populations across the UK. Continue reading

Why we need to re-think cultural traditions

By Tracy Brighten

How we justify cultural traditions that exploit animals and why that needs to change

Culture and animals

Cultural traditions are passed on through generations, perpetuating our use of animals for food and pleasure. In upholding religious festivals and food practices, medicinal ‘cures’, and superstitious beliefs, animal abuse continues without question. We can be reluctant to let go of cultural traditions, seeing change as a rejection of our culture, or even an attack on our identity. Continue reading

World’s rarest penguin suffers disease, starvation and selfies

By Tracy Brighten
Human settlement pushes New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin to the brink

Yellow-eyed penguin and chick

Yellow-eyed penguin feeding chick at Penguin Place, Otago. Image credit: David Brighten

The Emperor penguin is arguably the most familiar penguin in the world, the poster penguin for climate change as global warming melts the Antarctic ice they depend on. Indeed, this magnificent penguin’s survival in such an inhospitable environment is well-reported in films and documentaries such as March with the Penguins and the BBC’s Dynasties.

But not all penguins live in sub-zero temperatures. The yellow-eyed penguin is challenged by temperatures at the other extreme, yet the plight of this ‘Endangered’ IUCN Red List Threatened Species is less widely known.  Continue reading

Malta set to slaughter 5000 turtle doves in spring hunt

By Tracy Brighten

Migrating turtle doves will be shot down as they fly over Malta.

European turtle dove

The Maltese government has sanctioned the slaughter of 5,000 European turtle doves as they fly over Malta in the last stages of their 5,600 km journey from wintering grounds in West Africa to breeding grounds in Europe.

No other European country allows spring hunting of turtle doves. Continue reading

Pet trade spurs poaching of African grey parrot

By Tracy Brighten

Our fascination with intelligent parrots has a catastrophic impact on wild populations

African grey parrot head    

When we’re looking for an animal to keep as a pet, we think about food, exercise and affordability. But how much thought do we give to where the animal comes from? When we buy exotic birds through online ads or breeders, we may unknowingly support the plunder of wild species. The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is one such species. Continue reading

Blind love for cats is killing our songbirds

By Tracy Brighten

As cat ownership soars, we need a radical change in attitude to save mammals and songbirds from cats’ claws

Cat whiskers

Despite evidence from camera traps and Cat Tracker devices showing predatory behaviour, cat owners tend to describe their pets as too slow or too gentle to harm wildlife.

But Kitty is equally at home stalking wildlife as she is sleeping on our lap.

As human populations and domestic cat ownership explode, especially in urban areas, more small mammals and birds fall prey. When breeding can’t keep pace with predation, species numbers decline. Well-fed domestic cats might even be compared to trophy hunters in the sense they aren’t hunting for food. Continue reading

Catios and collars cool for cats and wildlife

By Tracy Brighten

Cat predation is wreaking havoc on wildlife, but an open-air safe haven for domestic cats and a collar that warns birds could be the purr-fect solution

Cat wearing Birdsbesafe collar

I’ve written in the past about the threat to wildlife from domestic cats and owners’ reluctance to accept their cat might be involved. While exact prey numbers are difficult to determine, camera traps show that small mammal and bird populations are threatened in areas with high-density cat populations.  Continue reading

Sylvia spreads the word on birds

By Tracy Brighten

A profile of volunteer Sylvia Durrant who has been caring for sick and injured birds on Auckland’s North Shore for over twenty years

Sylvia Durrant

Sylvia Durrant found her calling when she replied to an advert for an SPCA bird rescue volunteer. Sylvia’s previous career as a nurse had prepared her for this life-saving work with birds and educating the community. She is an inspiration, as I found out when I had the pleasure of meeting her. Continue reading

Should we care about future generations?

Future generations

The agreement by 195 countries at the Paris Climate Change Conference is a landmark consensus that climate change is a global problem requiring global commitment. Some people believe spiralling populations and associated development in India and China is the biggest issue. Others believe greenhouse gas emission control will be ineffective with the growing trend of factory farming. Not only do farm animals produce methane, but forests are felled to plant crops for animal feed.

Another question often asked when considering climate change and the depletion of non-renewable resources is why should we care about future generations? Don’t we just live the life we want and leave future generations to deal with the fallout?    Continue reading

Let’s put the pure back in New Zealand

New Zealand owl

Imagine British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been invited to give a speech at a university conference on sustainability. Imagine her topic was the discrepancy between the clean, green image created by the ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ campaign and the environmental reality. Imagine she wanted to inform the audience of this discrepancy; to persuade them it is economically damaging as well as morally unacceptable; and to motivate them to take action. As a scientist and politician, she knew the importance of commerce, government and environmental groups working together, and as an effective public speaker, she knew the power of words. Imagine this was her speech. Continue reading

Free Range to End of Range

By Tracy Brighten

A poem in the style of restaurant discourse to highlight the plight of New Zealand’s native birds

Tui in Kowhai tree

Although native birds are no longer (officially) eaten in New Zealand, I appeal to the reader’s sense of taste, while simultaneously stirring repulsion of how wild birds are killed.

Native birds are facing increasing threats from non-native predators such as possums, rats, stoats, cats and dogs, and also from human behaviour such as irresponsible pet ownership, beach and car use, hunting, longline fishing, overfishing and oil spills.   Continue reading

Joy in fostering an African elephant orphan

I’ve never seen an elephant in the wild, yet these majestic, intelligent, social mammals stir strong emotion. Fostering an orphan is a way of helping 

elephant orphans sharing water

I’ve long known the African elephant is endangered. But until I started writing about wildlife conservation and animal welfare, I wasn’t aware of the complexity of their survival problem. Continue reading

Taiji fishermen dump Risso’s dolphins at sea

By Tracy Brighten

Marine conservationists claim that dolphin hunters may be dumping slaughtered calves and juveniles at sea to avoid quota counts

Risso's dolphin on rocks

Young Risso’s dolphin washed up on rocks in Taiji

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Cove Guardians are on the ground in Taiji, documenting the dolphin hunt season from September through March. Operation Henkaku is reporting the drive hunts to the world through live stream, press releases and social media.

This season, Cove Guardians have documented small boats covered by tarpaulin leaving Taiji cove after the slaughter of Risso’s dolphin pods. Continue reading

Chinese ‘ivory queen’ arrested in Tanzania for ivory trafficking

By Tracy Brighten

The alleged notorious leader of an ivory trafficking syndicate operating between East Africa and China has been arrested in Tanzania

Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) had been surveilling Yang Feng Glan for over a year, before arresting the 66-year-old for her 14 year involvement in ivory trafficking Continue reading

Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary to protect unique marine habitat

By Tracy Brighten

New Zealand initiative to protect a region of unique fauna diversity shows world leadership in sustainable marine environment management

white-capped albatross

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced the creation of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary that will protect a vast area of pristine ocean habitat covering 620,000 km² within New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Continue reading

Kiwi-killing dogs euthanised after rampage

By Tracy Brighten

New Zealand’s endangered national bird suffered another blow in Northland where dog owners thwart conservation efforts

Kiwis for kiwi

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) recovered eight kiwi killed in a conservation area in North Island’s Northland region over a ten week period from May to August. Post mortem examinations revealed they were mauled to death by dogs. Continue reading

Operation Henkaku exposes Japan’s dolphin slave trade

By Tracy Brighten

Hunters chase profit as they drive bottlenose pod into Taiji Cove; dolphins sold from this single dolphin hunt could bag over US$7 million

Taiji dolphins trapped 

Each year from September through March, hundreds of dolphins are caught in one small cove along Japan’s Pacific coast and either traded as a live commodity, or slaughtered and sold as meat. Continue reading

Interpol listed ship escapes Thailand with 182 tons toothfish

By Tracy Brighten

The poaching vessel Taishan, detained in Phuket since March, has fled the port with its illegal Patagonia toothfish, or ‘Chilean sea bass’, cargo.


The Thai Royal Navy (TRN) has launched an air and sea search for the illegal fishing vessel Taishan, or Kunlun as it was formerly known, reports AEC News Today. The search involves TRN aircraft and patrol boats, as well as the Department of Fisheries and the Thai police marine division.

Following a joint investigation between Interpol, Sea Shepherd and authorities in Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, the ship has been detained in Phuket since March when the crew attempted to offload 182 tons of illegally caught Patagonian toothfish as grouper fish. Continue reading

Blue whale drags fishing line from Los Angeles to Mexico

By Tracy Brighten

The blue whale entangled in fishing line off the Californian coast has moved south towards Mexican waters and could die if not found

Blue_whale_tail by Michael Baird

On Friday, whale response teams attached a buoy to the whale, found between Santa Catalina Island and the coast, to make it more visible before high seas thwarted rescue efforts, reported the Guardian.

Federal government officials assisted by boats, aeroplanes and helicopters searched the West coast on Saturday and Sunday, but were unable to locate the whale. Continue reading

Cull of 2 million feral cats by 2020 to save native animals

By Tracy Brighten

Australia has pledged to tackle the soaring feral cat population that threatens more native animals with extinction 

Numbat by Martin Pot

Australian numbat

With 1800 nationally listed threatened species, the Australian Government has set targets for conserving 30 priority plant species, 20 mammals and 20 birds.

“That means humane culling of one of our wildlife’s worst enemies – feral cats,” said Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt in a statement. Continue reading

Could a legal ivory trade save the African elephant from extinction?

By Tracy Brighten

Legal trade of “conservation ivory” could end black market trade in “blood ivory”, but opponents say stigmatisation and a trade ban is the only solution

Carved elephants by William Warby

African elephants are in crisis, threatened by extinction like the woolly mammoth wiped out by man in the Arctic. Farmers attack when they roam on land that was once elephant habitat; zoos remove them to an unnatural life as exhibits; and trophy hunters take pride in slaying this ‘big five’ giant.

But most of all, elephants are at risk from poachers who hack off their face for tusks. Continue reading

Spotlight on trophy hunting puts poaching in shadows

By Tracy Brighten

Lions may be king, but let’s not forget the elephants with five dead from poaching in Kenya last week. 

Elephant family in Kenya by Benh Lieu Song

The American dentist who lured Cecil from the protection of a national park in Zimbabwe, is reported to have asked for a massive elephant after shooting the GPS-collared lion. Fortunately, the professional hunter who arranged Walter Palmer’s trophy hunt, wasn’t able to find one large enough, so the dentist promptly left Zimbabwe.

While trophy hunting is an abhorrent sport, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that poaching is a much greater problem, and that elephants rather than lions are in the firing line. Continue reading

Trophy hunting: ‘A way of honouring that animal for all time’

By Tracy Brighten

Big game hunters have a perspective on wildlife slaughter that is difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend.

Louis the lion med by Tambako“Of course, it is a personal achievement to harvest any big-game animal with a bow and arrow,” said Glen Hisley of the Pope and Young bow hunting organisation in The Telegraph. “It is a way of honouring that animal for all time.”

This is an interesting perspective and one reserved for the animal kingdom. After all, the desire to honour a person by murdering them, posing beside the body, and keeping the head as a trophy would surely be considered psychopathic. And deriving pleasure just makes matters worse.

If it’s the chase and the thrill of danger that drove Palmer, then killing might have been replaced by capturing living images of “the magnificent, mature lion,” described by his accomplice. But there isn’t the same sense of mastery that must come with a deadly weapon. Continue reading

Faroe Islands pilot whale massacre ‘a natural way of life’

By Tracy Brighten      Contains graphic images

Anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd estimates 250 pilot whales were killed last week. Is it time tradition was buried with whale bones littering the seabed?

Pilot whale slaughter 2 by Sea Shepherd Peter Hammarstedt

Sea Shepherd protestors have been arrested trying to stop the pilot whale hunts in the Faroe Islands, but video footage and photographs by other group members captured the horrors of the mass slaughter.

The whale hunt known as the grindadráp, or “grind”, is a centuries old tradition with recorded history dating back to 1584, according to whaling proponents The whale meat and blubber once provided an important food source for the Faroese people, and whale oil was used for cooking and export. Continue reading

Kiwi genome reveals nocturnal bird’s colour blindness

By Tracy Brighten

The genetic blueprint for New Zealand’s national bird reveals the kiwi’s adaptation to a nocturnal, ground-dwelling lifestyle around 35 million years ago has meant poorer eyesight, but superior smelling powers

TeTuatahianui North Island brown kiwi

Published online in Genome Biology, the study by researchers in Germany identified genetic mutations that have deactivated genes related to colour vision, as well as other mutations that have enhanced the kiwi’s sense of smell compared to other birds.

The kiwi is an evolutionary phenomenon, and an endemic species to New Zealand, a land that was geographically isolated after its separation from Godwana 80 million years ago. This isolation makes New Zealand ideal for studying evolutionary processes. Continue reading

Sirocco kakapo’s stardom helps save his species

By Tracy Brighten

Stephen Fry and social media launched this rare parrot to stardom, and now this tech-savvy kakapo is putting fame to good use

Sirocco by Chris Birmingham (DoC)

Back in 2009, Stephen Fry visited New Zealand’s Codfish Island with zoologist Mark Carwardine to film BBC2’s Last Chance to See, a documentary about animals on the edge of extinction.

Now, with almost 6.5 million views of ‘Shagged by a rare parrot’ on YouTube, their encounter with Sirocco, the flightless parrot, has achieved phenomenal worldwide coverage. Not bad for a species that previously wasn’t well-known even in New Zealand, despite its international critically endangered status.

Today, Sirocco features on the NZ Department of Conservation blog, he has his own Facebook page with 155,000 likes and a Twitter account, as you might expect of a bird. Continue reading

Owners in denial over cat predation on wildlife

By Tracy Brighten

Research suggests owners are reluctant to accept the cat predation risk to wildlife and a cat welfare approach may be needed 

Wildlife killer cat

Domestic cats have been introduced by humans across the world and growing cat populations are placing local wildlife under greater pressure. Cat predation compounds the survival problem by adding to habitat loss and food scarcity for some species.

Free-roaming cats on islands have contributed to the extinction of native bird, mammal, and reptile species unable to fend off this introduced predator. In mainland environments, cats are impacting local bird and mammal populations, with large numbers killed each year. Continue reading