Photography is transforming British birdwatching

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This article was first published in British Birds on 15 August 2017

One Sunday last July I strolled down to the hide at RSPB Otmoor, one of my local birding patches in Oxfordshire. Five years ago I might have entered an empty hide. Not anymore. The place was packed with bird photographers, happily chatting as they waited patiently for the shot.

Photo-birders at Otmoor, Oxfordshire, August 2016. Paul Jepson

The make-up of British birdwatching is undergoing a transformation. Scope-carrying birders have been joined by big-lens bird photographers. Over the last three years I have been engaging bird photographers in conversations to learn more about their motivations and birdwatching practices. These conversations have helped me to position my ‘birder’ mode of birdwatching and caused me to reflect on the history and future of birdwatching as a hobby and vocation.

Birding is a mode of birdwatching characterised by a focus on bird finding, rarities and listing. It emerged during the 1960s and 1970s from interactions between trends in ornithology and wider society. The rise of field ornithology in the 1950s led to the establishment of a network of bird observatories and recorders and the idea that birdwatching could contribute to the study of bird migration and population trends. This was an era when teenagers had time to fill and purposeful hobbies were encouraged. There was a good chance that a teenager showing an interest in birds would be gifted an affordable pair of Zeiss binoculars (from the DDR) along with a field guide and told to get out of the house! Roaming around searching for the species in the books and ticking them off was the obvious thing to do. It developed bird-finding skills, a sense of avian scarcity and a desire to visit destinations where new species could be added to one’s list.

At the same time, broadcasters were increasing the amount of nature programming and aligning it with aspirational lifestyles and exotic travel in a bid to encourage people to switch from black-and-white to colour TV. All this went hand in hand with the optimism of the 1960s counter-culture (and later punk) and the appearance of a better-educated, more confident youth with an interest in freedom, justice, personal fulfilment and a willingness to embrace unconventional lifestyles.

As a cultural force, birding was at its peak in the 1970s and 80s. An eclectic mix of birders from around the country convened at ‘meccas’ such as Cley and Scilly, where they discussed reputations, shared stories, planned trips and developed a sense of fraternity and common purpose, all given identity with an ‘insider’ birder jargon. Birders created the bird-tour industry, founded bird information services and magazines, played a key role in the development of international bird conservation and introduced the term ‘twitcher’ into popular culture.

Photo-birders at Otmoor, Oxfordshire, August 2016. Paul Jepson


Over the decades the practices, discourses and norms of birding – and by extension birdwatching – have become more formalised. We observe birds at distance and have collectively agreed to put bird welfare first and suppress conversations about rare breeding birds. Birders travel to see birds reported by bird information services, keep to designated trails and respect landowner wishes. Our birdwatching media publishes material on a relatively narrow set of topics (sightings, identification, birding sites, population trends and conservation status) and carries editorials framed by the views and agendas of establishment figures and conservation organisations.

Birding had youthful origins but it has become institutionalised and settled. The language of dipping, gripping, stringers, cripplers, value and phasing is fading. The birder start-ups of the 1980s – the information services, bird-tour companies, clubs (e.g. OBC, ABC and NBC) and conservation programmes – are ageing.

Mingling with, and now sometimes outnumbering, birders is a new type of birdwatcher – the bird photographer. Bird photographers have been around since the days of Cherry Kearton (1871–1940) and Eric Hosking (1909–1991) but birds are tricky subjects to photograph and the cost of equipment, film and processing traditionally limited the numbers of bird photographers. All this changed with the rise of digital photography. Film became obsolete, the shift from mechanised to electronic camera bodies enabled an array of new models with advanced capabilities, and the internet and social media made it easy to curate, publish, share and discuss photos. Once the initial outlay has been made on equipment, bird photographers can shoot away to their hearts content at little cost. As a result, their chances of getting a satisfying shot have increased massively, and with this comes the possibility of learning the craft of bird photography and finding a rewarding and engaging hobby. In short, birds can be photographed with an ease that was unimaginable little more than a decade ago.

In my efforts to understand the practices and motivations of bird photographers, I found that two questions opened up insightful conservations. These were ‘What do you do with the photos you take?’ and ‘Were you a birdwatcher or photographer first?’

Responses to these questions revealed five common modes of bird photography. The first two are extensions of birding, which I call photo-identification and photo-listing. Birders are increasingly carrying cameras to capture photos as an aid to identification, especially of groups which are difficult to identify, and as a means of verifying a rarity find should they be lucky enough to come across one. Some photo-listers are twitchers who are starting over again, others are new to birdwatching and have embraced the practice of listing because it offers a focus and purpose for their photography.

A third mode of bird photography is akin to butterfly- or egg-collecting. I’ve met many photo-collectors who are working to complete quality collections of the different plumages of each British species or of their favourite groups.

The fourth mode is amateur photography with birds as subject. This practice is all about composition, pose and lighting and any bird will do, although some species are clearly more photogenic than others – the Robin Erithacus rubecula and Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, for example. A fifth mode, which may be a subset of the above, is photo-trophy hunting, which is motivated by the desire to capture a classic shot of an iconic species, for example a diving Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis or lekking Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix. I have also met bird photographers who do nothing with their photos and told me that they buy a new memory card when one is full. These are photo-hunters.

Bird photography appears to be giving new expression to older ways of engaging with birds, in particular bird trapping (many bird photographers bait an area or perch), bird hunting and egg-collecting. These were all popular forms of purposeful birdwatching with rich knowledge practices that faded away during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as wild bird populations declined and British society came to view the persecution of wild birds as unacceptable. Digital photography captures, shoots and collects birds but transforms them into data rather than a corpse (or an eggshell). Therefore, it is reinstating these practices alongside the practices of observation that were at the heart of twentieth-century birdwatching.

Photo-birders on the Farne Islands, Northumberland, May 2013. Paul Jepson

The more I talk with bird photographers, the more I come to realise the depth and richness of engagement with birds that a digital ‘upgrade’ of these older practices brings. As a young birder I was taught to observe a new or unfamiliar bird carefully, to note and sketch its identification features, write up my notes and dutifully submit records to the county recorder. I was taught about birding sites and etiquette, a little on how to read the weather and something about how to ‘work’ a landscape to find birds. Birding has massively enriched my life, but as a pastime I have found it lacking in three respects: it doesn’t promote prolonged engagement with an individual bird; a birding excursion generates few follow-up evening activities; and it provides few entry points to my wider interests in society, the arts, and politics.

Bird photography in its various guises seems to offer a more prolonged, expansive and perhaps sociable form of birdwatching. Some bird photographers told me how they engage with an individual bird for extended periods of time in an effort to learn its movements and foraging patterns and predict where it might appear in shot of their heavy tripods and cameras. Others talked more about the digital image and the pleasure they found after the event editing the image and/or sharing and discussing it on Facebook or Flickr, seeing it published on a birding blog or building those photo collections.

Importantly, the bird photo communicates something meaningful about our birdwatching hobby to others. Tell a friend the names of good birds seen over a weekend and their eyes will probably glaze over; show them photos and there is more likely to be interest, comments of admiration and even the occasional ‘cool’ comment. In our increasingly visual culture, those who add nature photos to the mix are appreciated.

Bird photography also seems to promote sociality among birdwatchers. In the days before bird alert services, birders had to network hard to get the gen. The ‘owt about?’ greeting prompted conversations and the grapevine helped forge friendships. The advent of pagers, apps and texts has undermined the need for birder-to-birder communication and British reticence has reasserted its deadening presence. I am beginning to wonder whether the big lens fulfils a similar role to a dog in that it advertises common interests and experiences and offers something for strangers to chat about without the need to get too personal. In addition, the common practice of sharing bird photos via Facebook or on birding blogs (where they are credited) means that many bird photographers meeting for the first time will have pre-introduced themselves.

For me, the rise of bird photography and the sight of so many new people out birdwatching is heartening. I believe that bird photography has widespread appeal as a hobby and I predict that many more people will take up the pastime and new bird-related knowledge practices will emerge along with new enterprises. Given this, the birding community will need to adapt to a future where their way of birdwatching may be one of many. And the managers of nature reserves and other natural areas will need to rethink visitor strategies to accommodate this new mode of birdwatching.

In my experience, birders and bird photographers are generally getting along just fine. Some birders grumble that photographers flush and disturb birds and don’t abide by their etiquette when larger groups assemble for a rarity or spectacle. However, on the whole each is enriching the other. Many birders are also photographers and birders offer bird photographers information and outlets for publishing photos. Photographers contribute photos to these outlets and always seem to have a fully framed shot to share of a bird that a birder has struggled to see well.

In my view, the problem and opportunity lies with our birdwatching infrastructure, which has been built up over the decades to serve birders – observation via binoculars and telescopes. Bird photographers operate with different equipment and have different objectives. They want to get closer to birds and get shots at lower or different angles than is possible from a conventional bird hide or trail. They are less concerned with scanning and picking birds up and more concerned with the bird subject and its setting.

The changing make-up and identity of British birdwatching suggests a need for new thinking and investment in visitor facilities, and not just hides and trails. Bird photography is part of the socio-technological assembly that is shaping futures. If birdwatching is to be a cultural force in the twenty-first century, our bird reserves will need to embrace developments and directions in digital technologies.

The rift between Spurn birders and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust prompted me to think about how trends in birdwatching, technology and society might be combined to modernise birdwatching along with visitor engagement and financing. In brief, the YWT lost a focused point of visitor engagement and an important income stream when a 2013 tidal surge broke the road down to the Spurn peninsula. It is constructing a new visitor and training centre, part-funded by the Humber Gateway offshore windfarm, as a means to engage visitors with the Spurn environment and generate income for the Trust from new members, car parking, a café, Unimog safaris and events. Nature tourism may also stimulate the local economy. Local birders object that the centre will destroy a location important to their engagement with this iconic birding landscape and residents worry about the increased traffic.

My thought experiment imagines a system of pay-for nature hides with an observation tower, like the one in Muritz National Park outside Berlin, as its centre piece. Birding has a strong ‘nature as a public good’ mentality. While many bird photographers agree with this principle, they are also willing to pay for entry to the facilities and special places that enable them to get the shot they desire. Nature hides are popping up across Britain and 2017 hide day rates are £75 for the opportunity to photograph Common Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, £99 for Kingfishers and £150 for Black Grouse.

The Kilnsea/Spurn landscape has outstanding bird photography assets in the form of its wader roosts and migrant and passage birds. Photographers are likely to pay good money to get close to Spurn’s bird spectacles and specialities. The Unimog could be used for photo-safaris and the community’s growing population of retired birders could supplement their pensions with photo-bird guiding. The observation tower would provide a panoramic view of the dynamic Spurn peninsula and a world-leading viz-mig facility. It could carry communication and wifi masts opening opportunities for Spurn to become an innovator in technology-empowered nature interpretation and a mecca for new nature-based enterprises. Visitors would pay (and probably queue) to climb the tower and revel in the photos they can capture and share with their smartphones.

Bird photography represents more than a new investment case and income stream for our cash-strapped reserves: it offers the opportunity for birdwatching to forge a new identity and shape new visions for bird conservation, public engagement and nature-based economies.

If we are bold and open to change, the future of British birdwatching is bright.

Paul JepsonPhotography is transforming British birdwatching
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Back from the brink, but what next for Lear’s macaw?

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In December 1978 the famous Brazilian ornithologist Helmut Sick made one of the ornithological discoveries of the 20th century. He located a breeding population of the fabulous Lear’s macaw   – a species that had been known in collections for 150 years but whose whereabouts in the wild was a mystery.

Lear’s macaw is one of four blue macaws and a smaller and slightly darker version of the better-known Hyacinth macaw. Forty years ago conservationists feared this group of huge and impressive parrots was heading for extinction due to a combination of trapping for the pet trade and habitat loss. The situation looked desperate: the Glucose macaw was already extinct (last seem 1951), the localised Spix macaw was on the verge of extinction in the wild and thousands of Hyacinth macaws were being trapped each year. A survey following the discovery estimated there were just 60 Lear’s macaws left in the wild: today there are well over one thousand.

In search of the Lear’s macaw Helmut Sick – or Sicki as he was known –made three expeditions into the vast, dry, hot and thorny caatinga biome of NE Brazil. A tip-off from a parrot trader promoted his 1978 adventure and he journeyed into the interior with a developing double hernia, ruined his Toyota land cruiser and continued on on a saddle-less horse holding his hernia in one hand and a weapon in the other!

In December we travelled to see the Lear’s macaw. Our journey involved an 8hr drive in an air-conditioned Chevrolet along a smooth new highway to the town of Canudos. Our biggest frustration was trying to get a 3G connection and then Google maps taking us on an unnecessarily long diversion. This was a trip to think about what conservation success means in our rapidly changing world.

At 4pm the following morning we were picked up from the Fundacio Biodiversitas lodge in a Toyota so ancient we joked it was Sicki’s original. For twenty minutes our guide drove it at pace along a sand track winding through parched thorn bush. As we sat waiting for the dawn and the first Lear’s flew screeching and silhouetted overhead, he told us that it was his father who had guided Sicki to his macaw discovery.

The dawn revealed a truly spectacular bird inhabiting and equally spectacular landform of canyons and sandstone cliffs. We were blown away and wandered the cliff tops watching macaws congregate before flying out to feed, and pairs flying noisily around the canyons below us – their colour and form at its most exquisite against the brick red of the sandstone cliffs.

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

Lear’s macaw pair for life and many are together for several years before breeding. They lay three eggs but it is rare that all three chicks survive. These two characteristics indicate a bird evolved for a harsh environment with occasional years of plenty.

After a couple of hours our guide led us to a narrower part of the canyon where the macaws breed in holes that pit the canyon walls. As we sat watching pairs waddle in and out of their nest holes and tried in vain to get an in-focus flight shot, our guide explained the trapper’s technique. A rope would be strung along the canyon walls between two metal rings 15 meters apart. From this they hung an 8 metre bird net and, like a curtain, pulled it across the holes once the macaws had entered to sleep. When the macaws flew out of their holes in the morning they became tangled in the net and were hauled up.

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

Comming to the macaw’s rescue

The most recent (2014) census estimated a population of 1200 macaw and in 2009 the species was down-listed from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’. This remarkable turnaround was achieved by a partnership between aviculturists, conservation biologists and the Brazilian authorities that successfully eliminated trapping. An American parrot lover and philanthropist bought the canyons and set up a local foundation to conserve the site in the long run. The Wildlife Conservation Society infiltrated the trade networks and the Brazilian authorities employed two local farmers as guards and took a hard line with trappers and in their dealings with wealthy parrot owners in SE Brazil. Later they established a Lear’s Macaw conservation programme in a second breeding and roosting area adjacent to the Raso da Catarina Ecological Station.

Judith Hart, the American parrot lover, also financed the first biological studies of the macaw population. This research raised fears that the population was short of its main food: the nut of the licuri palm. Studies showed that palms were not regenerating – in the macaw’s feeding areas the majority were 30 years or more old and producing few nuts. The problem was fire used to clear caatinga and cattle and goat grazing that followed.

In response the World Parrot Trust initiated a “palm for a parrot’ appeal and Charles Munn from the Wildlife Conservation Society located ranchers who were willing to allow the creation of palm plantations on their land. By chance, in our party was the person who, as a young volunteer, had cultivated the palm seedlings in in his nursery 700km to the south. Nineteen years later Danilo Limo had returned to check on the palms and show his son the macaws. With some frustration he showed us photos of palms he’d cultivated that were dead or dying due to goat grazing. The fence protecting them had fallen into disrepair – in his view just two years before the palms would have outgrown the reach of hungry goats. This was a case of great conservation intentions not seen through because people and finance move on.

Licuri palms damaged by goat grazing. Photo Danilo Lima

Licuri palms damaged by goat grazing. Photo Danilo Lima

A story of success but what of the future?

Back at the lodge we perused the visitor book whilst tucking into a superb breakfast. The lodge opened in 2009 and the book contained just 938 names of which 192 were from 2016. Having just enjoyed a world-class wildlife experience and nature photographers dream we wondered how it could be that the Lear’s spectacle attracted so few visitors.

We found an answer in a 1995 article by Munn. Charles Munn is an entrepreneurial conservation biologist who in 1994 had made famous the scarlet macaw clay licks in Peru’s Manus reserve in a National Geographic cover story. He was a macaw populariser who had clearly fancied the idea of applying tree-climbing skills learnt in Peru to the study of cliff nesting Lear macaws. However, Hart refused him permission to conduct research on her foundation’s land on the basis that the breeding population was too small to risk any form of disturbance. She may also have feared the publicity that Munn’s involvement would generate. Her view was that secrecy is the best protector of an endangered species’. In scientific meetings of the time maps were withheld and misleading information circulated on location of the surviving Lear population. Munn moved on, no one was encouraged to visit and the macaw population recovered.

Looking back the Lear’s macaw is clearly a great conservation success story but will it remain so forty years hence? In an era of accelerating social, technological and environmental change restoring the population of an endangered species is a case of transiting the population into another world.

In the early 1980s, Canudos was a desperately poor bush town and a conservation approach involving a mix of secrecy and strict enforcement was right for the times. Today, Canudos in on the up: it is served by a new highway and has a smart town square with wifi- equipped cafes. The nearby Cocorobó Dam supports a modest area of irrigated farming but the region and the Lear’s macaw needs an alternative to the subsistence farming which damages the environment and contributes little to the economy.

The Lear’s macaw population now has the size and resilience where it can be viewed as an asset for regional development. Nature photography is taking off as an aspirational middle class pass-time and the Lear’s macaw canyons are eminently marketable. Added to this Canudos is famous as the site of the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history, where the mystic spiritual preacher Antônio Conselheiro and his 30,000 follows were massacred in 1897.

The combination of a major natural and a historical asset together with the arrival of modern road and communication infrastructure suggests that Canudos could be an exciting prospect for tourism investors. A conservation investment approach where struggling farms in favoured macaw feeding areas are acquired and converted to eco-lodges and ecological restoration areas could be the way to turn a conservation success into a conservation change story.

This research was funded by a Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development CNPq-PVE Grant (No: 400325/2014-4) and CNPq- Universal grant (No: 448966/2014-0).

Danilo Limo and his son, Paul Jepson and Richard Ladle

Our guide, Danilo Limo,  Paul Jepson and Richard Ladle

Paul JepsonBack from the brink, but what next for Lear’s macaw?
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Wild meat: rewilding and hunting

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This article was published in Geographical Magazine on 15 June 2017
The idea of rewilding boar into the UK’s landscapes is gaining plenty of traction, but if we truly want them back we’ll need to consider hunting them as well.


Cycling through the Forest of Dean, my daughter and I encountered a sign instructing us not to enter a picnic area. The sign was superfluous as rooting by wild boar had made the picnic area un-rideable. For supporters of rewilding though, the reappearance of wild boar in the forest of Dean might seem welcome news. Boar are classic ‘ecosystem engineers’ – their rooting and wallowing behaviours create disturbance dynamics that favour some species and impact others. The restoration of ecological processes is at the heart of rewilding visions.

However, boar have another identity: that of a fecund rogue. Boar are adaptable and powerful and capable of causing serious damage to crops, gardens, sports fields and other wildlife populations such as reptiles and ground-nesting birds. Those in the Forest of Dean were not introduced for rewilding purposes: they were illegally released from a boar farm.

Boar breed like rabbits and across their native and introduced range governments have contended with periodic boar ‘plagues’ that wreak havoc. A recent study found that a 1988 boar ‘infestation’ in the German Democratic Republic was the outcome of interactions between agriculture, forestry and conservation policies.

The Forest of Dean’s boar population is increasing rapidly – from an estimated 100 animals in 2008 to 1,500 last year – and conditions look conducive for a boar population explosion. The government’s 2008 Wild Boar Action Plan (PDF, 912k) classes the species as feral, meaning that local communities and landowners, such as the Forestry Commission, have primary responsibility for wild boar management.

The Forestry Commission is culling increasingly large numbers of boar (38 in 2008 rising to 543 last year), but the effectiveness of the cull is constrained by the difficulty of estimating boar populations and balancing conflicting pressures. A local pressure group, Friends of the Boar, wants them protected while others want them heavily controlled. Added to this, as a public forest the commission must ensure that any form of shooting is conducted with public safety in mind. In short, current policy is reactive and uncoordinated.

Should boar numbers get out of hand and they start behaving badly, this ‘candidate for rewilding’ could damage the reputation of the UK’s incipient rewilding movement. The public would understandably be more fearful of other reintroductions such as beaver, lynx and wild cattle. A potential flagship for rewilding could transform into a liability.

Although rewilding has not been planned in the Forest of Dean, rewilding theory and practice offer ideas on how to approach the wild boar issue. A key goal of rewilding is the restoration of trophic cascades – relations between predators and prey – that promote self-sustaining and wildlife-rich ecosystems. The trouble with wild boar introductions in the UK is that the boar’s only remaining natural predator is an omnivorous primate that has changed its ways in the centuries since the boar went extinct. Restoring other boar predators – the lynx and wolf – is a while off and the predator ‘assemblage’ would be neither complete nor effective without us. Put another way if we want wild boars back, we must rewild our society and restore hunters within our communities.

I have never wanted to hunt, but the more I work through the practicalities of rewilding the more I am thinking that, in some places, hunting has to be part of the picture

If we are going to restore our large mammal assemblages in a wilder Britain we will need to fulfil the role of top-predator. It is time to start talking about what sort of predator we want to be.

Hunting represents one of Britain’s great social divides. Influential publics portray hunters as wealthy and privileged and argue that it is immoral to kill animals for fun and pleasure. Hunting publics retort that hunting is part of a traditional rural way of life, creating jobs and an impetus to manage wildlife and their habitats. They also feel that objectors don’t really understand what hunting involves.

Rewilding adopts a pragmatic approach to hunting. It views predation and death as a natural and necessary aspect of functioning ecosystems and recognises that rewilders and hunters have a number of interests in common Crucially, rewilding also views restored populations of larger animals as assets for nature, society and the economy.

Those against hunting generally consider culling a humane and therefore legitimate means to control wildlife populations. Culling is perceived as a clinical ‘scientific’ form of hunting, but it is also one that can be expensive and difficult to get right. Further, for wild boar culls to be effective, ‘sounder groups’ of sows and their piglets must be shot. Importantly, culling frames animals as a problem that we must pay to deal with and contributes little to rural economies.

Hunting can generate new nature-based economies and enhance rural living

The creation of local hunting associations would strengthen the social fabric of the area and provide of supply of wild meat, enriching local cuisine. ‘High end’ hunting such as trophy hunting or Gordon Ramsey-style gourmet hunting (hunt-butcher-cook) could support profitable local enterprises generating jobs and diversifying the local economy.

From a wildlife management perspective, the challenge of hunting lies with the hunters practice of selectively targeting mature animals, their desire to maintain and enhance game populations and their tendency to form powerful and sometimes self-interested lobbies.

The Dutch, who have a history of boar hunting and a three decade start in us when it comes to rewilding, are developing an interesting model for boar management. This is based on the principles of minimising the numbers of wild animals shot, increasing their ‘viewability’ and restoring natural processes. It is informed by the notion of ‘landscapes of fear’. This is an influential concept in rewilding based on evidence that prey species – boar, deer, wild cattle and the like – avoid areas with high predation risk thereby creating mosaics of different grazing, rooting and trampling pressure and landscapes that are ecologically more diverse and dynamic.

The Dutch idea is to zone and plan natural areas to ‘mimic’ landscapes of fear (and death). This involves: ‘zero-tolerance’ zones where boar hunting and culling is practiced to reduce damage to crops, gardens, vulnerable wildlife and the risk of road collisions; and refuge areas where boar (and deer) populations are left to their own devices, where investments are made in facilities for visitors to photograph and watch boar, and where scientists can study the impacts of boar and revisit assumptions on what constitutes ‘natural’ population numbers.

Intertwining and separating these zones are recreational areas where activities such as walking, cycling, and dog walking are concentrated and promoted. With hunters active in the wider area, boar are likely to shun these areas with the result that there will be less rooting up of picnic areas and the spring bluebell carpets that delight visitors.

Rewilding offers a body of theory, practice and visions that can inspire innovative thinking on rural futures. The case of wild boar and the Forest the Dean offers an opportunity for a wider public discussion on the relationship between hunting, society and rural futures.

Paul JepsonWild meat: rewilding and hunting
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Shooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025

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In 2012 I was invited by Cerry Levy to visit Malta with a group of artists seeking to offer new thinking on the campaign to stop springtime hunting on Matla.  Below is my contribution – an imaginary article in published in online newspaper in 2025. It offers a vision of a future Europe where opti-hunting is comming to replace hunting with a shotgun and hunters and birdwatchers and uniting around thier common interests in a bird-rich world.  

Culture/Gaming & Nature: 28 April 2025

Shooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025

Paul Jepson reports from Malta on the phenomena of opti-hunting due to debut on our screens this weekend.

Below us, Clayton Fenech, the new legend of Maltese bird hunting stalks the steep rocky fields of Datilet Qorrot.

A bird explodes into the air. Clayton reacts. A blurred quail image overlain with scoring grids and circles appears on my iPhone screen – hit accuracy ‘2.2’, hit difficulty category ‘1’ – a level 1.6. hit under today’s weather conditions.

Hardly a wining hit but the feeds are working perfectly calls top reality gaming producer Orsa Johnson from the Eurosport landcrusier.

I’m in Malta to report on the first live and interactive broadcast of a competitive optical bird hunt. Since the launch of the opti-Gun in 2018, ‘Obbying’ has become the world’s fastest growing real-game with an estimated 25 million participants in Europe alone.

Eurosport’s broadcast vision is elegant and compelling. “We integrate four visuals: HD landscape, hunter head-mounted video, the opti-Gun shot image and our new GIS data visualisation, explains Johnson.

Sat alongside Osa is Will Beebe of Digital Asset Management. “live optical bird hunts are a compelling blend of old-style wildlife programming, on-line gaming, and competitive field sports. Market research suggests major viewer interest, though we expect the real returns to come from the in-game spot betting industry”.

Clayton, accompanied by his pointer dogs, join us for a debrief. He looks pleased – three subsequent quail hits were all low level ‘1s’. It’s an opportunity for me to take a look at the prototype Leica-GO10b opti-Gun cradled casually in his arms. Clayton is enthusiastic “The focus-zoom-fire trigger is superfast, the app-phone dock beautifully positioned and the weight and balance is superb. This gun is a work of art

Back in the Maltese capital, I meet Alex Salavin, President of FNKN – The Maltese Hunter Federation and organisers of Saturday’s first competitive international migratory bird hunt. He talked of the confrontation which historically characterised the migration season. ‘They were dark times. Every migration northern birdwatchers came with their drones and binoculars, invading our privacy and publicising every minor illegality to pressure Brussels to force our government to ban our traditional sport”.

In the 1990s BirdLife International estimated that Mediterranean hunters were killing a staggering 500 million migratory birds a year. In the teen20s FNKN and Birdlife were locked in legal battles. For Alex the invention of opti-hunting was a ‘massive relief’. His hope is that tomorrow’s hunt will mark a point when hunters and birdwatchers can put the past behind then and unite around the shared goal of restoring Europe’s bird populations.

The origins if opti-hunting are easily traced to the great Eurozone crisis of 2008-2019. The hunter’s slogan ‘better a hobby than a [drug] habit” chimed with the EU life quality agenda that arose to curtail the excesses of market capitalism. Inspired by the ‘Smart, inclusive, sustainable’ mantra of the teen20’s, a collaboration involving Leica Camera, Samsung Electronics, the game developer Electronic Arts, and Oxford University formed to create the opti-Gun and the socially networked reality games and competitions it now supports.

At the newly opened Valletta i-huntscape, created in cavernous warehouse on Quarry Warfe, I run into game designer Charles Bridgeman. It’s strangely deserted. A day before the competition all the teams are practising in the field.

This is the future of gaming enthuses Charles as we enter a digitally rendered Maltese landscape projected onto a vast dome. A fusion of real and virtual life. Real opti-hunting hit data is streamed into this huntscape from the IOHA databases. The quality of these gaming environments and opt ihunting is expected to mature together. novice hunters can practice and veterans will be able to re-hunt famous past days. In these facilities opti-hunters will be able to go back in time!

The IOHA is opti-hunting’s international governing board. It sets the hit scores, rules where and when opti-Guns will function, curates the hit data, and provides a range of services including opti-hunting interfaces and leagues.

I ask Charles to explain the opti-hunting craze. “Easy” he replies. “men are men… we’re hard-wired to acquire skills and compete but we also seek purpose, escape and camaraderie. And engage in endless debate! You should see the forums… What constitutes a hit? The validity of species difficulty categories and who decides? Charles predicts that participation will accelerate further with the introduction latter this year of low cost opti–Guns that run on Dad’s old smartphone.

 Next morning, as dawn rises over scruffy terraced hillside of Mizieb, I find Clayton, his dad George, and hunt referee Gilmor Ellol preparing for their final practice. I invite George to compare hunting of old with today. “There’s no denying it felt more macho, the gun recoil, shot, smell of gun powder, but the beauty of opti-hunting is that a bird can be shot by multiple hunters so there are more shots to be had.

 The conversation turns to quailing – the chances of a big passage, the organisation of Saturday’s hunt and the quality of the international competition. The home advantage is considerable explains Gilmor “Local hunters have their focus-zoom-shoot skills honed to Malta’s local light conditions and their dogs know the terrain. However, while the Maltese may rack-up more higher scoring flushed hits, other competitors can pick up points on the easier fly by hits and Malta’s blue sky back drop definitely aids fast focusing”. Ellol’s message is that the Maltese must not be complacent. The English and French partridge opti-hunters are superb and quailing carries a big element of luck.

My last port of call is with Carl Buhagiar, Head of BirdLife Malta and veteran of the campaigns to ban migratory bird hunting on Malta. “Opti-hunting is definitely a win-win solution. The seamless shot location and data upload is revolutionising our ability to accurately map migration routes and model trends in bird populations. Carl is referring to Oxford’s ‘oBioscore’ APP that adds a ‘conservation information value’ (CIV) to each hit score. The eagerly awaited ‘oSafari’ APP, which will feed to the opti-Gun information on high conservation value target species in an area, as slated to reinvent hunting expeditions of old. It’s an open secret that the elite Przhevalsky & Zimov Club of Moscow is planning an invitee only opti-hunting expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan.

Opti-hunting seems set to become the first truly modern hobby – a compelling blend of the real and virtual, entertainment and exercise, new technology and old practices – that is simultaneously enriching lives and creating political pressure to restore ecosystems. Maybe opt i-hunting will show us a way to live well with our planet.

The 2025 Malta international bird hunt is live and interactive, SKY 1 Saturday, 29 April, 05.30 – 9. 30am, highlights Saturday 22.00.

Thanks for reading to the end.  I hope you enjoyed the ideas.   I have been using opti-hunting  as thought experiment in my teaching on biodiversity technologies to discuss the extent to which conservation is embracing technology to do what its always done, but with greater reach and lower cost (supersizing) or whether conservationists should engage with technology to reimagine solutions to old problems.

Friends, colleagues and students keep encourgeing me to take the opti-hunting idea forward and find the money to develop the idea.  I am planning to up-date my concept note this summer and would be glad to hear from anyone with constructive ideas and suggestions  .


Paul JepsonShooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025
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Living landscapes as new natural assets

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Good morning all, and thanks for the invitation to present today.

Gary asked me to present some thoughts on new paradigms for conservation. My aim is to do just this. I will argue that we need to seize the opportunity of Brexit to reframe how we think and talk about rural lands.

Brexit is a reality whether we like it or not. Brexit also means CAPexit. Keeping CAP can hardly constitute the withdrawal from the EU that the majority of farmers voted for.

Brexit and CAPexit, amount to what we in academia term “critical junctures” or periods of “institutional fluidity”. They represent opportunities to bring about fundamental shifts in the underlying logics of the structures that govern – that constrain or enable what we can and can’t do.

Periods of institutional fluidity are rare – the last really big one was WWII. Brexit is similarly big and we, as a conservation movement, must mobilise to seize the opportunity to shape and steer post-Breixt institutional institutions that will structure our ability to conserve, restore and revitalise living landscapes.

We are in good shape to so. This because we know what we want. It’s long been known that with biodiversity and wildlife of a landscape is detemriend by the interaction of three components – or dimensions”

Composition: the species (units) and habitats (assemblies of species),

Structure: connectivity and patterns in the landscape, and

Function: ecological processes and dyanmics.

We now have the theory evidence and practical/management models for these three components. The first- composition  -is where ecology was ‘at’ in the 1970 and this component shaped law and policy, and hence our conservation institutions.

The rise of GIS in the 1990s enabled science to tackle the structural component and this is reflected in the Lawton report and the principles underlying the Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape approach.

In the last twenty years advances in computation and modelling have enable scientists to get their heads round the functional component. Interacting with this rise of ‘functionalist’ perspectives in conservation science we have seem the emergence of rewilding as a new and vibrant conservation approach with pioneering projects and initiatives.

On one, level the goal is to now integrate these three components, and in particular our improved understanding of the importance of ecosystem processes and dynamics, into nature policy. Last year, Frans Schepers, from Rewilding Europe and I, made a first step in this direction at the EC policy level. The officials in the Nature and Biodiversity Units, understandably asked Rewilding Europe to first coordinate our ‘asks’ with the conservation lobby in Brussels.

This policy brief is the outcome of our ‘negotiations’ with the three big conservation lobby networks in Brussels and presents seven rewilding principles.

The process generated four insights, which I think are important in terms of looking ahead and which I’d like to share with you.

  • Existing legal frameworks are generally unsupportive of ecosystem function – key instruments such as favourable condition are compositionalist in nature and for good reason – they enable strong and defenable. It is hard to specify and defend process and dynamics in law!
  • Policy fear/institutional inertia – there’s a real worry that if we say we have a new way to do conservation the development and agricultural lobbies will turn it against us and argue that existing law should be relaxed.
  • No mandate to lobby for ecosystem process and rewilding – our lobbyist in Brussels say they can discuss rewilding but they have no mandate from their member organisations – people like you to actively lobby for functional approaches to be include in future policy mandates.
  • Conservation NGO business models- there seems to be a degree of lock-in to current stuctures and ways of doing things.

For me all of this adds up to aging environmental institutions. The question then becomes can we repurpose existing law and policy to create the living landscape we want in the mid-21st century or do we need to revist the underlying worldviews and logics on which they are built?

This is one of the first slides I show my MSc Biodiversity students. It is intended to position the contribution of academic ‘wing’ of conservation and to introduce where we will be taking them during the course.

The insights I have just shared arise from trying to learn in the double loop. The negotiating bottom line of the Brussels green lobby was;

“protect the gains of the past and kick on”

This makes absolute sense but it also risk double-loop lock-in

If we are to seize the opportunity of Brexit and leverage the institutional fluidity we have entered I believe we need to boldly go into the triple loop.

I my view, the fundamental problem lies with our cultural and policy framing of rural lands.

When we think and talk about policy it is always in terms of:

farmland:  fams:  farmers: agricultural subsidies

This is a WWII framing of necessity, which we haven’t up-dated since.

I suggest we need to ditch this framing in favour of one of

Land assets: rural enterprises, entrepreneurs and investment

I would like to see our movement uniting to lobby for a national land asset policy to replace CAP.

This would be based on the principle of public investment for public value generation.

The concept of natural asset is introduced in detail, and compared with natural capital, in Jepson et al, (in press) Protected Area Asset Stewardship, Biological Conservation

It would broadly divide land assets into agricultural assets and natural assets. Agricultural land assets would receive pubic money where they can show they are generating public value in terms of food security, the production of crops with a strategic or social need and maintaining landscapes character. We could retain a version of CAP for such assets, at least during a transition period.

Natural land assets would receive public money for generating forms of public value in the form of, for example out-door recreation, ecosystem services, flood management, a sense of heritage and identity. Public money would be invested in enterprise – either as a contract to provide publics services that markets struggle to deliver or as investments for new nature-based enterprise.

Landowners, would have the choice of how, and if they want to use and develop their land assets for generating value.

This, in my view, would promote innovation in land management. For instance, you have been looking at the rewilding model here at the Knepp estate. The owner, Charlie Burrell has no option but to innovate within the constraints of the agrciultural farm policy model.  This limits the sort of rewilding he can do and the value his efforts can generate for nature, people and the rural economy.

I do not think this idea of a National Land Asset Policy is fanciful and here are five reason why:

First, the UK government has consistently spoken against CAP and agricultural subsidies,

Second, it aligns with investment & enterprise policy narratives and the natural capital policy frame,

Third, I sense growing public awareness and disquiet at the social and environmental injustices in the agricultural subsidy regime.

Fourth, farmers know the quality of their work life is declining and they are looking for better alternatives,

Lastly, I can’t quite see how a public debate on how much to public money to spend on the NHS and farmers will wash politically.

Perhaps more importantly, framing land as a collective and individually-owend asset forces four fundamental questions:

  1. What forms of value are land assets currently generating and for whom?
  2. What forms of value could be generated from land assets and for whom?
  3. What forms of value are wanted, what are the trade-offs, and who decides?
  4. What forms of investments are needed to ensure that intended ‘publics’ can capture investment value?

Tackling such questions will introduce democratic debate and accountability into land policy.

I mentioned earlier that we – the conservation movement – have the models to demonstrate a new future for landscapes.

At Gelderse Poort in the Netherlands our Dutch colleagues have transformed agricultural assets along the River Waal into natural rewilding assets with amazing public value gains.

In brief, as you can see from this map the city of Nijmegen was on a nasty bend of the River Waal and massively vulnerable to flooding from higher peak flows resulting from climate change.

This project, designed and led by Wouter Helmer and the Ark Nature Foundation, involved buying agricultural land within the winter dykes and removing the summer dykes to widen the river corridor.

The old river meanders and profile have been restored through selling the silt to a brick factory which generated value for the Dutch constructing industry.

The new rivering lands we rewilded through the introduction of wilded pony and cattle heads, through the reintroduction of species such as beaver, white stork and even sturgeon. Sturgeon can you believe it! – the Dutch are so far ahead of us!

A whole load of spontaneous rewilding also took place. Black poplars once an endgared species in the Netherlands regenerated en mass and it was relased that their seeds need warm shallow summer water to germinate and this river habitat had all but disappeared in the Netherlands and indeed Europe. Another habitat that reappeared was river beaches and sand dunes.

Talk about reframing. Before I visited Gelderse poort I though sand dunes we confined to coasts!

The new natural assets of Gelderse Poort stimulated a range of value generating practice among the citizens of Nijmegan –  some old such as cycling and bird-watching others new such as beach picnicking, sun-bathing and nature-photography. In turn, these practices constitute a cultural assets which entrepreneurs can monetise through new local enterprises such as botuique cafes and hotel and a wild meat company.

Twenty years ago the land assets along the Waal generated about 20 farm jobs: as a rewilding asset they are generating perhaps four or five times as many jobs, but more importantly diverse form of public benefit value – from reduce flood defence costs, to enhanced liveability for citizens and the recovery of wildlife and ecosystem processes.

This is the sort of post-Brexit vision we as a movement could be advocating for Britain.

As a nation and culture we have change deep frames before. In the 18th century we made landscape cultural, in the 19th century we established extinction (avoiding the knowing extinction of other animals) as a moral steer for society, in the 20th century we established National Parks as part of the process of reimagining Britishness after empire.

If the conservation movement is to retain its position as a cultural force in the 2ist century we need to mobilise to bring about similar shifts in the underlying worldviews that shape and steer policy and cultural institutions.

Brexit is our opportunity to do just this. To retire the idea that agriculture is the primary public purpose of land and replace this with a worldview that frames land as collective and individual assets that should be invested in to restore value for all – society and nature alike.


Paul JepsonLiving landscapes as new natural assets
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David Novillo: conservation entrepreneur and innovator

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David Novillo opened his presentation to my Masters students with the words

“Do today what you want to happen tomorrow”

Using an engaging mix of stories, facts  and mine he went on to describe with humour, candour and humility his work to restore the marine ecosystems in the municipality of Adeje, Tenerife.  But David is more than a gifted communicator. I bring my students to meet him because the work of his innovative Océano Sostenible enterprise illustrates the cutting edge interdisciplinary conservation that I teach.

David is a diver with a conservation dream: an entrepreneur who has mobilized his available assets to bring about change from the ground up. These include his experience in the dive industry, an out-going ‘can-do’ personality and a local administration looking to upgrade its tourism offer and willing to listen.

He started with a plan to control the population of lime urchins which strip the rocky seabird of life supporting algae. His focus was the small cove of El Puertito he imagined a future where the turtles seahorses, octopuses and fish shoals would return where people would discover and come to care about the life of Tenerife’s ocean.

The small cove of El Puetito cove. Photos: Paul Jepson

Clearing the thousands of urchins requires many dives and diving is not cheap. David set up his foundation – Océano Sostenble – along side his dive company. Through the foundation he secured support from the municipality and local hotels to fund dive training on the condition that once trained the divers would ‘pay-back’ their training hours in volunteer hours to remove urchins. Through his company he marketed a ‘flyover’ (trail dive) experience where tourists could try out scuba diving and he and his team could monitor the urchin clean up and show them the recovering marine life.

Halfway through his presentation David he exclaimed “and the marine world says thanks so fast”, but then went on to explain how the return of turtles had proved a huge draw for other dive operators.   He flipped into figures – in 2014 an estimated 7,260 boats and 57,400 visitors entered the bay – but it was a free for all. The turtles suffered propeller damaged  and colesterol build up as a result of being fed fish by divers seeking a photo or boat operators trying to attract them to the surface. Five died and in 2017 the last surviving turtle was relocated from the bay on the instruction of the island conservation authority.

Jet ski safari. Following a boat means tourists can ride a jet ski without a licence.

David had foreseen the threat that popularity of sea-based tourism could pose to his restoration activities. Tenerife’s party capital Playa de la America is a few kilometers south of El Puertito and in Spain the coastal zone is public domain meaning that it is governed by the Directorate General of Coasts, Ministry of Environment in Madrid, 1750 km away.

David initially explored the possibility of acquiring a concession for his company or Oceano Sostenble so he could exclude other operators from the cove. He quickly realized that this was a no go. There is no precedent in Spain for granting marine concessions and anyway tourism concessions in Spain are normally only given to major enterprises.  He changed tack. Leveraging the profile and good will thathis schools education programme had brought him int he community, he approached the municipality and suggested that the town hall ask Madrid for a marine concession where the local government could regulate access to the cove and charge to finance the restoration, monitoring and management of the area.

In 2016 all David’s dreams and efforts were jeopardized by another threat to El Puertito. A Belgian developer put forward a proposal to build hotels and apartments in the valley running inland from the cove, and the Municipality felt that the development would help develop and secure the local economy.

After his presentation that year we stood together overlooking El Puertito and David described to me the deep love he’d developed for the El Putito and how the news had hit him hard. “the municipality promised me that the sea lab and our education work would be protected, but it knew it would be impossible to combine marine restoration with a big population living around this tiny bay.”

He  continued “They wanted my support, but I could not give it, I felt it was the end of my dream.” “After a couple of weeks I was invited up to the town hall to talk to them. I could see they felt bad, but I could also understand their perspective on why the municipality needed the development.   So I said why don’t we expand the project to La Caleta bay next door and the Mayor said ‘deal’!”

David walked be across the peninsular to described his new vision  It was then that I realized that he was a big-thinker with an intuitive grasp of how to get buyin for his ideas from different levels of government.

He estimates there are 3 million urchins to control in the bay, which is contiguous with the La Caleta Site of Scientific Interest, designated for its endemic flora and breeding Cory’s shearwater.

Informal beach settlement is a particular headache for the authorities.

“Every level of government can ‘win’ something from the La Caleta project. The ocean is a Natura 2000 site and under the competence of the Canary Island Government and the SSI is the responsibility of  the Cabildo (Tenerife government). If all levels of government come together we can create a reserve that connects the terrestrial, marine and coastal zones and work together to find solutions to management problems like the marine tourism and hippies who have settled the area.

As noted earlier, coastal zone planning and management is the responsibility of the Spanish state, but municipalities have legal responsibility for urban planning. David together with officials from the town hall and Javier Almunia of the Loro Parque Foundation conceived the idea of marine resource concession, whereby the Ministry would delegate their planning and management competencies to Municipality who would also have powers to regulate the area and charge use fees.

In January 2017 this team traveled to Madrid to pitch their proposal to the DG of Coasts.  They received a surprisingly positive response. The officials were already aware of their work because they had provided a grant for buoys to zone boat traffic in El Puertito a few years earlier and were looking for innovative models with the potential for wider application. Issuing a management concession was within their competence and did not need new legislation: what they needed was a worked up planning, management and financial proposal, which they could check for consistency with legislation.

David concluded his presentation with maps showing their survey transects and planned tourism use zoning. He is joining weekly technical meetings at the town hall to prepare the proposal concession.  If, as looks likely, it comes to fruition Adeje municipality will be leading one of the most exciting marine restoration projects in Europe – one that is restoring a natural asset that will generate value for local enterprises and the tourism economy and be self-financed by fees charged to tourism operators.

David is proud of what he has achieved so far, but sees himself as an ideas man. His dream is that the relevant government agencies will take forward the project and he and his team can focus on sharing their love of  marine environment with others and inspiring them to care.

Connect with David and Océano Sostenble on Facebook 

Paul JepsonDavid Novillo: conservation entrepreneur and innovator
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Rewilding: why now?

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On 19 April Rewilding Europe celebrated its 5th anniversary with a special gathering in Amsterdam called Wild Ways. The event included dialogue, a ‘rewilding’ market, previews of film projects, music by Lex Empress and two talks, one by Rewilding Europe MD Frans Schepers and one by myself. Here is the text of my talk. 

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here this evening.

I would like to offer some reflections on this question ‘Rewilding: why now?”  and from two perspectives.

Firstly, Why are we celebrating the 5th anniversary of Rewilding Europe on this April evening in 2017, why not 1997 or 2007 or 2037?  What forces have brought us together now?

Secondly, why does the 21st conservation movement need rewilding now?

Rewilding forces

For me four trends explain why rewilding is big now.

The first is the comeback of large animals in Europe which is an outcome of strong laws, conservation management and rural depopulation.  This has created the perception that even in densely populated Europe humans and large animals can get along.

The second are advances in ecological science and conservation that are unsettling some of the conceptual underpinnings of conservation policy

It has long been realised that the biodiversity of an area is the function of the interactions between composition, connectivity, and ecosystem processes or function.

But it is only in the last 10-15 years that advances in computing have enabled ecology to engage fully with the complexities of the later. For many ecologists, rewilding embodies advances in their science.

But rewilding ideas are also driving ecological science.

In particular, Frans Vera’s argument that that there is a forth European natural archetype  – one of grazers and grasslands -challenged ecologists to think about some of the fundamental assumptions underlying their science. Crucially, his theory of cyclic vegetation turn-over attracted the attention of paleo-ecologists.

Vera argues that European culture is based on 3 natural archetypes: high forest, the uplands and the pastoral. He argues there is a forgotten 4th – grasslands & graziers.

Now paleo-ecologists are a learned and authoritative bunch and they made two things clear: 1) there are multiple-past natural states, or natural baselines and 2) ecosystems are always in transition.

Along side these advances in ecology, conservation science has broadened beyond its natural science roots to embrace social and political science.

This new inter-disciplinary conservation science has adopted three important insights: 1) the natures (baselines) we choose to conserve are a cultural decision, 2) we have internalized ecological impoverishment in our culture, policy and institutions, 3) we can’t restore past natures, but we can take inspiration from the past to guide future natures.

Rewilding is big now because rewilding practice and advances in conservation theory are increasingly inter-twined.

However, both are ahead of nature policy

My third explanation for the rise of rewilding is that rewilding visions and practice seems to chime with trends in outdoor recreation. I´m sure we’ve all noticed the growing popularity of mountain biking, wild swimming`, hill running and the like ´- these all suggest a desire for more active and immersive engagements with nature ´ what George Mombiot termed ‘rewilding the self’.

My fourth reason for why rewilding is taking off now is the attitude of aspiring conservation professionals.

Ten years ago our MSc students told us they had little interest in learning about biodiversity loss and back-to-the-wall strategies to protect remnants of past natures. The education they wanted was one that empowered them to develop conceptually rigorous and innovative means to shape a better future for nature and for society.

This shift in aspiration is significant. Twenty years ago my student’s heroes were esteemed scientist such as E.O. Wilson and conservation biologist such as Russ Mittermeier. Eminent and charismatic scientists talking truth to power and framing the biodiversity agenda. Today their hero’s are local, entrepreneurial conservationists – people like the rewilding practitioners I’ve spent the last days with. People who through tenacity, persistence, ingenuity and vision can find ways to work with complexity and restore nature in ways that benefit culture and economy.

So why now?  In my view rewilding is gaining profile now because it is given form to wider currents in science and society.

Becoming more than a conservation zeitgeist

There is little doubt in my mind that rewilding is the conservation zeitgeist of the moment. But it is vital that rewilding become more than a fad or enthusiasm. I believe the conservation movement and Europe in the 21st century needs rewilding and here are my three reasons why.

First,  our European nature institutions are strong, powerful and have achieved much – but they are ageing. To keep relevant institutions must change, adapt and modernize. However institutions tend to be  path dependent and resistant to change.

Institutional theory suggest that one way to modernise institutions is to create ‘post-normal’ ways of doing things outside the institutions: new and innovative approaches that challenge and contrast current practice.

Rewilding is doing just this. It is creating a new body of conservation theory and practice that institutions can reject, appropriate,  adapt or adopt.  A challenge for rewilding will be to ensure that our work builds its trans-formative potential.

The second reason the conservation movement needs rewilding is because technology looks set to bring about major changes in society.

If you think the internet, smartphones and social media have had an impact, Kevin Kelly in his recent book The Inevitable argues that we haven’t see. anything yet. Multiple artificial intelligence are just kicking in and are likely to change everything. I agree with him, and would add that if conservation is to retain its position as a cultural forces in the 21st century we must engage with the information revolution.

The question is how.

Kelly poses these interesting questions which to me seem relevant to rewilding and conservation futures.

  1. In a future where everything is streamable, copyable, rentable and plentiful what will be valuable?

2. If, as seems likely, computation replaces 70% of today’s occupations by the end of the century.

“What will we all do? “ “What will be the purpose of humanity”

Kelly’s answer to the first question seems to chime with the new nature-based economy ethos of rewilding Europe. He argues that what will become valuable is experiences and in particular personalized, embodied experiences.  Rewilding projects across Europe are beginning to do just this – creating opportunities for people to have very special and tailored wildlife experiences.

Kelly doesn’t offer an answer to his second question but rewilding seems to be doing so.

Freed by automation we could invest our energy and capital in restoring the Earth’s natural systems – in making our planet more livable for all life. This would provide purpose and generate rewarding jobs and lifestyles.

My third reason relates to Brexit.

Every conservationist knows that we need environmental governance at a level above that of the nation state.

Brexit suggests that ordinary citizens are comming to perceive Europe as Brussels – faceless technocrats regulating for economic efficiency with little concern for what matters to them in their everyday lives.

The European project needs to communicate a new vision and I believe that nature and rewidling can play an important role in this.

Iconic landscapes and species have long been deployed as means to generate a sense of collective identity and territory that transcends political structures, class and ethnicity. Think of the role of the US national parks in constructing a sense of what it means to be American. Or the role of UK national park policy in re-imagining what it meant to be British after empire.

I believe the emerging network of European rewilding sites can play a similar role in constructing a new sense of Europeaness

This new map of Europe is fresh, compelling and exciting.

Rewilding is creating new places to know, discuss and visit. Places that generate a sense of hope, pride and maybe awe, places that create a sense of being European.



Investable Earth: an environmental narrative for the 21st century

So to conclude, and bringing these themes together I believe the conservation movement needs rewilding because we need a new overarching environmental narrative fit for the 21st century.

The 1970s narrative of a finite nature that we must protect from the humanity’s wounding ways is increasingly a turn off.  The 1990’s narrative of a natural capital and ecosystem appeals to politicians and policy makers but is divisive within our movement.

Rewilding is beginning to frame a new narrative – one of investing in the restoration of natural processes to generate value for all. I think this narrative has widespread appeal and trans-formative potential.

This is why I am proud to be here this evening.

Paul JepsonRewilding: why now?
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Why doesn’t Teneife tourism make more of the canary?

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Each March I take my MSc students on a field trip to Tenerife and each year I ponder on why more is not made of the canary in the island’s tourism promotion, tours and branding.

This year the first canary I encountered was whilst eating breakfast in the Albergue de Bolico hostel. One alighted on a tree in front of the hostel’s panoramic windows – it’s yellow and green coloration created a beautiful aesthetic against the blue-grey lichen encrusted branches and green laurel forest backdrop. I took the header photo on the scrubby edge of the beachside car park in Puerto de la Cruz. This canary had just landed from a song flight and its beautiful trilling song had inserted a sense of verve and beauty into the bustling soundscape of this tourist hotspot.

The wild canary is endemic to the Canary islands, Maderia and the Azores. It evolved in isolation from a founder population of Eurasian Serin which reached these Atlantic islands hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Subsequently the canary has become one of the most familiar and ubiquitous cagebirds appearing in popular culture in varied forms –from the ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphort to the tweetie pie carton character. Its popularity in cultures as diverse as Germany, Indonesia and Chile is due to its simple husbandry requirements and ‘plastic phenotype’ – the ease with which colour and song variations can be bred and then enhanced through special feeding and training.

Red CanaryThe significance of the canary in world culture and science is superbly told by Tim Birkhead in his book ‘The Red Canary’.  He relates how  following Spanish settlement of the Canary islands the ‘canary bird’ with its beautiful song was initially a high status acquisition of European royalty but quickly spread to the masses due to the ease with which it could be bred and kept. Prof Birkhead is an evolutionary biologist and his purpose is to explore the history of his science through the story of the canary.  During the 1920s, a maths teacher (Hans Drucker), canary breeder (Karl Reich) and local philanthopist set out to  breed true a red-coloured canary. This required cross- and back-breeding canries with Red Siskins which are native to Venezuela which were transited through Tenerife on their way to European bird markets. Drucker was a strict adherent to Mendalian principles of genetic hereditary and through his efforts to breed an ‘improved’ canary became an promient voice in German eugenics.  He and his team suceeded in creating an orange canary and the first example of a GM animal. Their failure to  create a red canary from a pure focus on genetics led to the realisation that characteristics of a species are a relation attribute of genetics (nature) ineracting with the environment (nuture). Given the growing popularity of citizen science in conservation biology, the history of the red canary is a salutory reminder that it is easy for such science to get mixed up with politics and/or place too much emphasis on a particular approach.

A focus of our Tenerife field trip is conservation biogeography. Tenerife supports over two thousand species found nowhere else on earth. Many of these unique species are found in restricted areas, which reflects the variety of geomorphology and specialists habitats on this volcanic island. The system of protected areas designed to balance the need to protect this biodiversity with the need to develop and support the islands tourism economy is world class but also faces new and varied challenges. This is why we visit the island for study.

Tenerife postcardMy students are invariably frustrated by the limited presence of Tenerife’s unique fauna and flora in island’s tourism offer. Why does the tourist industry promote, macaws, gorillas, dolphin shows and strelitzia blooms as symbols of th Tenerifian nature experience rather than the endemic Tenerife blue chaffinch, giant lizard or Teide violet? Why do exotic parrots occupy the ‘bird’ spot on postcards and not a canary – the islands greatest ever export?

At first sight the canary might seem to be a good candidate for connecting tourists with Tenerife’s unique nature. It has a place in the cultures of both the UK and Germany from where the majority of Tenerife’s tourists originate. Furthermore the three identities of the canary – as a wild, pet and competition bird – flourish side by side on the island. The wild canary is common and easy to see and the pet canary is widely kept outside cafes and in residential areas where it enriches the atmosphere of every day life. In addition, Tenerife supports six canary assocations who breed and compete canaries – although rather bizarely they favour the extreme gibber canary breed which is as different as you can get from the wild canary that inhabits their local fields and parks.

Look and listen and you'll quikcly encounter a pet canary on Tenerife

Look and listen and you’ll quikcly encounter a pet canary on Tenerife


The more I think about the canary the more I am comming to realise that that it lacks what it takes to become a tourism asset. This not because the species is in anyway lacking in beauty and interest. It is because the canary assembles cultural references that are inconsistent with how Tenerife is marketed, and how we are coming to see it as a holiday destination.

I asked a group of MSc students studying island biodiversity and conservation in Tenerife’s La Laguna university what the canary meant to them. They responded in two ways. First, that it was of lesser importance compared to the more endangered blue chaffinch and laurel pigeons that inhabit remnant forest areas supporting a myriad of other species. Second that their grandfathers kept and bred canaries. The problem with the canary is that it assembles an old fashioned frame of working class people keeping caged birds that is of little interest to a more technology and animal welfare-orientated generation.

In contrast the parrot symbol – promoted by Loro Parque (a world class zoo, parrot conservation breeding centre, and the islands 3rd largest tourist attraction) – conjures up thoughts of exotic places and travel. In addition, the dolphin symbol widely promoted by the island’s two aquaria and booming whale and dolphin watching sector connotes a sense of ocean freedom and adventure. These animal symbols and attractions communicate nothing about Tenerife’s rich, unique and endangered fauna. However they affectively contribute to the image and reality of Tenerife is an island paradise within Europe.

That’s what Tenerife wants and that’s what most us want. From this perspective the canary, for all the everyday pleasure it brings to people in Tenerife and around the globe, just doesn’t make the cut as a symbol for an exotic island getaway .

Paul JepsonWhy doesn’t Teneife tourism make more of the canary?
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Technology Empowered Conservation

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This is the text of a presentation I made at the #Conservation2037 event at the Linnean Society of London in 26 Jan 2017.  I hope you enjoy the ideas.

Kraftwerk_-_Die_Roboter_CoverIn 1977 Kraftwerk embraced the affordances of emerging technologies to expand the range and repertoire of musical possibilities.

Their innovative electronic music inspired new genres of music: techno, house, hip-hop, dance and so forth.

The Rolling Stones can play Glastonbury. Kraftwerk can play Glastonbury and the Tate Modern.

When the histories of music are written Kraftwerk will be up there as the group who first embraced new technological forces and in so doing shaped both the future of music and the interaction of new technological forces with this major component of human culture.

My message today is that we are at an exciting juncture in the history of conservation. We are at a point in the development of computational technology where – during this decade and the next – new technological forces will shift human society into a different phase.

Conservation – our movement, vocation and profession – has to be part of this phase shift.

We must react and engage with technology in innovative and perhaps radical ways if we are to protect the gains of the past and ensure that conservation remains a cultural force in the 21st century.

In the deeper past cJacques Cousteuonservationists engaged creatively with new technologies.

Orla Johnson pioneered wildlife cinematography: William Beebe nature broadcasting

And then there was Jacques Cousteau – in my view the greatest techno-conservationists of the 20th century.

Such people made nature and nature conservation part of aspirational 20th century culture.

However in the 1970s the shock of ‘environmentalism’ propelled conservation into quite a different relationship with technology.

earthdayThe environmentalist cause was taken-up by a young, well-educated, middle-class generation with an activist confidence instilled by the 1960s.

Politicians responded quickly, and were able to do so because the Conservation Foundation had already prepared the policies and people needed to create an international conservation regime.

However, a regime able to exert influence across multiple scales and geographies required three things:

.expertise: systematic information : data management

Fortunately the PC appeared in the early 1980s which empowered conservation in these three key areas.

But this interaction between the political opportunity for conservation, the need for knowledge that was ‘policy fit’, and increasing access to computation and communication exerted a strong centralising force on conservation.  For instance

  • Technology was still expensive: dbase IV was about £550 (£1400) per licence,
  • people with the combined ecological, systematics and computation skills were in short supply,
  • international communications was costly and limited,
  • access to policy and funders needed strong insider relationships.

Technology and centralisation also provided the finance and know how to transform conservation NGOs into inter-governmental players: it enabled membership management & recruitment, funder databases, and the boom of the 1990s produced board members with exceptional ambition, strategic acumen and wealth.

The Bingos were borne.

During 1990s technology empowered centralized conservation achieved huge gains, which we should respect and celebrate.

Photo: Susanne Schmitt

Photo: Susanne Schmitt

Species were saved from the brink of extinction and a huge expansion of protected areas was achieved.

But the centralising forces of the later part of the 20th century also brought downsides and I would argue that our conservation institutions are showing their age.

They turned conservation upside down. When I started out most of conservation professionals worked on the ground and very few worked in the central offices.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 17.30.47

Thanks to Jeff Sayer and Intu for sharing this image

We had embodied knowledge of nature and worked with local networks to achieve change. We didn’t necessarily earn much but work life was generally purposeful, varied, and rich.

The workscape of conservation you are entering is better illustrated by the triangle in the left. Conservation work has become ever more desk-based and bureaucratic.

We have come to know the nature we conserve in terms of graphs, spreadsheets and maps. We write and adopt blueprints and strategies.

A network of grounded conservationists has been replaced by an army of conservation policy technocrats, managers, marketers and support staff. Professional wages are in decline and career futures narrowing.

In addition, the amazing gains of the past have brought with them huge liabilities which you guys are going to need to address. For example, mega-diverse countries that expanded PA networks post CBD are moving into upper-middle income and this means they have ower eligibility for ODA under common but differentiated responsibility principle. But another was 20th century conservation didn’t have a long term financial plan.

Now for the good news – new technological forces are dissipating the need for a centralisation conservation led by small group of Bingos and opening the possibility of new networks of situated conservationists.

This is Action Sampiri – a hugely effective conservation team that emerged on Sangihe 15 years ago.   They split up after 3-4 years because they couldn’t sustain themselves without a bigger conservation patron

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 17.31.06

All this has changed: Nowadays anyone with a decent laptop and within reach of a broadband has similar access to:

  • Knowledge, news and training resources
  • Computing power
  • Sensors and sensor software
  • Data and data management
  • Productivity tools, co-working and networking
  • Communication and design resources
  • Campaigning, decision support and fund-raising support

Today grounded conservation can have similar access to know-how, data, and networks as do those of us working in Universities, government agencies or NGOs. Further the quality and power of these resources is light years beyond anything we could have imagined in 2007.

And all for less than £400 per year!

Humanity is building the greatest machine ever, in the assessment of Kevin Kelly it is the most complex, decentralised, intelligent, collective, accessible, resilient and powerful machine every created. We are entering a future of sapiens plus machine smartness.  I future where conservation action can by augmented by hundreds of AIs.

This machine – the cloud – opens the opportunity for a horizontal, networked, technologically empowered conservation movement.

One that transcends nations, sectors, ideology, and scale

It opens the prospect of a future where myriad conservation groups work in myriad localities across our plant. Not as individual efforts but as part of a loose ecosystem of conservation action with transformative power.

But does this mean big conservation is dead?

My view is no. Any effective force needs a degree of central leadership and coordination.

However, if conservation is to be a cultural force in the 2Ist century, if it is to build on the conservation gains of the past and kick on, we must engage with and steer the technological forces that are shaping the future of humanity.

My view is that centralised conservation needs to embrace the culture of the crowd and switch its focus from one of advocate and implementer to one of facilitator and service provider.

My vision for Conservation 2037 is a future where centralised organisations create platforms, tools and services that empower a new generation of situation conservationist to act, share and suceed.

I imagine the practical expression of Technology Empowered Conservation as virtual mall – places on the web where situated conservationists can visit, shop for tools, kit and services, meet friends, learn and mobilise.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 20.53.18

Entering this mal of conservation you might visit

The plush second floor where branded conservation enterprises showcase and sell their triple A conservation products

Then drop down to the first floor where a raft of smaller outlets offer just about everything you could need to assemble an effective conservation action.

After this you might head up to the third floor to hang out with friends, attend networking events or a seminar.

In the central auditorium the mall’s owners will periodically put on exhibitions, TED style talks and other inspirational material.

As you navigate through this virtual mall avatars of our conservation heroes will walk towards you. You may wish to stop them and hear or read about their life, contributions and values.

Situated conservationists will need to own little – everything will be available on subscription or to rent.

They will not be dependent on established organisations for work and the ability to make a change. Should they wish they can create or join start-ups – bands of conservationists – in places where they feel an affinity.

Kelly argues that “Technology is humanities accelerant”

It needs to become conservations accelerant.

It is yours – the cloud belongs to us all..

Let me know what you think

Paul JepsonTechnology Empowered Conservation
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Ecospace, rewilding and the cow that didn’t die


On a Saturday afternoon in late November I went for a walk along Iffley meadows in Oxford. The gate to the BBOWT meadow was hung with a sign telling the story of a cow that had gotten stuck in a ditch and was pulled out with a neck rope. Those entering the field were asked not to approach the traumatised herbivore.

I was in the midst of preparing a lecture on rewilding and in particular taking stock of developments in ecological theory that argue for the restoration of large animal guilds.

If Iffley meadows had been a rewilded area the unfortunate cow would have likely succumbed and its corpse would have become a highly localised and rich source of nutrients at the onset of winter.

Had I been in regular birding mode the image of a cow carcass would likely have promoted thoughts of what it might attract – the local red kites, the ravens that occasional cruise over Oxford, and maybe the local stray dogs if we have any.

But on this Saturday I was in theory mode and pondering on concepts of ecospace and biotic expansion. From this perspective a cow’s carcass is not simply a food source, rather it is a place of multiple temporary niches. The metabolic and other processes of decomposition involve and support multiple life forms: from bacteria to maggots, to beetles and foxes. Some of these organisms flourish and multiplie within the carcass: others feed on it and conduit nutrients into the wider ecosystem.

It is not hard to see how large animal carcasses expand the range of niches and hence the biodiversity of an ecosystem and how their absence contributes to ‘trophic down-grading’.

The meadows atI Iffley. Lovely, but satic and short on ecospace. Photo: P Jepson

The meadows atI Iffley. Lovely, but satic and short on ecospace. Photo: P Jepson

Across Europe there is a rise of naturalistic grazing in our reserves: deploying breeds of cattle and horses that create disturbance dynamics with their gazing and pounding. Mangers steer their herds to create ecospaces that support species considered valuable and in place. Allowing some of these large herbivores to die and become additional ecospaces would be illegal and scandalous to many.

We know that carcasses would (re)expand the biotic diversity of our landscapes, but I struggle to imagine a future where European societies would allow this to happen.

For a start there are major ethical and welfare considerations. We only know cattle and horses as animals in our care. Millenia of agriculture and centuries of pet-keeping have condition us to extend compassion and care to animals that we have domesticated and transformed for our use and benefit. This is codified in law. If a cow or horse becomes weak it is the legal responsibility of the owner to feed it better, or call the vet out if its ill.

Next, is the issue of contemporary attitudes to death, decay and decomposition. Modern day perceptions of such processes are mostly negative. The possibility of encountering a smelly, rotten carcass on a Saturday afternoon stroll would be considered distasteful, and maybe even distressing, to most people. Millennia of disease and pestilence have conditioned us to fear the consequences of leaving carcasses of animals that enter our food chain lying around in our landscapes. They are classed a biohazard and the law says they should be removed and destroyed.

Whilst we live comfortably with the values and laws of animal welfare and sanitation other co-inhabitants of our plant loose out. Rodents, boar, vultures, foxes, lynx and myriad other fellow species would experience quite different sensations in relation to a carcass.

My conservation values were forged in the 1970s when the idea was to be a voice for nature – to speak up for non-human species in decision making.  I was motivated by the idea that humans have a moral responsiblity to leave spaces for other life-forms to live out natural lives.

But I also care for the welfare of individual animals. I don’t like seeing a cold starving bison or hearing a deer having its life squeezed from it by a python. If I’d been the person encountering the cow in the Iffley meadow ditch I would have been straight on my phone to the relevant authority. But by doing so I would have put my human sensitivities ahead of the needs of other species.

Resolving this conundrum is one of the great societal frontiers for rewilding.

In my view the way to do so is to designate places that are less in our care – what we used to call the wild – and then have the confidence and compassion to allow our domestic species to re-find and re-live their wild identity. This is termed ‘trophic upgrading’: the restoration of historic guilds of large animals and the dynamic ecosystem processes they generate.

In the UK such an agenda would require an amendment to existing nature law to specify a new type of conservation area: an ecosystem restoration (ER) reserve.

I suspect we’d all agree that ecosystem restoration reserves would likely be more acceptable in regions that wider society already considers remote, wild and natural. However if we did go down the ER route, I would argue for a legal designation that allows smaller, more managed ecosystem reserves close to urban areas.

This is because we can never separate society and nature: introducing a ‘new nature’ will throw up all sorts of issues requiring debate and dilberation. Ecosystem restoration is not a technical problem it is something that will require societal learning to achieve. Having places where rewilding is a bit more in the public’s face will ensure the widest possible discussion on principles that should govern rewilding practice.

Paul JepsonEcospace, rewilding and the cow that didn’t die
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