Conserve the Conservationists!

I’m a conservationists. Being a conservationist is not the easiest job in the world. Not because the weight of the world is on my shoulders, angst ridden over how I and the rest of humanity is destroying the planet. No, but because conservation is rarely understood and conservationists are all pigeonholed as a stereotype. Even my daughter prepared conversation topics about her ‘Engineer’ father for her Leaving Certificate oral exams, as trying to explain what a conservationists does in Irish and French (or in English for that matter) was too tall an order.

So first, let’s get the stereotypes out of the way. I don’t wear a beard. I have never (consciously) hugged a tree in my life, and I don’t own sandals. Actually, I lie. I have one pair in the wardrobe that my wife bought for me on a holiday in Italy a couple of years back. And give me a jumbo breakfast roll any day over a tossed salad. So I’m just a ‘relatively normal middle-aged man’.

What sets me apart from the majority of other ‘relatively normal middle-aged men’, however, is that I appreciate the intrinsic value of nature and I understand the importance of Ireland’s biodiversity. But it frustrates me how conservation has such negative connotations amongst the general public. The same people who might be fascinated by watching a fox roaming the streets of Dublin by night, or captivated by a glimpse of an otter fishing in a river will scorn at conservationists’ efforts to stand up for wildlife.

Why is this? One reason is the disconnect that exists between our inherent interest in wildlife and what is regarded as conservation. Conservation is all about designating (= putting restrictions on) land, objecting to plans, telling people what not to do and chastising them for living their lives, and just being harbingers of gloom and doom. What Willy Wonka might consider as being  just all-round bad eggs.

In truth this is the occupational hazard of a conservationists, but economists too are generally harbingers of gloom and doom but they don’t seem to be tarred with the same brush. What is missing is any coherent approach to emphasising the benefits of our natural environment to serve as a counterbalance to all this negativity. We hear that poor Luke Ming Flanagan can’t rest easily at night because 16% or so of the country is designated as Special Areas of Conservation by the dastardly European Commission. But to put his mind at ease, perhaps we need to point out to him that of the vast swathes of land stretching from Athens to Achill and Ilomantsi to Dún Chaoin, Ireland is fortunate to have 16% of its land area recognised as being of special value, and of having characteristics which are unique or absent in the rest of Europe. Surely to God, the great brains of the marketing and promotion people in Ireland can find some way to use this natural capital to Ireland’s advantage, and garner community support to cherish and look after it?

And another characteristic of nature conservation in Ireland is that because, either through ignorance or belligerence, nature conservation is not taken seriously early on in the decision making processes, it is always fighting a rear-guard action. This leads to fighting impossible battles, ones that are incomprehensible to a wider audience. Even our former beloved leader, Bertie, was exasperated by ‘…the swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree’ holding up developments. On occasion invoking the minutiae of scientific and legal argument might be the only weapon left in our arsenal to fight for the protection of special areas, but a consequence of this is that we don’t win over many neutrals to our cause. This might not be right or fair, but let’s face it, it is the truth.

Conservationists will always have to speak up for nature and keeping wild areas, and will have to fight battles. But we must also set out to do battle to win people over to our cause through other, more positive campaigns. I have come up with the idea of the Wild Ireland Tour as my personal effort to put a  more positive spin on Ireland’s wonderful wildlife and to try to convince people that it merits protection for future generations. Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect that this will lead to an overnight flood of converts to the cause, but I do hope that it might give some people a greater appreciation of what is special about Ireland’s wildlife. And in much the same way that I am prepared to accept that Finnegan’s Wake is one of the world’s greatest works of fiction, ‘but please don’t expect me to read it’ way, maybe people might have a greater appreciation of the value of Ireland’s wildlife even if they, themselves, are not all that interested.

Conservationists are a bit like dentists; you don’t want to have to deal with them, but it is handy having them about. So, conserve the conservationists! is what I say.