Interview with Nigel Phillips conservationist

Interview with Nigel Phillips conservationist. April 20th 2014
I invited Nigel to talk to us as he is the author of the recently published and highly successful book ‘The Somerset Coast’. He has worked in conservation all his life and has a long perspective on the future of Somerset.

Conservation and Climate Change
JG. Many thanks for talking to us today and indeed for putting together such an interesting and beautiful book. How do you feel generally about the progress of conservation in view of climate change?
NP. I think we can be overwhelmed by our concerns about the planet and global warming. We need to be more specific. Rising sea levels, particularly for us here in Somerset are going to be a very big issue in the not too distant future. The Quantocks is an incredibly important area in Somerset and we have to think carefully about the Quantocks and its coastal area as one entity. After all we’ve only got to go back 10,000 years and the sea was lapping right into what is now the Vale of Taunton and across Bridgwater. The Quantocks was a wonderful virtual island/peninsular.
JG. Taking the long view you see Somerset maintaining its very varied environments?
NP. Somerset is an amazingly varied county. It may not have the super high mountains of Scotland and it may not have off shore islands like Pembrokeshire but if you think about the Mendips and Exmoor, the Somerset Levels and the Quantocks, the Blackdowns with their marvellous woodlands – we live in an incredibly beautiful county.
JG. So how do you feel that it’s changed over the last forty odd years?
NP. Well. I’ve spent my whole working life in nature conservation, principally working for the Wildlife Trusts (eg. The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire WT, Somerset WT). I’ve held a variety of roles as a Nature Reserve Warden, as a Management Plan Writer and as a Strategic Planner trying to work in partnership with Local Authorities, County Councils, the National Trust to do things on the ground to make things better for wildlife and for people. I’ve known Somerset pretty intimately since about 1985 and I must be completely honest with you – it hasn’t changed that much. For although we are a fabulous county, so many potential visitors rush through Somerset and bypass the Quantocks and Exmoor on their way to western shores.
JG. I’m afraid my family arrived in Somerset with the motorway and so we see ourselves as partly responsible for much of the expansion that has followed!
NP. Inevitably the population has risen in Somerset. Things don’t stand still and you can’t expect them to. My last job involved me in working with industry, land owners and planners to try to imagine what might happen in the future and to take advantage of it.

Developments in Conservation
JG. So just coming forward a bit, do you feel there is a greater understanding nowadays of the pressures on environments and the challenges that face us?
NP. Yes. There is a much greater understanding. The first nature conservation act came into being in 1949. The National Parks and Access to Countryside Act set up the national parks, the Nature Conservancy Council and AONBs like the Quantock Hills and together they set in train a lot of exciting research trying to understand how the countryside works -woodlands, meadows, wetlands, heathlands – and the contributions and needs of specific species. That really happened because of the pressures of the 2nd World War when we had a lot of land turned over to agriculture because we needed to provide our own food in a desperately urgent way. A lot of fantastic wildlife, meadows and woodlands were lost. This was understandable – we were fighting a war – but subsequently it was felt that something needed to be done, in a scientific way, to try to understand what we had lost and not lost. The issue that we’ve got today in 2014 is that we know a lot more, but the pressures are much greater, largely because of the rise in population across the UK and the loss of funding to the very organisations which have traditionally looked after the countryside. Natural England and the local and county councils have always put a fair bit of money into the countryside.
JG. Do you see that not happening in the future? What is their role going to be in the future?
NP. We know that the pressure of demands for health and social services etc. is massively reducing the funding available for conservation, in particular the funding for the Quantocks AONB.
JG. Does that not make you angry? Don’t you think conservation is a priority?
NP. It doesn’t exactly make me angry because I’ve sat with many civil servants, local authority/county council officers and can see that those individuals are as hard hit by this as you or I maybe. I’ve always found that getting angry about things doesn’t usually solve much. We could get angry with the governments, businesses, bankers that have caused this downturn but I think we should put our energy into being constructive and try to understand, particularly in the case of the Quantocks, how we can go forward. Nature and wildlife can look after themselves, but with the sort of pressures, even in this quiet part of Somerset, with people and cars and people’s aspirations to build things/change things I think we have to give nature and landscapes quite a strong helping hand.

Pressures on environments
JG. Great. So let’s think about the pressures in more detail. You mentioned rising sea levels at the beginning of the interview and your particular interest recently has been in the Somerset coast.
NP. Yes. I’ve been working as the Chair of the Somerset Wildlife Trust Marine Awareness Campaign. In the last 20 years we’ve lost considerable parts of the Somerset coast. In places like Stolford and Steart the salt marsh has retreated by about 100 mts in parts and if you look at the cliffs at East Quantockshead in the last 2 years I’ve seen 6-8mts of cliff top crashing down into the sea. Now this is a natural thing in many respects. We live on an island and the sea is an active force and even though this is the Bristol Channel it’s still very powerful. Islands are always going to change. The difference now however is that we’ve built our roads and our villages, Minehead Butlins and the West Somerset Railway right on the coast and the beaches and cliffs in front of them are being eaten into quite dramatically by rising sea levels. The general response is that ‘we need to stop it’.
So what are we going to do? Is the answer a big sea wall? If we did that we might be able to stop the cliffs eroding but there wouldn’t be any beach as the sea would run up against a huge concrete barrier. I’m sure that will never happen but people do expect to be protected from sea level rises and I think we can no longer do this as it’s going to be too big a rise.
On the Quantocks in particular, where the Quantocks run down into the sea, say from Lilstock to St Audries Bay, there’s a wonderful cliff top flora – common spotted orchid, pyramid orchids, carrot, greater knapweed – there’s a wonderful strip just literally on the top of the cliff. However, as you stand on that cliff, just 5mts behind you there’s a cultivated field or pastureland which is intensively managed. Now people have to earn a living but what we’re seeing over the last few years is the rising sea levels cutting into those cliffs and there is nowhere for that wonderful cliff top plant life, which is very much part of the Quantocks, to go. It can’t retreat back because the land behind is intensively cultivated. We’re going to lose a lot of wonderful diversity on the seaward edge of the Quantocks unless we plan. We should be working in partnership with landowners, local and government authorities and come up with some plan that allows agriculture to move back, not just 2 or 3 mts but agriculture on the seaward edge of the Quantocks should probably move back up to a 100/200mts so that we’ve still got the cliff top flora. Many people who visit the Quantocks go down to the coast – that’s part of the fun of the Quantocks. You’ve got the amazing heathland on the top and literally in just a few minutes you can walk down onto the cliff tops and be in an entirely contrasting environment.
JG. What sort of response do you think local landowners would have to that discussion?
NP. Well. It’s a bit like someone coming to you and saying, well I’m sorry but you’ve got to give up half your garden! You’d say, well I’m sure it’s a good idea ….. but, it’s my garden! It has to have a massive amount of discussion and thought. However, we know that sea levels are going to carry on rising, we know the cliffs are going to crumble, we know people will want to carry on visiting those cliffs and we know that visiting the Quantocks is part of the income generation we need in Somerset. The holiday industry is very important and the losses to agricultural income would be tiny. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t be important to the people who are farming there but if you look at the whole of Somerset the loss would be very small. The Somerset part of the South West Coast Path is supposed to generate about £90 million a year for the local economy so why not extend it to Brean Down!
We need to have much more strategic thinking about how we manage these issues. Similarly with the flooding we’ve experienced this winter on the Levels, we have no choice but to have places behind the coast where water can sit. What happened over the last few months was that there had been so much rain coupled with higher sea levels and storm surges on the coast that the water just couldn’t get out. Sea levels are not going to go down and we have to think about how water can be held on the Levels. If we think back 6,000 years the water was up to Glastonbury then and though it sounds very unfair on farmers, this is the nature of the area.
Let’s just think about Dorset for a moment where the World Heritage Jurassic Coast is now very high profile. Well, where the Quantocks hit the Severn Estuary is a jurassic coast, there are blue lias jurassic cliffs – absolutely stunning!
In Dorset they have spent much more time thinking about how they keep the visitor experience going. Cliff falls have happened but they have managed to move the footpaths back and create new areas of grassland because they consider it so important to the economy of Dorset. I think we need to have a real think about what are the priorities for Somerset. The Quantocks are amazing, the Levels are amazing – we have to keep them going. I am a naturalist so I would plead for them because they’re beautiful but you have to have pretty good economic and social reasons today for why they should be conserved.
JG. So , thinking of the current threat to the funding of the Quantocks AONB how should we move forward?
NP. The question is how do we support the delivery of nature conservation? There is no real hope of populations going down to lower levels and we want people to get out more into the countryside to get healthier and enjoy the wildlife. I think it would be foolish to expect the Quantocks to survive without some form of supervision – provision of car parks, signposting, educational events on the Quantocks that show people what’s good, what’s delicate, what needs looking after. The issue is how do we persuade government/local government that withdrawal of funding will be to the detriment of wildlife, the wellbeing of people who visit and the economies of these areas?

The role of the Wildlife Trusts
NP. There are of course the Wildlife Trusts. The Somerset Wildlife Trust runs 75 nature reserves but there is a limit to their funds which come from their 25,000 members. It’s possible that we could see partnerships developing between wildlife trusts and local authorities to manage land. I feel it’s a bad time to discuss such things now as there is almost a feeling of panic within the local authorities and the wildlife trusts will need secure finances in order to take on more responsibilities.
JG. What do you think of moves like the recent purchase of two specific areas of the Quantocks by The Friends of the Quantocks in order to safeguard their future?
NP. I think that when you see a local membership organisation buying an area of land to care for in the future that’s a really significant gesture that should signal to MPs, local government etc. that people are really concerned about the environment. Sometimes it’s an act of desperation but sometimes it’s also a very positive action – taking things into your own hands.
JG. It doesn’t worry you that those of us outside conservation are amateurs? There is maybe a level of expertise being lost here?
NP. I don’t think we can afford to lose that expertise. It is only through experience of land management that you learn how it works and there are often very hard decisions to be taken. Land management in itself is difficult, there are regular arduous tasks that need to be undertaken. I’m not suggesting that the regular AONB management warden structure should be subsumed into something run by a wildlife trust what I’m suggesting is that that structure needs to stay there with something like the wildlife trusts getting involved.

Funding conservation in the future
NP. Let’s just think a minute about how the people of Somerset rate the Quantocks and the Blackdowns. They love them, enjoy them, they like seeing them there but are we all individually putting enough money into the management of these sites? I don’t think that we are.
We tend to think it’s something that has been looked after by government. We pay our taxes for this. What we need to do is to assess what people really think about where they live and their quality of life. This might just sound like you’re trying to find reasons to tax people but it’s more than that. It’s very easy for wild lands to disappear, to be built on. Our ability now to change the landscape with our huge machinery is immense and then things are gone. Later people turn around and say – ‘It’s terrible that that woodland has gone!’ It’s all about strategic planning – What are the key things about Somerset that make the area a fantastic place to live? Are there important places to us that are not being well looked after now or may not be well looked after in the near future? How do we actually get the right sort of funding to do the job properly? There aren’t bottomless pits of money out there but there is a lot of money out there and we need to get people to rate more clearly what is important to them.
JG. Do you see the notion of ‘progress’ as a threat to environmentalism?
NP. I wonder about the need to expand, expand, expand. Do we have to want more all the time? I think we should probably try to slow down ‘progress’. We need to think very hard about what we want.

The Somerset Coast
JG. Great. Let’s just focus back to your book. What’s so interesting about it is that the Somerset coast has not previously been recognised as the fantastic area it is.
NP. No, that’s right. I always believed that we would find great diversity there but the presence of the slightly muddy water of the estuary has deflected us. The sediment in the Severn is natural but if there was no farming in the catchment of the Severn it would probably reduce by a large amount. The bulk of the material comes off cultivated fields up in Shropshire, Gloucester etc.
JG. But we still end up with a very varied coastal environment?
NP. Yes indeed and if we’re thinking about how we protect and look after the coast we need to be better at showing people what’s there – leading walks, talks, publishing books. If people don’t know about, for example – wonderful flowers in a meadow, they don’t worry about losing that meadow. If you take them to see the wonderful flowers at the right time of year they’ll value them. If you show them the Somerset coast, they’ll say it would be a terrible shame to lose it. The juxtaposition of the Quantocks, Exmoor and the sea is the most wonderful combination.
JG. Is there a need for a specific group to focus on protecting the coast?
NP. Well, the SWT is putting together some ideas on developing a coastal presence but it’s sadly not the best time to expand. There are plans afoot however for a coastal team to be developed.
JG. In your book you study the area from Brean Down to beyond Porlock and the variety of findings you describe is just astonishing.
NP. Yes the area is only 55 miles long but it’s absolutely stuffed with good things and it doesn’t take a lot of looking to find them. When the Severn Barrage debate was raging the SWT heard the argument that ‘there isn’t much out there’ and the Marine Awareness Raising Campaign was born. I’m not opposed to barrages but they must be in the right place.
JG. That leads very neatly into what I hope will be my next interview. I shall be talking to Eva Bishop of Tidal Lagoon Power. Thank you very much indeed Nigel for a most stimulating interview.

Nigel Phillips. ‘The Somerset Coast, a living landscape’ is available from Brendon Books in Taunton price £20.

1 Comment »

  1. Excellent interview. I have taken the liberty of forwarding this link on to Chris Edwards of the AONB. I am sure he will find it interesting reading. The conservation of the Quantocks is a constant fight and many of us in Bicknoller are trying to help preserve it.

    Comment by Julian Anderson — April 21, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

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