Friday, 15 November 2013

There is something wrong in conservation when the budget to save the Scottish wildcat is the same as for one visitor centre.

Okay, this is not exactly hot button news, but I have been doing research recently on wildcats and beavers and all kinds of reintroduction projects in the UK, and one thing which keeps coming up is the disparity between the budgets available for serious conservation work, and the money available for what I would politely call 'bumph'. Specifically visitors' centres. Okay, now anyone who knows me knows I have a fundamental problem with visitors' centres attached to wildlife. Not because a nice cafe/bookshop/notice board is not a nice thing, but because I think they should be separate from nature reserves. They should not act as gateways, dividing the 'real' world from the wildlife museum you are about to see. They should just be cafes.

Actually, it is fair to say my heart always sinks when I find a reserve or beauty spot marred by a huge carpark and visitor centre, and maybe this blog is nothing more than a reflection of that prejudice, but there is also the issue of money. One visitor centre, at Minsmere in Suffolk was renovated at a cost of £2 million. That is equal to the hoped for budget of the 'official' new plan to save the Scottish wild cat, Britain's last native felid and medium sized predator. It is more than the official beaver reintroduction programme in Knapdale. It is probably many times more than all the money spent researching the impacts of wild boar in the Forest of Dean and on public awareness around them. And it is for a visitor centre at a nature reserve. It is not alone. A quick look online reveals many such cases. £600,000 for Bempton Cliffs, £400,000 for Great Barr. Etc etc.

Now, the NGO that is building these (RSPB) is entitled to spend its members' money however it, and they, think is best. These centres are no doubt a small part of its overall budget. I also appreciate that community engagement is vital. At the same time though I cannot help but feel that this lays bare the strange priorities in current wildlife protection and conservation. There seem to be endless millions to build commercialised museums and consumer interpretations of wildlife, but so much less to encourage, protect and restore the wildlife - in the wild - itself. Perhaps our bias towards consumption is so strong that we feel happier about spending money on a physical object, than on what the object is supposed to be about?