Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, lays out his plans for a nature recovery network to Rowan Pelling
Tony Juniper by Jason Bye
I first met Tony Juniper on my Cambridge doorstep in 2010 when he was the local Green Party candidate for the 2010 election. I instantly liked the rugged, good-natured eco-campaigner, but said ruefully I didn’t think I could vote for a single-issue party. He made a stab at persuading me otherwise: pointing out it was impossible to separate ecological concerns from economic, educational, health and social ones. And now the cross-party consensus – and my own view – is with Juniper. Climate change leads much government debate, few issues are tackled without considering their environmental impact and the UK will host COP26 (the UN’s Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow in November.
Over the same decade Juniper’s own role has become steadily more mainstream. He started out as an ornithologist, became well known as a campaigner at Friends of the Earth in the 1990s, where he spearheaded their tropical rainforest campaign, and rose to become policy and campaigns director. Next Juniper became the organisation’s director and also vice-chair of Friends of the Earth (FoE) International, which included driving the momentum of The Big Ask Campaign, which led to the UK’s world-leading pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions via the Climate Change Act 2008. He later became Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Along the way, he became the Prince of Wales’ special adviser on sustainability. The Independent once said, “He is by popular consent the most effective of Britain’s eco-warriors.”
Since April 2019 Juniper has been working from the belly of the establishment as the chair at Natural England (which falls under DEFRA’s remit), the statutory body charged with overseeing ecological restoration and conservation. Poacher-turned-gamekeeper is a bit of a stretch, but the role does entail some diplomacy about government policy. While his old gang at FoE declared HS2 “a costly and damaging mistake that will threaten wildlife, destroy ancient woodlands and do nothing to reduce climate-wrecking pollution,” Juniper was quoted as saying he hoped to deliver a “net gain” for nature.
Reflecting on the two sides of his career, Juniper tells me: “Being an advocate, you have the luxury to take a singular view to the exclusion of others, whereas in the government setting you’re much closer to the process of having to see multiple views and the fact that the country does need houses, food, a transport network, water supply, all of those things. And the challenge really is to accommodate all of that at the same time as promoting nature recovery and net zero carbon outcome.”
I wonder if he finds the proposed expansion of Suffolk Sizewell Nuclear Power Station more problematic, as the site is right on the edge of Minsmere bird reserve. Juniper says, “Pretty much every single subject we touch upon has a high level of controversy in it with quite polarised opinions.” He diverts into other troubled areas encompassed by his new role: how to provide affordable housing while conserving nature, how to protect farmers’ interests while advocating for wildlife (badger culling is a hot topic) and the tension between those who pursue blood sports and those who’d stop them.
How does he even begin to tackle this level of complexity? Juniper replies, “There is a lot of technical, legal and scientific stuff we have to blend into what we do. But behind all of that is the vision for nature recovery, which is where the mission of Natural England lies.”
Unusually for 2021, we conduct our conversation in person over the course of a socially-distanced walk since we’re both still Cambridge residents. I’m surprised to find Juniper hasn’t seen the University’s new “sustainable” north Cambridge development off the Huntingdon Road. So we take a nature walk to the half-built site via one of the city’s hidden treasures, the Ascension Burial Ground: a place of yews, sleeping academics and ivy-decked crosses. As we stand near the foot of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grave (scattered with
rose petals) Juniper identifies a greenfinch singing.
How did this ornithologist and paid-up member of the eco awkward squad get close to the heart of government? Juniper tells me it probably wouldn’t have happened “even five years ago”. He heard the role of chair at Natural England was about to become vacant but didn’t think much about it until a friend suggested he apply. When Juniper protested, “They’ll never have me,” the friend answered, “You may be surprised.” Juniper believes there’s a real will for environmental change at the top of government. “Does Boris Johnson really want to go green?” Juniper says yes: he absolutely does.
We head through a gap in the hedge past an ivy-covered WWII gun emplacement and across a wild meadow (earmarked for development) to the new-build Eddington site, where he laments the unimaginative planting – until we discover a patch of hazel, pussy willow and native roses, which will attract bees and other insects. We sit down on a bench by the artificial lake that’s part of the site’s sustainable drainage system, and Juniper points out the likely location of the swan’s nest.
It’s an apt spot to ask Juniper about his vision for Natural England. He says his number one priority “right now is to get moving on this plan for a nature recovery network. This is where everything comes together in terms of green infrastructure, green building design, the future of the protected area network, the future of agricultural policy, and targets the country has set on peatland restoration and tree cover.” He explains it’s “the remedy” for the damage we Brits have done to our natural environment, outlining a countryside in crisis: “We have been depleting natural areas and wildlife habitats now for literally centuries and we’ve got to the point where we don’t have enough carbon capture. We don’t have enough water management capacity in the environment. We don’t have enough biodiversity. Our soils are depleted. And the opportunities for people to enjoy high quality green space near where they live often is very limited.”
So how can Juniper set about restoring our natural world? He says firmly it’s “a combination of using the new farm policy, the new tools that will be in the environment bill, harnessing the energy of lots of different actors from the Ministry of Defence to water companies, to people working together to do that nature recovery at scale.” He explains that building partnerships for nature’s recovery is the new mission for Natural England; building that is done “in the context of all of those statutory tools and powers and technical capacities we have and hopefully bringing people together to be able to do things in particular landscapes – like this one [gesturing beyond the lake] where you’ve got building going on and where, if you think about it carefully, you can blend in some really high quality natural areas next to where the people live. That’s the kind of vision that we now embody.”
I can’t help wondering how Natural England can better engage the public. Many of us view it as an agency that deals with farmers, planners and conservation bodies, rather than your average civilian: possibly because it was only established in 2006 when the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act amalgamated English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service. The body has considerable sweep, with powers to define ancient woodland, designate areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest. It also manages many nature reserves and oversees public access to the countryside (something of a theme in this issue of Perspective).
Juniper admits, “We tend to have a lot of our bandwidth consumed in the job of engaging with stakeholders, people who actually do stuff on the ground.” There’s a brief detour as we discuss the modern horror of the word “stakeholder” and Juniper says crisply, “partners is a better word”. The partners he works with on a day-to-day basis include: housing developers, water companies, the RSPB, the National Trust, the Ministry of Defence, the Highways Agency and local government. Natural England tries to draw them all into the process of nature recovery. “But that means we’re probably talking less to the public than we ideally would like to… there’s plenty of others who do a really good job of talking to the public about all of this.” He cites the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust as two amongst the many “who engage people in this same discussion.”
The reason we’re recovering nature is not only because it’s beautiful and catches carbon, it’s because it’s good for people to be able to enjoy it for public health and wellbeing
I tell him that Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, has written a piece for this issue, pointing out how vast swathes of British countryside aren’t open to public access. Juniper is keenly aware. “The public access side is a very big part of what we do because the reason we’re recovering nature is not only because it’s beautiful and catches carbon, it’s because it’s good for people to be able to enjoy it for public health and well-being apart from anything else.” However, he also wants to highlight that, despite the restrictions covering private land, there are “many, many footpaths” and he’s clearly proud of the launch of “the world’s longest long-distance trail, the England Coast Path, 2700 miles long.” He says there are going to be more of these kinds of ventures.
Juniper says of even greater concern than those lobbying for more access to the UK’s green space are the people who are culturally and geographically (and sometimes economically) estranged from the countryside – all those who have never felt it’s part of their lives. He estimates that around 5 per cent of the public long for a wider right to roam: “But the other 95% of the population and many of the people living in disadvantaged areas and the black and ethnic minority community really don’t use the outside to the extent that they could do. Just getting them out at all, I think, is the more important job than debating whether we should have those access rights over what is presently private property.”
Is rewilding compatible with greater public access? Juniper says, “Totally compatible. These two things go together.” He says that if you speak to leading British advocates of rewilding, they’d tell you, “this is not only for beavers and water voles and eagles, this is for people. The idea of rewilding is to get more people into those spaces, not fewer.” Juniper lays out a vision of a bleak moorland in the Peak District “which is currently a pretty barren landscape, bereft of wildlife. If you had some level of natural woodland regeneration and put some footpaths in, that would be a much more attractive place to visit than it currently is.” He adds with real passion, “The idea is to create the wilder spaces to lift the human spirit as well as the population of the beaver.”
Juniper points out that rewilding need not only happen out in the wilds: “There’s beavers breeding outside a supermarket down in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, you know, and they’re not bothered. And there’s white tailed eagles flying along the seafront in the resorts on the Isle of Wight.” He’s keen to point out that what we think of as “wildlife” doesn’t tend to have an instinctive aversion to humans but moved out to remote areas “because people killed it all and poisoned the habitat and destroyed it.” He goes on, “If you made an area next to a housing estate welcoming to beavers and eagles they’d be fine.”
He offers a local example: “So when I was a kid, I used to look at bird books and the peregrine falcon was functionally extinct in much of England. I thought, ‘I’m never going to see one of them.’ Their [habitat was] sea cliffs and remote areas. And the reason they were in those places was, firstly, because they’d all been shot and secondly they’d all been poisoned with toxic pesticides. So we banned the shooting, we banned the pesticides, and now they’re nesting in the middle of the town in Cambridge. You can see them opposite Fitzbillies… They had three chicks last year.”
And what of larger predators being released into suitable habitats? Sarah Hall writes in this issue of her fascination with the idea of wolves being restored to the British Isles. Juniper ponders the matter. “We’re not there yet, but the debate is running… I learnt the other day that the UK now is one of the largest countries in the world – certainly the largest country in Europe – that doesn’t have any of its original predators left. They’ve all gone. Whereas, you go to Sweden, Denmark, France, even in the Netherlands there’s wild wolf again now.” Juniper says this is the point at which people say, “Well surely we should have some of these back if we’re going to be able to recreate the natural systems that were once here.”
He warms to his thesis: “It’s not just about wilderness and letting nature take hold, it’s also about restoring the functionality of ecosystems.” Juniper emphasises the fact big predators have a profound role in how entire ecosystems look, “because of the way in which they influence the herbivores amongst other things, and also control other predators. And so there’s an ecological case for the return of some of these animals. But of course, the economic and social case is where it gets complicated in a country as crowded as this one: 55 million people, a lot of agriculture going on and people, quite understandably, feeling nervous about that stuff.”
Even so, across the English Channel, our neighbouring EU countries have already embraced larger predators. Sometimes the species reintroduces itself. A biologist friend of Juniper’s told him about some CCTV footage that appeared on one of the bridges across the river Rhine: “This was a few years ago – at two o’clock in the morning, one of the little cameras looking at the pedestrian footpath gets a wolf walking across from Germany into the Netherlands, reintroducing itself on foot across a bridge.” If Britain weren’t an island nation, the same thing would have happened here.
Juniper believes the topic deserves an active debate and the lynx is a contender for reintroduction. Natural England would have to issue a licence if so, “and so we would have to wait and see and to look at the evidence and make a scientific judgement on the merits of that, bearing in mind the other interests in the country including sheep farming.” However, he’s unequivocal about “the desirability of this from an ecological point of view.” Juniper says reflectively, “I think it is pretty clear [that] a system that’s missing some of its pieces, doesn’t work; it’s like a watch with some of the cogs pulled out, you know, it might go round a bit but it may not tell the right time anymore.”
It would be rude to talk to Juniper without touching on Spix’s Macaw, the “little blue macaw” driven to the edge of extinction by deforestation and a rapacious trade in rare parrots. In 2002 Juniper published a book about his fight to conserve the breed, which became an acclaimed best seller. I ask him how the project evolved and he becomes very animated: “Actually, this is why I moved to Cambridge in 1989, to work at Birdlife International, to work on rare parrots. And I spent some time in Brazil searching for what turned out to be the rarest of them all, a bird called the Spix’s Macaw: a blue, long-tailed, parrot that lived in the dry northeast of Brazil. And we determined through some fieldwork that the likely population of that bird – this was in 1990 – had descended to a single individual. There was one left.”
If we’re going to [ensure] very green farming here and the result of that is importing stuff from the other side of the world at much lower standards, that’s not really a solution at all
That was when Juniper kick-started a conservation programme. He found out there were thirteen Spix’s Macaws in captivity: “So, 14 in total, which is on the very cusp of total disappearance. But potentially something that could be worked with if you could do a breeding programme to get the numbers up, and then do a release back into the wild.” His book followed the whole story: from the bird’s discovery by German naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix in 1819 to Juniper’s efforts to prevent it vanishing from the face of the earth.
Movie buffs may note some striking similarities between his book and the Pixar animation Rio (2011). I can’t resist asking Juniper if he thinks the filmmakers had read it. He laughs and says he did note that around the time a “rather good film called Rio” came out. He goes on, “And it was a really good film because it was based on quite a good book.” Juniper didn’t get a credit and doesn’t seem wildly bothered, though he points out striking similarities, “down to the poachers, the birds being reunited, the fieldworkers. Even the name of the bad cockatoo is taken from Nigel Collar, with whom I worked at Birdlife International.” He tells me Pixar grossed more than 400 million dollars globally. I ask if any of the money went back into conservation. “Not as far as I know,” says Juniper.
It’s time to return to home turf. I wonder how he sees the future of Britain’s farmers post-Covid. Juniper ruminates: “Well, farming is obviously a multi-layered, complex industry with lots of different actors, through horticulture growing fruit and vegetables, through arable growing cereals, and then the livestock sector, which has got beef and dairy and sheep.” Juniper says that from Natural England’s point of view, “we come at this looking at the environmental side, and how it’s possible to align agriculture with nature recovery. Not just making things less bad, but actually nature recovery. And this is what the new policy post-EU is geared up to.” However, he’s very aware of the human aspect, saying that assisting “farmers through public money for public good” is at the top in terms of his presentation of the body’s aims.
Juniper gives some examples of the policy in action: “Switching subsidies into payments for services, carbon capture, water purity, wildlife recovery, public access.” He says Natural England’s role is to assist government in blending these practices in with profitable farm businesses, “and provide a livelihood for people doing the agriculture, at the same time as being able to ensure the food security of the country, to deal with displacing our food imports.”
Juniper warms to his theme: “If we’re going to [ensure] very green farming here and the result of that is importing stuff from the other side of the world at much lower standards, that’s not really a solution at all. So being able to put all these pieces together is really important.” He is only too aware that environmental recovery mustn’t come at the cost of the rural economy, or food security: “This is now the agenda that government is trying to square off.”
Does the combination of Brexit and erratic weather systems mean we’re all going to just have to pay a bit more for our food? Juniper says, “You know, for me it’s not really about whether food needs to be more expensive or less expensive, it’s about doing the economics in an honest way so that we’ve actually got all of the costs in there.” He explains the Government’s new policy of public money for public goods is part of that honest conversation; it recognises that by farming in certain ways you’re not only delivering food, “but you’ve got these so-called “public goods”, which you can’t put into the market: water quality and carbon and insect populations – but which are nonetheless hugely important for society and we have to keep.”
And what of the other side of the eco-fence: the activists? I’ve been longing to ask him about Extinction Rebellion and their energetic, often disruptive, form of protest. Surely a side of him is deeply sympathetic after years of campaigning? Juniper smiles, “Yes, of course. I’ve always seen the environmental transformation that the world has to undergo, from high carbon to zero carbon, from the destruction of nature to nature’s recovery. It’s pretty complicated. And there is no one thing that is going to fix it. So what you have to have is multiple drivers of change.”
He outlines the effective catalysts as being “scientific community: there’s a body of brain power here in Cambridge, documenting what’s going on and giving us lots of solutions. Then there’s government policy and the extent to which you can incentivise and legislate for other things. And then there is the work of the NGOs doing practical work, making nature reserves and introducing species. And then there’s public opinion and the extent to which the media is helping people to understand the issues.” Finally, he arrives at the catalyst of “popular demand, including through protest. And no one of those things on its own is going to be the solution, it can’t be, it’s all of it.”
I say it must be strange for Juniper, having worn so many different caps amongst his different types of “drivers” for environmental change. He replies, “I kind of see myself as having been a bit like a time lord; I’ve been endlessly recycled through my career from being a scientist and then turning into a campaigner and then turning into an advisor of industry and [to] the Prince of Wales, and then turning into an executive at WWF, and now being recycled again into a government official.” I tell him that he has got a dash of Tom Baker’s eccentricity about him nowadays, which is partly down to his wild mane of lockdown hair. Juniper is good-natured about the comparison: “I just feel extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to see all these things from those different perspectives, including back at the Newbury bypass and Twyford Down in the 1990s, doing exactly what Extinction Rebellion are doing now.”
And what of before then? Was he a wildlife-obsessed child in the mould of Gerald Durrell? He nods and says, “This is where it all comes from,” pointing out that a lot of people with careers like his show a passion for nature at an early age: “[first] it’s looking at tadpoles and birds and picking up fossils and stuff, and starting to build on that kind of knowledge and turn it into something which has application in the conservation world.”
I’d somehow assumed Juniper had grown up in a leafy neighbourhood, but he says robustly, “I didn’t grow up in some kind of rural idyll, far from it.” He was actually raised in the industrial part of Oxford – Cowley – where his dad worked at the local car plant and his mum was a waitress. He says his father never quite recovered from fighting “his way right across the desert and up though Italy” during WWII. His childhood’s brownfield sites were actually teeming with wildlife, pointing out that industrial spaces can be “fantastic for reptiles, butterflies and insects.” Adding that “there’s often more biodiversity than you see with farmland if it’s been exposed to pesticides.”
We mustn’t wait for Greta Thunberg and her cohort to sort out our mess
Juniper says he “did kind of ok” at school, but it was when he went to Bristol University, where he studied zoology and psychology, that things started to fly. Afterward he did a masters in conservation at UCL, “which was pretty much the only place running such a course back then.” Nowadays the academic world is flush with environmental study options and grants.
When did he start noticing the major change in focus? A decade ago? Juniper thinks for a moment: “Well, you kind of get waves of it. So there was a wave [in the] late 80s, early 90s, that culminated in the Earth Summit. And that was kind of like sustainability awareness coming through, but not much happened. And then there was another one in the mid-2000s… which is when, at Friends of the Earth, we decided to run the campaign for the Climate Change Act, which won, we got that.” But there was a backing-off after the financial crisis.
Highlighting the difference between now and the Noughties, Juniper says, “In those times it was still the case that if we want to strengthen the economy, we’re going to have to reduce our environmental ambition.” But the will for change started to rebuild “big time” in about 2016: “The science was becoming very, very, clear. But I think it was the public mood that shifted. And now you find it across the political spectrum in politics; at least, there’s no serious disagreement now. We’ve got to go net zero and we’ve got to build a green
economy.” And what of Covid’s effect on motivation for change? Juniper is very clear about the pandemic’s impact: “If this Covid thing had been twenty years ago, I think we probably would have had at this stage a discussion around how we’ve got to deregulate, including on the environment, to get the economy going. Whereas this time it’s much more a question of how we’re going to have a green recovery. How are we going to build low carbon and nature recovery into economic and national recovery? And that’s very, very different. I think what marks possibly the biggest victory of all over recent decades is the extent to which now the discussion about nature or economy has gone, and we’ve actually got this discussion about how we do economy and nature.”
Just as Juniper makes this highly serious point there’s a flurry at the water’s edge. He says, “A dabchick just dived there. It’s gone. It’ll come up in a minute.” This seems entirely appropriate as I want to ask him if he manages to retain optimism, given that many (an Greta Thunberg is just one of them) predict extinction of our species, due to climate change. I can’t help feeling a sense of doom is overshadowing an entire generation of children and affecting their mental health. Juniper says, “If you’re not an optimist you shouldn’t be an environmentalist because the two go together.” Thank goodness for that; although my glee is damped down when he goes on to say, “If you look at all the science we have on parts-per-million of carbon and projected temperature increase, and the consequences of that plus the mass extinction… you can take a very gloomy view of it all and you can, on the basis of that data, quite rationally conclude that it’s too late.” And then Juniper heads back to Planet Optimism: “On the other hand you can say, “Actually, there is still a chance to be able to pull this back.” And that, I think, is the responsibility of all environmentalists: to say there’s still a chance and then to do everything we can to make the most of that chance. And so that’s basically it.”
Juniper wants to make it clear that “we” is not about passing the buck. The question isn’t, “Do you think there’s enough awareness for future generations to sort this out?” He feels it’s up to him, to me, to you: “It’s this generation now: this week, this year, that’s got to sort it out.” We mustn’t wait for Greta Thunberg and her cohort to come through like the cavalry and sort out our mess.
Juniper adds, “I think what would give youngsters a lot of hope is if people with the power now actually did something.” At least one person in power has devoted much energy, over many years, to the cause of the environment. I ask Juniper if his sometime boss, Prince Charles, has received enough recognition for his tireless championing of sustainability. “He is one of the world’s great environmentalists, there’s no doubt about it. I mean, having worked quite close to his activities for ten years, and doing a couple of books with him, his knowledge and his engagement with this stuff, it’s almost without parallel.”
I’m astonished when Juniper tells me that the Prince of Wales made his first speech on the topic in 1968 (the year I was born) on the future of the countryside in Wales: “The reason he’s got such knowledge and such engagement is because he’s been doing this stuff since the 1960s.” It’s no wonder that Juniper describes him as “One of the great heroes in all of this,” while others are “Johnny-come latelys”. Is he thinking of anyone in particular? Juniper won’t be drawn, but says of the Government, “not all of them are what I’d call natural environmentalists.” He makes it clear he’s not on for knocking the current Conservative regime: “What I can say is just how great it is at this stage to be seeing this great uplift in ambition [in terms of] policy: from the Environment Bill to the new farm policy, to the 30% protected by 2030 idea – the tree strategy, the peat strategy, the carbon goal, the nature-recovery piece… I’ve not seen this level of government willingness and ambition before really.”
Juniper will turn 61 in September. Would he ever think of retiring? He says he’s been considering the matter lately, as one or two close friends are talking of winding down. But he says his own response is, “Well, I’m not.” I’ll keep going until I can’t keep going anymore. He cites “dear David Attenborough” as inspiration. Juniper attended the naturalist’s BBC leaving do when he was 70: “Six months later he came back, he couldn’t stand it. And since then he’s done his best work… those Planet Earth series and what he did with Netflix’s Our Planet. All that stuff has been absolutely amazing.”
Juniper believes Attenborough has built on his previous 40 years’ experience, “which gave him the wisdom and the experience and standing to do that extra value at the end.” He pauses and then says, “I don’t know if I’ll get to do anything that’s got extra value at the end but I’m going to keep doing it anyway.” I can’t imagine the person, wolf, or meteorite, that would stop him.