On the Pevensey Levels we have recently formed a Cluster Group, formed of 50 farmers seeking to improve their management and understanding of wildlife. The mantra of “more, bigger, better and joined” comes from the 2010 environmental white paper chaired by Professor Lawton, and is the catch-phrase of landscape scale conservation. Our second open meeting was held earlier this July, with a pond dipping session led by local naturalist Evan Jones. Where better to begin an understanding of landscape, the visual composite of compound detail, than in the silt of our ditch network. An early reward for the 20 farmers present was the capture of two very large beetles. One was the Great silver diving beetle and the other a close relative called the Black bellied diving beetle. The difference should logically be the blackness of the belly, but typically proved not to be as simple as all that. The Black-bellied has yellow on the side of its thorax and elytra, but not at the rear. Our attention was only recaptured when Evan took out a tea-spoon and caused one of the prehistoric looking larva to squeak. Now that was worth coming for!
While our fascination grew at the myriad plants and insects present on the marshes, I began to muse on the precise relationship between the farmers and this great body of life. Do we actually own it? Is such a concept ethically or legally enshrined anywhere? Would it be an asset or a liability? Could owning it result in an improved conservation outcome? At the back of my mind lurked the hope that some degree of property right would help inspire better custodianship.
A quick scull through some relevant thinking confirmed that this is indeed a fundamental question, with many answers. The ecological purist may iterate that nature is owned by “each and every species that makes it up.” However, In 1677 the natural theological philosopher Sir Matthew Hale declared that “Man is Viceroy of this inferior world” with the “power, authority, right, dominion, trust and care to preserve the face of the earth in beauty, usefulness and fruitfulness.” Meanwhile, in Mongolia, if one digs up a dinosaur skeleton, anywhere in the country, it becomes part of the nation’s shared cultural property. In other words, it is owned by everyone but cannot be moved or traded without state licence. Grouse, on our British moorlands and pheasants in our woodlands are seen as owned by the keeper of the land.