“We need to take accountability for destruction on our doorsteps.”

By Ben Mott

Image of a Eurasian Lynx courtesy of Glen Hooper from Unsplash

One of the greatest differences between humans and our fellow tenants of the Earth is our ability to know what is happening thousands of miles away, in the furthest corners of our home. Never before has one species been able to communicate, to connect, so effectively over such a large space. Here in the UK, we know Arctic ice sheets are breaking, 2000km away; we know the last orangutans are clinging on for life, often literally, nearly 12,000km away in the Bornean jungle. We also know Amur Leopard numbers have risen from around 30 at the turn of the century, to over 80 now – a recovery happening 8000km from our island nation, in far-east Russia. This wealth of knowledge on far-away places is a wonderful thing, but the novelty, and almost mysticism, which such distant locations carry can, forgivably, lead us to near negligence over issues happening right under our nose. Home can be too familiar sometimes.

Over a quarter of our native mammals are threatened with extinction; centuries of over-grazing have depleted our biodiversity. Britain’s forest cover, at 13%, is one of the lowest in Europe. How can we demand action on environmental issues happening countless miles beyond our border until we keep our own house in order?

This is a question Sophie Yeo is seeking to address. As lockdown unfurled in Britain, bringing life as we knew it to standstill, the opposite was happening on the environmental journalist’s laptop. Inkcap was born: an essential summation of UK environmental news, which might not hit frontpage elsewhere. In this interview with the ECS (Environmental, Conservation, Sustainability) Society, Yeo offers informed perspectives on pressing issues in UK conservation, from rewilding to HS2, and gives an insight into her Inkcap project, which you can subscribe to here: https://inkcap.substack.com.

Ben Mott - Can you tell me a little about Inkcap, and how the idea came about – was this a long-term vision you had?

Sophie Yeo - I have been an environmental journalist for seven years, and for most of that time I was writing exclusively about climate change. I felt that, while the media’s coverage of climate change was improving, nature journalism was lagging behind in both quantity and quality. Most articles focused on distant ecosystems, like the Amazon and the Arctic. This is obviously important, but there are also complex and interesting debates taking place about the landscapes and wildlife in the UK, and these weren't being regularly addressed with much depth or nuance. I also believe that we need to take accountability for the destruction happening on our own doorsteps. So I decided to set up Inkcap as a place where readers could go for in-depth journalism focusing explicitly on nature in this country.

BM - What do you hope to achieve with Inkcap?

SY - I want to improve the quality of nature journalism in the UK, creating a space for depth, nuance and discussion. There are so many fascinating conversations happening right now about how to restore the natural world, and I think these deserve to be in the spotlight. Inkcap articles are rarely about science alone: issues like equality, access, economics and politics are all central to a healthy environment, and they are central to what I write. It’s also about drawing attention to issues that won’t necessarily make the news elsewhere, and holding people accountable for where we’ve failed to protect nature.

BM- Rewilding is gaining momentum across the UK – sea eagles breeding successfully for the first time in over 200 years, bison coming to Kent in 2022, potential for lynx re-introduction in Scotland – why is it so important, and what’s behind its recent growth in popularity?

SY-The idea of rewilding has been around for a while, but it definitely seems to have exploded in popularity within the last few years in the UK especially. I think that this way of talking about nature has inspired people in a new way. It invokes a landscape-scale vision for the future, and seems to have created new possibilities for what the natural world could be. So much of what we do seems like tinkering around the edges in the face of incredible destruction, improving the planet bit-by-bit, and rewilding has encouraged people to think beyond this, towards a world where nature is allowed to flourish beyond its enclosures.

BM - We recently found out from the RSPB that the UK had failed to meet 17 of its 20 Aichi biodiversity targets. How important is this; how concerned should we be?

SY - The UK’s failure to make progress on these international targets shows the extent to which nature has been put on the backburner by successive governments. Nature is not seen as a priority. There always seems to be something more urgent, whether it’s the economy, Brexit or COVID. Meanwhile, the problem will only get worse – a healthy and inspiring environment needs to be the strand that runs through everything we do. Separately, it shows the importance of holding the government accountable on targets. One thing I’ve learned, through reporting on climate change and nature, is that you shouldn’t celebrate when the target is set but when it’s met.

BM - Boris Johnson has just committed to protecting 30% of the UK’s land in the next decade; currently we are at 26%, but some argue our National Parks are severely depleted of biodiversity despite protections, that barren overgrazed land lies where temperate rainforest should be. Do we need a radical rethink of how we manage protected areas in this country?

SY - People value the land for a variety of reasons: it is a source of beauty and inspiration, it is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, it provides us with food, and it is one of the pages on which our cultures and histories are written. But I think, through all of these uses and more, there are opportunities to increase the presence and vibrancy of nature. National Parks are critical, as one of the few spaces in the UK where large tracts of land are relatively uninterrupted by human use, and therefore offer precious ecological opportunities.

image courtesy of Ethan Wilkinson from Unsplash

BM - HS2, alongside numerous proposed road developments, has drawn significant criticism for their impact on the environment. Is a trade-off between infrastructural development and biodiversity, the natural world, always inevitable?

SY - Development will inevitably have an impact on nature – even brownfield sites can be a haven for wildlife, which tends to move in whenever a tract of land is abandoned, as the rewilding around the Chernobyl nuclear plant has demonstrated. Roads and railways carve up the land. Even when the losses are offset by restoration or planting elsewhere, you’ve still lost the original, which was possibly a special place for someone and contributed to the overall fabric of the natural world, even if it didn’t have any rare or unique ecological characteristics. This isn’t just a modern phenomenon: humans have been cutting down trees, killing megafauna and cultivating land for millennia, in the attempt to build societies where humans reign supreme. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make any trade-offs. People need shelter, food and medicine. But it’s important to think about how we can minimise these needs and meet them in the most nature-friendly way possible.

BM - Finally, which species would you personally be most excited about seeing returned to the UK?

SY - I think an encounter with a lynx would be pretty thrilling.

You can find Inkcap on Twitter @inkcapjournal and subscribe to the newsletter online: https://inkcap.substack.com.

The ECS society are on Instagram @e.c.s_kent_society, and on Facebook @ ECS – Environment, Conservation, Sustainability. Drop us a message if you would like to be added to our mailing list, where we will set out the society’s plans for the year.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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