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Environmental management and nature conservation in agriculture catchments

Environmental management and nature conservation in agriculture catchments

Since the early 1980's long-term research has been undertaken at Slapton Ley, Devon with several co-workers, research assistants and postgraduates, mostly involving work on solutes, especially nitrate. The most recent development is the work of postgraduate Marika Zai (2002 - to date) on 'The roles of environmental information and institutions in environmental management, Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve Devon' is working on management decisions based on the role of scientific data and the deeper assumptions about nature (presentation at RGS/IBG 2004; thesis submission due 2006). This work has involved interviews with personnel from Statutory Bodies (e.g. EA, EN, Water Authority) and local farmers about the role of scientific information in decision making.

Aerial view - Slapton Sands & Ley
(Picture from
Aerial view - Slapton Sands & Ley

Allied to this project is the work of mature part-time research student Andrew Casebow (2003 - ) on the motivations for the formulation and adoption of agri-environmental schemes in Jersey, as well as the work of an MPhil student of nature conservation on farmland in Cambridgeshire.

In 2000-2001 the shingle ridge at Slapton Ley was eroded, severing the road link which runs along the ridge and threatening the National Nature Reserve. Surveys of local attitudes towards this in 2001 and later in 2004 revealed environmental meanings relating to narratives about nature and a sense of place. The academic discourse which allocates different environmental meanings to each group of players can be seen as ascribing a formality and a precision of meaning about the differences which do not necessarily exist. While there were not only predictable differing initial responses from interest groups there was also considerable subsequent negotiation of views.

In The Politics of Environmental Discourse, Hajer (1995) writes that:

"actors are not totally free, [they are] holders of specific positions, entangled in webs of meaning... [and] once having taken up a particular position.... a person inevitably sees the world from a vantage point of that position and in terms of the particular images, metaphors, story lines and concepts [associated with that position]."

Hajer also observed that "political change may ...well take place through the emergence of new story-lines that re-order understandings". In the context of negotiation, Whatmore and Boucher (1993) see "the planning system as a bargaining process". Here, it is suggested that the positions taken can relate to environmental meanings derived from a sense of place, as revealed by the rehearsal of cognate narratives. The subsequent negotiations of meanings involved a learning process which included not only the assimilation of new information but also the exposure to, and adoption of, narratives rehearsed by others.

These suggestions stem from involvement in public meetings and surveys of opinion at the National Nature Reserve (NNR) at Slapton Ley in South Devon, UK. Here, there is a freshwater lake separated from the sea by a shingle ridge. The lake, other freshwater habitats, woodland and the ridge itself make up the nature reserve which is administered by the Field Studies Council, who have a Field Centre there, and by English Nature (EN).

A main road runs along the shingle ridge, which is seen as a vital lifeline by local inhabitants. The ridge has been retreating, leading to the undermining of the road. In December 2000 and January 2001 the beach at Slapton was eroded by the sea to the extent that the road (locally called 'Slapton Line') was damaged and became impassable. The situation led to a direct conflict between those local people who would preserve the road for social and economic interests and those who saw nature and natural processes as a priority. The latter often rehearsed the narrative of 'letting nature take its course', with the attendant implication that the road could be lost. At the level of the statutory bodies, there emerged a clear policy conflict between those who had a duty to maintain the road and those who were charged with responsibility for nature conservation.


  • McDowell R, Trudgill, S. T., (2000) Variation of phosphorus loss from a small catchment in south Devon, UK Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 79 (2-3): 143 - 157l