We are absolutely delighted to welcome Prof Alastair Driver, the Director of Rewilding Britain, to River Action’s Advisory Board! In our latest blog, we find out more about Alastair’s life and professional experience as one of the most experienced river and wetland conservationists in the UK.
I’ve been immersed in rivers and streams since I was knee-high to a heron. As a young boy with a charismatic naturalist father and a playground in the middle of nowhere on the Cotswold scarp between Gloucester and Stroud, it was inevitable that if I wasn’t chasing butterflies with a net twice my size, or clambering up the majestic local Elm trees, then I could be found – admittedly largely unsuccessfully – trying to catch an elusive eel, or being a highly inefficient beaver, trying to dam the local stream.
By a huge stroke of luck, my degree in Ecology at Lancaster University led immediately into a Manpower Services Commission contract carrying out wildlife surveys of the rivers and streams of Gloucestershire throughout the blissful summer of 1978. One thing led to another and I found myself in the role of Fish Rearing Officer for the Thames Water Authority in 1983 responsible for, amongst other things, rearing Atlantic Salmon in an attempt to re-establish a self-sustaining population in the Thames catchment. Then I got my lucky break. Within 18 months of joining TWA, I landed their first-ever Conservation Officer job. There were no rules, no budget, nothing. Just me and my dog Tigger. I freely admit I made it up as I went along – certainly to start with! But 20 years later when I moved on to become Head of Conservation for the Environment Agency, I was able to leave behind the legacy of a department of 30 superbly expert conservation staff, a multi-million £ budget, 20 years of improved local policies and practices and a portfolio of hundreds of river and wetland creation and restoration projects, of which of course I am hugely proud.
My 14 years as National Head of Conservation for the EA followed a similar pattern but was of course focused on national policy and strategy. Initially there was a dearth of conservation policy and guidance, I only had 4 staff (the EA total was app 10,000) and the funding for EA conservation was frankly pathetic. But again assisted by a brilliant team, we built a department of over 20 staff with a direct influence on > £100m of expenditure and nature conservation scrutiny of everything the EA did. During that time I also persuaded the organisation to allow me to lead a bid to win the International Riverprize for the Thames based on the whole catchment approach to river management. This focussed on 5 strands – working with farmers to address agricultural diffuse pollution, major biodiversity enhancement through sustainable capital flood defence schemes, creating a strategic river restoration strategy for London, reducing storm sewer overflow impacts in the Thames Tideway via the “super-sewer” and mitigating the impacts of climate change on coastal habitats via managed realignment. This showcased many decades of work by many thousands of people from many dozens of organisations and it was the undoubted highlight of my career to receive that award on their behalf in Perth, Australia in 2010 in front of 700 of
the world’s leading river management experts. Less enjoyable was lugging the huge, weighty trophy around Australia on holiday afterwards! I’m delighted to say that the bid team quickly agreed to hand over the $350,000 prize money to a project aimed at reducing human impact on the Yamuna River in India.
In 2016 after 34 years in public service I felt it was time to move on and take up a new challenge, so I dived into the unknown and within 3 months I’d certainly found that challenge, because I had become the Director of Rewilding Britain. My role then, as it is now, was twofold – firstly I travel the country advising large landowners and landowning organisation on rewilding at scale, and secondly I advise politicians and policy-makers on policy and funding to help mainstream rewilding as one of the many tools in the toolbox of nature recovery and climate change mitigation. I haven’t got time here to go into much detail, but in summary rewilding is the large scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. It involves a spectrum of activity, but one of the really important principles is that it seeks to restore natural processes at scale. And this is where my day-job links perfectly with the aims of River Action UK. We need to be restoring natural river processes at scale to achieve not only a healthy environment but a healthy economy and we cannot possibly do that if we are discharging raw sewage into our rivers, abstracting water well beyond sustainable levels and allowing run-off from huge tracts of farmland to pollute our rivers even further. Rivers are both the arteries of the landscape and its beating heart and quite frankly treating them like sh*t is only going to end one way for us.
In all my years raising money for and overseeing physical river restoration projects, I and my colleagues were driven on by the knowledge – or so we thought – that water quality was improving all the time because sewage works technology and farming rules for water etc were all heading in the right direction, so our efforts would soon be rewarded with swimmable, fishable, drinkable rivers everywhere. How wrong we were. How naïve we were. What has happened to our rivers and coastal waters in the last 30 years or so is a national disgrace. The water companies, the regulatory bodies and successive governments have all let us and themselves down really badly. Now we need to make sure they put that right – and fast – because as every year passes, the challenge and cost of sustained recovery increases dramatically.
It therefore goes without saying that it is a privilege for me to join the Advisory Board of River Action UK. Now I’ve got a chance to help make it right before it’s too late.
Prof Alastair Driver