The Covid Chronicles Part III: Intractabilities

This is the third in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them.

A shot rings out across the valley, shattering the silence that we’ve come to associate with lockdown. In this quiet corner of the French Pyrenees, the local hunting community has just been given special dispensation to restart the hunting season, in spite of the widespread restrictions on movement for the general public. The sound of the shot is swiftly followed by that of hounds barking excitedly as they pursue their quarry. I ask my neighbour, a keen hunter himself, to explain the story. ‘It’s the damage the wild animals cause’, he says, ‘something like €130 million worth of damage to crops and trees. Especially the deer and the wild boar. Do you know there are 40 deer just here in the wood behind our houses? We have to control their numbers for the foresters. I’m going out on Saturday to help.’

Red deer caught by a camera trap in the French Pyrenees © J.Carruthers-Jones

Two days earlier I’d received an email circular from France Nature Environment, a major French nature conservation NGO. They were also keen to tell their story. There’s no reason, they argued, for creating two categories of citizen: those who can practise their leisure activities because they carry weapons and those who can’t because they carry only binoculars. They acknowledged that wild boar numbers were problematic, highlighting other measures that could also have a significant effect on managing their population whilst not threatening other key species in the trophic cascade. The focus of their story, however, was that everyone should be given the right to access nature for leisure, even during lockdown.

COVID-19 regulations, it seems, are no exception to the issues surrounding nature conservation, even in this remote corner of Europe. Lockdowns are in many ways defined by the key themes – boundaries and mobility – that concern us in the ‘Corridor Talk’ project. In France, clear boundaries are specified for our movements during lockdown. Normal daily exercise must take place within a radius of 1km from our homes. Spatial limits are monitored by the police, albeit less rigidly now than during the first lockdown. A signed ‘attestation’ specifying a valid reason for going out, such as buying food, must be completed and brought along whenever one leaves the house. Rightly or wrongly, the existence of different rules for hunters and non-hunters, with different rights of mobility and different boundaries, has the potential to create conflict.

The human/non-human animal divide also separates users of the landscape into two distinct publics, and this binary is frequently seen as a driving factor of conflict. As my colleagues on the ‘Corridor Talk’ project have pointed out, conservation conflicts are often described as ‘wicked problems’. They represent intractable struggles between competing outcomes, some of which are good for humans and others good for non-humans. These are never truly resolved, nor do they simply go away; rather they’re reworked over time towards compromise solutions that are more acceptable or less acceptable to different actors. Humans have been living alongside other species in the Pyrenees for millennia, and while so much has changed during this time it was only as human presence increased pressure across the entire landscape that intractable conflict in the way we experience it now began to emerge.

In Work Package 2 of the ‘Corridor Talk’ project, ‘Immersions’, we explore a classic example of an intractable conservation question, focusing on how humans and large carnivores, specifically bears, coexist in the same landscape. Our main aim is to consider how people move through wild spaces such as national parks, and how they experience the wild species they encounter in these spaces. A focal point of the research is the brown bear, a number of which have been reintroduced to the French and Spanish Pyrenees in recent decades in order to boost their dwindling population. Their reintroduction speaks directly to the idea of ‘connectivity’, a much-used term in conservation science which is central to the project, evoking the key concepts of mobility and boundaries that are also played out during lockdown. In telling the story of human relations with bears in this region, attitudes are often classified by the media into those that are strongly opposed to reintroduction – typically hunters and sheep farmers – and those strongly in favour, typically environmentalists. This polarisation of opinions not only masks the complexities of the story but can contribute to the intractability of the problem. A more constructive telling of the story would not only give all of those involved a voice, but also require them to listen to each other. All those who move through or have a stake in this mountainous landscape have a story to tell: the shepherd, the environmentalist, the hunter, the National Park warden, the tourist, perhaps even the bear, if we knew how to hear it. One simple way to listen is to observe the respective behaviours of these stakeholders. Bears for example go where they will, having no awareness of national, local or protected area boundaries. Their movement decisions are based primarily on the physical geography of the landscape and the suitability of the habitat this offers them.

Brown bears (Ursus arctos) caught by a camera trap in the French Pyrenees © ONCFS EQUIPE OURS

One male bear, recently reintroduced on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, promptly crossed over to the French side and stayed there. The mobility of the bears across administrative regions is clearly at odds with the fixed spatial boundaries of grazing rights afforded to shepherds. The conservation choice to reintroduce bears and protect their mobility rights has arguably had a negative impact on the livelihoods of sheep farmers who can’t change location, and whose flocks are now vulnerable to predation. Whilst sheep farmers are on the frontline of this apparently intractable conservation conflict, a diversity of other voices clamours to be heard. Tourists appear favourable to visiting areas where there is the possibility, however remote, of spotting a reclusive wild animal. At the international level, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) promotes the conservation and restoration of bear populations where they are threatened, warning that the drawing of boundaries, even those as simple as fencing off an area of cropland, can in fact exacerbate rather than alleviate conflict. The traditional conservation response to protecting biodiversity has been exactly the opposite of this. National parks were established to protect threatened species, yet their relatively small size, especially in Europe, along with the fragmented nature of the landscapes in which they are situated, undermines such a static approach to the long-term conservation of these species. The impact of national parks on conservation might be more significant if they more closely resembled what the IUCN classifies as wilderness areas: ‘large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition’. This idea has grown in prominence in France since President Macron announced in 2019 an ‘objectif de 30% en pleine naturalité’ (a goal of 30% of French protected areas to be fully natural), and a strategic review of protected areas for 2020-2030 is currently underway. This ambitious goal still seems some way off, however. In the meantime, as the Pyrenean bears move towards hibernation and sheep flocks have now mostly been brought down to lower altitudes for winter, silence descends on the higher mountains, a seasonally imposed lockdown as man and nature cycle through their annual rituals. In the foothills, the hunting season has only just begun.

What to Read: New Book on the Bavarian Forest National Park

This is the first of our reviews of new publications related to our project interests. To read about our own project publications, please see the Publications page on this website.

The Bavarian Ur-Wald: History, Politics & Nature in the Bavarian Forest National Park

by Graham Huggan

Urwald der Bayern: Geschichte, Politik und Natur im Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald. Ed. Marco Heurich and Christof Mauch, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020

The appearance of this comprehensive volume commemorating 50 years since the establishment of the Bavarian Forest National Park (Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald) in 1970 is serendipitous. The essays contained within it offer some illuminating perspectives that will be highly relevant to our project as it moves forward over the next couple of years. As might be expected, the overall tone of the volume is celebratory, and the park, which is now visited by well over a million people every year, is largely seen as a resounding success in both economic and ecological terms. At the same time, the individual essays, as well as Marco Heurich and Christof Mauch’s excellent introduction, point to the contemporary as well as historical challenges involved in managing the park – a contested space which has been assembled around deeply contested terms. For one, in spite of the Urwald of the title, the Bavarian Forest is not technically speaking ‘primeval forest’; nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘wilderness’ (Wildnis), although both of these terms continue to play an important role in how the park is seen and acted upon, as a popular symbol of the regenerative properties of the wild.   

The essays also make clear that the park has been a political project, and that politics has a continuing role to play in confronting such challenges as mass tourism, invasive species, and accelerated climate change. Key political as well as ecological questions raised here include whether nature is best left alone or adapted to human needs and interests; whether large national parks such as the Bavarian Forest should be managed according to conservationist or preservationist impulses; and what is meant – and to whom – by the multifaceted and, in some respects, historically troubled term ‘national park’.

Another issue concerns the implications that the national park has for particular (nonhuman) species – both those in need of protection and those seen as threatening the biodiversity of the park. A case in point here is the popular motto ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ (‘let nature be nature’) adopted by the Bavarian Forest’s first director, Hans Bibelriether, whose retrospective closes the volume. The motto, since extended to Germany’s other national parks, has been used to justify a policy of non-intervention. Its best-known instances revolve around the spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) that has alternately been seen in the Bavarian Forest, but also other national parks affected by it, as a valuable ‘natural disturbance’ agent and as a vicious pest. The romantic echoes of ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ are in potential conflict with the day-to-day demands of park management; they also highlight popular public perceptions of what a protected area ‘should look like’. As Thomas Michler and Erik Aschenbrand’s essay here convincingly shows, preservationist slogans such as ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ have the kind of mass appeal that can have valuable knock-on effects for conservation. However, they also have the potential to create or consolidate romanticized misunderstandings, even systematic erasures such as the rounding up and eviction of Indigenous peoples to make way for some of the US’s most celebrated national parks.

That such conditions tend not to apply in Europe is no reason not to remain vigilant. It also reminds us, as Bernhard Gissibl mentions in his essay, that national parks are effectively transnational or even global entities, and that their histories, however much they may reflect particular national interests, repeatedly collide and intersect. While the entire volume is of relevance to our own project, special mention should be made here of an informative chapter by a member of our own research team, Pavla Šimková, on the fraught political history of park management on the park’s ‘Czech side’, the adjoining Šumava national park, and what the effects of these historical legacies are for current transboundary management practices. An equally wide-ranging chapter by Martin Müller and Nadja Imhof explores the symbolic as well as material importance of altered landscapes where not-always-wished-for transformations, such as those engineered by the bark beetle, have been produced by natural means.

The slightly opaque term ‘natural means’ is itself open to question, and one of the many valuable insights of this volume is that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, whose meanings have in any case never been stable, are inextricably entwined. The contributors and editors have produced a book which, in addition to being readable in its own terms, also raises many of the questions that our own project asks. I suspect that, as does this book, our project will leave many of those questions unanswered; but perhaps that’s only fitting for the inherently but also productively contestable status of its primary research locations: national parks.

The Covid Chronicles Part II: Invisibilities

This is the second in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them. Stay tuned for the next piece in the series!

Things to See in the Bavarian Forest

by Graham Huggan

In his 2017 article ‘Predicting zoonoses’, the American science writer Karl Gruber notes that global pandemics are ‘wicked problems’ in so far as the planet is ‘riddled by invisible pathogens that could jump into humans at any time anywhere in the world.’ The article is prescient, but pandemics like COVID-19 are very much part of our world, and they have been for some time now. It’s easy enough to blame the germs – that malevolent host of invisible enemies that perversely spawn and spread within us – yet it is not the viruses that are the villains, nor the various animals that carry them, but rather we ourselves for having created and consolidated the conditions under which they emerge. As my ‘Corridor Talk’ colleagues have already pointed out, the ironies begin to multiply when a research project organized around the relationship between human/animal mobility and boundaries is stymied by a pandemic in which invisible creatures effortlessly breach one kind of protective boundary (the human epidermis) even as another (national borders) is pre-emptively closed. The question of access is central here – who has the right to move or not, and the extent to which unwanted movements are controllable – but equally important is the question of visibility itself.

Continue reading “The Covid Chronicles Part II: Invisibilities”

The Covid Chronicles Part I: Inaccessibilities

This is the first in a series of blog posts chronicling research in the time of Covid19. In writing these pieces, we are exploring ways to try and use the pandemic restrictions as a means of thinking productively about our case study areas and the mobilities (and now immobilities) that are coming to bear on them. Stay turned for the next piece in the series!

Imagining the Wadden Sea

by Eveline de Smalen and Katie Ritson

When we received the news that our project proposal “Corridor Talk” had been successful and we would have funding to work on the Wadden Sea National Parks, the two of us were looking forward to getting our feet wet. However, just a few weeks after the project started, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe and all travel plans had to be put on hold indefinitely. No fieldwork and no travelling to meet our project partners; along with many others, we were going to be starting our explorations of the national parks from the comfort of home office in two different places: Katie in Munich, Germany, and Eveline in Groningen, the Netherlands.

Continue reading “The Covid Chronicles Part I: Inaccessibilities”

Fieldwork in the Time of Corona

What seemed like such a great idea when we designed this project – to focus on national parks that lie across or abut national borders – is proving something of a headache today, as the spread of the corona virus has closed down borders and made travel almost impossible. All plans for fieldwork this summer are currently on hold while we await developments. Meanwhile, while we are stuck in Munich, Leeds, and Groningen respectively, the migrating birds are returning to their breeding grounds on the Wadden Sea, bears are perhaps enjoying the decrease in human visitors to the Pyrénées, and bark beetle in the Bavarian Forest remain oblivious of the closed border between the Czech Republic and Germany. It’s a reminder that mobilities are experienced and enacted very differently by different species – something we are hoping to look more into as this project proceeds.

Kick-off meeting in Leeds

By Katie

The first official project meeting just took place, on 27th February at the University of Leeds. Lots of things to discuss—how to integrate the two new postdoc positions and fieldwork into the project timeline, how to collaborate in co-writing articles, when exactly to hold our first, exploratory workshop. We are looking forward to keeping this site updated as our plans progress!

Introducing the Corridor Talk Project

Our project “Corridor Talk: Conservation Humanities and the Future of Europe’s National Parks,” funded jointly by the German Research Council (DFG) and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), launches officially on 1 February 2020 and runs for the next three years. Featuring a team of six researchers, three based at the University of Leeds and three at LMU Munich, this project applies interdisciplinary perspectives derived from a new field partly pioneered at Leeds, conservation humanities, which examines the humanistic aspects of biodiversity loss. These perspectives will be used to consider the past, present, and future of four of Europe’s most iconic national parks: Wadden Sea National Parks, Pyrénées National Park, and the Bavarian Forest and Šumava National Parks.