The Darkling Thrush

E.J. Milner-Gulland
5 minutes read

In order not to be overwhelmed, we need to start small and focus on keeping our own nature healthy and resilient. Where I live, we treasure our beech woods. They are full of fungi and golden leaves now, but will have a carpet of scented bluebells in the spring. Here, people can help their local nature in many ways; by building ponds and keeping parts of our gardens wild, using as little pesticide, peat and artificial fertiliser as possible, making sure that we leave places for small creatures to hide away during winter.

Thinking a bit more broadly, we can support local conservation organisations who are working to restore and connect natural areas, and we can show our appreciation to our local farmers who, even in difficult circumstances, manage their land sympathetically for nature. We can contribute to local and regional planning processes and make our views about deforestation, overfishing and factory-farmed foods known in supermarkets and restaurants. It may be a bit awkward to ask waiters to ask the chef if the fish is MSC-certified, but if people consistently do this, the message gets through!

This still may seem a bit limited, but systems do shift as a result of the accumulation of many people’s small actions. For example, a couple of decades ago free range eggs were a niche product in the UK, high priced and only bought by those who could afford them and were committed to animal welfare. Now, they are the default eggs on sale in our supermarkets (just try to find battery-farmed eggs next time you shop). Certified palm oil and fish are moving in the same direction. One of the biggest actions anyone can take to reduce their impact on the planet is to change diet – for example buying local, pasture-fed meat, and less of it, rather than industrially-farmed meat fed on imported soy (which is a prime contributor to the destruction of nature overseas as well as climate change).

This may still seem far away from COVID-19, and from the wildlife trade which possibly caused the transfer of the virus to humans. But it’s all part of the same pattern of humanity’s destructive relationship with nature. This is something which all of us in the UK are complicit in, with our overconsumption and reliance on cheap imported food and goods. These then lead to overextraction of resources, pollution, land clearance, and thence to more disease transmission – coming back to bite us. As Gerald Durrell said, “The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider`s web, and like a spider`s web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we`re not just touching the web, we’re tearing great holes in it“.

As a conservation scientist, this realisation is part of my everyday working life. It’s also visible all around us, even here in our relatively cocooned existence. But I also come across many inspirational stories of people around the world who are turning the tide. Nature can bounce back rapidly if we can only bring ourselves to take our foot off the accelerator. I started the movement a few years ago to share these stories of hope; it’s vitally important to see that change can happen so as to be galvanised to keep going. Responding to COVID-19, I and colleagues from around the world started a new website called, so that people who wanted to make a difference for nature could get inspiration and record their commitment to do things differently. Do take a look!

The phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” is hackneyed, but that’s because it’s true. There are myriad ways to contribute to global nature recovery. But we all have things that we can do in our own neighbourhoods, individually and together, to maintain and restore our local nature. Importantly, we can make time to enjoy the nature around us, and notice the little things that mark the turning of the seasons; I’ve been loving watching the fieldfares which have just arrived in our garden as winter visitors from the east, and am looking forward to the snowdrops which will emerge in February. As the days gradually lengthen here, maybe we will also see new hope for the nature around us and further afield.

Thomas Hardy put it like this at the turn of the last century:

“…So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.”


The difference for us is that we are aware – we just need to act on that awareness.


Join the PledgeForOurFuture team for an inspiring online discussion on December 3rd at 5-6pm GMT: ‘What can I do to help?’ Where we’ll be offering hope by bringing people together around the world to discuss how we can reset our relationship with nature.


E.J. Milner-Gulland | Group leader | Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.
Director, Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS).
E.J. Milner-Gulland is Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford. Previously she was Professor of Conservation Science at Imperial College London, and she has also held lectureships in Resource Economics and Mathematical Ecology. Her PhD, at Imperial College London, was on the wildlife trade, with a focus on ivory, rhino horn and saiga antelopes. Her research group, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, undertakes a wide range of research, outreach and engagement projects, on five continents and in both marine and terrestrial settings. These include developing and applying methods for understanding, predicting, and influencing human behaviour in the context of local resource use in developing countries, and working with businesses to improve their environmental and social sustainability. Her team also works on controlling the illegal trade in wildlife and on designing, monitoring and evaluating conservation interventions in order to improve their effectiveness. She aims to ensure that all the research in her group is addressing issues identified by practitioners, and is carried out collaboratively with end-users, and builds the capacity of young conservationists, particularly in developing countries. She is the founder and chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance and has launched a number of initiatives which aim to change the real-world conversation around conservation, including the Conservation Hierarchy approach to meeting a global vision of restoring nature and the Conservation Optimism movement. She is the Chair of the UK Government's Darwin Expert Committee and a Trustee of WWF-UK

Finally, I am passionate about the conservation ecology of the saiga antelope in Central Asia, and co-founded the Saiga Conservation Alliance in 2006.