I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
I left Wellingborough on the 0519 train for London.
I left Wellingborough again on the 1220 train for Birmingham (don't ask!).
As I sat at Wellingborough station drinking an apple juice I flicked through the papers. The Times (but you have to pay to see it online), Telegraph, Express, Sun and Independent all covered our report on bird conservation priorities, and the Guardian printed a letter from us on the state of rivers. Not a bad media day.
As I sat I heard a faint sound, hardly any non-birder would have noticed. The second time I heard it I strolled down the platform to investigate. It took a while to find it as the bird was high up, and actually was four birds rather than one - buzzards. Not an earth shattering sighting (via a 'hearing') but nonetheless a welcome sight over the Northants skies.
A couple of hours or so later I was at the Conservative Party Conference in the hall listening to Caroline Spelman's speech (which I will append to the bottom of this blog). It was a good speech and it is becoming clearer all the time that Mrs Spelman is a good political operator who has a real feeling for the environment. We'll look forward to working more closely with her and her Ministers. I got a friendly wave from Richard Benyon and a brief friendly chat with James Paice.
And then it was off to do our fringe event with WWF's Chief Exec David Nussbaum, new MP Neil Parish and the famous Stanley Johnson.
You may feel that Stanley is famous only as the sire of a potential political dynasty with his son Boris already Mayor of London, son Jo a recently elected MP, and daughter Rachel the editor of The Lady (maybe that one is not so political). But in environmental terms Stanley is famous. Famous as the main author of the EU Habitats Directive which is protecting so many wonderful wildlife sites (and sights, and sounds, and smells) across Europe.
Stanley used to be a Eurocrat, and was also an MEP. After he'd done a stint in the European Parliament he stood down and went back to being a civil servant. Because no-one gave him much to do, Stanley wrote a European Directive! This is also the man who apparently wrote a poem overnight to win Oxford's prestigious Newdigate prize in 1962!
The EU Habitats Directive is not the strongest Directive in the world - but it is a finely crafted one. So it was great to hear Stanley echoing our belief that current biofuels policy is madness and leads to rainforest destruction. There had been an earlier moment in the Conference when a question from the floor made Oliver Letwin (whom we like a lot) look rather uncomfortable as he said that the government supported good biofuels but not bad biofuels but then didn't explain how current UK and EU policy distinguishes between them - and the point is that it cannot!
In our fringe we talked about the fact that as a consumer one has no choice over whether one buys fuel with or without biofuel - the government says that your fuel will contain (rainforest-destroying) biofuels. And as a consumer I can't easily avoid palm oil in my food basket - labelling doesn't go that far.
Later over dinner Stanley talked about various wildlife experiences. He gets wildlife completely! Maybe he will just whisper in Boris's ear that airports in the Thames estuary aren't a great idea?
I hope to see Boris's dad again. He's one of my heroes. And i was glad that he told me he had read about our work in the Times today.
And here is Caroline Spelman's speech which contains some strong Letter to the Future sentiments:
'When I first became an MP in 1997, I didn’t know how many years we would spend in opposition.Or how tough those years would be. But 13 years on, we’ve restored a Conservative Prime Minister to Downing Street – and boy do we need it! No matter how hard I or any of my fellow MPs worked in that time, we couldn’t have got here without you. So thank you, because I know without you I wouldn’t have the privilege of holding the position I hold today as Secretary of State. And what an honour to work at DEFRA! A department which, almost more than any other, deals with the legacy we leave future generations. Biodiversity, climate change, food security, farming, rural quality of life. All of them go to the very heart of what sustains life. Just last week a report by Kew Gardens confirmed that 1 in 5 of the world’s plants are at risk of disappearing. Across the world, demand for food will increase by 70% in the next 40 years. And it’s the food and farming industry which has to face these challenges. But they were neglected under the last government. Not just them, but the whole rural way of life – with the loss of post offices, buses and other key services. We must put that right. Labour left a legacy where both farmers and rural businesses have no access to the internet. And not just them, but a whole generation of children disadvantaged simply because they can’t log on. That’s why we’re determined to tackle this digital divide. The fact is Labour has run our rural areas down. Frankly we’ve got to make up for lost time. That’s why our pledge to be the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ isn’t just a campaign slogan. It’s a mission statement. And let’s make no mistake, it’s one by which we will be judged. Judged not only by the next election, but more importantly by the next generation. Did we stand idly by while species on which we depend perish? Were we looking the other way when our food supplies were threatened? No – conference. Not on our watch. Across government we have people who are focused and passionate about delivering on our environment. Colleagues on the panel here today, and of course my own colleagues in DEFRA – Jim Paice , Richard Benyon and Oliver Henley. Between us we’ve wasted no time getting stuck in over the last five months. We’ve grabbed the Rural Payments Agency by the scruff of the neck and started untangling the shambles we inherited. A shambles that has cost taxpayers nearly £300m in fines and driven farmers to despair. We’ve set about cutting away at the red tape that stops farmers actually farming. And we’re finally tackling the crisis which is Bovine TB. A crisis which costs so much emotionally and financially. And a crisis which demonstrates why politicians can’t just duck the difficult decisions. We’re doing this so that our farmers can get on with doing what we need them to do: Securing our food supply and stewarding our countryside! Farmers need someone fighting their corner. And they couldn’t have a better champion than Jim. And to prove it, we’re working on new measures to help government departments buy food to British standards. And we’re working with industry on honest labelling so buyers can feel confident about where their food is coming from. And people do care where food comes from because they want to know that it’s grown without damage to the environment. Food production is just one of the demands we place on our environment, wildlife conservation is another. That’s why we’ve commissioned the first Natural Environment White Paper in twenty years. It will address the competing demands for our natural resources – and we want your views – so don’t hold back. We want anyone – wherever you live - to help define the nature of England. The environment isn’t just a national issue – on many things it’s global. Like whaling. Richard Benyon and I worked tirelessly to help maintain the ban on commercial whaling. And I might tell you that was no mean feat. But with negotiation – and what a former boss of mine used to call “elegant diplomacy” – we got there. Just as we did when, building on the work of my predecessor, we finally secured a ban on the import of illegal timber. And with CAP reform coming up, we’re going to be fighting our corner to get a good deal for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment. That means being pro-active, engaged, and playing hardball where we have to. We may have to do the same in upcoming negotiations in Japan on how to stop the loss of species, where what’s needed is a fair deal for developed and developing countries on how and where to share them. But ultimately, environmental protection is as important coming from the Town Hall as it is coming from Whitehall. That’s why we’ve asked Cllr Clare Whelan to join on our team as an official link between us and colleagues in local government. We want to work closely with our councillors so under Lord Henley we’ve set up a Waste Review to help shape the services our taxpayers really want. Our work cuts right across government. No longer is Defra going to be ignored Instead we’re working closely with colleagues like Chris Huhne and Philip Hammond. Working together in the national interest. Making sure that sustainability, resilience and protecting the environment are firmly embedded in decision-making in all depts. But the fact is, politicians can’t do it on their own. It needs everyone to do their bit. Protecting our environment is the very essence of Big Society. Whether it’s getting directly involved by helping with our tree planting campaign, or insulating your loft – it all counts. Even if it’s just little changes.And we want to provide incentives It’s not about a life of abstinence and inconvenience. In fact it’s the opposite. The opportunities created by green technology will make it easier and more rewarding than ever before. Imagine being able to turn down your central heating from anywhere in the world simply by logging onto a website. Or using your iPhone to check the carbon footprint of your weekly shop. I’m a bit wary of gadgets personally, but I like them when they save me time and money. And even better if they help save the planet! Green technology is a great economic opportunity for the UK. If we don’t seize it others will. And let’s face it – we need to take every opportunity to grow the economy We’re up against one of the worst financial legacies any government has inherited. But whatever cuts we have to make, we won’t lose sight of the frontline services people rely on. When the Prime Minister addressed staff in my department he referred to it – spontaneously - as one of our key ‘emergency services’. And he was dead right. Disease outbreaks, pollution, flooding – it’s DEFRA on call. So my starting point for making those savings is bureaucracy, waste and quangos. I inherited from Labour a department with over ninety quangos. In five months I’ve already cut that by over a third. But that may not be enough. Conference, The reason we’re doing this is to fix our economy for the future. We need to do the same with our environment. It’s a tough challenge, but for the sake of our children and grandchildren, one we must get right. Thank you'
I didn't know that about Stanley - and it does him great credit - I'd be a bit more enthusiastic than you, Mark, because EU directives seem to be the one thing that can stop domestic governments - and the spin off LIFE funding has achieved a massive amount over the last 15 years. The risk of being shown up over eg the implementation of the Special Area of Conservation network galvanised Government in a way that no domestic issue could - when the UK was in trouble (probably unfairly, in fact) it got as far as the PM - not something many biodiversity issues do, as you well know.
Biofuels remain extremely concerning - it is good to see that the Government focussing on the international impacts of our economic activity in the White paper consultation - but the racking up of huge commitments to use biofuels in UK power stations - now c £16m tonnes compared to probably no more than 5m tonnes domestic supply raises a huge question as to where this material will come from - Bristol Councillors recently turned down an application for a palm oil fired power station - burning palm oil must be about the most direct route possible to rainforest destruction.
And on Mrs Spellman, I agree - some very good thinking in the white paper - but first lets wait for delivery second, in the welter of labour bashing lets not forget the very considerable achievements of the last Government including their determined delivery of improvements to our SSSIs, which the new Government, to their credit continues to support.
I have much more faith in Caroline Spelman and this government for both wildlife,environment and farming.What a disgrace that all those quangos and still farmers lost out on £300 million in fines,now if some of that had gone towards wildlife how wildlife would have benefited.
Now of course because of Labour party's waste this government gets criticised for the cuts they should have implemented.Amazing.
Yes Mark - Mr Stanley Johnson is a ‘hero’ of mine also – as indeed is his son Boris!
Stanley Johnson was ‘quoted’ by the Conservative MP – Mr Gray in the Hunting Bill debate (2003) as follows:
Mr Gray MP House of Commons
“ ………..I received from Mr. Stanley Johnson, a well-known environmentalist, a senior paid adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare and a former Member of the European Parliament. Before I start this section of my speech, I should make it clear that I will not accept any interventions during it. However, I will take interventions when I have finished from Committee members I have mentioned.
This is what Mr. Stanley Johnson says:
• “Tony Banks benefited from IFAW’s largesse for a substantial period during the 1990’s in the sense that his research assistant at the House of Commons was paid for by IFAW. ( So by the way was Elliot Morley’s . . . .) Moreover, Banks was directly involved in the negotiations which led to the gift of £1 million by the Political Animal Lobby (at that time a wholly owned subsidiary of IFAW) to the Labour Party in exchange for a manifesto commitment on hunting.
• Don’t let anyone tell you this was not a quid pro quo exchange. It was. I have the clearest recollection of having lunch in the garden of my farm in Somerset and answering the telephone from the United States to be informed that IFAW officials had done a deal with Peter Mandelson and Jonathon Powell whereby IFAW would put up £1 million and the Labour Party would make a manifesto commitment on hunting. I came to the table and announced as much to my horrified guests”
• Those guests included several well-known public figures that I will not list here.”
£M plus another £250,000 did the trick didn’t it? New Labour? –Corruption personified!
Just something else that the current Government is in the process of putting right – in addition to – as DEFRA minister says - TB in wildlife.
Fascinating to read about Boris's dad. And yes, please do keep up the pressure on biofuels - the great, largely ignored, environmental scandal of our times.