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!
The Mail on Sunday ran a 'story' yesterday on the 'fact' that Richard Benyon, A Defra Minister, earns £2m from EU farm subsidies. On closer reading you will find that the £2m is over a 10-year period and so averages out at £200k per annum.
And the Mail on Sunday states that 100,000 UK farmers share £3bn in farm subsidies which means they average out at around £30k per farm per annum. Because of the way the subsidies are allocated, big farms get big amounts, and I am a little surprised if Mr Benyon's farm, at, we are told, 20,000 acres, receives as little as £200k but it could be right.
The Mail on Sunday also says that Agriculture Minister James Paice, who is a farmer, has received 'several thousands' of pounds too over the last decade. I'd be very surprised if he hasn't!
And, the RSPB gets these payments too - as written about before on this blog. Anyone who owns farmland would be mad not to claim the money on offer.
Last year we wrote in the Guardian about the faults of the CAP - they are manifold and manifest. But the faults are in the fact that most CAP payments are in the form of income support and aren't encouraging more environmentally friendly farming. If we want to give all farmers, including Mr Benyon, the RSPB and the President of the NFU, income support that is fine, I guess. It's support that hasn't suffered at all in the recession which the rest of the economy is experiencing. But the real need is to make sure that that money produces a better countryside for us all. I am sure that Mr Benyon and the RSPB would both want to be near the front of the queue to receive money from a reformed CAP which paid farmers for farming sustainably. The fact that the CAP does not do enough to encourage sustainable farming practice is a real scandal.
The latest edition of Which? Gardening magazine has compared various brands of compost for effectiveness and value for money. Their horticultural experts planted hundreds of flowers and vegetables in 21 different brands of compost – and guess what? Peat-free came top of the pots yet again.New Horizon Peat Free compost wins for the second consecutive year. This goes to show that peat-free can produce the kind of results gardeners demand. Kew Gardens already know this because they don’t use peat. Ditto, the National Trust, Monty Don, Charlie Dimmock and a host of others. Geoff Hamilton, the unofficial patron saint or all amateur garden potterers, was a great champion of peat-free gardening.Case closed, you’d think. But to quote from an RSPB report which went to ministers earlier this week,“The voluntary approach to resolving the problem has failed. Indeed, in recent years the transition towards alternatives has virtually stalled and peat use in the UK fell only 1.63% (around 50,000 m3) between 2007 and 2009. At this rate of decline, the horticulture industry will not be peat free for another 120 years.”So if there are decent alternatives available that don’t cost any more (10p a litre for New Horizon is about average for compost these days), why the snail’s pace progress in moving from the environmentally destructive, unsustainable, greenhouse gas emitting peat based brands to the harmless peat free alternatives?Well, let’s look a little closer. The brand which fared worst in the Which? Gardening survey was also peat-free (Miracle-Gro Organic Choice, you have been named and shamed) and several other peat-free brands produced poor results.And after a quick perusal of a few popular gardening forums it seems that although most decent gardeners know there is good peat-free stuff out there, they can’t buy it down their local garden centre.The Which? article comments: “It’s odd that some manufacturers seem to be further encouraging the use of peat. We have noticed three of the big compost producers are bringing out new peat-based products this year. The launch of these products comes at a time when the peat-free market has never looked so rosy. Sales of New Horizon (a Best Buy compost for containers in this year’s trial), shot up by 35 per cent between August 2009 and July 2010.”On this evidence neither peat producers nor retailers seem to be fully behind the push to phase out peat. The retailers aren’t producing enough high standard peat-free products whilst at the same time bringing out new peat based products, and the garden centres aren’t stocking bags of the proven decent stuff.Why? I’m sure they will cite ‘market forces’ and ‘commercial reasons’, but then they are businesses and can hardly be blamed for trying to make money. So why doesn’t the Government, which can’t hide behind such excuses, subtly change those market forces by introducing a levy on peat-based products, as we suggested in our report this week?If peat-free is cheaper, people will buy more of it and the industry will invest in production and distribution. It’s a no brainer really. The budget is on March 23, watch this space...
The public enquiry on the proposed airport at Lydd is under way. RSPB staff will be giving evidence - probably next week.
Last week, amid the forestry hooha, the Independent featured the issues at Lydd in a long piece by Mike McCarthy.