I've started my new job as Conservation Director of the RSPB today.
I feel lucky to be doing a job that I love with a bunch of brilliant people around me.
My challenge is simple: to try to protect and build on Mark Avery's legacy and do more to look after the millions of species with with we share this planet. Mark has made an enormous contribution to the RSPB and nature conservation over the past quarter of a century. Having worked with him closely for more than a decade - he was my boss for the last seven - I, and I know many others, will miss his passion, insight and plain-speaking.
One thing I won't thank Mark for is the in-tray that I have inherited. Those of you who have enjoyed reading his top twenty sticky issues will appreciate that the environment movement, and the RSPB in particular, has its work cut out to help and cajole governments to meet their ambitious commitment to halt biodiversity loss and begin its recovery by the end of the decade. The political climate is not easy - there is currently little money to go around, successive governments have pursued a deregulatory agenda and pressures on modern life mean that there is less time for people to stop, think and appreciate the wonders of the natural world. But I am an optimist: most of the problems facing wildlife - from non-native species to climate change - are fixable. We know what needs to be done, but often leadership and political will are lacking.
I will work with my new boss, Mike Clarke, to ensure that the RSPB does whatever it needs with political intelligence, creativity and courage. I am sure that any of you reading this will tell me when we fall short.
It's quite a week to start a new job. There are five elections going on - separate elections for national governments in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, local elections and a referendum on a new voting system. Today and tomorrow, I'll offer a couple of thoughts on what these elections might mean for the environment.
Let's start with the country elections. Devolution has been a reality for much of my working career. But I do remember lobbying the old Scottish Office on seal conservation issues in the mid-1990s and wondering whether change in powers would affect nature. It is odd to think that now any seal, be it common or grey, will be protected under different bits of legislation depending on where it decides to swim. Am not sure they're particularly bothered, but, as nature conservationists, we have to care about and know how the law affects species wherever they live in the UK.
When environmental powers shifted north and west in the late 1990s, it created many challenges and opportunities. The challenge for environmental NGOs was to get increased capacity in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff to influence policy-making and decision-taking. The opportunity was that, if we were smart, there would be a race to the top for environmental legislation.
In the early days, the RSPB recruited wisely, including people like Andy Myles as a parliamentary officer in Scotland. Andy was a political insider who understood the impact devolution would have and began the, at times, tortuous process of educating and training colleagues about the new reality. Colleagues clocked on eventually: when new environmental laws were agreed in Europe, they would need to be tranposed (agreed through secondary legislation) separately by each of the countries; and if we wanted to improve the protection and management of our finest wildlife sites (which in the late 1990s we did), we would need to fight for new laws not only in Westminster (for England and Wales) but also in Holyrood and Stormont.
Andy (who is now works as Scottish Environment Link's Parliamentary Officer) and others fast-tracked our learning so that more than a decade on we work closely with each of the political parties in the countries to try to ensure that their policies benefit wildlife.
As a charity we cannot and do not take sides. But we do try to influence the party manifestos. You can see what we want them to do and what they've been saying by visiting the election pages of our website. These elections matter for wildlife and I am delighted that RSPB members are inclined to vote - 96% at the last time of asking.
It's a big day today - not only are people voting for governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and for local authorities across the UK, there will be a referendum on a possible new voting system for electing MPs to Westminster. While it's not really for us to comment on the relative merits of the Alternative Vote and the first-past the post systems, we can discuss the significance of the local elections. Having pondered the elections for the devolved administrations yesterday, I thought I'd blog on the local elections in England and what they mean for wildlife.
Since the coalition Government came to power 354 days ago, what happens locally has become more important. The Big Society agenda and planning policy reform are both striving to bring localism to life - moving more power to people to enable them to make decisions locally. Local authorities themselves will have more discretion to spend their (albeit smaller) budgets and to help local people plan decide what happens on their doorstep.
Right now, Parliament is debating the Localism Bill. This is coming up with new arrangements for strategic planning, and new neighbourhood plans. The intention to get people involved in planning is obviously a good thing, but there must be adequate checks to ensure that localism does not become parochialism, and that the planning system still helps to protect the environment and ideally make it better. This is no small challenge. There are something like 18,000 neighbourhoods in England - the question for government will be how will they provide the information and incentives to encourage local people to choose to have more nature on their doorstep?
Finally, a note on those fires which have raged on heathland across the UK, from the Mournes in Northern Ireland, Torridon in Scotland to Swinley Forest part of the Thames Basin Heaths. A hot, dry spring has, perhaps unsurprisingly led to fires - through either deliberate or mindless acts. This is not good news given how fragmented and vulnerable these places already are. The fact that they are in sping when wildlife - such as ground-nesting nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers - is breeding, brings more concerns. It is an obvious thing to say, but this is the time for people to take even more care when enjoying these fantastic places.
A cuckoo was calling from the heath today at the Lodge. I didn't hear it as I was in a meeting - new job, new meetings. But I did hear one on Bank Holiday Monday at the Anglo-Saxon burial ground of Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk. It was my first of spring. It should signal the hope and optimism that comes after a long hard winter. But recent declines mean that it can now be a wake up call to the shadow of a future without cuckoos. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons were on to something in the poem 'The Seafarer':
"Swylce geac monað geomran reorde; singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð bitter in breosthord."
(which, for those of you whose Anglo-Saxon is a bit rusty, translates along the lines of... So the cuckoo warns with a sad voice; the guardian of summer sings, bodes a sorrow grevious in the soul.)
But what really struck me on Monday, and on the drive over to the Lodge with a colleague this morning, was the red hue of the meadows. Sorrel has taken over as the grass has struggled in the heat and dryness of April.
And today we learnt that the dry spell and fires that have broken out across many parts of the UK may be having extremely serious consequences on the population of an already rare bird - the twite. Up to 40 per cent of its English population may be affected by fires in the north of England. This could be devastating. The species is confined to the Peak District and has been reduced to just 100 pairs which nest in small colonies. The bird used to occur much more widely in England, but for a variety of reasons has declined.
The current crisis facing the twite population shows how vulnerable some species can be to 'natural' disasters. The tragedy is that the current situation might undermine some fantastic partnership work that the RSPB has been doing with farmers to look after the haymeadows which provide the habitat for this bird.
The result of the AV vote can seem a little inconsequential when the natural world is under such pressure.
But politics does matter, which is why I'll return to the results of the elections across the UK later...
A resounding victory for SNP in Scotland, a stronger Labour in Wales, a night of mixed fortunes for the parties in the local elections and a rejection of a new voting system. The count in Northern Ireland is underway.
As ever, it will take time for the implications of the results to become clear - particulalry for the UK Coalition Government. But we know some things already such as the new cast list of AMs and MSPs and the likely programme of government which is spelt out in the manifestos spell of SNP and Labour. The striking SNP manifesto commitment to secure 100% of electricity from renewable resources by 2020 is one which we support and will be working hard to ensure that this is done in harmony with the natural environment.
I and some colleagues were lucky enough to be at the Senedd in Cardiff yesterday as the results were coming in (Carwyn Jones, the First Minister in Wales was moving between cameras doing interviews - no doubt wondering if only Labour had secured one more seat they'd have a majority). It is a wonderful building, open and accessible with the public allowed to mingle with the politicians and look in on the chamber and committee rooms. It is so different from the atmosphere at Westminster where the public does not have the same freedom to wander without being challenged (or at least steered with a firm hand).
But wherever there are politicians, the RSPB tries to develop relationships with them - across the political spectrum. This is why it is always sad (and sometimes frustrating) at election times when friends that you have worked with for years step down or lose their seat. But a fresh intake of politicians can bring a fresh perspective. Colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will now be setting up a programme of meetings to introduce themesleves and the RSPB to these new elected representatives. Our hope is that they will want to become voices for nature and we'll help them do that..