My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
It’s probably a odd way to start a blog about National Vegetarian Week with the statement “I like eating meat” but I make no apologies, it’s true! So why have we pulled meat from the menu at the Lodge canteen today?
The facts around meat production, and its effects on the natural environment are worth pausing to think for a moment. For the RSPB, livestock, particularly cattle and sheep are critically important to manage many of our reserves, such as lowland wet grassland, upland heath and saltmarsh. Grazing is also essential for many priority semi-natural habitats through the wider countryside. The 27,000 livestock we use for RSPB land management are not pets we use just for grazing either – many of them end up on a plate eventually!
So the RSPB is not advocating a fully vegetarian diet, as those farming systems which provide the greatest wildlife benefits in the UK are grazing livestock farms.
However, the kind of livestock production I’ve outlined represents just a tiny proportion of meat production in the UK and globally, and it’s increasingly threatened due to poor market returns and inadequate public support. The kind of meat you’re much more likely to find in your local supermarket will not have been reared on such a natural diet. For example, most cattle are fed a combination of grass and silage (which are both highly managed and can often have serious impacts on many priority species such as skylarks which are attracted to silage fields but where a high proportion of nests are destroyed) and feed containing cereals and proteins. I for one was shocked to find out most of the cereal crops grown in the UK end up as animal feed.
Because of this shift in the way much of our meat is produced, and because we’re eating so much more meat than we used to in our parents’ or grandparents’ time, livestock production is responsible for a whole host of negative environmental impacts. In addition to the loss of tropical rainforest driven by increasing demand for soy feed, global livestock production is responsible for an estimated 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production is also probably the largest source of water pollution, contributing to ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas and degradation of coral reefs. At a local level, poor management of livestock can lead to soil damage too.
So what can we do about it? Well we all need to think more about the impacts of our lifestyle choices on the environment. This is why I am quite glad that a few folk here at the Lodge might be grumbling about the lack of a decent sausage in the RSPB canteen today. As with any environmental problem, awareness of the issue is the first place to start.
The way our food is produced has a direct connection to the way our land is managed so by supporting more wildlife friendly forms of meat production we can have our cake, sorry burger, and eat it. At the same time too however, we will have to reduce our intake of intensively produced meat in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and negative impacts on land overseas.
Again, all this talk about meat-eating does seem a little strange considering this blog is supposed to be about National Vegetarian Week but by eating less (but more wildlife friendly!) meat, and having more veggie days, it is possible to do your bit for the environment.
Finally - has anyone else noticed the delightful coincidence of Beef Expo (which the RSPB will be attending) falling slap bang in the middle of National Vegetarian Week?
Thanks, again, Sooty. Am off to see our advisory staff tomorrow and will raise this with them then...
Very good blog Martin and in agreement with most of it but of course if beef and lamb were more profitable there is nothing to stop us eating slightly less but instead of growing cereals to feed to cattle grow grass and feed them on the grass,we would gain by having more fertile ground from the cattle manure and use less fertiliser,Hope Farm could become a cattle and sheep farm(now there is a idea).Think you are in my experience slightly wrong(understanably so)about Skylark nests getting destroyed by silage making as I think generally the grass is too thick for them to nest in(same end result but slightly different)It was one thing that I put to Mark that grassland farmers need some alternative answer similar to patches left in ceraeal crops and seems only RSPB can give this type of advice.Of course as most of land probably grassland it would be good to come up with a solution.One strange consequence of most of cereal crops ending up as animal feed is that because demand is high Hope Farm cereals are at record prices(how ironic is that cosidering the content of this blog)Sorry Martin I always see things a bit differently but think on farming perhaps give you a different insight and once again said mostly in agreement with your blog.please do not think I am anti RSPB,off to Nightjar walk wednesday at Arne and would think the walk led probably by one of the excellent wardens there.