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.
Some things are easier said than done.
I was struck by Ed Miliband's new soundbite "something for something". The idea that if you are given something then you should be expected to offer something in return. We've had our own soundbite which has informed our approach to many policy debates: public money for public goods. This is central to our arguments for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy. It explains why we are so keen for an increase in CAP payments to farmers which reward them for delivering an attractive countryside rich in wildlife - goods and services from which the public will benefit.
But, CAP reform is caught up in a wider debate about the future of the European Budget. I have blogged on this before and will do so again as this is the subject of a fringe at which I shall be speaking in Manchester this weekend (yes, the Conservative Party conference is just round the corner).
The European Budget needs to be agreed by the end of 2013. That seems like a long way off. Surely, we can expect agreement quicker than that? Alas, as we know too well, European negotiations are challenging. More than that - at times they feel like a social experiment. Let's take 27 different countries, each with their own culture, priorities and history and let's come up with a deal which we can all live on the subject of money during the worst economic crisis since, well since the last one. You begin to see why it might be touch and go to secure a deal within the next 27 months.
What's my point?
The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are caused by humans. And, it is only humans that can get us out of this mess. Influencing change in policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour is at the heart of the environment movement's agenda. So we need to be smarter about the way we work with other members of our own species.
This week, two brilliant RSPB colleauges are setting off to the Panama climate change negotiations. This will be the last set of negotiations before the Ministerial conference in Durban in December when 192 countries will be trying to hammer out a global deal on climate change. While the economic crisis has distracted attention from the dangers of climate change, globally humans are emittting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever before. We are on course for a global increase of four degrees or perhaps even more by 2070. If we reach this the future looks bleak for us and for wildlife – achieving a global climate deal has never been more important.
And that means convincing politicians around the world to do things which may go against their short term interests but are in the long term interest of the planet.
So, if you have ever emerged from a meeting a little battered, bruised and possibly even grumpy with colleagues, spare a thought for those that are trying to agree the EU Budget or those that need to hammer out a climate change deal which satisfies 192 countries. And then think about what it takes to influence those talks.
According to Aristotle, the means of persuasion can be found in pathos, logos and ethos: passion, logic and empathy. This makes sense to me. And we shall need this is spades if we are to learn to live with each other in harmony with nature.
If you're of a certain vintage - probably over the age of around 35 - you'll remember the dawn raids. No, I'm not talking about wartime air assaults or a policeman breaking down your front door. I'm talking about a much smaller, much quieter invader.
You can probably remember opening your front door to collect the milk bottles from your doorstep (yes, kids, milk used to arrive in something called a "milk bottle" delivered by someone called a "milkman"), only to find a big hole gouged out of the bottle top. Not only that, the cream was missing (yes, kids, milk used to contain something called "cream" and was covered with a piece of foil called a "bottle top". The latter was a special currency used by Blue Peter to buy guide dogs, as far as I recall).
The cream thieves were an intrepid and rather ingenious bunch. They crept up on milk bottles and, quick as a flash, pierced the foil top and devoured what my mother always referred to as the "best part of the milk".
What's more, their actions inspired others to follow suit. Up and down the country, the sound of a front door opening in the morning was generally accompanied by a loud tutting noise as the Great British Public realised that they had once again fallen victim to this cheeky gang of thieves.
I'm talking, of course, about the blue tit. No-one really knows when or where the first ingenious blue tit worked out that a milk bottle provided an easy, tasty breakfast. What's clear though, is that other blue tits, and the occasional great tit, were watching with interest and quickly learned to copy their pioneering relatives. Perhaps this was an early form of Twitter?I still get my milk delivered (in bottles), but I suspect I am one of a tiny minority. Alas, the advent of cardboard milk cartons and plastic bottles, coupled with the demise of doorstep deliveries, put paid to the exploits of these avian cream rustlers. But the blue tit has never stopped being an opportunistic feeder with an experimental approach to mealtimes. And now it is putting these characteristics to good use.
If I may be permitted to share another childhood memory, it's of autumn lunchtimes in the school playground, locked in combat with my peers in a ruthless game of conkers. But, like the doorstep milk delivery, this staple of childhood is under threat. Not only from video games and health and safety zealots - the conker itself is at risk from the invasion of the leaf miner moth.
The caterpillars of this non-native moth were first spotted in the UK in leafy Wimbledon in July 2002 (perhaps they came to watch the tennis?). As their name suggests, they "mine" into the leaves of horse chestnut trees. The mines cause the leaves to dry out, go brown and fall prematurely. In extreme cases, a tree can die.
But help may be at hand from opportunistic blue tits. The sudden influx of leaf miner caterpillars has not gone unnoticed by these feathered fans of exotic cuisine. The Sunday Times reports that Darren Evans, a biologist from the University of Hull, has found that blue tits have started to hoover up these invasive pests, which provide abundant and easy pickings during the breeding season.
As a child, I was never very enamoured of the idea of sharing my breakfast time milk with a pilfering blue tit. But I would have been much more forgiving had I known that the same opportunistic instincts could, one day, provide a lifeline for a much-loved tree and my favourite knuckle-bruising game.
photo credit: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
In the excitement of the planning reform debate I forgot to profile a significant new report on the UK Govenment's climate change commitments - Climate Check. This is one half of our assessment of whether the government is living up to the Prime Minister's ambition, stated on 14 May 2010, to be the "greenest government ever". The second assessment - Nature Check - will be published shortly.
Climate Check was launched a couple of weeks ago. But, as it is the topic of fringe meetings at each of the party conferences, I feel justified in talking about it now.
The report was published by think tank Green Alliance in conjunction with WWF, Christian Aid, Greenpeace and RSPB. It is the product of five months’ research and extensive discussions with over 40 officials and ministers across Whitehall. It assessed the progress that the UK Government has made against the climate change commitments that it has made.
The conclusion was that the government has made either moderate or no progress on 22 of its 29 low-carbon commitments. The study suggested there are low levels of support for the government’s low carbon agenda in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and concluded that major opportunities to generate green jobs and increase investor confidence in the low carbon sector are being missed.
The 48-page report examined progress across 11 departments and concludes:
As well as assessing the government’s low-carbon record so far, Climate Check identifies three big opportunities which would help the government fulfil its stated goal to ‘decarbonise the economy and support the creation of new green jobs and technologies’.
These involve increasing cross-government accountability for the transition towards a low-carbon economy and boosting the Prime Minister’s engagement on both the international and domestic agendas.
Commenting at the time, Mike Clarke, the RSPB's Chief Executive said:
“There is a common thread running between the Government’s underwhelming performance on climate change, and its current, flawed approach to planning reform. We are seeing a clear conflict at the heart of the Coalition between green growth and economic growth at any cost.”
In short, the verdict is - could do a lot better.
And on nature? Well, you'll have to wait a few more days...