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.
Here is a guest blog from Richard Benyon, Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries, all about the new Nature Improvement Areas, announced by Defra on Monday:
"The RSPB has played an invaluable role in helping us deliver our vision for Nature Improvement Areas. The RSPB, along with the Wildlife Trusts, have helped lead the way in taking forward landscape-scale projects that enhance our habitats and species but also, vitally, reconnect people with the natural world.
The RSPB’s Futurescapes programme, which has been working across the UK, has seen you work closely with landowners to creates space for nature. These areas, up and down the country, are helping make the places that provide public goods and services more wildlife friendly.
The benefits are clear. Not only will we end up with large, joined-up high quality conservation areas but we will also see cleaner water in our rivers and wetlands, and more sustainable, low-carbon communities that enhance the rural economy. And as if that wasn’t enough, they will also help the natural environment and local communities adapt to climate change.
I believe that these NIAs will not only restore species and create new habitats but will also provide local employment opportunities and enable the promotion of locally grown food. I hope the 12 NIAs will be trail-blazers and that the success of the Partnerships will encourage the development of others around the country.
The RSPB has played a key role in developing these partnerships, which involve – among others - a range of NGOs and Civil Society organisations, landowners, local authorities, businesses, National Parks and universities.
I am delighted to announce that the RSPB will be leading both the Dark Peak NIA Partnership in the Peak District National Park, which will secure the enhancement of 5,800 hectares of blanket bog on five peatland plateaus and the restoration of upland heathland on 2,700 hectares in 12 areas. It will also lead to the creation of 210 hectares of native woodland, improved public access and the restoration of traditional hay meadows.
The RSPB will also be leading on the Dearne Valley Green Heart NIA and playing a significant role in the Greater Thames Marshes Partnership, which falls within one of your key Futurescape project areas. And you will also be playing key roles in five other NIA Partnerships – the Humberhead Levels, Meres and Mosses of the Marches, Nene Valley, South Downs and Wild Purbeck.
These partnerships will see the restoration of ponds and wetland areas, the creation of new woodlands, the reduction of diffuse pollution from agriculture in rivers and the enhancement of grazing marsh, saltmarsh and mudflat habitats. They will also boost our farmland bird populations.
I am delighted that the RSPB has warmly welcomed the NIAs and I have been deeply impressed with the partnership work and sheer enthusiasm that the competition has generated. Today marks a new and exciting opportunity to enhance and restore our habitats and species and I look forward to visiting as many NIAs in the next 12 months as I can.
I hope that the learning from these 12 NIAs will encourage many more NIAs to be set up across the country fulfilling our NEWP ambition to see NIAs wherever the benefits or the opportunities are greatest, driven by the knowledge and expertise of local people.
Please be assured that this is far from the total of our ambitions. Our Natural Environment White Paper and the England Biodiversity Strategy show many other ways we in Government will work with others to reverse the decline in the quality of our natural environment."
What do you think of the Minister's comments?
I am sure that he would love to hear your views.
Nearly a decade ago, the RSPB coined a phrase to sum up our conservation challenge. We wanted to stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.
At times it still feels like our work is cut out trying to stop the rot. Our desire to sustain economic growth does place huge pressures on our finite natural resources. But, we have made great strides in managing and protecting our finest wildlife sites. I am not complacent, but I think that the best places (certainly on land - alas we still have work to do to get marine protected areas established) are safer now than they were twenty years ago.
And now, at last, it seems like there is acceptance that we can and should restore lost biodiversity. Yesterday, Defra announced the winners of its Nature Improvement Areas competition.
I gatecrashed a launch at one of the successful locations on the Thames. Farming Minister, Jim Paice MP, visited RSPB Rainham to meet some of the partners of the Thames Nature Improvement Area.
Thames Estuary Partnership led the bid and worked with the RSPB and local authority partners to develop an exciting project to create and enhance grazing marsh, salt marsh and mudflat habitats in the Greater Thames. In fact each of the NIAs are dependent on partnerships from across the NGO, local government and landowner sectors. Communities coming together to do more for people and wildlife at a landscape scale.
Professor John Lawton, in his 2011 report, Making Space for Nature, made the case that we needed to expand our horizons to look at the needs of nature across whole landscapes. The challenge posed by climate change means that we need bigger, buffered protected areas that are better connected. While this is something many conservationists have been saying for a long time, it is fantastic that the Government has shown its commitment to that approach by investing £7.5 million in these 12 pilots.
We would love the pot to have been bigger, but, in these cash-strapped times it is reassuring that ministers want to invest in nature. Nature will pay them back!
As partners in nine of the projects announced today - from the Dark Peak to Morecambe Bay and from the South Downs to the Humberhead Levels - we shall be working to improve the wildlife in a range of iconic landscapes.
I am glad that Ministers have invested money and political capital in bringing these projects to life. We need these 12 NIAs to be successful, learn from our experience and then apply the approach to other landscapes across England. And, maybe just maybe, there is something here for the devolved administrations to learn from Westminster.
What do you think of the Nature Improvement Areas announcement? Which landscapes would you like to restored?
It would be great to hear your views.
Further to my earlier blog today, here is a personal take on the ASBO from one of our brilliant investigators, Mark Thomas.
He boarded the tube carrying a small pizza box, a rather normal looking man in the midst of East London. He was wearing dark, almost military clothing and carrying a small shoulder bag. The train sped through the city, the suburbs and out in to rural estuary Essex. By now he was fidgety but only to trained eyes. As he left the train at Leigh on Sea darkness was falling, he had meticulously planned it to be like that, he needed the darkness, it preserved his obsession. Walking briskly he was at his target in minutes, he entered the wooden bird hide but to his horror he was not alone, two males with binoculars, flasks and a duty. They were undoubtedly 'protectionists', guarding the very jewels he had come to take. Through the open windows there in the gloom only 30 feet away sat an avocet incubating four precious eggs, sadly from that moment these four eggs were only destined to become statistics. He left the hide and hid up like a fugitive.An hour later the voluntary wardens had left, their duties fulfilled. It was black; suddenly the night air was filled with the twin distress calls of Avocets and humanity. A dark human figure lurched in to the mud and water; it was all rather easy despite the injury caused by hidden metal debris. Within minutes the lagoon was quiet, the calm returned but three pairs of avocets had now lost a total of 12 eggs. Back on the tube, eggs nestled in the pizza box, the now wet but triumphant Matthew Gonshaw blended back in with society once more. Safe in his flat, he performed the last rights, blowing the embryos from the shells, documenting his raid and hiding the eggs under a set of drawers.Following intelligence from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, almost two months later, in the very same flat, officers from the MET Police Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Investigations found the Avocet eggs amongst 700 other eggs, golden eagles, ospreys, kites to name but only a few. There was no celebration; the flat screamed with the silent calls of ghosts. An eerie place, uncomfortable for most. Gonshaw was jailed for 6 months for these offences in December 2011 but showed no sign of remorse, quite the contrary. This was his fifth conviction, his fourth spell in prison and the deterrents he had faced really didn’t outweigh his obsession for taking eggs. Not just any old eggs but those of truly amazing birds. After reading his dairies and interviewing the man, one particular aspect of his obsession stood out streets above the rest, he was driven by his annual visits to remote parts of Scotland, where he could test his survival skills, obtain freedom and plunder the rarest of the rare. This was his nirvana, his place of power and ultimately his Achilles heel.A meeting of minds between the MET Police, CPS and RSPB Investigations resulted in a new approach, fresh thinking and strong purposeful action. The collective outrage of nest protection volunteers, conservation staff and wildlife Police needed to be harnessed in a way to make it impossible for a court not to act. Ten amazing people put pen to paper and Stepped up for Nature.
Late last Friday, Matthew Gonshaw statistically became the first ever person to receive an ASBO for crimes against nature. He was banned from leaving England to visit Scotland between February 1st and August 31st for TEN YEARS. In addition he also had 7 other conditions imposed including being banned from all RSPB and Wildlife Trust land as well as the obvious, not to take or possess wild bird eggs.
If he doesn’t stop he can now be brought back to court for breaching the ASBO and that offence carries a maximum of up to 5 years in prison and a £20,000 fine.
Hopefully, no longer will ospreys and golden eagles be robbed by him, no longer will volunteer wardens feel despair when he has taken their eggs and no longer will the authorities be powerless. Let’s be hopeful that those 12 avocet eggs have saved thousands of other birds, that’s a much more positive statistic for Saving Nature.