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.
I spent the weekend under the flight path of a conservation success story – the red kite. While warming up for the cricket season in my friend’s Oxfordshire garden, we had, at times five red kites for company. Up close they are absolutely majestic animals.
It turned my mind to Gateshead where the Lib Dems assembled this weekend for their spring conference. The last time I was at a spring party conference in Gateshead was before the election in 2005. Labour were in town that year. We took time out to show a Number 10 official, Nick Rowley, red kites in the Derwent valley. He was a birder and political apparatchik. A useful combination when trying to influence the content of manifestos. Showing him red kites in all their glory may just have helped him feel more favourable towards environmentally friendly policies.
It’s been quite a weekend for the Lib Dems. They seem to have found their voice. About time too, some may cry.
Vince Cable's interview with the Guardian and his conference speech challenged the view that regulation is necessarily bad for economic growth. "I am going to confront the old-fashioned negative thinking which says that all government needs to do to generate growth is cut worker and environmental protections, cut taxes on the rich and stroke 'fat cats' until they purr with pleasure. I'm completely repudiating the idea that government has to get out of the way. Government has a positive role to play."
And then the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, seemed to direct his fire at the Chancellor, George Osborne, for suggesting in that now infamous autumn speech that there was a choice to be made between being green and backing growth.
Mr Clegg said: "What a load of rubbish. Going for growth means going green. The race is on to lead the world in clean energy. The new economic powerhouses – China, India, Brazil – are competing.
"So the choice for the UK is simple: wake up, or end up playing catch-up. Going green is not a luxury for the good times. It is the best road out of the bad times.
"Our party is the green party of government. We have always been a green party. And let me tell you this: we always will be a green party because we need an economy fit for the future to pull us out of this economic downturn."
I am pleased.
For the past ten years, the Liberal Democrats have argued that their was a green thread running through their policies. They have now been part of the coalition government for two years. It is time to match their rhetoric with action. And what better place to start than the Budget in nine days time.
But, despite the more positive noises to come out of Gateshead, and despite my rather obsessive interest in environmental politics, my friend's garden was absolutely the right place to be this weekend.
What did you think of the performance of the Lib Dems this weekend? Can you think of a better UK conservation success story than the red kite?
It would be great to hear your views.
I don't think yesterday was quite the 'Black Wednesday' we feared but the content of the Budget meant that it was still a grey day. Lots about grey infrastructure and very little talk about about green/natural infrastructure which is just as crucial to our lives.
I noted the more moderate tone but I was certainly not dancing a jig of joy in the Lodge garden. I would argue that the Chancellor George Osborne continued the UK along an economic path which locks us into an unsustainable, high carbon and a short termist response to the economic crisis.
His plan for growth clearly involves building more infrastructure: more roads and more runways and even tax breaks for deep sea oil drilling off Shetland (home to internationally important populations of seabirds). I struggle to see how this is compatible with the green economy we have been promised by this Government.
Of course, revitalising our development is necessary if the UK is to remain competitive but this was an opportunity to put us on a different path - one which decouples economic growth from environmental harm and drives us towards a low Carbon economy. I don't think the Chancellor has put us on this path.
There was one memorable barbed soundbite from Mr Osborne. He said that ‘environmentally sustainable has to be financially sustainable’. I've always seen it the other way round - a sustaniable economy has to one that is environmentally sustainable. This is why we need an economic plan for growth which puts the environment at the heart of decision making.
In the opening paragraph of the Government’s own Natural Environment White paper last year we welcomed the Defra view that, ‘a healthy, properly functioning natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal well being’.
Professor Dieter Helm, announced as the new chair of the Natural Capital Committee, will have his work cut out. His challenge will be to convince the Treasury that the full value of the environment is taken into account in decision-making. And he won't be able to rely on utilitarian arguments alone. While I am partly convinced that it is possible to price water and carbon, we are doomed if we need to rely on pricing species. Ultimately, how much wildlife we want in this country will be a political decision. And any smart politician will recognise that millions of people want wildlife to be part of their lives.
Yesterday's Budget made me wonder how the many Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who are passionate about the environment are feeling. They share the view that the countryside and our widlife are assets which we should pass on to the next generation in an enhanced state.
But the story is still unfolding.
This morning, the Government will release full details of its review of the Habitats Regulations – the most important system of protection for wildlife rich habitats. On Tuesday next week it will also unveil its long awaited reform of the planning system.
We will only have the full picture when once the dust has settled on these announcements.
Until then it would be great hear your views on the Budget.
My quote of the day is from Neil Bentley, the deputy director general of the CBI. He said in December "Environmental regulation doesn't have to be a burden for business. Framed correctly, environmental goals can help our economic goals - help start new companies and generate new jobs and enrich us all." Hear, hear!
But I also note that 70 business leaders have signed a letter to call on the Government to support Heathrow, promote competition and find a solution to this country’s aviation crisis. Shame they failed to acknowledge the environmental consequences of aviation. It is only when social, environmental and economic are considered that we can ever be truly live up to the sustainable development dream. Let's get all the issues on the table and have the grown-up debate.
On a more positive note, Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle MP was out on the Hoo Peninsula yesterday in Grain to see for herself the issues and hear about the anti-Estuary Airport campaign. RSPB colleagues welcomed the chance to brief her on the risks and dangers a Thames Estuary airport brings.
She was clearly listening. This is what she said...
“I am very clear that the right way to plan for the future our aviation industry is to focus on how best to deliver additional capacity at our existing airports, particularly how we could better utilise existing runways.
“The idea of building a new airport from scratch... is a huge distraction. It is causing unnecessary local concern in Medway and on the Isle of Grain in particular. The overwhelming majority of the industry is clear that, were it to go ahead, it would inevitably lead to the eventual closure of Heathrow with a disastrous impact on the West London economy.
“It was very important to see for myself why those in Medway feel so strongly that a Thames Estuary airport is a complete non-starter. The impact on a natural habitat that is home to thousands of migrating birds would be enormous. Added to the site’s proximity to a major LNG terminal, a sunken wreck laden with high explosives and the London Array wind farm, it is clear to anyone who bothered to visit that there are simply too many issues that would have to be overcome.
“I am repeating again my call to the Transport Secretary to agree to serious cross-party talks on the future of Britain’s aviation industry. Those talks should focus on how to provide additional capacity at Britain’s existing airports in a way that best protects the local environment and reduces the industry’s contribution to climate change through tougher targets to cut emissions.”
These seem like decent terms for a grown up debate.
Do you agree?