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've handed the reins of my blog over to Mark Avery for most of June. Mark's sharing the successes and challenges of saving nature around the world in the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.
As far as we know Earth is the only place with life in the universe. At any rate, we can be sure that it is the only place ever to have provided a home for Tyrannosaurus rex, passenger pigeons, a beetle called Aglyptinus agathidioides and the golden toad.
Those four species don’t have much in common except they are all extinct.
The Earth has been through five great extinction events and the one in which T. rex and the other dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago was the last one. Some scientists say that we are in the sixth global extinction event right now – and it’s all down to us.
The passenger pigeon was the commonest bird on Earth in the late 19th century – there were perhaps as many as nine billion of them living in the woodlands of the eastern USA and Canada. Their enormous colonies were harvested, or plundered, and train loads of passenger pigeons made their ways back east to New York, Philadelphia and Washington as cheap food. It seemed inconceivable that such an abundant species could ever be diminished, let alone go extinct, and yet by 1914 there was just one passenger pigeon left; a bird called Martha who lived in Cincinnati Zoo and whose death on 1 September 1914 was global news.
The extinction of Aglyptinus agathidioides was not big news but it did go extinct in the UK. This tiny beetle is only known from being found in a moorhen’s nest in Potter’s Bar in 1912 and despite entomologists looking for it, it has never been seen alive since it was discovered on the day The Titanic sank.
The beautiful golden toad was discovered in the Monteverde cloud forests of Costa Rica in 1966 but has not been seen, despite searches, since 15 May 1989. Its demise is thought to be climate-related; drier conditions may have led to loss of the temporary pools they used for breeding and a greater incidence of fungal diseases.
The loss of a pigeon, a beetle and a toad may not add up to much in themselves but the bigger picture is striking. The IUCN Red Lists chart the number of species threatened with extinction. For birds the figure is around 12% (one in eight of the world’s 10,000 or so bird species) but for other groups, such as amphibians, the figure is much higher (c40%) and for most life on earth (including the beetles) we really don’t have the figures. But for those species we do know well extinction rates are increasing as habitat destruction, over exploitation, introduced species and pollution (including climate change) take their toll.
Considering this is, as far as we know, the only place in the universe where life exists, we aren’t doing a great job of protecting it. It’s not the most uplifting story to tell and it should be nagging away at the minds of those who assemble in Rio in 18 days’ time. But it’s really not all gloomy news and over the next 18 days there will be a series of ‘good news’ stories to lighten the mood!
One species that might not make it to 2020 (the year targeted by governments around the world to stop the loss of wildlife) is the Spoon-billed sandpiper. With your help we can continue to fund a captive breeding programme so we can reintroduce birds to the wild in the future. This work is being undertaken in partnership with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Birds Russia, Birdlife International and the BTO and you can help by making a donation today.
Dr Mark Avery is a former Conservation Director of the RSPB and now is a writer on environmental matters. We’ve asked Mark to write these 20 essays on the run up to the Rio+20 conference. His views are not necessarily those of the RSPB. Mark writes a daily blog about UK nature conservation issues.
Sooty, I too feel your scepticism, disappointment and, yes, fear! As a past RSPB staff member I don't feel terribly proud calling the "Old Firm" to book, but I'm afraid rather more action is needed than is being demonstrated at the moment. The issue needs taking to the Country (again) and an all out campaign raised to bring this ridiculous situation associated with game interests and persecution to a close, once and for all. I've repeatedly Blogged in May ( see my Blog www.birdingodyssey.blogspot.com ) about the Hen Harrier issue and believe more is required than the submission of views on the forthcoming Law Commission Review and the odd press release. Where is the steel of yesteryear? It's as if the conservation bodies are in a boxing ring, all geared up, the bell rings.........but nobody comes out of the corner! Sorry, but more, much more , is needed than at present in my view. Whilst I say this with a strong sense of loyalty, it's also coupled with disappointment and sadness. News, as yet unconfirmed by any official agency, that the only breeding attempt by harriers in 2012 has now failed should surely act as a trigger for action, but will it?
I wonder what the Fair Ladies of Didsbury would have done, although I suspect I know!
Sorry in this instance to disagree,I am of course sure that the RSPB see a different plan will work better in their opinion and after all I acknowledge they are the experts but your last 13 words I would suggest may show a certain naivety for a very clever person in the sense that even in the present RSPB membership hardly anyone knows about the petition.Proven by where I have asked people to sign even on Raptor RSPB forums people who were almost certainly RSPB members did not know about it.
Please do not think I am making a general criticism of RSPB but the difference in particular of the Buzzard publicity recently and the Hen Harrier seems the wrong way round.
That does not mean that I do not appreciate the Buzzard publicity was not needed but the difference in numbers and threat against the two species must mean that the H H needs help 100 times more than Buzzards and if anyone can solve the H H problem there is no reason we could not have them in the sky similar to Buzzards even if not quite in the same numbers.After all in the late 1960s there were hardly any places you would see Buzzards and yet now we see them almost every day from the garden and any short local walk means certain sighting.
Think I will have to hope you have a master plan but of course asking some people not to kill a H H because it is illegal is as my mentor would say like trying to plough with dogs.
We continue to urge Defra and Natural England to fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers and more widely, ask supporters to email or write to their MPs asking them to call on Defra to publicly state that no licences will be issued to kill any bird of prey to protect game birds or other livestock. There are also many more opportunities to come in the form of the law commission review - a once in a generation opportunity to improve legal protect. I can assure you we will not be taking our foot off the gas!
It's also important that we build up a picture of the wildlife that visit gardens and other green spaces in the summer though - just as we do in winter through Big Garden Birdwatch. This is why we are promoting Make Your Nature Count this week and encouraging people to send us their results. As you can imagine, a project like this will have been planned months in advance.
People have lots of fun taking part in these surveys and it's a great way to encourage them to take time out of their busy day to appreciate the wildlife that's right on their doorstep. Just think, if we can help people connect with the nature around them, we may gather even more support for things like the vicarious liability petition.
Really thought it was Martin as his name at the top,realise now preaching to the converted.Apologies in a way but relevant all the same I think.Also a page in Sunday's Telegraph Magazine,my guess is it is about recruiting new members,perhaps they see it more important than Saving the Hen Harrier.
Only realised you had already taken over when I saw you said on your blog that it was your third day on RSPB duty.
Dear oh dear what a carry on,here we have Hen Harriers for all practical purposes extinct in England.We have the RSPBs Conservation Director blogging on extinction and absolutely unbelievable we have a full page of a advert in the Telegraph magazine asking for us to give in my opinion absolutely meaningless information when that page could have got the Hen Harrier petition upto the magic number required.Lets face it the information gleaned could have been taken from BG Birdwatch.
Worse than a Carry On Filim.