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 the economy stupid - that's what will determine the electoral prospects of the Liberal Democrats". This was the clear message from economist Vicky Pryce at a fringe meeting yesterday. Forget over-used phrases like "maximum differentiation" or "focus on delivery", I sensed that neutral political observers believe that the state of the economy will decide the fate of the coalition partners at the next election.
Which is why economic recovery featured prominently in conference hall debates and the fringe. And the green economy is getting a decent airing.
There are two sides to the green economy debate. One that focuses on clean energy and...? Well the other side which focused on the natural environment is largely ignored.
The low carbon economy story was well told in a new Green Alliance publication which we supported. It's conclusion was that "quietly and without fanfare, green business has become a UK success story, at home and abroad. We now export more green products and services to our competitors than we import from them, and we have become the green financing capital of the world." It was impressive to hear the Director General of the CBI, John Cridland, singing convincingly from this hymn sheet last night.
But what about the role of nature and the environment? What contribution does it make to the economy? Recent studies have shown that the natural environment supports almost 750,000 full time equivalent jobs and over £27.5 billion of economic output across the UK. And we're playing our part. Our reserves across the UK attract an estimated £75 million into the local economy and 2,000 local jobs.
These benefits are more often than not located in more remote, rural or coastal areas, where economic opportunities tend to be fewer and less diverse. The greatest impact delivered by conservation come from tourism spending and from the two and half million visitors to our reserves - nearly a fourfold increase in a decade.
So what should politicians make of this?
First, there must be an acceptance that we need a new approach to economic development and prosperity. Such an approach needs to be resilient to shocks, respect environmental limits and have the potential to deliver sustainable prosperity over the longer-term. We cannot do that without greening our economy and we can't green our economy without conserving the natural world. Want to know how to do it? I'd recommend the New Anglia Green Economy Pathfinder which does a good job at combining both sides of the green economy debate.
Second, once their conference week is over, every delegate should go to a local RSPB nature reserve, recover from the stress of a hectic week, reconnect with wildlife and spend lots of their money in the local shops and pubs.
And I shall prescribe this remedy to my hard working parliamentary team. But not yet, they need to start packing their bags for Manchester and the Labour Party conference next week.
Today, my boss Mike Clarke was at the Natural Childhood Summit hosted by the National Trust where he announced that the RSPB will be part of an exciting movement to bring about real change in the relationship between young people and nature. Here are his reflections and a few more details on the Natural Childhood Partnership.
It’s widely accepted that today’s generation of children are less connected to nature than ever before. Yet, there is now overwhelming evidence to show that contact with nature brings benefits for children and affects people’s life-chances. Indeed, disconnection from nature, especially among children, is a strategic threat to the natural world and humanity’s ability to live within safe environmental limits. Today’s children will become tomorrow’s decision-makers.
The first encounters between children and nature are so important. I was lucky as a child to have access to the woods and marshes of Shorne and Cobham in Kent, and discovered the amazing diversity of life on the edge of my town. I couldn’t have known then that those memorable experiences would stay with me, and spark a commitment to saving nature that has been with me ever since.
To many it would seem unquestionable that exploring the world around you is a critical part of childhood. That’s certainly something the RSPB believes, and children have been at the core of our work for more than 100 years, from our ‘front-line’ activities with junior members and field teaching, to behind-the-scenes influencing on education policy. That’s why we’re delighted to announce the RSPB’s full participation in the Natural Childhood Partnership. We’ll be joining the National Trust, Play England, the National Health Service Sustainability Unit, Arla Foods and Greenlions Films as part of an exciting movement to bring about real change in the relationship between young people and nature.
More information on Natural Childhood can be found here.
The rain lashed down and waves crashed against the Brighton seafront, but inside the Liberal Democrat conference centre there was relative calm.
While the media are on the lookout for divisions within the party, the conference itself seemed to be getting on with the business of policy development and planning how to hold on to their 57 seats at the next general election.
It seems that the party faithful have come to terms with the reality of government. Most seem keen to support the leadership in fighting for Liberal Democrat policies as part of coalition negotiations. I wonder if the public (and media) may take longer to adjust to the reality of coalition politics. When at a fringe meeting the Party President, Tim Farron, said that Nick Clegg was an outstanding leader and would become an electoral asset, the audience responded enthusastically. This may not make good copy for the media, but it seems to reflects the mood of the party.
And it is equally clear that the process of differentiation has begun. The challenge appears to be to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are a distinctive party while governing as part of a coalition. And they need policy successes to celebrate as well.
There are environmental issues on which the party thinks there may be opportunity to demonstrate difference from the Conservatives. This week, while still on the lookout for a new hub airport, the Lib Dems have voted to rule out a new aiport in the Thames Estuary, or other new runways at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick. It has also voted to establish a target range of 50-100g of CO2 per kwh for the decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030 - essentially placing a cap on emissions from power generation. This is welcome. As we argued in a recent pamphlet with Green Alliance, industry needs clear signals such as this to guide investment to deliver both environmental outcomes and jobs.
Over the next couple of weeks we'll find how the other parties are thinking about these issues. As I wrote yesterday, we want competition for the best environmental policies. Which is why I am a disappointed that the natural environment has not figured prominently at this conference. Lots of talk about green growth, but purely through the lens of low Carbon infrastructure. I want to hear more about how the natural environment underpins a healthy rural economy and what the Liberal Democrats will do to protect our natural assets.
I'll let you know.