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.
The crisis facing Ash trees has prompted this post before I pull up the blog-drawbridge for the half-term break.
When people move species and goods around the planet, wildlife populations and ecosystems can suddenly encounter new diseases to which they have little or no natural resistance. The impact can be devastating. Many will remember the damage wrought by Dutch Elm Disease across Britain. In the USA, the planting of a single Japanese chestnut in a New York garden, in 1904, introduced a fungal blight and led to the complete destruction of a whole ecosystem. Untold biodiversity was lost down the eastern seaboard of the continent, and the ecosystem services that the American Sweet Chestnut forests once provided – straight-grained, rot resistant timber that built the first American railroads, and an annual chestnut crop that fed people and livestock across the country – vanished completely in the space of just a few decades.
The discovery of Ash Dieback fungus in a native wood in England should concern everyone. The impact that new fungal diseases have on wildlife seems to be growing sharply. All around the globe, a huge variety of frog, toad and other amphibian species are being driven towards extinction due to the arrival of a novel and pathogenic fungal infection. Bats in the USA are experiencing mass die-offs caused by another pathogen, ‘white nose syndrome’. And at home we are seeing habitats threatened by the arrival of new and plant and tree diseases.
This should be a wake-up call. I am pleased that the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, confirmed over the weekend that further imports of Ash should be stopped immediately. But on its own, that will not be enough. Public bodies must monitor and respond to disease spread, and land managers need to intensify vigilance as the RSPB is doing on our reserves. But there is an undeniable risk that this may be too little too late.
And there are wider lessons to be learned from this crisis.
Governments and public bodies need to ensure that the movement of species into - and out of - the country adheres to the highest standards of biosecurity across the board, with effective screening for the most dangerous diseases and other invasive species. The development and resourcing of an early detection and rapid response capacity will mean that new arrivals can be quickly contained and managed, saving vast expense and environmental damage down the line. And ordinary people need to be given the knowledge and opportunity to maintain vigilance in their own areas to facilitate that early detection and monitoring of pathogens and other new invasive species. The EU is developing new international legislation on invasive non-native species, due in draft over the coming weeks. This is a major opportunity to implement proportionate, effective regulation on species movements and response mechanisms which we, as a European island nation with strong trading international links, should fully embrace.
What lessons do you think we should learn from the ash crisis?
It would be great to hear your views.
It's been a long week, and I've neglected the blog. Sorry about that!
Here, in a nutshell, are three things you may have missed:
1. Leaders did seal a deal in Hyderabad.
After the usual all-night negotiations, countries reached a consensus at the weekend on how to find the money to save the world's biodiversity. The parties have agreed to a ‘Hyderabad Roadmap’ with support to biodiversity conservation from developed to developing countries to be doubled to 10 billion US Dollars by 2015. As colleagues in Birdlife reported here, this feels like progress. Congratulations to all the negotiators for finding their way through the latest series of tough talks.
2. MPs vote against the badger cull
I am sure you did not miss the announcement about the postponement of the badger cull until next summer. However, you may not have noticed that, yesterday, the Government lost a vote on the badger cull. The Government lost by 147 votes to 28 on the following motion:
“That this House notes the e-petition on the planned badger cull, which has gathered more than 150,000 signatures; and calls on the Government to stop the cull and implement the more sustainable and humane solution of both a vaccination programme for badgers and cattle, along with improved testing and biosecurity.”
While the vote is not binding, I do think that this gives the Government another justification to think again. The proposed is extremely divisive. My fear is that anger will be allowed to fester. Farmers and badgers will be in exactly the same situation next summer. As so many have said, the science suggests that culling is not the answer to this serious and urgent problem.
I hope that Defra takes the opportunity to embrace a vaccination programme as the long-term solution for both livestock farmers and badgers.
3. More birdcrime
A former Suffolk police officer, Michael Upson has pleaded guilty at Norwich Magistrates Court of possessing 650 wild bird eggs collected while he was still in the Suffolk Constabulary. This comes a week after the Environmental Audit Committee issued its report into wildlife crime.
And finally, if you want to hear more about the challenges of keeping our birds of prey in the air, I suggest you listen to the latest edition of of Saving Species here.
And finally, finally, this blog will be quiet for a week as I shall be with the family during half-term. Here's hoping the week remains equally quiet for you and for wildlife...
It had all been going so well.
We'd been to ballet, kicked a ball around and dropped into the Cambridge Botanic Garden to play hide and seek.
A good day and, with my wife working, I felt I had executed my parental responsibilities well.
And, as promised we took turns to do the RSPB's new survey to assess how connected we are to nature.
But then I slipped up. I made the rather obvious mistake in suggesting to the girl that we were going to see if she turned into a butterfly. I think I may have mismanaged her expectations. The girl and I did the survey (the boy isolated in a separate room) and sailed through the first few questions...
Humans are part of the natural world?
"Definitely me", says the girl, "we live in the world."
People cannot live without animals and plants?
"Definitely me", says the girl, "we need to eat plants and vegetables."
And then it happened...
Picking up trash on the ground can help the environment?
In her defence, the girl is 5. And we have had one or two issues with litter and so, with a smile, a giggle and good old fashion honesty, she said "Doesn't sound like me".
And so on completion of the survey, the verdict was that she was, well, not quite a butterfly, but more of an indistinguishable creature emerging from a chrysalis. I explained that this was indeed a butterfly but wasn't quite ready to fly. How exciting! No, not exciting.
"I WANT TO BE A BUTTERFLY!" shouted the girl. And the girl, I'll admit, can shout.
Well, we all want to be a butterfly and, of course, the boy turned into a butterfly.
My response? I did what every good father would do. We did the survey again, paused at the tricky question, adjusted the answer and 'hey presto', the girl did turn into a beautiful butterfly.
So you see, we can be whatever we want to be.
What about you? Are you stuck as a caterpillar or have you turned into a beautiful butterfly?
If you haven't a clue what I am talking about, it is time to you took part in the survey. Click here to find out more.