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 world obviously did not stand still just because some of us decided to take a break over half-term. While I had a great week, it was difficult to ignore the headlines and, at times, not be frustrated by the way the environment can get sidelined in public debate. Here are fives examples...
The vote on the EU Budget in the House of Commons demonstrated how narrow political debate can be. Given the posturing and political positioning over the size of the Budget, I was amazed to hear no reference to what the EU Budget would actually be spent on. Size is not everything. About a trillion euros of European taxpayers money (or a little less if the Labour party and c50 Conservatives get their way) is to be spent over the next six years. You might have expected a little bit of discussion about how this money would be spent and whether the current spend was good value for money. Maybe if I read Hansard I will proved wrong, but the press has certainly failed to contribute to the quality of the debate. As I have written previously, much of the existing spend could be redirected. We want the money to be spent on things that European taxpayers will benefit from - for example supporting farmers who deliver an attractive countryside rich in wildlife which people can enjoy. And to realise this ambition we need the public debate about the forthcoming EU Budget to be just a little more sophisticated.
The same must apply to the debate about the future of aiports in the UK. Michael Heseltine called for an early decision, Boris Johnson wants expansion of Heathrow to be ruled out and Sir Howard Davies, in charge of the independent Commission, told everyone to calm down. Remarkably, the Today programme, (at 8.10) whilst rightly highlighting the consequences for wildlife if an airport in the Thames is build, spent 20 minutes discussing the options without mentioning the consequences for greenhouse gas emissions. I have been a supporter of the independent Commission as it allows an objective assessment about whether a hub is needed and if so where. It should also ensure that the environmental and social implications are considered as well as the economic concerns. Taking the heat out of a political debate is no bad thing. If only the same could be said of...
...Wind power. The current debate about the role of onshore wind is a bit like Groundhog Day. It seems like we are back in the mid-noughties when two sides of the debate either ignored the environmental consequences of wind farms in the wrong place or ignored the significance of the new technology in tackling climate change (or climate change itself). At times, facts seemed to take second place to dogma. I hope that we do not return to another period of simplistic debate. The challenge of climate change is so great that tough decisions will be taken to ensure that we deliver an energy revolution in harmony with nature. It is why we have taken the difficult decision to build a wind turbine at our Headquarters and why we continue to fight to ensure that windfarms are build in the right place away from sensitive areas for wildlife. And why we will continue to oppose proposals which cause unnecessary harm. I (and no doubt the energy investment community) was pleased that the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, clarified the Government's position after mixed messages appeared from other ministers.
I was equally pleased that Minister, David Willetts, decided to retain the British Antarctic Survey in its current form. His written statement can be read here. We had, as mentioned here, been alarmed by the implications of the proposed merger with the National Oceanographic Centre particularly as its objectives would have been drastically altered. There are obviously issues about leadership and long-term funding to be resolved, but I am pleased that, for now at least, this outstanding institute has a future. But why create this uncertainty in the first place? If asked, most right-headed person will have concluded that the merger and the new economics-led mission was a bad idea and the contribution that BAS makes to scientific study is enormous and should be cherished.
Finally, it is astonishing (and welcome) that for the first time that I am aware, the Government's emergency committee, COBRA, has met to decide how to save a native species from serious decline. Quite rightly politicians and landowners have mobilised and ash die-back has been omnipresent in newspapers throughout the week. Even viewers of Have I got news for you will now be familiar with Chalara fraxinea - the reason why our native ash is in such trouble. The prospect of a major decline in ash is heart-breaking but could equally be a disaster for the wildlife dependent on this species and the habitats which ash are such an important component. We are playing our part in helping to identify the scale of the problem and we will increase vigilance on our reserves and report any signs immediately to to the Forestry Commission. As I mentioned last week, we support new legislation to tighten control on live imports and want this to be the stimulus for action to prevent other unwelcome diseases or non-native species. This is a fast-moving situation and we shall adapt and respond accordingly. But as someone who spent years in the late 1990's and early 2000's arguing for tougher controls on the introduction and spread of non-native species, I shall simply observe that tough environmental regulation and enforcement can at times be smart politics. I hope this marks the end of the crude debate about red tape that has plagued this decade.
And, as I return to work, I know that these are five big debates which will dominate the coming weeks.
How do you think we should ensure public debate takes the environment more seriously?
It would be great to hear your views.
I think some of these issues might even chase you to France, Peter.
On a more serious point regarding ash die-back, I think there are things we need to do now to get a grip of the situation but the moment will come when we learn the lessons from what happens and then apply to future debates. More on this soon.
A good blog Martin; I am calling for a Public inquiry re ash die back and have contacted Hilary Benn MP to clarify what he knew annd when etc; I hope he calls for a PI, to clear his name. Can it help clarify action also?I really am gob smacked that a disease that travels 20-30km has been allowed to cross the Channel and scattered across the countryside . Where was the campaign from the "environmental alliance " to stop it ? Was the Woodland Trust big enough to make this campaign happen " and in time"; what is the use of BBC personalities such as Woodland Trust ambassador Simon King also Wildlife Trusts President if they do nt use their BBC media contacts etc ? What did Caroline Spellman know; surely Defra "old wood Maff " civil servants should be cleared out ; what advice did they give? What was the FC advise and when ? Where was Natural England ?
I want answers from all these bodies as to who kinew what and when and why was it not acted on ? I hope RSPB will support this call ? This is a failure of government that runs across the board.
I hope that diseased ash wood can be used for fuel and not just "destroyed"...good news re Antarctic Survey but all that fuss re Forest Sell Off and now this happens.......... "its the end of the world as we know it"; I am going to France !
That's a tough question. I think the RSPB is doing a lot to try to hammer some environmental sense into the heads of these "bone headed" politicians. The recent publication concerning Government changes to the planning system produced by, the RSPB, the National Trust and CPRE entitled "Inexpensive Progress" and the RSPB's publication "Naturally at your Service" all help to raise the environmental profile. Campaigning and lobbying by staff and volunteers is essential but forming alliances with other like minded organisations to send politicians the message, has to be a key method of trying to make sure they take the environment is taken much more seriously. The RSPB cannot do everything by itself. It is not easy but we must keep hammering that message home.
One point concerns me about the ash tree die back and I am sure I will be much in the minority here but. IF and only if. it turns out next year that tha problem has already gone too far for effective control the I am not sure we should follow the knee jeck reaction of necessarily cutting down all the infected ash trees. By leaving at least some of them it would give an enormous boost to the proportion of standing dead wood in our countryside which is currently so depleted and which is so important for wildlife. It is something to think about once the current furore has subsided a bit and we have more scientific data and survey evidence.