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.
This week, I celebrate ten years working at the RSPB. What better excuse for a little RetroSPective Blog (see what I did there?).
My first day of work took me to Manchester for the Labour Party Spring Conference. The standout memory was a late-night game of pool with the now Site Manager at RSPB Conwy Reserve. Ten years on, in a rather predictable way, I spent part of this weekend up in York at the Lib Dem Spring conference. In a decade, I think I have been to 27 party conferences. It should have been 28 but I put my back out lifting my girl out of her pram prior to the Conservative Conference in October 2008 - I spent that one in bed.
So what has happened in ten years? What's different and what do we have/know today that we did not have/know in March 2004? Here are ten things...
1. We have new laws... to protect the marine environment and to tackle climate change. These are good things.
2. We have new government bodies designed to help protect the environment... such as Natural England, the Natural Capital Committee, the Committee on Climate Change and the Marine Management Organisation. These are usually good things.
3. We have had five Environment Secretaries of State... Margaret Beckett, David Miliband, Hilary Benn, Caroline Spelman and Owen Paterson. We have also had a lot of biodiversity ministers... including Eliot Morley, Jim Knight, Ben Bradshaw, Barry Gardiner, Phil Woolas, Richard Benyon and Rupert de Mauley. I may have missed one or two, the turnover is so rapid. I'll leave you to create your own league table of ministers.
4. The RSPB has grown and changed (a little bit)... we have a new Chief Executive, we have just about 1.1 million members, we are on our third strapline in ten years, we have a new logo and a new name for our magazine.
5. We manage more land.... about another 30,000 hectares.
6. We are a bit more ambitious abroad... helping partners manage over 170,000 hectares of tropical forest in Sierra Leone and Indonesia.
7. We have identified many more solutions to conservation problems... We know how to farm profitably while recovering farmland birds, we know how to manage the uplands for water, carbon and wildlife, we know to recover 3 critically endangered south Asian vultures and how to prevent albatrosses being caught through long-lining.
8. Some bits of biodiversity are doing better... in 2004, we met the Biodiversity Action Plan target for 50 booming males, but the population has continued to rise and last year we had the first booming bittern in Oxfordshire for 150 years; white-tailed eagle bred successfully in East Scotland for the first time 200 years, red kites have continued to spread thanks to reintroduction projects and the buzzard now has the sixth largest wintering range of any British and Irish species.
9. Other bits of biodiversity remain in trouble... farmland birds, moths and carabid beettles as well as many of our summer migrant birds such as the turtle dove whose population continues to plummet. And too small a percentage of our SSSIs are in good condition, some even threatened today by development.
10. We have greater awareness than ever before about... the importance of wildlife to us, its plight, the causes and the timetable over which we need ot act.
And me? Well, I've had three jobs, moved city, had a couple of kids, stopped running marathons and (until this weekend) have become increasingly depressed by the ability of Arsenal to win another trophy. To RSPB's loyal members, who it is always a pleasure to meet, and to inspirational colleagues past and present, thank you for making the past ten years so rewarding.
All this then begs two questions...
...what are you observations from the past ten years?
...what will be different in the next ten years?
It would be great to hear your views.
I live and work in the flatlands of Eastern England but I love walking in the hills. I have walked large stretches of the long distance footpaths of England, and in recent years, I have been lucky to go and see some of the work that we do in the uplands - working with others such as United Utilities to restore fabulous places like Dove Stone in the Peak District and with our tenant farmer at Geltsdale in the North Pennines. For me, alongside the inspiration that comes from being in wild places, it has always been the wildlife associated with the spongy wonders of peat bogs that hold me in thrall. Getting up close and personal with Sphagnum mosses and carnivorous sundews should not be limited to those that visit botanic gardens.
The walkers amongst you will know that our peatlands are not in great condition. You can see for yourself the scale and extent of damage to peatlands from afforestation, drainage, overgrazing and burning. This was documented by the Adaptation Sub-Committee last year (see Figure 4.5 here). And, as I wrote in my first blog of the year (here), just 10.5% of the 162,000 ha of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition in England.
In the late 1990s, the RSPB with many others successfully campaigned to end the extraction of peat from lowland raised bog SSSIs and to get trees off the internationally important bogs in the Flow Country. Today, we should be applying the same urgency to restore internationally important peatlands in the hills. This would not only help wildlife, but also fulfil our legal obligations to restore these sites whilst safeguarding nature's free services that well-managed peatlands provide - such as locking up carbon, providing clear drinking water, and keeping water for longer on the hill to prevent downstream flooding.
But restoration will not happen if we keep burning our peatlands. In May 2013, Natural England completed its review of evidence of the impact of upland management practices including burning (see here). In short, they concluded that burning vegetation on deep peat soils is preventing the recovery of the habitat and the species our protected sites are intended to look after. For those communities, like those at Hebden Bridge, living in the foothills of intensively managed moors there are more pressing reasons why they cry "Ban the Burn".
Today, we reveal the scale of burning on our internationally protected peatlands (see here). There are at least 127 separate historic agreements or consents allowing burning of blanket bog on sites internationally important for birds and deep peatland habitats. Defra has confirmed that all of these consents take place on grouse moors where burning is designed to provide optimum conditions for red grouse. We have compiled this information following our investigation into the management agreement that was struck between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate in 2012 (which I first aired here).
We have decided to put this information into the public domain for three reasons...
...first, we are encouraging Natural England to act on their evidence review and produce guidelines which bring an end to burning on our protected upland peatlands
...second, any public money that flows up the hill to support land management in the hills (especially finite agri-environment money) must be made to work harder for wildlife and protect nature's free services. Future agri-environment agreements which allow burning on deep peat would be a waste of tax-payers' money
...third, we want to invite all landowners to end burning on deep peat and contribute to a national campaign for peatland restoration
We have also, this week, contacted Natural England for an update on any restoration that has taken place at Walshaw since the management agreement was struck in 2012. I think it is in all our interests, especially those taxpayers that walk through Walshaw Moor on the Pennine Way, to find out what progress has been made to block drains and improve the habitat on this internationally protected site.
If you would like to find out more about the detail of the Walshaw case and the wider concerns about burning on peatlands, please do visit our dedicated web pages here.
And do let me know what you think about the continued burning on peatland protected sites.
It would be great to hear your views.
Image credit: Round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, Niall Benvie (rspb-images.com)
Jared Diamond, EO Wilson and others have had various attempts to summarise the major threats facing biodiversity. We tend to describe them as habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution (including increasing greenhouse gas emissions resulting in climate change) and the introduction of non-native species all driven by a growing population consuming more. These pressures on the natural world have been referred to to as the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse. There is a fifth, which is everything else. I was reminded of this following reports of the winter storms leading to the deaths of 28,000 seabirds (see here).
While there is a debate about the strengths of the links of climate change to the recent storms and therefore whether one of the original four horsemen is responsible for this seabird tragedy, the point I want to make is that when populations are vulnerable, extreme weather events can compound existing problems and can create more jeopardy for some species.
We know that our internationally important populations of seabirds are already under pressure because their staple summer diet of sandeels is in decline in response to sea warming, another result of climate change. This makes it a struggle to find enough food for themselves and their chicks. Sea warming, along with winter storms, which make it hard for birds to find fish in continually turbulent seas, simply make matters worse.
So what should we do about it?
Well, we need to continue to invest effort in monitoring what is happening to our seabirds but also take the necessary action on land to protect key breeding sites and eradicate non-native invasive species particularly on islands. Governments across the UK, despite funding cuts, need to continue to invest in these areas.
We need to prevent pollution incidents at sea (which is why we were delighted that the International Maritime Organisation banned the discharge of that nasty sticky substance, polyisobutylene, last year - see here).
We also need to protect our seabird populations when they are foraging for food by designating marine protected areas (for example see here) and to guide development at sea (particularly windfarms, oil and gas exploration but also shipping and fishing) so that it does not cause needless harm. These are also the responsibilities of governments but industry does, of course, have a part to play..
And, we need to continue to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to reduce the risk of climate chaos. And that's something for all of us.
The reality is, we all need to do much more to help our seabirds cope with whichever of the horsemen of the apocalypse come charging at them.