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 seems like 2040 is the new 2020.
With the majority of election manifestos now launched, there is a growing political consensus that we need a 25 year plan to recover nature in England. That’s change within a generation. The parties appear to have heeded the advice of the Natural Capital Committee (see here) and the civil society clamour for action to address the parlous State of Nature. I am sure that Bob will be pleased.
Commitments made in manifestos (see below) provide a starting point for any future government agenda. I think we can be quietly confident that the next government will have the right rhetorical ambition for nature, will continue the path towards a low carbon economy and if you look closely there are some juicy specifics to applaud.
In the coming weeks, we need to make sure that any parties involved in coalition talks build on this important cross-party position by agreeing the strongest possible commitment to restore nature.
The next challenge, as ever, will be to ensure that the ambition is matched by a decent plan which is then implemented. And, just as importantly we’ll need to ensure that any attempts to boost economic growth (through deregulation or poorly designed/located new infrastructure) do not run roughshod over environmental ambitions. The first big test will be to defend the laws that protect our nature – the EU Nature Directives which are currently being reviewed (see here).
Of course, the RSPB will work with whoever is in power after 8 May. We want and desperately need the government (whatever colour or combination of colours) to be successful in realising its ambitions for nature, at home and internationally.
Former Chief Scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington has highlighted the perfect storm that the planet faces: by 2030, global demand for energy and food expected is to grow by 50% and water by 30%. This could have severe consequences for our climate, the millions of species with which we share this planet, and for us. Unless we manage to decouple rising demand for natural resources from environmental harm, then it will be inevitable that there will be greater loss of natural habitat which in turn will lead to species being committed to extinction.
To turn things around we need some serious change. Long-term ambition is the first ingredient - we need the next government to set out a clear goal for improving the state of nature, so that Whitehall, businesses, NGOs and individuals can all be sure of what needs to be achieved. That’s why we’ve been calling for a 25 year plan with targets for sites and species as part of the Act for Nature campaign for which we have joined forces with The Wildlife Trusts. Then, we need to make sure that our need for nature is integrated in decision-making across the board, that threatened species are recovered and special sites are protected, and that everyone can enjoy a decent connection with nature. Again, there are encouraging signs here, with cross-party recognition of the need for nature in people’s lives.
Put this together and the UK can once again lead the world in environmental protection. We did it with the Climate Change Act which received cross-party support in 2008 - we can do it again through ambitious plans for improving the state of nature.
The global target to manage a sixth of land and a tenth of sea for nature by 2020 is right and we must focus on that in the short term. But, EO Wilson has developed his ‘Half Earth’ hypothesis (see here): that, in the medium term, we should aspire for 50% of land and sea to be set aside for wildlife. How that is broken down biogeographically will be a matter of debate, but it's a timely reminder that any 2040 plan for nature in England or our overseas territories needs to be ecologically coherent.
No small task, and it is one that demands real political leadership.
So finally, if you have not done so already, do read the political manifestos. I’ve listed those that are currently published below and highlighted some of the pages where environmental commitments are made.
Environmental sections from the election manifestos:
Conservatives: p54 and 56
Greens: p13, 19
Labour: p56 and 79
Lib Dems: p76, 88, 152
UKIP: p32, 46, 48
My RSPB colleague Lenke Balint has been working with our esteemed partner BirdLife Malta during the run-up to the referendum where the nation voted on the future of spring hunting of quail and turtle. Below, she offers her reaction to the disappointing news that the referendum was lost and spring hunting will continue. She ends with a challenge to the hunting community on Malta.
At the weekend a referendum in Malta to ban the spring hunting of quail and turtle dove has been won by the hunting lobby by the narrowest of margins.
To say that the conservation movement is disappointed is an understatement, especially as the vote had been shadowed with polls suggesting a win for bird protection.
It became increasingly clear on Sunday when the results were being counted that a late surge in support from the hunting lobby, overturned our hopes. However, after the initial and inevitable slump in our emotions, we have realised several things which are renewing our optimism.
Firstly, in any crisis, environmental or otherwise there is rarely a single step which leads to instant success. Secondly, with such a close result, the hunting lobby cannot possibly claim they have a mandate for any illegal action: the difference between a win or loss was as small as 2,200 votes across an entire nation of 400,000 inhabitants. Lastly, we’re conservationists. From climate change to saving threatened species, we’re used to disappointments. Conservation battles make us tough and each knock back makes us stronger. Lastly, the world is watching. A fact recognised by the islands’ pro-hunting Prime Minister who has publicly referred to the fact that hunters are heading towards a last chance.
The immediate result of this referendum is that more birds will die this spring. Not only turtle doves and quail – the quarry that were the subject of the referendum – but also birds of prey, herons, storks, bee-eaters and cuckoos. These birds will inevitably be gunned down by hunters using the smokescreen of legalised spring hunting.
However, with fewer than 50.1 per cent of the islands’ population voting in favour, there were almost as many people who wanted to see this practice ended. They’ll be the ones watching the activities of the hunters, looking for illegal activities and reporting the hunters to the police.
Yes, the loss of the referendum is a bitter blow that we shall draw strength from. For the hunters , they will take initial pride in their win, but in their hearts they will realise the depths of the public feelings against hunting and they should realise that they need to cease illegal hunting. The public have voted and many have shown their frustration with the hunting lobby. How many more illegal acts would it take for the public mood to shift enough for the hunters to be in the minority?
I write this on the day of the announcement of the referendum on spring hunting in Malta. It is a historic poll and I sincerely hope that the people of Malta have made their vote count.
And, of course, at home our politicians want your vote this spring.
But so do birds, wild flowers and a red squirrel called Bob.
I am looking forward to reading the manifestos from the political parties when they emerge over the next few days. My attention will be on what they say about nature.
The growing number of politicians who have backed Bob (to date, c700 prospective parliamentary candidates) should give confidence to the manifesto writers that plans to restore nature will go down well with the electorate - so I hope they are ambitious.
But today, I want to wade into another debate that has been kicked off by my former employers, Plantlife. They have invited the country to vote for their favourite wild flower. To celebrate their 25th anniversary, 25 species (see montage image from Plantlife below) are being put to a public vote.
There are some rather predictable front runners such as the bluebell, primrose and common poppy, but I want to make the case for lesser celandine, currently languishing 17th in the table.
My image of a lesser celandine taken at the Wildlife Trust reserve Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits, Cambridge
This distinctive member of the buttercup family is in flower now and it gets my vote because it brings hope and joy. Like the chiffchaff from the bird world or the brimstone butterfly, it is a harbinger of spring. Unlike its showy competitor, the snowdrop, which offers false hope that the winter is over, the lesser celandine is a flower you can trust: spring is here and life will get better.
Yet it also offers a painful reminder that spring is fleeting, that the glorious months of April and especially May move at pace and then, outrageously end. So, for me the lesser celandine appeals to my 'hurry-up' instinct. Hurry up and get outside, look for wildlife, explore beautiful places and re-engage your botanical brain. Sunshine helps but it is currently brightening my visits to local parks, walks along the river or nature reserves.
Unlike the common poppy and snowdrop, the lesser celandine is also native to these islands and would be a wonderful national symbol of what this great nation of ours offers: optimism, beauty and resilience.
And, if you are not convinced, then read the following by William Wordsworth for whom lesser celandine was allegedly his favourite flower...
"Soon as gentle breezes bring
News of winter's vanishing,
And the children build their bowers,
Sticking 'kerchief-plots of mould
All about with full-blown flowers,
Thick as sheep in shepherd's fold!
With he proudest Thou are there,
Mantling in the tiny square."
So, this spring, vote for lesser celandine as the nation’s favourite wild flower. But, perhaps more importantly, go and marvel at the beauty and diversity of our native wild flowers. Unlike some politicians, they never disappoint.