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.
If your Nature's Home magazine has arrived, you may have seen an eight-page article highlighting the role that the EU Nature Directives (Birds and Species and Habitats Directives) have played in saving some of our most iconic wildlife places: including the Dorset heathlands, Ramsey Island, the Cairngorms and Rathlin Island. These laws have protected nature across the EU for over 35 years. Through them, more than 27,000 places are protected across the EU including 900 in the UK.
Ben Hall's image of Ramsey Island, loved by lead singer of Stornoway, Brian Briggs, and part of the Ramsey Island and St David's Peninsula Coast Special Protection Area
After the EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella visited our Wallasea Island Wild Coast project in Essex last month, I wrote that Mr Vella had an opportunity over the months ahead to defend the Nature Directives against plans to open them up and weaken them.
Then, last Friday the European Commission published a report (here) on progress with biodiversity conservation across the EU in the lead up to 2020, by when EU Member States, and indeed countries across the globe, have pledged to halt the loss of biodiversity.
This was Mr Vella’s opportunity to stand up for wildlife and upholding European law, and I’m delighted to say he has not disappointed.
Although the report shows that nature is still in trouble, and that we still have a long way to go to achieving our 2020 biodiversity targets, it clearly highlights the environmental and socio-economic benefits that have been generated by the Birds and Habitats Directives, and the Natura 2000 network of sites they have established. For example, the directives have been instrumental in saving special places like Lewis peatlands and Dibden Bay, helping the recovery of species like the bittern, and providing 4.5 million jobs across Europe which depend on the ecosystems that Natura 2000 protects.
The report also states the need for improved implementation, and in a blog (here) accompanying the release of the report, Commissioner Vella has written;
“This review shows that the window for halting biodiversity loss is still open. Better implementation of the current legislation, and bolder, more ambitious enforcement, will keep that window open. It's within our power to protect nature, so let's seize the opportunity – while we still can.”
The Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives has yet to run its course, but perhaps it is beginning to look like common sense, and cold hard facts, are winning through. This is in no small part due to the 520,000 people across Europe (of which over 100,000 came from the UK) who responded to the #NatureAlert campaign. Commissioner Vella’s blog is clear, “We know how much nature matters to citizens.”
And now is the time to for European citizens to call on their national governments to defend the nature they love. In December 2015, Environment Ministers from every EU country meet to discuss how we make sure our wildlife is recovering by 2020. Central to this must be the role of the Nature Directives.
The UK lead at this meeting will be Environment Minister, Rory Stewart MP. At our parliamentary reception last month he said he wanted the UK can lead the world in nature conservation. I applaud this ambition. We are therefore asking people (see campaign action here) to translate this ambition into support for the EU Nature Directives when he goes to Brussels.
I hope that Mr Stewart and other European Environment Ministers agree with Commissioner Vella that it makes sense for finite political energy to be focused on implementation of existing laws rather than opening them up to years of uncertainty. Yes, they can be made to work better for wildlife and for people but the laws themselves are fit for purpose.
That is surely the conclusion that politicians who want to save nature must reach.
Just in case you are not a member of the RSPB (heaven forbid) or do not read your Nature's Home magazine (outrageous), I thought I'd share with you the article I wrote in the latest issue which lands on doormats this week in time for our AGM on Saturday. In 350 words I have tried to capture our current position about the forthcoming EU referendum. We are doing more thinking about this and I shall say more in due course, but in the meantime I'd be interested in your views.
The debate about the UK’s membership of the EU will intensify over the next two years, so we’ll be putting the spotlight on how the EU affects nature.
Over 80% of environmental legislation in force in the UK is derived from European law, helping to save special places, recover threatened species and establish standards of water quality. It also offers a common response to climate change – ensuring no Member State gains short-term advantage by trashing the environment.
When polled, over 75% of EU citizens think environmental law is needed. This is an area where we trust the EU and acknowledge it has a role to play. This makes it one of the most popular aspects of EU cooperation, and perhaps explains why half a million people acted to defend the Nature Directives.
UK citizens can also rely upon their rights under EU law. The UK government, for example, is facing heavy fines over its failure to meet its obligations under EU air quality regulations to reduce damaging emissions.
On the other hand, the single most perverse policy has probably been the Common Agriculture Policy which commands almost €350b (2014–2020) – 40% of the total EU budget.
It has driven production at the expense of the environment, resulting in 60% declines in farmland species over the past four decades.
While the CAP has evolved, less than a quarter of the budget now supports wildlife-friendly farming. So, if the government is seeking a reformed EU, it should look in two areas: argue for better enforcement of existing environmental law, so we stop the decline in wildlife and fix broken ecosystems like the marine environment.
Second, it must make the case for a fundamental overhaul to the CAP so that the huge amount of European taxpayers’ money (c.£400 per family per annum) supports things that benefit the public, such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.
The talks towards a global climate change deal in Paris at the end of 2015 reinforce the need for international collaboration to tackle big environmental challenges. Wildlife, water and air do not respect administrative boundaries and irrespective of the vote on our membership of the EU, trans-national cooperation is essential.
My hope is for the EU referendum debate to be informed by facts and that whatever reform agenda is pursued, and whichever way the public votes, nature’s voice is heard.
Image courtesy of Andy Hay, RSPB Images
I am sadly not in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference this week, but our hard-working parliamentary team remains on the road - this time with RSPB Chief Executive, Mike Clarke. So, I have asked one of our team, Paul McNamee, to shares his reflections below.
We are now well into conference season with week three finding us in Manchester for Conservative Party Conference. October has brought with it a rainier week but, as a soggy graduate of Manchester University, I was expecting nothing less of the city.
Once again the RSPB has joint-hosted a reception with WWF and the Wildlife Trusts which included speeches from the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss, the Environment Secretary, and Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer at Aviva. The title of the reception was ‘We need to talk about nature... A healthy environment fro a stronger economy’ and both speakers picked up on this title. Steve gave a great speech outlining that in his line of work, the long-term is considered to be five years but that this needs to be reconsidered. Some businesses have started incorporating the effects of climate change and the declines in the natural environment as part of their investments and decision-making, knowing that these are problems that, if not addressed now, will cost us greatly in the future.
The Secretary of State continued on this theme, reiterating that the UK can only have a secure, thriving economy when it is under-pinned by a strong natural environment. These ideas were repeated the next day in her speech from the main hall in which she said “our natural assets are the country’s life-blood.” She covered how important children’s connection to nature is for the future; how the UK needs to use its science industries and world-leading data collection to help protect the environment; and that everyone should get involved with the development of the proposed 25-year plan for biodiversity (a word cloud of her speech is shown at the end of this blog).
This is a positive message and one we hope is recognised by the other Departments across Government. If, as we believe, the natural world truly underpins the economy, then every Department need to be doing their bit in helping protect our natural assets. One way in which the Chancellor can show his support in the next few months will be at the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in November.
Defra provides many vital services such as flood protection and water quality; it invests in science industries; and it receives massive benefits for the money it invests, be it European funding or unpaid volunteering hours. As such, the CSR needs to ensure that Defra does not receive reductions in spending that make it unfit for purpose. The Department’s vital work can only continue if it is well-supported by the rest of the Government. As this week’s Conference has shown, this is important not only for the inherent value of our natural environment, but for the economy too.
Word cloud of Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss speech to Conservative Party Conference 2015