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.
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
All was calm and still for my trip to the Forest of Bowland of Friday. The sky was blue, the heather showing off its purple best while northern wheatear refused to start their migration and peacock butterflies enjoyed the late summer sun.
It was hard to reconcile this serene landscape with the turmoil and conflict that had surrounded the moor earlier this summer. A plume of smoke on the horizon (from a moor burn) was the only sign of the root cause of the conflict. Hen harriers and driven grouse moors are uneasy bedfellows, yet it was at Bowland on United Utilities land, in concert with the local shoot, that the RSPB team of volunteers and paid staff tried to provide sufficient 24/7 protection for hen harriers to nest and fledge their young.
Reams of column inches have been written about this summer’s breeding season and at times the commentary on social media has been hostile, disingenuous and divisive. All this evoked by attempts to recover England’s most threatened breeding bird.
The facts (shown below in the table published by Defra) speak for themselves: in Bowland, internationally important for its bird of prey population and designated a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive, there were six nests, four missing males and just one chick fledged.
The SPA target for Bowland is 13 pairs.
Its clear we have a long way to go to end the conflict and deliver what the law requires. But, the team working in Bowland have bucket loads of dedication and determination. Lesser mortals would be forgiven for running away from such a contested landscape, yet our team are already planning how to deliver better results next year.
Those of you interested to find out more about our work to recover the Hen Harrier population should come to this Saturday’s AGM in London where they will be able to hear my colleague, Jeff Knott, outline our experience and plans for the future. A sneak preview of his talk is given here.
If you are unable to attend, please do keep an eye out on our Skydancer blog for updates on our Hen Harrier work.
Fate of Hen Harrier nests from the 2015 breeding season in England
Nest monitored by
Local raptor workers