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.
Catfield and Sutton Fens are two really special places. They are home to a remarkable number of rare and threatened species: 109 Red Data Book species including well over 90% of the UK population of the endangered Fen Orchid.
Readers of this blog will know that I’m very fond of these sites (see here). Their importance means that we take our management responsibility very seriously indeed (in the case of Catfield, on behalf of the owners Butterfly Conservation). But, like so many of the sites that we manage, not everything is in our control.
Recent events have served to illustrate the vulnerability of these sites that are tucked away in the heart of the Norfolk Broads. A vulnerability that ought to grab the attention of anyone interested in preventing further declines of already threatened species.
Sutton Fen, Ben Hall rspb-images.com
Over the next month or so the Environment Agency will decide whether to grant two new abstraction license renewals adjacent to the sites. Allowing local land owners to continue to take large volumes of water from this wetland haven will pose a very real threat to the fen and some of the UK’s rarest species that make a home there. A dramatic, single decision that will no doubt get attention and something we are primed and ready to fight if we need to.
However, whilst this unfolding drama will grab the headlines, a more subtle but insidious story can often be overlooked. In addition to the threat of water abstraction, since 2010 Catfield and Sutton Fens have been experiencing the impact of a more subtle menace, known in the business as ‘diffuse pollution’. This is when surface water runs off agricultural land after heavy rainfall, washing farmland soils into the fen. Sediments loaded with nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate flood the delicately balanced natural environment, encouraging the growth of common species such as reed and willow, at the expense of smaller, rarer flowering species such as orchids.
Water, laden with sediment, doesn’t have much oxygen in it, which can also make it difficult for invertebrates to survive. Imagine if you were one of the rare water beetles making a home on the site, the crystal clear oxygen rich water that you are used to turns to an orange, chemical filled soup.
Last week, the latest chapter in this second story was written. After a night of heavy rainfall, sediment filled water coursed into Catfield and Sutton Fens. The team tells me that by day 2, 1.5 hectares of SSSI had been affected. By day 3 this had gone up to 3 hectares. Beyond this area, I am led to believe that the chemicals are likely to still be having an impact up to 2 km away and it is very likely as winter weather sets in this kind of event will continue to happen, causing yet more damage. My colleagues were pleased to see the Environment Agency staff on site just hours after we reported this event as a formal pollution incident.
Since 2010, when the team discovered this new threat to these rich wetland sites, colleagues have spent time and money putting in water control structures, ditch management and the placement of reedbeds as filtration systems to help lessen the impacts. They have now reached a point where they have done all they can, and now look to the Environment Agency and Natural England to investigate the issue thoroughly and take all appropriate steps to mitigate any further impacts. In 2013 they recognised that there was a real problem, and we hope that these recent events will catalyse action.
We can see some simple measures that can improve the situation, such as ensuring that basic soil protection measures are enforced. All we can do now is wait to see the category of severity the Environment Agency assign to this case. This guides the work they will do to take action to protect the abundant and rare wildlife found across Catfield and Sutton Fens from similar events in future.
My visit to Catfield and Sutton Fens has been one of my highlights of 2014. They are fragile and special places. I am left with the overwhelming feeling that two of the most special fens in western Europe deserve far better and we should be more proactive in dealing with the threats they face. That's why I am going to keep a close eye on what happens next. I hope to be able to provide an update on the actions that Environment Agency and Natural England propose in the coming weeks.
Yesterday the Labour leader Ed Miliband launched the report of the Lyons Housing Review (here), which sets out how a future Labour Government could deliver 200,000 homes a year by the end of the next Parliament.
It's good to see this report. There’s no doubt that there is a significant housing need in England, and whoever is in power after next year's election will have to try and address this issue. We want to work with housebuilders and local communities to build places that are great for both people and nature. That's why we’re working with Barratt on a major housing development in southern England with the aim of setting a new benchmark for nature friendly sustainable housing. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months.
My colleague Simon Marsh was one of a group of twelve commissioners who worked with Sir Michael Lyons in producing his report. Simon, you may recall, had previously been involved in developing the National Planning Policy Framework (here) and was again doing this in a personal capacity but with the support of the RSPB: a housing programme of this scale has potentially huge impacts on nature, so it’s important to get it right.
Radipole Lake RSPB reserve, Weymouth, Dorset (Dave Wootton rspb-images.com)
There’s plenty of detail in the report and 39 separate recommendations.
The report’s conclusion that fundamental upheaval in the planning system should be avoided is very welcome - the planning system seems to be subject to perpetual reform - but it doesn’t duck the challenge of proposing changes where necessary.
Any proposals aimed at strengthening strategic planning must be welcomed, because this is critical to ensuring that new homes are built in the right places, respecting places which are special for wildlife – whether greenfield or brownfield.
The stronger emphasis on brownfield land needs to be coupled with a recognition that some brownfield land is valuable for wildlife and is not suitable for development. Some ‘brownfield’ land may also be more green than brown.
Lodge Hill in Kent is a case in point. You will know that we are strongly objecting to a planning application for 5,000 homes on this former MoD site. Development here would destroy most of a SSSI designated for nightingales and grassland. The proponents claim that the site is more than 50% brownfield; our assessment is that it’s more like 15%. Whether it’s greenfield or brownfield, however, policies in the National Planning Policy Framework protect SSSIs, and we ask that the shadow DCLG ministers commit to maintaining this protection. In the meantime, we and c11,000 people that have campaigned on this issue wait to hear from the current DCLG minister whether he will ‘call-in’ the application to make the decision himself and save the nightingales.
As I have said before - building 5,000 houses on a SSSI would set a terrible precedent for how to meet our housing need. If, under a worse case scenario, every block of 5,000 houses were built on a SSSI, that would mean 40 SSSIs a year could be lost to housing development every year.
Our experience at Lodge Hill also makes us nervous about proposals to scale up the release of public land for housing. While the planning system in theory should sort out what’s suitable land for development and what isn’t, it would be much better to have a process that screens sites for environmental sensitivities at an early stage, so that public money isn’t wasted pursuing planning permission which should never be granted.
On a more positive note, we particularly welcome the recommendations on good quality, design and sustainability, which are essential to ensuring that new homes are good to live in, good for the planet and good for local wildlife.
As the report notes, “Green infrastructure provision is an essential part of major new housing development, which provides an opportunity to enhance biodiversity on land of low environmental value, as well as helping to minimise flood risk. Quality can be added from the scale of the individual home (through low-cost measures such as nest bricks and wildlife-friendly garden planting) right up to large-scale habitat creation in country parks.”
What do you think of the Lyons review and how do you think we should meet our housing needs without damaging wildlife?
It would be great to hear your views.
At the weekend, I read Caitlin Moran's brilliant piece in the Times Magazine about how she was missing the birds (if you have a subscription, you can read it here). It is raw, it hurts but unfortunately it is real - there are 44 million fewer birds today in the UK than when Caitlin was growing up. And, as demonstrated by the State of Nature report last year, the declines in wild birds have been replicated across many other groups, with 60% of all species (for which we have adequate trend data) having declined in this period.
We've been trying to tap into people's latent concern about wildlife through a different sort of campaign - Vote for Bob. It is deliberately quirky to try to find new ways to get people to encourage politicians to give a strong showing for nature in their manifestos for next May's General Election. And I was delighted to accompany Bob yesterday to the House of Commons yesterday to report to representatives from the political parties that over 100,000 people have, in just two months, signed up to Bob's campaign. The campaign is now supported by Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Mammal Society and I hope many more join in. The more people that support Bob and use their voice for nature, the harder it will be for politicians to ignore.
Bob being mobbed by French students
Bob and me (I'm the one holding the placard)
The case for action couldn't be stronger.
Today, the latest of State of UK Birds* is published, this time with a focus on our summer migrants - those birds that grace our skies for just four months of the year during spring and summer months. Working with our partners, we've created a new index (see below). Those birds that winter in the humid zone of Africa – stretching across the continent from southern Senegal to Nigeria and beyond - such as whinchat, nightingale, tree pipit and spotted flycatcher show the most dramatic declines. The indicator for this group of species has dropped by just over 70 per cent since the late 1980s.
It is no wonder that Caitlin feels like "Gatsby, alone and melancholy": turtle dove down 88 per cent since 1995, wood warbler down 66 per cent, cuckoo down 49 per cent.
Through our Birds without Borders project, we are taking action to...
... improve the birds' breeding success here in the UK (for example by working with Natural England, Pensthorpe and Conservation Grade on Operation Turtle Dove)
...ensure safe passage on migration (for example by working with Birdlife partners to end unsustainable hunting)
...deliver sustainable conservation initiatives on their wintering grounds that provide benefits for both migrant birds and people (for example by supporting the work of Birdlife partners in the arid Sahel zone in northern Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania as well as doing research alongside our partner in Ghana. Thankfully, the risk of Ebola in these countries has remained low and so has not yet had a direct impact on this important work).
All of this adds up to being one of the RSPB's most ambitious but important projects. You can read more about this project and find out how you can help here.
I want spring and summers in the years ahead to be more noisy and more colourful. And I don't want Caitlin Moran to feel "alone and melancholy". And this is why you should vote for Bob and why Birds without Borders project must be successful.
*State of UK Birds is produced by a partnership of BTO, WWT, JNCC, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage and Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the RSPB.