On Saturday afternoon, I went for my annual RSPB members' weekend run south of York University campus. As I passed a man-made lake beside a new-ish development, I did a double-take as I saw two great crested grebes perform their spring courtship ritual. Along with the arrival of migrants (first swallow ticked this weekend) it is one of the great sights of spring and so I slowed, enjoyed the show and then moved on.
Just that morning, we had been reminded by Mike Clarke, my boss, that back in the mid nineteenth century, there were just 50 breeding pairs in Britain. They had been heavily persecuted for their feathers for use in hats and also by the clothing industry as 'grebe fur'. Following a long campaign by by the fore-fathers and mothers of the RSPB, this type of exploitation was banned. And today, there are about 12,000 breeding pairs in the UK.
It is perhaps understandable that many take the presence of this bird for granted. They are a common sight for this generation. Yet, the only reason why we have a chance to enjoy these majestic birds is because good men and women decided to take a stand nearly 150 years ago.
So what better ambition can there be than fighting to ensure species that are currently threatened are so common in the future that they are taken for granted? On our watch today, we are trying to save species such as the turtle dove whose population has crashed by 90% in my lifetime. As my colleague, Tara Proud, explained so eloquently to our members yesterday, the good men and women of RSPB, Conservation Grade, Natural England and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust have come together through Operation Turtle Dove try to give this species a lifeline.
Today's challenges seem more complex than those of the past: persecution still sadly persists, but so does habitat destruction from changing landuse and the insidious impacts posed by the introduction of non-native invasive species. This is now compounded by the threat of dangerous climate change. Yet, if we want turtle doves to be a common feature of our grandchildren's summer we have to take a stand today. And, with our members help, that is what we shall continue to do.
Photo credit: Andrew Parkinson (rspb-images.com)
Here's another Margaret Thatcher story. One that took place nearly a quarter of a century ago. And it is one that I heard for the first time on Monday afternoon. It's when the then Prime Minister visited the RSPB headquarters to celebrate our centenary.
Back in 1989 I think I had just finished my A-Levels and was working as a coalman (true). But, one of the joys about working at the RSPB is that there is always someone "who was there". A surprising number of my current colleagues were already with the organisation and remember the day fondly. Some have shared their memories and now I’d like to share a couple of them with you.
The visit began with a walk around the Lodge’s formal gardens and ornamental pond. We had arranged for a group of local school children to be strategically placed in one corner making nestboxes and Mrs Thatcher happily spoke to the children about what they were doing and even hammered in a nail herself, I’m told. After that she was given a tour of the house led by the RSPB's great and the good of the day: Magnus Magnussen (President), Adrian Darby (Chairman) and Ian Prest (Chief Executive).
Gwyn Williams, the RSPB’s current head of reserves and protected areas, was conservation coordinator back then. He remembers the staff all being on their best behaviour, instructed to stay in their offices with the doors shut: “If your door opened, that meant mean Mrs Thatcher would be behind it. The wait was rather nerve-wracking.” However, the thing that sticks out most about the day for Gwyn was how red her hair was: “It was apricot! I had a colour TV by then, but it looked nothing like it did on the telly. And she was much smaller than I expected, too.”
Baroness Thatcher’s height – or lack of it - was one of the things that Ken Smith, our then Senior Research Biologist, also remembers. He was part of the big finale at the end of the PM’s tour. The plan was to demonstrate to the Prime Minister how cutting edge the RSPB was when it came to science and technology by showing her how we were radio tracking stone curlews in the Brecks. The car being used to support the radio mast was a Citroen 2CV. Obviously no-one had realised the error in using a French car for this particular demo...
Ken remembers: “The Prime Minister was quick to spot the provenance of the car in question and, given her aversion to all things European at that time, decided she didn’t want the press photographers, who were all lined-up in front, ready to snap away, to catch her next to it. She immediately grabbed my arm and marched me over to another group of people. I had no choice but to do what I was told – she wasn’t the kind of woman you’d argue with! I’ll always remember that day – and it’s provided me with some great after-dinner material.”Almost a quarter of a century on, we’re looking ahead to our 125th anniversary in 2014. Maybe that would be the right time for another Prime Minister to pay us a visit. He'd be very welcome and we'd have a lot to talk about...
In the week when we are debating the legacy of our longest-serving post war Prime Minister, other events have raised questions about what is happening to our green and pleasant land and to the wonders of the deep blue sea.
Yesterday started well with the first chiffchaff of spring heard calling at the Lodge. Yet, the mood changed when late in the afternoon we heard that Ministers had approved the extension to Lydd airport in Kent. If this goes ahead, the people and wildlife of Dungeness will be hit hard and it will do nothing to help tackle climate change. Dungeness is a weird and wonderful part of Kent (the county where I spent the first ten years of my life). Today’s decision sends entirely the wrong signal about what sort of development is appropriate and wanted in our crowded island.
At the other end of the county, we (along with many others) are still fighting the Medway Council proposal to build houses at Lodge Hill on the finest nightingale site in the country.
A hop, skip and a jump from my current home in Cambridge, we (along with many others) have objected to the proposed development of a new boathouse which we believe would have adverse effects on wildlife of a SSSI at Ely.
At Bexhill in Sussex, we recently heard that the Department for Transport has confirmed funding of £56m grant towards the construction of the Bexhill Hastings Link Road. This has not gone down well with local people or environmentalists. As I have written previously, we don't want to go back to the 1990s when road protests at sites like Twyford Down and Newbury became totemic environmental battlegrounds.
These examples all come from the south and east of England, but across the UK, there are signs that development pressure is growing and could harm the special places which people love. But, much of this is going against the tide of public opinion.
As is the continued failure of government to provide adequate protection for our finest wildlife sites at sea. Over the past decade hundreds of thousands of people have called for better protection for the marine environment. And despite new laws to create marine protected areas, the current government ambition falls short. More confirmation of this came today when the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee released their report into the way that science and evidence are used in the marine environment. It’s worth a read. Conclusions include:
I agree. And I am sure our supporters would as well.
As I head off to York tomorrow for our annual members’ weekend, I know that I shall talk to lots of passionate people from all walks of life and of all ages (yes, some of our younger members do come along). They are always up for a fight and help provide a sense of solidarity. Supporters of the many environmental charities give confidence to do all of us to more. So whether it is coming up with new plans to save special places in Kent or to speed up protection for marine wildlife, I know that, thanks to our supporters, we are all in it together.
Margaret Thatcher, who passed away yesterday, polarised opinion perhaps more than any other British politician. Yet, whatever you thought of her, she was ahead of her time when she made her breakthrough environment speeches to the Royal Society in 1988 and to the UN the following year.
In these speeches, which are worth reading in full, she raised the public profile of global environmental threats such as climate change, ozone depletion and habitat destruction all driven by a growing population consuming more. Mike McCarthy in the Independent argued in 2011 that Lady Thatcher's "passionate rhetoric" demonstrated that tackling climate change was not a left-wing cause. Roger Harrabin, BBC's environment correspondence, wrote yesterday that she legitimised green concerns.
Perhaps it was her scientific background that gave her confidence and authority to talk about these things. I wish those today that do not have such training, had more respect for those that do.
But, in 2002, she exposed a paradox in her beliefs when she wrote: "Whatever international action we agree upon to deal with environmental problems, we must enable our economies to grow and develop, because without growth you cannot generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment". This view is shared by some politicians today but only work if economic growth is decoupled for environmental harm (such as pollution, habitat destruction and overexploitation of species).
The publication yesterday of the Natural Capital Committee's first report is the latest reminder that we have failed to find solutions to the problems Lady Thatcher highlighted a quarter of a century ago: our natural assets (including wildlife populations) continue to decline at an unprecedented rate, the pressures are growing and our current response is inadequate. I shall say more on this later this week.
One last quote (which Lady Thatcher made during the Falklands crisis) is one which I fear may hold true for many politicians today: "When you've spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment, it's exciting to have a real crisis on your hands." Now there is no doubt: the planet faces the twin crises of biodiversity loss and catastrophic climate change. And we are still awaiting the right political response.
What is your abiding memory of Lady Thatcher?
I know you have an opinion and it would be great to hear your views.
If you care about what happens to the millions of species with whom we share this beautiful planet, then you have to face up to some inconvenient truths: intensive food production can harm wildlife populations, inappropriate housing or port development can destroy important habitats, introducing non-native species can lead to species extinctions. And, most inconvenient of all, our continued dependence on fossil fuels is causing climate chaos with wildlife and the world's poor on the front line.
Some refuse to accept this and instead choose to ridicule those that are trying to find solutions to help us live in harmony with nature.
In today's Mail on Sunday, James Delingpole, continues to ignore the scientific consensus about climate change caused by human activity driving up greenhouse gas emissions and has attacked the RSPB's position on renewable energy. He implies that we are in the pocket of the wind industry, citing our new partnership with Ecotricity as evidence.
I think there are many in the wind industry would splutter on their Sunday morning coffee at this news. Where developers choose to build windfarms in locations which are likely to affect important populations of wildlife or special places, we have and will continue to fight them. Which is why I am delighted that Ecotricity, who want to build the right renewable projects in the right place, want us to help them. And, in turn, for every person that switches their gas and electricity supply to Ecotricity, the RSPB will get £60 which we will invest in nature conservation projects.
As I wrote here, we have spent the past fifteen years working with developers and the planning system to ensure windfarms are put in sensible places where they are unlikely to cause harm. This is consistent with how we work with other developers from the housing sector, port and indeed with individual farmers. I am proud of the RSPB's record at influencing smart development.
In his piece Mr Delingpole is selective with his facts and has chosen to ignore the large body of science that supports the principle that appropriately located windfarms have negligible impacts, and instead highlights a few studies from other parts of the world that are deeply misleading when extrapolated to windfarms in general, or indeed windfarms in the UK.
I am not surprised that Delingpole has not looked into the evidence in a balanced way. He has already made his mind up about windfarms – dubbing them ‘bird-blending eco-crucifixes’ – as he has on climate change, and he was looking for further evidence to support this conclusion rather than investigating the issue for real. His article goes beyond the realm of an investigative journalist. He has a personal agenda (see here, here and here) and the Mail on Sunday has chosen to support it. He quotes us in the article but didn't try to track down any of the many independent scientists who would back our line. They have no links with us, the "green lobby" or energy companies. Instead he chooses one, with whom he is presumably well acquainted as a fellow sceptic, and presents him as representative of independent science. This is shabby stuff.
With every year that goes by, I am more and more concerned about the very real impact climate change is already having on wildlife. Our global climate is increasingly destabilised and, on average, is continuing to warm; wildlife is on the front line of these changes and is already feeling the crunch. Last year, we were horrified by the impact that the extreme rainfall throughout spring had on birds attempting to breed on our reserves, whilst the evidence that increases in North Sea temperature have disrupted the food chain and are causing declines in seabirds continued to stack up.
The RSPB exists to save nature for current and future generations. Nature conservation is for the long-term; each nature reserve we create, species we save, wetland we protect, is a gift for future generations as much as it is for this one. Unbridled climate change threatens to take away these gifts, reverse our successes, and leave future generations with a natural world that is profoundly undermined, even dysfunctional. This is not me saying it, there is a weight of evidence in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
This is, to say the least, inconvenient.
It is also why I believe that if you want to save nature then we must address climate change, and windfarms, in the right place, can offer a small but significant part of this effort.
And this is why I have switched my electricity supplier to Ecotricity and have chosen for 100% of my electricity to come from renewable sources. I encourage you to do the same.