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.
The last few weeks has seen an intense focus on the uplands, especially in England. Central to this has been a growing and extremely welcome chorus to see the return of hen harriers to the rightful place as a breeding bird of our hills – the shockwaves of the last year’s failure to see any hen harrier nest successfully in England have, at long last, built a momentum for change.
In parallel the future of the English uplands, as a whole, is starting to get the attention it deserves. The common thread through this is the growing impact the driven (red) grouse shooting industry is having as some intensify the management of the uplands.
Raising the issues is one thing – the key question is what happens next? Let’s be under no illusion, the growing recognition that the absence of hen harriers and the wider environmental implications of the grouse industry is prompting strong reactions as calls for bans and boycotts grow.
I’ll be clear – the RSPB is not in that position, we want change and we want a positive reaction from the moorland landowners and managers.
That’s why we welcome today’s announcement by M&S that they are not going to stock red grouse until there is a code of practice in place and we welcome the opportunity to work with M&S and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to move this forward.
This also exactly the same thinking behind our call for licensing of upland driven grouse shooting in England. Developed co-operatively, such a proposal builds confidence and provides a real route out of adversarial dialogue that has, for too long, characterised these issues.
It's good to see (here) the shooting community supporting the need for a recovery plan for the hen harrier in England - this is a positive step forward.
As I have written previously (for example, see here), we want a world richer in nature and we want to see a recovery plan that does what it says on the tin, i.e. it secures recovery for the hen harrier in England. This is something to which the UK Government is committed to through its Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and for which it has legal obligations under the EU Birds Directive.
A target-led approach to species recovery which focuses on tackling the key threats has long been a theme of nature conservation and, indeed, was the basis of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan established in 1994 by the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, now Lord Deben.
In our discussions with Defra, we have sought to ensure that the developing plan focuses attention on the right issues, especially tackling the root causes of decline. In the case of the hen harrier, the key threat constraining recovery is illegal persecution.
There has been some debate about the relative merits of a so-called brood management scheme (BMS) whereby hen harrier chicks would be removed from a moor when a threshold of birds was reached to remove perceived predation pressure on grouse.
This is an idea that emerged a few years ago and which we have given considerable thought – indeed we even wrote an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology on the subject in 2009 (see here).
We have concluded that this may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.
It is regarding the conservation target that we and the shooting community differ. They would like to pilot the BMS now. We think this is not only premature but potentially not compliant with existing legislation. It would also send a terrible signal to nature conservation that it is appropriate to 'manage' a highly threatened population of an iconic species.
To survive in the 21st century, driven grouse shooting must be able to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with healthy populations of birds of prey like the hen harrier and that it can address the other negative environmental impacts associated with grouse moor management (here). This is why we think it is right and timely to license driven grouse shooting.
The conflict between grouse shooting and environment is understandably becoming an increasingly emotive debate and there have, over the past three years, been four separate e-petitions on the Number 10 website about birds of prey and grouse shooting. Most people want the wildlife in our uplands to flourish and I note the growing support for Hen Harrier day being organised on 10 August. While I shall be on holiday for the day itself, I shall be there in spirit hoping that it helps put a spotlight on illegal killing. I know many RSPB supporters, staff and volunteers will be attending and adding their support to the call for the end of illegal persecution of the hen harrier.
In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our work with Defra, the shooting community and others to secure an effective hen harrier recovery plan so that everyone can get behind it soon. It's only by working together that we'll save the hen harrier and we're determined to reach an agreement.
Three weeks after I shared the latest understanding about the impacts of climate change on birds (here), I was delighted to hear today's news that the Government will be sticking to its carbon targets for the 2020s. This is an important decision from the Coalition and one that I warmly welcome.
Many of you will remember the Climate Change Act, passed with cross-party consensus in 2008, putting the UK at the forefront of global efforts to combat climate change. The Act established a system of five-yearly budgets that are meant to ensure we are on the trajectory of delivering a reduction in emissions of at least 80% by 2050. The fourth carbon budget, which covers the period 2022-27, was set by the Coalition in 2011 and it effectively committed the UK to reducing its emissions by half by the mid-2020s. This was in line with the science and we welcomed it at the time, but there was one problem - the Treasury insisted on a review in 2014, creating a shadow of uncertainty that has held back the low carbon transition ever since.
Today’s announcement lifts that shadow. It establishes a clear and ambitious trajectory and, critically, it puts the UK back in a leadership position just as the negotiations in the EU and at the UN over a global deal on climate change are heating up.
Alone, an ambitious fourth carbon budget is an important achievement for the Coalition, but if David Cameron uses this as a platform for international leadership on climate action over the remainder of his term then it could be much more. Securing an ambitious deal to cut emissions in the EU and helping put the world on track to a global deal on climate change by the end of 2015 would be a legacy that is felt by future generations, here and across the world.
His first opportunity to do this will be at the UN Climate Leaders Summit in New York this September. I hope Mr Cameron will confirm his attendance as soon as possible, particularly as it would encourage other world leaders that they should do the same.
Today also sends a powerful signal to those who have opposed action on climate change, and is a reminder of the importance that the cross-party consensus that delivered the Climate Change Act is maintained. Our climate targets are about doing our bit for the future of our planet and the people and wildlife we share it with - and this is just too important to for politicians to fall out over.
This brings me to our new Climate Coalition campaign that the RSPB launched this week. "For the love of" is all about reminding ourselves and politicians why all of this is so important in the first place.
Take a look and share what you love that is affected by climate change.
I’ll be reviewing some of the best wildlife uploads on this blog soon – so please do join in!
In the meantime, here's my contribution (first shared in April here)
For the love of...
...wildlife (especially fabulous birds like the kittiwake and golden plover)
...places (especially the Somerset Levels and my family's hut on the eroding cliff in Northumberland) and
...people (especially my family but also the Arsenal football team even when they fail to meet expectations - that's Arsenal, by the way, not the family)
Let's tackle climate change.