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.
In the run up to our AGM tomorrow, there has been some debate about the RSPB’s position on driven grouse shooting. I am not surprised - this is a high profile issue and everyone has a right to have an opinion. However, I thought it would be useful to re-articulate our position.
In theory, grouse moors, in conservation terms, are not inherently a bad thing. A well managed moor could offer help for curlews, golden plover and allow birds of prey to fly free from harm. Sensitive management of semi-natural vegetation, active restoration of degraded habitats, and a welcome place for walkers and birdwatchers could be hallmarks of good grouse moors. Grouse moors could be striving for the highest standards of environmental management, adapting to new science and information on things as diverse as lead shot or habitat management practices.
But is there a driven grouse moor which does all of the above? If there is, we would love to know. As with any other land management system, there is a spectrum of intensity and not all grouse moors are the same. Some moor owners strive for the above, but it’s clear they are in a minority.
The current voluntary approach to meeting public expectations of what we want from our uplands, is quite obviously not working (see my recent update on the RSPB’s Walshaw complaint to the European Commission here), and the illegal killing of hen harriers and other raptors continues. This is leading some to call for an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. Whilst we do not yet take this stance, we can certainly see their point and the anger about ongoing persecution is shared.
The RSPB, which has always been neutral on the ethics of shooting, has had dialogue with the grouse industry for decades, but laws protecting the nation’s birds of prey continue to be broken. Intolerance of any predator appears to be part of the “business model” of some driven grouse shoots.
Over the last decade we've seen a significant change in the way the industry operates, with intensification of management practices, as expectations of big grouse bags have grown. These include an increase in the frequency of heather burning, often over deep peat soils, the use of grouse medication and, in some places, the culling of mountain hares in a bid to control grouse disease; and even more intensive predator control, including the widespread illegal control of protected birds and mammals.
Any responsible industry would take action to raise environmental standards and put pressure on those that tarnish the reputation of others. While there are those within the moorland community calling for reform, their voice is not loud enough or being heard. What’s worse, is that much of the grouse moor sector seem to be in denial of the impacts this intensification is having on our shared environment and wildlife. While we recognise the potentially significant benefits of grouse moor management, there is compelling and still-growing evidence that the on-the-ground reality of driven grouse shooting as currently practiced in many parts of the UK, is one where damage outweighs any benefits.
Which, if you are concerned about these things, means the status quo is not an option. You can either regulate through licensing, or ban it.
We believe that the effective regulation of grouse shooting and its associated management practices, delivered through a sensible licensing regime and effective enforcement, can deliver a grouse shooting industry fit for the 21st century. We’ve also developed and shared principles for such a scheme (here). This would complement existing legislation such as the EU Nature Directives and domestic wildlife legislation. Only time will tell if licensing is sufficient but it is the most logical next step, and long overdue. And, of course, there are many questions about how a ban on ‘driven grouse shooting’ would work in practice.
Intensive driven grouse moor management, as currently practiced in much of the UK, is environmentally unsustainable and damaging.
Licensing has the potential to deliver all of the benefits I mention at the top of the blog and more – notably healthy populations of upland wildlife of which protected birds of prey, such as hen harriers are a characteristic component. It would also set out what is expected in the wider public interest from this large scale land use in the uplands and that surely has to be a good thing.
Given the growing public profile of environmental harm associated with intensive grouse shooting, a rational industry would embrace licensing and take action to raise standards. Governments across the UK should recognise that growing intensification is incompatible with their environmental and political commitments and as a result, they need to regulate.
Failure to act will simply mean calls for a ban will intensify.
We want licensing and we want it to work.
The status quo is not an option and we cannot allow it to persist much longer.
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