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.
Something happened this weekend. A blast of sun and suddenly spring had sprung. In my garden, at the Lodge, wherever I go at the moment, places are coming to life with signs of competition everywhere. Birds, of course, have found their voice again. Some are singing so hard they barely have energy left, all to prove to prospective mates that they're the fittest, the finest choice. For some, nest building has begun in earnest.
At Westminster, the politicians are starting to 'sing' too and, I'm pleased to say, some sound pretty good. With just over a year to go until the General Election, this is the time when political parties traditionally set out their environmental plans looking for competitive advantage.
But tonight, something else happened which could trigger competition or perhaps even cooperation between the political parties.
Dieter Helm's Natural Capital Committee produced its second report. You can read it here.
In this excellent report, there is a recommendation to produce a plan to restore our (England's) natural capital within a generation, by 2040. The Committee intends to produce this plan before the Mary 2015 General Election.
I applaud the intent. Take any assessment of the state of nature (species, sites, ecosystems) and it is clear that we are not doing enough to maintain what we have, let alone put back what we have lost. This is bad news for nature and bad news for us, given all the free services that nature gives us.
I do not see this as a lack of ambition - successive governments, including this one, have had laudable goals to improve the natural environment. And we have had plans before to do something about it - the 1994 UK Biodiversity Action Plan established by John Major's Government perhaps the most comprehensive.
Too often, however, there has been a mismatch between ambition and available resources and political will. I see that today as the current Government seeks to implement the Natural Environment White Paper and the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy for England. Too often, objectives are undermined by conflicting policies (that lead to habitat destruction or pollution), a failure to enforce to the law (for example to tackle wildlife crime) and a lack of accountability across government. It has not been clear what happens if we fail. With whom does the buck stop and what is the price of failure?
So we need a step change in the way we organise ourselves to achieve the big political aims for nature.
This is why I was delighted to read the Green Manifesto also published today by a green pressure group of Liberal Democrats.
In it, there is a proposal for a Nature Act, establishing statutory targets for biodiversity, clean air and water. I like this idea. I can see how a Nature Act could potentially do for wildlife what the Climate Change Act has done to legally underpin the move to a low Carbon economy and drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
The Green Manifesto isn’t official party policy, but I hope Nick Clegg takes note. Indeed, I hope all the parties take note. While I am keen to see competition for ideas, I think there is also real merit in cross-party consensus for action on the environment. Long term policy objectives will only be achieved if there is continuity even if government changes hands.
The other main parties at Westminster have also started to sing a bit.
The Conservative Environment Network and the Conservative 2020 Group have recently made valuable green contributions. Laura Sandys MP set out the importance of waste-reduction and energy efficiency for a viable modern economy, while Education Secretary Michael Gove underlined that nature is an integral part of school life, both through theory and experience.
The Labour Party has just launched its Your Britain policy consultation. It has some strong indications about climate change policy, but its discussion of the natural environment is restricted to just two paragraphs. The Fabian Society has helped, with a useful contribution on Green Europe, for example, but a coherent Labour environmental story has yet to take shape.
The current Government will respond to the Natural Capital Committee report in the summer and if given the green light, then the Committee will get on and produce the plan by spring 2015. We and others will of course be delighted to help and contribute our ideas.
But here's another thought. Between now and the next General Election, we should be encouraging a debate across the political spectrum to cooperate on the formation and adoption of the proposed 25 year plan. It would be a disaster if a good 25 year plan is developed only for it to be binned by a future government. Cooperation may be the only way to deliver the step change nature needs.
Competition or cooperation? Which do you think will deliver more for nature?
It would be great to hear your views.
This week, I celebrate ten years working at the RSPB. What better excuse for a little RetroSPective Blog (see what I did there?).
My first day of work took me to Manchester for the Labour Party Spring Conference. The standout memory was a late-night game of pool with the now Site Manager at RSPB Conwy Reserve. Ten years on, in a rather predictable way, I spent part of this weekend up in York at the Lib Dem Spring conference. In a decade, I think I have been to 27 party conferences. It should have been 28 but I put my back out lifting my girl out of her pram prior to the Conservative Conference in October 2008 - I spent that one in bed.
So what has happened in ten years? What's different and what do we have/know today that we did not have/know in March 2004? Here are ten things...
1. We have new laws... to protect the marine environment and to tackle climate change. These are good things.
2. We have new government bodies designed to help protect the environment... such as Natural England, the Natural Capital Committee, the Committee on Climate Change and the Marine Management Organisation. These are usually good things.
3. We have had five Environment Secretaries of State... Margaret Beckett, David Miliband, Hilary Benn, Caroline Spelman and Owen Paterson. We have also had a lot of biodiversity ministers... including Eliot Morley, Jim Knight, Ben Bradshaw, Barry Gardiner, Phil Woolas, Richard Benyon and Rupert de Mauley. I may have missed one or two, the turnover is so rapid. I'll leave you to create your own league table of ministers.
4. The RSPB has grown and changed (a little bit)... we have a new Chief Executive, we have just about 1.1 million members, we are on our third strapline in ten years, we have a new logo and a new name for our magazine.
5. We manage more land.... about another 30,000 hectares.
6. We are a bit more ambitious abroad... helping partners manage over 170,000 hectares of tropical forest in Sierra Leone and Indonesia.
7. We have identified many more solutions to conservation problems... We know how to farm profitably while recovering farmland birds, we know how to manage the uplands for water, carbon and wildlife, we know to recover 3 critically endangered south Asian vultures and how to prevent albatrosses being caught through long-lining.
8. Some bits of biodiversity are doing better... in 2004, we met the Biodiversity Action Plan target for 50 booming males, but the population has continued to rise and last year we had the first booming bittern in Oxfordshire for 150 years; white-tailed eagle bred successfully in East Scotland for the first time 200 years, red kites have continued to spread thanks to reintroduction projects and the buzzard now has the sixth largest wintering range of any British and Irish species.
9. Other bits of biodiversity remain in trouble... farmland birds, moths and carabid beettles as well as many of our summer migrant birds such as the turtle dove whose population continues to plummet. And too small a percentage of our SSSIs are in good condition, some even threatened today by development.
10. We have greater awareness than ever before about... the importance of wildlife to us, its plight, the causes and the timetable over which we need ot act.
And me? Well, I've had three jobs, moved city, had a couple of kids, stopped running marathons and (until this weekend) have become increasingly depressed by the ability of Arsenal to win another trophy. To RSPB's loyal members, who it is always a pleasure to meet, and to inspirational colleagues past and present, thank you for making the past ten years so rewarding.
All this then begs two questions...
...what are you observations from the past ten years?
...what will be different in the next ten years?
I live and work in the flatlands of Eastern England but I love walking in the hills. I have walked large stretches of the long distance footpaths of England, and in recent years, I have been lucky to go and see some of the work that we do in the uplands - working with others such as United Utilities to restore fabulous places like Dove Stone in the Peak District and with our tenant farmer at Geltsdale in the North Pennines. For me, alongside the inspiration that comes from being in wild places, it has always been the wildlife associated with the spongy wonders of peat bogs that hold me in thrall. Getting up close and personal with Sphagnum mosses and carnivorous sundews should not be limited to those that visit botanic gardens.
The walkers amongst you will know that our peatlands are not in great condition. You can see for yourself the scale and extent of damage to peatlands from afforestation, drainage, overgrazing and burning. This was documented by the Adaptation Sub-Committee last year (see Figure 4.5 here). And, as I wrote in my first blog of the year (here), just 10.5% of the 162,000 ha of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition in England.
In the late 1990s, the RSPB with many others successfully campaigned to end the extraction of peat from lowland raised bog SSSIs and to get trees off the internationally important bogs in the Flow Country. Today, we should be applying the same urgency to restore internationally important peatlands in the hills. This would not only help wildlife, but also fulfil our legal obligations to restore these sites whilst safeguarding nature's free services that well-managed peatlands provide - such as locking up carbon, providing clear drinking water, and keeping water for longer on the hill to prevent downstream flooding.
But restoration will not happen if we keep burning our peatlands. In May 2013, Natural England completed its review of evidence of the impact of upland management practices including burning (see here). In short, they concluded that burning vegetation on deep peat soils is preventing the recovery of the habitat and the species our protected sites are intended to look after. For those communities, like those at Hebden Bridge, living in the foothills of intensively managed moors there are more pressing reasons why they cry "Ban the Burn".
Today, we reveal the scale of burning on our internationally protected peatlands (see here). There are at least 127 separate historic agreements or consents allowing burning of blanket bog on sites internationally important for birds and deep peatland habitats. Defra has confirmed that all of these consents take place on grouse moors where burning is designed to provide optimum conditions for red grouse. We have compiled this information following our investigation into the management agreement that was struck between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate in 2012 (which I first aired here).
We have decided to put this information into the public domain for three reasons...
...first, we are encouraging Natural England to act on their evidence review and produce guidelines which bring an end to burning on our protected upland peatlands
...second, any public money that flows up the hill to support land management in the hills (especially finite agri-environment money) must be made to work harder for wildlife and protect nature's free services. Future agri-environment agreements which allow burning on deep peat would be a waste of tax-payers' money
...third, we want to invite all landowners to end burning on deep peat and contribute to a national campaign for peatland restoration
We have also, this week, contacted Natural England for an update on any restoration that has taken place at Walshaw since the management agreement was struck in 2012. I think it is in all our interests, especially those taxpayers that walk through Walshaw Moor on the Pennine Way, to find out what progress has been made to block drains and improve the habitat on this internationally protected site.
If you would like to find out more about the detail of the Walshaw case and the wider concerns about burning on peatlands, please do visit our dedicated web pages here.
And do let me know what you think about the continued burning on peatland protected sites.
It would be great to hear your views.
Image credit: Round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, Niall Benvie (rspb-images.com)