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.
I am sadly not in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference this week, but our hard-working parliamentary team remains on the road - this time with RSPB Chief Executive, Mike Clarke. So, I have asked one of our team, Paul McNamee, to shares his reflections below.
We are now well into conference season with week three finding us in Manchester for Conservative Party Conference. October has brought with it a rainier week but, as a soggy graduate of Manchester University, I was expecting nothing less of the city.
Once again the RSPB has joint-hosted a reception with WWF and the Wildlife Trusts which included speeches from the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss, the Environment Secretary, and Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer at Aviva. The title of the reception was ‘We need to talk about nature... A healthy environment fro a stronger economy’ and both speakers picked up on this title. Steve gave a great speech outlining that in his line of work, the long-term is considered to be five years but that this needs to be reconsidered. Some businesses have started incorporating the effects of climate change and the declines in the natural environment as part of their investments and decision-making, knowing that these are problems that, if not addressed now, will cost us greatly in the future.
The Secretary of State continued on this theme, reiterating that the UK can only have a secure, thriving economy when it is under-pinned by a strong natural environment. These ideas were repeated the next day in her speech from the main hall in which she said “our natural assets are the country’s life-blood.” She covered how important children’s connection to nature is for the future; how the UK needs to use its science industries and world-leading data collection to help protect the environment; and that everyone should get involved with the development of the proposed 25-year plan for biodiversity (a word cloud of her speech is shown at the end of this blog).
This is a positive message and one we hope is recognised by the other Departments across Government. If, as we believe, the natural world truly underpins the economy, then every Department need to be doing their bit in helping protect our natural assets. One way in which the Chancellor can show his support in the next few months will be at the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in November.
Defra provides many vital services such as flood protection and water quality; it invests in science industries; and it receives massive benefits for the money it invests, be it European funding or unpaid volunteering hours. As such, the CSR needs to ensure that Defra does not receive reductions in spending that make it unfit for purpose. The Department’s vital work can only continue if it is well-supported by the rest of the Government. As this week’s Conference has shown, this is important not only for the inherent value of our natural environment, but for the economy too.
Word cloud of Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss speech to Conservative Party Conference 2015
All was calm and still for my trip to the Forest of Bowland of Friday. The sky was blue, the heather showing off its purple best while northern wheatear refused to start their migration and peacock butterflies enjoyed the late summer sun.
It was hard to reconcile this serene landscape with the turmoil and conflict that had surrounded the moor earlier this summer. A plume of smoke on the horizon (from a moor burn) was the only sign of the root cause of the conflict. Hen harriers and driven grouse moors are uneasy bedfellows, yet it was at Bowland on United Utilities land, in concert with the local shoot, that the RSPB team of volunteers and paid staff tried to provide sufficient 24/7 protection for hen harriers to nest and fledge their young.
Reams of column inches have been written about this summer’s breeding season and at times the commentary on social media has been hostile, disingenuous and divisive. All this evoked by attempts to recover England’s most threatened breeding bird.
The facts (shown below in the table published by Defra) speak for themselves: in Bowland, internationally important for its bird of prey population and designated a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive, there were six nests, four missing males and just one chick fledged.
The SPA target for Bowland is 13 pairs.
Its clear we have a long way to go to end the conflict and deliver what the law requires. But, the team working in Bowland have bucket loads of dedication and determination. Lesser mortals would be forgiven for running away from such a contested landscape, yet our team are already planning how to deliver better results next year.
Those of you interested to find out more about our work to recover the Hen Harrier population should come to this Saturday’s AGM in London where they will be able to hear my colleague, Jeff Knott, outline our experience and plans for the future. A sneak preview of his talk is given here.
If you are unable to attend, please do keep an eye out on our Skydancer blog for updates on our Hen Harrier work.
Fate of Hen Harrier nests from the 2015 breeding season in England
Nest monitored by
Local raptor workers
Defra will start a conversation about the content of its 25 year plan for nature on 14 October. The day before, a coalition of NGOs will launch a ten-point plan to restore nature in England (and separate plans for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). These serve as the civil society challenge to governments across the UK about their role in responding to the State of Nature report which we published in 2013.
I don’t want to give too much away other than to say that a key theme in our country plans will be to ensure national ambition is matched by arrangements locally to make it easy for people to protect and enhance nature.
Before 2010, planning for nature in England happened at a regional level with spatial strategies designed to demonstrate how to reconcile competing demands for development and protection of natural assets. A huge amount of effort was invested in mapping current and potential habitat for wetlands, heathland and other habitats while also ensuring that necessary new infrastructure went ahead without compromising the natural environment. Those with economic interests sat down with those with social and environmental concerns and deals were done.
That was, at least, the theory.
As we all know, the regional tiers of government were abolished and the coalition government placed a renewed focus on local authorities. Since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in March 2012 (see here) a series of obligations have been imposed on local authorities to make things better for nature. These were expressed in paragraphs 113-114 and 117-119 and include commitments to...
...minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing ‘net gains’ in biodiversity where possible
...contributing to the Government’s commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity
...planning, mapping and establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures.
The NPPF has been in operation for three and half years now. Together with The Wildlife Trusts, we were keen to find out how local authorities in England are implementing its biodiversity policies through their local plans.
We commissioned an independent consultant, The Planning and Environment Studio, to review 30 local plans adopted since the introduction of the NPPF. Yesterday, we launched the research findings.
Image courtesy of London Wildlife Trust
There are some positive examples of local planning authorities doing the right thing. For example, the Broadland, Norwich and South Norfolk Joint Core Strategy aims to promote a strategic approach to planning for biodiversity. It recognises the potential for new development to positively contribute to enhancing the environmental network, and it maps core biodiversity areas and buffer zones extending and linking fragmented habitats.
Gravesham’s core strategy takes a precautionary approach to effects on European Sites and requires developers to provide or contribute to mitigation measures for the recreation needs arising from their developments.
But many local plans miss the opportunity to set out a positive vision of what they might do for the natural environment in their area – less than a third of Core Strategies present a clear strategic approach to planning for biodiversity. This is hugely disappointing - Defra’s 25 year plan for nature will not be successful if local plans continue to underperform.
There is lots of good practice and we want local planning authorities to learn from each other. We know that it takes time, requires some effort to get people together and mobilise information, but the motivation must be to deliver sustainable development that benefits people and wildlife.
Through our report we’ve proposed a set of recommendations. We’ve highlighted what we think nature needs to ensure that local authorities deliver a coherent ecological network in every part of England.
...robust implementation of the NPPF
...a place-based, strategic vision for the protection and restoration of biodiversity, which:
...improved access to ecological expertise and information
Nature conservation, like anything in life, needs good planning and we think that much more needs to be done at a local level to improve the current system.
I look forward to hearing the response from central and local government to our report. In the meantime, how do you think we can improve planning for nature?
It would be great to hear your views.