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.
By Christmas, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, will make decisions that will shape our countryside for years to come.He is due to announce how he plans to spend c£2 billion annually of taxpayers money through the Common Agriculture Policy in England. At the same time, his colleagues in the devolved administrations will be making the same decisions. While most of the rules have already been set (badly) through the European Union, he still has a choice. He can either ensure as much of money as possible (max £489m every year) supports farmers that deliver environmental benefits (from which everyone benefits) or he could decide to give most of the money to farmers with few strings attached. To date, Mr Paterson has been very clear - the trajectory for farming must be to move away from the subsidy culture and be more responsive to the market. Yet, he has also been clear that there will still be a case to pay farmers that produced public benefits - helping to protect our water supplies and recover threatened farmland wildlife.
This is why he is in favour of transferring a maximum 15% from transfers from direct farm support in the so-called Pillar I to rural development programme in Pillar II.The NFU has been lobbying hard to change Mr Paterson's mind. While I can understand why a trade union would argue for maximum economic support for their members, their arguments, outlined in their response (see here), I'm afraid, border on the disingenuous. In particular, they imply that a small transfer of funding (9% albeit with an environment focus) would still maintain agri-environment levels at today's levels.
Unfortunately, their calculations ignore spending on the uplands and organic strands of Entry Level Stewardship, woodland grant schemes and Catchment Sensitive Farming, therefore underestimating the cost of maintaining support at current levels by around £300m. And, simply maintaining funding (at best) would do little to address the current parlous state of farmland wildlife: there are 44 million fewer birds today than when I was born in 1970 and 60% of all farmland species (for which we have sufficient data to detect a trend) have declined in this period.
To be honest, CAP calculations are not straightforward which is why the debate about transfers tends to only be for the purists. But it has been pleasing that, over the past couple of years, decision-makers have received more than 150,000 public pledges of support for wildlife-friendly farming.
So, in the coming days, keep these thoughts in mind:
- who doesn't want to see wildlife return to our farmed landscapes? More skylarks providing the soundtrack to our summer, bee and other pollinator populations recovering so they can do what they do best and farmland flowers providing a riot of colour in our countryside.
- there is a growing gap between the cost of government's environmental commitments and available resources to deal with this. Anything other than a maximum transfer of 15% straight into those agri-environment schemes would be a hammer blow to the Government's environmental ambition and would let down the many farmers who have invested so much in wildlife-friendly farming
- what other sector receives so much public money with so few strings attached?
The CAP has been broken for so long, many have given up the fight to make it better. Lord Nicholas Stern (of economics of climate change fame) said at last week’s Sustainable Food Trust event: “the CAP is politically antiquated, economically illiterate and environmentally damaging”.
Even if you agree with Lord Stern, there is still £2 billion of taxpayers money to spend every year, so Ministers across the UK need to make the best of a bad deal and make the CAP money work hard for all of us.
It's a big decision, and we’re all relying on the Environment Secretary to get it right.
The storms did cause damage, but was perhaps not as bad as people feared. This is partly down to improved sea defences but also early warning systems established by the Environment Agency and the emergency service teams involved.
It was good to receive a call from Defra on Thursday sharing their assessment of risks based on COBRA meeting discussions. But it was even more reassuring to hear that our local teams already had matters in hand and were already preparing to deal with whatever the storms threw at our reserves.. You will all have read reports of impacts on people's property, but the RSPB's reserves, particularly in East Anglia, have also taken a bit of a hammering.
While the defences at many of our reserves did a pretty good job, many sites were still flooded - see the story from Titchwell here. Snettisham and Havergate were hit badly and it's clear that we we will be pumping out seawater from many of our reserves in this region for days to come.
On the day that we publish the latest State of UK Birds report, the storm is a timely reminder that wildlife (and humans) have to deal with whatever nature (whether exacerbated by human activity or not) throws at them. Those species whose populations have crashed are particularly vulnerable to extreme events, so when you have a read of the latest report remember that the clock is ticking for us to help those birds whose populations are crashing such as willow tit, turtle dove, whinchat and corn bunting. All the more reason to get the right outcome from the Common Agriculture Policy consultation. More on that tomorrow.
As ever, the State of UK Birds report it is a great read, so please do have a browse and let me know what you think.
On the day that the winds blew, storms surged and we experienced the highest tides in nearly sixty years, the Chancellor delivered his 2013 Autumn Statement on the “fairest economic wind” that has blown since the devastating financial crash of 2007-08.
However, despite the green shoots of growth that have emerged since the Budget earlier this year, the public finances are far from fixed, and the deficit remains amongst the highest in Europe. Therefore, the Chancellor was keen to stress the need for a “responsible” recovery, one that is secure for the long-term. This meant, amongst other measures, further departmental budget cuts. Across Whitehall, the Chancellor has sought out cuts of 1.1% over each of the next two financial years. This means that the Defra budget has been cut by an additional £37 million over the next two years. These cuts come on top of the deep cuts already announced in the comprehensive spending review earlier this year, meaning that the Defra budget will be nearly half its 2010 level by 2015-16 in real terms (I have written previously about this here).
In light of these announcements, it is right to contemplate what a “responsible” recovery might look for the natural environment. We know that nature is in trouble and that there is a growing gap between stated political ambition and available resources (see my blog here). In such a fiscally constrained world, we need some big and bold decisions.
The first thing we need is for Ministers to make the right decisions about the scarce resources they do have at their disposal. That means they must find the funds to support wildlife friendly farming through agri-environment schemes. It's not difficult - they have the opportunity through their approach to implementing the Common Agriculture Policy. As they finalise decisions, they must be acutely conscious of the need to demonstrate good value of taxpayers money and be true to their commitments to recover threatened wildlife.
In the toughest economic conditions faced for a generation, it would be scandalous if the CAP money (£2 billion per annum) was not made to work hard to help farmers recover threatened wildlife improve the environment.
And then, we need to start thinking about new and innovative ways to tackle the funding gap for nature conservation (actually, we have explored some of these ideas before).
Environmental protection and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand; as the Chancellor commented today in his statement, “...going green doesn’t have to cost the earth”. The business-led Ecosystem Markets Task Force report published earlier this year showed that there is considerable potential for the private sector to benefit from some of the new market opportunities that valuing nature correctly could provide. However, the Government has a key role to play. Despite the best efforts of some businesses to take advantage of such opportunities, markets continue to consistently undervalue the environment, meaning that that those businesses who try to “do the right thing” face strong competitive pressures to do only the minimum required to comply with existing regulatory standards. One of the key findings to emerge from the EMTF review was that, in order to develop and grow greener markets in ecosystem goods and services or even to establish new mechanisms such as biodiversity offsets, the Government needs to help create the right legal and regulatory conditions for these markets to flourish. I’ll explore some of these ideas in more detail in the New Year.
The point is, this or any future government cannot afford to be passive. They have to find ways to make it easier for people to do the right thing.
That's enough economic chat for now though. My thoughts now are with those people and places that are still being battered by the wind and waves...