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 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)
Jared Diamond, EO Wilson and others have had various attempts to summarise the major threats facing biodiversity. We tend to describe them as habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution (including increasing greenhouse gas emissions resulting in climate change) and the introduction of non-native species all driven by a growing population consuming more. These pressures on the natural world have been referred to to as the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse. There is a fifth, which is everything else. I was reminded of this following reports of the winter storms leading to the deaths of 28,000 seabirds (see here).
While there is a debate about the strengths of the links of climate change to the recent storms and therefore whether one of the original four horsemen is responsible for this seabird tragedy, the point I want to make is that when populations are vulnerable, extreme weather events can compound existing problems and can create more jeopardy for some species.
We know that our internationally important populations of seabirds are already under pressure because their staple summer diet of sandeels is in decline in response to sea warming, another result of climate change. This makes it a struggle to find enough food for themselves and their chicks. Sea warming, along with winter storms, which make it hard for birds to find fish in continually turbulent seas, simply make matters worse.
So what should we do about it?
Well, we need to continue to invest effort in monitoring what is happening to our seabirds but also take the necessary action on land to protect key breeding sites and eradicate non-native invasive species particularly on islands. Governments across the UK, despite funding cuts, need to continue to invest in these areas.
We need to prevent pollution incidents at sea (which is why we were delighted that the International Maritime Organisation banned the discharge of that nasty sticky substance, polyisobutylene, last year - see here).
We also need to protect our seabird populations when they are foraging for food by designating marine protected areas (for example see here) and to guide development at sea (particularly windfarms, oil and gas exploration but also shipping and fishing) so that it does not cause needless harm. These are also the responsibilities of governments but industry does, of course, have a part to play..
And, we need to continue to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to reduce the risk of climate chaos. And that's something for all of us.
The reality is, we all need to do much more to help our seabirds cope with whichever of the horsemen of the apocalypse come charging at them.
In the week when Meurig Raymond succeeded Peter Kendall as the President of the NFU (seehere), Defra has announced (see here) more details about how farmers will be rewarded to protect the environment and recover farmland wildlife. Details of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) for England have emerged and I am pleased to say that we are pretty pleased with what is being proposed.
Those of you that have been following the endless and painful saga of Common Agriculture Policy reform and implementation will remember that about £3 billion of the £15 billion that will be given to farmers in England over the next seven years will be used to support wildlife-friendly farming. We wanted it to be more, but we lost that particular debate. Earlier in the month, I wrote about how the £12 billion could be made to work much harder especially to prevent flooding (see here). But we were also keen that the new scheme built on the experience of the past twenty years, that it was well-designed and that it focused on meeting government's biodiversity commitments (especially for sites, species and habitats).
The good news is that Defra says that "biodiversity should be the priority for the scheme and we [Defra] will seek to maximise opportunities to deliver biodiversity, water quality and flooding benefits together”.
Andy Hay (rpsb-images.com)
Defra have also announced a shift away from the ‘spray and pray’ approach of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), with a commitment to ‘directed option choice’. This means agreements should include the right mix of options for the priorities that they’re trying to address. So if a farm is in a farmland bird hotspot, the design of NELMS should ensure that it provides the ‘Big 3’ management prescriptions for farmland birds: a safe place for birds to nest, enough food to rear their chicks and enough food to survive the winter. Based on our research and experience at places like Hope Farm, we have been calling for this for some time and this new approach could, whisper it quietly, help to reverse the declines in farmland bird.
The strength of the old Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) has also been recognised. This site-specific package, supported by expert advice from Natural England and Forestry Commission will still be available. I am also pleased to see attempts to incentivise collaboration between farmers encouraging them to bid together for funds (akin to the Nature Improvement Area competition). Anything that encourages landscape-scale action is good news for wildlife. More sympathetic management over a larger area (such as the Thorney Farmland Bird Friendly Zone involving 14 farmers and 3,782 ha - see here) is something that must be encouraged.
It's not all perfect (the proposed universal capital grant scheme which will struggle to deliver environmental benefits) yet our first impressions are that this new scheme is good news for wildlife and for farmers. The Defra team have done a good job.
But uncertainties remain.
How the pot will be divided up between the competing objectives? Biodiversity is the ‘overall priority’, but Defra also expect the new scheme to realise ‘synergistic outcomes’. What are they and do they exist in practice? The announcement focused on biodiversity, water quality and flood risk management (FRM), but also notes that “nonetheless we have concluded that the new scheme should be broad in scope”, with soil management, historic environment, landscape, genetic conservation and educational access all remaining priorities. If you were to put this in a pie chart, the balance of spend available for new schemes might look like simple chart below. That purple wedge will have to work pretty hard for those "other priorities".
And finally and perhaps most importantly, will farmers actually go for it? We’re hopeful that they will and I hope that the new President Meurig Raymond, gets behind the new scheme. Wouldn't it be great if, in one of his early interventions, Mr Raymond made an clear statement about the need to farm profitably whilst helping to put wildlife back in the countryside?
What do you think about NELMS and the new President of the NFU?
It would be great to hear your views.