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.
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.
Last week, former US Vice President Al Gore was the latest (here) to question the wisdom of fracking in our finest wildlife sites yet in my discussions at Labour and Lib Dem conferences over the past couple of weeks there seems to be some confusion about what is actually happening.
With a string of Westminster Government announcements and consultations in recent months, as well as a u-turn or two to boot, the situation around fracking has become more complicated, if no less contested by different, often vocally expressed, opinions.
I hope that this blog can help to straighten some things out and clarify our position.
This summer, the Westminster Government announced 159 new licences for onshore oil and gas in England. Many of these could lead to the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to access new reserves of oil and gas trapped in the shale rock formations beneath our countryside. The licences are just the first step, and companies will also need to apply for planning permission and go through other approvals before they can begin exploring for fossil fuels.
New analysis conducted by my colleagues have shown that 293 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (national important sites for wildlife) fall within the 159 licences, but outside other protected areas (such as National Parks) where government has committed to ban fracking. These 293 SSSIs make up just 0.9% of the area of the licence blocks that have been awarded yet are vitally important for wildlife.
Also in the 159 licence blocks, at times overlapping with these SSSIs, are nine RSPB reserves – places like Bempton Cliffs, Fairburn Ings and Nagshead, which will be well known (and loved) to many RSPB members.
David Wooton's image of RSPB Fairburn Ings
Government has also issued licences that cover the Forest of Dean, the Somerset Levels, Salisbury Plain and large parts of Dorset, as well as much of the North of England.
Recent signals are that the Westminster Government is keen to press ahead with the growth of a fracking industry to provide a bridge between coal power and renewables. A blog last week from Minister Andrea Leadsom said that opposition from the ‘anti-fracking’ lobby was costing time and money.
This intervention reminds me of some conversations that we had during the consultation over the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011 which suggested that SSSIs were fair game for development and that was in the interest of economic development. I said at the time and I’ll say again, economic development that is reliant on the needless destruction of our finest wildlife sites is the wrong form of economic development. In the end, we won the argument and we hope to do so again.
Since 2014, we’ve argued that greenhouse gas emissions associated with fracking must be consistent with legally binding carbon budgets and we have called for a tougher regulatory regime for this new onshore industry in the UK, in order to ensure the environment is protected. Specifically, we called for frack-free zones that ruled out development in all protected areas.
In February this year we thought we had achieved a partial victory when Amber Rudd, at the time a Government minister in DECC, announced that fracking would be banned outright in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and SSSIs.
Then, in July, the Government brought forward legislation that ruled out fracking beneath protected areas at anything less than a depth of 1200m. This list of protected areas included National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, World Heritage Sites and The Broads. But SSSIs were absent from that list.
At the time, the Westminster Government reiterated a promise to ban fracking at the surface within this list of protected areas (now excluding SSSIs).
When the 159 new licences were announced, they were accompanied by an environmental assessment of each licence. European sites for wildlife (Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and Ramsar sites) have now essentially been ruled out from fracking at the surface. That’s good news which we welcomed in the consultation response we submitted today.
But we also think that the same protection should apply to other sites too. We’d like to see government rule out fracking in their whole list of protected areas AND Sites of Special Scientific Interest. 85% of SSSIs in the licences are sheltered by other protected areas. So ruling out SSSIs from fracking would affect just an extra 0.9% of the licence block area.
Either the Government is happy to see fracking within SSSIs which would lead to huge public opposition (and no doubt an enormous amount of time and money tied up in planning inquiries) or it doesn’t in which case it should clarify the situation and rule out fracking within 293 very special places for wildlife.
Currently, Government appears to be sending a signal that SSSIs are fair game for development and are of lower value than other protected areas. This risk is heightened as the Government seems intent on establishing a fracking industry and has said "the number of them [SSSIs] would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry".
Fracking under these areas is also not risk free. Fracking infrastructure would need to be placed nearby and associated development would result in noise and light disturbance as well as chemical pollution could put wildlife at risk. And, of course, it would jeopardise the ambition to deliver the more, bigger, better and joined protected area network that Sir John Lawton has espoused and Defra has embraced.
So, we’re asking Amber Rudd, now Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, to fulfil her promise from February and ban fracking in all protected areas, including SSSIs.
The protection of wildlife sites is our most immediate concern; but we’re still not convinced that the other regulations around fracking are strong enough. And as the UK prepares to play an influential role at international climate negotiations in Paris in December, we’re yet to be convinced that fracking is a good idea when we need to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.
We think it would be common sense to:
If you agree, please do join our campaign (here) and send the Secretary of State a message that SSSIs aren't fit to frack.