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.
Agriculture Minister, David Heath, seemed to enjoy Monday's visit to Hope Farm. While the skies were a little forbidding and lightning bolts crashed around us, we escaped a deluge and farm manager, Ian Dillon's record of never having to call off a farm visit remains intact.
As Defra prepares to implement the CAP deal and designs the new agri-environment scheme, I do think that there is a lot to learn from our experience at Hope Farm. The farmland bird package (including flower-rich margins, wild bird cover and in-field measures such as skylark plots) has been the key to our success at the farm. Unfortunately, although available to all farmers through the entry-level scheme, this has not had the take up that we had hoped. By offering a menu of options in the entry level scheme, farmers have been able to choose easy options such as grass margins which do little to benefit wildlife. This probably explains why the farmland bird index continues to bump along the bottom of the graph.
If some of these easier options were incorporated into the proposed greening conditions on 30% of farm support payments (so called Pillar 1 of the CAP), then this would free up more money to benefit farmland wildlife through well funded and well designed agri-environment schemes (under Pillar 2).
The visit of the Mr Heath attracted some attention from the farming press and I was glad to be able to support the minister's ambitions to transfer money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2. You can see one of my windswept interviews here.
A minor distraction came from the President of the NFU, Peter Kendall, who had made some rather predictable comments about the future of farm subsidies and how farming should respond to the climate change crisis. The Guardian was one of the newspapers that ran the story and they were kind enough to publish my response yesterday (see here). Despite his job title, Peter is not representing all farmers as last month's letter to from the high nature value farming coalition demonstrated.
While there is still the small matter of the European Parliament needing to agree the European Budget for the 2014-2020 period, ministers do need to make decisions about CAP budget transfers and design of new schemes by the end of the year. For Defra ministers and officials to have any hope of recovering the 60% of farmland species which have declined over the past forty years, they will need to remember the Hope Farm experience and support the many farmers that want to support an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.
What did you think about Peter Kendall's comments about the future of farming?
It would be great to hear your views.
On Saturday, walking with the family between the two stages at the Cambridge Folk Festival, I stopped to have a chat with two colleagues at the RSPB stand. we have a presence at many festivals these days as people seem quite keen to take time out from the music to talk about the birds and the bees. Things seemed to have been going well at Cambridge, lots of good conversations, obviously some good music and they were confident of beating their target for new members recruited.
I asked which topics excited people about our work. It seemed that the younger folk wanted to talk about the new tv advert and how it had inspired them to get active in the garden. This is either a sign that the ad is working or that kids are watching a lot of telly (probably a bit of both). But, the other conversation that is still engaging people is our work at Hope Farm. People liked the idea that we were trying to work out how to farm productively while recovering farmland birds.
I shouldn't be surprised - this was what first inspired me about Hope Farm when the RSPB appealed to its members in the late 1990s to help purchase the farm. I was not working for the RSPB in those days but there was something about the offer which excited me enough to make a donation - a first for me. Hope Farm is the RSPB at its best, finding practical solutions to twenty-first century nature conservation problems.
As chance would have it, I shall be at Hope Farm this afternoon as Agriculture Minister, David Heath, comes to visit. It is a timely opportunity to explain how we have managed, in a decade, to triple the number of farmland birds while maintaining wheat yields. This will lead on to talk about the importance of 'modulation' (shifting money from direct farm support towards agri-environment funding) and about how to design new schemes so that finite money works hard works hard for farmers and wildlife.
I shall also draw the Minister's attention to those other farmers that are calling for well designed, well funded agri-enviornment schemes. All of the nominees for this year's Nature of Farming Award will have benefited from some agri-environment support. They provide hope and inspiration to others and I shall be encouraging the Minister to vote for his preference as this year's poll is now open.
And while my Saturday evening ended by carrying my daughter home in the rain, here's hoping the rain stays away until after 5pm today. Am not sure my back would be able to take it...
Guest post by our Chief Executive, Mike Clarke.
For me, the last few months have been hugely significant.
In May, we published the State of Nature report along with 24 other conservation organisations. This report brought home the reality that nature is in trouble – year by year there are fewer flowers, fewer insects and fewer birds. In fact, there are around 44 million less breeding birds since the late 1960s.
Wildlife faces common problems and needs common solutions - measures such as EU Common Agricultural Policy reform, a strong planning system, laws for environmental protection, and economic policies that properly reflect the true value of nature in the wealth of our nation. But, we are failing to see governments take the necessary action.
The global scale of the problem became all the more evident in June with the launch of the State of the World’s Birds. Birds are an integral part of the web of life, and are very visible indicators for biodiversity. The pressure human activity is now placing on species, habitats and sites means that 1 in 8 of all bird species are now considered globally threatened with extinction.
BirdLife International is the world’s largest partnership of civil society organisations for nature conservation, with over 13 million supporters, united in a shared global strategy.
Returning from the BirdLife World Congress in Canada, I came away with a powerful impression that the world is turning. The environmental movement is struggling to recognise the scale of change - and that we simply can’t just carry on as we are.
Over the next few decades, the pressures on nature are going to intensify, driven by short term economics and a longer term inability of human society to live within the means of our fragile planet. We need more support than we have been able to command so far. We need more people to care. We need their voice to be heard by governments and decision makers.
Sometimes, it can seem that the scale of the problem is impossibly large; Or that people have lost faith in politicians to deliver the solutions that nature needs.
The RSPB has a knack of capturing the spirit of the age and challenging the status quo. The combination of our sound science and a passionate movement of people is a potent force to fight for nature. We need to work together (State of Nature was just the start) and that’s where Giving Nature a Home comes in.
What we’re doing now and over the next few years is a small contribution, but organisations across the planet are watching. And what are we doing? We’ve believing in ourselves and trusting that we really can make a difference.
Saving nature is a marathon not a sprint, this is just the beginning, and growing public support for nature is the clearest and most powerful way to meet the biggest challenge our natural world has faced.The belief that a person can make a difference is at the heart of hope. By taking action, you can be part of a global movement of over 13 million people across more than 120 countries. If you’re already giving nature a home – thank you! Do visit our website if you want to find out more.
What do you consider are the biggest challenges nature conservation faces at the moment?
photo credits: Heath fritillary by Jackie Cooper (rspb-images.com), Dartford warbler by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)