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 delighted that people are beginning to talk and write about our joint campaign with The Widlife Trusts for a Nature and Wellbeing Act (read Mike McCarthy here and Geroge Monbiot here). Thousands of people have also written to their MPs to encourage them to include a commitment to the Bill in their election manifestos and hundreds of people have already registered to join our Rally for Nature on 9 December.
At the heart of the Bill are long-term targets for nature, which would help hold the Government to account for restoring our natural environment for the next generation. We want the Bill to drive nature's recovery in the same way the Climate Change Act in 2008 has helped to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
As Matt Shardlow (CEO of Buglife) wrote in his latest blog (here), current endeavours - for example through the government sponsored Nature Improvement Areas - are good but insufficient. I expect the publication of government's biodiversity indicators this week will also show the scale of the challenge - watch out for the new threatened species index and for the state of our finest wildlife sties - SSSIs.
We need a plan, commitment and resources to drive nature's recovery. That's why we’re calling for Local Ecological Network Strategies.
We have also, unashamedly, made the case for a stronger Natural Capital Committee – or an Office for Environmental Responsibility – that would audit Government decisions for their effect on nature, making sure that we don’t use up out natural resources that we depend on, or unwittingly threaten species and habitats. This has caused a little consternation amongst some (see here) but we want the value of nature to be taken into account in decision-making and use any techniques possible to make this happen.
Later this week, the Chancellor George Osborne will deliver his autumn statement and my bold prediction is that the value of nature will be completely absent from his speech. Yet, the Government still intends, by 2020, for the Chancellor of the day to be able to report on the state of our natural capital as well as financial capital. This would change the way that government would respond to the natural world. It doesn't mean that we've sold out and don't believe in the intrinsic value of nature - it means that we are trying to influence the way that traditional economics (and politics) works. I look forward to the day when my fellow Gooner, Robert Peston, is obliged to talk about nature in numbers with the same frequency as the highs and lows of the stock market.
We know how much we need nature. That's why we’re proposing standards for access to high quality green space, and basic education about our natural world in schools, so that everyone can be properly connected with nature. It’s hard to believe that even now, people living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas and die on average 7 years earlier than those in the richest areas. But if every household in England were provided with good access to quality green space it could save around £2.1 billion a year in health care costs.
We think the Bill is ambitious but also that its time has come and we need it now.
But maybe we haven't gone far enough. My boss sent me this link to the Rights for Nature Articles in Ecuador's constitution (see here) which argues that nature has the right to exist and to its restoration.
I am sure that is something with which our Bob would agree. So, if you haven't done so already, please do lend him your vote.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of the conservation mantra: “protect the best and restore the rest”. We still have to fight hard to prevent declines of species like turtle dove and kittiwake and to protect our finest wildlife sites like Lodge Hill, yet restoration remains the ambition.
As we are demonstrating at places like Wallasea Island (here), restoration of habitat can be complex, costly but hugely rewarding. The same is true for species re-introductions and translocations - bringing back native species lost from where they once were. It isn’t simply a case of opening a release pen and hoping for the best. Like others, we follow the IUCN's guidelines which dictate how such releases should take place. Before we embark on any reintroduction or translocation we want to ensure the threats to the species are removed or significantly reduced. We also ensure that whatever we do is not detrimental to the species we are releasing or the species already present which will be sharing their habitat with the new arrival. And, we always use the best available evidence to inform the choices you make. This then gives the re-introduction project the best possible chance of success.
In recent years, the RSPB has been working with a wide range of partners to bring species back to where they once lived. Successes are hard won, built on the dedication, passion and expertise of not only our staff, but those of our volunteers and many partners. And we have had a few success in recent years...
...the cirl buntings (1) back in Cornwall – the only successful songbird re-introduction in Europe,
...the cranes (2) once more on the Somerset Levels
...short-haired bumblebee (3) back showing signs of breeding at our Dungeness reserve after being declared extinct in the UK in 2000
...smooth snake (4) being restored to their historic range, or
...white-tailed eagles (5) back breeding in Scotland.
There are all great examples of the impact that can be made by a bunch of determined conservationists, land mangers and local communities.
There isn’t an agreed manual of how to restore lost species. You can’t just adapt a recipe and hope that it’s successful, A lot of the pioneering work has to be tried and tested and occasionally projects prompt legitimate disagreements between those involved. The great bustard - the subject of yesterday's blog - hadn’t bred in the UK since 1832, but we hope that our involvement in the project to reintroduce it to Salisbury Plain has given the Great Bustard Group the greatest chance of success. Although we’re no longer part of the project (see here), that doesn’t diminish hopes of seeing others re-establish this magnificent bird in the UK.
We know from our work to eradicate rats from Henderson Island (here), working on the leading edge of current knowledge, we don’t always get it right first time. The rats are still there and so is the threat to some of the UK’s most threatened species. Those of you who read my blog regularly will know I’m an optimist at heart. So even when things don’t go to plan, I retain my optimism. Why? Because I know we are right to try and, more importantly, I know that through trying, we learn. So, the next time we and our partners give something a shot, we have a better chance of being successful.
Bringing nature back is incredibly rewarding. For some, that reward may be the £5 million boost to the local economy stimulated by the return of the white-tailed eagles, for others it may be the joy expressed by a schoolgirl returning home to tell her grandfather how excited she is that his farm has cranes back. For others, simply seeing a white-tailed eagle soar in the sky, hearing a crane bugling through the mist hanging low over the Somerset Levels, or enjoying a wildflower meadow as it hosts the return of the short-haired bumblebee is reward enough.
And this, ultimately, is why I believe the restoration challenges are worth the effort.
What emphasis do you think the RSPB should place on restoring lost biodiversity?
It would be great to hear your views.
I would like to thank all our partners for their commitment to these challenging and exciting projects including...
1) Cirl Bunting project partners: National Trust, Natural England, Paignton Zoo Environmental Park, RSPB, Zoological Society of London.
2) Cranes project partners: Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, RSPB, Viridor Credits, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.
3) Short-haired Bumblebee project partners: Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Hymettus, Natural England, RSPB.
4) Smooth Snake project partners: Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Trust, Natural England, RSPB.
5) White-tailed Eagles project partners: Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, NE, many individual experts.
This year 33 birds were released in Wiltshire as part of the EU LIFE+ Great Bustard project. They have shown good survival to date, and have been seen spreading their wings as far afield as Alderney and Dorset. Like most of these projects, we won’t know how successful this year’s releases have been until counts are undertaken in spring 2015. As part of the Natural England licence, the Great Bustard Group will be doing this monitoring, and we look forward to hearing what we hope will be positive news.
As the EU project, which has financially supported this work since 2010, closes, I have invited Dr Andy Evans, Head of our Nature Recovery Unit which led the project, to give some personal reflections on this work.
One summer’s morning in 2014 I had one of the greatest privileges of my 25 year career in conservation. I found myself standing in a grass field on Salisbury Plain, surrounded by the timber and netting of a huge release pen. I was dressed in a dehumanising suit, designed to make me look like an adult great bustard and was carrying a model of a great bustard head.
I was alone. Alone that is, except for a creche of 9, 6-week-old great bustard chicks. These chicks had arrived in the UK from Spain as eggs, eggs which had been incubated and hatched by staff at ‘BirdWorld’, then hand-reared by LIFE+ project staff at a secret site on Salisbury Plain.
My job was that of tutor. In the wild, great bustard chicks stay with the adults for a long period, during which they learn about their environment – what to eat, when to run, when to hide.
I spent an inspirational 90 minutes getting to know my class and showing them the sweetest, tastiest young lucerne leaves and encouraging them to try the occasional beetle or spider. I was entranced by the way they followed me, watching for guidance and visibly learning.
On the long trip home I had time to reflect with great pride upon how much the LIFE+ partnership had brought to the long-term efforts to bring this magnificent species back to the UK. We have made some tremendous advances in the last 4 years: switching from importing Russian-reared chicks to Spanish eggs, refining the chick diet after an exchange visit to our colleagues in Germany, introducing the dehumanising suits and schooling the chicks, sourcing two new release sites each with a more open vista and lower predator densities than the original site, switching from chain-link fencing to soft electric fencing and thus reducing collision risk. All these changes have resulted in hugely improved post-release survival and given real hope that the ultimate objective of establishing a self-sustaining wild population of great bustards in southern England can eventually be achieved.
Of course it is with a tinge of sadness that I am writing this at a time when the partners have agreed to close the EU LIFE+ project 9 months early (see here). Notwithstanding this, I would like to take the opportunity to wish the Great Bustard Group every success in the future as they pursue the laudable objective of bringing this incredible species back to its former home in the UK. And I remain proud of the contribution that the LIFE+ partnership has made towards this ambition and the tremendous progress that has been achieved.