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.
Last September (when the General Election seemed but a distant dream or was it a nightmare, it's easy to forget) I reported (here) on the decision by the new President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to consider a ‘merger’ of the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives (aka Nature Directives). Given the anti-regulatory context within which this announcement was made, our concern was that ‘merger’ was simply code for ‘weaken’.
Today, the battle to defend the laws that protect our nature commences with the launch of a public consultation on the Directives (see here).
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the Nature Directives to conservation. There are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago (see here) yet the Directives have played a crucial role in stemming further declines. For example, the overall population trend for birds that are specially protected (as Annex1 species, for the technical amongst you) by the Birds Directive has gone from declining to increasing. If the Directives were implemented in full, I would expect us to be able to report even more positive conservation success stories.
The Directives help the economy to prosper, too, with the network of areas they protect creating €200-300bn worth of economic benefits per year (see here).
Moreover, the Directives allow development to take place in harmony with nature. Cemex – a global quarrying company with over 40,000 staff and an annual turnover of $15b – emphatically made this point in a recent statement (here) on the future of the Directives.
It short, they are good for wildlife, good for people and good for business.
Despite this, the current political climate is increasing hostile to any regulation in the European Union and there seems to be a general desire to see laws stripped away, regardless of the consequences. There isa real danger that this approach will be applied to the Nature Directives.
The public consultation is part of a ‘Fitness Check’ (a test of whether a regulation is fit for purpose) of the Nature Directives, launched by the European Commission last year. The Fitness Check involves collating evidence from a range of sources across Europe, but the public consultation launching today will be the only formal opportunity for the citizens of Europe, including you, to have their say in this process.
Whilst the Fitness Check itself will be looking at the evidence, the decision the European Commission makes as a result of it will inevitably be a political one. Given that, without a massive demonstration of public support for the Directives, the RSPB and many other NGOs are concerned that this review will lead to the Nature Directives being weakened.
We need to remind our politicians that the Directives were established on the smart principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage by trashing their natural environment AND that attempts to meet international commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity will be seriously undermined if the Directives were weakened.
We’re working with partners across the UK and EU to ensure that European leaders are left in no doubt that the citizens of the UK and Europe care passionately about nature and won’t tolerate a weakening of its protection.
That is why, after the General Election, we will be launching a major campaign to defend the Directives. We will be asking as many of you as possible to respond to the public consultation – and to encourage your friends and family to do the same.
You’ll hear more about the campaign soon but in the meantime, please get ready to defend nature.
Ben Andrew's image is a reminder of the stimulus that the EU Birds Directive gave to the recovery of the bittern
Andy Hay's image of Dibden Bay, a site that was saved from development by the Nature Directives
Attention now turns to the kingfisher, the seventh candidate in the Vote National Bird Campaign, here championed by Rob Yorke, hunter naturalist and rural commentator who goes by the name @blackgull on twitter.
'As kingfishers catch fire'
As a keen angler, Britain’s waterways have always been fond haunts of mine - from sluggish ditches to thundering rivers – and any view of this magnificent little bird will be a highlight of the day. Especially if I haven’t caught anything. ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ (Gerald Manley Hopkins), its eye-bending iridescence of blue, green and orange created by trick of light on brown pigmented feathers, is a treat for anyone as it flashes past with distinctive high pitched call.
When I’ve managed to train my binoculars on a stationary kingfisher, it’s as though an exotic visitor has entered my world of drab green trees, muddy water, dark stones and leaden skies. A shallow dive to retrieve a quivering minnow is one of wildlife’s perfection-in-motion.
Full of hope, this bird fills me with joy. It personifies nature’s resilience and ability to bounce back from harsh ice-bound winters or re-colonise once polluted rivers. After a 100 year absence, works by the Wild Trout Trust resulted in brown trout returning to London’s River Wandle; followed closely by kingfishers as a badge of the river’s new found health. It showed that by working together on common goals, we can all do more for nature.
For this reason, let the kingfisher be our bird. Victorians used to pursue it for hat feathers - its legacy is as a founding reason for why the RSPB was created. Its presence today within Britain’s arterial watercourses, crisscrossing county boundaries, between town and country, makes this powerhouse of a bird a force to bring us closer together.
I’ll leave the final words to Welsh poet W H Davies to inspire us to vote the kingfisher as our National Bird.
‘So runs it in my blood to chooseFor haunts the lonely pools, and keepIn company with trees that weep.Go you and, with such glorious hues….
…Get thee on boughs and clap thy wingsBefore the windows of proud kings’
The sixth candidate in the Vote National Bird Campaign is the Blackbird. Below, Nature's Home editor, Mark Ward, tells you why you should vote for the bird with the perhaps the most mellifluous song.
I had the most marvellous start to the day today. I pulled back the kitchen curtains and the first things I saw were four blackbirds bouncing across the lawn.
A glossy male made its move, a hop to the left and a tilt of its head. Its mate responded with a bound to the right and a dip of its tail. Pair number two took their turn, returning the compliment. I was watching an avian game of chess and I smiled.
That’s why you should vote blackbird– for no other reason than it being the bird that makes you smile. And who doesn’t need more smiles in their life? Whether you live in town or city, you don’t have to look hard to share some precious time with a blackbird.
The blackbird made me late last week. On Thursday, I travelled to Dorset’s heaths for a date with rare reptiles, but my 5am departure was delayed. That most intense of dawn choruses, the one you only experience from being up this early, seduced my senses as I stepped outside. There were probably three males singing, but it sounded like 30. I immersed myself in it, costing me valuable “Dorset time”. I didn’t grudge a minute of it.
Woodlark, nightingale and song thrush are oft quoted stars of the songbird show, but the blackbird’s easily-heard tune takes top spot for me. The intensity of the dawn fanfare is followed, as the sun sets, by the gentler pace of the evening show – a soothing lullaby to send you to sleep and ease away all your worries.
Soon, that sharp, squeaky call from within a bush will announce the arrival of this summer’s brigade of youngsters. What more cheering summer sight than a blackbird feeding its brood of begging babies with a beak full of juicy worms?
Vote for your favourite neighbour. Vote blackbird - and smile.