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.
On Good Friday, the sun shone and it was possible to believe that spring had arrived. The sky above the fields near home were alive with the sound of skylark while bees were sleepily exploring the hedgerows which would soon be bursting into flower. Nature seemed to be reasserting itself after the torpor of winter and it felt great to be alive.
My enthusiasm was not dampened by the weekend storms as we escaped to the north-east coast. A few minutes spent watching the power of the sea is invigorating and allows you to appreciate your own insignificance and the fleeting time that we spend on this planet: a good time to reflect on the impact that our species has had on the rest of the natural world and the need to up our game if we are to pass it on in a better state to the next generation.
The scale of the challenge was brought to life before Easter, when I profiled new research which provided a better understanding of what's driving changes in species populations we reported in the original State of Nature report in 2013.
For the first time, a team of scientists has quantified the relative impacts of pressures on wildlife – such as changes in farming practices, climate change, forest management, habitat creation, invasive non-native species – so we have a clear idea of why we've lost so much of our nature over recent decades, and what has helped it. Last week, I highlighted two of these pressures in more detail – farming practices and climate change.
We are currently preparing the second State of Nature report, which will bring the 2013 report right up to date. This one will be the product of an even wider partnership than its predecessor – almost 50 organisations have contributed to it – making it a truly sector-wide venture.
The new State of Nature report has gathered more data than ever before, and makes use of new analytical methods to present new and more robust trends for a broader sweep of the UK's wildlife than in 2013. In particular, our measures of the state of nature are more representative of the obscure bits of the country's biodiversity – for example we now have data on trends in centipedes, spiders, craneflies and lichens, to name just a few.
We've also made great strides with data for the marine environment. The new report uses data on fish, seals, cetaceans, seabirds, plankton, marine invertebrates and even algae, to improve what we can say on nature in the UK's seas.
An aerial view of Coquet Island off the north-east coast which last year provided home for more than 100 pairs of our most threatened seabird - roseate tern (credit: David Wootton rspb-images.com)
New analysis has allowed us to present data in different ways. Rather than just measuring change over the whole of the State of Nature period (several decades) we are now able to look over the shorter term – say, the last ten years – to test whether the rate of loss of nature has changed in recent years. We can look at the numbers increasing and decreasing from a total of nearly four thousand species.
The new State of Nature report will carry a strong message of hope: we will highlight examples of conservation work intended to reverse the fortunes of wildlife throughout the UK. These range from the revival of huge areas of upland bog to the work of farmers in making their farms wildlife-friendly, and from projects encouraging gardening for nature to the reintroduction of long-lost species.
But perhaps the greatest message of hope is the coalition of organisations that has come together thorough the State of Nature partnership. From the volunteers who collect natural history data up and down the country, to the professionals working in a wide range of partner organisations, and the businesses, land-owners and managers they work with, this report represents the efforts of thousands of UK citizens all committed to a brighter future for our nature. I’ll bring you more on this when the report is published later this year.
The RSPB is determined to work with these partners to ensure more of our land and seas are well managed for wildlife, to find new and creative ways to get people to take action and to influence change in policy and legislation to tackle the many threats facing nature. And that's why, this week, I shall return to the subject of the UK Government's commitment to restore nature in a generation and highlight the challenges it must address through its 25 year plan for the environment.
In this second blog about the pressures on nature paper published yesterday (here), I move from farming to climate change.
The new analysis shows that climate change is already the second biggest factor affecting wildlife across the UK. Yet the detail may be a surprise to some – climate change seems to be benefiting as many, if not slightly more, of our UK species than it is disadvantaging – hence this headline in today’s Daily Telegraph “Climate change has helped more species than it has harmed”.
Scientific studies have repeatedly shown climate change to be a major problem for wildlife: so what is going on here?
It’s worth noting that climate change is the factor assessed to have the second biggest negative impact on the 400 species studied (after agriculture, which is clearly the most important driver). So that is an important message: alongside whatever benefits it may bring, climate change is already causing serious negative impacts on some of our wildlife.
But why would climate change actually benefit some of our other species? The paper identifies climate change as having a larger positive impact on the UK’s wildlife than any other driver. Actually, there are a few reasons.
Firstly, let’s consider the UK’s geographical position in the north-west of Europe. Here, we have more species that are at the northern edge of their distribution, or range, and fewer that are near their southern limit. We’d expect a warming climate to enable those species at their northern range edge to expand north – and that is exactly what we are seeing. However, we are not seeing so many species ‘drop-off’ the southern end of their range, simply because we have fewer of these species. We are however seeing some changes in hillier and mountainous regions, with some uplands species such as the mountain ringlet butterfly seeming to be retreating up the hill – a lower altitude limit acting similarly to a southern latitude limit in a warming climate.
Mountain ringlet by Oliver Smart (rspb-images.com)
This picture is further complicated by the fact that we are also seeing that species seem to be moving forward at their leading, northern range edge more quickly than species retreat from their southern, trailing edge. Part of this comes down to how we record change – it only takes a few individuals to move north for us to register a range expansion, whereas an entire population has to vanish from an area before we register a range retreat. So we anticipate seeing the tail-end, negative impacts increasing over time.
Then secondly there’s the exciting arrival of species unfamiliar in Britain – for example the recent arrival and successful breeding of black-winged stilts and great white egrets. This leads us to consider our wider role in the stewardship of western Europe’s wildlife. At this larger geographical scale, many of these north-advancing species also have the tail end of their range in southern Europe. For Dartford warblers, for instance, we’re seeing exactly what we might expect: range expansion across England, but with larger declines across Spain (see here). Europe faces much more severe future climate change than here in the UK, particularly in the south, so our role will grow as a refuge for European wildlife escaping changing climatic conditions in their current range. You could say that the UK can be seen as an ark for many species affected by climate change.
And thirdly, it is worth remembering that we are still in the early days of climate change. The impact on our wildlife has only been apparent for around 30 years: we are witnessing the first signs of change, and there’s a good deal more to come. For a world with 3°Celsius average global temperature rise, Europe’s breeding birds are expected to need to shift location by an average of nearly 550 km north-east to stay within suitable climate conditions. What’s worse is that there will be less space for them overall: the extent of those suitable climate conditions is projected to decrease by 20%. And of course, each species will also need appropriate habitat in those new areas of climate suitability, as well the ability to get there –consider the dispersal challenge for a sand lizard that already finds it tricky to cross a road.
So let’s welcome whatever benefits climate change brings for the UK’s wildlife. But we mustn’t let this cloud our overall view of climate change and the devastation that it could bring to people and wildlife.
This is why the RSPB will continue to work with others to help wildlife become more resilient and adapt to climate change whilst also pressing governments across the UK to meet their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
You can read more about our work on climate change here.
Cast your mind back to May 2013. Summer was just beginning and I had the pleasure of being at the stunning Natural History Museum in London, with colleagues from across the nature conservation sector, government and business, listening to an impassioned speech from David Attenborough. This was the launch of our sector’s own State of Nature report (see here).
The report was an important milestone. Twenty-five organisations came together, contributed data and expertise, and presented some shocking statistics about the fate of the UK’s wildlife. Several of these stats have been widely cited since, including the top headline that 60% of species have declined in the past 50 years.
The report was well received, but prompted some valid questions from commentators, including what had caused these declines. For the past couple of years, we’ve been working with our partners to help answer this.
Today, a paper exploring the pressures that led to those declines has been published in the journal PLOS ONE by a subset of the same partners. You can read the paper in full here.
The study looked at a comprehensive range of pressures, both positive and negative, on a sample of 400 species of plants and animals and ranked the significance of the different drivers of change.
This sort of analysis is incredibly useful as it helps us work out where we (and I mean all of us) should be investing effort. Those within government should be interested in the policy implications of this report, businesses can use this to identify how their practice may need to evolve, and those in civil society can work out the most important issues for which they should be using their voice for nature.
Through our study, we found that that intensive management of agricultural land and climatic change have had the greatest impact on wildlife since 1970. In a blog post tomorrow, I’ll focus on the climate issue in more detail. Today, I’m going to focus on farming.
Andy Hay's image of RSPB Hope Farm where we have demonstrated that it is possible to grow food profitably and recover farmland birds
Farming practices have changed dramatically since 1970, such as a change from spring- to autumn-sown crops, losses of hedgerows and farm ponds, and use of novel pesticides and herbicides. These changes have had overwhelmingly negative impacts across many groups of animals and plants – including butterflies, beetles, bees, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and plants. Indeed agriculture has also been identified as the biggest pressure on the world's threatened birds by BirdLife International (see here).
Yet with c75% of UK land being farmed, and the clear impacts of farming practice on wildlife, the UK’s farmers are in a unique position to reverse wildlife declines and secure a brighter future for countless species of plants and animals.
Farmers up and down the UK are bucking the downward trend, by taking targeted action to benefit wildlife on their farms. As an organisation we are lucky enough to work with numerous passionate farmers committed to seeing wildlife thrive on their farms. Locally, these actions have noticeable effects, but the sad truth is that current effort is inadequate. Reversing national declines will require action by many more farmers and that inevitably will mean a change to the current policy and regulatory framework.
Fortunately, financial support is available to help farmers take action for wildlife. Government schemes to support wildlife-friendly farming (called agri-environment schemes) are in place across the UK. In England, the new scheme launches for its second year this week – applications are open for the new Countryside Stewardship scheme until the end of September, but farmers interested in the higher-tier (akin to the old Higher Level Scheme) will need to get in touch with Natural England in the next couple of weeks. Whilst it hit a few snags in its first year, I'm confident that, with the support of farmers, the new scheme will provide real benefits for nature. In fact, the impact of these schemes have increased since they were first piloted in the mid 1980s.
The funds to support these schemes ultimately come from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP (as I have explained on many occasions for example here), is a behemoth of a policy and financial instrument, absorbing 40% of the EU budget, or €1 billion per week. It’s impact on Europe’s environment are complicated but (as illustrated in the IEEP report a fortnight ago - here) widely perceived to be negative overall, despite the localised promise shown by agri-environment schemes.
With the referendum of the UK’s membership of the EU taking place this June, the future of agri-environment schemes in the UK is far from certain. Whatever happens – remain or leave – fundamental reform of agricultural policy to ensure greater financial support for wildlife-friendly farming will be a vital next step. Indeed, CAP reform was a core component of our Response for Nature (here) which has formed the basis of our engagement with government plans for nature across the UK.
We need politicians across the EU to acknowledge that agriculture is the key driver of biodiversity decline and grasp the nettle on CAP reform. Only then will farmers across the EU secure the long-term support they need to take widespread action for wildlife.