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.
Today, I am speaking at a Westminster Forum seminar on the future of policy on biodiversity and natural capital in the UK. Here is a long-hand version of what I plan to say. Do have a read and then let me know what you think.
Imagine a future where....
...there is enough land for the food we need and for wildlife because we use the food we buy, we consume only what we need and farmers provide habitat for wildlife on their land because they know it helps maintain yields in the long term
...fishermen can make a living while safeguarding fish populations
...at least 20% of our land and seas are really well managed for wildlife as well as people, and where wild species aren’t just protected, but thriving
...it is increasingly popular for land to be bought, enhanced for wildlife and passed on with legally binding conservation covenants
...everybody can have good contact with wildlife within 300 metres of where they live
...all our energy needs are provided by the power of the sun, wind and waves
...landowners welcome tourists on to their land to show them birds of prey
...children in England send emails to children in Ghana letting them know when their migratory birds have arrived in our spring
...we have an annual celebration of the special wildlife on our overseas territories
...we have annual parliamentary debates to agree action to improve the state of nature
...we are proud to have the best environment in the world because we have restored wildlife populations in a generation
This is what, as an optimist, I imagine when I read the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment “to develop a 25 Year Plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity”. It reflects the ambition of the Convention on Biological Diversity (and its Aichi targets for 2020) whose goal is for humans to live in harmony with nature.
The challenge is how to turn this dream land into a real land.
WHAT’S THE STATE OF NATURE?
Today, we know that 60% of species for which we have data have declined in my lifetime (see here). We know that while 10.6% of UK land is designated as important for nature conservation, only half of that is currently well managed for wildlife (see government figures here). We also know that about a third of the services that nature gives us (so-called ecosystem services) are degraded (see here). Yet, through targeted conservation action, we have been able to recover the populations of some of our most threatened species like cirl bunting, bittern and red kite.
Image Courtesy of Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
WHAT’S DRIVING CHANGE IN THE STATE OF NATURE?
Our approach to emergency care is not possible for all species everywhere. We need to do more to prevent declines. That means tackling both the proximate drivers of change (such as habitat loss or degradation - often associated with changes in climate, land use or management) as well as the ultimate drivers (a growing population that consumes more and an economic system that fails to fully recognise and account for the impacts of our choices on nature and the wider environment).
WHAT’S OUR RESPONSE?
It’s not rocket science.
...strong and sustained leadership from both governments and the private sector: political leaders to set out a clear and ambitious vision for our future environment, and to put in place the tools needed to deliver that vision. And business leaders to be forward-looking, to recognise the value of natural capital in their businesses, and to prioritise long-term sustainability over short term economic gains.
...a long term planning: in England, the Government is currently writing a 25 year plan for the environment. This would take us to the year 2040, beyond the time horizon set out in the Aichi targets and into a world that could be experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In order to address the major challenges we will face in that time, we need commitment to long-term environmental planning. However, for such a plan to actually deliver a lasting legacy, it needs to cut across government departments, and be able to withstand political upheaval - I cannot see how this can be achieved without legislation to guarantee political consensus for the long term. And I struggle to see how we can do this without good local/regional spatial mapping to help us reconcile the social, economic and environmental needs.
...the right tools in our toolkit: which must include regulation, as well as incentives and voluntary approaches. From the recent fitness check on the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (the most important bits of nature legislation we have), we know that:
Good regulation is not only essential for nature, it can also be good for business, levelling the playing field so that those that are committed to safeguarding natural capital are not at a competitive disadvantaged. And this can help drive innovation too.
We also know that incentive payments can be effective in leveraging positive environmental change, and that such approaches (such as agri-environment schemes and other methods for paying for ecosystem services) are particularly important for delivering environmental benefits on land outside our protected area network.
However, for such approaches to add value in practice, they have to work alongside an effective regulatory framework (the carrot AND the stick). We’ve seen examples of this working for example...
...at Medmery on the south coast where a flood risk management project has helped to protect 350 homes while also contributing to a statutory obligation to restore 100 hectares of coastal habitat annually and
...our work with United Utilities and with Northern Ireland Water is showing that restoring our uplands is good for wildlife, good for water quality and therefore good for business and people. This would have been possible without changes to the rules governing water company investments that enabled upstream management and, especially in England, a clear political steer to improve the condition of our finest wildlife sites.
Image courtesy of Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Effective regulation will be key to the success of innovative approaches like biodiversity offsetting and natural capital accounting. Without it, there is a danger that either nothing happens or that we end up too easily trading away fought so hard to protect over recent decades.
...powerful statutory agencies with the confidence and independence (and resources) to say and do the right thing adopting an ‘outcomes approach’ that safeguards the environment, that values long-term sustainability over short term economic gains and that places the protection and restoration of species and habitats at its heart.
...a feisty and committed NGO sector that inspires people to act and cajoles governments and businesses to do more.
HOW CAN WE LEARN AND ADAPT?
All of this is possible – we know what works because different parts of the UK have been starting to do it...
...in England, we’ve been trying new approaches to landscape-scale conservation through our Nature Improvement Areas. Where these have been most effective their success has been driven by strong leadership, a clear vision for what they are trying to achieve, effective partnerships and adequate resourcing.
...in Wales, the Environment Act builds on the 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which commits them to becoming ‘a nation that maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy, functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change)’.
...in Scotland, strategic environmental planning has been established to address the challenge of climate change. Through their 2016-2021 Land Use Strategy, the Scottish government set out their Principles for Sustainable Land Use, aimed at guiding policy and decision making by Government and across the public sector.
What's more, I am looking forward to the proposed pathfinder projects in England, as this will offer new opportunities to learn about how to deliver multiple benefits at scale.
HOW WILL WE KNOW IF IT’S WORKING?
Effective monitoring and clear milestones are vital in order to ensure that we stay on track. Any environmental strategy – whether it is in England or Scotland or anywhere else in the world - should set out clear objectives and report on progress. For both voluntary and regulatory policy approaches, the evidence suggests that clear targets combined with robust/transparent monitoring and reporting, are key to delivering long-term success.
The ultimate test of course of whether species and habitats are doing better, whether we have lived up to the spirit of Professor Sir John Lawton's mantra of "more, bigger, better and joined" protected areas and whether we have met our international biodiversity targets.
Although we have some of the best data in the world, every year the Office of National Statistics publishes our biodiversity indicators and no-one notices – no fanfare. We need greater political profile for nature conservation, and for why it matters for us all
That’s why NGOs like the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and National Trust are doing more to engage people with nature and to get them active. An active public creates the demand for a stronger political response to the state of nature and increases the chances of making our dream land a real land.
The prize is great: productive woodlands that are carpeted with bluebells and reverberate to the sound of nightingales; uplands that store carbon, slow run off, and are graced by hen harriers, glisten with sundews and ring to the sound of curlew; and seas that are sustainably fished and alive with dolphins, sea horses and puffins. I want this for us now and for the next generation.
Bluebells, Wood of Cree, Dumfries and Galloway Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)