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.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my role as Conservation Director of the RSPB is that I get the chance to share in some of the most inspiring and life-affirming conservation projects. Regularly I have to highlight the damage and threats that nature faces but today I want to celebrate a project that is living our dream of restoring our countryside and making it, once again, rich in nature.
In the heart of the Peak District lies our Dove Stone reserve and at a recent ceremony in Brussels our work to restore nature’s home in this dramatic landscape has won the conservation category of the 2016 Natura 2000 awards.
RSPB Dove Stone - good place to sit (Ben Hall: rspb-images.com)
This is the third year of an award that was set up to recognise the excellence in the management of the network of protected sites across the European Union – the network is called ‘Natura 2000’. This network was established by and is protected under the Nature Directives that we’ve been campaigning so hard to save. The network is made up of our finest wildlife sites including the Peak District Moors of which our Dove Stone reserve is a significant part.
This major European award highlights something else that is very close to our heart – the power of partnerships. Our award for the project ‘Demonstrating the success in blanket bog restoration’ is shared with our partners United Utilities. Together we have been working with tenant farmers to restore the tattered moorland degraded by decades of damage.
‘Blanket bog’ is one of those terms beloved by ecologists but with less resonance amongst the millions of people who love our hills and moors. The peat that cloaks our highest land forms a blanket of life that supports characteristic plants and animals. The peat has taken thousands of years to form, built up from the preserved remains of plants, once this is exposed through overgrazing, drainage and burning the peat oxidizes and is prone to be washed away in time of heavy rain, all this on top of decades of industrial pollution which has taken its toll on the landscape.
The resulting scarred landscape is a disaster for wildlife and bad news for us too. The peat-staining in our water is costly to remove and the peat that disappears through chemical oxidation ends up pumping carbon into our atmosphere, directly contributing to the risks of climate change.
Blanket bog is also a very rare habitat globally emphasising the UK’s vital role its protection.
Our work with United Utilities at Dove Stone started in 2010 and has involved planting up the bare areas of peat, repairing eroded gullies and sowing the peat-forming sphagnum mosses. It’s a work in progress but already we’re seeing dunlins, golden plovers, curlews and red grouse recovering.
Action to block drains to restore the peat of Dove Stone (Ben Hall: rspb-images.com)
We’re proud of our Natura 2000 award but our progress is measured, as well, by the knowledge that the moors and hills of the Peak District are coming back to life. As the peat gradually recovers it will, in time, help to tackle climate change by locking up carbon and by improving the quality of our drinking water .
At Dove Stone we’re putting our principles into practice and seeing great results. As I wrote, here, all is far from well across much of England’s moors. We are challenging the style of land management (designed to support driven grouse shooting) and have welcomed the legal challenge that the European Commission has launched into the widespread failure by the Westminster Government and its agencies to challenge the lack of conservation of the upland Natura 2000 sites in England.
Dove Stone shows that there is another way.
I’ll leave the last word to Dave O’Hara, our site manager at Dove Stone, ‘We are delighted to have won the Natura 2000 Conservation Award and would like to say a big thanks to all our dedicated volunteers who have played a massive role in making this habitat restoration work a success. Although this is an international award, this is a very local project, which has depended on the dedication of local people who have braved the elements week in, week out to help start to return this part of the Peak District to its former glory.’
Very many congratulations RSPB. Thoroughly well deserved. The high standards of the RSPB come shining through yet again.