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.
This is my annual update on how well the RSPB is doing in reducing its own environmental footprint. We spend a lot of time encouraging others to adopt positive environmental behaviour, so it is only right that we try to practice what we preach.
Here, I pull out some highlights from this year’s report compiled by my colleague, Sarah Alsbury (who leads our environmental performance programme).
Our top priority has been to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% (per staff member) between 2010 and 2020. This is roughly in line with targets set by the UK Government. Our focus has primarily been on accounting for emissions through our built estate, travel, paper and publications.
As shown in the figures below, we have made good progress particularly because we have established a number of renewable projects and installed energy savings measures. Most noticeably, we have made considerable savings through the wind turbine established last year at the RSPB’s Headquarters. It generated 1,378,335 kWh of electricity in its first year of operation, which is equivalent to powering approximately 354 homes.
My colleague, Paul Langshaw's great picture of the Lodge turbine
This was a big deal for us and every time I go past it to and from work, I feel really good about what we have achieved. Clearly, this project was not without risk. But, we carried out stringent ecological monitoring before giving the go ahead to the wind turbine and we and our partners Ecotricity have continued monitoring for potential impacts on birds and bats. From pre-construction surveys, we identified that bats could potentially be affected and we therefore agreed with Ecotricity that the turbine is switched off for an hour either side of dawn and dusk between May and October when bats are most active. Ecotricity has fitted bat detectors to the turbine to check that this is working and carried out casualty surveys on the ground. From this data, we are confident that the system is working for bats. The detectors are also providing valuable information about how bats behave around wind turbines.
As well as the turbine, we are putting the finishing touches to a major programme of LED lighting, solar PV car ports and biomass boilers, which will help us hit our targets. The biomass boilers have been tested to make sure that they can take reed from our wetland reserves, which we cut to provide the right conditions for a wildlife.
Through these actions, we are demonstrating that it is possible to generate renewable energy in harmony with nature.
Two final things to report…
…all our cafes and the staff restaurant at our headquarters have achieved the Food For Life standard, the Soil Association’s mark for sustainable catering outlets.
…our whole approach is driven by an externally credited scheme called Green Dragon which recognises the great greening work done by our staff and helps us do even more. We retained Level 2 of Green Dragon in Wales in January 2017 while our East of England and Scottish teams are making good progress towards achieving Level 2 by the end of January 2018.
All of this requires planning, investment and sustained action by staff and volunteers. While we might not get everything right, I am proud of what we have collectively achieved. I hope to be able to report more success next year.
If my memory serves me right, the last time the environment received a mention in a Budget speech was in 2011 when George Osborne said “we will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren't placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”. That was the start of a five year defence of the EU Nature Directives that started in England and spread across the European Union.
So, it was hugely heartening that yesterday the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond said, “Because we can’t keep our promise to the next generation to build an economy fit for the future unless we ensure our planet has a future.” It is incredibly important that the whole government (and not just the incumbent Environment Secretary) both understands and frames the natural environment as fundamental to our economy and prosperity.
The government seems to have renewed enthusiasm to intervene to address environmental problems to improve air quality, to incentivise the development of electric vehicles and to tax plastics. It would be nice to have more specific action on nature but perhaps we shall have to wait until the publication of the 25 year environment plan.
It’s not all rosy, of course. Defra, despite getting a Brexit boost in capacity, has been cut 40% compared to where it was was seven years ago (£1.5 billion this year compared to £2.6 billion in 2009/10). What's more, some of the measures on fossil fuels (such as continued tax exemption for North Sea oil and gas, frozen Air Passenger Duty, frozen fuel tax etc) don’t quite seem consistent with domestic carbon budgets or the commitments made at last week's Climate Change talks in Bonn.
Perhaps the biggest next test of the Government’s green credentials will be the planned infrastructure and new housing. These developments need to be in the right place, away from sensitive wildlife sites and built to high environmental standards.
But my final thought is that a government that believes our economy and prosperity is dependent on the natural environment is a government that has a chance of restoring nature in a generation. And that must be a good thing.
I have spent my whole career working in partnership with other organisations.
Coalition working is not always easy. It takes time to align hearts, minds and resources of different individuals and organisation. But get it right and the rewards (in terms of impact and enjoyment) can be enormous.
Collaboration stems from the belief that we can achieve more together than we can as individuals. What’s more, it is obvious that the challenge of humans living in harmony with nature is too big for any one organisation so it makes sense to work with others.
This week, we’ve been reaping the benefits of three of our most important partnerships…
…through SAVE (a consortium of like minded organisations including BirdLife International), we’ve developed a plan to recover the Asian vulture populations. The latest manifestation of this collective endeavour was the first captive-reared release of white-rumped vultures in Nepal. And, in Bonn at the UN talks this month, working with our BirdLife partners, we continue to make the case for strong action to tackle climate change. You can read updates about our work in Bonn here.
…through GreenerUK, we have developed a shared vision* and policies for a Greener UK and this week in the debate about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, parliamentarians across the political spectrum came forward with tangible proposals for how to make Brexit work for nature (see yesterday’s blog). I do not believe that this would have been achieved without unity amongst and collective action from the environmental NGOs. We need to translate political commitments into reality, but the confidence and optimism comes from knowing that the ideas and ambitions for GreenerUK are gaining political traction.
…through a new coalition Rethink Nature**, we have forged a partnership with Natural England to save England’s most threatened species from extinction. The HLF funded Back from the Brink project was launched this week and promises to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 more through 19 projects that span England; from the tip of Cornwall to Northumberland. This partnership is the culmination of many years of hard graft which united organisations committed to species conservation for the common good.
All images courtesy of my colleague Ben Andrew (rspb-images.org). See if you can identify them all.
None of these achievements could have been possible if the RSPB had chosen to work alone. Our impact is massively enhanced by working with our brilliant partners. This is why partnership working is now hardwired into the way that the RSPB does conservation. It is also why I believe that our ability to collaborate well with others is a critical limiting factor in our ambition to restore nature.
So on this cold, November Friday, here's a BIG THANK YOU to all our partners. Together, we are making a world richer in nature.
*A manifesto for a greener UK
Greener UK believes that the people of these islands deserve a world-class environment: clean air, clear water, a stable climate, healthy seas, beautiful landscapes and thriving wildlife in the places we love.
This is fundamental to the well-being and prosperity of our own and future generations.
Yet today, nature is struggling. We are depleting our soils and water supplies, generating mountains of food and plastic waste, changing our climate and making the air in our cities dangerous to breathe. Our wild places are dwindling, and we face the sadness of once familiar animals and plants fading away from our gardens and countryside.
This is a pivotal moment for the environment. We will need policies and investment that create thriving farming and fishing industries, working with the grain of nature to return our land, seas, lakes and rivers to good health. We will need to secure the benefits of existing environmental laws as we leave the European Union, and we will need an ambitious new Environment Act~, which aims not just to maintain but restore our natural commonwealth.
Together, our organisations have a combined membership of 7.9 million people. We own and look after more than 500,000 hectares of precious countryside and green spaces, which we safeguard for the benefit of all who live and visit here. We are ready and willing to play our part in making our vision a reality, by working with communities, voluntary groups and the private sector to make local places better and to tackle global challenges like climate change.
But it is also vital that governments and politicians lead. They must demonstrate their commitment to our shared inheritance through bold action at home, and renewed co-operation with our friends and allies in Europe and around the world.
Together, we can restore nature and our natural resources in a generation.
~A new Act is required in England; new, separate Acts may also be required in the devolved nations.
**Rethink Nature is a partnership of seven conservation charities Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the RSPB.