I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
On a personal note, having a strange man rubbing your back always feels a bit odd but I could hardly walk yesterday afternoon and now, although I am not, in the words of Van Morrison, 'Laughing and a running hey, hey Skipping and a jumping', I am able to blog and respond to comments!
Yesterday the Guardian posted our comment piece on the real battle for our forests. It is based on an earlier blog from here so won't surprise readers of this blog but it brings our thoughts, or some of them, to a wider audience. And there were, yesterday when I looked, about 120 comments on it - which are also worth looking at.
What is this battle about? Is it about stopping the Forest of Dean being chopped down? - no, as it never would have been. Is it about saving our ancient forests? - partly. Is it about saving the Forestry Commission? - it is for some people. Is it about maintaining public access to, and biodiversity in, existing forests? - yes partly. Is it about giving the Government a bloody nose? - yes, for some people. Is it about maintaining and enhancing wildlife on state-managed land? - yes, partly. Is it about the Public Bodies Bill? - partly, but that is a much bigger issue which transcends forest. Is it about NGOs wanting to get their hands on lots of land? - maybe, but not as far as the RSPB is concerned. Is it about Big Society and how it might or might not work? - yes, it's a case study. Is it about us, the nation, owning land? - yes, partly. Is it about NNRs as well as forests, and about heathlands as well as woods? - yes, I think it is.
It's also about how public spending cuts affect nature - which we did make quite an issue in the run-up to the CSR in October. Things might have been even worse were it not for those hundreds of thousands of voices mobilised by the RSPB - your voices in Letter to the Future.
It's about lots of things. And some of them are painted in shades of grey.
PS Note added later. I see the Daily Telegraph has a piece on our and the Wildlife Trusts' worries about heathlands too.
£2 parking (per visit), while the net cost of the Forestry Commission is about £0.30 each. This is the kind of charge for access that concerns people about the privatisation of FC woodlands. £2 may not sound a lot, but for someone visiting regularly that could add up to £100+ per year.
I (and many others) frequently visit a Reservoir managed by Severn Trent – on a good day sometimes over 100+ bird life enthusiasts gather with their bins to look at the latest rarity – I pay £2 to park – there are excellent facilities for education etc etc – a job well done! The local pub benefits – as does the health of both dog and dog owner- That’s the way to do it!
I sometimes judge a profession by the ‘curriculum’ that the student follows – does (do) the Forestry professions study the spin-off subjects – both monetised and otherwise – such as “Marketing the Environment" - I wonder!
There is no need to bring party politics into this. The argument that the forests have to be sold off because Labour has spent all the money doesn't really hold water, since the sums involved are trivial compared to the massive size of the overall national debt / deficit. Labour may well have spent all the money, but it's not really relevant to this issue.
The majority view in this country is that people do want the government to continue owning and managing woodland, in the belief that the government can do a better job of providing the kind of public benefits such as wildlife conservation and access for recreation than the private sector can. I don't think many people would argue that the Forestry Commission is doing a perfect job in this area, but the alternative may well be worse.
I agree that the state should not be in the business of managing forests solely for timber production, just as it should not be involved in e.g. commercial wheat growing, but the point is that even the more production-oriented forests do have multiple uses and they should be managed accordingly. Passing control of such forests to profit-oriented private forestry companies may well increase productivity, but at the expense of non-monetised public benefits.
Regarding the Forest of Dean, as mentioned in Mark's Guardian article, substantial portions of this do consist of conifer plantations which would be much better converted to native broadleaf woodland.
While Mark rightly brings up the issue of plantation restoration to heathland, I find it ironic that the one habitat which never gets mentioned in this context is genuine wild native forest i.e. without tree felling / coppicing etc. Visit just about any 'ancient woodland' and you find that, while the site may be ancient, the trees themselves are not. Equally lacking are the important natural features such as (very) large quantities of dead wood, the diverse associated communities of insects/fungi/birds, and the shade/humidity-dependent plant communities. The conservation community as a whole has really fallen down on this issue, preferring instead to focus on 'semi-natural' man-made habitats such as coppice woodland, heathland, chalk grassland etc. Not that these habitats aren't important, but there needs to be a rebalancing of attention.
Hi Peter Crisoin
I'm surer you are right in your facts - but where does State involvement start and end?
All corner shops in rural villages to be manned by state employed staff?
You (tend to) get what you pay for - if you can afford it.
Our Nation - thanks to the Labour Party has spent it all.
Did you vote Labour?
Could tell me why the Stewadrship standards on plantations is higher in FC land than private forestry; and maybe you should tell that to the MP of the Forest of Dean who was pelted with eggs and retreated in a police van when advancing similar views last week; maybe people living in forests trust FC a great deal more than private landlords with whom they have fought for their rights over many a 100 year.
In my experience particularly in the uplands FC is improving stewardship while "private" is not; maybe Trimbush should examine the 1980's Flow Country as a case in point.
It is not the Government's responsibility to operationally manage Woodland
Get a grip!
So what's the solution?
I've been enjoying your comments which are insightful and measured unlike some others' out there. I would love to hear and read more about sustainable forest mangement - you know the real 'sustainable' - when a resource is managed for more than one purpose and for the long term. The real conundrum for me is the possible outcomes of any sale (sorry lease) of land to the private sector when we know that there are currently 625,000 hectares of woodlands in England without a management plan at present.
As the RSPB agreed, along with the other major environmental NGOs under the Wildife Link umbrella group, we need to bring more woodlands into good condition.
We need to think carefully how any sale could influence the sorry state of some of English woodlands, and ensure that things improve and certainly don't get worse. Beyond the possible changes that may come from direct changes in ownership (ie the decisions a new owner may make on the ground), there are dangers from strategic impacts too, should the FC become weakened by this in the long term (and consequently Forest Research too).
Just when we are faced with opportunities in forestry from carbon management, yet threats from increasting pests / diseases and a changing climate, is when we most need a robust state sector, strong political interest as a result, and excellence in forestry research.