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.
I’m off to get a sneak preview of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) today. “The National Eco what?” I hear you say, as you no doubt stifle a yawn and hover your mouse over the x in the top right corner of the screen.
Wait...bear with me...it really is quite interesting. The NEA is being launched next week and we think it’s great. It’s the first complete assessment of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to our prosperity and social well-being. It provides the case for why it pays to invest in the natural world.
Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we, especially as many RSPB scientists and economists contributed to the report. The NEA has been produced by a wide number of stakeholders, from government, academia and the private sector, as well as from NGOs like us.
Given that it’s not a political or policy document, it’s great that politicians seem to like it too. Oliver Letwin does anyway. He said last month, in this article from the Western Gazette, that it made him “gasp for breath”. Now Mr. Letwin has been an MP since 1997, and has probably seen a few things in his time that would make the average person’s hair curl, so I don’t imagine many things leave him feeling light-headed these days.
We have long argued that the value of nature needs to be recognised in decision-making. Some of the benefits are obvious. We can value apples and fish, for example, in monetary terms because we buy and sell them. And ecosystem services, like the complex biological processes that that create nutrient-rich soil and clean water have an economic value too.
Other benefits though, like the value many of us place on the sheer existence of different species, is far harder to gauge in monetary terms, yet are just as significant. Capturing it in some kind of national well-being index is one thing, but the intrinsic value of nature needs to be taken into account across the full spectrum of government policy.
We will never be able to express the full range of nature’s value in pounds and pence. And we probably wouldn’t want to, as putting a price on a bird, or a butterfly, is a potentially slippery slope. The idea of ecosystem services must complement, not replace, the ethical and scientific justifications for protecting nature.
Here’s hoping Mr. Letwin manages to replenish his lungs quickly, so he can be equally enthusiastic when he discusses the NEA with his Cabinet colleagues. And hopefully he can sell them the benefits of protecting and restoring the natural world, as he apparently managed to do in securing the Green Investment Bank.
See? It is quite interesting. No, really, it IS. And there’s more to come, as June will see a policy pile-up that could have huge implications for wildlife and the natural environment. I’ll return to this subject very soon....