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.
Maybe it's because of their location – out of sight, out of mind – but UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are often overlooked. Thirty-three bird species on UKOTs are threatened with extinction – that's more than on the entire European continent – so I don't need to tell you how important they are.Henderson Island is in the deepest depths of the South Pacific. It's a hotbed of biodiversity and has wildlife that's found nowhere else on Earth. It's one of the 14 UK Overseas Territories, meaning us lot over here are responsible for it.
For a long time now there's been a big problem blighting Henderson Island and all of its flora and fauna. Typically it's a problem caused by us humans (aren't they always?) and that problem is rats.
Since they were introduced by Polynesian settlers the rats have been tucking into whatever wildlife they can get their teeth into. Their favourite meal, it seems, is petrel chicks, including the endemic Henderson petrel. The little blighters feast on the chicks soon after they've hatched, and as rat numbers have dramatically increased, petrel numbers have plummeted, dropping from millions of pairs 800 years ago to just 40,000 now.
Picture credit: Richard Cuthbert
An eradication programme to rid the island of its rats and save the wildlife on Henderson has been mooted for a while now. Huge costs and complicated logistics were the main barriers, but we've been working hard to find solutions. Today I'm happy to be able to say it's going to happen this summer. In fact, the boat has already set sail!
Thanks to a unique international partnership and a generous contribution from the UK Government (Henderson Island is the UK's responsibility, after all, remember) we've been able to stop talking about it and start doing it.
This project has been close to heart of the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, who announced funding for this project at Nagoya last year. She is continuing to support it, saying today: “Defra’s support for this important project proves our determination to protect endangered species, no matter where they are in the world. People introduced the rats which are threatening the survival of the Henderson petrel and now we’re trying to make amends before it’s too late.”
Sharing one set of equipment, two helicopters, a wealth of technical knowledge and an eager group of experts, the partnership will complete a three-island restoration project, covering 27,000km and reaching Henderson in August. Colleagues are referring to it as a 'voyage of conservation' – and I think that sums it up perfectly!
Once the rats are gone, we expect petrel numbers to increase quickly. But excitingly, it's not just the Henderson petrel that will benefit. This is a full-scale island restoration and the whole ecosystem will be altered for the better.Invertebrates, marine turtles and other birds that were either threatened by the rats or competed with them for food will begin to prosper once more. Plants and flowers – some of which can only be found on Henderson - will flourish with all the extra bird poo around to act as a fertiliser!What's even more exciting is the prospect of what we might uncover following the removal of the rodents and after the island has begun to regenerate. I’ve heard noises about the possibility of discovering stuff we didn't even know existed on Henderson. But we'll have to wait and see about that.
In the meantime we can look to two islands that went through the restoration process around 14 years ago – Oeno and Ducie. Like Henderson, their petrel numbers were dwindling. Just a handful of the birds were circling above while the rats below enjoyed tasty chick morsels on a far too regular basis. Now, though, it’s a different story. Find yourself lucky enough to be in one of these places, raise your eyes up and you'll be greeted by the sight of thousands of birds turning the skies black. The sight of success. I hope the skies turn black above Henderson again one day, too.
Am sitting in my top room in a balmy Cambridge reflecting on a glorious end to a working week and preparing for an important week ahead. President Barroso meets his college of Commissioners on Wednesday to discuss the draft EU Budget. We'll probably know sometime on Thursday just how much of the 970 billion euros will be spent on wildlife. We'll be paying particular attention to plans for the future Common Agriculture Policy and the budget for wildlife friendly farming. But we're also keen to see the only dedicated fund for biodiversity - the aptly named Life programme - dramatically increased from the paltry 300 million euros. As soon as we get any news, I'll let you know.
But, before we move forward, here's a quick overview of my enjoyable Friday at Rainham with John Cruddas MP for Dagenham and Rainham. He was impressed by the work that we were doing in his constituency and seemed thrilled to see young people from the local schools getting their hands dirty while on a field trip. He also seems to be responding well to one of my jokes, or perhaps he was just overjoyed not to be spending another day on the backbenches in the House...
Jackie Doyle-Price, MP for Thurrock, was also on site and joined many other MPs across the UK as part of a festival of field teaching. The visits were part of a drive by the RSPB, Field Studies Council and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust to get every child outdoors. Nearly a quarter of a million children and young people benefit annually from the facilities offered by the partnership, but much more can be done.
We're calling on government to enable every child to have regular contact with the natural environment: through the school curriculum, by supporting teachers through their training and, despite funding difficulties, by making schools aware of the opportunities to spend dedicated funding for underprivileged children on outdoor learning.
But, enough looking back. Here's to some good news this week...
At times it’s felt like we’ve dominated the BBC this week! It’s been so ‘newsworthy’, today I’m going to reflect on some of our main stories from the past few days.
We have been completely floored by the rumour circulating in Brussels that funding for wildlife-friendly farming could be axed from next week’s European budget. Unfortunately, nothing we have heard in the past 48 hours or so have give us any crumb of comfort. The threat still seems very real.
My stint at Hope Farm for a piece on BBC Breakfast was just the start of the media coverage defending this vital source of environmental funding. It was discussed on Radio 4, Radio 2, Farming Today and Sky Radio channels and my interview was run throughout the day on the BBC News channel with views of others incorporated as the day went on. We’re already receiving countless messages of support from farmers wanting to see the ongoing protection of wildlife so expect to see and hear more about this in the coming days.
We found ourselves on the BBC again towards the end of this week, although this time I was able to hang up my microphone and pass to my colleague Andy Simpson, Head of Education at the RSPB. Like my guest blogger said yesterday, we had an absolutely key initiative with some of our education provider partners to respond to a demand by teachers to allow every child to have access to nature, called ‘Every Child Outdoors.’ MPs have today been invited by their local school to come and share an outdoor learning experience with them to see firsthand the enormous benefits to be gained from regular contact with nature.
credit: David McHugh
This story was used on BBC Breakfast and the BBC News Channel, with Andy, our president Kate Humble and the Field Studies Council’s Rob Lucas among those waxing lyrical about the importance of learning outside the classroom. It also appeared on Radio 5 Live and BBC General News Service. It’s simple really; there’s no better way to learn about nature than to go outside and get a bit of mud under your fingernails.
And we ended our week in the media on a high note - quite literally. A library created by the RSPB and the digital radio manufacturer PURE has shown that the blackbird is the clear winner of the dawn chorus and this was reported in the Daily Telegraph, The Metro and The Guardian. I’m sure we’re all in agreement that the warbling of the blackbird is a welcome addition to any outside space!