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.
England is currently undergoing the most radical overhaul of its planning system in a generation, and today marks an important stage in this process.
Today the UK Government launched its own draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – an important document that will provide the national context for local planning decisions. It is slimmed down guidance, replacing over a thousand existing pages of national planning policy with around fifty.
All that might ring a few bells if you’ve been trying to follow the UK Government’s planning reforms. For just two short months ago, a small group of expert practitioners, tasked by ministers at the department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), with my colleague Simon Marsh amongst them, published their draft of the NPPF.
The critical difference is that today’s publication is the Government’s own draft. Whilst this bears more than a passing resemblance to that produced by the practitioners’ group, there have been a number of significant changes.
Before I get ahead of myself and into the devil of the detail, today’s launch provides a moment to take stock of where we are. Consolidating national policy is enough of a challenge to get right, but today’s draft NPPF offers two other important milestones for the English planning system.
Firstly, it formally marks the government’s desired shift in the emphasis on planning decisions, placing one factor – economic growth – higher than others in decision-making. Of course, the draft NPPF isn’t the first indication of this trend – let us not forget clause 124 of the Localism Bill which I blogged about here.
It is understandable why some are clamering for economic growth, but we must have the right checks and balances in place to ensure this does not come at the expense of nature. It is already clear that the draft NPPF fails to put in place the measures necessary to ensure that the purpose of planning really is ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’. It is therefore unfit for its own, self-defined, purpose.
Secondly, it also marks a lost opportunity to use the NPPF to support the Government's ambitions to restore the natural environment as outlined in the Natural Environment White Paper. The RSPB has long argued that the NPPF should be ‘spatial’ – to help decide how to maximise the value that our natural resources offers us. This would help us guide development to the most appropriate locations, thus avoiding conflict, as well as identifying areas which would be suitable for restoring wildlife to England.
We will be pouring over the draft in some detail over the next few days, and I may come back to this subject over the next few days.
For now, despite the strong, and welcome, references to restoring the natural environment in Greg Clark’s foreword, the draft NPPF is effectively green-wash. During the consultattion phase, the balance of truly sustainable development - which helps us to live within environmental limits - needs to be restored.
I enjoyed returning to the Game Fair at Blenheim Palace for the first time in six years. It has its own distinctive character - part summer garden party, part country fair and part serious conference. The RSPB always has a stand and it was a good opportunity to catch up with friends and, for me, to meet new people who work closely with the RSPB.
I shared a panel debate on the Natural Environment White Paper with the Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, and he also spoke at our reception on Friday afternoon. While it cannot be much fun being a minister when there is little money to go around, he already has the Natural Environment White Paper under his belt and is currently preparing the Water White Paper this autumn. His knowledge and passion for the brief is clear and it was reassuring to hear him restate his commitment to the cause by saying "we focus on biodiversity and how to reverse its decline as an absolute priority".
Around the Game Fair, badgers and buzzards were of course topics of conversation, but perhaps the subject which dominated was the fate of the rural development programme and agri-environment schemes. The EU Budget announcement earlier this summer has created a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about whether reforms to the Common Agriculture Policy will provide more (hopefully) or significantly less (a distinct possibility) funds to support wildlife friendly farming. It was good to meet a number of farmers who we work with and who share our concerns. It is clear that together we will have to fight to keep these funds.
A few people mentioned my appearance on the BBC News Channel and, while it makes me squirm a bit, you can still view it on BBC’s iPlayer here. Our reserve at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire comes across rather well...
And if you aren’t sick of the sight of me – or at least the sound of my voice – after that then you may want to have a listen to Radio 4’s You and Yours from earlier in the week. In my best Robert Peston voice I spoke about the benefits of woodland management and our concerns over the environmental impact of imported woodfuel.
Also in the new last week, the Telegraph ran a controversial piece on their website about the role of gamekeepers in conservation, ahead of the Game Fair . Although we may not agree with everything that is said in the article, they were gracious in giving us the opportunity to have our say. “It is fantastic the shooting community recognise the contribution they can make to conservation, however there are issues,” said our spokesperson. “We would question the relative absence of birds of prey across upland moors managed by gamekeepers, overgrazing by deer on stalking estates and the poor state of some sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs)."
Game Fair was also a great platform for us to announce the finalists of our annual Nature of Farming Award. The shortlist was trailed in the Telegraph and has been getting a lot of interest in the local media up and down the country. Don’t forget to vote! - www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote.
I'm heading off to Blenheim today (the stately home in Oxfordshire, not the battlefield in Belgium) to the CLA Game Fair. And I'm in an optimistic mood.
It is the “art of the possible” that makes me optimistic. Optimistic that we really can see a halt to the loss of wildlife by 2020.
In the UK, our countryside can be rich in wildlife. It can deliver us safe and wholesome food. It can lock up carbon to help address climate change. It can keep our rivers and wetlands flowing with clean water.
And how do I know this? Simply by looking at the number of farmers demonstrating the art of the possible. Today, we profile four of the best. There are many more than just four, it should be said, but these are exemplars worthy of recognition for managing land for multiple value. The four are the finalists in our Nature of Farming Award, which we run in conjunction with Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife International, and kindly sponsored by the Daily Telegraph.
Like all farms, the farmers are a diverse bunch. But what is clear from reading about their work and from talking to our advisors who have visited the farms, their shared love of nature shows how they have integrated conservation into their commercial businesses. With such a high standard of entries this year, I don’t envy the public the final choice (though the chance of winning a weekend away for two will hopefully provide a little encouragement).
So whether it is the chalkhill blue butterflies finding a home on a Hertfordshire farm, the mountain hares being looked after on Mull, the rare Venus’s looking-glass in the arable fields of Wiltshire, or even the 14 species of water boatman benefiting from clean water being created by the reedbed filtration on a Shropshire dairy farm , all are stepping up for nature.
And their efforts are being recognised in high places. The Farming Minister, Jim Paice, says: “The shortlist for the Nature of Farming Award demonstrates the good work that farmers are doing across the country to improve wildlife on their farms. Farmers know that they play an important role in helping us achieve our ambition for a healthy and vibrant natural environment that we set out in our recently published White Paper. I wish all the finalists well in the competition and hope that other farmers see them as an inspiration of what can be achieved.”
The vote opens today and runs until the 31st August.
Regardless of who ultimately wins the accolade of the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer, the real winners are the wildlife who are fortunate to share the land with these farmers. And whilst we face some big challenges in the future, not least CAP reform and ensuring the work of wildlife-friendly farmers is properly rewarded, it's worth being optimistic.