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.
If you ever take a trip through Salt Lake City, Utah, you may notice a curious monument. Prominently situated outside the Salt Lake Assembly Hall, it looks a bit like Nelson’s column. But, instead of an heroic Admiral of the Fleet, this particular monument has a pair of bronze gulls perched on its top.
This is a commemoration of the so-called “miracle of the gulls”. Mormon folklore says that the first harvest of the Mormon settlers in Utah in 1848 was miraculously saved by a flock of gulls, which fed upon a ravenous swarm of insects that were devouring the precious crops. The authenticity of the story is dubious, particularly in relation to the role of the gulls, but the principle of a monument to birds is an appealing one. I have been reminded of it several times this week, for good reason.
Gulls are not universally loved. Far from being the subjects of monuments, they are amongst our most-maligned species. They are stereotyped as noisy and messy menaces, who will, given half a chance, snatch chips and hotdogs from the hands of unsuspecting seaside holidaymakers.
I’d argue that they are generally just misunderstood. If they are antisocial and dysfunctional, then it’s because we’ve made them this way. We drop food in our streets and the gulls have learned that, where there are humans, there is often the chance of an easy meal. It’s not really surprising that they occasionally decide to save time and try to grab a carbohydrate fix before it hits the pavement.
Peter Aldous, the Conservative MP for the coastal constituency of Waveney, has launched a crusade against the gulls. He paints a picture of Lowestoft, the largest town in his constituency, as one spray-painted white by airborne defecation, where it is impossible to park one’s car or hold a family barbecue without the aid of a gull-proof umbrella. I do wonder how the Suffolk Tourist Board feels about these comments? He’s not exactly selling the place, is he?
He has taken his battle to the Commons, hosting a debate at Westminster Hall, featuring a host of MPs anxious to vent their anger at...erm...gulls. En route, he encountered our own Paul Forecast, the RSPB’s Regional Director for Eastern England, on the Jeremy Vine Show (listen here, 1hr 39mins in).
Another Conservative MP, Mike Weatherley, who represents Hove and Portslade in Sussex and who has therefore, we assume, seen a gull or two in his time, pointed out that there are some people, himself included, in Brighton and Hove that rather like their gulls. As indeed they should, given that their local football team, Brighton & Hove Albion, are known as the Seagulls.
And it was with considerable pleasure that I listened to Jim Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, as he offered a defence of the ‘seagull’. He did not deny that in some parts of the country – mostly (but not always) coastal towns and villages – gulls have earned the moniker ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ But does this ‘nuisance’ behaviour mean we should be killing gulls? We think not, the law says not, and the Minister did a good job in outlining the reasons why not.
I would think, wouldn’t you, that our elected representatives have bigger things than this to worry about? And surely we should be looking at our own untidy behaviour, which encourages gulls into towns in the first place, rather than blaming the gulls for taking advantage of it?
As the Minister pointed out, there are many tried-and-tested deterrent measures out there. Only where there is a genuine risk posed by gulls to public health and safety can lethal methods of control be considered, and only then as a last resort.
Avoiding lethal control is particularly important when the species under consideration is a red-listed species of conservation concern. Despite increases in urban areas, the national population of herring gulls – the species most often implicated in these disputes – has in fact declined by more than 50% in the last 25 years, making it a Government priority for conservation action. Indiscriminate shooting is hardly conducive to the reversal of population declines. I was pleased to hear these sentiments echoed in the Minister’s speech.
Lowestoft, which Mr Aldous portrays as some guano-covered hellhole (it isn’t), is the UK’s most easterly town. It is home to our most easterly colony of kittiwakes, a gentle, almost dove-like, gull, itself in serious decline. These nest on a purpose-built wall near Lowestoft’s South Pier, after their original nesting site was demolished. Granted, they are noisy, but they give gulls a good name and, I’m sure, attract a number of visitors to Mr Aldous’ constituency. Assuming his description of his constituency HQ hasn’t put them all off.
I’d prefer us to be celebrating our gulls, like the people of Salt Lake City, rather than berating them. They’re not bad, they’re just misunderstood.
And all this commotion got me thinking about another “nuisance” species. Mr Paice was standing in for his colleague Richard Benyon MP, Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries. Mr Benyon is undertaking a review of the cormorant licensing regime – I wonder if we can hope for a similarly robust defence of our native wildlife there?
It is predicted that the world population will reach 7 billion on Monday. At want time the 7 billionth human will be born and to which lucky mother, I do not know. But it is a time to reflect on what it means for us and the other millions of species on which we share this planet.
Population growth is a contentious, complex (and occasionally a taboo) subject given its links to reproductive health rights, migration, religious beliefs, and past ineffective coercive means to reduce it.
Our view is that the absolute size, growth rate and distribution of the human population, are important drivers of environmental change but no simple relationship exists between population size and environmental change.
In fact, the impact of humans on nature is a function of how many people there are on the planet, what they consume and the availability of technology. Consumption patterns of the world’s peoples are critical to the resulting environmental impacts.
It is also a fact that environmental impacts of population growth vary significantly across the planet. Direct human impacts are particularly severe in biodiversity-rich developing countries where there are populations that are directly reliant on local natural resources.
On a global scale, the size and composition of an economy together with income inequality, are better predictors of biodiversity loss than population density. The greatest impact of human population on the environment largely takes place in developed countries where population growth is actually lowest and this is down to our comsumption patterns.
In the UK, while national income has more than doubled in the last forty years, population has grown by only 10%. Our environmental impacts stem mainly from our increased affluence which translates into a much larger environmental impacts than those of previous generations. The UK’s ‘ecological footprint’ extends well beyond our borders as we import many of the resources we consume, some of which are environmentally damaging e.g. feedstocks, such as soya from South America or oil palm from Indonesia.
The UK’s population profile adds an additional level of complexity to the issue. We are an ageing population with dependency ratios declining dramatically. From an economic perspective, this change will create a vast financial burden on those of working age and will clearly have ramifications when assessing our economic potential against large, dynamic economies with young populations (like Brasil, India or China). It is conceivable that future population debates will focus more on the optimal distribution of population rather than its absolute size.
So what is the solution?
The first priority must be to try to fix the system in developed nations so that economic growth is decoupled from environmental damage.
Second, it is important to work with others to advocate more sustainable development in the emerging economies. Rio+20 provides an opportune platform to advance this.
Third, we need to support effective, non coercive, approaches to reduce fertility levels. This involves improving living standards of the poor, improving women's rights and education, and providing access to reproductive health services. The challenge we face today is to provide a vision of how a growing population can live within environmental limits. Living within our means. That surely is something we can all buy in to.
A colleague told me on Friday that he was off to Bhutan for a holiday. As he is a Manchester United fan, I thought that he was simply escaping the ridicule of City fans, but of course he was in search of wonderful wildlife. Whenever I think of Bhutan I think of snow leopards - a species which I searched for in vain for many months in the 1990s in Mongolia, a near neighbour. But I also think of their famous National Happiness Index.
This was first proposed in 1972 by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country's former King. King Wangchuk said that instead of relying on Gross Domestic Product as the best indicator of Bhutan's progress, it should instead consider its "Gross National Happiness." That was to be measured by its peoples' sense of being well-governed, their relationship with the environment, satisfaction with the pace of economic development, a sense of cultural and national belonging.
I know it has its critics, but it has always made sense to me.
Talk of Bhutan made me wonder how the Office of National Statistics was getting on with its own attempt at developing a national well being index. You may recall that David Cameron first spoke about this in opposition saying that "It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being". Then, last year, he asked the National Statistician, Jill Matheson, to develop a national measure of well-being and progress. Following a five month consultation, a progress report was published in the summer. Those who replied to consultation felt that health, friends and family, job satisfaction/economic security matter most but also the present and future conditions of the environment.
As a hypochondriac, who loves his job and likes nothing better than going in search of beautiful places with my family, I think that I probably agree with the findings. I'd probably add that I was also pretty happy that Chelsea let in five goals this weekend. However, years of experience has taught me that, in sport, happiness can be fleeting.
We can expect the first assessment next spring, just before the Rio+ 20 Summit in Brazil - twenty years on from the seminal Earth Summit. If ever there was a meeting which was focused on enhancing our well-being, this has to be it. And so it is sad that Mr Cameron, once such an advocate of sustainable development and well-being, has reportedly decided not to attend due to a clash with the Queen's Jubliee. I hope that he reads Charles Clover's open letter in yesterday's Sunday Times which urges him to rethink his decision and attend.
What makes you happy? Do you think we should have a national index of well-being? And do you think that the Prime Minister should attend the Rio+20 Summit next year?
It would be great to hear your views.