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.
Let's get this on the record, I think the Angling Trust does a great job and I’m happy we work so closely with them on so many watery issues through the Blueprint for Water. But like most friends they do seem to have peculiar peccadilloes, and in the Angling Trust’s case its their single minded pursuit of the cormorant where we might fall out.
Of course, this bird eats fish. In fact, like some other species of bird – kingfishers and ospreys, to name but two – this bird likes eating fish so much, it eats them pretty much to the exclusion of all else. It won’t surprise you, then, to learn (if you didn’t know already) that, like the kingfisher and osprey, this bird is extremely good at fishing.
Unfortunately, unlike that of the kingfisher and osprey, the fishing prowess of this particular bird – the cormorant – is not universally admired. To a cormorant, an angling lake stocked full of fish is much like a bird table to a blue tit – a feast to be harvested. Understandably this can make the cormorant an unwelcome visitor to such fisheries, where income is reliant on the availability of catchable fish.
1,779 cormorants were particularly unwelcome in England in 2010. That’s how many were shot under licence that year to prevent serious damage to fisheries and inland waters. Does that number surprise you? Did you know that cormorants can be shot, legally, to protect the interests of fisheries?
They can. Acknowledging that these otherwise protected birds can, in some circumstances, cause serious damage to some fisheries, both European and domestic law permit the killing of cormorants provided certain conditions are met. To my mind, these conditions are perfectly reasonable – there must be a genuine problem to resolve, there must be no other satisfactory solution (to killing) available, killing must present an effective solution, and killing must not have an adverse effect on the conservation status of the species in question. In short, killing is an action of last resort, the justification of which can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.
In England, when it comes to cormorants, these principles of wildlife licensing are not applied as rigorously as we would like. In 2004, the evidence requirements were relaxed to such an extent that fishery managers need only demonstrate the presence of cormorants at a fishery to qualify as (potentially) suffering serious damage due to cormorants. This is a markedly different – i.e. decidedly more lenient – licensing approach to that adopted for other bird species in England (and the rest of the UK).
Isn’t it extraordinary, then, that there are calls to make it even easier to kill cormorants? This species has always been present inland in Britain – the increase in the inland population has in fact occurred over many years, reflecting a recovery from the effects of historical persecution (and, quite probably, the increase in attractive feeding sites stocked with fish!) As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, a review is underway in England of the licensing regime for fish-eating birds, including cormorants. We hope that in deciding the future of this native species, Defra takes heed of its own research, which found no case for large-scale control of this bird. Furthermore, it found that non-lethal approaches to reducing predation by cormorants, such as fish refuges, exist and are effective. When such sustainable, non-contentious measures are available, why should anyone reach for the gun?
While we will continue to defend the right and proper protection offered to the cormorant I hope we can continue to work with the Angling Trust on the things that really matter to rivers and fisheries like unsustainable abstraction drought and pollution.
What do you think?
It would be great to hear your views.
I have a reputation, undeserved I would say, for leading my in-laws on unproductive wildlife forays. One such occasion involved my failure to find the promised red squirrels in monsoon conditions in Northumberland. The fruitless search became famiy legend in a song, the chorus of which begins 'Where do squirrels go in the pouring rain?'
This weekend, to top off a great half-term break, we celebrated my father-in-law's seventieth birthday. We were staying in Shap Wells Hotel in the Lake District to revive memories of philosophy weekends that he led during the 1970s and 1980s to which he took all his family.
The birthday weekend was a success. Whilst my my wife's family were able to reminisce, the kids and I explored the neighbouring woods, stream and moor. And on our doorstep we were 'guaranteed' red squirrels.
The weather on the first two days was mixed so we were forced into hasty retreat by rain, wind or sleet. No red squirrels to be seen.
But yesterday morning, the sun shone and sure enough, they came out to play. Nine of them. The boy even managed to take a photo of one scrambling up a tree. This was not exactly the most taxing of safaris, but the reward was great.
While I have yet to find out where squirrels go in the pouring rain, I did decide to remind myself of the conservation challenges faced by one our most loved mammals.
This, rather gloomy assessment comes from last year's state of Britain's mammals report from the People's Trust for Endangered Species...
"Red squirrels were historically widespread throughout Britain, but have suffered a dramatic decline of more than 50% over the last 50 years while expanding throughout Scotland. They were designated a UK BAP Priority Species in 1997. The main threat is the invasive grey squirrel, introduced to the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Grey squirrels are able to digest acorns more successfully than red squirrels and out-compete reds for forage in woods where oak trees constitute more than 14% of the canopy. Additionally, greys are carriers of the squirrel poxvirus (SQPV), transmitted through direct contact and environmental contamination, which is lethal to reds.
Developing best practice survey and monitoring continues to be an important conservation action and a recent study showed that baited counts, compared with standard visual counts, increased detectability of squirrels. Extended durations of baiting could attract non-residents, so baited surveys should not be too long and also should be diffuse to avoid promoting disease transmission between squirrels.
Unlike SQPV, adenovirus is a naturally occurring enteric disease in red squirrels, albeit so far occurring at low levels, but localised outbreaks could be detrimental to fragile populations. The disease has so far been recorded in Merseyside, Anglesey, Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland.
Nowadays, Scotland contains more than 75% of the UK red squirrel population, although greys are absent from only parts of the red’s Scottish range – primarily in the Highlands (a grey squirrel was caught in Inverness in 2007 and, in 2010, one was killed on Skye). Probably reds will survive only in conifer patches in Scotland and a few other areas free of greys. A priority woodlands analysis in 2005, co-funded by PTES and others, aimed ato identify the major Scottish woodlands that may support red squirrel populations. Next came the Scottish Red Squirrel Action Plan and then the development of red squirrel strongholds by the Forestry Commision and SNH. In 2009 a total of 18 stronghold sites, plus the Isle of Arran, were identified as foci of red squirrel conservation. Elsewhere in the UK hope rests with islands (the Angelsey Red Squirrel Project and the Wight Squirrel Project). The first case of SQPV in Scotland was discovered in 2005 – so, in the continued absence of a vaccine, the omens for the red squirrel in the UK are bleak."
We're doing our bit for red squirrel conservation, particulalry as many of our Scottish reserves (for example at Abernethy) hold good populations of red squirrels. But, the PTES report is a timely reminder that, as with so many other threatened species in the UK, we all need to step up and do more if we want to reverse the declines.
If you have been away for the half-term, I hope you had a good break and bumped into some great wildlife. And if you've been working, well I hope the guest blogs from my international research colleagues brought you some escapism.
Here is a guest blog from Richard Benyon, Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries, all about the new Nature Improvement Areas, announced by Defra on Monday:
"The RSPB has played an invaluable role in helping us deliver our vision for Nature Improvement Areas. The RSPB, along with the Wildlife Trusts, have helped lead the way in taking forward landscape-scale projects that enhance our habitats and species but also, vitally, reconnect people with the natural world.
The RSPB’s Futurescapes programme, which has been working across the UK, has seen you work closely with landowners to creates space for nature. These areas, up and down the country, are helping make the places that provide public goods and services more wildlife friendly.
The benefits are clear. Not only will we end up with large, joined-up high quality conservation areas but we will also see cleaner water in our rivers and wetlands, and more sustainable, low-carbon communities that enhance the rural economy. And as if that wasn’t enough, they will also help the natural environment and local communities adapt to climate change.
I believe that these NIAs will not only restore species and create new habitats but will also provide local employment opportunities and enable the promotion of locally grown food. I hope the 12 NIAs will be trail-blazers and that the success of the Partnerships will encourage the development of others around the country.
The RSPB has played a key role in developing these partnerships, which involve – among others - a range of NGOs and Civil Society organisations, landowners, local authorities, businesses, National Parks and universities.
I am delighted to announce that the RSPB will be leading both the Dark Peak NIA Partnership in the Peak District National Park, which will secure the enhancement of 5,800 hectares of blanket bog on five peatland plateaus and the restoration of upland heathland on 2,700 hectares in 12 areas. It will also lead to the creation of 210 hectares of native woodland, improved public access and the restoration of traditional hay meadows.
The RSPB will also be leading on the Dearne Valley Green Heart NIA and playing a significant role in the Greater Thames Marshes Partnership, which falls within one of your key Futurescape project areas. And you will also be playing key roles in five other NIA Partnerships – the Humberhead Levels, Meres and Mosses of the Marches, Nene Valley, South Downs and Wild Purbeck.
These partnerships will see the restoration of ponds and wetland areas, the creation of new woodlands, the reduction of diffuse pollution from agriculture in rivers and the enhancement of grazing marsh, saltmarsh and mudflat habitats. They will also boost our farmland bird populations.
I am delighted that the RSPB has warmly welcomed the NIAs and I have been deeply impressed with the partnership work and sheer enthusiasm that the competition has generated. Today marks a new and exciting opportunity to enhance and restore our habitats and species and I look forward to visiting as many NIAs in the next 12 months as I can.
I hope that the learning from these 12 NIAs will encourage many more NIAs to be set up across the country fulfilling our NEWP ambition to see NIAs wherever the benefits or the opportunities are greatest, driven by the knowledge and expertise of local people.
Please be assured that this is far from the total of our ambitions. Our Natural Environment White Paper and the England Biodiversity Strategy show many other ways we in Government will work with others to reverse the decline in the quality of our natural environment."
What do you think of the Minister's comments?
I am sure that he would love to hear your views.