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.
Yesterday, the Government published a new White Paper on the UK Overseas Territories. The first key test post Rio for the Government to demonstrate its intent to step up for nature.
The Overseas Territories are unique: British territory, mostly small islands, located far away in distant seas, but home to unique and threatened wildlife for which we have a responsibility. The Territories in the South Atlantic are home to over a third of the nesting population of one of the world’s most iconic group of birds, the albatross, whilst the British Indian Ocean Territory harbours the planet’s largest coral atoll.
Many of these species, which have evolved in isolation on their island homes, are now threatened with extinction. Indeed, the Territories hold over 85% of the threatened species for which the UK is responsible, and have more threatened bird species than the entire European continent. Sadly, extinctions in the Overseas Territories are not theoretical: the rare St Helena Olive Tree, which was specifically mentioned in the last Overseas Territories White Paper in 1999, went extinct as recently as 2004.
The White Paper was therefore an important test of how seriously the UK Government takes its responsibility and whether it would work to ensure a step-change in environmental progress.
In reality, the paper is strong on vision, with the environment placed as a UK Government priority ‘to be cherished’. It also confirms the very welcome recent decision that all UK Government Departments (including most importantly Defra and DECC) have a responsibility to the Overseas Territories in their policy areas. By announcing a new secondment programme between UK and Territory civil servants, this could be a real opportunity to increase the capacity of the very small Territory Governments.
Whilst the vision was good, the detail underneath it was sadly lacking. No detailed commitments on what would be delivered, by when, nor any new commitments on funding (the Overseas Territories received only £1.5m from Defra’s biodiversity conservation budget in 2010/11).
So the Paper doesn’t deliver a step change, and represents something of a missed opportunity - nowhere else could the UK Government save so many British species for so little investment. We’ll therefore be closely following the Government’s next steps to make sure that positive vision does result in positive action, and will keep you posted.
Have a read and let me know what you think.
The rationale for the RSPB's Stepping Up for Nature campaign is that we all have a part to play in meeting the target to halt biodiversity loss and begin its recovery by 2020. Governments focussing on those things that only governments can do (laws, incentives, penatlies etc), while business, civil society organisations and individuals stepping up to play their part as well. Post Rio+20, it is difficult to conclude that anything else will do.
Yesterday, two bits of news highlighted contrasting performances from two businesses.
A step forward
Three cheers for the Say No to Hunterston coalition for forcing the Peel Group to withdraw its application for a new coal-fired power station at Hunterston in Ayrshire. This is what my colleague Aedán Smith, who spearheaded the campaign for RSPB Scotland said:
“This is absolutely fantastic news. This unnecessary and hugely unpopular proposal would have completely destroyed part of a nationally important wildlife site and seriously undermined Scotland’s ambitions to be a world leader on climate change.
“Although it is disappointing that any developer would even consider such a damaging proposal, we are pleased that Peel have finally recognised the absurdity of these plans and made a sound decision that will save everybody the further time and expense of fighting them. Hopefully we can now focus on delivering the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we urgently require instead of arguing about this outdated project.
“We would be happy to work with Peel and others to ensure that Scotland’s energy needs can be met through developing energy sustainably and in the right places, and the important wildlife of the Hunterston site can be safeguarded in future.”
A step backwards
You may have heard my colleague, Darren Moorcroft, on the Today Programme yesterday. Network Rail, which manages an estimated 20,000 miles of railway line, has come into conflict with the RSPB, local residents and even British Transport Police over the destruction of trackside vegetation which provides a home for an estimated 1.5 million birds’ nests. Although the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act protects all wild birds and their eggs and nests, Network Rail is potentially contravening the law by removing scrub and felling trees containing nests. The destruction of nests during the bird breeding season (March until August) is generally regarded as a criminal offence.
Our view is that although Network Rail has a vital role in protecting public health and safety and will doubtless have to remove trees occasionally, it also has a duty of care to local wildlife and residents. As a minimum, we expect Network Rail to comply with the law, but with such a vast estate it could do so much more. Creating wildlife habitat rather than destroying it by hiding behind health and safety would help nature to flourish and it would also go a long way towards establishing a better relationship with the estimated 20 million people who live within 500 metres of a railway line.
The common factor in both these examples is that local people have made a stand to put pressure on these businesses. People wanting more nature in their backyard. And that feels like the right ambition...
This week I am reflecting on Rio+20 and considering how we rise to some of the big challenges facing us and the natural world. I am not claiming to have all the answers but simply want to continue the debate. Today I consider the importance of winning hearts and minds.
I enjoyed the comment from Hesychast on yesterday's blog - arguing that we need to decide "when we need emotion to drive change and when what we really need are very, very cool heads". I imagine that it is the politician that keeps their head in the middle of a long night of negotiation that gets their way, but occasionally, raw emotion can win the day. No doubt, the Government has learnt from the scars they bear from recent rows over forests, planning and buzzards. These were issues which touched a nerve with people who care passionately about the natural environment.
The recent debate about the Natural Capital Committee is a good example of when to engage the head but to recognise the limitations with this approach. In yesterday's Independent for example, Terence Blacker argued that "putting a price on everything is no way to treat the countryside".
I think that the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) is undoubtedly a good thing and something the UK Government deserves great credit for having the foresight to create during trying economic times. One of today's great challenges, brilliantly articulated in the National Ecosystem Assessment, is how to get the most from our land and seas. To do that we need to be able to describe the whole array of benefits these assets can deliver. The NCC is therefore as much about natural science as it is about economics. It’s as much about understanding ecosystem stability, resilience and connectivity as it is about clean water to drink or crops to eat.
There is no presumption whatsoever that all benefits can be reduced to monetary benefits or that valuation will be the sole criteria for future decisions. Even economists recognise that there are some things in the natural world that cannot be expressed meaningfully in monetary terms. The existence value of species, for example. My guess is that most of the ten million people that support BirdLife International partners in 120 countries (including the RSPB in the UK) love nature and think that there is a moral imperative to look after it. They express this time and again through the generous support they give to our conservation efforts. We have, for example, raised millions to protect threatened species which most people will never see (such as albatrosses, endemic seabirds on Henderson island, vultures etc).
The whole rationale for understanding natural capital is because we currently overexploit it by undervaluing its importance to us. This failure is reducing current wellbeing and undermining prospects for achieving a tolerable future for our children. Understanding why natural capital is so vital, and finding systematic means to articulate that importance into decision making is a no-brainer. It helps to win the minds of decision-makers keen to improve our well-being.
As I argued yesterday, valuation on its own is not going to be a panacea to solve the biodiversity crisis. Politicians are brilliantly in touch with the electorate. We need more support for nature conservation and more people prepared to exercise their vote for nature. And that means we need to reach out differently to more people in new ways. But it also means we need to encourage more people to have contact with nature ideally from an early age. This is something that the RSPB is evangelical about. More young people having contact with nature means more young people being aware of what's going on around them, more young people wanting to find out more, becoming passionate about nature and wanting to fight to save it. When you have nature in your heart, you can be a powerful force for good.
How would you go about winning hearts and minds for nature conservation?
It would be great to hear your views.