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.
I am travelling to Brighton today. The great seaside town is hosting the Liberal Democrats' party conference. The RSPB attends the major party conferences to put a spotlight on issues which affect wildlife. I shall be packing my suitcase and popping in to each over the next three weeks. So, I thought I would through this blog give a flavour of what we get up to and how each of the parties are living up to their environmental ambitions.
This week therefore, the focus is on the Liberal Democrats.
Reading the newspapers over the weekend it is clear that in the run up to the next General Election in 2015, the two coalition parties will seek to differentiate themselves from each other. During party conference, it is tempting to exacerbate differences even further to rally the party faithful. So, this weekend Danny Alexander complained of a “blue roadblock” on the green agenda. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg (fresh from his apology which was brilliantly put to music here) criticised the “turbo-charged” Conservative Right, while Ed Davey likens the Tories to the Tea Party putting green jobs at risk. I am sure that similar language will emerge in a couple of weeks time when the Conservatives head for Birmingham. Whatever the motivation, It certainly makes for more spicy Cabinet meetings.
For a party that once claimed to have a 'green thread' running through its policies and that has stewardship of the environment in its constitution, the Liberal Democrats should be particularly sensitive to how the government environmental track record is perceived. They will want to go into the next general election being able to demonstrate that we are on track halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 and have made a significant shift to a low carbon economy.
Yet, despite having been at the helm of the Department of Energy and Climate Change since 2010 (with Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey as Secretary of State), it is only since the reshuffle that a Lib Dem minister (David Heath) has been posted to Defra. Will this change the dynamic in the department? Given that the coalition agreement made reference to "a science-led policy of badger control", I was not surprised that Natural England released the first licenses last week.
What I am looking for is more policy oomph, momentum, impetus - anything to help realise the fine ambitions in the Natural Environment White Paper. We are looking for Mr Heath to work with the rest of the Defra team to fight for the resources that the department needs and stimulate innovative thinking to help "protect wildlife and ... restore biodiversity" - another coalition commitment. As the lead on agriculture policy, CAP reform should be his top priority. He will need to use all his diplomatic skills in Europe (and at home with the Treasury) to deliver a decent deal for farmers and wildlife. Agri-environment schemes provide the funds that underpin any government's wildlife ambitions. Mr Heath should be looking to bolster the funds and improve the design of the schemes.
My colleague, Tom Fewins, has written his own appeal to the Liberal Democrats to enourage them to do more for wildlife. You can read his article here.
We need the parties to be locked in an evolutionary arms race where the parties strive for the best environmental policy agenda. We don't expect this to happen overnight, but this is a long term aim. And it is why, every year, the RSPB goes to Party conference season, engages with the politicians and challenges them each to do more.
Tomorrow, I'll let you know how we (and the party in yellow) are getting on.
If you were to make an appeal to the Liberal Democrats, what would you say?
It would be great to hear your views.
High Speed 2 – the high speed train line that is to connect London with Birmingham via the Chilterns – has long divided the nation, before any ground has even been broken.
Inevitably, a new train line in this crowded country will have significant implications for wildlife, not to mention the many people who live near the proposed route. The RSPB is working hard to make sure these impacts are minimised, and where there are unavoidable impacts we will be holding Government and HS2 to their legal requirement to provide compensatory habitat. Yet, we’re not opposing HS2 outright as many others are. This is principally because high speed rail could be a vital component of a the low carbon, green transport system that this country urgently needs.
This week we’ve published a report by GreenGauge21 consultants for the RSPB, CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport. You can read more about the report here - but, in summary, the report explores whether HS2 really can fulfil this role, and its findings are both predictable and challenging.
Predictable because although the report finds that HS2 can indeed be low carbon, it demonstrates that this is only the case if government acts to ensure HS2 takes passengers and freight off the roads and out of planes. It also underlines the importance of ensuring that the electricity used to power the trains is from low carbon sources.
Challenging because we have few guarantees from government that they will take these actions. There is currently no coherent plan to reduce emissions from transport and reduce the use of private vehicles and planes in favour of trains. And just last week, the UK Government was warned by their own advisers that their current energy plans would breach our legal commitments to cutting carbon by wedding our electricity supply to gas.
So, the ball is firmly in the new Transport Minister’s court. It’s a simple choice between big, shiny new projects that could undermine our chances of fighting climate change, or a coherent strategy (which could include shiny, new projects) that delivers a low carbon, green transport system.
Maybe, it is just my odd personality that wants to have coherent strategies. But surely if decision-makers were up front about the challenges (in this case of tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment whilst modernising transport infrastructure) and explained how activity and projects helped to deliver their objectives, people would be more likely to support the overall package. And who can blame them for opposing new ideas if the plans don't make sense?
What do you think? Do you think that HS2 will provide the answer to our low carbon transport problems? Do you hanker for coherent strategies from government?
Yesterday, Natural England issued a licence permitting the control of badgers in West Gloucestershire for the purpose of preventing the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB).
As I have written previously here and here, the dairy industry has endured terrible times while trying to cope with this devastating disease. However, we have never been convinced that the best way to help farmers is to force them to foot the bill for a contentious cull that is only expected to reduce outbreaks by about 16 per cent. The 16% figure is a mean figure for the whole of a cull area from para 5 of a Defra report by leading scientists which you can read here.
I think that this is a lot of effort for a small gain. Bovine TB needs tackling properly and we believe vaccination offers the best hope for cattle, badgers and the industry. It is clear that the Defra's Chief Scientist, Professor Sir Bob Watson, agrees. Have a listen to what he says in the video clip which you can watch here.
And there is another reason why there needs to be a broader response. If, after the trials, a cull in all affected areas (39,000 square kilometres in England) is sanctioned then up to 30 per cent of the English badger population could be removed. This reduction through a cull would be unprecedented and would severely affect the conservation status of one of Britain's most-loved mammals.
What's more, there are problems with the design of these pilots. Another Professor (Sir John Krebs) has pointed out that two six week trials will not produce results with any statistical rigour. It is also the case that there will be no testing or analysis of the impact of shooting free ranging badgers on perturbation.
We have taken the decision that this autumn we shall be taking positive steps towards controlling bovine TB by vaccinating badgers on our land at Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire which lies just outside one of the two UK badger trial control zones. While this is a small step, we think this is the best way to both ensure the health of the badgers on our land and act as good neighbours to nearby farmers who could be affected by the forthcoming trial.
If you feel strongly about the issue, there are two current live petitions (here and here) which are encouraging the government to stop the badger cull and think again.
What do you think about yesterday's decision?