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.
It had all been going so well.
We'd been to ballet, kicked a ball around and dropped into the Cambridge Botanic Garden to play hide and seek.
A good day and, with my wife working, I felt I had executed my parental responsibilities well.
And, as promised we took turns to do the RSPB's new survey to assess how connected we are to nature.
But then I slipped up. I made the rather obvious mistake in suggesting to the girl that we were going to see if she turned into a butterfly. I think I may have mismanaged her expectations. The girl and I did the survey (the boy isolated in a separate room) and sailed through the first few questions...
Humans are part of the natural world?
"Definitely me", says the girl, "we live in the world."
People cannot live without animals and plants?
"Definitely me", says the girl, "we need to eat plants and vegetables."
And then it happened...
Picking up trash on the ground can help the environment?
In her defence, the girl is 5. And we have had one or two issues with litter and so, with a smile, a giggle and good old fashion honesty, she said "Doesn't sound like me".
And so on completion of the survey, the verdict was that she was, well, not quite a butterfly, but more of an indistinguishable creature emerging from a chrysalis. I explained that this was indeed a butterfly but wasn't quite ready to fly. How exciting! No, not exciting.
"I WANT TO BE A BUTTERFLY!" shouted the girl. And the girl, I'll admit, can shout.
Well, we all want to be a butterfly and, of course, the boy turned into a butterfly.
My response? I did what every good father would do. We did the survey again, paused at the tricky question, adjusted the answer and 'hey presto', the girl did turn into a beautiful butterfly.
So you see, we can be whatever we want to be.
What about you? Are you stuck as a caterpillar or have you turned into a beautiful butterfly?
If you haven't a clue what I am talking about, it is time to you took part in the survey. Click here to find out more.
I think that everyone involved in nature conservation is on basically on the same side. People and organisations may have different priorities or perspectives but broadly speaking we all want the same thing: to save nature. So I find the, fortunately very rare, occasions when we fundamentally disagree with another nature conservation body to be both disappointing and upsetting.
Such an occasion has arrived. Today, the RSPB has filed a complaint with the European Commission regarding Natural England’s approach to protecting important habitats in the South Pennines. Below I explain why we have taken this unprecedented step against an organisation that we otherwise hold in high regard.
In simple terms, we believe that a management agreement reached between Walshaw Moor Estate and Natural England, in March 2012, fails to uphold both EU and UK environmental laws for the legally protected, globally rare and very sensitive blanket bog habitats on the estate. Walshaw Moor form part of the South Pennine Moors SAC, SPA and SSSI conservation sites.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s easiest to explain by winding back the clock a few years. Back in 2005, Walshaw Moor Estate was successfully prosecuted by English Nature for building a track and dumping spoil on protected habitat, and the Court ordered the Estate to restore the damage. In 2010, a local bird club, the Calderdale Bird Conservation Group, noticed more damaging activities and contacted the RSPB. We raised concerns with Natural England, who, it turned out, were already investigating unconsented damage, and had started separate legal proceedings against Walshaw Moor Estate to modify old, ambiguous consents which allowed damaging activities such as intensive burning on blanket bog.
Through 2011, the RSPB supported Natural England in its efforts to modify the old consents – this included making a written submission to the Public Inquiry which formed part of the legal action. Natural England also decided to prosecute the Estate on no less than 43 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to European and national protected sites. The sheer number of alleged breaches (track construction across moors including converting a stream to a track, drainage of peat bog, installing grouse butts, damage to habitats from vehicle use), together with the Estate’s previous conviction and lack of a voluntary offer to restore or mitigate the damage, demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.
And then, in March 2012, Natural England and the Walshaw Moor Estate suddenly announced that all legal actions had ceased and that they had come to a settlement. To our great surprise, the settlement included dropping all the prosecutions without any restoration and agreeing to a new consent that allows existing infrastructure (including the tracks, butts and some of the drainage that were the subject of the prosecution) to be maintained, and permits burning of blanket bog to continue.
On the day that the agreement was made public, we wrote to Natural England to try to establish the justification for their action. We then spent the next six months trying to get to the bottom of what happened in order to understand its implications. The clearest conclusion is this: the legal requirement to protect and restore these designated sites has not been upheld by this agreement.
The reasons for it are less clear. Natural England apparently changed their mind about pursuing their legal action to prevent the estate from burning blanket bog, and the price of settlement was, amongst other things, that they dropped all 43 grounds for prosecutions for habitat damage. Why they lost confidence is unclear, because they were mounting a robust defence only weeks before, supported by independent expert witnesses as well as the RSPB.
Whatever the reason, we now have a management agreement which protects better quality blanket bog but allows burning on degraded blanket bog, effectively preventing it from being restored, as required under EU law. And, critically, the 43 grounds for prosecution for damage have been dropped and the agreement does not seek restoration.
But, even given all this, is it really worth escalating our concerns to the European Commission? Shouldn’t we just accept that this is only one estate with a complicated set of circumstances and that everyone has learnt something? Is it worth tying up Natural England and Defra officials’ time for months with another investigation, and the undoubted hit to relationships with some in the upland community that we will take?
Well, we’ve decided that it is.
Because we can’t ignore the neglect of environmental laws; habitat damage has now been normalised on this estate in a way that will prevent vital habitats being restored to function as the carbon and water stores and bog ecosystems they are meant to be.
Because it isn’t just this one estate; Natural England is due to revisit around 100 management consents for moorland habitats over the coming years, and the Walshaw Moor settlement will set an unavoidable precedent to aim low.
Because it’s not just our fight - local community and environmental groups have registered their great concern about the implications of continued habitat degradation on Walshaw Moors for wildlife, water, cultural heritage and flood protection.
Because the UK Government has a number of commitments to restore biodiversity (including its own Coalition Agreement, the Natural Environment White Paper, England Biodiversity Strategy and the 2020 EU and CBD bidoiversity targets) and the Walshaw agreement is inconsistent with these objectives.
And because, over the next few months, Defra will be reviewing their environmental agencies (Natural England and the Environment Agency) and this case underlines how much we need a government agency that is able to exercise its powers to deliver and uphold laws that protect wildlife.
Does this mean that we’re at war with estate managers in the uplands, or with the Government?
No, of course not. Launching a European complaint is a serious step, but it doesn’t change our commitment to supporting the Government and the moorland community in working towards environmental improvements in the uplands.
So disappointed and upset, yes, and a bit angry too, because we had supported a process in good faith only to be cut out and presented with an unacceptable fait accompli. But, my main emotion as we launch our complaint is hope. I hope that this will allow the issue to be examined dispassionately and away from the pressured politics of England’s environment and land use issues, and hope that that will, in the end, result in clearer protection for our most vulnerable habitats, and a stronger hand to play for wildlife’s most important government agency.
More details of our complaint will appear online soon. I shall point you in the right direction once available. In the meantime, a question for you...
...do you think we are we right to complain?
It would be great to hear your views.
It's been a long week, and I've neglected the blog. Sorry about that!
Here, in a nutshell, are three things you may have missed:
1. Leaders did seal a deal in Hyderabad.
After the usual all-night negotiations, countries reached a consensus at the weekend on how to find the money to save the world's biodiversity. The parties have agreed to a ‘Hyderabad Roadmap’ with support to biodiversity conservation from developed to developing countries to be doubled to 10 billion US Dollars by 2015. As colleagues in Birdlife reported here, this feels like progress. Congratulations to all the negotiators for finding their way through the latest series of tough talks.
2. MPs vote against the badger cull
I am sure you did not miss the announcement about the postponement of the badger cull until next summer. However, you may not have noticed that, yesterday, the Government lost a vote on the badger cull. The Government lost by 147 votes to 28 on the following motion:
“That this House notes the e-petition on the planned badger cull, which has gathered more than 150,000 signatures; and calls on the Government to stop the cull and implement the more sustainable and humane solution of both a vaccination programme for badgers and cattle, along with improved testing and biosecurity.”
While the vote is not binding, I do think that this gives the Government another justification to think again. The proposed is extremely divisive. My fear is that anger will be allowed to fester. Farmers and badgers will be in exactly the same situation next summer. As so many have said, the science suggests that culling is not the answer to this serious and urgent problem.
I hope that Defra takes the opportunity to embrace a vaccination programme as the long-term solution for both livestock farmers and badgers.
3. More birdcrime
A former Suffolk police officer, Michael Upson has pleaded guilty at Norwich Magistrates Court of possessing 650 wild bird eggs collected while he was still in the Suffolk Constabulary. This comes a week after the Environmental Audit Committee issued its report into wildlife crime.
And finally, if you want to hear more about the challenges of keeping our birds of prey in the air, I suggest you listen to the latest edition of of Saving Species here.
And finally, finally, this blog will be quiet for a week as I shall be with the family during half-term. Here's hoping the week remains equally quiet for you and for wildlife...