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 said yesterday that governments are judged, partly, on how they spend their money.
This government might be happy to spend £30 billion on 190 new road schemes, but how does it plan to fund the nation's forests, support a strong independent champion for nature or support wildlife friendly farming? And what about local authorities? In the face of tough spending environment, will they be able to protect their crucial environmental services?
This month provides a a serious tests of the Coalition Government’s commitment to our natural environment as a number of key decisions stack up. In these troubling economic times, the clear value for money that investing in nature provides must not be overlooked.
The first key decision will be on forestry. On Thursday, the Government will begin to consider the contents of the report on the future of forestry put together by an independent panel chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool. The report is a response to the Government’s controversial proposals to sell off our forests two years ago. The Government was forced to back down in the face of public uproar, but their alternative plans for the future of woodlands in England must include a credible plan to finance their protection and management . This will be closely followed by the end of the consultation on the future Defra’s agencies. One of the options on the table is to merge the wildlife watchdog Natural England (NE) with the Environment Agency. I hope that financial considerations are secondary to the key objective of ensuring we improve our ability to "protect wildlife and... restore biodiversity". We shall continue to make the case for a strong independent champion of nature that is free to give its advice in the public domain.
Then later in February the EU Budget is set to be finalised. After the collapse of talks beflyore Christmas and following the Prime Minister's "Europe" speech last week, this will be his opportunity to turn his words into action. He will have to use all his diplomatic powers to land a good deal for farmers and wildlife. As last week's vote in the European Agriculture Committee demonstrated, there are powerful vested interests opposed to serious CAP reform. In the late night horse-trading, Mr Cameron must remember that well funded, well designed rural development programme (the so-called Pillar II of the CAP) is key to his ambition to protect the countryside and support wildlife-friendly farming. He could do well to heed the words of his Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who last week described the vote in the Parliament as "retrograde" and "disappointing".
The implications of public spending cuts is still be experienced far from Whitehall. For example, Somerset County Council officers are meeting tomorrow to decide how to make £8 million savings over the next three years. Their current plan includes axing the ecology and natural environment-related posts. This may seem the inevitable consequence of dealing with the deficit, but the cut in jobs could jeopardise the good work over five years that has attracted millions of pounds of inward investment to the region - including £7 million to the Somerset Levels and Moors alone. Organisations such as the RSPB and Somerset Wildlife Trust have joined forces through the Somerset Local Nature Partnership to urge the Council to think again.
The accepted wisdom within some within Whitehall suggests that the Chancellor will be forced to announce further spending cuts before the end of this parliament. I hope that the spectre of further cuts does not muddy the water for the decisions that need to be taken over the next month. We need politicians with clear heads making the right decisions for the long term and that means being prepared to invest in nature and reapt the rewards.
Tomorrow I shall give you an example of how you can help.
Yesterday, while many of us were either taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch or out and about enjoying the sunshine, road protesters were digging in at Hastings. They are making a stand against the planned Bexhill Hastings Relief Road through Combe Haven valley.
National and local Government are planning to spend more than £30bn on 190 major road schemes. The fear is that the twenty first Battle of Hastings is just the start of clashes between local people and developers. We don't want to go back to the 1990s when sites like Twyford Down and Newbury became totemic environmental battlegrounds.
This is why, yesterday, heads of Greenpeace, Campaign for Better Transport, Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts, senior campaigner from CPRE and RSPB South East Regional Director, Chris Corrigan went to see first-hand the area threatened by the planned road and the impact contractors works have already caused. It was an opportunity to meet protesters and highlight the impacts and threats from the Government's forthcoming roads strategy. The Hastings scheme costs £86m yet the Department of Transport’s own cost benefit analysis questions the value for money, even without counting the impact on nature. Poorly designed road schemes not only fragment habitats but can lock us into high carbon future. This comes at a time when government says it wants to restore wildlife and decarbonise the economy.
While I, of course, recognise the political imperative of kick-starting the economy and renewing infrastructure, we must look for a new model of growth. Growth that erodes our natural assets damages local communities and robs the next generation of nature's free services. And certainly does not help the UK's commitment to "protect wildlife and... restore biodiversity".
This government, like many before it, will be judged on how it spends its money. A new generation of bad road schemes is the not the legacy any government should want.
Tomorrow, I focus on other big public spending tests: the future of the Forestry Commission, Natural England and Environment Agency, the EU Budget, and what's happening to local authority funding.
It was a birdwatch of two halves.
The first half went well. The boy spotted the two goldfinches on the feeder and then a redwing appeared. It was kind of it to make an appearance and stayed for most of the hour, perhaps wondering where the rest of the flock of winter thrushes had flown.
The chaffinches, house sparrows, greenfinches, blackbirds, collared doves, robin, dunnock and blue tit joined the stage and it was all going so well...
Unfortunately the action slowed a bit when the girl arrived for the second half. Ten minutes later and she was off uttering the heretical words "borin' birdwatching".
Some creative parenting meant we just about recovered from this near fatal situation. The girl proceeded to finalise our tally for the day and then entered the results online. We watched the live webcam of the feeders at the Lodge, wondered why we don't get coal tits in our garden and then we were off to enjoy the rest of our Saturday.
Happy Big Garden Birdwatch to you all.
Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.org.uk)