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.
Lodge Hill has been in the news again (see here and here). There has been a bit of nonsense said and written about this case, so I thought I'd disrupt my Easter break to put the record straight. This is not just a straightforward battle between nightingales and houses. It is as much a question about what consitutes good planning and how to build houses without causing needless harm to environment. The last thing anyone should be doing is blaming Natural England for doing its job.
A couple of weeks ago, I reported the great news that Natural England has decided to protect a nationally important population of nightingales, by enlarging an SSSI at Lodge Hill in Kent.
Last year the BTO conducted its National Nightingale Survey and found that there were at least 84 singing males at Lodge Hill. The BTO have since calculated the 2012 national population at around 6,250 – 6,750. This means that Lodge Hill holds at least 1.3% of the national nightingale population.
This case brings into focus some important parts of the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF). Much of the new SSSI is a former military training school and is being proposed by Medway Council and Land Securities as the location for 5,000 houses. Medway Council sees the notification of the SSSI as a major blow to its plans for development (see here).
We see it a little differently. The NPPF is designed to encourage the provision of housing where it’s needed, while at the same time protecting the environment we care about. The notification of this site as an SSSI simply puts into proper context the environmental importance of this site, for those making planning decisions about its future.
The NPPF doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs. In exceptional circumstances development affecting an SSSI could be possible (even if it may not be desirable). But the NPPF contains important safeguards, to ensure that these special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and on the national network of SSSIs. Pretty sensible tests of sustainable development in my book.
If Medway Council can demonstrate that there are no alternative places - with less harmful impacts - to provide its housing allocation and that the benefits of the proposed development at Lodge Hill clearly outweigh both the impacts on the nightingales, ancient woodland and important grasslands at the site as well as any broader impacts on the national network of SSSIs, then it could go ahead with development, provided that the developer can mitigate, or as a last resort compensate for the harm that would be caused.
We don’t think Medway Council has met those tests. That the Council sees the SSSI notification as a major threat to its development plans rather suggests it doesn’t think it can meet them either. That is why the RSPB is encouraging Medway Council to go back to the drawing board and think again about where to provide their houses.
This year's Big Garden Birdwatch results are in and, as ever, they give us all food for thought.
Almost 590,000 people across the UK, including 75,000 pupils and teachers at schools, took part in January. This figure includes at least three Harpers: my two kids and I spent a great hour on a snowy Saturday morning compiling a pretty decent list this year - all except redwing appearing in this year's top 20 (see below). It is great that so many people want to take an hour out of their weekends to count birds!
But, as ever, the results offer us a clue as to what might be happening to some of our best loved species. Starlings hit an all-time low last year and their numbers sunk by a further 16 per cent in gardens this year pushing it down from number 2 in our chart to number 4. Numbers of house sparrows dropped by 17 per cent in gardens compared to 2012, whilst bullfinches and dunnocks fell by 20 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. These are species that are also struggling in the wider countryside and so this news gives further cause for concern.
You can draw your own conclusions about what these results mean, but I think there are two main messages here...
First, we should all try to do our bit for garden wildlife. Gardens make up around 4 per cent of land area in the UK and their role as habitats for our wildlife is clear. They are the places that birds come to for food and shelter when conditions in the countryside are especially tough and together, we can all play a part in making them more welcoming and supportive for wildlife, whether we have a garden full of greenery, a yard or a window box. This can complement the efforts that we and others make to protect our finest sites, advise land-managers and influence change in policy and legislation.
Second, contact with nature is good for us. We know that family attitudes – including things like taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch – help children connect to nature which, in turn helps create environmentally aware and, hopefully, responsible citizens. This is something that I try to do with my kids. While there results can be mixed (I will not forgive the girl for uttering the immortal words, "borin' birdwatching") I do try to reveal the wonders of the natural world by giving my kids a chance to have firsthand experiences of nature.
And this brings me on to a topical debate about the future of the national curriculum in England. I have some anxieties about the current proposals. You can read a bit more about our views here. There are some good bits that we welcome. This includes retention of statutory requirements for fieldwork across all key stages of geography for 5-14 year-olds - something we succesfully campaigned for in 2005-8. There is also now a requirement for robust range of ecological knowledge in science. My concern is the loss of overt references to learning about environmental responsibility, biodiversity conservation, and how to respond to impacts of human-induced environmental change such as climate change. We need the next generation to be equipped to deal with the legacy of what our generation leaves behind. We are continuing to think about the best ways of responding to the consultation to address these challenges, and I will keep you posted as to how you may be able to assist.
In the meantime, enjoy finding out where 'your' birds featured in the top 20. And have a great Easter weekend. When not eating chocolate, the kids and I plan to be looking for the first signs of spring. Well, I can but dream...
Big Garden Birdwatch Results 2013
2013 UK species
% change since 2012
Long tailed tit
Today, I welcome Professor Sir John Lawton, Vice-President of the RSPB and champion of landscape scale conservation. His groundbreaking report, "Making Space for Nature", argued that to save nature we needed to up our game.
John's report advocated five key elements: "improve the quality of current sites by better habitat management; increase the size of current wildlife sites; enhance connections between, or join up, sites, either through physical corridors, or through ‘stepping stones’; create new sites; reduce the pressures on wildlife by improving the wider environment, including through buffering wildlife sites".
In short, we need "more, bigger, better and joined". Over the coming weeks I plan to profile some of the projects that are applying these principles and delivering more for people and wildlife.
I am delighted to be a guest blogger on Martin's page today to celebrate the first anniversary of the Nature Improvement Area (NIA) programme. Some of you many be aware that I chaired the group that produced what has become known as the “Lawton report “or to give it its full title Making Space For Nature: A Review of England’s Wildlife sites and Ecological network. You can find the full report here. One of the recommendations made in that report was to establish Ecological Restoration Zones, large discrete areas where through collaboration significant enhancements to the ecological network could be delivered.
The report also recommended that we start the process with a competition for 12 recognising the restrictions on public finances. These subsequently became known as NIAs and I am delighted that they are now one year old and are already showing what can be done at different locations across the UK by coalitions of the willing.
Interest was strong in the competition with 76 applications all of them very strong so whittling it down to a final twelve was a difficult task but speaks volumes of the quality of the applications from those chosen. Indeed many of those who did not make the final 12 have carried on and have sought funding from other sources.
And where have we got to in one year?
Although modest in the grand scheme of English nature conservation, the 12 have already made noteworthy progress. Indeed it is calculated that the original fund of a modest £7.5m has helped leverage in an additional £40m in both cash and in kind contributions.
It has created a programme of partnership based conservation work that involves all the major players: NGOs, landowners etc and is a testing ground for landscape scale conservation. This is how we need to work - the wider societal benefits of a healthy environment are now recognised and development must not compromise our ability to conserve. Yes, of course, I would say this but please look for example at the report of the ecosystems task force on "Realising Natures Value" that makes the argument about the true relationship between business and nature much more clearly - compulsory reading I would suggest for all.
I applaud the efforts of the teams involved in the NIA process around the country and indeed had had the pleasure of visiting many of them. However as we celebrate, let's not miss the real challenges to the approach. Much of the collaborative work is underpinned by public money through programmes like agri-environment schemes - these must be kept and improved, whatever the outcome of the current CAP discussions.
Finally, when one looks at the challenges we face - and I have seen dramatic negative changes in my life time - we must see that as a call to action to work better as a collective for the greater good. I do look forward with some guarded optimism to having even more bigger better and joined up NIAs in the next ten years.