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.
Despite its future being subject to serious debate, I was delighted to hear that Natural England was able to focus on their core business today: helping to protect our finest wildlife sites.
The Natural England Board has agreed to confirm the notification of a grassland SSSI at Benty Grange in the Peak District. You can find out more about this case here.
We’re delighted. We publicly supported the notification as we believe that this will help protect one of the largest remnants of this species-rich neutral grassland in Derbyshire. This type of grassland is considered to be of principal importance to the conservation for biodiversity in England (Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006), and is a priority habitat under the England Biodiversity Strategy 2020.
This decision is particularly pleasing given the horrendous loss of environmentally valuable grasslands that has occurred across England but especially in Derbyshire. I am also delighted that Natural England stood firm in the face of real pressure from the landowning community who opposed notification.
This case comes just a week on from a report, commissioned by the RSPB, which outlined the significance of appropriate grazing to support biodiversity in the uplands.
But it also reminds me of some work that I was involved in during my days at Plantlife. At the time, we worked with The Wildlife Trusts to document the ongoing loss of grasslands since the 1980s. While the historic loss was well known, we were shocked by how much had been lost in recent years. Derbyshire alone had lost 91% of grasslands which had been surviving in 1983 by 1999 due to fertiliser use on unimproved grassland, reseeding and ploughing. Today’s decision will help protect a significant remnant of the Derbyshire wildlife-rich grasslands that remain.
Threats from inappropriate grazing and neglect obviously remain. So it is good news for nature conservation that Natural England has stepped in to help protect part of our natural heritage.
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
In January this year, I promised to put a focus on some of the good nature conservation news stories. I wanted to share hope and optimism that things will get better for wildlife.
Not today though. Sorry.
Last week, we had the latest depressing vote on the future of the Common Agriculture Policy - this time by Members of the European Parliament. In little over a week, 85,000 people across Europe sent over a million emails to urge their MEPs to support four policy demands. I am sad to say that just one of these four measures was accepted: a recognition that paying farmers twice for the same thing is not a good idea. You can read more about this story here.
And today, we hear that the Government has decided to ignore key recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee report on wildlife crime. I welcomed the cross-party report last year, but it is deeply disappointing that the Government has failed to accept the need for long-term financing of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and decided not to tighten up controls on poisons (such as carbofuron) used to kill birds of prey, allowing offences of possession to be linked to tougher sentences.
We’re also very disappointed by the Government’s response to introducing vicarious liability legislation, which would allow landowners to be prosecuted for crimes committed by their employees and make a real difference to tackling bird of prey persecution. The Association of Chief Police Officers supported vicarious liability in its evidence to the Committee, and, following Scotland's lead, the Law Commission is considering the merits of such an approach in England and Wales.
This seemed a missed opportunity. Ministers have the opportunity to put this right when they get the chance to consider the Law Commission’s forthcoming recommendations on reforming and strengthening wildlife laws in England and Wales.
Despite these setbacks, I am not downhearted. Changing policies or laws takes time. We'll dust ourselves down, regroup and think of new ways to make it desirable for politicians to uses their voices (and votes) for nature.
I hope to bring good news stories soon. But, let's see what happens on Wednesday first when we the Chancellor delivers his Budget...