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.
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.
This is all great but the space we have in the UK, is a serious issue. Habitat can work on grand scales in Scandinavia but in crowded, heavily man-influenced UK, we have food security to factor in as a major trade-off. Just saying we can import it is unrealistic in a global market and could export a wildlife pressure elsewhere.
Sir John did hint at the Royal Agricultural Society England's 'Sustainable Intensification and farmland bird seminar (Dec 11)', that part of our wildlife management might have to be intensified into areas that provide the 'best buck for value' and where predator control was required, we should get on with it.
He reinforced this at the British Ornithology Union's conference 2013 when he said 'Policy also includes economics, cultural values, different interpretations, different needs and tensions
- there are many (partially) overlapping reasons why politicians and policy makes fail to act upon, ignore or go directly against 'expert advice'
- but . . . if things 'line up' response to advice can be rapid! we need reliable data to inform and change policy at a time of unprecedented environmental change'
So some robust science needed (not all liked by conservation memberships) for some tough decisions (some unpalatable trade-offs) ahead.
Rob Yorke twitter.com/blackgull