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.
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
On the vexed issue of gull id, this crops up most years. Yes, common gull is suspiciously high in the rankings (same for tree sparrow too) – we think that some people will see a ‘seagull’ and think ‘common’. But what they’re seeing is much more likely to be herring, black-headed or black backed. So, yes, it’s a misidentification problem. We will look at whether we can make this clearer to participants in future years, although it should be said that BGBW’s focus is on garden birds and may not be the best place to talk about gull ID!
Obviously with buildings these days being more insulated and draughtproof leaves less chances for house sparrows to nest,i remember seeing nests everywhere back in the fifties,same with starlings,they shared the same nesting places.The most house sparrows i,ve seen this year was on a trip to sharm el sheik,loads of them feeding freely from a container of omelette mix they would even fly onto the tables and feed off the freshly made ones.perhaps they like the warmer climes.
I agree the herring gull black headed gull are seen more than the common gull in my area,the south-west.Nice to see more blackbirds than usual but thrushes seem thin on the ground,saw a flock of fieldfares on the somerset levels a week ago.
Comparing one year against the previous obviously means absolutely nothing.
The form is very misleading when it comes to gulls, and seems to suggest that whatever the "seagull" you have seen is, it must be a Common Gull. We only get Herring Gulls in our garden, up to 12 at a time if there are enough scraps put out.
House Sparrows, Starlings, Robins have all apparently increased in number here since the Birdwatch. I'm trying hard to keep them all well fed during this almost unprecedented cold spell.
Having to work hard keeping the "cooking fat" (cat) away, too.
I'm very surprised the Common Gull is the highest-ranked gull - I live on the coast and regularly see Black-headed, Herring and Lesser Black-backed around my garden, but not the Common.
Disappointed that the results on the BGBW page are not presented like the table in your blog. House sparrows may be numerically in first place but are found in less than two thirds of gardens, whereas blackbirds are found just about everywhere. On holiday in Wales last year saw more wood warblers than house sparrows, so this top place is very misleading.