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 is a big day.
For the first time, all the UK wildlife organisations have joined forces to compile a health check of nature in the UK and its overseas territories. This evening Sir David Attenborough will help us launch a new State of Nature report. We expect it will serve as a wake-up call to all of us to do more to help us live in harmony with nature.
The report comes in my favourite month of May. A time to reflect on the wonder of those birds that have migrated from Africa to breed here– species such as swift and swallows – a time to take pleasure in seeing our woodlands carpeted with bluebells and to enjoy seeing butterflies again after the long, dark days of winter. But there are real fears that the things we take for granted may not be part of our children's lives when they grow up. In my lifetime, once common species like the turtle dove has declined by more than 90%. Cuckoos down by 73% and nightingales down by nearly 50%. And my former employers,Plantlife, has shown that we are losing, on average, one plant every year from counties in England.
In preparing State of Nature, we have used new and innovative analyses include trend assessments for over 3000 species, and red-list assessments of over 6000 species; mostly derived from data collected by the UK's army of dedicated and skilled volunteer naturalists. Our analyses conclude that 60% of the species for which data are available have declined over recent decades; 31% strongly so. Nature is in flux. Over one in ten of the species assessed are threatened with extinction in the UK.
Understanding the state of the natural world is the foundation for nature conservation. We need to know what's in trouble and what progress we have made. This report reinforces the conclusions reached in 2010: that nature is continuing to decline, the pressures on the natural world are growing, and our response to the biodiversity crisis is slowing.
We know that we all need to do more to inspire moral, political and practical support for nature conservation.
And this is why, following the publication of the report we shall challenge all sectors of society to do more for nature.
We are not claiming to have all the answers but we're determined to do much more. We hope that the report, produced in this time of austerity, stimulates a public debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature.
If you have thoughts on this or any aspect of the report, I'd be delighted to hear from you.
Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome Andy Spencer, Sustainability Director for the UK Operations of Cemex.I was disappointed to hear recently that a health check of nature undertaken by many UK Wildlife organisations is showing limited success, a general continuing decline in biodiversity, and increasing threats to many endangered species.
It struck me that the time has come for all nature conservation organisations to rethink aspects of their strategies to accomplish their desired goals of increasing biodiversity and nature conservation. But what new strategies might they adopt?
One area of huge opportunity is working with business. Historically this concept of working together would have been quickly dismissed. More recently, there has been some success; but there is huge, untapped potential. Most large businesses now run Sustainability and CSR programmes and have a genuine desire to make a positive impact – partnering can deliver much needed resources to nature conservation organisations to enable businesses to increase conservation and positive impact - a ‘win win’ situation for both parties.
My 18 year career in the minerals sector has seen such a shift take place over time from hostility on occasions to great partnership approaches - with fantastic benefits for all concerned. As CEMEX we have a long term memorandum of understanding with the RSPB with the aim of delivering net positive biodiversity and the creation of 1000 hectares of priority habitat by 2020. Working together has engaged employees, increased awareness, driven innovation and new ideas and redrawn the concept of how we view many aspects of the Natural Environment. Whether it is changing a restoration plan to deliver wide expanses of heathland, creating sand martin habitats in 60 working quarries, installing bee hives at operational sites or creating wild insect havens in small readymix plants on industrial estates, the effect has been highly positive and there’s plenty more to come!
This partnership model could be extended to sectors with high impact potential such as house building, construction, water, energy, waste, farming, estates and land managers. Even if a small proportion were engaged the positive impacts would be huge – why can’t we build biodiversity into flood defences, waste infrastructure, water treatment facilities, housing developments, new hospitals and schools, or even new railways? Not only is it good for nature but it is good for people too – leaving a legacy for future generations to learn from and enjoy.
It is not easy to break tradition and historical relationship barriers. In addition many nature conservation organisations may be reluctant to be seen to engage with business. But times have to move on - we have an urgent task ahead of us and the opportunities have to be seized. This is not green wash, it’s a genuine green push!
One thing I have learnt in recent times is that good biodiversity management is rarely expensive and the tangible benefits are becoming clearer as the true value of ecosystems services to the economy is emerging. Conservation is an opportunity, not a threat. The long term price for not taking action will be severe – so let’s start breaking down barriers, engaging, trusting, sharing and innovating – and in doing so inspire others and create an epidemic of activity to enhance nature!
Do you agree with Andy Spencer? And what would be your One Big Thing for Nature?
It would be great to hear your views.
I had a good morning with Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, yesterday. While the weather was a little disappointing, Old Hall Marshes was looking great, hooching with waders and marsh harriers. We discussed some of the challenges we face on the site and set it into the wider Essex/national context. The reserve provided a much better backdrop for our discussion compared to the usual office environment.
Mr Benyon's attention, like all his parliamentary colleagues, will turn today to the Queen's Speech: a moment for pageant and political intent. I'll offer a view on its content tomorrow.
In the meantime, I promised to pick up the offsetting theme continued by Sam Vine yesterday. Sam outlined some of the challenges they are dealing with as biodiversity offsets are rolled out at state and national level (link here). Much of what Sam said resonates with the RSPB’s thoughts, particularly the need to adopt a principled, robust and pragmatic approach to the development of any offset system to ensure that nature does not lose out.
Our interest in offsets is not to facilitate economic growth per se, but to see if they offer a way to stem decades of gradual biodiversity loss to development that has gone on outside our protected areas, with little or no redress. Our starting point is that compensation (or offsetting) is an absolute last resort, once all measures to avoid and reduce possible impacts have been taken, and there is a clear need for the development that justifies damage to our steadily eroding natural capital. We are not alone in wanting to avoid short cuts being taken – the Government’s own National Planning Policy Framework agrees, as does its Natural Capital Committee.
A well regulated, mandatory national system of offsets could offer one possible way of making those fine words a reality. This could ensure, as the NCC’s report suggests, that development no longer leads to the erosion of our natural capital. Designed properly, it could offer more effective ways to provide habitat and species compensation when it is considered necessary, while complementing wider landscape scale conservation and lowering overall costs through economies of scale. However, we do agree with the NCC this should not be rushed in to headlong – that it should be ‘carefully explored after a clear set of principles and a policy framework has been developed.’ Scratch the surface of the biodiversity offset issue and you reveal a complex web of interrelated issues that all need to be got right if the goal of no net loss of biodiversity is to be achieved for real, rather than on paper. Careful thought and real political will, based on robust science, is needed to implement an offset system worthy of the lofty ambitions often claimed for it.
Comparing the situations here and in Australia reveals some interesting similarities and some real differences. The first is that a successful offsets scheme relies upon there being the political and social will to meet no net loss of biodiversity. This means having strict rules about what has to be offset, when, and how it is done. At the same time, accepting that it will often not be possible to replace a lost habitat or species, so damaging development in the wrong place should not proceed.
But there are real differences that, in some ways, makes developing and implementing offsets in here more complex. For example, unlike Australia, we do not have significant areas of native vegetation where little intervention and cost would be required beyond getting the habitat to a point where it can be left alone. Our rich heritage of semi-natural habitats means knowledge of how to restore or create the conditions required by many habitats and species is still in its infancy and largely experimental. As in Australia, sound science is essential. Simply increasing the area of replacement habitat by five or ten fold and hoping it will work cannot make up for the permanent loss of valued biodiversity. Even where we do know how to guarantee success, there is normally a need for continuing active intervention which brings with it associated costs over the course of decades.
So, we wait to see how the Coalition Government wishes to take forward its current work on biodiversity offsets in England. The RSPB will continue to give serious thought to this issue that at one and the same time offers real opportunity for, and considerable risk to, the conservation of the natural world around us.