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.
Since 1981, all wild birds, their eggs and chicks have been protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA). This means they cannot be killed, have their eggs taken or have their occupied nests destroyed unless this is done under licence.
We have been quite vociferous over licensing recently, particularly in relation to our anger at licences issued by Natural England for the destruction of buzzard nests to benefit shooting businesses. Although we have opposed the issuing of licences for the purpose of protecting game interests, we need to rely on the WCA licensing system for conservation, occasionally, too. And, in the interests of openness, I thought I’d share this information with you.
The bulk of the work we complete under WCA licences relates to ‘disturbance’ of wild birds, including those sensitive or rare species listed on Schedule 1 of the WCA. For example, armed with licences authorised staff and volunteers can: monitor the nests of declining wading birds; erect temporary fences around the nests of Montagu’s harriers in arable fields; or place nest protection cages over little ringed plover nests, or electric fencing around little tern colonies. All of this work is done to increase the breeding success of threatened bird species. We have also needed to rely on the licencing system when setting up reintroduction projects for red kites, corncrakes or cirl buntings, or when our investigators try to thwart the attempts of collectors to steal the eggs of some of our rarest birds.
In all of these cases, disturbance is temporary. And, all of this work is only done for research, educational or conservation purposes. Every year we submit a comprehensive report of all our work carried out under these licences to the licensing authority.
Occasionally, we also have to control certain bird species under licence on some of our reserves, but only after all possible management has been done but failed to provide all the conservation needs for those species of concern. In most cases, this is to recover the numbers of threatened wild birds: for example, we remove certain predators to aid the recovery of ground-nesting bird populations. We always favour approaches - such as habitat management and predator exclusion techniques – but, as a last resort, killing may sometimes be necessary.
It is certainly not an everyday tool, and it must be justified on a case-by-case basis. In line with legal requirements and our own policies, we will only contemplate predator control when predation is shown to pose a threat to species or populations of conservation concern, and is sufficiently serious to warrant action. We will also only countenance lethal control where there is no satisfactory alternative and where any control measures are restricted to the predator, are humane and are capable of reducing predation pressure.
To benefit breeding wading birds, such as black-tailed godwit or lapwing, we carry out lethal control of carrion crows on some reserves. This happens under the so-called general licence, which means – like everyone using this provision - we’re not obliged to submit records on the number of birds killed (which we think is wrong), but we keep the records anyway and here are the most recent figures we have available:
In 2011-12, 292 crows were killed on our reserves. Eleven magpies have also been killed under general licence on RSPB reserves for conservation purposes during the same period.
To protect breeding terns from predation, licensed control of herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and great black-backed gulls is also undertaken on specific reserves as a last resort. In 2011-12, 76 large gull nests were destroyed (mostly lesser-black-backed gull) and three adult lesser black-backed gulls were shot on RSPB reserves. Both herring and lesser black-backed gulls have an unfavourable conservation status. So we would never carry out lethal control which endangers the predator species.
We also carry out control (through egg oiling) of greylag and Canada geese on two reserves in England for aircraft safety. In 2012 this amounted to 73 greylag goose eggs and 25 Canada goose eggs. Also 195 eggs of introduced barnacle geese have been destroyed on another reserve to reduce the impact of aggressive behaviour towards nesting species of conservation concern. At one site we also oil Canada goose eggs to prevent hatching to avoidserious crop damage to a neighbouring landowner.
The licensing system for permitting disturbance or control of wildlife exists for particular problems and we believe it is legitimate to make small-scale interventions for conservation, or as the law allows. However, we remain opposed to any plan to reduce the integrity of the licensing system and make it easier to kill things in general.
Today the RSPB launches its Giving Nature a Home campaign.
We want everyone to give nature a home in their own gardens or communities. This is good for garden wildlife, good for people and will evolve into a growing force that demands action from others in society.
The State of Nature report has been a wake-up call for all of us. Despite the best endeavours of conservationists and progressive parts of the landowning and business community, nature remains in crisis. 60% of species for which we can assess trends continue to decline. The findings of this report are remarkably consistent with the UK National Ecosystems Assessment of 2011 which showed that 30% of the services that nature gives us for free are continuing to decline. Whether for moral or utilitarian reasons, if we want to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment to the next in a better state, halt the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020, then we all need to rethink our collective strategies. Our current efforts are inadequate.
The pressures on nature are growing. These four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse (habitat destruction, non-native invasive species, over-exploitation and pollution especially climate change) are driven by a growing population consuming more.
To win, we need change. But there is hope. There has to be. In your vision of a world richer in nature, imagine this: birds and other wildlife are no longer declining. Nature is being restored and is enriching people's lives. We have a world where clean air and water are guaranteed, in a stable climate, with rich and varied wildlife and a robust, sustainable economy.
Ultimately, we need to end the battle for ecological space between humans and the millions of other species on which we share this planet. Instead, we must create the conditions for harmonious and mutually beneficial co-existence. We need to decouple growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world. The value of nature needs to be reflected in economic thinking, decision-making, models of governance and in scientific and technological advancement.
However much we want these changes, they will not happen overnight. In the short term, the guiding philosophy for all of us should be, in the words of Richard Mabey, to DO NO HARM and to make things better. All parts of society can play a role and help give nature a home...
Politicians: Think about the planet when you make big decisions about where to invest and where to make cuts. Make it easier for people to do the right thing and stop bad things from happening. Create institutions that are free to do what nature needs and are immune from political interference. MONEY, LAWS and INSTITUTIONS all need to work harder for nature. As an electorate we will be intolerant of politicians that fail wildlife or renege on their commitments.
Landowners: Manage your land with wildlife in mind. We want more farming heroes who dedicate more of their land to nature and who ensure that food production does not come at the expense of wildlife. Award-winning wildlife farmers like Henry Edmunds need to become the norm. Support Conservation Grade, which ensures that farmers are paid a premium for the food they produce.
Businesses: Find new ways to make a profit without trashing the environment. United Utilities gets it – they know their business model depends on well managed water catchments. Get it right and you’ll save money, deliver a high quality product and help recover threatened wildlife populations. CEMEX gets it – they are restoring their sites to become fantastic places for wildlife. Make investment in improving the wildlife value of land the norm and prioritise investment in the greening of your supply chains.
Developers and local authorities: Make space for nature and encourage sympathetic development on land and at sea, in harmony with nature. As a society, we will continue to be intolerant of developments which sacrifice our finest wildlife sites, depriving us and future generations of beauty, wonder and our own natural assets.
Environmental NGOs: Let’s work smarter together. Let’s be committed to ensuring that our collective actions are greater than the sum of our parts. The State of Nature launch was just the start. Let’s work together wherever we can. We are stronger together and we will prove it through our actions.
All of us: Let’s give nature a home in our gardens and our communities and in the wider landscape - wherever we feel we can make a difference. In the aftermath of the State of Nature Report, some of us said (see here) that we want the campaign to inspire more people to make a difference in their own lives and where they live.
The RSPB has decided to invest resources in a campaign to do just that, reaching new audiences in different ways. While there is a risk in doing this, the prize is potentially enormous. If enough of us take action for wildlife at home, we may take more interest in wildlife in our communities and in the wider landscape. Imagine what we could do if we turn that concern into an unstoppable demand for greater action by others.
And the RSPB? Our conservation strategy is clear: we will do whatever it takes, with others, for ever... to stop common species becoming rare and threatened species from going extinct.
Image credits: Orchids by Andy Hay (rspb-images), Heath fritillary by Jackie Cooper (rspb-images.com), Frogs welcome by Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)
I was lucky enough to be present at the London launch of State of Nature on 22 May. But, this meant I missed the Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh launches. Which meant I missed Iolo Williams' impassioned speech. Please do either watch Iolo in action or read the transcript of his speech below. And then do something about it...
I’m Welsh, I’m Welsh, first language. I am proud of the fact that I am Welsh, but tonight, I will be talking to you in English and that’s because I don’t want anything to be lost in translation, at all. I could have talked a little bit about the report, but I know that’s going to be done now, in a bit, talk about the facts and figures. The horrendous facts and figures if I was to be blunt, that are held within that report. And in a short while, I know that Sir David Attenborough will be addressing people in London as well, and a more knowledgeable, a more erudite speaker, you couldn’t hope to have. He is to millions of people, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people, the voice that wildlife until recently never had & I’m so glad that we’ve got him.
What I’m going to do is to talk to you about my own little patch. It’s an area that I’ve known for 50 years now and I’ve grown to love, very much. It’s not very big; it’s roughly 210,000 Km2 . I call it Cymru, most of you will call it Wales. It’s a terrific place. You can walk from mountain top to seashore in just two hours and I was reminded just how stunning it is when I drove down here on a, a lovely May afternoon, sun shining, along the verges cuckoo flower with its delicate pink colours and briallu mair, lovely Welsh name, cowslips too. Just a beautiful thing to behold, on the way down.
And if I may take you back to when I grew up, not when I was a little lad, but in my teens. I’m going back now to the 70’s, to the area around LLanwddyn. It’s a wonderful area, it’s where I was brought up, where my heart will always be. And I spent so many hours and days with my little dog, Bittw, wandering all over the place. Up on the moors, up on the Berwyn moors, looking at hen harriers and merlin and black grouse and these amazing carnivorous plants, sundews and butterwort and curlew, the bubbling call of the curlew. Every valley had a pair of curlew. Every valley had a cuckoo. And then fishing, used to do a lot of fishing when I was a young lad. I used to cast in. I wasn’t a very good fisherman. You’d cast in, you’d watch the birds, you’d watch the wildlife. You’d catch quite a few fish too. A lot of trout in there. You’d take two, didn’t matter if you caught ten, you’d take two and put whatever else you caught back in the river. And while you were there you’d see water voles, lots of water voles and some of the banks were like bits of Swiss cheese all along there. There were that many water voles. And the hay meadows too, adjacent to the River Vyrnwy, owned by the local farmers, Cled Dairy Farm and Parry Ty’n Y Maes. We used to help with the harvest. Always a late harvest, July harvest, they’d cut the hay meadows. And the hay meadows were incredible places then, full of flowers, full of grasshoppers. That’s what I remember. Swallows and house martins swooping low, feeding on the insects and the sound, the constant sound, of grasshoppers.
Not the memory of a small child, I’m not looking back through rose-tinted glasses at all. This is what I remember as a young lad and throughout my teens as well. I’ve moved. I’ve moved about thirty minutes away to live. I’ll never leave mid Wales, except in a box. And I still go back up there as often as I can, but it’s not the same. It’s a changed place now. It’s a changed place. Yes, the people have changed, but the whole nature of that area has changed too.
The moors, still a few lovely things to see up there. The hen harriers are there, the merlin are there. The curlew have gone. Twenty four odd pairs when I used to live there. Three now. I was talking to the warden. I was up there just yesterday. Three pairs left. The valleys are quiet. Cuckoos, didn’t hear a single one when I was up there yesterday. You go down on to the rivers. Talking to an old boy I used to go fishing with. He’s eighty-eight. He said ‘Iolo bach’, he said, ‘Do you know what, I hardly go anymore, very few fish there’. It used to be a very odd day when you didn’t catch anything. Now, you catch something it’s a red letter day. And the water voles, I walked the river, Dafarn Hill, the section of river where I used to fish yesterday. Some of the holes are still there. The water voles are long, long gone.
Ninety percent of our water voles have gone in the last thirty years and the hay meadows, every single one has gone. Every single one. Wales-wide, we’ve lost ninety-nine percent of our hay meadows, since the end of the Second World War. Ninety-nine percent. And the moorland, my beloved moorland, I love the moors. I grew up on the moors, I love the moors. Berwyn is one of the most important bit of moorland in southern Britain and probably the best protected. Forty-four percent of those moors have gone. Forty-four percent has gone and even worse, the other side of the village, Llanbrynmair moor. I used to bike over there and walk it. It used to have golden plover and dunlin, and curlew and short eared owls and hen harrier, red grouse, black grouse, sacrificed by the then Nature Conservancy Council in the 1980’s. Sacrificed, for forestry. It’s now under alien conifers and larch. I was up there three years ago and I’m not ashamed to say, I cried. It’s like going and looking at war graves. That was what came to mind. Row upon row of war graves. Every single tree is a death knell, is a nail in the coffin of that moor.
No point going up there looking for birds now, they are virtually all gone. And people ask me are you angry about that, are you upset at that? Yes of course I am, of course I am. I love the area. I love Wales. And to see this going on really hurts, it really hurts. I say do you blame the man with the plough upon Llanbrynmair moor; do you blame the people who went and stuck the trees in the ground? Do you blame the forestry and the farming for cutting into the Berwyns, for pollution? I say no, I don’t. No, I don’t at all. They have just taken what money was available. They’ve used the grant system to do what they were encouraged to do. That’s all they’ve done. I don’t blame them at all. My anger, and it is an anger, it’s a venom, is aimed at those grey, fat salaried spineless bureaucrats, who sat by and watched all of this happen. People in key positions, who could have made a big difference, who were so concerned with moving up that career ladder, adding to that great big fat pension, rubbing shoulders with the right people, going to the right meetings, saying the right things, that they either forgot about, or didn’t care about, what was going on around ‘em. Those are the ones that I am ANGRY with.
And I tell you this now, you will pay for this, you will answer for this. It won’t be to me, I wish it were, I wish it were, but it won’t be to me and it won’t be to your peers. It’ll come, it’ll come in twenty, thirty, forty years time. It’ll come when you are with your grand children. You might be reading a story, a simple story about a Welsh farmer, who goes out to feed his sheep with lapwings, peewits whirling overhead. Or you might be helping them with their homework, their Welsh or English homework and it might be a bit of poetry about the song of the skylark, as it climbs and climbs and climbs towards the heavens, singing all the way up. Or it might simply be that you are looking at a magazine, or a book, or the internet at a beautiful photograph of a colourful hay meadow, a meadow full of flowers, your buttercups and your dandelions, globe flower maybe. The odd orchid in there as well and hovering above them will be the butterflies. The stunning common blue or the orange tip and you have swallows and house martins feeding away there as well.
And your grand kids will turn to you and they’ll say Taid, or Nain, ‘Grandad, what was it like? What was it like walking through these hay meadows? It must have been lovely to have skylarks all around you singing away. Do you know, it must have been fantastic to walk through all of these damp fields and these funny birds with little caps on called pewits going all around you. What was it like grandad?’ And then they will look you in the eye as only children can, and they say, ‘Hold on now granddad, you said you worked in conservation. You said you were an important man in conservation. Why granddad, why didn’t you look after these for me? Why can’t I go out with you now and see these things? Why didn’t you do more to look after them?’
And I tell you then, and only then, if you’ve got an ounce of humanity left in you, only then will your conscience be pricked and only then will you realise. Despite all of this climbing up the career ladder, being friends with all of the right people, saying all of the right things, getting a fat pension. Despite all of that, your whole career will have amounted to absolutely nothing. Nothing. And even worse, is that you will have let your grand children down.
We only have one Earth, one planet, it’s not as if we can say, well we made a mess of this, let’s get the other one in and start all over again. We cannot do that, and bear in mind, I stand before you, not as a long haired tree-hugging hippy, who’s done the course, who’s read the books. I stand before you as someone who was born, brought up, has lived all of his life, still lives and works in the Welsh countryside. I’ve seen these things happen. I’ve seen these things going on. Now it’s not too late. Almost, but not quite. And we really are, we really are, on the brink of disaster.
Over the past four, five years, I’ve seen a massive change, a huge decline in once common butterflies, once common birds, once common plants. They are disappearing. We need to wake up. We need to change things and we need to change things now. What do we change? A whole host of complex things, but we can start with some of the laws we pass. The Marine Bill recently, when it came in it was quite nice, a quite strong law, but by the time it got chewed up and spat out again it was a watered down version of what first went in there. We’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to bring to an end these endless meetings, committees, sub-committees, action plans, recovery plans. There’s far too much of this. If my Dad was alive, he’d call it ‘lap wast’, just empty words, leading to meaningless sentences. It’s time for all of that to stop. It is time for action. It is time that we actually did something, that has to translate out into the Welsh countryside. The bird watcher here, the bird organisations here, we should be about bums on eggs. I’m not seeing more skylarks, I’m not seeing more lapwings, I’m not seeing more yellowhammers, I’m not seeing more hay meadows, so something is wrong, something is very, very wrong.
The new organisation we now have, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission has now become Natural Resources Wales. Now that’s a name and a half. You could have picked a better name to start with. Resources: that to me is something to be used and abused, something to be exploited. We’ll see if I’m wrong, but I suspect that’s not such a bad name. I am genuinely fed up. It is time for a big, big change.
And can you imagine, can you imagine if you are there with your grand kids and you can turn to them and say ‘Well cariad bach,’ do you know what, it just so happens that ‘cause of something I was involved in, we were able to turn things around and if you go and get your wellies, we’ll go out now. The farmer over the way has got a couple of wet fields and do you know what, he’s got eight pairs of lapwing in there. Let’s go out and let’s have a look at them. Or, you go and get your coat, it’s a lovely day, sun is out. Tell you what we’ll do, we’ll go up the bank there, we’ll lie on our backs and we’ll watch and we’ll listen to all the skylarks as they climb up towards the blue sky and we’ll watch ‘em ‘til they disappear. Or there’s not just one hay meadow around this village now, because of these changes we made, there’s actually six of them, so come on, we’ll go out. We’ll chase the butterflies and you can run your hands through these flowers and maybe we’ll catch a grasshopper.
Can you imagine the look in their eyes, the pride in their eyes when they look at you and you say that? And can you imagine what it’s going to mean to you here? The knowledge that you are an important part, an integral part, of that?
Boys bach, we have to change and we have to change now. I haven’t got a crystal ball. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen, but I do firmly believe if each and every one of you in here, and we’ve had some Assembly members just coming in now. It’s lovely to see you, if each and every one of you when you go into your office, when you sit at your desk, thinks about what your grand children are going to say to you in forty years time. That should drive you on. That should fuel this change.