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.
I said that this would be a big week for wildlife and I am delighted to report some good news.
Followers of this blog might remember that earlier in the year I wrote about Lodge Hill, a former military training school in north Kent, which is home to 85 singing nightingales and which was notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) back in March (see here and here).
The RSPB has been actively involved for over a year in the Examination of the Medway Core Strategy. The Core Strategy sets out the plan for Medway for the next 15 years and it proposes Lodge Hill as the site for 5,000 houses and employment land. In late May 2013, the RSPB attended a hearing, where those involved in the proposal had their chance to put the case for why planning for houses on the SSSI was, or was not a good idea.
I’m really pleased to report that the Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is conducting that Examination, has now written to Medway Council, telling them that “the only reasonable course of action is for the Council to withdraw the Core Strategy” (see here).
The Inspector considers that the scale of the impact on the SSSI would constitute “a significant adverse impact”. She concludes that the policy allocating Lodge Hill for development is not in conformity with national policy, and that the Council’s plan is unsound.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is the national policy which the Inspector is referring to. It doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs. In exceptional circumstances such development could be possible (even if it may not be desirable). But the NPPF contains important safeguards. These are tests which ensure that special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and on the national network of SSSIs. In this case, the Inspector has listened to the evidence from all sides, and is not satisfied that the proposals at Lodge Hill can overcome either of those tests.
This is not a case of wildlife vs jobs and houses. It is a question of good, sustainable planning vs a local authority who doesn’t want to change its plans. The Examination hearings were particularly interesting, because my colleagues found themselves making the same points as several housing developers about the interpretation of the NPPF, the need to look at alternatives and the protection of the SSSI.
Instead of taking on board the importance of the site for nightingales, and coming up with an alternative proposal, Medway Council has spent a year fighting the notification of the SSSI and pushing ahead with its plan in the face of opposition from both conservation organisations and housing developers. We think now is the time to draw a line under the Lodge Hill proposal. It is difficult to see how any rational planning authority could grant consent for a planning application, now that a government inspector has made it clear that the proposal is against national planning policy and that the benefits of development would not outweigh the harm to the SSSI.
The message to Medway Council is simple: come up with a new plan which will provide homes and jobs for the people of the Medway, whilst protecting the environment for those people and for future generations.
Last week, I made the case that all of us have a role to give nature a home. I argued that politicians, for example, should focus on what they can do by making money, laws and institutions work much harder for wildlife.
And this week provides three tests of whether politicians have grasped the nettle.
On Wednesday, the Chancellor announces the results of the spending review for the 2015-16 period. We expect Defra to take its share of the cuts of around 10%. This will be on top of c32% cuts which it has carried out over the past three years. The question, of course, that everyone is asking is whether further efficiency savings can be made without compromising frontline services. For the natural environment, that means money to monitor the state of nature, money to enforce the law (for protected species and places), money to support wildlife-friendly farming (through advice and incentives), and money to support large scale habitat restoration putting back what we have lost and re-establishing the many services nature gives us for free.
These cuts come at a time when there is already a shortfall in funding to help meet the coalition Government's commitment to "protect wildlife and... restore biodiversity". We're not naive about the political necessity to reduce public spending and, in 2010, outlined options for financing nature without relying on the public purse. Yet, when it comes to replacing any lost funding for nature conservation, the cavalry (in the form of new revenue from taxing polluters, through payment for ecosystem services or other innovative forms of financing) has yet to appear. So, cuts to frontline services to our natural health service do matter and will do little to address the challenge in State of Nature.
Later this week, we should also hear the Government response to its triennial review of Natural England and the Environment Agency. We have made the case for the retention of a strong, independent champion of the natural environment and have been fearful of the consequences of a merger between the two bodies. Others, in these pages, have argued for a "new body, accountable to Parliament and the Crown, whose job will be to insist that Government applies those laws, hard-won by the people of this country, that exist to protect our land and wildlife from short-termism, vested interest and state-sponsored greed". Yet, whatever emerges, the challenge will be to ensure that the institutions have the capacity and capability to do what they need to do their job.
Finally, the debate over the future of the Common Agriculture Policy intensifies as eighteen organisations (ranging from the RSPB and Buglife to the Scottish Crofters' Association, South West Uplands Federation and the National Centre for the Uplands) have written to the Secretary of State to improve the package of support farmers receive for managing our most iconic landscapes (such as the Cornish coast and Scottish islands). These places are sustained by High Nature Value farming systems which provide a huge array of socio-environmental benefits alongside high-quality food production. Yet, the public services from these systems are not currently supported by the market and so are dependent on public support. The challenge for politicians throughout Europe is to ensure any CAP reform recognises the need to support these places and then for environment ministers in Member States (and across the UK) to ensure rural development schemes are well-designed and used to support these systems.
So, a lot is at stake this week. I'll give you our reaction as soon as we hear of any developments .
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)