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 spent last Friday at Ragley Hall at the Game Fair. It remains a popular event with tens of thousands of people walking through the gates over a three day period. After last year's washout, organisers (the CLA) were blessed with fine weather all weekend. We always attend, have a stand, host a reception, talk to people who visit our stand and go and chat with others on their stands.
I first went in 2004, the year I joined the RSPB and, although not a frequent visitor until recently, it's my impression that things have not changed a great deal. The majority of people that come to our stand are genuinely interested in what we are up to and keen to hear our views on countryside management. But there will always be some that pop along, well, to have a pop at us about anything and everything but usually something to do with predation. These conversations are nearly always good natured and usually end up with people satisfied that they've aired their feelings and although have failed to change RSPB policy, feel content that we've heard them out.
But, this year it did feel a bit different. A number of people that I spoke to wanted to end what they perceived as a public row between us and the game community. I spoke to gamekeepers who were privately appalled by continued illegal killing of birds of prey, shooters who felt uncomfortable about the intensity of some lowland pheasant shoots and those who were desperate to see hen harriers recover. I sensed they were appealing to us to make the first move, celebrate the best in shooting and somehow deal with the laggards in private.
And there are things to celebrate. It was great to see the shooting community so enthusiastically supporting the campaign to improve compliance with laws on lead shot use. This can sometimes be a controversial issue, but the strong and clear call to obey the law is to be commended. I will wear my pin badge with pride!
There were more positive words during the GWCT sponsored debate in which I participated. In a sweltering marquee, we shared views on whether pheasant shooting could contribute to conservation. Roger Williams MP, Charles Nodder from the National Gamekeepers' Association, Tom Oliver from GWCT and I all agreed that yes, of course, this form of land use can make a contribution to nature conservation through providing habitat management for game birds which can, in turn, benefit other species. There also appeared to be agreement that some shooting practices can cause environmental harm although differences in opinion about the best way to address these problems. That said, I am not sure that I convinced the panel or the audience to work together to answer one of Bill Sutherland's top 100 unanswered questions: what are the ecological consequences of releasing c40 million game birds into the countryside every year. I argue that it is in everyone’s interest to get to grips with this issue.
This is no different from our approach to farming, forestry, fisheries or indeed any other land use. We need to get the best possible evidence in place, so we can maximise benefits to wildlife, tackle any negative impacts and move forward.
And that’s the key point – moving forward. We're up for working with the shooting community to address the crises facing our wildlife and profile good examples where this occurs. But in return, we need to see some real progress on the ground to eliminate some of the bad practices that still go on – be it the illegal use of lead shot, or the ever increasing intensity of some driven grouse moors at the apparent expense of almost everything else.
Game Fair 2013 was characterised by lots of fine words. We stand ready to back our words up with action. Here's hoping other will do the same and that we can report on real progress by the time to we go to the Game Fair in 2014.
I promised last week to give you an update on the debate over the future of the Public Forest estate in England.
It is over two years since the furore over government plans to sell off of public forests (let's call this chapter 1), roughly a year since the Independent Panel on Forestry published their recommendations (chapter 2) and six months since Defra responded (chapter 3). Things seemed to be going well. The Bishop was happy, ministers content and grass roots supporters felt upbeat about the future.
However, the latest plans (see here), which signal the latest chapter in the saga, outlining government intention feel like a step backwards. In fact, I think they miss the point entirely in some cases. Defra have stated, to their credit, that there is still time to improve it which is a relief as there is more work to do.
This is a classic example of where the devil is in the detail. It is remarkable the difference a few changes in policy wording and emphasis can make.
One of the key principles that appear to have been lost in translation is that around the value of the estate. The principle set by the panel, is that the main value is not in its land sale value or income generation potential, but the benefits we all get from the estate in the form of access, recreation, cultural heritage and of course wildlife.
The figures are stark, the relatively small (£20million at present) government investment needed to plug the annual gap in the estate’s accounts delivers services to the public estimated to be worth £350million. This excludes the spiritual and cultural value which are harder and (probably) wrong to moetise. However you look at it, investing in the estate is fantastic public value for money in times of austerity. The panel called this a “golden opportunity”.
The Panel recommended a remit to “maximise” the public value of the estate. I now note, in the latest government plans, the subtle but important change in emphasis which is now to “maximise” economic opportunities whilst maintaining public benefits. The newly outlined mission and objectives only bear partial resemblance to the more visionary recommendations from the Panel. What happened to Government’s agreement that the estate should be an “exemplar” in wildlife conservation, ancient woodland and open habitat restoration?
Is the priority to reduce the already limited government funding further, by offsetting costs through income generation, or maximising the estate's value to society? It would be wrong to think the estate can cover all its costs through income generation, without also compromising its future value to people and wildlife.
Don’t get me wrong, income generation is really important, but only as a means to providing even more good things for society, such as improving areas for wildlife or opening up access. The Panel made this clear. Income generation and economic activity needs to be repositioned in this way, so that it enhances and does not harm the current or potential value to people and wildlife. Government funding is a fundamental part of the equation.
Take the New Forest as an example. It is an internationally important site for wildlife with an amazing mix of restored woodland, heath and mire. It also provides gold standard public access and supports a £200 million local tourism industry. This requires public money which if not forthcoming, means that compromises will have to be made which is likely to be bad news for wildlife and for people that love the forest.
The fight to save the forests has always been about much more than just the land, but the value that land can provide to people and nature. It sounds like Government needs a reminder. We look forward to working with government, the grass roots groups, NGOs and other partners to get this back on track and look forward to better things for chapter 5 of this saga...
On Friday, with no fanfare, Defra published the findings of its review of the impacts of fish-eating birds on inland fisheries in England (or, to cut to the chase, the perceived impact on fisheries of that much maligned bird, the cormorant). I should have commented on the day, but alas was enjoying the Game Fair (sweltering conditions, expecially in the marque where I was debating whether pheasant shooting could benefit conservation - more in due course).
Given the rhetoric surrounding the launch of this review two years ago, when much was made of the ‘bold decisions’ Minister Richard Benyon was reportedly prepared to make on cormorant licensing, it is perhaps surprising that this has been slipped out so quietly. Surprising because, to a certain extent, Mr Benyon has been quite bold. Despite being under what I can imagine to be fairly considerable pressure from certain parts of the angling community, he has heeded the evidence and rejected calls to add cormorants and goosanders to the general licence, which would have allowed unlimited and unjustified killing of these birds. This is a good decision.
The findings of the review are clear – there is no evidence to suggest an increasing impact of predation, or that the existing licensing regime is insufficient to meet anglers’ needs. In contrast, research commissioned by the review found that the cormorant population is 20% smaller than previously thought and already subject to potentially unsustainable levels of control.
Which is why we’re still not entirely comfortable with some of the recommendations made as a result of the review. We’re still very concerned that government policy already permits the licensed killing of 2000 (or up to 3000) cormorants every year in England, despite model projections indicating a risk of extinction if control continues at these levels, and the known decline in the breeding population of this species in the UK (-14% between 2000-2012).
We also think more clarity is needed regarding the role, objectives and implications of the proposed fisheries management advisors and catchment management trial. We believe the key test of the new arrangements will be that they reduce the level of serious damage to fisheries AND reduce the number of birds killed. To do this, the new advisors must help fishery managers to provide the right habitat for fish to avoid predators, rather than encourage them to reach for the gun. Such measures work, are non-contentious and will be more sustainable in the long run for the benefit of ALL users of the aquatic environment (fish, birds and people).
Does that seem reasonable to you?
It would be great to hear your views...