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.
Agriculture Minister, David Heath, seemed to enjoy Monday's visit to Hope Farm. While the skies were a little forbidding and lightning bolts crashed around us, we escaped a deluge and farm manager, Ian Dillon's record of never having to call off a farm visit remains intact.
As Defra prepares to implement the CAP deal and designs the new agri-environment scheme, I do think that there is a lot to learn from our experience at Hope Farm. The farmland bird package (including flower-rich margins, wild bird cover and in-field measures such as skylark plots) has been the key to our success at the farm. Unfortunately, although available to all farmers through the entry-level scheme, this has not had the take up that we had hoped. By offering a menu of options in the entry level scheme, farmers have been able to choose easy options such as grass margins which do little to benefit wildlife. This probably explains why the farmland bird index continues to bump along the bottom of the graph.
If some of these easier options were incorporated into the proposed greening conditions on 30% of farm support payments (so called Pillar 1 of the CAP), then this would free up more money to benefit farmland wildlife through well funded and well designed agri-environment schemes (under Pillar 2).
The visit of the Mr Heath attracted some attention from the farming press and I was glad to be able to support the minister's ambitions to transfer money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2. You can see one of my windswept interviews here.
A minor distraction came from the President of the NFU, Peter Kendall, who had made some rather predictable comments about the future of farm subsidies and how farming should respond to the climate change crisis. The Guardian was one of the newspapers that ran the story and they were kind enough to publish my response yesterday (see here). Despite his job title, Peter is not representing all farmers as last month's letter to from the high nature value farming coalition demonstrated.
While there is still the small matter of the European Parliament needing to agree the European Budget for the 2014-2020 period, ministers do need to make decisions about CAP budget transfers and design of new schemes by the end of the year. For Defra ministers and officials to have any hope of recovering the 60% of farmland species which have declined over the past forty years, they will need to remember the Hope Farm experience and support the many farmers that want to support an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.
What did you think about Peter Kendall's comments about the future of farming?
It would be great to hear your views.
The way rspb has campaigned against so called Pillar 1 just made me wonder as I think Pillar one paid out mostly or completely on acreage does the rspb claim these payments for all those acres on its reserves even though as far as growing essential food for UK family's they really produce next to nothing.Surely if they do it is hardly ethical and in most cases the charities in such situations quote the phrase "as a charity we are required by our trustees to maximise our income".What a lovely get out.
Peter - a very sad day indeed and I am sorry that you have decided to resign your membership. We have been, at times, the lone voice in seeking fundamental change in the CAP, calling for the creation of a single sustainable land management fund etc. However, the boundaries of the debate are set by the Commission and the opposition to reform is considerable. We have ended up fighting for scraps so that progressive farmers that want to farm with wildlife/environment in mind, get the rewards they deserve. While there is still a fight to make the most of this bad deal (eg over transfers from pillars 1 to 2, on greening and design of new rural development programmes) we shall, of course, be reviewing our CAP advocacy to try to broaden the context for the next round of CAP talks. But I know that we shall, quite rightly, be judged by our actions.
I have had a reply from Jenna Hegarty and will be resigning my membership of the RSPB; it is quite simply unethical that landed and private land empires can receive unlimited and uncapped public support. The fact that RSPB has remained silent on the 2100 landowners who receive uncapped public largesse in the run up to the latest CAP round is frankly hypocrisy and defines 25 years of failure to reform the CAP; in my view this political position is defined by RSPB charitable status and from fear of alienating such powerful figures in the countryside and the Houses of Parliament; this is not defending the environment but a charade to protect the charitable empire and at a time when these countryside hypocrites are "whipping the poor"...shame shame shame............maybe I become more alienated from this society in general but I can not tolerate this hypocrisy. I will be unsubscribing. Sad Day.
Well have never been a fan of NFU or there Presidents past and present but have searched his comments and think anyone finding fault are really scraping the barrel and probably would always find fault whatever he said.It all seemed quite sensible that we cannot ignore the 63 million people or whatever it is to put too great a emphasis on wildlife.Ironic really that rspb like to go on today about farmland birds while they are placing their emphasis on other more cuddly things.
Those of us who understand farming would certainly expect Hope Farm(it is on just about the best land in England)to produce crops that yield way above other farms.
We also think that the profit that rspb takes from it on average over say a 15 year period is not sustainable for a ordinary farmer but of course if we farmers had access to lots of contributions to buy our farms so that we personally like the rspb did not have to contribute one penny we could easily farm more wildlife friendly.
Another fact is that however much the academics like to make out farmers on a gravy train how come if the entry level scheme is the gravy train their are so many farmers not on the entry level scheme.Fact is it does not pay enough to get them on board.
As approx 50% of farmland is grassland why doesn't the rspb buy one and show us how to get farmland birds increasing in numbers.
It must be time the rspb took a interest in the pollution created by vehicles,shipping and air travel,it just has to have a serious effect on insects that they say it is farmers killing them,I saw the report in the paper of pollution from a container ship and it was unbelievable.The rspb in my opinion choose to ignore this aspect as they surely must not upset the general public whose subs they so desperately need and of course the minority farmers it does not really matter in fact it keeps the rspb in good books with general public if they kick farmers every week or so.
Well said, Redkite and Bob.
Bob - regarding Nature's Home, am obviously aware of the noise that is out there. I would simply ask folk to reserve judgement until they see the whole package ie the magazine itself.
Martin, I see part of the problem is back to the 'medium is the message' scenario. We can use a lot of words about what we want but the general public will pick up the bits that are obvious while they skim the paper in the coffee shop waiting for the latte to cool.
I totally agree the comments by Peter Kendall were predictable and worrying but they sat under a large photo of Peter Kendall, NFU President. So any one scanning the page will connect NFU to the words they read. I think your response is perfectly correct but it sat under a large photo of Peter Kendall, NFU President, so any one simply scanning the page will also connect NFU to the words they read. I would also say that having read the letter from HNV Farming Coalition, without you telling me I wouldn't have known it had any connection to individual farmers at first glance. What we need is a similar letter from individual farmers and I know there are plenty out there who believe in it.
On a similar theme I did ask my wife what she thought 'Nature's Home' was likely to be and she immediately said 'that's one of those companies that sell bird food isn't it'. Is the rspb sure that the newly renamed magazine is going to have 'medium is the message' impact when it sits in the doctor's or vet's surgery, library shelf etc.
As a you say Martin, Mr. Kendall's comments are very predictable and typical of what he normally says when referring to efforts to help farm land wildlife. I would like to question some of his thinking.
Firstly are we really experiencing more extreme weather conditions these days rather than before we became aware of global warming. In my younger days and before, there were the 1947 and 1962/3 terrible winters, there was the great Lynmouth flood of 1952 and the great North Sea storm surge of 1952. In the USA in the 1930s there was the great droughts of the mid west. So I am not sure these claims are right that we are experiencing more extreme weather these days. I would like to see some sound scientific data in this matter before people make statements about weather extremes
Secondly in the greater overall picture, maintaining the ecological health of our countryside and so protecting our wildlife in the longer term surely must be preferable than to trying to squeeze the last 1 or 2 percent of production out of the farm land and so generating all the ecological problems that go with this, such as over enrichment and soil degradation.. Hope Farm to clearly demonstrates the soundness of a sensitive and well thought out approach to farming. which nevertheless makes a good profit and has good crop productivity equal or better than most other farms.
Finally of course is the wrongly conceived and misguided policy of growing biofuels. If Mr Kendall wants a bit more farmland food productivity without further harming the wildlife and ecology of the countryside then he should be campaigning strongly for the abolition of biofuels. I may be wrong, but I don't think he is doing this.