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.
Returning to work after an excellent fortnight in Catalonia (wonderful trip and I'd recommend the train journey), it takes a little while to readjust to 'normal' life and to the noise that surrounds environmental debate. For example, I have been struck by the reaction to the news that the RSPB has objected to two fracking proposals. While we have received many supportive comments about our position, which aligns with most other environmental organisations, some have accused us of "playing politics".
In my detached, post-holiday view, I find this odd. A wildlife charity objecting to a development which might have consequences for widlife and the environment? That's sort of what we do and have been doing for 124 years. But, for some, fracking is seen as the answer to concerns about energy security, reducing fuel bills and rebooting the economy. Any opponents are accused of not being relevant to the debate, a nimby or worse having ulterior motives for getting involved.
Economics aside, I cannot help wonder if there is a collective desire to suppress concern about the consequences of locking ourselves into an energy future that remains reliant on fossil fuels. Even beyond the well-known climate deniers, the science of climate change and its impacts on humans and wildlife, seem to either to have been forgotten or to have been deprioritised. I cannot help but draw a rather crude parallel with my holiday reading: the Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett which partly seeks to understand why Spain, for so many years, struggled to end its "pact of forgetting" the Civil War and the four decades of Franco's rule.
Four years ago, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (both domestically and internationally) was at the centre of political debate led by David Cameron and by Ed Miliband. It had been fuelled by the Nick Stern report on the economics of climate change which argued convincingly as to why it made economic sense to invest in reducing greenhouse gases today rather than pay to deal with the consequences of climate change tomorrow. Now, there is a danger that debate about climate science and its impacts has been reduced to an entertaining sport between believers and sceptics. I hope that the forthcoming Independent Panel on Climate Change reports (on the science in September this year, on impacts in March 2014 and on mitigation in April 2014) helps to shift public and therefore political opinion. Only then can we move on to a more grown-up debate about the tough choices we face in wanting to maintain standards of living whilst guaranteeing a safe future for our children and the planet. From the leaks that have been reported (see here), the climate crisis appears to be getting worse and the clock calling for action is ticking.
As I have written before, there is a lot at stake. A major review in Nature suggested that up to a third of species could be committed to extinction by 2050 as a result of climate change and the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds highlighted the consequences of a warming world for wild birds. But this isn't all about shadows of the future, there is already strong evidence that climate change is affecting UK wildlife now.
Our collective "pact of forgetting" the climate science and its impact on widlife need to be abandoned so that we have a more rounded debate about our energy future and, yes, that must include an honest assessment of the risks of fracking.
I'm still on annual leave this week so here's another guest post. This one's from our Head of Climate Change Policy, Harry Huyton.
The debate over fracking for shale gas has taken over the environmental agenda in the past two weeks and voices on both sides are getting more and more shrill by the day. You can learn more about our position here.
RSPB submitted its first objections to two fracking sites last week and signed a joint statement with other environment NGOs in the Sunday Times. Our position led to coverage across broadcast and print media over the weekend and has caused debate amongst some of our members and supporters. So it’s worth examining the reasons we have voiced our concern now.
We don’t have any objection to new technology being used to help us produce energy – this is an exciting and important area of research. However we have, and always will, oppose individual developments in our countryside which have the potential to harm wildlife, be it a wind farm, a drilling well, a road or an airport.
Fracking at Singleton in Lancashire – where Cuadrilla have proposed a well – may not disturb the thousands of wintering pink footed geese and whooper swans which arrive nearby each Autumn. It may not pollute water sources and it may not lead to us overshooting our climate targets.
But the unquestionable fact is that we just don’t know. This is untested technology in the UK – a very different prospect to the US where fracking is now widespread. Developers do not need to fully investigate the impact drilling will have on the local environment. And the Government has not explained how extracting more fossil fuel from the ground will help us meet our climate targets.
These are the central questions we are raising. But this debate is really another example of a deeper, underlying challenge our environment faces in the UK.
The choice between renewed backing of fossil fuel extraction in the UK or continuing the transition to low carbon, renewable energy is a fundamental one. Too often, however, the currency of the debate is money. The Prime Minister recently talked about how “we cannot afford to miss out” on the benefits of fracking, for example, whilst the Environment Minister Owen Paterson talked of shale as a ‘god-given’ windfall. Fracking opponents often take a similarly human-centric approach, arguing about house prices and aesthetics.
These are important considerations, but their dominance in Government’s thinking is a reflection of how disconnected politics has become from our natural environment. It has been argued that our dire economic straits make cashing in on our natural resources necessary, but recession is not an excuse to shed our values. The biggest single piece of wildlife protection legislation in this country was developed during the Second World War, yet today’s leaders appear to be clambering over themselves to reel in environmental progress at the mere whiff of economic benefit.
Over in the ‘desolate’ North, along the banks of the Ribble, there remains a richness of wildlife that could inspire even the most urbanite Southern peer. In the spring and summer, you can see waders like avocets, redshank and godwit roaming the mudflats and wetlands. In autumn, hundreds of thousands of pink-footed geese arrive from as far as Siberia, providing an awesome wildlife spectacle. If you pay a visit, be sure to pop into Hesketh Out Marsh, one of our reserves in the area where you can see all this and more. It is our job as the RSPB to protect these special places, for wildlife, for people and for future generations.
We are here to defend nature when it is under threat, whatever that threat may be. Without any reliable evidence that fracking is not a threat we will continue to do everything we can to stop it in its tracks.
You can get involved in writing letters and e-mails to support RSPB campaigns and use your voice for nature. Click through to find out how you can campaign with us.
I'm on holiday this week so I've lined up my colleague, Jude Lane, to post on my behalf. You might remember Jude from the end of last year when she posted about the death of a hen harrier, Bowland Betty. Jude is our Bowland Project Officer, monitoring the breeding attempts of hen harriers on the United Utilities estate within the Forest of Bowland.
With the news officially out last week that no hen harriers bred successfully in England this year, where do we go from here?
We’re certainly not giving up on one of our most iconic birds of prey, that’s for sure.Working in Bowland I am involved predominantly with species protection. Hen harrier nests (when we get them) are monitored 24 hours a day using cameras, but they also benefit from regular non-disturbance monitoring by staff and volunteers to ensure nests are progressing as we would expect and also to intervene should the nest be at risk from disturbance (at such low population densities, every nest needs to be given the greatest chance of success). Sadly, Bowland had another blank year. However, in Northumberland, one of England’s two failed nesting attempts was protected by both cameras and a 24/7 manual watch. This was a partnership project involving RSPB staff, Natural England, the Ministry of Defence, The Forestry Commission, Northumberland National Park Authority, local raptor workers, tenants and keepers who were very cooperative and happy to deploy diversionary (artificial) feeding if the need had arisen. Back in Bowland, the work we do on the United Utilities estate has shown over decades the benefit of how good will and open communication can allow partnerships to work together in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for breeding harriers.The loss of Bowland’s nesting harriers, for now, is part of a wider problem of providing effective protection for a bird that lives at a landscapes scale and calls the uplands of England and Southern Scotland home. Safety in one place is no guarantee of safety elsewhere. For example, take the story of Bowland Betty. This female hen harrier, from Bowland, was fitted with a satellite tag in 2011. After wandering around parts of the UK, she was located dead, after being shot on a grouse moor last year. She was from the last cohort of harriers from Bowland.The first blank year of hen harriers in England has to be a watershed. We believe the recovery of the hen harrier in the uplands, especially in England, will rely on the Government grasping the nettle and establishing a positive vision for managing the uplands sustainably.
This vision will take time to develop and even longer to see imprinted in our upland landscapes. In the short term we believe there are some immediate steps the Government can take.
Firstly, we believe that estate owners should be held legally responsible for crimes committed by their employees; invoking the principle of vicarious liability. Also, we believe there should be tougher penalties for wildlife crimes and the introduction of a regulation scheme for grouse moors.We will be working hard to try and achieve these goals in Westminster. But we can’t ignore what’s happening on the ground in some parts of our uplands. As part of my role I also work closely with our investigations team. These guys and girls are a fantastic and incredibly passionate group of people who are driven by the desire to investigate wildlife crimes and bring offenders to justice. And believe me; you need to be passionate about this stuff to do their job. Catching rogues Hell-bent on killing harriers is an almost impossible task, especially in some of our wildest landscapes.. Thankfully, our investigations staff are made of tough stuff, and tough stuff combined with support and intelligence provided by field staff, regional raptor study groups, local police forces, members of the public (you guys) and with the latest in surveillance technology at their disposal, they are certainly a team to be reckoned with.
Technology is helping in our battles against persecution. One exciting area of development is radio and satellite tracking that is being carried out on hen harriers now and led to the discovery of Bowland Betty’s death. There is still so much we need to know about where harriers go once they leave their breeding areas, especially now that so few are fledging from England now (just 16 in the last 3 years). Understanding how much interaction there is between the various UK populations (especially as they are now becoming so few and far between) and what happens to harriers that don’t survive is critical in working to protect them and to catching their killers. The tragically short life of Bowland Betty highlighted both of these benefits. Although no harriers fledged in England this year, you can follow the progress of four fledglings from Langholm moor, just north of Carlisle over the border in Scotland at this page. Hope for the recovery of the English hen harrier is not lost. But everyone with a role in this magnificent bird’s recovery, and the more sustainable management of our uplands, will have to play their part to the full.