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 have just returned from an excellent few days away with the family in the Black Mountains of Wales. The weather was dramatic but it did not stop us (including my newly intrepid six year old girl) climbing some hills. Standing on Hay Bluff overlooking the Wye Valley you can see how agriculture shapes the countryside (for the good and sadly for the bad).
It was a timely reminder of the role of the Common Agriculture Policy In driving change.
Earlier this month, I outlined a few big issues that the Government is currently wrestling with for its implementation of the next CAP. At the time, we expected a fairly imminent consultation. The Government clearly wanted to leave us on tenterhooks, but finally, they have released their proposals.
Dry and technical the CAP may be, but the decisions Government take will have a make or break influence on the prospects for some of our most iconic species and habitats. With this in mind, I outlined three key tests that we would use to judge their proposals on -
On the first point, the consultation seems sound, making it clear that the Government sees a “...strong case to take full advantage of the flexibility to transfer funds from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 (15%)”. To us, and many others (see here, here and here for examples), this transfer is a no brainer. It’s as black and white as moving money so that the Government can spend it on something, rather than nothing.
Without a maximum transfer, the consultation makes it clear that the ambitions for their future agri-environment scheme would have to be “significantly reduced”, with a focus on just designated sites. This is the equivalent of sending the wider countryside up the creek without a paddle, and betraying all those farmers that have stepped up and shown what agri-environment schemes are capable of.
On the flipside, a full 15% transfer would allow for “landscape scale agreements across wider areas of the countryside”, helping to realise the vision that Professor Lawton set out in 2010. This is an exciting prospect, but as is made clear today, all hinges on this first decision.
The second point is equally key. Assuming Defra don’t take leave of their senses and they make the full transfer, they then have to decide how to spend that money. The consultation sets out four possible options.
We have long believed that rural development funding should be used to address clear and unambiguous areas of market failure, which provide the public goods that society needs from agriculture – wildlife, beautiful landscapes, access. Following this logic, we strongly support an environment focus for the next RDPE. Whilst growth objectives have other areas of funding dedicated to them (not least the multi-billion Structural Funds), agri-environment schemes are increasingly the only game in town when it comes to funding for conservation in the wider countryside.
The opportunities that an environmental focus provides are highlighted by the Impact Assessment accompanying the consultation. This makes it clear that of all the scenarios, an RDPE with an environmental focus, in conjunction with a 15% transfer, provides a higher net benefit than any other scenario. The affirmation that the “...benefits therefore increase the greater the level of transfer” is particularly satisfying.
As with most things that the Government does though, it’s not all rosy in CAP-land. If our three tests were hurdles, the first is on the way to being cleared, the second might be clipped, but the Government seem to be about to crash straight through the third.
Their approach to the greening of direct payments seems to be based on one that minimises the cost of delivery, focusing on cost efficiency as opposed to cost effectiveness, deciding that, “...the additional potential benefits that could be derived are likely to be outweighed by additional delivery risks and complexity for both farmers and enforcement agencies.”
So in order to save a few million in getting the money out the door to farmers, they’re apparently willing to undermine the best chance their likely to get to extract some value for the billions in public money that will go to farmers as direct subsidy.
We will carry on pushing Defra to revisit this decision, and support them to make the right decisions across the whole of the CAP. But we hope that we won’t be alone in this. The consultation, running from now until the 28th November, is the first and last chance the public will get to influence how Government spend £2billion a year in the English countryside, and the prospects for the wildlife that call it home.
If you want to make your voice heard, you can respond to the consultation by completing our e-action , or even wrestle with the official response form yourself.
Last week, we reported that only one in five children in the UK are connected to nature - you can see my blog on it here. Today sees the launch of Project Wild Thing, a documentary film about reconnecting children with nature, and I'm delighted to welcome a guest blog from the director of the film, David Bond.
I'm a father of two small children. I look at their lives and worry. They spend the bulk of their time indoors, playing with plastic toys that spill out of cupboards, watching television, playing games on the computer and stroking apps on the iPad. What they don't do much is go outside.
They scream when I suggest we go out for a walk. My daughter, Ivy (6), prefers the television. 'How much do you love TV?' I ask. 'A hundred billion per cent', she replies, 'It's so relaxing'.
Two years ago, I decided to do something.
My inner geek needed numbers to work with. I am a filmmaker. I strapped a camera to Ivy's head to find out how she spends her time: the bulk of it - over a quarter is on screens. Just 4% playing outdoors; the same proportion as she spends in the bathroom.
Yet when she does play outdoors, she enjoys herself far more. My children love nature - they love being outdoors. They just don't choose it.
All the science shows that getting outdoors is hugely beneficial to children and young people. It improves their health, reduces stress and boosts wellbeing. Just the view of greenery from an exam hall window helps students achieve better grades.
A UNICEF report finally convinced me. It compares child well being in Spain, the UK and Sweden. Across all three countries, children describe a 'good day' as being one where they spent time with their family outdoors. But in the UK, children get much less of this than elsewhere - less even than in colder Sweden. When I ask Ivy to remember her ideal day, screens are not mentioned. She talks about camping or playing together in the garden.
My daughter misses nature. She's not alone: millions of children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Children today spend half the time playing outdoors as their parents did. A third more children can identify a Dalek than can spot a magpie.
This retreat from the wild has serious implications. The British Heart Foundation has spoken up about the importance of an 'outdoors childhood' in tackling child health inequalities. Published in June, the State of Nature report, shows that tenth of species are at severe risk of extinction. If children don't learn hands-on about nature, why would they care to save it?
Their generation face tough environmental challenges. But why bother preserving the ash tree if they can't name it, have never climbed it or slept under it?
Disconnection from nature affects all children: rural and urban, rich and poor.
Making ‘Project Wild thing’ I spent 18 months travelling across the UK, talking to children of all different ages, races, and social backgrounds. The more I met, the clearer it became that, although all children want and need nature, they don't choose it or get it. The barriers they face are overwhelming, ranging from parents too afraid of strangers to let their children out through heavily congested roads to a lack of suitable green space.
Project Wild Thing addresses one barrier in particular: the commercialization of childhood. Marketers sell my children everything under the sun. They give them a view of nature so idealistic that the reality of their small garden in South London can never compete. Appointing myself the Marketing Director of Nature, I decided to 'sell' nature as the ultimate adventure. I wanted to compete with Disney and Nintendo.
I ran a major marketing campaign. I put posters up on billboards in railway stations across the country. I spoke to children in the most remote Scottish islands and in the busiest of city estates. But on my own, it was never going to be enough.
We all need to be Marketing Directors of Nature - and the best way to sell the product is to enjoy it ourselves.
Project Wild Thing will be shown in cinemas nationwide from the 25 October – screening details can be found at here.
Readers of my blog are also invited to the RSPB screening of the film in Clapham on Sunday 27 October. Find details here on how you can get tickets.
Just days before the publication of Defra’s long-awaited consultation on how it plans to spend c£2 billion annually through the Common Agriculture Policy, a group of farmers travelled to London to make sure MPs and Ministers knew exactly how important agri-environment schemes are to them – not just for the wildlife they help support but as a key part of more sustainable farm businesses.
Supported by the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and National Trust, over 25 farmers, from Cumbria to Essex and from Devon to North Yorkshire took a day out from their busy enterprises to come to London. I was sad to miss the event, but my colleague, Abi Bunker, who heads up the RSPB’s Agriculture Policy team, was there and was bowled over by the strength of positive feeling in the room, "'What a great day. I feel inspired and enthused by these farmers who have travelled to Westminster today. I am delighted that our three organisations have been able to support and stand by them as they took their unified and strong message to MPs and Ministers. And that message was clear: put as much money as Europe allows into good quality agri-environment schemes."
Abi tells me that Jack Edge, who farms with his wife Georgina at Wall Farm in Kynnersley, Shropshire, was the first to make this point to the newly appointed farm Minister, George Eustice (pictured together below), who took questions during the event and left under no doubt that there is a passionate constituency of farmers who are depending on government to make the right decisions around funding for agri-environment.
When Defra’s consultation goes live – likely to be later this week – I know many of these passionate farmers will take the opportunity to press home once again how important agri-environment schemes are and why Defra Ministers should transfer the maximum 15% of funds from direct farm support to agri-environment schemes.
You can do the same. As soon as the consultation’s live, you’ll be able to take part in our e-action at www.rspb.org.uk/votefornature so you can make your voice heard alongside wildlife-friendly farmers. But in the meantime, you can take part in our poll to demonstrate your support for wildlife friendly farming. To have any chance of recovering our declining farmland wildlife, this is a fight we have to win.