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.
In Conor Jameson's brilliant book Silent Spring Revisited, he reminds us how long it took for the UK Government to ban the class of pesticides that was decimating our bird of prey populations in the 1960's. Despite long being aware of the toxic nature of these chemicals, it was not until 1972 that they were banned. It took nearly a decade of campaigning by the RSPB and others to finally convince the old MAFF to do the right thing.
Persistence is one of the most precious ingredients of good environmentalism.
Want to strengthen wildlife laws? That's about 8 years of your life.
Want to see off a planning proposal that threatens a precious wildlife site? That might take five years or more. And even then, those pesky proposals have a habit of cropping up again (viz plans for a Severn barrage or a Thames airport).
Want to reform the Common Agriculture Policy? That's a lifetime's effort. Even then you might need a few children or grandchildren to help you with that one.
And when it comes to habitat recreation (a hot topic in the current biodiversity offsetting debate), you need to plan wisely and think in the long term.
To create a functioning reedbed good enough for breeding bittern, you may need anything up to 15 years, for wet grassland it may take a decade, but for woodlands you obviously need longer (maybe 60 years before a new Caledonian pine forest is good enough for capercaillie) and as for peatlands - well they take even longer - anything up to 10,000 years.
But the return on investment can be massive. My recent visit to Sutton Fen reminded me of the fabulous strides that we have made in restoring reedbeds over the past decade and a half: through two large-scale collaborative EU LIFE-Nature projects, at least 300 ha of reedbed has been created and 700ha restored in Britain. We know this has clearly benefited bitterns, which have increased from 11 to 120 booming males since 1997, but we now also know they can be fabulous for other wildlife.
Our ‘Bringing Reedbeds to Life’ project run by RSPB in partnership with Natural England and others, was established in 2009. Through a series of reedbed audits and a more detailed study of the habitat requirements of reedbed invertebrates, amphibians, fish and mammals, our ecologists assessed whether reedbeds are currently providing suitable conditions for specialist species to thrive and what needs to be done to improve them.
The main findings are outlined in an article in this month's issue of British Wildlife. The study demonstrated that despite being dominated by just one plant species, the Common Reed, reedbeds support a wealth of wildlife including many species of conservation importance with many of these living in the older drier and littered areas but also a high number benefitting from the newer, wetter and more open areas - the parts of reedbeds that are seldom visited.
We now know, that to maintain the quality of a reedbed, we need to rotate the management to provide the range of successional states at any one time and increase the variety of structure whilst looking to protect the existing importance of the existing importance of the old littered areas or those that are botanically diverse.
More frequent and higher impact management may be required to create vibrant, species-rich habitat. We are currently trialling such ‘rejuvenation’ through rotational drying, cutting, grazing and then re-wetting of areas on some of our reserves but it will be several years before we know how successful this has been.
As with so many areas of our work, because we are a persistent (and patient) bunch, we'll keep going until we find the answers to perfect reedbed management for wildlife...
Back in September, I wrote (here) about the risk that a new bill in the House of Commons designed to nobble lobbying would prevent RSPB and others from undertaking legitimate campaigning activity in the run-up to elections.
Two months later, I am pleased to report that the Government is wobbling in its resolve to rush through the Transparency of Lobbying Bill—new amendments have been announced and the bill has been put on hold for five weeks for consultation.
Of course, it’s absolutely right that there’s full transparency when serious campaigning cash is spent that could influence the outcome of an election. There should be clear limits on the amount of money that any group can spend so that no single interest group can sway an election by opening up a wallet. Democratic outcomes should be about open debate and policy, not cash flow. That’s why it’s right that there’s a regime for accounting for spending by campaigning groups, whether they be charities, trade unions, businesses or individuals.
However, in dealing with the notional danger of big money in elections, the Government risks catching other campaigns, like RSPB’s work to reform the Common Agriculture Policy, to ensure more children have contact with the natural world, or our action to prevent damaging infrastructure projects like an airport in the Thames Estuary.
The problem is that the rules can force campaigners to account for their spending and impose limits on that spending even when the campaign is all about policy and has nothing at all to do with a particular party. At the RSPB, we’re absolutely assiduous about keeping out of party politics (we'll work constructively with any political party to achieve our charitable objectives), but we are concerned that current proposals would constrain our ability to campaign on a particular policy in the year of an election.
One good thing to come out of this process has been the amazingly united reaction among civil society groups in opposition to the worst aspects of the bill. We have stood shoulder to shoulder with Oxfam, Bond, the Royal British Legion, the Quakers and many other groups to remind the Government that campaigning groups help people to engage in politics and make their views heard, at a time when many people feel disenfranchised from the political process.
In a healthy democracy, RSPB’s million voices for nature are part of a debate between many millions of voices for civil society. The bill isn’t beaten, but it’s better and I hope that soon we will see a version we can support.
In the years since our founding members campaigned against the trade in feathers for women’s hats, the RSPB has campaigned for nature locally, in Westminster, in the devolved countries, in Europe and internationally. We think that society (as well as the natural environment) has in the past and will continue to benefit as a result of our campaigning efforts.
Over the next five weeks, we will continue to remind the Government why it’s vital that in defending our democracy from big money, it mustn’t kill it with controls on campaigning.
I am currently, for reasons I shall explain next week, in Austria. This is why I missed the Linnaean Society debate on Wednesday night on re-wildling. RSPB's Futurescapes Manager Aidan Lonergan participated in the debate and offers his perspective on how it went...
"The Linnaean Society offers a very elegant setting in the heart of London. While the debate was ostensibly on the issue of rewilding, I had to respond to the suggestion that the British conservation model was unambitious, irrational and scared of nature.
I took the group on a five minute trip from Sumatra (where we are working with our Birdlife partner to restore 100,000 ha of rainforest) to the work we have been doing with others to reintroduce Red Kites across the UK to Wallasea (Europe's largest realignment project) to engage 600,000 people through Big Garden Birdwatch to encouraging them to get active through our Giving Nature a Home campaign. I tried to underline our ambition to act from the local to the global level adapting our plans to the circumstances in which we operate. I explained that we do science to understand the problems facing the natural world, find solutions to address our priorities and then use our practical conservation work to deliver more wildlife or to use our experience to influence others. I concluded that we were not in fact afraid of nature but loved it!
I explained that while the rewilding proposition was instinctively attractive and had the ability to engage and excite the public. But there may be a limited number of big locations across the UK (mainly Scotland where for example we are doing great work to restore blanket bogs of the Flow Country or the Caledonian pine forests in the Cairngorms), we still had to protect the best sites which remained under pressure from a range of causes. Our challenge is to help species adapt to changing conditions by scaling up our work through landscape scale conservation.
One thing was perfectly clear from the debate: all four participants were obviously very keen on nature and all of us wanted more of it."
So the debate goes on. I think this is healthy. Anything that encourages us to explore new ways to restore lost biodiversity is a good thing.
Let me know if you want to continue the debate.
It would be great to hear your views.