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.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that back in June I blogged (here) about the "Battle of Lodge Hill". Well, yesterday, a new skirmish in that battle was settled. Natural England's Board has done the right thing and confirmed Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill as a SSSI. At a public meeting yesterday, the Board heard the justification for the notification from its own staff, objections from Medway Council, Land Securities and Defence Infrastructure Organisation and a short statement in favour from me on behalf of the RSPB.
The political significance of the site is clear: this is a site where Ministry of Defence wants to dispose of public land to meet the housing demands of a local authority. We argue that Medway has not properly asssessed alternative sites and there are less damaging locations to meet housing demand.
This is not a case of nightingales against houses. This is a case about how we reconcile our socio-economic and environmental needs including protecting one of the nation's most important nightingale sites. This is why we are urging the Ministry of Defence to drop their plans to develop this nationally important site. We remain committed to working with Medway Council to find a suitable alternative which provides the housing Medway needs whilst protecting wildlife for the people of Medway and its future generations.
But this political context was irrelevant in the Natural England Board debate. Their task was to determine whether the evidence about the wildlife importance of the site was robust and when assessed against SSSI selection guidelines, it qualified.
I have to say that I was incredibly impressed by the level of scrutiny conducted by the NE Board. They probed hard on the interpretation of the guidelines and on the science. I think that anyone who witnessed them in action would have been impressed by the diligence in the way their exercised their statutory obligations for SSSI notification.
The site was notified on the quality of the ancient wood, grassland and nightingales. For nightingales, the debate focused on whether the numbers of nightingales at Chattenden Woods and Lodge exceeded 1% of the national population - the threshold for notification. To cut a long story short, Natural England argued, and we agreed, that the 85 territorial nightingales recorded in 2012 and the 65 recorded in 2013 were sufficient to demonstrate that the site held more than 1% of the national population (estimated by BTO in 2012 as between 6250 and 6550 territorial birds). The woodland interest created less debate, while the grassland site (as Miles King writes in his blog here) was a bit more contentious.
In the end, I was heartened by the decision. It was an impressive performance from outgoing chair of NE Board, Poul Christensen. He ensured that everyone focused on their legal obligation and even a passing reference to cultural significance (using a quote from John Clare to demonstrate site fidelity from nightingales - "many a merry year" - see below) was deemed inappropriate.
Culture, economics and even politics can wait another day.
For now, we have a new SSSI in England and we should all be delighted.
The Nightingale's Nest by John Clare
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove, And list the nightingale - she dwells just here. Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear The noise might drive her from her home of love ; For here I’ve heard her many a merry year - At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day, As though she lived on song. This very spot, Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way - And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got, Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails - There have I hunted like a very boy, Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn To find her nest, and see her feed her young. And vainly did I many hours employ : All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn. And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down, And watched her while she sung ; and her renown Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird Should have no better dress than russet brown. Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy, And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy, And mouth wide open to release her heart Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me Did happy fancies shapen her employ ; But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred, All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain : The timid bird had left the hazel bush, And at a distance hid to sing again. Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves, Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain, Till envy spurred the emulating thrush To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ; For while of half the year Care him bereaves, To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ; The nightingale to summer’s life belongs, And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs, Are strangers to her music and her rest. Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide - Hark! there she is as usual - let’s be hush - For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest, Her curious house is hidden. Part aside These hazel branches in a gentle way, And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs, For we will have another search to day, And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ; And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows, We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook : In such like spots, and often on the ground, They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look - Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here, Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by - Nay, trample on its branches and get near. How subtle is the bird ! she started out, And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh, Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near Her nest, she sudden stops - as choking fear, That might betray her home. So even now We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still. See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough, Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill. Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives. We will not plunder music of its dower, Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall ; For melody seems hid in every flower, That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ; And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves, Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. How curious is the nest ; no other bird Uses such loose materials, or weaves Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves Are placed without, and velvet moss within, And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare, What scarcely seem materials, down and hair ; For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win. Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives Homes for her children’s comfort, even here ; Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near That loves such pleasant places. Deep adown, The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell. Snug lie her curious eggs in number five, Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ; And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well. So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, As the old woodland’s legacy of song.
It's a big day today. Not only do NGOs issue their annual health check on government's nature credentials, but Natural England's Board is also meeting to consier whether to confirm (or reject) the nightingale site, Lodge Hill, as a SSSI. Read on to find out more...
The joint report, published today by 41 conservation organisations within Wildlife and Countryside Link, assesses the Coalition Government’s progress against its own natural environment commitments. This is the third annual assessment (see here for comments on last year’s report).
How is the UK Government doing?
Well there are a few areas where the Government has done the right thing for nature. For example, former minister Richard Benyon pressed hard for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and a deal setting targets to halt overfishing and ban discards was agreed in May. In addition, the Government has been a strong supporter of the new EU Seabird Plan of Action which aims to reduce the by-catch of seabirds in fishing gear. Link’s assessment of Government commitments to international conservation such as on ivory sales and commercial whaling are also positive.
Although progress was rated as good for four of the Government’s commitments, progress was given a moderate assessment for twelve and was considered to be failing for nine.
Earlier this year the State of Nature report illustrated the extent of species declines (60% of species for which we have decent data are declining and10% threatened with extinction) but there has been no recognition from government that existing measures under Biodiversity 2020 (the England Biodiversity Strategy) are insufficient to address the critical state of nature. The status quo is not enough, particularly with a background of extensive cuts to Defra, Natural England and Local Authority funding, and we have yet to see any major funders stepping in to fill the gap in public finances.
Another area where the response has been insufficient is in protecting our most important marine areas. The announcement at the end of 2012 that only a maximum of 31 out of the recommended 127 Marine Conservation Zones would be put forward for designation was deeply disappointing.
What can the Government do to earn its green stripes?
First, we need leadership from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to elevate the natural environment up the Government’s agenda. Nick Clegg’s speech earlier this month was a step in this direction that I welcome.
Second, it should empower Natural England to act as a critical champion of nature, for example by retaining the requirement for it to provide advice on changes to environmental regulations and making such advice public.
Today, I will be attending a meeting of Natural England’s Board, where they will consider whether to confirm the notification of the Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI. The notification of this site has progressed in the face of objections from the Ministry of Defence and I very much hope that Natural England will stand firm and carry out their statutory duties with confidence.
Third, it should fully implement and enforce the laws and regulations that protect the natural environment.
In the short term, a crucial test of the Government’s green credentials relates to implementation of the Common Agriculture Policy. Readers of this blog will know our views and will know that we are keen for Defra to remain firm with their intention to transfer the maximum permitted amount from direct payments (Pillar 1 of CAP support) to the Rural Development Plan for England (Pillar 2 -this includes payments for agri-environment schemes that are so important for wildlife and the countryside). We also believe that the Rural Development Plan should be given an environment focus and that the Government’s approach to ‘greening’ direct payments to farmers is inadequate and needs to improved, see here for details. The CAP proposals are open to consultation until 28 November. If you want to make your voice heard, you can respond to the consultation by completing our e-action, or via the official response form.
Nature Check 2013 was accompanied by the results of a public opinion poll looking at attitudes to the environment and the Government’s performance. This survey repeats a similar poll carried out last year. It canvassed the views of a representative sample of over 2000 adults from across Britain. I think the results illustrate how much the public’s support for wildlife and the natural environment outstrips that of our political leaders.
83% of the British public agree that the natural environment and its wildlife should be protected at all costs. A substantial majority (64%) of British people do not agree that the natural environment is less important than economic growth and this proportion has grown in the last year. What about the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson? Given the number of times he has stated that environmental improvement and economic growth are completely interdependent - you'd expect him to go with the majority. It's clear that many around the Cabinet table still need to be convinced.
Whatever the case, we do not currently have the necessary action to match the government's ambition. Which is probably why the Link poll shows that only 28% of British people think that this Government is taking the right steps to leave the natural environment in a better condition for future generations.
And you, what do you think?
It would be great to hear your views.
It's not what you think.Before you get excited or cry 'foul' - this is not going to be a blog on the relative merits of UK membership of the European Union. Instead, I am going to reflect on my participation in last week's meeting of the European Birdlife partnership in Austria. Last week, representatives from 35 of the 49 partners from across Europe and Central Asia (with Kazakhstan the most eastern of countries) met in the Neusiedler See National Park on the Austrian-Hungarian border. This was a once in six year gathering: our job, to work out how we should collaborate and ensure our collective efforts helped Europe realise it commitments to halting the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020. Honking geese, ducks and cranes provided an entertaining backing track to our discussions.
Austrian commutingWe invest in Birdlife International for three main reasons:- our migrants spend much of the year away from the UK and so to help them we need to act across the flyway- much of our land and sea use in the UK is governed by common policies and regulations in the EU. To make progress it helps that we have partners in each of the Member States keen to influence national governments.- we think we can make a difference to wildlife around the world by sharing expertise and some capacity with partners on the ground. Our track record in this area (on vultures, rainforests, albatrosses etc is pretty impressive).It was good to get away from the UK for a few days - get a different perspective on what's going on in the world and hatch a plan to save nature in Europe.
We think we have problems......In Iceland, there are plans for major currently unplanned afforestation programme supported by government grants to cover 97% of costs. This brought back memories of the tax-breaks that led to the destruction of the Scottish Flow Country in the 1970s/1980s. The big difference is that Birdlife Iceland are facing this threat with just one staff member....in the Serbia, and elsewhere in the Balkans, major destruction of deciduous woodlands has taken place to cater for the massive increase in demand for wood fuel brought about by growing poverty caused by the collapse of the Greek economy....in Malta, colleagues wake every day to the sound of gunfire over their houses as the hunters embark on their endless campaign to shoot anything that flies - dead birds falling into their gardens.And we think we know best but......in Italy, major plans to link up protected areas in the north are helping to restore wildlife at scale (following the Dutch lead)....in Kazakhstan, our partners - with a help from RSPB colleagues) have used evidence to convince the government to designate and manage massive areas (and I mean massive - one million hectares) as protected areas. This has helped restore the saiga antelope populations to over 135,000....in Spain, the partner which is celebrating its 60th anniversary next year has now sufficient capacity not only to have major impact on the wildlife in Spain, but also to support our partner in Morocco. We feel good about about this as we spent many years helping to develop the partner but they became self-sufficient about a decade ago.- in Bulgaria, following a successful programme to increase the Imperial Eagle population by 20%, they have now developed a partnership with an electricity company to reduce the impact of (killer) electric pylons. Not satisfied with reducing impacts in Bulgaria, they are beginning to do the same in Sudan.While capacity varies considerably across the partnership, there are a lot of common features: expertise, enthusiasm, dedication, pragmatism mixed with lofty ambition about how to overcome the short-term obsessions with economic growth that threatens to trample our already beleaguered European wildlife.I left feeling good to be part of a community united by a common purpose, good to have learnt a great deal and good to have seen red-breasted goose. The liver feels less good. But that's another story...
Spot the red-breasted goose.