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 a week dominated by political announcements, I thought it would be good to offer a perspective about how nature is faring on the frontline. Last week's storm surge has had a major impact on many parts of then country especially in the East of England. I have therefore asked my colleague, Laurence Rose, Senior Sites Manager for North Norfolk to give a first-hand view of what happened and how we are dealing the consequences...
The first sign that the storm surge was arriving at Snettisham was the creaky pub-sign call of the pinkfeet flying over my house in the village. They were heading inland by the thousand, and I supposed the surge had forced them from their overnight roost on the Wash. I was to have no sense of its scale and power until next morning.
It was barely light when my colleague Paul Eele phoned from Titchwell, ten miles away. His exact words aren’t for repeating here, but they described succinctly and graphically the aftermath of a brief and awesome event. Two kilometres of five metre high sand dunes, simply wiped from the shoreline. A boardwalk lifted effortlessly and left hanging two metres above the ground. Tons of flotsam everywhere.
I headed for Snettisham reserve and parked a safe distance away. Amazingly, a few birdwatcher/sightseers were already returning to their cars. “How is it down there?” I asked. “You’ve lost a couple of hides” turned out to be a gross understatement.
The access track was washed away, meaning no access for less mobile visitors. A saltwater lake had formed and was blocking my path, but I could see from a distance one of the hides had been spun round and was facing backwards and tilted upwards. Another hide had sunk without trace, a third damaged beyond repair, along with the boardwalk and much of the concrete pathway. The huge shingle roost bank has been swept into the lagoon like crumbs off a table.
Over the next two days we gained a clearer picture of that dramatic night’s events. Strumpshaw Fen team reported that visitor facilities are largely unscathed but saltwater may have devastated freshwater wildlife – not just fish but the water beetles, snails, dragonflies and other insect larvae that are important food for fish and many waterbirds. They tested the salinity and found it to be 20% seawater – more than enough to kill the more sensitive freshwater fish and invertebrates.
Colleagues at Havergate Island in Suffolk were unable to land on the island, but from a boat they could see that there were two breaches in the sea wall and two of the hides had floated out of position. It seemed it could have been worse. And it was. When they finally got onto the island they found over 20 breaches in lagoon walls. All the lagoons and Long Meadow are under about 8ft of water, as are the picnic area and most of the pathways. The main hide may not be salvageable, the toilet block is half way up a tree the tractor shed is in pieces.
The sluices should remove the flooding from all areas by sometime in late January or early February, with no lasting ecological damage. The damage to the infrastructure is less easy to assess, some hides may reopen in March, but others may need replacing completely.
At Minsmere, North Warren and Dingle there have been several places where salt water has flooded grazing marsh and reedbed, and urgent action is underway. The dunes at Minsmere have been badly damaged with the possible loss of the grey hair grass community.
Along the coast from Titchwell, colleagues at the National Trust have been clearing up after the Brancaster Millennium Centre was flooded, while Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley reserve has been completely flooded. We will help each other out, but we all face similar challenges on home turf.
So is there anything positive to say? Well, a few years ago Strumpshaw Fen experienced big surge tides so we built a new sluice to get salt water off the fen much more quickly and flush freshwater through, and we are now very glad we did. At Titchwell, were the sea defences, newly reconfigured “in case” climate change caused something like this to happen in the future, was tested sooner than we expected. I have no doubt we would have no Titchwell reserve if that work hadn’t happened just a couple of years ago.
The response from all who love these places, and many who have never visited, has been amazing. Our appeal brought in a thousand pounds an hour in its first day, and people have been offering support of all kinds. This is a great morale boost for a team in difficult times.
It's a big week - the last working week of the year for some of us. And there is stack of government announcements piling up waiting to be unveiled before the Christmas break.
First, it's crunch time for the CAP - ministers across the UK have to report to the European Commission how they plan to spend their allotted Common Agriculture Policy money by the end of the year. Specifically, Ministers have to decide how much money will be available to support farming that protects the environment and helps recover threatened wildlife populations. In England, we have urged the Prime Minister (see here) to back the judgement of his own Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who is championing the transfer of 15% of direct farm subsidies (so-called Pillar I) to rural development (so-called Pillar II, the vast majority of which will go to wildlife-friendly farming) .
Once the announcement is made, we'll also know whether Mr Cameron has listened the thousands of people that contacted him this weekend (or read some rather colourful articles by environment journalists see here and here) urging him to do the right thing - for farmers, for the environment and for taxpayers.
Second, the Davies Commission Report on airport expansion is expected to come out on Tuesday. It was extensively trailed in the newspapers this weekend, with a political row widely expected. While we are against the expansion of aviation capacity unless it can be demonstrated to fit with the trajectory for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we shall be looking particularly careful to see if the list of possible options includes the Thames Estuary airport.
Third, we also expected the UK Government to report on the social and environmental impacts of fracking. I shall be interested to see how they deal with the uncertainties around disturbance to wildlife, water contamination and increase in traffic movement. My gut feeling is that this is a technology that is a long way away from being commercially attractive let alone socially or environmentally acceptable. We shall see.
Finally, the Transprency of Lobbying Bill returns to the House of Lords this week. Having withdrawn the highly contentious part 2 of the Bill (which promised to severely constrain legitimate activities of charities - see here) the Government will be sharing its new plans with Upper House. Like many others, we shall be watching careful to gauge the implications for the future of our campaigning activity.
As for me? Well my week starts with an event at the German Embassy where I'll be chairing an event on Europe and the Environment. After that - who knows!
Any plans of a quiet week of filing and mince pies have been shelved..
This weekend, the Prime Minister and his counterparts in the devolved administrations will make decisions that will have huge consequences for the UK countryside.
The RSPB's Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke, has written to Mr Cameron outlining the choice he faces and urges him to make the right decision for the future of farming, wildlife and the countryside.
We are urging the Prime Minister to transfer the maximum 15% of Pillar I funding (direct farm subsidies) to Pillar II (rural development which includes incentives for wildlife-friendly farming). The difference between 9% and 15% is £600 million over the seven year CAP period. That is £600 million that can either be spent helping farmers recover threatened wildlife or given to farmers with few strings attached.
The text of the letter is shown below.
Given the significance of the decision, we have placed adverts in newspapers across the UK this weekend encouraging people to use their voice for nature.
You can help ensure as much CAP money as possible helps farmers save our threatened wildlife. Tweet @Number10gov using #CAPreform and ask them not to cut the life from the countryside, and join our campaign here.