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 was laid low with a heavy cold this weekend. Plus ca change some might say. When I am ill (yes, ill) I occasionally experience vivid, verging on hallucinogenic, dreams. And last night was no exception. I walked out of a country house to watch a starling murmuration and quickly realised that they were being joined by a large group of gulls (species unknown). The gulls then swoop down brandishing a huge net. It appeared that the gulls were fishing for humans. Terrifying stuff and I was glad to wake up.
Goodness knows what Freud would make of it.
But the obvious question for your Monday morning is, which should be the target human of choice for these 'fishing' gulls?
It would be great to hear your views.
While 2014 maintained its alliterative high with Monday's fracking announcement (following debates about offsetting, flooding, food and farming), I want to offer a flashback to events at the end of 2013.
If you remember, in December, the UK Government and devolved administrations had the chance to bolster progressive widllife-friendly farming by moving up to 15% of direct farm subsidies (in the so-called Pillar 1 of the Common Agriculture Policy) to support rural development programmes (Pillar II of the CAP which finances agri-environment and which delivers the best value for taxpayers' money).
While the amount of money at stake varied across the UK, we had urged all administrations to transfer the maximum amount to help address international and national commitments to recovering farmland wildlife and protecting water bodies. It was clear that decisions made would have a massive consequence of the future of our countryside for years to come.
And this is what they decided...
England: 12% with a commitment to move to 15% in 2017/8
Northern Ireland: 0%
You can get a sense of the different moods across the UK by reading our press releases. In Wales (here), there was joy, in England (here) and Scotland (here) there was dismay, while in Northern Ireland (here) there was, quite rightly, outrage.
Peter Kendall, the outgoing President of the NFU, has at times been the Moriarty to the RSPB's Sherlock Holmes. He has been an impressive operator but he has occasionally said some very silly things and he saved the silliest for his final speech at the Oxford Farming Conference last week (see here). Having started with a disingenuous swipe at the RSPB, he had the nerve to argue that creating Pillar II was a mistake and would make "farmers permanently dependent on public support". I think some in the audience choked on their hobnobs.
The facts speak for themselves - for England, for example, only £3.5 billion of the £15 billion of subsidies going to farmers over the next seven years will support Pillar II measures: agri-environment and rural development. Put it another way - only £93 of £400 of the annual taxpayers' contribution to the CAP will support things which benefit the public such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife to which people have access.
But, having led the lobby against transfering money into agri-environment schemes, the NFU and their counterparts across the UK, let down those farmers that wanted to continue to farm progressively.
I had a number of conversations with farmers last week who were fearful for the future of their farms. These were farmers who were proud of what they had been able to do for wildlife thanks to financial support offered through agri-environment schemes. Yet, when theses schemes come to an end, there is no guarantee that the money will be available to allow them to continue to manage their land with wildlife in mind. For some, they may have to follow a different path to maintain viable farm businesses. While this would ultimately be a business decision, I know that some would find this heartbreaking and it would, of course, be devastating for wildlife on their farms.
So, what to do?
- in England, Scotland and Wales, we will work with officials to make sure the new agri-environment schemes (funded through Pillar II) work hard for wildlife. We now have 20 years of experience of using these schemes and we know what makes them work. I am confident that we can still get great results for wildlife through well-designed and well-targeted schemes and we will continue to do what we can to ensure farmers receive the advice they need.
- in Northern Ireland, we will continue to urge the NI Executive to provide the funds to protect the environment and recover threatened wildlife. The CAP cupboard is bare, so they will have to look elsewhere.
- we need more food companies to source their ingredients from and reward farmers that manage their land for wildlife (confirmed through certification schemes such as Conservation Grade - see here).
- explore innovative ways of rewarding farmers for protecting and restoring those services that nature gives us for free: for example flood protection, carbon storage and clean water while penalising those that use these services unsustainably
- from now, develop an irresistible force for change in the next round of CAP reform through building a wide-ranging coalition of NGOs and farmers who value nature both here and across Europe. Our High Nature Value Farming coalition (see here) is just the start.
But, you may have other ideas.
What else do you think we should be doing to help farmland wildlife and progressive farming?
[Image shows Andy Hay's image of small scale trials of potential solutions to farmland bird decline before use in larger scale research trials or agri-environment scheme options, RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire, England, July 2012]
On Friday, I referred to the old conservation motto: "stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest". I bemoaned the lack of progress we had made in protecting the best. In the uplands, the situation is even more stark.
And this is where my working year starts. Not literally, as I'll be in of Oxford at the Real Oxford Farming Conference (see here). Today, I will be debating the future of our uplands - iconic landscapes which offer us so much. While the dominant economic landuses are farming, forestry and grouse shooting, the uplands also offer us a huge array of other free services: vast stocks of stored carbon (largely in deep peat soils); upland catchments are vital for drinking water supply and flood amelioration; and many of us visit the wild spaces of the uplands for inspiration and enjoyment.
Yet, wildlife in our uplands is in trouble. Birds like black grouse, curlew, ring ouzel, whinchat are undergoing major declines and hen harriers continue to suffer from illegal persecution. And, the State of Nature report showed that of the 877 upland species for which we have information, 65% have declined since 1970.
For me, most shocking of all are the statistics about upland SSSIs:
- 10.5% of the 162,000 ha of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition- 10.3% of the 124,000 ha of upland heath designated as SSSI are in favourable condition- 39.8% of the 20,000 ha of acid grassland designated as SSSI are in favourable condition
So what's to be done?
First, we have to accept that upland farmers have a continued and important role to play. Whilst parts of the uplands would undoubtedly benefit from the withdrawal of land management intervention (as George Monbiot recommends), many of the species we value rely on open habitats requiring some level of management. The future condition and state of these habitats and their species is reliant on securing better, more sustainable (truly sustainable) landuse and land management practices – that underpin both the natural environment and the social fabric of the places (and people) responsible for their management.Across our upland estate (60% of the RSPB estate is upland) we work work with our tenants and neighbours to secure positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes. We do this at places like Tarnhouse Farm in Geltsdale or with United Utilities at Haweswater (as shown in Andy Hay's image below) and Dove Stone. Here we have set out to demonstrate that restoring the upland habitat is good for business and good for wildlife.
For an overview of our upland thinking – see here.
It's clear that many of the problems in the uplands are made worse by policies such as the Less Favoured Area policy (more recently known as Areas Facing Natural Constraint) which is in effect a ‘hardship’ payment that recognises the difficulty of livestock production in upland areas – poor soils, challenging terrain, difficult climate, distant from markets etc. It seems to us perverse that we are still subsidising farmers to produce food in these areas when instead we should be positively supporting land managers (farmers) for activities that help secure a broader range of goods and services that the uplands are better placed to deliver.So let’s stop talking about the Less Favoured Area and Areas Facing Natural Constraint – the Uplands ought to be a Favoured Area because of the range of vital goods and services they produce.In order to improve the environmental and economic viability of upland farming, we need to change the whole basis by which farmers are supported – having clearer (and agreed) environmental outcomes and positive policy support measures (e.g. agri-environment) and seek to develop additional innovative payment mechanisms that recognise true value of upland ecosystem services (e.g. Payments for Ecosystem Services). See, for example, here.This is a shared agenda for many different organisations and individuals and that is why we have helped establish the High Nature Value farming coalition (see here). Only together can we secure a better future for the uplands, upland wildlife, those that manage the uplands and those that rely on them.
But what about you? What's your view on the future of our uplands?