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.
[This post was written last weekend. But a combination of wind, rain and computer gremlins have delayed its posting. If you have not yet managed to post your results from Big Garden Birdwatch, please do so (here). Every entry counts!]
It's been a weekend of numbers: numbers of birds seen in gardens, number of species recorded, numbers of people that have taken part and numbers of cups of coffee drunk while waiting for the rain to stop.
And it made me think. Given that 60% of the species for which we have decent data (about 5% of our 67,500 species) have declined over the past fifty years due to human activity, how many people will it take to turn things around?
Let's look at some numbers...
...63,705,00 people live in the UK of which...
...about 28.4 million give to charity while about 8 million people are members of wildlife or countryside charities
...maybe 10 million people care about nature (see research here)
...about 3 million watch wildlife programmes like Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch
...more than 1 million (including 195,000 young people) are members of the RSPB
...about 750,000 have taken at least one RSPB campaign action over the past five years.
...600,000 who took part in Big Garden Birdwatch in 2013 (it is too early to say how many took part this weekend)
...more than 350,000 signed the RSPB's Letter to the Future calling on politicians to think about the health of the planet when they make decisions about where to invest and what to cut
...a staggering 40,000 contributed data to the BTO Atlas
...about 18,000 volunteer for the RSPB
But how many people think about the state of nature when they vote, when they buy their food, when they heat their home, when they garden, when they go on holiday?
This matters, because what we eat, how we travel, how we consume energy all have an impact on the natural world. And, crucially, it matters who we elect. The people that run the different parts of the UK have the power to legislate, penalise or incentivise people to harm or protect the environment.
So how many people does it take to save nature? I have no idea. But it is clear that we whatever we are doing at the moment and how many of us are doing it is insufficient. But, if you are one of the eight million that care, then you need to step up and do more. There are elections coming thick and fast over the next few months (local, European, General and devolved). So, it's time to get active and get those politicians (whether current or aspiring) to promise to use their voices for nature.
Our job is to do no harm and help make things better or as the great philosopher Edmund Burke (whose words are on a postcard kindly left for me on my desk by my predecessor) put it...
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." ..
Have a great week.
P.S. The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch in numbers: scores from the Harper family...
...22 birds seen landing in our small garden in one hour
...11 species seen (although it could have been so much more if those gulls, corvids and starlings had bothered to land): house sparrow, chaffinch, dunnock, great tit, blue tit, collared dove, robin, blackbird, greenfinch, goldfinch, magpie)
...3 participants (one stayed in bed)
...1 cup of coffee
Anyone who watches the news or looks outside the window knows that it's wet out there. Forecasters say the weather is going to get worse before it's better.
I am not sure that this is intentionally designed to coincide with World Wetlands Day on Sunday 2 February but it is certainly creating suffering for a lot of people. And it is, once again, opening up a debate about how we should plan for and respond to flooding.
Over the next few days, I want to put a spotlight on our response both on those areas suffering the most and also say what we should be doing nationally to prepare for and shape a different future.
Today, I want to talk about the floods crisis in the Somerset Levels.
A toxic mix of intense prolonged rain and high tides has created the biggest flood – over 65 square kilometres - for two decades in this deep rural part of the West Country.
The despair is palpable. Homes are flooded. Villages are isolated. Roads are submerged. Farmers are telling us of fields full of sewage.
It's abundantly clear that we need a better way forward for people and wildlife in what is England's largest lowland farmed wetland. The cries of frustration scream out from the newspapers and our television sets, in a sea of claims and counter-claims.
What key actions are available, how will they happen, what's the role for Government (of all forms including its agencies), and what role will farming as the principle land use offer in the future?
These frustrations are made even greater because there is nothing new in these calls - they have been made by raised and discussed at length by many people over many years particularly following floods in the late 1990s, 2012 and 2013.
We have not been short of answers, but we have lacked real leadership to make the necessary long term changes. This is the critical barrier to achieving a transition to more resilient floodplains that work for people, businesses including farming, communities and the environment.
Nature is a big ally in any fair, rational, efficient and effective transition to resilience and I'll come back to how in a future blog.
The principles are easy - they have been the orthodoxy for years now:
Turning these sorts of principles into reality is now the challenge. Successive governments, egged on often by partisan interests of one sort or another, have ducked it. They have failed miserably to play their part in preparing and leading change. They missed the opportunity during the days of relative plenty assuaging concerns and avoiding difficult decisions. Their agencies, the Environment Agency and Natural England, are being asked to do more on an ever-decreasing budget. They will struggle to meet the demands placed on them.
Today, the Prime Minister said that dredging will start as soon as possible. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, visiting Somerset earlier this week called for an integrated Action Plan crafted by local interests, and rightly asked for six weeks to reflect before coming up with the answers.
But, the Government (be it the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister) has a role in leading the transition to a different future through regulation, incentives (especially through design of the new CAP in England) but also through opening up an honest debate about the changes that are happening in our country and how we need to adapt to these new pressures.
Extreme weather events will increasingly become the norm because of climate change and, as Government Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, challenged this week (see here - Times subscription needed) we must focus our debate on what we are going to do to help us adapt.
My next blog will focus on the role of the new CAP package in helping shape the future we want and nature needs.
Regular readers of this blog will know the RSPB has been involved in the case of a former military training school at Lodge Hill in Kent. Before Christmas, in one of his last acts as Chair of Natural England, Poul Christensen confirmed the site as an SSSI (see here), and Medway Council withdrew its Core Strategy (the local development plan which included Lodge Hill as a strategic allocation for housing and employment land).
There has been a fair bit of publicity around this case, including suggestions that offsetting could be used to make development of the site acceptable. I’d like to take the opportunity of a new year and a clean slate, to clear up some of the misconceptions. This case is important and it a good test of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) so I have (forgive me) gone into some technical detail...
1. The NPPF doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs (or indeed irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodlands). In exceptional circumstances such development could be possible (even if it may not be desirable). But the NPPF contains important safeguards. These are tests which ensure that special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and on the national network of SSSIs. In this case, an independent Inspector listened to detailed evidence from all sides, and was not satisfied that the proposals at Lodge Hill could overcome either of those tests. Medway Council have now withdrawn their Core Strategy on the basis of the Inspector’s findings.
2. This is not a brownfield site. Medway Council and the Ministry of Defence have often described the land as such, and on the face of it, one might assume that a former active military site would constitute 'Previously Developed Land', also known as brownfield. However, the definition of Previously Developed Land in the NPPF excludes “land that was previously-developed but where the remains of the permanent structure or fixed surface structure have blended into the landscape in the process of time”. Lodge Hill is an extremely green site, as the aerial photo below shows. The independent Inspector visited Lodge Hill and found that a relatively small proportion of the site fell within the definition of previously developed land. She also found that because the site is of “high environmental value” the usual priority given to development on brownfield land doesn’t apply.
3. The site is not appropriate for offsetting. In early 2013 Medway Council published a report bythe offsetting company Environment Bank Limited, proposing an offsetting package for nightingales at Lodge Hill. There are various reasons why offsetting is not appropriate at this site but the most significant are...
(i) Unless the Lodge Hill scheme can overcome the tests set out in the NPPF, neither offsetting, or any other form of compensation is relevant.
(ii) Offsetting is still in its pilot phase and it would be wrong to use a SSSI as an early test case.
(iii) Offsetting is not really intended for protected sites.
(iv) The package proposed by Medway Council was experimental. It would deliver replacement habitat many miles outside of Medway, which would not be ready to accommodate the numbers of nightingales present at Lodge Hill until some 15 to 30 years after the destruction of their habitat. Whether it is called an offsetting package or simply branded as compensation, we think that a nationally important site is not the place to conduct such an experiment.
The RSPB now understands that the Ministry of Defence and their delivery partner Land Securities remain committed to developing Lodge Hill and plan to pursue an Outline Planning Application this year. This is disappointing, because MoD as a public body, has a duty to protect SSSI’s, but it is also rather astonishing.
It is difficult to see how any rational Planning Authority (or the Secretary of State if he were to call in the decision) could grant consent for a planning application, when an independent government Inspector, having heard detailed evidence, has found that the proposal is contrary to planning policy. On the basis of that finding, the Local Planning Authority has withdrawn its plan. In that context it’s difficult to understand why a landowner would continue to invest public money pursuing development.
There are undoubtedly people both in Medway and in government who are deeply frustrated by the current situation. There are a few who are not ready to accept that Lodge Hill cannot be developed. But a closer, objective inspection of the facts shows that pursuing the development of Lodge Hill can only have two outcomes: a) a further expenditure of taxpayers’ money pursuing a development which does not meet the NPPF tests;and/or b) undermining the government’s flagship planning policy, the NPPF. If the tests which safeguard SSSIs are distorted in an effort to push development through, the credibility of the entire NPPF will be irreparably damaged.
Neither of these outcomes would be positive for government, for the taxpayer, for planners, for future generations or for nature.
It's time that the Ministry of Defence and Land Securities think again and consider a more favourable future for the wildlife of Lodge Hill.
P.S. Enjoy Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.