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.
While trying to find a paid job in nature conservation in the early 1990s, I volunteered for various organisations doing a whole range of things. My most memorable experience came while trying to raise money for elephant and rhino conservation – appearing in 'Hello' magazine dressed as a rhino while hugging Helena Christensen and Ali MacGraw.
This fond memory returned to me this week as the spotlight fell again on the plight of some of our most high-profile but threatened species on the planet. Over the next couple of days high level delegations from around 50 countries are ttending the United for Wildlife conference. It’s great to see this sort of attention from our political leaders with members of the Royal Family leading from the front. The UK Government has now committed to ending the illegal wildlife trade.
This conference also made me reflect on the work of the RSPB in fighting wildlife crime both at home and abroad.
For many years we have been at the forefront in the fight at home to stop the illegal use of pesticides to deliberately kill wildlife, particularly birds of prey. One such pesticide, carbofuran, an extremely toxic pesticide banned in the UK since 2004 is still illegally used to kill birds of prey at home, but this chemical is also being used in Africa by poachers of rhino and elephant; in order to kill vultures.
African white-backed Vulture by Lip Kee from Singapore, Republic of Singapore
In southern Africa, eight out of nine vulture species are red-listed, with most in the high-threat categories of endangered and vulnerable. Poachers’ use of poison is now one of the primary threats to vulture populations, but why would vultures be targeted deliberately by poachers?
Well, it’s simple. Large flocks of vultures attracted to a dead elephant or rhino may give away the location of poaching activity and thereby attracting the attention of law enforcement officials, wildlife wardens and rangers. The presence of vultures in an area in large numbers effectively ‘sign posts’ the crime scene to the authorities. To give themselves more time to conceal their crimes, the poachers are deliberately targeting vultures with this poison.
The numbers of vultures killed in this way can be staggering. In July 2013, a poisoned elephant carcass led to the death of about 600 vultures near Namibia's Bwabwata National Park. In August 2013 an estimated 326 dead vultures were killed in Kwando Concession in Botswana, lying dead around three elephant carcasses. Helped by funding from the Rufford Foundation, the RSPB is working with BirdLife International Partner organisations in Africa to quantify the extent of the threats and identify measures to raise the profile of vulture declines with national governments.
Whilst political attention on international trade and wildlife crime is welcome it is important to remember that the UK still suffers from our fair share of problems as well. Our recent Birdcrime report for 2012 (see here) catalogued 208 reports of illegal shooting and destruction of birds of prey, including a golden eagle, seven red kites and nine buzzards.
As I have written on many occasions, the conservation of hen harriers is of particular concern (see here, for example), with the species on the verge of extinction as a breeding species in England - something that the UK Government committed to avoiding in its Biodiversity 2020 strategy (see here). Illegal persecution is the most serious factor impacting on the conservation of hen harriers.
Male hen harrier by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
So it’s absolutely vital that the current Defra-led process for developing an emergency recovery plan for hen harriers does the job we so desperately need it to do. The plan has to focus on tackling illegal persecution. Anything else misses the point and without it would be a poor use of ever-diminishing public resources.
We’ve been absolutely clear about this while we have been engaging with the process. At a time when hen harriers are in such a predicament, public money must be focussed on the priority of stopping illegal killing.
Time is pressing – not least because we are weeks away from this year’s breeding season – and we have been calling on ministers to ensure that emergency action plan has every chance of being effective.
We also need to look critically at our own laws in England and Wales. Last year, the Law Commission recognised that liability for bird of prey persecution needs to be extended to landowners who allow their gamekeepers to use illegal techniques – a legal concept known as vicarious liability. This would help to stamp out the use of persecution techniques such as the use of poison baits that inflict considerable suffering to victims. We successfully campaigned for vicarious liability to be introduced in Scotland, but we really need its introduction across the rest of the UK. This remains a priority for us and we will continue to push hard for its introduction as part of the package of measures to tackle bird of prey persecution.
Failure to tackle this issue over decades has brought the English hen harrier population to its knees – condemnation is universal but action is too often piecemeal and ineffective DEFRA have a chance to fix this or calls for licensing of upland shoot (such as this one here) will carry ever greater weight . Pushing the total over 10,000 by the end of the month will give DEFRA a real chance to set out their plan for action.
It’s significant that the United for Wildlife conference has such high level support and, if it wasn't for the flooding crisis would have attracted even more attention. Wildlife crime is wrong wherever it happens and we must do more to stamp it out. We’ll certainly continue to do our bit internationally, both directly and through the excellent work of our BirdLife partners.
But let's also recognise that we have to get our own house in order. The UK can only maintain its legitimacy in leading the world to tackle wildlife crime if we show similar commitment to addressing wildlife crime at home.
The front line of that fight right now is protecting the hen harrier. Whether it’s through the UK wide introduction of vicarious liability, or a strong action plan focussed on tackling persecution, it’s vital the Government gives domestic wildlife crime as much attention and priority as it is giving crime on the international scene.
A few people have asked to see my letter published in the Times today in response to Alice Thomson's piece on the Somerset Levels last week.
Here is the text as we submitted it. A cut-down version appears online - which you can only read if you have a subscription.
Sir, We are pleased to reassure Alice Thomson (“We can’t allow Somerset to sink into a swamp”, Feb 5) that we have no desire to see the Somerset Levels devoid of people and farms. The devastating floods are as bad for wildlife as they are devastating for people. There are no winners.
Working with local communities, we share a common vision for landscapes rich in wildlife, such as otters, bitterns and eels, where people enjoy a thriving economy based on the region’s special qualities.
By 2030, re-established cranes, lost for centuries, will get a bird’s eye view of a green grid-iron of rhynes and droves, delineating meadows where farmers rear quality livestock cheek-by-jowl with wildlife. Water has always been central to the Somerset Levels, but by managing flood risks and controlling levels, we trust local communities will once again enjoy their wetland landscapes.
This bold vision requires political leadership, courage and investment to achieve. The reward will be a flourishing region, proud of its natural assets and heritage.
RSPB Conservation Director
While the flooding threatens to bring more misery to more people, the political and media attention is shifting to money - money to deal with the clean up and money to make the country more resilient to future extreme weather events.
I imagine that existing departmental budget holders will be asked to see what contribution they can make and a certain amount of reprioritisation is inevitable. For Defra, there is always the nervousness that other budgets are raided - one of the reasons why if you remember, we were so concerned about the merger between Environment Agency and Natural England (see here). But, Defra could and should look at the £15 billion of Common Agriculture Policy money that they have at their disposal . I've written previously about the role that the CAP has in influencing flood-resilient land management in the future (see here).
Here's another idea, which I don't think has been considered thus far.
Under CAP rules, it is possible to make additional Pillar I payments (part of the £12 billion available for direct farm subsidies) to ‘environmentally important’ types of farming. Defra should give serious thought to how this measure could help build resilience. The rules state that it is possible to channel additional direct payments to “sectors or to those regions ...where specific types of farming or specific agricultural sectors... are particularly important for economic, social and/or environmental reasons”.
This approach would enable Defra to redistribute up to 8% of the Pillar I budget (c £1bn up to 2020) to farms where the continuation of certain practices, particularly extensive livestock grazing, is environmentally important but is becoming increasingly financially untenable due to, for example, regular flood events. By channelling additional support to such farmers, Defra would be supporting farmers in these vulnerable areas while making Pillar I payments work harder for the environment.
This is quite a lot of money and it is certainly worth thinking about especially in places like the Somerset Levels.
Just a thought.
I expect that the debate about flood money is going to go on long after the flood waters have subsided and I may return to this at a future date.