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.
It's that time of year. The wheatears and chiffchaffs are arriving. Before you know it, the nightingales, cuckoos, swallows, swifts and turtle doves will turn up to provide the sights and sounds of our spring and summer.
The wonder of migration always brings cheer after the long, cold (or wet) winter. Yet, many of these migrants are in deep trouble: turtle doves down by 90% in just a quarter of a century, nightingale down by 46% in less than 20 years, and cuckoos down by 72% in a similar period.
Tackling the decline of those birds which visit Europe in summer and spend the winter in Africa is one of our top 21st century conservation challenges. As I have written previously (for example see here and here), these birds fly incredible distances, facing immense threats along the way – and many don’t make it. Despite legal protection across the European Union through the Birds and Habitats Directives, the illegal persecution of migrant birds is still a big issue in many Mediterranean countries. And to our great shame, one of the hotspots for the illegal killing of migrant birds in the Mediterranean is on British soil, in the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus (the SBAs).
The RSPB has been working with our partner, BirdLife Cyprus, for more than a decade to try to reduce the numbers of birds being illegally killed. We have a rigorous programme in place to monitor the activity, but sadly in recent years the situation has been getting worse, with the trappers even planting areas of irrigated acacia woodland to fool migratory birds into thinking these areas offer a refuge in which to rest and feed. In fact, these sites are death traps, concealing the trappers’ nets and early morning crimes. All of this ‘trapping infrastructure’ is tolerated on a British military base on Cyprus. This begs the question - would these activities be tolerated on Ministry of Defence land in the UK, places such as Salisbury Plain?
Although many birds are killed on British military bases, primarily Dhekelia, most are consumed in the Republic of Cyprus, and trapping also occurs there. It is clear that a solution to this problem will require both sets of authorities to make changes and take the issue seriously, rather than remaining inactive and blaming each other.
Golden oriole Oriolus oriolus, caught in a net, Cyprus (rspb-images.com)
On Sunday, the Mail on Sunday reported that His Royal Highness Prince Charles has made a much-needed intervention in Cyprus about this issue. We welcome the Prince’s interest, and hope this Royal involvement can finally catalyse some serious action. If the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Mark Francois MP, gives the direction, the acacia and irrigation systems could all be removed before this autumn in time to save hundreds of thousands of young birds who will be caught in nets as they fly to their wintering grounds. The acacia is also a non-native plant in Cyprus so it’s removal would also be benefiting native wildlife and habitats.
The Minister needs to show leadership and give the direction for the acacia and irrigation systems to be removed before this autumn.
Last year we understand that 500,000 birds were killed on the eastern Sovereign Base Area. The authorities could prevent this from being repeated this year. Trapping was made illegal on Cyprus in 1974 - wouldn’t it be great to if progress to prevent the needless killing could be made 40 years on?
And you can help.
If you’re thinking of visiting Cyprus this summer, you could also raise this issue with the tourism office, your hotel, and any Cypriots you meet. You could also consider finding out about the work of BirdLife Cyprus, and supporting our partner on the island. And before you travel, you could get in touch with your MP to call for the removal of all illegally-planted non-native acacia from the Sovereign Base Areas. Please ask him or her to raise the issue with the Minister. Find out who your MP is and how to contact them here. For more information on how to write to your MP see our campaign guide here.
We're taking action with a range of partners, such as Birdlife and BTO, to address migrant declines across their flyway - from their breeding grounds here in the UK to their wintering grounds in Africa. It's a major challenge, so if you are feeling motivated to help further, please do help us save our summer visitors by donating here today.
And while he's at it, here at home, perhaps Prince Charles could have a word with his friends on the grouse moors concerning the killing of hen harriers following the disgraceful response by DEFRA to the petition on the licencing of the upland grouse moors and gamekeepers!
Thanks for highlighting this Martin, it is just one more scandalous destruction of the natural world to which this Government seems impervious. Accordingly I have made a donation to the RSPB and am writing to my MP asking him to high light this scandal to the Minister, Mark Francois and for him to take action to halt the destruction. I am in fact visiting Cyprus at the end of next month for a bird watching trip so anything else that can be done I will do. Maybe be Prince Charles and myself will make a big difference but I fancy the Prince may carry more weight in this matter than me!!! - good luck to him. The RSPB really needs him "on board" for this.