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.
An application by aerospace company BAE Systems to cull 1100 lesser black-backed gulls in Lancashire has been the subject of a High Court appeal. Judgement was received this morning and the RSPB's challenge was unsuccessful. Here is our response to Mr Justice Mitting’s judgment on the RSPB’s Ribble Gull Cull challenge:
This judgement is deeply worrying as we believe it fundamentally misinterprets the law as it relates to protecting birds. It is important to stress that the dispute at the centre of this case is not about air safety – the RSPB fully accepts the risk exists and that the cull is necessary, this is about how the Government can sanction the killing of an additional 1100 lesser black-backed gulls without acknowledging the damaging impact of removing almost a fifth of the breeding population of a species on a protected site. The judge appears to condone the Government writing off part of why the Ribble Estuary is important for nature conservation without compensation measures and, as such, sets a deeply disturbing precedent for our most important sites for wildlife – we are urgently looking at our options to appeal this judgment.
We shall making further statements in due course. More information about the case is shown below...
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has directed Natural England to consent British Aerospace Systems a licence to cull 552 pairs of breeding lesser black-backed gulls in the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area, as they pose a threat to air and public safety relating to the operation of British Aerospace’s Warton aerodrome. This is in addition to existing consents to cull 500 pairs of Herring Gulls and 200 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls at the same site. British Aerospace had explored all possible non-lethal alternatives to reduce the risk to air safety and the RSPB understands that, in this instance, a cull is necessary to reduce the risk to a safe level.
However, the RSPB is extremely concerned about how Defra has taken its decision and its implications for the UK’s wildlife. While the RSPB recognises the air safety risk, we believe the Secretary of State’s conclusion was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of wildlife protection designed to conserve the UK’s best wildlife places.
The RSPB strongly disagrees with the Secretary of State’s interpretation that it is acceptable to lose up to a fifth of a protected site’s breeding bird population without it damaging the conservation value of that site. Given the very worrying precedent for this and similar sites across the UK the RSPB challenged the Secretary of State’s decision.
This time last year, we found out that the Forestry Commission England intended to spray bacterial toxin from a helicopter onto oak woodland designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. They were trying to eradicate oak processionary moth from the area. This invasive species damages oak trees and produces an irritant that can cause rashes and other medical problems if people come into contact with it. The RSPB joined forces with Butterfly Conservation and others to raise concerns about the impacts of the spraying on the site’s irreplaceable wildlife. We felt that the risks and benefits of this approach had not been properly weighed up, and that – although the Forestry Commission said it was a ‘one off’ – it set a worrying precedent for using aerial pesticide spraying as a pest control method.
The spraying went ahead and, sure enough, one year on we find ourselves in the same situation after more moths were discovered. This time the area to be treated is a small (2.6 hectares) section of a woodland near the original site in West Berkshire. Again, the toxin will be sprayed from a helicopter to target the caterpillars as they feed on the emerging leaves of oak trees.
Oak processionary moth is an invasive non-native species and the RSPB agrees that it needs to be controlled. The moth is native to southern Europe and was introduced accidentally to England in 2006, probably on an imported oak tree. Had the relevant authorities managed to quickly detect and effectively control it when it first arrived – required under the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which the UK is signatory – we would have stood a good chance of eradicating it quickly, cheaply and before the ecological damage was done. As I have written previously (here)- when it comes to tackling non-native invasive species (one of our four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse), prevention is better and cheaper than the cure.
Unfortunately early action didn’t happen.
Maybe, we will all do better next time. UK support for the new EU Regulation on Invasive Species suggests the right intent. Yet, for oak processionary moth, our only option now is to try to limit its spread. Oak processionary moth will not be kept in check by natural predation in the UK and climate change is likely to help it advance.
Six Oaks Wood: ancient (dating from the 1600's) semi-natural woodland at Coombes Valley RSPB reserve. Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Any action we take on controlling non-native species like this moth has to be done strategically and has to make environmental sense. It’s easy to cause more harm than good with poorly thought out action. In this example, attempts to kill the oak processionary moth will also impact on populations of native butterflies, moths and other invertebrates, essential food for birds like the rapidly-disappearing lesser spotted woodpecker and in some cases – as in the case of the purple emperor – rare species in their own right. Although the toxin was chosen to be as specific as possible, it is lethal to all butterfly and moth species. More targeted approaches, such as removing individual moth nests, are available.
There is currently a lot of interest in aerial pesticide spraying to tackle emerging threats to our woodland. Research is even underway to develop aerial spraying of fungicides to tackle ash dieback – disturbing as this could have a catastrophic effect on our native fungi, which are essential for soil creation, nutrient cycling and plant growth.
The pests and diseases threatening our trees are set to get more numerous and widespread as the climate changes. Aerial spraying may be one weapon in the armoury but, like any toxic pest control, it must only be used as a last resort and as part of an integrated approach which focuses on prevention – through much better control of species movements – rapid response to emerging threats, and environmentally responsible control of established species.
All pest control interventions must be based on the best evidence available and action taken must proportionate to the risk. Moreover, their impacts on wildlife must be closely monitored, and the results of this monitoring must inform future decisions on pest management. We need assurances from the Forestry Commission England that aerial spraying isn’t going to become a routine part of pest management in forestry.
The bottom line is that Defra and their counterparts in the devolved administrations need to be prepared to act fast when new problem species arrive.
There are some hard conservation problems and there are some tough conservation problems. Neither are easy, but I think we're pretty good at dealing with hard problems but we need to get better at dealing with tough ones. What's the difference? It may be a bit of a false distinction, but for me, a hard conservation problem is one where wildlife is in trouble as a perverse and inadvertent consequence of human activity. A tough one is when the needs of wildlife and humans directly conflict. Let's look at a hard conservation problem: the bycatch of seabirds from fishing.
Fishermen don't want to catch albatrosses, they want to catch prized fish like tuna or hake. Yet, hundreds of thousands of seabirds have been dying every year around fishing vessels. Either lured by the bait put out by fishermen, caught on hooks and drowned, or by flying into cables or other fishing gear and breaking their wings. Accidental death around fishing vessels is the prime reason why 15 out of 22 albatross species are classified as globally threatened - at serious risk of extinction.
Albatrosses, such as this black-browed albatross, have a brighter future today following work in South Africa. Picture: Grahame Madge
Following nearly ten years of hard graft and determination, and with enthusiastic and generous support from RSPB members, our Birdlife International global seabird programme team has managed to work with trawl fishermen reducing the number of seabirds being killed and reducing extinction risk for several albatross species, many of which nest on the UK’s Overseas Territories in the Southern Ocean. This work - exemplified by the 99% reduction in seabird deaths from the South African hake fishery - is being celebrated today at an event convened by HRH Prince of Wales.
Other hard conservation issues include tackling the decline of Asian vultures as a result of the veterinary drug diclofenac being used to treat cattle, on whose carcasses the vultures scavenge. Again, through the SAVE partnership we're on top of the issue and it is extremely gratifying to see vulture populations begin to increase.
A tough conservation problem is one where the needs of wildlife and humans conflict - when we are competing for ecological space. Growing food, generating energy, building shelter or pursuing 'sport' or leisure can all lead to direct conflict with wildlife. If species conflict with human activities then they lose out - skylarks decline on farmland, gannets are displaced by offshore wind farms, nightingale habitat is lost to housing development or birds of prey are persecuted because they eat grouse or pheasants.
We'll continue to do all we can to tackle hard conservation problems but we also won't shy away from tough problems. We'll continue to find ways to reconcile competing human and wildlife needs and give inspire others to do more through projects such as Hope Farm and develop ideas for Hope Wood and Hope Community.
Watch this space...