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.
The RSPB has a tradition of organising annual Council weekends: opportunities for trustees and their spouses to visit a part of the UK to find out more about our work, get to know staff, explore some of the issues and compete with one another to predict the number of birds we see over a weekend (the result of this year's competition is at the end of this blog).
RSPB directors participate in these trips and since I joined the RSPB's Board we have visited south Wales, the English Midlands and Cumbria. This year, we were lucky enough to go to Orkney - the first such visit for over 40 years.
In just three days it is impossible to properly get to know a place. And although we visited 8 sites in 72 hours we barely scratched the surface of what these islands offer. Here are three short stories which illustrate some of the conservation challenges and opportunities...
1. The plight of the kittiwake
At our Marwick Head nature reserve on the west of Mainland, it was easy to be depressed and then angered by the 87% decline in kittiwakes since 2000. It is a complex story but the bottom line is that there has been major disruption to the marine food web. Warming seas have led to changes in the distribution and timing of tiny plants - phytoplankton - which has affected the small animals - zooplankton - that feed on them. In turn, this affects sand eels, the availability of which has an impact on the productivity of kittiwakes. As a result, a cliff which would have been home to 10,000 kittiwakes a few years ago has now nearly fallen silent.
Nationally, kittiwake numbers are plummeting as are other seabirds such as Arctic terns and Arctic skuas. Given the importance of Orkney, Scotland and the UK for seabirds, we need to step up our efforts to get to grips with the problem. Yes, we need to do what we can to improve our understanding of changing food supply, but we also need to press ahead with some no regrets options: designating Marine Protected Areas, ensuring development such as offshore windfarms avoid the most sensitive sites and doing what we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Renewable energy in harmony with nature?
It is impossible to ignore the energy revolution that has taken place on Orkney. Small windfarms are dotted over the islands and Mainland is also home to EMEC, champions of testing new marine energy devices such as Pelamis wave energy technology. Orkney is now a net exporter of energy (producing 103% of the energy it needs), is also home to 12.5% of all micro renewables. I think that there are important lessons to be learnt from the Orkney experience. While there have been battles over location of windfarms and concerns do exist about overall environmental impact, my sense is that the revolution has taken place more or less in harmony with nature which is what we need if we want to wean ourselves of fossil fuels and get out the climate change mess we are in.
3. Hen harriers flourishing
It is a pleasant surprise to go to a moor and 'expect' to see hen harrier. And we did see a male and a female on or close to our Birsay Moors reserve. As the UK population of hen harriers declines (catastrophically in the case of England with no successful breeding attempts last year), the importance of the Orkney population grows - today it holds 25% of the UK population. The success is down to hard work in getting the habitat management right. We'll continue to do what we can on the Orkney stronghold but will, as I plan to outline soon, step up efforts elsewhere.
4. Protecting the special
We saw one but dipped on the other. Orkney is home to a decent population of the endemic Scottish primrose - a delightful plant that we saw at Yesnaby and one of our specialities at our North Hill nature reserve. But we failed to see great yellow bumblebee near the Ring of Brogda (part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site) where we are working hard with Historic Scotland to provide decent habitat. With c15,000 species now found on our 210 nature reserves (14 of which are on Orkney), it was a great reminder of the responsibility we have to do what we can to help all wildlife on our land.
These stories simply reinforce the scale of the challenge facing our generation and the responsibility we have in working together to do what we can to make the difference.
It was a privilege to be able to visit Orkney, meet dedicated colleagues and hear about the work we are doing in partnership across the island. While I may have been distracted for two hours by good things happening at Wembley between 5 and 7pm on Saturday, it was easy to absorb the wonder of these islands.
And who won the prize for predicting the right number of species?
The Chairman, Professor Steve Ormerod - 85 (which this year included mammals of which we had four).
Oh well, there is always next year when we visit SE England.
Disappointing news today on our challenge to the Lydd Airport expansion. Here's our statement on this case:
An application by London Ashford Airport Limited to expand its Lydd Airport in Kent has been the subject of a High Court challenge by the RSPB. The RSPB has opposed the expansion of the Airport since it was first put forward in 2006. Judgment was received on this morning and the RSPB’s challenge was unsuccessful.
Everyone at the RSPB, our loyal one million members, and a significant number of local people who have opposed the Airport expansion, will be very disappointed by this decision today. This is a complex case, and we need to review the judgment thoroughly before we decide what our next steps will be, but we are not ruling anything out.
Dungeness is one of the most important wildlife sites in the world, it is protected at global, European and UK levels. It is home to species found hardly anywhere else in the UK. It is also a crossroads for migrating birds stopping off on their epic global journeys. It is therefore important that these crucial decisions about the future of the area are taken in the right way.
The RSPB has been protecting birds and the wildlife of Dungeness for over a century – we have a deep and profound commitment to the area.
We shall make further statements on this in due course. Please also follow our Saving Special Places blog.