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.
Politics can be a short term game. Headlines come and go, polls rocket and plummet, and our leaders are very often judged by what they can offer you this minute, not by what they protect for our future.
Every now and then, however, politicians are able to look up from the daily news and think about the long-term. In these moments, a single political action can do as much for nature as years of hard slog on the ground. I’m thinking of the politicians who, even in the ruins of bomb-blasted London, planned the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949 (still the basis of our SSSI laws), or the cross-party effort that gave us the Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2009 or the Climate Change Act, 2008, the world’s first legally binding decarbonisation plan. You’ll have your own examples.
This week, there is a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, we will get one of those defining moments after next year’s General Election.
Excuse to show image of the wonderful RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Yesterday, Dan Rogerson, the Environment Minister, announced a set of manifesto proposals for the Liberal Democrats that included many policies we’ve been advocating at the RSPB for some time. The package is good start - a real recognition that nature isn’t something you can squeeze into the gaps in society, it’s vital to every part of our lives.
The headline that the Lib Dems would introduce a Nature Bill in the next Parliament is something that we, alongside The Wildlife Trusts, have been urging all the parties to support. We’ve been talking about a Nature and Well-being Bill to emphasise that investing in nature is good for people, economy and community, as well as for the environment. I’ve made a few references to this over the past few months, see here and here.
In short, we’ve wanted something to drive nature's recovery akin to what the Climate Change Act has done in driving down greenhouse gas emissions.
A core part of our argument has been about the Natural Capital Committee, or an “Office for Environmental Responsibility”. We want the true value of nature to be built into decision-making across Government. Departments like the Treasury and BIS need to be held to account for what they take from nature, as much as DEFRA does. Only then can we be sure that we leave a strong natural environment for our children. It’s great to see this in the Lib Dem plan. This body could have equivalent clout to the Committee on Climate Change or even the Office of Budget Responsibility.
Of course, the Lib Dems’ announcement is still subject to the party’s democratic approval process and it’s still just a manifesto commitment - you need to win an election to do something rather than simply say something.
We’d still like all the parties to go further. For any party to be serious about saving nature, they need to come up with a convincing package of measures that helps to stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.
Let me explain.
In this month’s Nature’s Home magazine (which is always beautiful and always well worth a read), I wrote, “we want to stop common species becoming rare, and prevent rare species becoming extinct, so we need to learn to live in harmony with nature – reconciling the needs of humans and wildlife. A no-regrets approach includes ensuring 20% of [at least] our land and 10% of our seas are protected and well-managed for wildlife. We also need to make the intervening land is made more accessible or permeable for wildlife... [and] we need to tackle the proximate and ultimate drivers of decline and get to grips with the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse”.
This means we hope and expect the parties to go further...
...proposed Lib Dem targets for clean air and clean water are great, but we also need a long-term legal commitment to getting our finest sites into good condition and helps recover threatened species
... ensuring a long term future of the public forest estate by carrying out the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry is great, but we also need action to make our farmed landscape more accessible and permeable for wildlife and this means credible proposals for CAP reform and ways to build nature into local planning, and
...action at home is welcome but we also want parties to take their international responsibilities seriously especially on our Overseas Territories where the nature returns for a small investment can be massive. That is why we’re calling on the UK Government to create marine protected area to protect the wonderful sealife around Ascension Island.
...new commitments to tackle wildlife crime are welcome, but we hope that our politicians will go further and introduce new protection for the uplands in the form of licensing of grouse shoots, which would help to deliver better environmental outcomes for our hills.
The Liberal Democrats have come out of the traps first - setting a benchmark for the other parties to match and hopefully better. I now look forward to hearing what the other parties have to say. It be great if, by May 2015, we had a strong cross-party consensus on what nature needs and a shared commitment to a Nature and Well-being Act in the next Parliament.
What do you think of the Lib Dem plans?
It would be great to hear your views.
I started the year (here) focusing on the need to protect our finest wildlife sites - whether locally, nationally or internationally significant. For the Government to have a chance of realising its ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state to the next, it must improve protection and management of our jewels in the crown - just 35% of SSSIs, for example, are currently in favourable condition.
So when I woke this morning to hear that fracking might be excluded from protected areas, I thought that this was good news.
Earlier this year, the RSPB, the National Trust and other countryside conservation groups published a major review of the risks fracking could pose to the natural environment in the UK. Alongside this report, we put forward ten recommendations that would strengthen how this industry is regulated and would go some way to addressing these risks. Our headline recommendation was to create shale gas exclusion zones that include National Parks, Areas of Natural Beauty (AONBs) and sites protected at the national and European level for wildlife.
As the details of today's announcement have been released (here), it has become clear that National Parks and AONBs were still to be made available for shale gas licensing, but a fracking development would only take place within them if it can be shown to be ‘exceptional circumstances’. It seems that the Secretary of State will call in any challenge to such a decision to ensure this is implemented.
This is not the absolute protection that we hoped for. It is, however, an important and welcome step forward for two reasons. First, it sends a clear signal to planners that they should reject applications for any fracking related developments within these sites. Second, it endorses the concept that some places are not appropriate for fracking.
Yet, surely wildlife sites should also be added to the list. Why add to the pressures that these sites already face?
Through the course of the day, it was good to see others pick up this issue, such as Natalie Bennett, who asks here whether this principle should be applied to places important for people too.
The partner organisations behind the ‘Are we fit to frack?’ reports today issued a response the announcement noting that whilst it is a positive development it must be built upon if we are to keep special places special. This response is shown below.
Let me know what you think about today's announcement on fracking.
New onshore licensing round opens – Joint response
The Angling Trust, National Trust, RSPB, the Salmon and Trout Association, The Wildlife Trusts and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust earlier this year published a major review of the risks that shale gas extraction (‘fracking’) could pose in the UK and put forward ten recommendations to address these risks.
Our review concluded that fracking poses a range of significant risks to the natural environment. Given these risks, and the high level of uncertainty about them, we called for special areas that are particularly sensitive to be protected outright from development. This would best be achieved by not licensing or permitting shale gas extraction, or exploration activity in these areas in the first place. Removing these sensitive areas from the area that was being considered for the 14th licensing round would reduce the total area being offered for licence by just 12%.
We welcome Government’s announcement that National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty will be afforded special protection and fracking developments will only be allowed within them under ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Whilst this reflects existing planning policy, confirmation that fracking will be seen as a major development and will therefore have to pass this test is a useful step in the right direction. Critically, this is also the first time that Government have recognised the need for special places to be protected from fracking. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this approach that need addressing.
Firstly, various tests already exist in the planning system that will apply to developments in areas designated as special for one reason or the other. It’s unclear at this stage requiring fracking to pass an ‘exceptional circumstances’ test will add to these existing safeguards or indeed what is meant by ‘exceptional’.
We are therefore concerned that this ambiguity will only be resolved when a developer attempts to challenge these rules through the planning system. This uncertainty is exactly the scenario that the industry, the public and conservationists want to avoid, and that could be dispelled through simply not licensing these areas and thereby establishing exclusion zones.
Secondly, wildlife sites, including Special Protection Areas, Special Areas for Conservation and Sites of Scientific Interest as well as nature reserves and Local Wildlife Sites, have been excluded from the new safeguards. This is a missed opportunity to ensure that these sites, which are highly sensitive and are of great natural value, are properly protected from the outset. We strongly urge Government to review this decision.
In our report, Are we fit to frack?, we put forward a number of other recommendations that dealt with how the fracking industry is regulated. These include, for example, requiring all applications for fracking developments to do a statutory environmental impact assessment, and independent monitoring of key environmental risks such as methane leakage. Many of these recommendations have not yet been addressed and with the 14th licensing round taking place this year they are becoming ever more urgent.
We now urge the look forward to working with Government to make further progress in these areas.
The last few weeks has seen an intense focus on the uplands, especially in England. Central to this has been a growing and extremely welcome chorus to see the return of hen harriers to the rightful place as a breeding bird of our hills – the shockwaves of the last year’s failure to see any hen harrier nest successfully in England have, at long last, built a momentum for change.
In parallel the future of the English uplands, as a whole, is starting to get the attention it deserves. The common thread through this is the growing impact the driven (red) grouse shooting industry is having as some intensify the management of the uplands.
Raising the issues is one thing – the key question is what happens next? Let’s be under no illusion, the growing recognition that the absence of hen harriers and the wider environmental implications of the grouse industry is prompting strong reactions as calls for bans and boycotts grow.
I’ll be clear – the RSPB is not in that position, we want change and we want a positive reaction from the moorland landowners and managers.
That’s why we welcome today’s announcement by M&S that they are not going to stock red grouse until there is a code of practice in place and we welcome the opportunity to work with M&S and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to move this forward.
This also exactly the same thinking behind our call for licensing of upland driven grouse shooting in England. Developed co-operatively, such a proposal builds confidence and provides a real route out of adversarial dialogue that has, for too long, characterised these issues.