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 good to see (here) the shooting community supporting the need for a recovery plan for the hen harrier in England - this is a positive step forward.
As I have written previously (for example, see here), we want a world richer in nature and we want to see a recovery plan that does what it says on the tin, i.e. it secures recovery for the hen harrier in England. This is something to which the UK Government is committed to through its Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and for which it has legal obligations under the EU Birds Directive.
A target-led approach to species recovery which focuses on tackling the key threats has long been a theme of nature conservation and, indeed, was the basis of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan established in 1994 by the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, now Lord Deben.
In our discussions with Defra, we have sought to ensure that the developing plan focuses attention on the right issues, especially tackling the root causes of decline. In the case of the hen harrier, the key threat constraining recovery is illegal persecution.
There has been some debate about the relative merits of a so-called brood management scheme (BMS) whereby hen harrier chicks would be removed from a moor when a threshold of birds was reached to remove perceived predation pressure on grouse.
This is an idea that emerged a few years ago and which we have given considerable thought – indeed we even wrote an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology on the subject in 2009 (see here).
We have concluded that this may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.
It is regarding the conservation target that we and the shooting community differ. They would like to pilot the BMS now. We think this is not only premature but potentially not compliant with existing legislation. It would also send a terrible signal to nature conservation that it is appropriate to 'manage' a highly threatened population of an iconic species.
To survive in the 21st century, driven grouse shooting must be able to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with healthy populations of birds of prey like the hen harrier and that it can address the other negative environmental impacts associated with grouse moor management (here). This is why we think it is right and timely to license driven grouse shooting.
The conflict between grouse shooting and environment is understandably becoming an increasingly emotive debate and there have, over the past three years, been four separate e-petitions on the Number 10 website about birds of prey and grouse shooting. Most people want the wildlife in our uplands to flourish and I note the growing support for Hen Harrier day being organised on 10 August. While I shall be on holiday for the day itself, I shall be there in spirit hoping that it helps put a spotlight on illegal killing. I know many RSPB supporters, staff and volunteers will be attending and adding their support to the call for the end of illegal persecution of the hen harrier.
In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our work with Defra, the shooting community and others to secure an effective hen harrier recovery plan so that everyone can get behind it soon. It's only by working together that we'll save the hen harrier and we're determined to reach an agreement.
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.
The CLA's Game Fair takes place this weekend. As ever, the RSPB will be there, inspiring others to do more for wildlife and no doubt being challenged about our stance on one of two things as well.
I'll be there on Friday and am speaking in a debate on whether the rural economy can survive without shooting and fishing. I'll let you know how I get on.
The theme of our stand this year is how some shoot managers in the lowlands are managing shoots sustainably to help wildlife – and we’re delighted that some of them will be joining us on our stand to spread the word.
As with any sector – housebuilders, minerals companies, farmers, foresters and, yes, those in the shooting community – I am keen that we work with the progressives, those land managers working within the natural capacity of the environment to demonstrate what can be done to reconcile the needs of both humans and wildlife.
Given the parlous state of nature in the UK – 60% of species for which we have trend data have declined in my lifetime - we need the progressives in each sector to set high environmental standards which others can follow.
Inevitably, the question arises, what happens when others do not meet the standards and environmental damage occurs? This is something that we face in the uplands with driven grouse shooting – the most intensive form of shooting. Here, our calls for voluntary reform to tackle illegal persecution and habitat damage have not worked. Just 10% of the 160,000 hectares of peatland SSSIs in the English uplands are in favourable condition and some species like hen harrier, peregrine and goshawk remain in jeopardy.
That is why, in June we called on each of the major political parties to introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting after the election (see here). We have made a similar call in Scotland. This would complement our desire for the introduction of an offence of vicarious liability for landowners whose employees are guilty of illegal killing of birds of prey - a measure that was introduced north of the border in 2012. Intensification of management is a problem in large parts of the uplands where the desire for increasing the shootable surplus of red grouse has led to the use medicated grit, more frequent burning on deep peat soils, intensive control of foxes, crows, stoats and weasels and, yes by some, illegal killing of birds of prey.
It is ridiculous that in 21st century England, we have to maintain 24 hour surveillance of two of the three hen harrier nests in England. Just three nests is a big step forward as in 2013 no nests were successful – and we are rolling out our plans for the future including more satellite tags. We, as always, rely on support which is why we’ve launched an appeal to help us do more to protect hen harriers. In addition to our call for a licensing system for driven grouse shooting, we are supporting Hen Harrier Day to put a spotlight on illegal killing. This event, organised by birdwatchers and naturalists will be a show of solidarity by all those that want to see an end to illegal persecution of this icon of the hills. I started by stressing the need for constructive engagement and this is at the heart of our Skydancer project where we are working with local communities including gamekeepers to celebrate and help conserve hen harrier population in England. We’re so proud that Skydancer has been nominated for a National Lottery Award and there’s still a chance to vote for Skydancer.
Game Fair is a chance to talk, to celebrate good working relationships and hopefully is the trigger for a constructive debate that can help us craft more sustainable shooting models. I look forward to my day in the sun in Oxfordshire.