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.
This year, I have been slightly obsessing about the need to protect the best wildlife areas. At times in the UK, if we are lucky, we talk about protecting a few hundred hectares. Other countries sometimes have the opportunity of thinking on a grander scale. Here is a grand-daddy of an example from my colleagues Stephanie Ward and Geoff Welch...
Imagine standing in an endless sea of gently waving grass dotted with red poppies, red and yellow tulips, yellow and blue irises and white milk vetch, listening to a cacophony of lark song or the high pitched whistle of a bobak marmot, steppe eagles soaring overhead and no sign of human presence as far as the eye can see – this is ‘Altyn Dala’ in spring.
Altyn Dala, which translates from Kazakh as the ‘Golden Steppe’, is one of the most ambitious and breathtaking species and habitat conservation projects that the RSPB are involved in, indeed the scale is unprecedented in the world.
The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife Kazakhstan), the Government of Kazakhstan Forestry and Hunting Committee, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the RSPB together form the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI) which is working to conserve 50 million hectares (ha) of steppe grassland in central Kazakhstan – that’s an area the size of France!
The steppes themselves are of global importance, and one of the least protected habitats in the world. They support a huge diversity of wildlife from breeding sociable lapwings and black larks to millions of migrating waterbirds, from desert monitors to Horsfield’s tortoises and from the little known desert dormouse to the enigmatic, if somewhat bizarre looking, saiga antelope.
Working on 50 million ha at once is impractical so most activities have concentrated on the Irgyz-Turgai-Zhylanshyk (ITZ) pilot area which covers a ‘mere’ 5 million ha but encompasses the former range of the Betpak-Dala saiga antelope population, the largest population in Kazakhstan. And it is work on saiga, combining good old fashioned fieldwork with state of the art technology, that is bringing the conservation of this outstanding area one step closer to success.
Saiga antelope is the flagship species for steppe conservation in Kazakhstan as over one million animals formerly grazed the grasslands maintaining a rich mosaic of vegetation. Heavy poaching in the 1990s brought the species to the edge of extinction with perhaps less than 30,000 surviving. But as the result of groundbreaking research by ACBK, close collaboration with the RSPB and the government anti-poaching authority, called ‘Okhotzooprom’, the Betpak-Dala population had increased to 150,000 in 2013 and the trend is continuing upwards.
However, conserving saiga antelope is not straightforward as they undertake an annual migration covering an area of several million hectares - declaring all of this as protected areas is clearly impractical, even by Kazakh standards. Therefore a landscape scale approach to conservation is required and this is at the heart of the ADCI – to establish an effective network of sites reintroducing and conserving key species and an ecologically representative selection of steppe and semi-desert ecosystems.
To understand their migration, ACBK have successfully fitted satellite transmitters to over 40 saiga antelope since 2009 and as a result have mapped how they use the steppe grassland. This has highlighted their major migration routes, as well as vitally important calving and wintering areas.
By combining this information with the results of biodiversity and socio-economic surveys and overlapping the data with the current protected areas network, ACBK have been able to identify new areas for protected area designation. Based on ACBK’s recommendations, in November 2012 the Kazakh government established a new protected area – the Altyn Dala State Reservat covering 489,776 ha – and announced its intention to extend the Irgyz-Turgai State Reservat by 410,000 ha.
Of even more significance, though, is that by using its data in the MARXAN computer programme, ACBK has been able to identify land suitable for an ecological corridor to link these two Reservats to provide safe migration routes for saiga antelopes and other wildlife - The 'Yrgyz-Torgai-Zhylanshyk’ wildlife corridor was officially declared by the Kazakh Government in July 2014, as the first ever ecological corridor in Kazakhstan, based on new legislation developed by our project partners and the UNDP. This corridor alone is just over 2 million hectares in area - just bigger than Wales!
The area now under protection is a staggering 3.67 million ha and consists of a combination of state protected areas, commercially managed hunting areas and privately managed land, each with their own management objectives and activities.
The RSPB has provided technical expertise to develop a mechanism for combining these different interests to produce an integrated land management plan for the area as a whole that will deliver both conservation and economic benefits, especially in terms of sustainable hunting. This is the first operational ecological corridor in Kazakhstan and it is hoped it will become the template for the establishment of other integrated management areas elsewhere in the country and, potentially, beyond.
There are additional reasons to be jubilant about this corridor being established. Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil company requested permission to conduct exploration work on the territory of the state nature reservat "Altyn Dala".
The request was rejected due to the existing reserve, but a new request by the oil company proposed areas around the reserves, on the proposed corridor area, which was at that time still awaiting official designation. ACBK and UNDP lobbied hard to get the corridor officially approved in order that the second request could be similarly rejected, which it was. A great success!
With these lands secured, the next steps for Altyn Dala are to re-establish self-sustaining populations of other original large steppe grazing herbivores - Przewalski’s horse, wild ass (kulan) and goitered gazelle – To gain a better understanding of the role of the little known ‘steppe’ wolf in maintaining healthy populations of saiga antelopes – to identify and protect the other missing pieces of this enormous conservation puzzle - And finally to ensure that all these truly incredible areas, their rich wildlife and local communities can be sustained economically in the long term.
A couple of weeks ago - around the time I was watching a red squirrel dancing in the trees in the Pyrenees - the RSPB launched a new campaign designed to raise the political profile of nature conservation.
Through our 'Vote for Bob' campaign we want to tap into people's latent concern about wildlife and inspire them to act in a way that encourages politicians to do the things that people care about and that nature needs.
Yes, its figurehead is a red squirrel but the objective of the campaign is to encourage politicians, in the run up to next May's General Election, to make significant manifesto commitments to save nature.
Returning from my holiday, I have been delighted by the surge of support that Bob has received. More than 65,000 people have already pledged their support including a number of politicians.
At times during the economic crisis, saving nature has been seen by some as an optional extra and a ‘nice to have’ - a minority interest rather than something that is demanded by many and essential for all.
This is why over the coming weeks we will be finding innovative ways to reach out to many more people and will be publicly demonstrating the strength of support for 'Bob' and therefore for nature.
The RSPB has always campaigned for change. We were born out of the ambition to challenge laws that allowed the killing of wild birds for fashion. We have a long history of trying to influence change in attitudes, behaviour, policy and legislation: from campaigning to end the use of DDT and the wild bird trade, to arguing successfully for new laws to protect our finest wildlife sites and to tackle climate change. Campaigning is part of our heritage.
Yet, for us to have greater impact, we need to find ways of mobilising people we know are behind us, but who need to be presented with the right way to join in. And that is where 'Bob' comes in.
The more people back Bob, the easier it should be for Bob's political allies within the parties to make the case for strong commitments to nature in manifestos.
That's why I'm backing Bob and I urge you to do so as well.
Having driven the family for four hours through the Pyrenean mountains, it was perhaps no surprise that my daughter tumbled out of the car and promptly threw up on the entrance to La Rectoria. We were late for our scheduled visit to see the vultures of the Muntanya d'Alinya, a large private estate in Catalonia. It had seemed like the perfect way to fill 'turnaround Saturday' - the day when the world and his dog seemed to be on the move travelling to, from or between holiday homes.
We arrived on the recommendation of a colleague in the hope of seeing the vultures get their weekly feed. But our tardiness meant that the group had already departed and so we had to make a swift ascent up the hill to the viewing platform - the girl deciding that the best way up was on her Dad's back.
Before we reached the top, we looked up and saw about 200 vultures soaring above. The guides had kindly delayed putting out the food so we could catch up, but it was clear that the vultures were ready. We'd seen a couple of Griffon Vultures the previous week on the French side of the Pyrennees but seeing 200 hundred playing in the thermals was spectacular.
Once we'd reached the group, the guides gave the go-ahead for the food to be put out. Within moments, the vultures descended to scavenge what they could. Through our scopes we had a pretty good view of the magnificent creatures feed about 500 metres from where were standing. Nearly all were the more common Griffon Vulture but we did manage to see a couple of Lammergeier. And while we heard about (but didn't see) the success of the (absent) Black/Cinereous Vulture reintroduction programme and the migration route of the Egyptian Vulture, a flock of Bee-eaters were heard and then seen fly overhead.
The vultures ate as much as they wanted, then gently flew past us before dispersing over the mountains. It was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours. Once we had made our way back down the hill, we celebrated in the best way possible with a late and very long lunch.
The visit to the vultures was one of the highlights of a holiday which was spent mostly in hills full of colour with late summer flowers and when the sun allowed, clouds of butterflies.
It was, of course, hugely restorative but the holiday inevitably provided references to what was going on back home...
...Vultures, like UK birds of prey, remain vulnerable to deliberate and accidental killing. Pan-European action is required, for example, to end the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac in Europe. At home, persecution continues which is why I was delighted to hear of the successful (if damp) Hen Harrier Day and was thrilled to hear that our Skydancer project had won a National Lottery award. The heightened public profile must lead to action: a decent Hen Harrier Action Plan and the introduction of a licensing system for driven grouse shooting would be a good place to start.
...Bee-eaters are spectacular birds which brightened my holiday. It was lovely to hear of the nesting success of the pair at the National Trust property on the Isle of Wight. Species are on the move and we know that climate colonisers will preferentially choose protected areas so the need to 'protect the best' is as important as ever.
...reintroduction programmes (whether for Black Vulture in the Pyrenees or for White-tailed Eagle in Scotland) can successfully bring species back from the brink
...my girl is a better walker than passenger. Something she will be reminded of when she returns to school next week.