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 more I think about the Lodge Hill decision by Medway Council (see here), the more angry I get.
If Mr Pickles fails to call in the decision and fails to grant a public inquiry, then this would send a terrible signal to others looking to meet housing targets. The Labour Party, for example, have said that by 2020 we should be building 200,000 new houses a year. If every block of 5,000 new houses happened to coincide with a SSSI, we could lose 40 SSSIs a year.
I know what you're thinking - this is hyperbole, this cannot happen as not all new houses will be built on SSSIs. But, if the Lodge Hill development goes ahead then developers might just chance their arm and the consequences could be appalling for wildlife.
And, given that this is public land (Ministry of Defence), what happens to future public land of high environmental value? Can that also be sold off for development? I expect higher standards from the State.
And the Lodge Hill decision struck a dischordant note after such a positive week. On Tuesday, we had been celebrating with Medway Council over the decision by The Davies Commission to rule our a Thames Estuary Airport. And, on Wednesday, it had been a pleasure to hear positive commitments to restore nature from so many businesses, politicians and religious leaders.
Will we really have to return to the trees?
The original intention of the Today programme (which covered the Lodge Hill story on Saturday morning - see here at 7.32) had been to reflect on the juxtaposition of these events. As I thought about possible responses, I felt the Lodge Hill decision was another reminder that the war continues. Fifteen years ago, we coined the phrase - 'stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest'. The optimists amongst us hoped that we would be spending more of our efforts recovering populations of threatened species and restoring wildlife at a landscape scale. We have done some of this (and need/want to do lots more) but the reality is we continue to have to fight hard to prevent even our finest wildlife sites from deteriation or destruction.
The verbal commitments made on Wednesday will ring hollow unless they are backed up by action. Our regional director in the south-east, Chris Corrigan, rightly said to me at the weekend, "there is a housing need but if we are going to solve this by building on the 6% of our most precious land for wildlife we cannot possibly reverse the continuing erosion of nature and what kind of country we will leave for future generations".
I am hopeful that the Labour Party will address the false conflict of housing and the environment through its Lyons review (see here), to which the RSPB's Head of Planning is contributing. Simon has some smart ideas which he is feeding in - for example see here. And I am hopeful that Mark Reckless, the local Conservative MP who opposes the Lodge Hill development, will help persuade his colleague Eric Pickles to call Medway's decision.
Decisions like Medway's send us back to the mid-1990s when the environment movement climbed into the trees to oppose the expanding road network. We may have to do so again, but in 21st century England we deserve a different agenda. This is why I am pleased we now have two political parties - the Liberal Democrats and, after their conference this weekend, the Green Party - promising a Nature Act after the next election. We should be investing our energies in restoring nature, rather than destroying it.
The good news is, as I found out at the 'Vision for Nature' conference on Friday (see here), the next generation of environmentalists are more passionate, more determined and (from what I can tell) more impressive that the current crop. They'll need to be. We're leaving our natural world in a mess and, if we carry on as we are, it will be for them to clean it up.
On the day that Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik celebrates 35 years of the EU Birds Directive (see here), I am pleased to host a blog from Steve Micklewright, Executive Director of our partner, Birdlife Malta. He has kindly taken the time to give an update on some appalling events in Malta, triggered by the decision to introduce a temporary closure of the hunting season.
Malta has found itself in a storm of controversy in recent days. Following a series of shootings of rare and protected birds, including white storks, by some of the islands 10,000 hunters, the Prime Minister decided to close the autumn hunting season from 20th September until 10th October. These dates were chosen because they usually coincide with the peak of migration of protected species over the islands, especially raptors.
There is another, more political reason for closing the season for this amount of time. Karmenu Vella has been nominated by Malta and selected by the new European President to be Commissioner with responsibility for the environment. He is due to undergo a serious grilling by MEPs on 29th September and Malta’s terrible reputation with respect to bird hunting and trapping is likely to be high on their list of concerns. The European Commission will also be visiting Malta on 9th October to discuss with BirdLife Malta, the FKNK (theMaltese hunters federation) and the Maltese Government how the derogation from the Birds Directive which allows hunting in spring and a new derogation which will allow finch trapping are being implemented.
A show of strength against the abuses of hunters was therefore both useful politically as well as likely to save the lives of countless protected species that would otherwise be illegally shot.
However, it is to be hoped that the MEPs that will question Karmenu Vella next week will see through these political motives and instead focus on the huge abuses of EU rules which take place in Malta. It is now the only country that allows hunting in spring for turtle doves and quail and it is about to reverse a commitment to ban the trapping of finches forever – this commitment was part of Malta being allowed to join the EU in the first place.
Since it was elected in 2013, the new Labour government has put the demands of hunters above bird conservation and it has systematically weakened the controls on hunting and trapping that existed. One of the reasons protected birds have been targeted recently is that the government removed a 3pm curfew on hunting during the peak migration of raptors to prevent them being targeted. It was inevitable that this rollback would result in a slaughter of birds. The situation has been compounded by the redeployment of experienced enforcement officers in to other parts of the police force and the systematic harassment of BirdLife Malta’s staff and volunteers by the police, including the high profile detention of naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham in April.
The temporary closure of the hunting season, which usually runs from five months between September 1st and January 31st, resulted in an explosive reaction from the hunting community.
On the day Malta celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from the UK, with Prince William as guest of honour; several hundred hunters took part in an illegal protest in the capital, Valletta. One brandished an apparently fake shotgun, while others hurled abuse and bottles at government supporters and attacked journalists. After the protest, a group of 30 hunters then went to Buskett woodlands where thirteen BirdLife Malta volunteers and their friends, including a 7 year old child, had gathered to watch the daily arrival of birds of prey to the woodlands to begin roosting.
Instead of quietly enjoying the natural spectacle of raptors coming in to roost for the night, the volunteers were set upon by the hunters. An elderly gentleman was punched in the face and had to go to hospital for treatment of his cuts and bruises and another volunteer suffered a leg injury. Riot police quickly attended the scene and the volunteers were safely escorted from the woodland.
This is what happens in Malta when the hunting community does not get what it wants.
This thuggish and disgusting behaviour is also coinciding with a meeting in Brussels organised by FACE, the European Hunters Federation, to discuss the Birds Directive. Two representatives of the Maltese hunters’ federation will be in attendance. It is essential that MEPs probe Mr Vella’s attitude to hunting on Malta as it is relevant to his suitability to be confirmed in post. Maltese hunters are almost certainly pressuring FACE to call for a weakening of the Birds Directive to legitimise the decimation of migrating birds that takes place on Malta every year, we have to expect that the more reasonable hunters in the federation will argue in favour of keeping the Birds Directive in tact. Any weakening would result in even more unsustainable hunting in Europe, something which is as bad for hunters as it is for birdwatcher and the birds themselves.
If you would like to support Birdlife Malta's extraordinary efforts, you can donate here.
Being an environmentalist can, at times, feel like being a boxer on the ropes trying to evade punches flying your way. In recent years, we've ducked a few punches (such as the first draft National Planning Policy Framework, the review of the Habitats Regulations and Thames Estuary Airport), but some have landed squarely on our jaw (Lodge Hill being the latest example where local socio-economic development needs threatens to trump nationally important nature).
Yesterday was another tough day and another punch seems to be coming our way.
President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker announced his new team and set out his priorities for the next five years. If you care about anything other than economic growth, his agenda makes miserable reading. You can read it here.
He compounds this misery by setting his sights on the two most important pieces of legislation for nature and birds across the EU – the Birds and Habitats Directives.
President Juncker made his intentions clear in a letter addressed to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner (here), in which he calls on the new Commissioner (Karmenu Vella from Malta) to focus on assessing the potential for merging the Birds and Habitats Directives into a “more modern piece of legislation.” Be under no illusion, this is code for weakening the powers of the directives. Some just hate the idea that legislation might force developers to think about alternatives or that they might have to compensate for any damage caused.
As I have written previously (see here), the directives were not only designed to protect internationally important wildlife, but they were also born out of a sensible desire to prevent any one Member State gain competitive advantage by trashing the environment.
The directives have served us well. And we have evidence to back this up.
In a ground-breaking paper published in Science (here), my colleague Paul Donald (et al) showed that the Birds Directive has successfully protected those species considered to be at most risk and in need of most urgent protection across the European Union and has made a significant difference in protecting many of Europe’s birds from further decline.
Andy Hay's iconic image of a bittern - just one of the species that have benefited from protection thanks to the Birds Directive
Any nation that has signed up to halting the loss of biodiversity and beginning its recovery by 2020 should celebrate the role the Directives can play. It is deeply unhelpful that the European President seems to have forgotten that the EU (as well its Member States) signed up to this commitment.
There is also growing evidence of the benefits to humans that protected nature provides. The EU Nature Directives are responsible for the UK’s modern SSSI system – 80% of which underpin and are essential to the effective management of Natura 2000 sites. Evidence suggests that SSSIs generates benefits 8 times the investment in maintaining them. Such sites makes an immense contribution to the wellbeing of the millions of people who visit them each year.
There is, however, no evidence that they place a "ridiculous cost on business" as George Osborne infamously said in 2011 and no evidence that economic prosperity has been damaged by the Directives. The fact that some companies have failed to respect the Directives but then failed to get what they want is no reason to unpick them.
RSPB’s experience on the ground is that businesses that take the time to respect and understand environmental legislation experience little or no impact on their activities. Indeed CEMEX, a global leader in the building materials industry, has publicly stated (see here) “The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature.”
The Birds and Habitats Directives together represent perhaps the best tests of genuinely sustainable development. They are effective at protecting Europe's threatened wildlife, they are flexible, they have public support, and smart businesses have learnt to respect them. Yet it seems that Jean-Claude Juncker wishes to ignore this by attempting to merge the Directives.
We fear that, in the current economic climate, a merger would result in lesser protection and the time it takes to negotiate new laws would be a terrible distraction from implementing the existing laws so that nature begins to recover to favourable conservation status - the original aim of the legislation.
Our challenge to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner is not to play around with a merger. Instead, he should obsess about meeting the 2020 target, recognise that the Nature Directives offer the best legislative tool to achieving that and use his voice for nature across the Commission.
There is a lot at stake.
Get it wrong and the EU’s credibility on the global stage as a world leader in environmental protection would suffer.
Get it wrong and public support for the EU itself could also erode. Recent polls show that 95% of Europeans feel the environment is important to them, and 77% agree that EU legislation is necessary to protect the environment. Public reaction to scrapping effective protection for nature is likely to be extremely negative.
And, get it wrong and Europe’s prosperity could be at stake. We know that a healthy natural environment underpins our economy - a degraded environment would diminish the quality of life for Europe citizens and would be a betrayal of our children's future.
The good news is that the environment sector intends to behave like Mohammed Ali in his rumble in the jungle with George Foreman. We might take the odd punch, but we will not be floored and we will come out fighting.