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.
Today is my last working day of the year. In a fit of indulgence, I have selected my favourite blogs from the year - one from each month.
It's been quite a year.
This time last year, we did not know that tidal surges and the worst winter rainfall on record would have such a dramatic impact on our natural landscapes and affect the policy landscape especially regarding farming in floodplains and the relative merits of dredging of rivers (see February).
This time last year, Sir Ian Botham was simply my childhood cricketing hero and grumpy commentator on telly . We could not have predicted that he would join forces with the shooting community to launch a crude and aggressive attack on the RSPB (see October).
This time last year, we might have predicted that the new European Commission would have such a pro-growth and deregulatory agenda, but we perhaps were not expecting such a direct challenge to the EU Nature Directives which underpin action here and across Europe (see September).
But it is testimony to the extraordinary commitment to our staff, volunteers and supporters that in 2014 we have still managed to do so many great things (see November).
So, here in chronological order are my favourite blogs of the year.
January: The CAP Deal across the UK: looking back and looking forward
February: Preventing future floods: the role of land management and the CAP
March: Are we fit to frack?
April: Migrants on my mind
May: Stories from Orkney
June: Why it's time to license driven grouse shooting
July: What the RSPB thinks about the proposed Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan
August: Why I am voting for Bob
September: Why European President Juncker has chosen the wrong path
October: Say it ain't so, Beefy
November: What a wonderful world
December: The recipe for success: the story of the Bittern's recovery
I expect more of the unexpected next year. But amidst the economic, political and environmental uncertainty, I look forward to blogging about...
...more great science to help us find solutions to 21st century conservation problems
...more land under our management
...more advice that we shall be giving to landowners to manage their land with wildlife in mind and to businesses to clean up their supply chain
...more sites protected from stupid developments hopefully including Lodge Hill
...laws that have been protected to protect our nature
...new ways for people that love nature to get involved
And most importantly...
Thank you for reading!
Happy Christmas and here's to a successful 2015.
Yesterday, Sir John Randall MP, longstanding Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and birder, made his last contribution in a Christmas Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons. Sir John is standing down at the next election and will be sorely missed. As demonstrated by his participation in last week's Rally for Nature, he remains a loyal supporter of the RSPB and its mission. When in opposition, he was a great champion of marine conservation and the campaign to end the wild bird trade, while in government I am sure that he used his dark arts in the Whips office to good effect.
On a more personal note, John has always offered wise counsel to me and to many others in the sector. This has been much appreciated particularly during difficult moments when nothing seems to be going nature's way.
I thought I'd share with you a short extract yesterday's speech. This is lifted from Hansard and shows what will be missed after the election...
Credit: Eleanor Bentall, RSPB Images
Sir John Randall: One of the things I have been very pleased to have played a small part in during my time in the House is the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, because I did some work on marine issues. I was delighted to hear the recent announcement on fisheries. The anglers and I do not always agree—they have different policies from mine on cormorants and goosanders—but I have spoken to Members and an ex-Member, Martin Salter, and they are disappointed that there are not enough measures relating to the preservation of sea bass stocks. We should address that.
I know that not only the House but somebody from Private Eye who likes to follow these debates and regards my speeches as among the most boring things that happen in this place would be disappointed if I did not mention birds in the remaining minutes of my speech. I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) did not take my intervention earlier, because I was going to welcome him to the side of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I remember having a heated discussion with him in the Members’ Lobby some time ago. He had said during a Westminster Hall debate that houses were more important than birds, so I was going to congratulate him on his Damascene conversion in the past few months. Is it not refreshing to find UKIP actually speaking on behalf of west African migrants? We should all welcome that.
I want to talk about a success story, which Members from both sides of the House can take pleasure in. The bittern—the bog bumper, as it is also known—has been increasing. It is a marvellous bird. People do not need to go to incredibly special places to see them. In the winter, not far away at the London Wetland centre in Barnes, people can, if they are lucky, see these elusive denizens of the marsh. In 1997, there were only 11 booming males. They are called that because of their display call, which can be heard for miles.
John McDonnell: How does it go?
Sir John Randall: I do not think that Hansard had better try to do it.
In 2014, there are now 140 boomers, or singing males, over 61 sites. The great thing is that that is all the result not only of a bittern project, but of making sure that the reed beds are in a good way. I am particularly pleased about the reed beds not only for the bitterns, but for other denizens of the reed beds that are doing really well. One bird that I perhaps feel a great affinity for, and which is also doing well, is the bearded tit. [Laughter.]
And that seems like a good way to end the week.
For many (but alas not me), today will be the last working day of the year, so it feels appropriate to offer a mini review.
2014 has marked the RSPB's 125th anniversary. We have not made much of a fanfare about this - we've kept the bunting in the cupboard. Yet, anniversaries do make you reflect and it is good for the soul to be reminded of what the RSPB has achieved in its history. Our past successes give us confidence that we can rise to face the 21st century challenges facing nature.
Back in the mid nineteenth century, there were just 50 breeding pairs of great crested grebe in Britain. This was one of the species which had been heavily persecuted for their feathers for use in hats and also by the clothing industry as 'grebe fur'. The use of feathers in the hat trade motivated the early RSPB supporters to take to the streets (see below). Following a long campaign by the fore-fathers and mothers of the RSPB, this type of exploitation was banned. And today, there are about 12,000 breeding pairs of great crested grebe in the UK.
Last year's State of Nature report (here) demonstrated that many more species are in serious trouble today - one in ten at risk of extinction. So, last week we (and furry friends like Bob) took to the streets again as part of our Rally for Nature. It was a great day which showed solidarity amongst the nature conservation community and gave people an opportunity to use their voices for nature. Despite the challenges facing nature and the low political profile of environmental issues, the mood was positive because we felt that together we could achieve great things. This felt a fitting finale to 2014 - a tough year but one still packed with successes achieved by our staff, volunteers and the many partners we work with.
And I do want to dwell briefly on some of the successes we have had in a year which started with debates about floods and dredging (see here) and ended with climate change talks in Lima, Peru (see here). At the RSPB we judge ourselves by the impact we are having on nature and specifically species. As a colleague once put it more colourfully ‘how many bums are we putting on nests?’ As I reported on Monday, it has been a record year for bittern (see here), and the list of other species that are doing better because of our work (with partners) is impressively long – you can feast your eyes here.
Lapwings have had a really successful year on several RSPB reserves (see here).
And here are some other highlights.
More land managed for nature...
...for example, on a warm September evening I joined Steve Backshall (hot foot from rehearsing Strictly Come Dancing), our friends and colleagues from Buglife and an enthusiastic audience to launch Canvey Wick – proving that for bugs and insects the only way is Essex! Our joint Buglife and RSPB reserve is uniquely rich in the variety of invertebrates that now have a safe home (see here). The RSPB now owns or manages over 150,000 hectares of land across 210 nature reserves.
...and thinking of Giving Nature a Home – we now have more members than at any time in our history indicating that our investment is our award winning advertising is starting to pay dividends.
..our Conference for Nature built on the success of the earlier State of Nature conference and was once again graced by the presence of Sir David Attenborough. It was an opportunity to bring together politicians and business leaders to encourage them to do more for nature. The day illuminated by some though provoking presentations none more so than this contribution here from Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer.
More great science...
...for example, a joint study between University of Exeter, the RSPB and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) revealed a decrease of 421 million individual birds over 30 years across Europe. This should serve as a massive wake up call to the challenges faced by birds at a continental scale.
...we continue to demonstrate that is possible to farm profitably while recovering farmland wildlife (see here).
More battles won...
...for example, the rejection of the Thames Estuary as a potential location for a new airport brought a loud, raucous cheer – this mad idea has been the subject of serial rejections for decades our campaigning alongside local people in North Kent was founded on sound arguments and persistence (see here). Unfortunately, many of other sites remain under threat from development and staff across the organisation have probably engaged in over 750 cases this year.
...news of resolutions at the Convention on Migratory Species in Quito to phase out toxic lead from ammunition and the vulture-killing drug diclofenac from veterinary use were huge achievements brought about by long years of advocacy involving RSPB, BirdLife International and WWT.
...and finally, our dedicated team of investigators continue to work tirelessly with the police to catch those intent on persecuting our magnificent birds of prey. This is why we welcomed recent news of a gamekeeper being convicted of illegally killing a goshawk (see our statement and the video of the offence here). We will do whatever it takes to end wildlife crime and to allow these birds to fly free from harm.
The challenges facing nature are huge but the RSPB will not be daunted. We've been fighting for nature for 125 yeas and we are going to carry on doing whatever nature needs.
Of course, we can only continue to achieve great things with the loyal support of our members. So at the end of our 125th year, I want to say a big thanks to all of you wherever you may be!