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.
Earlier today, I had a cordial conversation with Daily Telegraph columnist and former editor Charles Moore. While much of the discussion focused on issues relating to shooting and birds of prey, during the discussion – in preparation for his column – Charles sought my response to the suggestion that the RSPB may be losing its way or indeed support.
That was surprising especially given that we have more members than ever before and we have just had such a successful breeding season on our nature reserves (see here) and have recently been able to report of other great species conservation successes (see here).
To be honest, I can’t think of a time when the RSPB’s mission has been more needed. The Society exists to promote nature conservation by saving nature wherever it is threatened and helping others to understand the importance of conservation. The multi-partner State of Nature report (here) shows that 60 per cent of UK species that are monitored are declining, and several iconic species and habitats are being impacted by the shooting industry. Does this mean the RSPB is opposed to shooting?
We have neutral position on legalised field sports but do speak out when the conservation of species is at stake.
This neutral position encourages us to talk to organisations and individuals who share our concerns, just as we talk to representatives from across the shooting spectrum and share panels and stand space, for example at the CLA Game Fair. This year, I was invited to speak at the National Gamekeepers' Organisation AGM and my boss, Mike Clarke, spoke at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust AGM.
If you are judged by the company you keep, then I think we strike the balance well and it was good to work with League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) at Tuesday's rally for nature. This was a first for the RSPB but it felt as natural as sharing a marquee with the Chairman of GWCT.
Mr Moore was interested in the motivation and origin of the rally and I simply told him what I have written in this blog previously (see here).
But I also told him that I enjoyed the day and felt it was a great success. There is nothing more heartening that being with a bunch of people who love and care about wildlife - people prepared to give up their day to speak up for nature. Many thanks to those of you who joined in.
The purpose of the rally – which culminated at Westminster - was to give nature lovers an opportunity to ask their MPs to defend existing wildlife laws, protecting special places for nature; put an end to wildlife crime, including the killing of birds of prey; and introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act that will put nature at the heart of decision-making. And it was wonderful to have such passionate support at the rally from four Westminster MPs from four different parties: Sir John Randall (Con), Kerry McCarthy (Lab), Julian Huppert (LD) and Caroline Lucas (Green).
All those represented, including other charities such as the Ramblers Association, the Mammal Society and Butterfly Conservation, share our concerns about these key issues and I think that the MPs to whom we spoke would have received a clear (and very polite) message about what they need to do for nature in the run up to the next election.
Obviously, the profile of shooting and illegal killing of birds of prey has grown over the past year and, yes, we have hardened our line by calling for licensing of grouse shoots (see here). I anticipate that public interest will remain high unless the shooting community do more to crack down on illegal killing. Some of you may have already seen the harrowing video footage of a gamekeeper killing a goshawk in Scotland – for which he received a conviction (here). This serves to reinforce the message that crimes continue and the shooting community has a responsibility to do more to end persecution.
Our conversation, perhaps inevitably, ended on hen harriers and Charles asked for my response to the claims made by some that we are to blame for holding up Defra's action plan process. I explained our position on hen harriers, as I have done publicly on many previous occasions. Indeed, I repeated what I said in a meeting with the minister and the shooting community this week, that it is refreshing that there is agreement on 4 out of the 6 elements in the plan, but we disagree over the consideration of a quota system/brood management scheme for hen harriers. We cannot support it until there has been recovery of the species.
It is, of course, for Defra to decide what to do next, but we have suggested they get on with the parts of the plan for which there is agreement while consulting on the brood management scheme proposal about which so many unanswered questions remain.
My final thought is this.
Wildlife crime has a terrible impact on some of our most iconic countryside and most important species. The threat is real and on an industrial scale. The RSPB will continue to work with anyone - from LACS to the shooting community - to improve the fortunes for some of our most iconic species and finest wildlife sites.
Tuesday’s rally shows there is a strong public appetite to give nature a more secure future and that there are MPs who are eager to hear the concerns about conservation from constituents. I hope Charles’ column tomorrow will encourage the shooting industry to look inwardly and do more to take responsibility for stamping out wildlife crime. Perhaps we could then look to the day when they will join future rallies for nature.
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!
400 people who love and care about wildlife will (with a squirrel called Bob) take part in a rally in London today. They will come from all parts of England and will visit the House of Commons to urge their MP to include strong commitments to nature in their 2015 election manifestos. The event is being organised by the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, the League Against Cruel Sports (90 years old this year - happy birthday!), and my predecessor, Dr Mark Avery. It is also supported by Butterfly Conservation, the Mammal Society and the Ramblers.
I'm looking forward to it. I expect it's going to be cold, but I am sure that won't stop folk using their voice for nature.
Dunlin, Knot & Bar-tailed godwit in flight over Freiston Shore RSPB reserve (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
The call for action is compelling...
...the State of Nature report, published in 2013, showed that 60% of species (for which we have trend data) have declined in my lifetime and one in ten UK species is at risk of extinction and
...last week's Defra biodiversity indicators report showed that nearly two-thirds of England's finest wildlife sites are not in favourable condition.
The threats are real and challenging: habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution (especially climate change) and the invasive non-native species. These are being driven by a growing population, consuming more and a failure of the economic system to capture the value of nature in decision-making.
Despite the growing evidence of the link between a healthy environment and our own prosperity, politicians seem increasingly preoccupied by other factors that might affect our economy. I do not see the same energy being invested in tackling the ecological deficit as is the case with the economic deficit. We are in danger of passing on our natural environment to our children in a depleted state. This needs to change which is why people have taken to the streets outside Westminster.
We have made it simple for our politicians and have come up with three priorities. We want action to protect and restore wildlife by...
1. Celebrating and defending existing laws such as the EU Birds and Habitats Directives which provide the foundation for nature conservation in this country...
...in September 2014, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked new Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to consider merging the two directives into a modern piece of legislation. The context of this announcement was an aggressively deregulatory and pro-growth agenda and therefore it is clear that ‘merge’ is code for ‘weaken’. This would be a disaster for nature conservation ambitions in this country and across Europe. The Directives were established on the principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage by trashing their environment. And this principle is respected by many businesses today. For example, Cemex, a global cement company recently said in defence of the directives, “These create a level playing field, and give our stakeholders confidence that we are operating to high standards”. Despite what some may think, they do not act as a block to development. The 2012 Defra review of the Habitat Regulations designed to implement the directives in England showed that the main problems facing developers was a failure of implementation. And, most importantly for any politician that wants to help nature, they work: research conducted by RSPB scientist 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.
2. Fully implementing these laws and end wildlife crime so that threatened species like hen harrier are able to fly free from harm...
...this year's Birdcrime report documented 164 incidents of shooting and destruction of birds of prey. We believe that these published figures represent only a fraction of the total number of incidents, as many crimes remain undetected and unreported, particularly those that occur in remote areas. The hen harrier population, in particular, continues to reflect this persecution. In 2013, there were no successful breeding pairs left in England despite there being enough habitat to support over 300 breeding pairs. We need politicians to wake up to the fact that without action, this bird could be lost from the English countryside. And action must start with cracking down on illegal killing.
3. Legally underpinning nature's recovery by establishing a Nature and Wellbeing Act to mainstream nature in decision making, to establish long-term targets and powers to help meet them...
...last week's publication of Defra's biodiversity indicators is a timely reminder that we cannot rely on good will and an ever-dwindling pot of money to restore nature. We hope our proposed legislation will drive nature's recovery in the same way that the Climate Change Act (2008) has begun to systematically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.
We know that action cannot be achieved by governments alone. Real change will also come from changes from other parts of society especially from developers, farmers, the grouse shooting community and other land managers. But, despite the state of the nation's finances, government can still and must play its part. And that's why people are coming to London to see their elected representatives. Thousands of people that are unable to attend have already written to their MP to urge them to take action for wildlife.
Civil society is united in its desire for a more positive relationship between people and wildlife.
We want 2015 to be the year that we take nature seriously and we expect politicians to recognise that in their manifestos.
You can support our campaign here.