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.
Last Monday the RSPB had a productive meeting with the Environment Secretary, Rt Hon Liz Truss MP. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing the incoming government after the May election.
I was joined by people with whom the RSPB has built excellent working relationships: farmers Robert Law and Jack Edge, Cemex director Martin Casey and Alistair Chisholm, head of policy for CIWEM.
Although our primary interests differ, it was not difficult to sing from the same hymn sheet...
Verse 1: make it easy for farmers to look after their natural assets especially farmland wildlife. Robert and Jack embody everything that we have come to expect from progressive farmers – keen to grow food while providing homes for wildlife. Well funded and well designed agri-environment schemes are key to their success and here, I think Defra have a really good story to tell. The department has an excellent track-record in learning from nearly twenty years worth of experience and the result is that each generation of agri-environment schemes is more effective than the last. I look forward to the impact of the new Countryside Stewardship in England.
Verse 2: maintain the existing regulatory framework to deliver high environmental standards and provide certainty for businesses. Cemex is one of many companies that clearly doesn’t want the EU Nature Directives to be unpicked. We want the next UK Government to work hard within Europe to protect the laws that protect nature.
Verse 3: Alistair, backed up by Jack, highlighted the importance about thinking differently about water management solutions. Dealing with many flood problems (eg soil erosion) would also help wildlife so there should be a lot of opportunity for wildlife in good flood management. There is something like £100 billion (from taxes and bills) going into English catchments over the next 15 years (see here) to address issues including the provision of water and waste water services, farming and on flood protection and maintenance. Imagine what could be done if the primary purpose of that spend was to maximise the benefits to the public by nurturing our natural assets?
Finale: there is growing recognition that we need a new approach to restoring nature in a generation, so let’s establish a Nature and Wellbeing Act after the election to provide cross-party consensus for the long-term.
We sang the hymn well, the audience was appreciative and I think the issues we raised were recognised as shared challenges as illustrated by this quote from the Environment Secretary.
“Last month I attended an event in Thetford to celebrate 30 years of conservation efforts by the RSPB and farmers in my South West Norfolk constituency to protect the stone-curlew, which have seen its numbers increase substantially. It was great to meet the RSPB again today to discuss some of the issues facing our birds and wildlife and our shared ambition for the natural environment.
“A thriving natural environment is not only vital to the health of our habitats and wildlife but also our economy and wellbeing. That’s why this Government published the first Natural Environment White Paper for 20 years. And we’ve made significant progress over the past five years, helping create 150,000 acres of priority habitats, planting 11 million trees and cleaning up more than 10,000 miles of rivers.
“There is of course more to do. That’s why in the next Parliament we’ll be spending more than £3 billion on the environment and using our new Countryside Stewardship Scheme to deliver greater, more targeted outcomes for nature. I’m particularly pleased that we’ve been able to include a Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package specifically aimed at benefiting pollinators and farmland birds.
“I also want to build on the landscape-scale approach to conservation we’ve established in this Parliament, not least through our 12 new Nature Improvement Areas. But above all I want to ensure that all those with a passion for our countryside and wildlife – be they farmers, RSPB members or the broader public – are mobilised in its support. Britain is home to some of the most remarkable birds and wildlife on the planet – let’s work together to make sure they thrive.”
This time next week I shall be in York for the RSPB Members Weekend. To give you an idea of what's in store, I thought I'd ask one of the contributors next week, Julian Hughes, to give an overview of the story he will be sharing. In my early days at the RSPB, I worked very closely with Julian while he was in charge of our species policy work. Yet, seven years ago he migrated home to North Wales where he became manager at our Conwy nature reserve which celebrates its 20th birthday this year. It's a fantastic site and, secretly, I am slightly jealous of his job. Here, Julian offers his perspective about what to expect from Members' Weekend.
Volunteering or working on a nature reserve is very special. You spend time in a superb place, surrounded by wildlife and meeting lots of people who share your passion for nature.
It also makes me more finely attuned to the turning of the seasons than ever I could working in an office. Each day, the tiny changes are evident as Winter turns to Spring: the return of lesser black-backed gulls to the estuary, the first cowslips in flower, the joyous notes of the song thrushes.
But before Spring really gets into gear, there is the Members’ Weekend. I think I went to 16 in a row, though I’ve missed the last couple and so am looking forward to a weekend in York with so many people who care passionately about nature.
The weekend is, obviously, designed around RSPB members, but believe me, staff get a huge buzz from it too. It restores my faith that there are so many people who care about nature, who support what we do, and together I know we can achieve pretty much anything.
The Weekend is an opportunity to hear about the amazing things that are happening around the UK, and beyond. I’m looking forward, for example, to hearing about progress with the massively ambitious Wallasea Island habitat creation, and to learning more about our plans to help Curlews, a wader for which Britain is internationally-important.
The evening talks are extra special, and I’m sure there will be stunning images from European Wildlife Photographer of the Year Neil Aldridge. A good picture beats a thousand words – as everyone knows who saw #weaselpecker go viral recently.
But it’s the bits in between that I really enjoy, catching up with members I haven’t seen for years, browsing the trade stands over coffee (where I try, and usually fail, to resist buying another piece of wildlife art); chatting to new supporters over dinner, in the bar, or on a coach on the Saturday excursion. RSPB people – the leaders in quality conversation.
For me, I will really start to enjoy it once my own talk is done. I can’t help but get a bit nervous, even though the RSPB Members’ Weekend is the warmest audience that I will ever speak to.
I’m talking about some work we’ve been doing at RSPB Conwy to make the nature reserve more family-friendly. If you’ve been here in the last couple of years, you’ll know we’ve made some changes, so what have we been doing and what difference has it made? Well, you’ll have to turn up to find out - Friday afternoon, 4pm.
You can get a flavour in this short video, but suffice to say my talk involves three million tonnes of mud, 27,000 teeth and a monster.
It takes quite a lot to drag me away from Conwy in the springtime, but for the Members Weekend I don’t have to think twice. And when I’m back in North Wales on Monday, the world will have tilted a little further and perhaps the first swallows will have arrived.
If you have already booked, I look forward to meeting you – do come and say hello. And if you haven’t, check out the programme and join us for a special weekend.
Members' Weekend takes place on 27-29 March 2015 at the University of York. You can come for all, or part of the weekend.
A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon in court. It is rare for the RSPB to mount legal challenges and even rarer for us to go to the Court of Appeal so it felt right to pop along and listen to the debate. I am glad I did especially as earlier this week we received the good news that the panel of Judges found in our favour. They concluded that the former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, was wrong to decide that culling a quarter of the bird populations listed within a protected site in north-west England wouldn’t affect the site’s conservation value.
This is a long-running saga which I covered previously here.
The Judges were reviewing Mr Paterson’s decisions on the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area, which is a site designated under the Birds Directive as being of European importance for certain species of bird, including its nesting population of lesser black-backed gulls.
John Markham's image of a lesser black-backed gull
The site is adjacent to Warton Aerodrome. BAE Systems, who operate the Aerodrome, were understandably concerned about risks to air safety from the breeding birds using the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area.
Having explored all possible non-lethal alternatives to reduce the risk to air safety, BAE Systems had sought permission to cull part of the breeding gull population in the Ribble and Alt Special Protection Area to reduce that risk to a safe level. In May 2013, the Secretary of State agreed to allow part of British Aerospace’s request and directed Natural England to consent a licence to cull 552 pairs of breeding lesser black-backed gulls . This was in addition to existing consents to cull 500 pairs of herring gulls and 200 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls at the same site.
We felt that the original decisions created a deeply concerning precedent for similar sites in the UK and therefore challenged those decisions by means of a Judicial Review. This challenge was heard last May but was unsuccessful. We were disturbed by the decision and sought an appeal.
Following the Court of Appeal’s Judgment, we will work with Natural England and BAE Systems to balance air safety risks with the conservation of lesser black-backed gulls and the breeding seabirds assemblage, including herring gull.
To be clear, we recognise the air safety risk, but we believed the Secretary of State’s conclusions were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of wildlife protection designed to conserve the UK’s best wildlife places. If this decision was allowed to stand, it would have had huge negative implications for future decisions concerning our best wildlife sites.
Separately, we will be taking Defra up on its offer of further discussions concerning the declining national status of these two gull species, both of which are undergoing significant national declines, including at their other major colonies in England. Alongside Natural England, we look forward to developing a national conservation strategy that will secure these birds’ long-term recovery and conservation.