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.
My RSPB colleague Lenke Balint has been working with our esteemed partner BirdLife Malta during the run-up to the referendum where the nation voted on the future of spring hunting of quail and turtle. Below, she offers her reaction to the disappointing news that the referendum was lost and spring hunting will continue. She ends with a challenge to the hunting community on Malta.
At the weekend a referendum in Malta to ban the spring hunting of quail and turtle dove has been won by the hunting lobby by the narrowest of margins.
To say that the conservation movement is disappointed is an understatement, especially as the vote had been shadowed with polls suggesting a win for bird protection.
It became increasingly clear on Sunday when the results were being counted that a late surge in support from the hunting lobby, overturned our hopes. However, after the initial and inevitable slump in our emotions, we have realised several things which are renewing our optimism.
Firstly, in any crisis, environmental or otherwise there is rarely a single step which leads to instant success. Secondly, with such a close result, the hunting lobby cannot possibly claim they have a mandate for any illegal action: the difference between a win or loss was as small as 2,200 votes across an entire nation of 400,000 inhabitants. Lastly, we’re conservationists. From climate change to saving threatened species, we’re used to disappointments. Conservation battles make us tough and each knock back makes us stronger. Lastly, the world is watching. A fact recognised by the islands’ pro-hunting Prime Minister who has publicly referred to the fact that hunters are heading towards a last chance.
The immediate result of this referendum is that more birds will die this spring. Not only turtle doves and quail – the quarry that were the subject of the referendum – but also birds of prey, herons, storks, bee-eaters and cuckoos. These birds will inevitably be gunned down by hunters using the smokescreen of legalised spring hunting.
However, with fewer than 50.1 per cent of the islands’ population voting in favour, there were almost as many people who wanted to see this practice ended. They’ll be the ones watching the activities of the hunters, looking for illegal activities and reporting the hunters to the police.
Yes, the loss of the referendum is a bitter blow that we shall draw strength from. For the hunters , they will take initial pride in their win, but in their hearts they will realise the depths of the public feelings against hunting and they should realise that they need to cease illegal hunting. The public have voted and many have shown their frustration with the hunting lobby. How many more illegal acts would it take for the public mood to shift enough for the hunters to be in the minority?
Last September (when the General Election seemed but a distant dream or was it a nightmare, it's easy to forget) I reported (here) on the decision by the new President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to consider a ‘merger’ of the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives (aka Nature Directives). Given the anti-regulatory context within which this announcement was made, our concern was that ‘merger’ was simply code for ‘weaken’.
Today, the battle to defend the laws that protect our nature commences with the launch of a public consultation on the Directives (see here).
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the Nature Directives to conservation. There are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago (see here) yet the Directives have played a crucial role in stemming further declines. For example, the overall population trend for birds that are specially protected (as Annex1 species, for the technical amongst you) by the Birds Directive has gone from declining to increasing. If the Directives were implemented in full, I would expect us to be able to report even more positive conservation success stories.
The Directives help the economy to prosper, too, with the network of areas they protect creating €200-300bn worth of economic benefits per year (see here).
Moreover, the Directives allow development to take place in harmony with nature. Cemex – a global quarrying company with over 40,000 staff and an annual turnover of $15b – emphatically made this point in a recent statement (here) on the future of the Directives.
It short, they are good for wildlife, good for people and good for business.
Despite this, the current political climate is increasing hostile to any regulation in the European Union and there seems to be a general desire to see laws stripped away, regardless of the consequences. There isa real danger that this approach will be applied to the Nature Directives.
The public consultation is part of a ‘Fitness Check’ (a test of whether a regulation is fit for purpose) of the Nature Directives, launched by the European Commission last year. The Fitness Check involves collating evidence from a range of sources across Europe, but the public consultation launching today will be the only formal opportunity for the citizens of Europe, including you, to have their say in this process.
Whilst the Fitness Check itself will be looking at the evidence, the decision the European Commission makes as a result of it will inevitably be a political one. Given that, without a massive demonstration of public support for the Directives, the RSPB and many other NGOs are concerned that this review will lead to the Nature Directives being weakened.
We need to remind our politicians that the Directives were established on the smart principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage by trashing their natural environment AND that attempts to meet international commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity will be seriously undermined if the Directives were weakened.
We’re working with partners across the UK and EU to ensure that European leaders are left in no doubt that the citizens of the UK and Europe care passionately about nature and won’t tolerate a weakening of its protection.
That is why, after the General Election, we will be launching a major campaign to defend the Directives. We will be asking as many of you as possible to respond to the public consultation – and to encourage your friends and family to do the same.
You’ll hear more about the campaign soon but in the meantime, please get ready to defend nature.
Ben Andrew's image is a reminder of the stimulus that the EU Birds Directive gave to the recovery of the bittern
Andy Hay's image of Dibden Bay, a site that was saved from development by the Nature Directives
Today, Chris Packham urges you to vote for the Hen Harrier as our National Bird as part of David Lindo's Vote National Bird Campaign. Please read what Chris has to say. At the end of this post, my colleague Julie Crisp has provided an update from our Skydancer programme - designed to raise awareness and promote the conservation of our most threatened bird of prey.
I would like to implore you to vote for the hen harrier to be our National bird and here’s why . . .
Firstly, and fundamentally, because a great many of you would need to vote for a bird you have never seen or only rarely glimpsed. Yet it is a species which you could see, enjoy and be in awe of nearly every day where ever you live. You are being robbed of this natural treasure by one simple thing . . . illegal persecution and at the current rate, your children or grandchildren will not have this bird on their British list. Vote hen harrier.
Secondly, as much as we love our robins and wrens and blackbirds, these species will not directly benefit from winning. But if the hen harrier was our National Bird it would be a relentless and significant embarrassment to allow this persecution to continue and there would need to be real action taken to stem its demise. Vote hen harrier.
Lastly, I’m therefore asking you to make a strategic vote, perhaps not to vote for your favourite species, one that you love to see or hear or one which has some genuine and heartfelt attachment for you. Ask yourself, in these times of conservation crisis . . . can you honestly afford that luxury? Or would you rather actively contribute to some actual positive protection with a few simple prods of your fingers? Which would the future young bird lovers of the UK thank you for? Please think and then please vote hen harrier.
Skydancer update from Julie Crisp
We have been working with Haltwhistle Film Project to create a 10 minute film about hen harriers, which you can now watch at www.rspb.org.uk/skydancer.
Part of the National Lottery award-winning Skydancer project, this film outlines some of the issues surrounding hen harriers, England’s most threatened bird of prey. Filmed in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Derbyshire, it deals with the often challenging relationship between the grouse shooting and the nature conservation communities. Featuring interviews from all sides of the argument, as well as beautiful animations, it is both an informative and thought-provoking film about a spectacular bird.
Its early in the season, but we’re all hopeful. At this time of the year, everything is up in the air and we can never be sure if it will be a good or bad year, but one thing we can be sure of is that RSPB will be working with our partners to give England’s hen harriers the best possible chance of nesting successfully. We’ll keep you updated, hopefully with good news.