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 news of three hen harriers vanishing in as many weeks has rightly received a lot of media interest and concern (for example see here and here). History* tells us that the most likely reason is illegal persecution but, unfortunately, not everyone seems as intent on helping us and the police find out what happened.
Hay fever, summer colds, England’s search for an opening batsman to partner Alastair Cook. Some things just will not go away. It appears we can add the steady stream of Ian Botham fronted “You Forgot the Birds” press releases to that list.
When a press release (now covered in the Daily Telegraph, see here) landed on my desk yesterday announcing that England's second-highest Test wicket-taker had decided to wade into hen harrier conservation, I honestly thought it was a joke. My suspicions were raised still further when I read the release and discovered Mr Botham was offering £10,000 to anyone who could take the eggs from one of the failed Bowland hen harrier nests into an aviary, raise the chicks and release them back into the wild. These would be the eggs which had been abandoned and were no longer viable. The RSPB is committed to bringing the hen harrier back from the brink of extinction, but we’ve not yet worked out how to bring them back to life. I can only assume Mr Botham is getting a little too excited about the new Jurassic Park film and is confusing fact and fiction again.
I could go on, poking fun at some of the surreal suggestions set out (I really could, I’ve had references to Monty Python from colleagues), but I’m not going to. It would be wrong to make light of what is in reality a very serious issue – hen harriers remain on the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England and three birds have disappeared from their last stronghold in a matter of weeks.
Nor am I going to go through and offer yet another point by point rebuttal of why brood management scheme isn’t justified on legal, moral or conservation grounds. I’ve done that plenty of times before (see here, here and here).
Instead I’m going to respond to one of Mr Botham’s points and one point only. I try to respond rationally to almost every situation and, away from sport, I’m not given to spasms of emotion. But the statement from Mr Botham that the RSPB are “rubbish at conservation” is just egregiously wrong.
At the end of last year, I was delighted to report on a huge range of RSPB achievements on and off our nature reserves (see here). These are not the achievements of a "rubbish" organisation. To come out with such offensive, ill-informed comments as that, I can only assume Mr Botham has never met any of the staff and volunteers I am honoured to work with. Indeed, my offer to show Ian Botham the work we do on and off our reserves has yet to be accepted.
One final thought. Buried at the bottom of the list of editor’s notes in the press release is this gem – “The You Forgot The Birds Campaign is funded by the British grouse industry”. Now many of us may have suspected this, but I don’t think they’ve claimed this in public before and who knows if they really do represent the whole industry.
It’s also interesting to note grouse shooting being referred to as an ‘industry. In many ways this seems right – after all, on some intensive grouse moors of northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, red grouse are produced on an industrial scale for shooting. Yet, any industry's licence to operate is in part dependent on social and environmental impact. This is why I have repeatedly said that the industry representatives should have a zero tolerance of illegal killing of birds of prey and do more to restore our uplands. Standards of social responsibility and delivering for the public good are concepts which seem notably absent from the You Forgot the Birds rhetoric.
The cause of hen harrier’s continued rarity and the solution to tackle this is clear. The RSPB will continue to focus on ending illegal persecution, rather than Ian Botham's dubiously legal nest-interference scheme based on half-truths and prejudices.
*Male hen harriers disappearing while part of an active nesting attempt is exceptionally unusual in most habitats. A 2008 Natural England report “A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?”, found that it was almost never recorded in most habitats, while nearly 70% of nesting attempts which failed on grouse moors, did so because an adult disappeared (see figure 4 on page 14). Government-commissioned research (here) has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight. What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.
During the election campaign a friend of mine, who is a vicar, gave a sermon where he argued that voters should, amongst other things, look to those prepared to give up power. He said, “Whenever any group tries to claim too much of it for themselves and allows themselves to think it belongs to them, trouble follows... We should therefore look for policies and parties that are ready to give away power rather than accumulate it. And we should look for and pray for political leaders who show us that they understand the temptations that power brings, and that they don’t believe it belongs to them, or that it is their’s by right.” He sailed close but not too close to the political wind and I think that his words had impact with his congregation. Irrespective of your views on Christianity, I think there is something in this for all of us. It is not a message against authority rather a warning for those that lead. I have been reflecting on his words since I appeared in the BBC Wildlife Magazine's “Power List“ which was published last week.
I was, of course, flattered if slightly embarrassed to appear in the list. But, I’ll take it for the team! Yet, it was great to see people from across the nature conservation community included in the list. It was lovely, for example, to see my colleague Dave Sexton noted for the work he does in protecting and showcasing the wonders of the wildlife of Mull. There are many Dave Sextons out there and I am sure that he won’t mind me saying that his inclusion was acknowledgement of all the passionate conservationists trying to save and celebrate their patch of our islands. But it was also good to see the next generation represented - people like Lucy McRobert and Findlay Wilde who are already having such an impact. The future is safe in their hands. It made me wonder who I’d like to see in a power list in the future. I was struck by how few in the list had real power. Many of us have influence, but few have power. And perhaps that is why nature is in such a parlous state. So here is my top ten fantasy list of the types of people I’d like to see represented in any future list. If BBC Wildlife editorial team felt confident in publishing such a list in the future, I’d feel that we had turned the corner and were beginning to do what it takes to live in harmony with nature...- Commissioner Karmeu Vella who would have been recognised for defending the EU Nature Directives - A supermarket boss who had made huge strides to clean up their supply chain- A newspaper editor who had been prepared to profile nature conservation issues regularly on the first 3 pages of their newspaper- The Environment Secretary of the day driving and celebrating progress towards the 25 year plan for nature- A politician that resigns from their ministerial position over a poor decision that harms nature- A property developer that had raised standards in building homes with nature in mind- A leader of a shooting organisation who stood up against those that persist in illegal killing of birds of prey- A spokesperson for the NFU saying that enough is enough and the farming community must address the crisis facing farmland wildlife- Local activists like those in the Friends of North Kent Marshes that stand up against major vested interests to protect the places that they love- All those people that help to give nature a home in their gardens and communities I would happily give up my place on the list for any of the above. Who would you like to see on a future BBC Wildlife Magazine Power List? I and the BBC would love to hear your views.
Last Friday, about an hour after Mr Cameron had visited the Queen to ask her to form a new Government, the Environment Agency announced that it had refused two water abstraction licence renewal applications that were threatening rare wildlife found on Sutton and Catfield Fens.
This was extremely good news and shows that the system to protect our finest wildlife sites is working!
As I have written previously (see here and here), these sites in the Broads are of international importance and possibly contain the largest number of threatened species in the whole of the UK including some very rare water beetles and plants like the beautiful and delicate Fen Orchid (of which the site holds more than 90% of the UK population).
The RSPB supported the decision to refuse the licences and presented significant evidence that strengthened the case. The evidence presented was scrutinised by Natural England who agreed that refusing the licences was the only option available to the Environment Agency.
Taken together the two sites are part of the Broads Special Area of Conservation designated under the EU Habitats and Species Directive (one of the two laws that are currently being reviewed by the European Commission).
Water has been abstracted adjacent to Catfield since 1986 to irrigate arable crops. Recent evidence indicates that the site has become more acidic, and drier, and this is threatening some of the country's rarest species. We were not advocating that there should be no water dependent agriculture within the Catfield Fen area. However, given the importance of these sites, we have been advocating the need for water to be managed responsibly.
My message to those intent on weakening the Directives is to back off. This case is an example of a competent authority doing the right thing to protect rare and threatened wildlife including more than 90% of the UK population of an internationally important plants such as Fen Orchid – one of the few UK plants listed on Annex II of the Habitats Directive thereby warranting special protection.
My message to those of you keen to defend the laws that defend nature, is to join the other 76,000 people that have already, since Tuesday, taken part in the Commission consultation by joining our campaign here.
I hope to get back to Sutton and Catfield Fens this summer. I am determined to see its swallowtail butterflies .
Finally, many congratulations to all those involved in get the right result for these two fabulous sites.