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.
As you may have seen in the media coverage yesterday (see here and here), I’m saddened to have to report that a fourth hen harrier nest in Bowland (and the fifth in England*) this year has failed after the adult male disappeared in unexplained circumstances. This is a huge disappointment and heartbreaking for all the RSPB and United Utilities staff and volunteers who put so much into protecting these birds.
I am also saddened that You Forgot The Birds - the grouse industry-funded campaign – have used this news to once again have a pop at the RSPB’s record on hen harrier conservation. This time they are alleging our work to protect hen harriers is causing nests to fail.
YFTB appear to have very up to date knowledge of what is happening on the ground in Lancashire; given the amount of work required to save the harrier, it would be good if they were to share any useful information with the RSPB rather than attacking us, in the interests of conservation, and indeed with the police. The allegations they make are very serious - suggesting wildlife crime has been committed. If YFTB have any evidence to back up these claims, they should responsibly report it to the police, as we would ask any responsible person or group with information relating to a crime to do. Indeed we cannot understand why this has not already been done.
I have neither the time nor inclination to give a blow by blow rebuttal and would rather dedicate my time and energy to the huge amount of work required to save this beautiful bird and suspect that those who support the RSPB would agree. Suffice it to say, it seems sensible to remind everyone that the nests in question failed after the male birds disappeared while out hunting, leaving the females with no option but to abandon their respective nests.
Obviously the real issue here, is the survival of the hen harriers. A wealth of scientific studies, including the UK Government's own reports, indicate the link with illegal persecution. To save hen harriers, we must end illegal persecution. No ifs, buts or maybes. We know the primary constraint on hen harrier populations, so if we are to bring the species back from the brink of extinction as an English breeding species we must focus squarely on bringing an end to illegal persecution. The RSPB and our partners are committed to doing just this.
The RSPB's staff and volunteers on the ground do an incredible job of trying to protect hen harrier nests around the clock.
I saw our Geltsdale team in action when I visited the site three weeks ago. From a hut a safe distance from the nest site where we conduct the surveillance, I was lucky enough to see the nesting pair in action. It was a special moment but it made me angry that in 21st century Britain our dedicated team of staff and volunteers have to watch over these nests 24 hours a day.
This year’s hen harrier season has been a rollercoaster but we remain cautiously optimistic that there will be a handful of successful nests. My thoughts though go to those people who are on the ground, living and breathing this every minute of every day. Their job is one of the most emotionally draining in conservation. They work in extremely difficult conditions and their dedication, passion and expertise is second to none. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude and I am proud and honoured to call them my colleagues.
With news like this it’s sometimes difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel for hen harriers. But despite these setbacks and despite all the other nonsense we have to deal with, I am absolutely confident we will save the hen harrier in England – it is at the heart of this charity’s mission. It’s the passion of these staff and volunteers as well as all our supporters who have contacted us over the last few weeks, urging us to stay the course, that gives me that confidence.
So, I’d like to finish what has been a challenging few weeks by sending a crystal clear message of thanks to everyone for your support, whether it’s to those out on the hill protecting our hen harriers, or those you that have sent us letters of support to help keep us going. We will stay the course. We will save our hen harriers. And it will be thanks to you and your efforts.
*The nest at Geltsdale failed in similar circumstances when a male disappeared leaving the female to abandon her nest.
You may have seen some media stories today about an estate that was gifted to us in a will.
We are enormously grateful to those people who are kind enough to leave money and other assets to us in their wills and we always do our best to be respectful of their wishes. On the rare occasions when it is just not possible to comply with some or all of the wishes of the deceased, then we will work with their families and executors to reach the best outcome that will benefit wildlife and honour the memory of those who have passed away.
When people leave us a legacy, our Trustees have a duty to ensure that any decisions relating to them are made in line with our charitable objectives, safeguarding the legacy’s value, assessing its best use and, of course, keeping in mind the wishes of the person leaving the gift.
Having held for many years the land left to us by Mrs Rhead we have concluded that it has very little current or potential value for wildlife and therefore we have an obligation to consider other options. We have been doing this in consultation with the appropriate people, including the person who acted as executor of Mrs Rhead’s estate. They are satisfied that selling the land in order to buy and maintain other land that has greater wildlife benefits would be in keeping with Mrs Rhead's wishes. The land is allocated for development in the draft Local Plan and the final decision about whether it should be built upon will be made by Cheshire East Council in accordance with the local planning process.
A couple of hours ago I posted a short statement in response to some media stories about an estate that was generously given to us I've asked Andre Farrar who has worked for the RSPB for over 30 years and for much of that time in the North West of England to reflect on the difficult and challenging decisions that any responsible charity has to take.
Over my many years working for the RSPB some of my most moving and inspirational moments have come when I’ve had the chance to meet individuals who are considering leaving us a legacy – a gift that after they have gone will help to ensure nature has a safer future.
I never met Mrs Rhead – although I like to think she may have been in the audience when I hosted RSPB film shows in her home town of Congleton many years ago. The land bequeathed to us over a decade ago was a generous and precious gift. The piece of land in Someford came with the wish that the land be looked after to benefit wildlife – but in the decade since circumstances have changed. The land has now been identified in the draft Local Plan as an area for housing development and it has become clear that the wildlife value of the land in question is limited with little real scope to improve it.
So what to do?
We have always believed that Mrs Rhead’s intention was that her gift should be used to benefit birds and wildlife and that is a view that has been supported by the individual who acted as executor to her will – but of course we can never actually know, we have to take a judgement based on new circumstances.
And this isn’t an optional choice – when we are left a legacy our Trustees have a duty to ensure that any decisions are made in line with our charitable objectives, safeguarding the legacy’s value, assessing its best use and, of course, keeping in mind the wishes of the person leaving the gift.
Taking a decision to sell this land is not one we are taking lightly and ensuring that we are talking to the right people has been an essential part of our consideration but having held the land left to us by Mrs Rhead for several years, we have now concluded that our obligation to use this gift in the best way to save nature means we need to consider other options so that her precious gift can be directly used to save nature.
We have not yet concluded that process.
After satisfying ourselves, as best we can, that we can honour the spirit of Mrs Rhead’s gift – we are taking our lead from the draft Local Plan and it is important to be completely clear – the final decision on whether it should be built upon will be made by Cheshire East Council in accordance with the local planning process – and we will respect that decision.
We have talked to the Parish Council who – inevitably – reflect the strong views of local people and we want to continue those discussions calmly and constructively.
Our gratitude to people who are kind enough to leave money or other assets to us in their wills is profound – and we will always do our best to be respectful of their wishes. On the rare occasions when it is just not possible to comply with some or all of the wishes of the deceased, then we will work with their families and executors to reach the best outcome that will benefit wildlife and honour the memory of those who have passed away.