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 Friday, the Prime Minister David Cameron called for a big conversation around gulls following highly publicised tragic incidents involving the loss of pets to these birds. Since then, there has been a huge amount of media attention on the relationship between gulls and humans.
As I wrote in an article in the Telegraph today (see here), I think the PM's right. There should be a conversation too, but like any conversation around a highly-charged issue it should bring together everyone in the search for a solution, while recognising there will be no quick fixes – this is going to be a long haul.
Herring gull in close up by my colleague Grahame Madge rspb-images.com
The ultimate aim of any conversation and subsequent action should focus on defusing the tensions between gulls and people in communities across the UK. Gulls should be revered for being part of the seaside experience, rather than being demonised for being troublesome neighbours.
The numbers of gulls nesting on roofs in town and cities has been increasing since it was first recorded over 70 years ago. However, among the flurry of wings and constant calling, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that gull numbers in the UK are falling alarmingly. The herring gull – the familiar ‘seagull’ – is declining since the 1970s and even since the year 2000, the UK has lost almost one third of nesting herring gulls.
Yes numbers are rising in towns and cities (in places like Tynemouth where I shall be at the weekend), and even inland, but overall populations are crashing as their natural colonies on cliffs and rocky islands haemorrhage so quickly that they are in genuine need of conservation help. Herring gulls feature on the Red List of the Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK. As a nesting bird, the herring gull is confined to Europe, and within the European Union, the UK has the largest population (see here). The latest (June 2015) assessment of the status of birds in Europe and the European Union (see here) has listed the herring gull as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN’s EU red list, meaning there is a threat of extinction.
Whether we like it or not we have a special responsibility for the herring gull.
Listen to any radio phone in or scroll through any comments section on news articles and you will find many requests for a gull cull. Let’s think about that for a moment. With many pairs of herring gull in the UK nesting on someone’s roof, that’s a big and expensive programme that would result in the partial eradication of a threatened species, a measure which I would suggest would be unethical, unpalatable and probably illegal.
If this isn’t a good enough reason to think again, there is another reason: it also wouldn’t work.
Gulls are choosing to nest on our buildings for two principal reasons: access to high-rise real estate on which to rear their families above streets where these quick-witted scavengers can find an easy meal. Simply reducing their numbers in urban localities would create a vacuum, sucking more birds into problem areas to be controlled in the next culling program. This is insanity. You’d have to cull on a wide geographic scale year after year for the long term, which is both unsupportable and impractical.
As a society, we have to have to turn the conversation towards long-term evidence based measures which will help reduce conflict. Then we can genuinely start to tackle the problem in ways which don’t endanger a threatened species and which set us on a better path to improving society's relationship with one of our most iconic and charismatic birds.
To this end, yesterday I wrote to Defra and Natural England to propose a National Gull Summit, bringing together expertise from the wildlife sector, academics, local and national government to consider the issue and make proposals; to look not only at urban areas, but also how we can best look after our wider marine environment to support healthy seabird populations.
This latter area is hugely important. The underlying issue we must address is that our seas and the wildlife which depend on them are in deep trouble. Delivering measures such as a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas will be a vital part of finding the right solution.
There’s so much we need to learn about these birds, and this is a real opportunity to look at how we can live comfortably with our wild companions, and do the best for both birds and people.
I spent yesterday in Defra talking about its two 25 year plans - for food and farming and a separate one for biodiversity. There is a rather obvious need to broaden the farming strategy beyond growth objectives and to align the two pieces of work (more on this soon), but it was good ministers and officials engaged and listening.
I emerged to find that the Government had reneged on its commitment to ban fracking from SSSIs (see blog from my colleague, Matt Williams here). My initial thought was that this must be a cock-up. Here is a Government that has committed to restoring nature in a generation and surely they'd stick to Amber Rudd's promise when she said in January "we have agreed an outright ban on fracking in national parks [and] sites of special scientific interest”?
But then I read the response from Decc that said the number of SSSIs "would have an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry." So the intention is clear - fracking in SSSIs is fair game. This is going to be one hell of a test for the the National Planning Policy Framework. Developers will now feel that they can chance their arm and target SSSIs expecting to make the case that the benefits outweigh the costs.
This completely runs roughshod over existing Defra SSSI commitments in the England Biodiversity Strategy and undermines its ambitions to restore nature in a generation. Nature conservation starts in protected areas and we need more, bigger, better and connected sites if we are to halt the loss of biodiversity.
Over the summer, we shall make the case why this is a wrong-headed decision and hope to convince parliamentarians to vote against this ruling when the law is voted on after summer recess.
The publication of new RSPB research (here) outlining the extent of burning in Britain’s uplands reveals some very simple truths...
...burning on peat soils in grouse moors is extensive (see map below) and intensifying (c11% per annum over the past decade – see graph)
...much of this burning takes place on protected areas: 55% of Special Areas of Conservation and 63% of Special Protection Areas that were assessed
...the primary purpose of these sites in law is to achieve their conservation objectives including restoration of degraded peatlands
...burning will prevent restoration
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
What's more, as the Adaptation Sub-Committee (of the Climate Change Committee) pointed out a fortnight ago, 76,000 hectares or 27% of blanket bog have lost peat-forming vegetation due to regular burning. The Committee’s report also highlighted that grouse shooting was the specified purpose for 145 out of 150 consents to burn blanket bog in SSSIs issued by Natural England since 1999: most of those supported by agri-environment funds. All of these consents are in SACs and/or SPAs. There is little doubt this is one of the primary reasons for the poor condition of our upland peat and wildlife is suffering because of it.
And Natural England's own evidence suggests that burning is also bad for carbon and bad for water quality.
So what to do?
It's pretty clear that the status quo is not an option. Down south, Natural England and Defra have developed a blanket bog restoration strategy which will affect its review of those 150 burning consents. It is no longer tolerable for the scale and extent of burning to continue on internationally important sites intended to conserve this globally important habitat. In addition, the Defra led bid for European funding for peat restoration project needs to be prioritised.
I recognise, of course, that this presents challenges to the grouse shooting industry. Yet, I hope it is viewed as a challenge rather than an attack. I’m sure you can have grouse shooting without the damaging burning with which it is often associated.
This is an opportunity for the industry to take responsibility for the environmental damage that it is causing and deliver positive change.
This and other research highlights the extent and intensity of burning across some of our most special sites including internationally important sites. We urgently need to stop burning sensitive peatland habitats and to enable them to recover, so that the vital services they provide for society are protected for future generations.
I hope that this research acts as a turning point in the way that grouse moors are managed, and we’re able to look back on it as a major step towards the industry taking responsibility for its actions and delivering meaningful action to change them for the better.
Map showing extent of moorland burning within 1-km squares classified as deep peat (averaging ≥0.5m) in England and Scotland. Shown are only squares overlying deep peat and with burning present. Legend denotes the percentage areas of moorland burned per 1-km square.
Graph showing trend in the annual number of moorland burns recorded in Scotland, England and Wales, using MODIS satellite recording of thermal events.