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.
Details of the Comprehensive Spending Review emerged today, a fortnight after the Budget (see here). There were two stand-out headlines...
...cuts of between 25%-40% for unprotected departments such as Defra and Decc
...disposal of public land for 150,000 new houses
While these announcements will send tremors across Whitehall and have consequences for government activity across the country, there is also real jeopardy for nature. Landowners, businesses and civil society organisations all have their part to play in addressing environmental challenges and the RSPB is obviously doing what we can through practical conservation and by inspiring action from others.
But there are some things that only government can do and the spending review must not undermine its capacity to do its job. We'll inevitably want to say more about this in due course, but my instincts are that to avoid seriously undermining its own nature ambitions, the government will have to do at least five things.
1. Protect the bits of the budget that deliver the most for nature especially the match funding of Countryside Stewardship which supports wildlife-friendly farming. At the moment, Defra/the Exchequer has promised to supplement CAP funding to the tune of £558m up to 2020. What's more, now feels a good time to enact the previous Secretary of State Owen Paterson's promise to transfer the maximum 15% from direct farm support to bolster these schemes which deliver the most public value for public money (see here).
2. Retain the capacity of agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency to enable them to fulfill their statutory obligations to protect our finest wildlife sites, meet water quality targets and recover our most threatened species. Reform of agencies may be back on the table but before new talk of merger kicks off once again, I would simply repeat arguments about the need to decouple operational functions from regulatory functions (for example see here).
3. Value the contribution that thousands of volunteers make to providing the evidence about the health of the natural world by continue to provide support for some of our most important monitoring schemes. In fact, go further and defend the departments remaining research budget. The current Secretary of State, Liz Truss, has made the case for the value of data, so it would be smart to continue to invest in its collection.
4. Safeguard public land of high environmental value and don't trade it away to the highest bidder . Go further and set the standards to others by improving the wildlife value of public land.
5. Secure sufficient civil servant capacity in Defra and the Treasury to Initiate a review of innovative finance for nature. The Natural Capital Committee's seven recommendations (here) would be an excellent place to start.
And one more thing, I hope that all civil servants re-read the NCC report which makes a compelling case as to why and how the natural environment underpins our prosperity. The message remains that it makes economic sense to invest in nature.
Over the summer, we shall do what we can to ensure decisions politicians make help rather than hinder ambitions to restore nature. I'll return to this subject in due course.
In the meantime, what do you think we need to do to protect government's capacity to play its part in restoring nature?
It would be great to hear your views.
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.
Today I am delighted to welcome Gill Moore from the Friends of North Kent Marshes – a local campaign group – to talk about why the Nature Directives are so important to her local community, and the special places they love. Gill is pictured below (on the right) with former MP Mark Reckless and another of the driving forces behind FONKM, Joan Darwell. Together with George Crozier, Gill and Joan have formed a formidable team.
The Greater Thames Estuary is protected under local, national and international law - with the Nature Directives being the strongest laws of all. It is a spectacular wetland of global importance, extremely rich in wildlife. There are tens of thousands of birds that live here, as well as hundreds of thousands of overwintering and migratory birds that travel here annually along the East Atlantic flyway from as far away as the Arctic in the North and Africa in the South.
Set in a landscape that inspired Charles Dickens to write the opening scene of his novel ‘Great Expectations’ is RSPB Cliffe Pools. The reserve contains 10% of the UK’s saline lagoons, a very rare habitat, where you can watch huge flocks of thousands of birds such as dunlin and black-tailed godwits as they wheel in the skies. The grasslands are great places to watch marsh harriers, merlins, peregrines and owls hunting. In spring you can listen to the song of the nightingale and the call of the cuckoo. These protected habitats are vitally important for lots of other wildlife too, such as harbour porpoise, harbour seals, grey seals, bottlenose dolphins, sea horses, rare bumblebees, the scarce emerald damsel fly and the water vole.
We are passionate about the wild places on our doorstep, and determined that they will be protected for future generations. For the North Kent Marshes, and for many other internationally important wildlife sites across Europe, that protection is delivered by the Directives. We are keenly aware of the strength of the EU Nature Directives and why that strength must be upheld, because we have witnessed first-hand their ability to protect the wildlife and habitats we hold dear. These laws were instrumental in stopping an airport at Cliffe in 2003 and, more recently, in September 2014, when the UK Airports Commission ruled out building an airport anywhere in the Greater Thames Estuary or on the Hoo Peninsula.
Indeed, when Sir Howard Davies delivered the Airports Commission Final Report on the 1st July this year he said that a Thames estuary airport ‘was not a plausible option’ that ‘there was a whole series of reasons why an estuary airport simply did not stack up’ and that ‘there were very serious environmental obstacles to constructing an airport in the Thames estuary. There are important breeding sites for birds, you would have to provide an alternative to them. The European Directives say that you can only take away that habitat if it’s the only place you can build an airport and we don’t think we could claim that that was the case’
We were appalled when EU President Juncker said the Nature Directives were old and must be “overhauled and modernised”, because alongside many experts we felt this would simply lead to them being weakened. The fact is that the Nature Directives form the very foundation of modern nature conservation, and politicians should not be trying to weaken them. Instead, they should be celebrating what they have achieved, and focussing on what they can achieve in the future.
Any weakening of these laws could put our most important wildlife sites in the Thames, Medway and Swale estuaries in peril. The Nature Directives are in place to protect our world class natural heritage and we must not sit idly by and allow this protection to be eroded. If it were it would be an ecological catastrophe!
We urge everyone to respond to this important consultation to show massive support for these nature laws. It is imperative that we do this now, because without strong laws to protect it - your nature, our nature, our children’s nature, could all be gone in the blink of an eye.
Friends of North Kent Marshes