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.
After the wet Bank Holiday weekend I am looking forward to going to Hope Farm tomorrow. It will be good to catch up with our farm manager, Ian Dillon, to hear about harvest and results from this year’s breeding season. Together we’ll be hosting some new visitors and, as ever, it will be interesting to see how they respond to what we have achieved over the past 15 years or so.
Arable flowers at Hope Farm this year
We’re still learning and testing new techniques, but want as many people as possible to hear how we have managed to increase farmland bird populations while maintaining healthy yields. And, we want government to be curious about how to maintain farm profitability while enhancing the natural world.
Defra has the opportunity to create the right policy framework through its proposed 25 year food and farming strategy. Yet, when I attended the launch of the consultation earlier in the summer, I was disappointed that the focus was on growing the brand of Great British Food to encourage exports.
If we want our countryside to be a thriving place in 25 years time (for me that means providing a home for wildlife as well as producing sustainable healthy food for all) then we need to look beyond short term economic boosts to exports. We need to think deeply about how we can support farmers to invest in their soils and manage for a diverse countryside which is rich in nature and resilient to the challenges of climate change. There are many fantastic farmers who are doing great things for nature and producing great food (you can read about them on our farming blog) and I know there are many others who would like to do more if conditions allowed.
The challenges of our food and farming system are inextricably linked to those of nature, health and climate change. The Square Meal report published last year, which RSPB helped produce, describes these challenges. I would urge Defra to revisit this report and use it to reframe their approach to food and farming and to ensure it complements the 25 Year Plan for Biodiversity.
Perhaps the Plan we envisage is a little more challenging that one simply focusing on exports. Yet, a plan which recognises the challenges faced across government on wildlife declines, obesity and climate change is more likely to ensure that in 25 years time we truly have a Great British Countryside which we can all be proud of.
You can find out more about Defra's 25 year Plan here and Hope Farm here. Better still, why not keep 5 June free for Open Farm Sunday and visit Hope Farm next year.
My first week back after an excellent holiday ended with a visit to Birdfair on Friday. It was a great to bump in to so many friends and there was a lovely, warm atmosphere. It felt like one, big birding family epitomised by over 20 Birdlife International Partners from five continents represented at the RSPB reception hosted by my boss, Mike Clarke.
Earlier that day, we (and I mean 'we' given that the RSPB is the UK Partner of Birdlife) had launched a new report looking at the scale of illegal killing of wild birds across the Mediterranean. It is staggering to think that at least 25 million birds are being poisoned, trapped or shot illegally every year. We don't yet know the conservation implications of of this activity, but given the many other pressures on wildlife it is clear that the illegal killing will only compound existing threats such as habitat destruction and pollution.
Yet, despite the appalling figures, it was inspiring to hear from the heads of the Lebanese and Egyptian partners outlining the efforts they are making to crack down on illegal killing. Birdlife partners across the region are working with police, government authorities and local people to end this crime. And this is the approach we adopt in the UK and RSPB investigation staff were busy all weekend at Birdfair talking to people concerned about the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey in this country.
So many of the problems that wildlife face are trans-national - climate change being the most obvious. And, saving migratory species such as Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Nightingale and Wood Warbler is only possible through collaboration across borders. This is why Birdlife is so important. We can only save nature by acting together as was demonstrated this summer when, in just ten weeks, more than 520,000 European citizens called on the European Commission to defend the EU Nature Directives.
Returning to the office after a holiday can sometimes be challenging especially when you hear news of another Hen Harrier shot and that SSSIs are not safe from fracking (of the 27 blocks of land that will be formally offered to fracking companies for exploration, they included 53 SSSIs and three RSPB nature reserves - Dearne Valley, Fairburn Ings and Langford Lowfields, see here). But by the end of the week, as well as being buoyed by Birdfair and Birdlife exploits, I'd heard loads of good news stories coming in from across the RSPB (Cranes breeding on the Somerset Levels for the first time in 400 years, Brown Hares recovering at Havergate and our new involvement in Sherwood Forest).
It's wrong to stay gloomy for long.
In his very good opening speech to Birdfair, Simon Bentley (Director of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust) quoted Simon Barnes who suggested there was a third way between pessimism and optimism where we strive to to save as many glorious species and places as possible while we still can.
I like that sentiment - it seems to just about sum up the work of Birdlife International and the whole nature conservation family.
And it also allows me to show a gratuitous holiday picture of Coquet Island - another glorious place full of glorious seabirds where our warden, Paul Morrison, has led our conservation efforts for a quarter of a century. He and his team have a lot to be proud about: Coquet is now home to a record breaking 100 pairs of Roseate Terns alongside 35,000 other nesting seabirds. Thanks to Paul, I was able to step foot on the island after twenty years staring at it from my hut on the Northumberland coast. It was an absolute privilege to experience first hand the cacophony and smell of the UK's Roseate stronghold. I was also very happy to get back onto the mainland (but that's another story)
So, if you are part of this great big, birding family, my post holiday message is simple - do what you can in pursuit of Simon Barnes' third way.
In the second post showcasing our reserves, Patrick Cashman talks about how nature can recover, given a helping hand...
Collectively, RSPB nature reserves make a significant contribution to preserving some of the UK’s best natural sites, habitats and landscapes.
However, as seminal documents like the State of Nature report remind us, nature is in deep trouble and much of our natural heritage has been worn away, rather like a threadbare carpet. In some areas you can, thankfully, still determine the pattern, so protecting and enhancing what remains is a clear priority.
Putting it back
But in areas where the pattern has worn away completely, you have to start putting it back. When recreating lost landscapes, this means managing the land not for what you have today, but what you’d like tomorrow. In other words you have to start again.
In 2005, the RSPB bought an arable farm at Winterbourne Downs, in Wiltshire, on which to recreate chalk grassland. Where there was once a blanket of cereal crops, we wanted to see a carpet of wild flowers.
The reserve lies between Porton Down and Salisbury Plain, the largest remaining expanses of chalk grassland in the UK, and it is intended to be a stepping stone to enable species to move through the landscape.
We’ve harvested seed from Salisbury Plain and other chalk grassland sites to convert cereal fields into chalk grassland. It’s worked really well and there are now beautiful meadows, buzzing with insects and gloriously colourful with flowers.
The flatness of the heavily-tilled former arable fields meant that the micro-climatic conditions across the site were too similar, inhibiting variety.
For example, butterflies can be very sensitive to small changes in temperature so creating varied conditions would give the reserve lots of options for butterflies throughout the day and the season. Creating variety is also one of the ways we can help make sites resilient to climate change.
To solve this problem we came up with the idea of big butterfly banks. Working with Butterfly Conservation we designed and built two large curved banks, formed from the underlying chalk, snaking across the site, providing areas which would warm up throughout day.
A blizzard of butterflies
The bare chalk on the banks has also made great conditions for specialist chalk-grassland plants. You can read more about how the banks work in our Winterbourne Downs showcase.
It really came home to me that the banks were working when we were looking at them on the hottest day of the year so far. The main insect activity had moved to the cooler shadier area, the opposite of what I see on a typical British summer day!
It’s been a good year for butterflies at Winterbourne Downs, especially small tortoiseshells and the chequerboard marbled whites.
The most notable sight has been the blizzard of hundreds of small blue butterflies on the wing, a target chalk grassland specialist and Britain’s smallest resident butterfly, with some now over two kilometres away from their original colony and many using the new big banks.
On one of our “Bug hunt and meadow safari” public events we discovered an even more significant species: a six-belted clearwing. This harmless and nationally-scarce moth, with its ‘clear’ wings, mimics a bee.
Orchids have really benefited from our management and several varieties have been increasing in number and spreading across the reserve.
This year we were really pleased to find 70 pyramidal orchids and six fragrant orchids on areas of relict grassland, and green-winged and common-spotted orchids on fields that were under cultivation just a few years ago.
Finally, we manage Winterbourne Downs for the stone-curlew as well as chalk grassland habitat. Since we have been managing the reserve, stone-curlew numbers have increased from zero and we now have five pairs regularly nesting.
Nature has amazing powers of recovery when you give it a helping hand.