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 conservation sector is built on the strength of its dedicated and passionate volunteers.
I’m therefore sad to have to report the loss of one of our most passionate champions for birds of prey. The reflections at the end of this represent just a small fraction of my colleagues who knew and loved Mick. If we’d have included everyone, this would have been a book.
Thank you to Steve Downing from the Northern England Raptor Forum for writing this short obituary.
26 August 1947 – 21 October 2015
Mick was born in Lancashire, and as a young boy he visited the moors to see short-eared owls and other upland birds. These first impressions would eventually lead to his passion for ornithology.
His working life started on a hill farm before joining the RAF Regiment. At 30 years of age he was invalided out of military service and he returned to farming. Unfortunately his old back injury forced him out of farming and he took on several environment based jobs including working on an RSPB reserve.
He worked tirelessly on behalf of birds as President of Scarborough Field Naturalists, Chairman of the Ryedale Naturalists, Regional BTO Representative, Executive Committee member of the Whitby Naturalists Club and Yorkshire Naturalist’ Union, Chairman of the South Ryedale & East Yorkshire Raptor Study Group and member of NERF.
Mick had a particular passion for hen harrier and worked as a volunteer for NE. Despite recent poor health he continued to get into the uplands to study birds. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and passed away in October.
NERF and the RSPB would like to celebrate Mick’s achievements and extend our sympathies to his wife Helene and his family.
Memories of Mick
I remember once listening to Radio 4’s Today programme about conflicts in the uplands when Mick’s distinctive voice emanated from the radio. He was particularly annoyed because his two traditional merlin nest sites had just been burnt so he described the moors as nothing more than 'grouse factories'. He had strong views which he put across simply but eloquently, and grouse factories is a phrase that has stayed with me.
Right to the very end he was still telephoning me to ensure that things we discussed with were going to continue after he was gone. The very last thing he wanted was recognition for North Yorkshire’s Nightjar population as a Special Protection Area. Having spent many years travelling round at night counting them, he wanted to make sure his data was being put to good use.
Tim MellingSenior Conservation OfficerRSPB
RSPB staff seconded to the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project [LMDP] really enjoyed his two visits to Langholm Moor in 2015. Despite his illness, he made a tremendous contribution to the task of locating nests on the moor, whilst the Hen Harriers displayed overhead. It was an immensely enjoyable day for everyone. He made a very valuable contribution to the protection of birds of prey in general and Hen Harriers in particular. He leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.
Staffan RoosSenior Conservation ScientistRSPB
Mick was a unique character. When you picked up the phone and hear that distinctive “Now then!”, you knew it was best to clear your diary for the next hour or so. But you also knew you were going to hear some insightful analysis of the issues of the day, delivered in that straightforward, down to earth manner that made Mick such a passionate advocate.
We sometimes get wrapped up in the details and I often think we could do with a few more Micks, to cut through the nonsense and tell us all exactly how it is. Birds of prey and hen harriers in particular, are undoubtedly Mick’s legacy. One of the last things Mick said to me was to make sure we kept fighting for them. That leaves us no choice. For Mick, we must keep fighting, and we must win.
Jeff KnottHead of Nature PolicyRSPB
When I visited him shortly after he started treatment, all Mick would talk about was the hen harrier he’d spotted from the car on the way home from hospital, and the new 4x4 he was planning to get, so he could access more places to go birding! Typical Mick – a more determined and passionate soul you couldn’t find. Incredibly sad and a huge loss for bird of prey conservation.
Blanaid DenmanHen Harrier Life Project ManagerRSPB
I had the honour of presenting Mick with an RSPB Avocet badge, in recognition of over 25 years of tireless volunteering. He contributed in so many different ways, from those early days at Blacktoft Sands; to helping with the Yorkshire Belle, on the RSPB Skua and Shearwater Cruises; or safeguarding the vulnerable nest sites of his beloved Harriers.
His passion for birds and conservation never waned. Even in his last days he lay, dressed from head to toe in his Paramo outdoor gear, watching from his bed in the garden of St Catherine’s hospice, celebrating a Marsh Harrier passing overhead – a magic moment. I hope we can do Mick proud and turn one of his last wishes into reality by working together to safeguard one of the most extraordinary areas of coastal scrubland in Yorkshire, at RAF Cowden.
Keith ClarksonBempton Cliffs Site ManagerRSPB
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Mick in early 2013 in Oman where he was combining his love of birds with a visit to the area he was stationed in while serving with the RAF Regiment in the 1970s. His recounting of tough times and serious military action, while we birded around the wadis and khawrs, was punctuated by frequent commentary of “ooh, look, a Short-toed Eagle..” and the like.
Relaxed, affable and completely content to engage anyone we crossed paths with in conversation, doors magically opened to Mick when he revealed his military past in the country. He was treated, rightly, like royalty. He proudly took us to the scenic and fragrant rubbish dump in Salalah, in Southern Oman, where he’d seen ‘a few’ eagles two days previously. His look of satisfaction and happiness while we stood surrounded by 400 Steppe Eagles was wonderful to see.
Guy AndersonPrincipal Research ManagerRSPB
When I moved to the RSPB's Newcastle Office I soon came into contact with Mick through the hen harrier hotline. Being a southerner I struggled understanding the names of the sites he used to leave in his messages, so I would often end up calling him back. Mick decided the best way to acclimatise me was to take me on a tour of the North York Moors and so the next week we met up in Pickering and headed out onto the Moors.
Part of this introduction was to meet a number of gamekeepers, the first was a face to face meeting with a gamekeeper who was keen to have a frank exchange of views with someone from the RSPB about all the negative press produced about his profession. Thanks Mick! After a robust start to the conversation we soon settled into talking about species that were close to all our hearts - lapwing, barn owl and kestrel. I think I passed the test.
Over the next few years I was privileged to go out a number of times, it was never a dull trip for me and I learnt much about upland management issues on those days out.
Nick AdamsFormer Area Conservation Manager Northeast England, Yorkshire & HumberRSPB
Mick’s commitment to the protection of Birds of Prey across the North of England is legendary. He was instrumental in forming the SPREYRSG and overseeing the Group integration in to the Northern England Raptor Form.
As you would expect NERF is full of bird of prey experts and Mick was first amongst equals. He was also a man of contradiction. He used his undoubted skill and endless contact list to make projects happen. There was no ‘no’ in Mick’s vocabulary; no compromise. When there was work to do, it was done. Then when it was finished, there was no self-congratulation, just quietly, then not so quietly, moving on to the next protection job. I have been involved in many BoP protection schemes and if I ever got stuck I would simply ask myself ‘what would Mick do?’
Mick has decided that this last contribution to protecting birds of prey will be to haunt the persecutors; the raptor killers. The list is long Mick; no rest for you mate.
Steve DowningCalderdale Raptor Study GroupNERF
It was good to spend today on the banks of the Thames. Waders and waterfowl were feeding on the mudflats while crows and magpies mobbed kestrels and short-eared owls on land. I was there to film a short piece for Channel 4 News on the EU Nature Directives with Stanley Johnson. We were at the Essex Wildlife Trust site, Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, which is a great place to visit but also tells a story about the power of the Directives. It is the location of the Thames Estuary and Marshes Special Protection Area which covers the Mucking Flats on the north side of the Thames as well as the marshes (including RSPB Cliffe Pools) on the south side.
Stanley in conversation with Tom Clarke from Channel 4 News
As I stood on the top of the impressive new visitor centre, I looked down on new habitat being created as compensation for damage caused to the Mucking Flats by the London Gateway port development. The tests in the Directives had been applied, the development went ahead and wildlife was not compromised. It simply reinforced our view that the Nature Directives are good for wildlife, good for business and good for people.
In front of the camera Stanley was on imperious form at one point recasting George Osborne as Henry VIII (although I think he meant Henry II). He was responding to reports from a Dutch MEP, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, that suggested that the UK Government had been lobbying to open up the Directives. You can watch his performance here. Channel 4 did manage to get a quote from Defra but that did little to scotch the rumours.
What is clear, we cannot be complacent about the future of the laws that underpin nature conservation across Europe. So, I urge you (here) to write to your MP to encourage Environment Minister Rory Stewart to support the Directives when he attends a crucial Environment Council meeting in December.
And, the next time you travel to the north bank of the Thames (and have already visited the wonderful RSPB Rainham), I encourage you to visit to Thurrock Thameside Nature Park.
This summer, 520,000 European citizens – including over 100,000 from the UK – sent a clear message to the European Commission that they place great value on the laws that protect nature (the EU Nature Directives). By using their voices for nature they have shouted loud and clear that the outcome of the current ‘Fitness Check’ of these laws should be a renewed focus on better implementation and enforcement. They, and a coalition of 100 NGOs from across the four countries of the UK, believe that making changes to these laws at a time when nature is in crisis would fundamentally undermine our collective efforts to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2020.
The Nature Directives are important for protecting special places like the Cairngorms, for driving species recovery like Red Kite and for people such as those living in the North Kent Marshes
But it is clear there are some who hold a different view. These people are quite difficult to identify as they seem to do their business in dark corridors across Europe and seem reluctant to speak publicly. But their main gripes are clear; they argue that the Directives are a ‘burden’ on business and a ‘barrier to growth’.
In many debates about Europe, myths develop that are often based on anecdote rather than an objective assessment of the facts. So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to debunk some of the Nature Directives-related myths so as to encourage others to come forwards and share their views.
Contrary to myth, the Directives are good for nature AND business.
Smart businesses recognise the need to protect biodiversity, and value the clear and consistent level playing afforded by the well-established regulatory framework provided the EU Nature Directives. This provides businesses with certainty and helps to ensure that no Member State can gain a competitive advantage over others through the adoption of lower environmental standards. For example...
...Cemex – a leading supplier of cement, ready-mixed concrete and aggregates – has stated that "... sound and well implemented legislation are important in order to provide a level playing field for industry and stimulate innovation and enhanced performance. The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature."
...Energy UK – the trade association for the UK energy industry – has stated that "[Our members]... are very familiar with the EU Nature Directives and consider that they are very important to nature conservation. The Nature Directives are generally achieving their conservation objectives and we do not wish them to undergo significant revision. Re-opening the Directives would introduce a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to energy project developments that would damage investor confidence at a time when it is vital to deliver new energy infrastructure...that contributes to UK and EU renewable energy targets."
...the European Landowners Association has stated that “One of the principal benefits of the Nature Directives is the extent to which it helps ensure a level playing field...a basic standard of environmental protection which all Member States must meet. This accords with the terms of the Single Market and its requirements for common standards and mutual recognition.”
And both Defra and Decc appear to agree with this view...
...in its submission to ‘Fitness Check’ consultation, Defra stated that the Directives “…provide a level playing field by requiring that Member States all set a broadly similar level of ambition without compromising economic growth.” and that they “ensure that no Member State is able to gain a commercial advantage over another Member through taking lesser action”. In addition, they have “improved the development of conservation measures and raised the level of ambition”.
...and Decc stated that the legislation “...provides a high level of certainty for businesses...even if, in a minority of cases, the Directives do cause difficulties. It is difficult to quantify the financial benefits of the current stable legislative climate. There is a risk that if the Nature Directives were opened up for review with possible changes of an unknown nature and timescale, then this could introduce additional uncertainty which may affect investment decisions. In most cases, costs are considered proportionate to the size of the project and to the level of environmental risk.”
Projects like Wallasea – an innovative partnership project between the RSPB and Crossrail – also highlight the importance of the Nature Directives in driving positive and sustainable developments for people, business, and wildlife.
Contrary to myth, the Directives do not place ‘disproportionate’ or ‘unnecessary’ burdens on business, or act as a block on development.
The UK Government’s own review (the 2012 Habitats and Wild Birds Directives Implementation Review) found no evidence to support the “burden” claim. Instead, it found that “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.”
In particular, the evidence suggests that...
...Of the approx. 27,000 land use consultations received by Natural England each year, less than 0.5% are objected to on Habitats Regulations grounds, and most of these objections are successfully dealt with at the planning stage.
...Defra figures for environmental regulations as a whole suggests that the costs are outweighed 3:1 by the benefits (only some of which can be estimated in monetary terms), and account for less than 2% of industry turnover on average.
This makes it clear - the Directives do not prevent all development; they simply provide the minimum safeguard necessary to ensure that biodiversity is properly taken into account when planning decisions are taken.
Nevertheless, the UK Government review did identify a range of practical solutions to improve implementation and reduce costs within the legislative framework provided by the Directives, including the development of clearer and more consistent guidance, more streamlined licensing processes, introduction of clear conservation objectives for protected sites and improved access to/availability of data (see also protected species below). The recommendations of the review were supported by both businesses and NGOs. Yet, as pointed out by Energy UK in their response to the ‘Fitness Check’ “many are yet to be fully implemented.”
Contrary to myth, the Directives take a sensible and proportionate approach to protecting species like great crested newts.
When it comes to species like great crested newts that are strictly protected by the Directives, there are some who believe that the Directives are placing disproportionate obligations on developers, and the solution to this is that such species should no longer be granted protection.
While it is true that problems can sometimes arise when it comes to these ‘problem’ species, such problems need to be kept in perspective. According to the UK Governments own figures...less than 0.05% of planning permissions each year in England require a licence for European Protected Species.
Moreover, where problems do arise, they relate not to the laws (Directives) themselves, but rather to the way in which they have been implemented. The evidence suggests that solutions that work within the existing legislative framework are available. For example...
...the great crested newt has suffered substantial declines over recent decades in the UK and Europe which is why it is protected under the Habitats Directive. The current approach to licensing development that affects this species has been criticised by some developers and landowners who feel that the cost and delays they have encountered are disproportionate (for example requiring the capture and relocation of individuals). Fortunately, Natural England in partnership with Woking Borough Council will shortly be piloting a new approach (here) designed to speed up development and improve the conservation of great crested newts. If successful, this will influence any future licensing regime.
The problems that people have encountered are nothing to do with the law, rather how we choose to implement it. I am pleased that creative approaches are now being explored to overcome difficulties without compromising the conservation of threatened species.
Contrary to myth, the Directives are coherent with other EU policies... but the Common Agricultural Policy remains an issue.
Recent reports on the State of Nature in the EU have once again highlighted that the main drivers of biodiversity loss in the EU are land use changes, and most notably agricultural intensification. At the same time, many of the habitats and species that are protected under the Directives are dependent on, or associated with, extensive farming systems and practices for their continued survival. In such cases, support is required to both (i) ensure the economic viability of the extensive farming systems on which the beneficial management depends, and (ii) addresses the specific management practices needed for the conservation of the key habitats and species.
Unfortunately, only a small portion of EU Common Agricultural Policy supports farmers that provide a range of public goods such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife accessible to all. It is possible to farm in harmony with nature; in the long-run, the two are inextricably linked. However, perverse subsidies and inadequate support for high-nature value farmers is hindering, rather than helping, the EU to meet its biodiversity conservation goals.
So to conclude this rather long myth-busting blog...
The Directives are not a burden on business or a barrier to growth. They are good for people, nature, and business. If and when problems do arise, the solutions lie in better implementation and greater investment in nature conservation.
This is why the Aldersgate Group have called on the UK Government to “...champion smart environmental regulation in key areas of European legislation. Priorities should include...the effective implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives.”
The case for better implementation and greater investment in nature is supported by citizens, NGOs, and businesses. As well as deflecting attention from the much needed focus on implementation and wider action for nature, making changes to the Directives now would be undermine decades of progress in clarifying requirements and developing best practice, and would cause sustained uncertainty for developers and investors alike.
It's time to put these myths to bed and for politicians to come out and proudly support the EU Nature Directives.