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.
For some, today will be your last working day of the year. So here are 12 RSPB highlights from 2015.
The list below illustrates the impact we have had in pursuit of our mission to inspire a world richer in nature. It reflects the extraordinary work done by our staff and volunteers in partnership with a huge range of other organisations. I salute you all.
If today is the day that you are switching off, have a great break over the festive period and thank you for reading.
12 things to celebrate this Christmas
1. Cranes are back in the West Country. A milestone moment was reached this year with cranes released through The Great Crane Project successfully rearing and fledging four chicks in the West Country – the first for 400 years! Project birds have also dispersed further than ever this year, and begun to integrate with the native UK population.
2. The future looks brighter for vultures. The diclofenac ban has been extended in India to multidose vials and thanks to the proven success, Iran’s department of Environment has officially banned the export, import, production and veterinary use of this drug. Vulture Safe Zones are working and being copied elsewhere. Now, amazingly, we are preparing for releases of vultures next year into safe zones.
Chris Bowden RSPB Images
3. Cirl buntings reach their target. The reintroduced population of cirl buntings in Cornwall reached the magic number of more than 50 pairs in 2015. This is likely to represent at least 120 chicks. This success gives us confidence that the population should continue to increase, making it the first successful passerine reintroduction in Europe.
Andy Hay RSPB Images
4. Recovery of Ascension frigatebirds steps up a gear. Following an invasive non-native species eradication, there are now, incredibly, over 100 pairs of Ascension frigatebirds on the mainland (after their return in 2013 and 12 pairs counted in 2014). It is now becoming too onerous to survey each nest!
Jolene Sim (Ascension Island Government)
5. Records have been tumbling at RSPB nature reserves. Our 214 nature reserves spanning 151,483 hectares provide homes for more than 16,000 species, many of which are threatened. In 2015 both nightjar and woodlark were at their highest ever numbers on our reserves and breeding lapwings and redshanks reached their highest numbers on RSPB lowland wet grassland reserves. Lekking black grouse reached an all time high at Geltsdale. What's more, 111 pairs of roseate terns nested on Coquet Island – the highest for 40 years. They successfully fledged over 100 chicks! A LIFE bid to help this bird further has been successful. And it's not only those with feathers that have had a good year: short-haired bumblebee releases continued at Dungeness in 2015. Workers were seen here for the third year running, giving us hope for the continued success of this project.
Short-haired bumblebee – Jesper Mattias (rspb-images)
Lapwing – Andy Hay (rspb-images)
Black grouse – Andy Hay (rspb-images)
Roseate tern – Chris Gomersall (rspb-images)
6. It's still boom time for bitterns. The number of booming bitterns increased again in 2015 to a minimum of 155 recorded at 70 sites – the highest in living memory! Particularly exciting is a single boomer in Wales at Valley Wetlands and the first recorded boomers at Berney Marshes in modern times.
Bittern – Andy Hay (rspb-images)
7. White-tailed eagle numbers soar. The population of white-tailed eagles in Scotland exceeded 100 territorial pairs, including 5 originating from releases in the east of Scotland. This population is now self-sustaining and thriving. 2015 also saw the first successful breeding of a white-tailed eagle pair on RSPB-managed land.
White-tailed eagle – Chris Gomersall (rspb-images)
8. Rare orchid recovery. An incredible 8,221 spikes of the rare fen orchid were found at 4 sites in 2015 – this is double the number of spikes recorded compared to 2014!
Fen orchid – free image from wikimedia commons
9. We continue to fight to save threatened places and threatened species from inappropriate development. Across the UK, RSPB staff continue to work with developers to try to ensure their projects do not undermine nature. But, when they do, we take a stand - whether it is to defend the nightingales of Lodge Hill (see below), the gulls on the Ribble or seabirds in the Firth of Forth - we will always do what nature needs.
10. Our nature reserves grow in ambition. Not only did we complete the first stage in the Wallasea Island Wild Coast restoration this year, but also a consortium led by the RSPB has won a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop and manage the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve and to design and build a new visitor centre. 350,000 people visit the site each year to enjoy the forest and discover more about its heritage.
Sherwood old oak – free image from wikimedia commons
11. Towards sustainable finance for forests. 2015 marks the silver anniversary of our Gola Forest project, in partnership with the Conservation Society, and the Government, of Sierra Leone. In 2015, as part of the REDD project, we were able to quantify and independently audit the impact of our work there in preventing CO2 emissions from deforestation – and the results have been phenomenal! The distribution of pygmy hippo records showcases the importance of the project, and the direct relevance of this landscape scale approach, as they are found not only in the National Park, but also in the surrounding area. We are hopeful that commitments made in the Paris Agreement for financing tropical forests will help safeguard this globally important habitat - home to 74% of the world's threatened birds.
Pygmy hippo Gola forest
12. EU Ministers stood up to defend the EU Nature Directives. RSPB science (here) demonstrated that the Directives work for nature, more than half a million people acted to defend the laws that defend our nature and many companies said they were good for business. And guess what, politicians listened. On Wednesday (see here), 28 Member States said they wanted to focus their efforts on improving their implementation to give us a chance of halting the loss of biodiversity. This has given us all a massive boost to deliver great things for nature conservation in 2016.
As I was waiting to give evidence to the Environmental Audit Select Committee today (session curtailed due to ‘events’ – rematch scheduled for new year), we received some very good news and some bad news.
First the good news...
...UK Environment Minister, Rory Stewart, at a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels said, “the UK like many other Member States around this table does not wish to renegotiate the [EU Birds and Habitats & Species] directive[s]”. You can watch the statement here from 14 minute 15 seconds in. Our Minister went on to echo calls from other Member States for improving the implementation of these Nature Directives, with a commitment to work with the European Commission, with European partners and others to achieve this.
This is really significant.
Regular readers of this blog will know that the Nature Directives are currently the subject of a Fitness Check by the European Commission. We and our NGO partners across Europe share concerns about the potential ramifications of the Fitness Check for these laws, and ultimately for wildlife. Despite the scientific evidence that they work, despite the amazing 520,000 people that spoke up to defend nature across Europe, despite the support these laws enjoy from businesses, some are still some calling for them to be revised and weakened.
Today’s meeting of the EU’s Environment Council was an opportunity to agree a way forward to realise the political commitment to “halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020, and restoring them in so far as feasible, while stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss”. By speaking up the Directives, Mr Stewart demonstrated that the UK Government had taken on board the evidence, the views of the businesses, and the massive public support for effective nature conservation laws, and decided to stand with the many other Member States supporting the Directives.
This sends a strong signal to the European Commission that the Nature Directives should not be opened. What’s more, it puts the spotlight on increasing our nature conservation efforts, and deliver long-supported steps to improve implementation to deliver more effective protection for habitats and species and to avoid unnecessary costs for business.
Slow progress with many of the areas highlighted for improved implementation by UK Govt’s own review in 2012 has held back nature conservation, frustrating not just RSPB but also the businesses that contributed to the review. So we will celebrate today’s statement, and hope that it marks the start of renewed progress to improve implementation for nature and for business. Rest assured that our team will do what we can to work with Defra and others to achieve this.
And now, the bad news...
...MPs have voted in favour of allowing fracking under protected areas including National Parks and sites designated under the EU Nature Directives. I think this is madness. Given that we’re dealing with a brand new industry, with very little research to point to, surely it would be in the best interests of people and nature to ban fracking entirely within and beneath these important sites and other protected areas.
There is no clear evidence of what a safe depth is beneath these sites to protect water and wildlife. Permitting drilling beneath them could encourage fracking wells to be located nearby, with associated noise, light and chemical pollution posing a risk to wildlife.
Government’s consultation on plans to ban fracking at the surface in protected areas (see here) was a step in the right direction – although it remains a job half done. Today’s decision, permitting the extraction of gas and oil beneath these sites, exposes nature to needless risk.
My final thought is this - today's vote comes just four days after the Paris Agreement was struck. Now that the Committee on Climate Change has proposed that the UK's fifth carbon budget should lead to a 57% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2032, the UK Government will, at some stage, have to explain what level of fracking is compatible with its own climate change targets.
In the run up to Christmas, I am determined to you bring you glad tidings of comfort and joy. So, today, I am delighted to welcome my colleague, Sacha Cleminson, who lives and works on one of the UK Overseas Territories far, far away to offer this perspective on the state of UK wildlife on these majestic islands.
Montserrat’s new environment legislation designates the beautiful Centre Hills National Park, helping to safeguard the island’s fresh water supply. Credit: James Millet.
Masked Boobys, Whale Sharks, Magnificent Frigatebirds, bromeliads, Giant Kelp forests and King Penguins. Some of the world’s most gloriously exotic wildlife is British, found gracing the fourteen British Overseas Territories. With many thorny challenges facing wildlife in the UK, we also continue to assess and invest in British wildlife overseas.
In December each year Heads of Government from the Overseas Territories meet in London with UK Ministers to discuss challenges and agree shared visions. Some impressive pledges have been made for protecting wildlife and ecosystems. But are they being met?
With support from the John Ellerman Foundation RSPB has published a report looking at how well governments are doing to create the legal and policy frameworks to meet those pledges.
What we found has been impressive.
Seven major pieces of environmental legislation have been enacted across the Territories since 2012. The strongest area of governance remains protection frameworks for threatened species and sites. Taken together this is a substantial achievement and represents progress towards those high level political visions. We found that the UK Government has been an effective facilitating influence.
Highlights include the Cayman Islands’ National Conservation Law which has taken years of work and will, amongst other benefits, help release millions of pounds of tourism taxes collected for environmental protection. St Helena, the site of Napoleon’s exile, and Ascension Island, both in the tropical Atlantic, have protected their finest terrestrial wildlife sites. And in the Falkland Islands standards have been introduced to assess the potential environmental impacts of development proposals.
Despite this progress, challenges remain. In particular, the regulation of development remains systematically weaker across many Territories, leading to development sprawl in places such as the exquisite Turks and Caicos Islands. In addition, at least six key pieces of environment legislation remain unprogressed in the administrations of five Territories.
It is important to note that our study has only looked at what the rules are and not how well they are being implemented, which is of course all-important!
Governments of the Territories have many challenges, including small budgets, small administrations and difficulties with enforcement of rules. The efforts that have gone in to this progress should be cheered and we see a lot of room for optimism. If development control could be addressed and unprogressed legislation passed, much more could be achieved. UK Government departments –such as DEFRA, FCO and DFID– have a strong role to play in helping to find those solutions.
The lives and livelihoods of many Territory citizens are intimately linked with their natural environments through activities such as tourism and fishing. The governance of the environment remains one of the keys to longer term prosperity.
More British Boobys, Whale Sharks and Frigatebirds will be good news for all.