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.
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.
At least that is good news on the Directives front which at the end of the day is probably the single most important issue facing nature conservation in Europe apart from perhaps global warming. Much credit I know must go to the RSPB and Birdlife International for all the very professional lobbying they have been doing over some time concerning maintaining the Directives. Well done RSPB and Birdlife.