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 reasons I have yet to fully understand, my wife recently bought me a copy of Marie Kondo's book The life changing magic of tidying up. In it, Ms Kondo encourages you only to keep those things that spark joy. It's quite a radical and eccentric approach that forces you to look at all of your stuff and discard/recycle anything that doesn't give you joy.
I'll leave you guessing as to whether applying her philosophy has changed my life. Most of us would think it's worth taking some time to notice the things that bring us joy. In his excellent book, The Moth Snowstorm, Mike McCarthy talks of the joy that nature brings and sorrow that its loss imparts.
I hope, therefore, that this weekend, you are one of the half a million people that will find joy in watching birds in your garden for an hour and take part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. I promise you that it's a lot more fun than tidying up.
And, if you feel sorrow for the loss of abundance of wildlife and want more joy in your life, do something about it: help provide habitat for widllife in your garden, think about what impact your lifestyle has on the planet or write to your local politician to defend the laws that defend nature.
May the birds spark joy in you this weekend...
It has been exciting watching the wind turbine being assembled at our HQ this week (see here). It will soon be generating electricity and providing a major contribution to our plan to reducing the charity’s ecological footprint. Yesterday I was contributing to a short film for our partners Ecotricity about the project. I explained why we wanted the turbine and what measures we had put in place to reduce impacts on wildlife. While I was talking to the camera, a section of the turbine was being fitted into place (see below). It's an impressive feat of engineering and I look forward to seeing it fully operational.
As a charity, we measure our impact in a variety of ways including how many species we have helped recover, how many special sites have been saved or how well we have inspired others to take action for nature. Yet, to do this work, we have to travel, use energy, and buy things. Inevitably these have negative impacts on the environment. So, we have established a plan with targets to “green” our work with a focus on areas such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, tackling waste, reducing the environmental impact of our procurement and complying with all the legislation relevant to environmental management.
Taking action can save us money, which we can then use to do more conservation. But this often requires up-front investment so we have to be clear about where and how we should focus our effort. We not only hope to practice what we advocate to others but we also hope to learn by doing and demonstrate the art of the possible to others.
Below, my colleague, Sarah Alsbury who leads our environmental performance programme, provides some headlines from the past year.
Greenhouse gas emissions
We are on course to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions per staff member by 30% by 2020. Absolute carbon emissions decreased by 486 tonnes between 2010/2011 and 2014/15. Reducing our absolute carbon emissions while at the same time increasing our staff numbers by around 150, is a great achievement. As can be seen from the graph below, the largest reductions have come from publications (including Nature’s Home magazine where we’ve reduced the size of the paper and hence its weight), travel and the selection of energy saving measures in our buildings.
We’ve invested in renewable energy at many of our workplaces across the UK, including a wind turbine at Loch Leven, funded by our Scottish legal advisers, Turcan Connell. We’ve also installed solar panels at 8 reserves in the last 4 years and a 100kW biomass boiler (fuelled from sustainable sources) at West Sedgemoor. Recently we have also invested in more solar panels at 7 sites: expected to produce more than 90,000 kW hours of electricity each year. As reported in Martin’s blog last week (see here), we are also developing a programme of biomass boilers to complement successful trials to turn the vegetation, which our reserve management generates, into fuel.
We published additional environmental procurement policy guidelines to accompany our Timber Purchasing policy in 2012. They cover a range of products, such as coffee, chocolate and palm oil, which are driving the illegal logging of forests; and tuna fishing, which can be unsustainable and affects numerous threatened species, including albatrosses, caught as bycatch.
Within retail, all our own branded wood and paper products are now Forest Stewardship Council certified (FSC). In 2014/15 72% of all sales of retail timber/paper products complied – a 10% improvement on the previous year. A further improvement is expected in 2016/17 as more work is done with suppliers. And our cafe managers and the Lodge staff restaurant manager have worked really hard to source “good” food. Eight of our cafes have won the Soil Association’s Food for Life Award – Loch Leven gaining a gold.
However, ensuring that no-one ever buys products such as tropical hardwoods and palm oil is challenging. We have introduced a number of measures to tackle this, such as spot checks by our Health, Safety and Environment Advisers, and are working on additional improvements.
Waste and recycling
The recycling rate was at 96% at our Headquarters 2014/15, which is a great achievement, and in Wales it has remained at 64%. The next challenge will be to look at how we can reduce the amount of waste that we produce in the first place.
There are numerous regulations relating to environmental management and new ones coming along all the time. We’ve done a huge amount of work over the last five years to help us comply but we need to remain vigilant and have established new systems to keep us on track.
Finally, our workplaces in Wales have done really well to attain the Green Dragon environment standard (Level 2) for the last two years. This gives us an external stamp of approval. Green Dragon recognises the great work that is being done at many workplaces to improve environmental performance and helps share experience and ideas.
I look forward to reporting further improvements next year.
About ten years ago, an internal RSPB email was sent regarding the possibility of installing a wind turbine at our Headquarters at the Lodge. We had embarked on a charity-wide programme to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (from travel and electricity) by 3% per person every year and were keen explore options to realise this ambition.
It's taken a while, but after receiving planning consent in April 2014, I am delighted to report that work to erect a 100 metre wind turbine begins tomorrow (all the cabling and electrics were put in the ground last autumn). Once it is up and running, the turbine will generate energy equivalent to more than half the electricity we use across our 127 locations across the UK.
Credit: Mark Hamblin
As regular readers of this blog will know, this project is being run in partnership with Ecotricity (for example see here).
We're doing it because, in the fight against climate change, it is the right thing to do and because we want to show that it is possible to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and deploy renewable technologies without causing needless harm to wildlife. It's part of a package of energy conservation measures and renewable projects (including solar panels on roofs, biomass generators and groundsource heat pumps) that we have adopted across the organisation.
We're not spending any money on this as the costs are covered by Ecotricity. Although we won't receive any of the direct revenue or subsidies from the turbine, we will make a saving on our current electricity costs which means that we'll have more to spend on conservation.
We've done what we can to ensure there will be no significant effects on the wildlife. Through pre-construction monitoring we've concluded that there is unlikely to be any significant impact on breeding birds in the area and the level of flight activity from sensitive species suggests collision risk will be low.
For bats, however, although the overall risk to the bat population is low, our monitoring did detect rare periods of slightly higher bat activity, so we have decided to adopt a precautionary approach. We'll turn off the wind turbine half an hour either side of sunrise and sunset when wind speeds are below 7 metres per second. Bats like noctules and pipistrelles tend to feed at these times but mainly at lower wind speeds. While this will mean that we take a little hit in terms of electricity generation potential (c5-8%), we think this is absolutely the right approach.
The Lodge, RSPB Headquarters: Jesper Mattias (rspb-images.com)
We shall obviously continue to monitor the site and report what we find. I expect that we shall learn a lot from this experience and want to inspire others to adopt a similar approach. We've always been vocal in our support for renewable energy but also about the need to deploy the technologies in locations that are sympathetic to our natural environment. Over the past five years, we've upheld objections to 49 (4.5%) of 1031 wind farm applications.
The climate change challenge demands a revolution in the way that we generate and use energy. Governments around the world accepted that challenge when they supported the Paris deal in December. We need this revolution to take place in harmony with nature which is why we shall, in the next few weeks, be launching a new report on how we can meet our climate targets with the least ecological impact (see here).
I hope that our wind turbine will inspire others to take action and join us in using renewable energy to power our country.