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 a number of years the breeding population of hen harrier has been on the brink – even failing to breed in England in 2013.
The RSPB had been part of an Environment Council-led process to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and grouse moor management. It was clear that, while providing a forum for increased understanding between different groups, this had not resulted in the necessary action: a different approach was therefore needed. In May 2012 (see here) we wrote to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders, including landowning and shooting organisations. Later on that year I published a blog by my colleague, Jude Lane, about the death of a hen harrier known as Bowland Betty. It was an emotional report from someone working on the front line of hen harrier conservation and even prompted a call to Jude from the then Environment Minister, Richard Benyon. That phone call and subsequent conversations with Defra officials gave us the belief that they recognised the seriousness of the issue. And it’s one of the reasons why we stuck with the difficult debate on the Action Plan. Today, after challenging and lengthy negotiations, this plan is published. You can read it here.
Image courtesy of Guy Shorrock
I welcome this plan - not because it is perfect, it isn’t - but because it reflects real potential for progress on one of the most deep-rooted conflicts in conservation.
The plan has two main objectives: "The hen harrier has a self-sustaining and well dispersed breeding population in England across a range of habitats including a viable population present in the Special Protected Areas designated for hen harrier; and the harrier population coexists with local business interests and its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy".
We shall play our part in making it a success, of course focussing on tackling the primary reason for the hen harrier's adverse conservation status - illegal persecution. Our ultimate goal is to secure recovery for hen harriers, while recognising that this is only one aspect of a wider range of impacts of current land management practices in our uplands.
Last year we provided a home for over 60 pairs of hen harriers throughout the UK and invested in the EU match-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, which combines satellite tagging, on-the-ground monitoring, nest protection, investigations work, awareness-raising, and working with volunteer raptor field workers, landowners and local communities to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern & eastern Scotland.
Image courtesy of Dom Greves
There are still lots of hurdles to overcome, especially regarding the long-term funding of monitoring and enforcement programmes, but also regarding the detail of proposed lowland reintroduction, its fit with IUCN guidelines, and the legal basis and thresholds for any trial brood management scheme. As set out in a blog by our chief exec last year, we think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer, but we’ve not said never to brood management.
The public profile of the plight of the hen harrier has rightly grown over recent years and there will understandably be a lot of interest on the detail of this plan. The detail matters, but we also need everyone to work together to implement the plan – its success will ultimately be judged by whether more hen harriers breed in England. The RSPB is committed to working in partnerships to deliver the changes needed to restore the health of our uplands and we hope many others will share these aims and be willing to work together to secure a better future for them.
What do you think of the Hen Harrier Action Plan?
It would be great to hear your views.
Further to the announcement that funding had been secured to establish a new marine protected area around Ascension Island, my colleague Jonathan Hall (who has worked tirelessly on this joint campaign) offers his perspective on what this decision means for wildlife.
Endangered green turtle nesting on Ascension Island. Image courtesy of Sam Weber
The first thing you notice from the air when flying in to Ascension Island is that someone has been bombing the beaches. Or at least is looks like they have, so pockmarked are the beaches with hundreds of craters. In fact, they’re caused by the massive green turtle population, the second largest in the entire Atlantic, which come to breed on this remote volcano and dig nests on every available stretch of sand. And its not just turtles that make this island, a UK Overseas Territory in the tropical Atlantic, such a wildlife hotspot. Since the RSPB and Ascension Island Government removed feral cats from the island in 2004, its seabird population has been booming, reinforcing the island’s claim to be one of the most important tropical seabird breeding sites in the world. Coupled with record-breaking marlin, threatened tuna, unique resplendent angelfish and vulnerable shark populations, Ascension is a marine treasure of the first order.
Unique Ascension frigatebirds and vast shoals of blackfish patrol Ascension’s shores. Image courtesy of Paul Colley
Building on our decade-long programme to restore Ascension’s terrestrial environment, we began work to protect Ascension’s rich marine environment in July 2012 when we became concerned about the management of Ascension’s commercial fishery (licences were unfortunately being sold to industrial Taiwanese longliners to come in to Ascension’s waters to fish and then leave again with almost no environmental, scientific or social safeguards in place). Good discussions with the Ascension Government resulted in them taking the bold and very welcome decision to totally shut down the fishery at the end of 2013 in order to review their marine management options.
We believed that the best possible option for both the Ascension marine environment and the 800 residents who work on Ascension was to create a fully-protected offshore marine reserve (an ‘Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary’), leaving the inshore area where all the local fishing effort takes place open to sustainable fishing practices. Unlike the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Atlantic Ocean has as yet no large-scale marine reserves, and the rich waters of Ascension island represent one of the very few opportunities to protect threatened marine wildlife in this vast ocean. Ascension was interested in exploring options for large-scale offshore marine protection, but were clear that their tiny community could absolutely not afford the costs of protecting a vast marine area almost twice the size of the UK themselves: sustainable long-term financing would be required.
Illegal fishing vessel drying shark fins on its deck. Photo taken in Ascension’s waters in 2008. Image courtesy of Mike Greenfelder .
We therefore approached the Marine Reserves Coalition, a group of 5 NGOs, to seek further partners to advocate for the UK Government funding required to protect these British waters, ultimately forming the Great British Oceans campaign to secure large-scale marine protection around 3 Overseas Territories, including Ascension. It has been a huge and wonderful team effort, but we were delighted to have four of the main UK political parties pledge to protect Ascension in their election manifesto’s last spring, and now this week the announcement has been made that at least 50% of Ascension’s rich waters will be designated as a fully-protected marine reserve. At roughly the size of the UK, this will be the largest in the Atlantic.
The announcement has been facilitated by a £300,000 donation from the Bacon Foundation, facilitated by our partner, the Blue Marine Foundation. This will cover the interim costs of protection for the first 18 months, with the UK Government then agreeing to pick up the tab from thereon. To hear from the perspective of BLUE’s Executive Chairman, Charles Clover: “It has been fantastic working in partnership with the RSPB and Ascension Island Government. When the RSPB asked BLUE to work with them on the challenge of creating the largest marine reserve in the Atlantic back in 2014, we knew it was an opportunity where we could add value to their work and were delighted to take up the task. That partnership has now delivered via the generous funding BLUE secured from the Bacon Foundation, and we look forward to continuing work with the RSPB to deliver permanent marine reserve designation around Ascension in 2017".
So what next? Ascension has now closed an interim area representing 52.6% of its marine zone to fishing, and further scientific work will now take place over the coming years to confirm whether any alterations should be made to these boundaries before final marine reserve designation. We’re really excited to be bringing new partners from National Geographic to visit the island this year, and will continue to hold the UK Government to account to ensure they deliver the funding and support required for this too-often overlooked treasure of the tropical Atlantic. But those are all next steps, and for a brief moment we can celebrate a major step towards protecting the amazing tuna, sharks, marlin and seabirds of Ascension in the Atlantic’s first fully-protected large-scale marine reserve.
As we wait to hear the full consequences of last year's Comprehensive Spending Review, I welcome my colleague Bob Elliot (Head of RSPB Investigations) to outline the latest risks to the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
News that the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) is, yet again, being jeopardised by a lack of commitment to its future from Government is a huge concern for some of our most threatened wildlife in the UK and beyond.
The RSPB has worked in partnership with the statutory agencies for decades to tackle wildlife crime. We have long emphasised the need to ensure that the NWCU is secured, enhanced and adequately resourced to enable the long-term operational planning which is needed to throughout the UK. The main role of the NWCU is to assist in the prevention and detection of wildlife crime. They do this by obtaining and disseminating information from a wide range of organisations and by actively assisting police forces in wildlife crime investigation. They also undertake analyses which highlight local or national threats to wildlife. We understand that the NWCU only costs £427,000 a year to run. That is amazing value for money.
The RSPB recognises the clear improvements to the policing of wildlife crime which have resulted from the work of the NWCU since it was founded in 2006. In particular, it has been instrumental in tackling some of the most serious wildlife trade offences in endangered species. This has included supporting police forces throughout the UK in 38 investigations since March 2015 as part of international operations to prevent the illegal movement of endangered species across borders.
In line with the UK wildlife crime priorities the NWCU is also heavily involved in other areas of criminality including, of particular concern to the RSPB, the continuing problem with the illegal persecution of birds of prey. The NWCU is working to identify organised crime groups and the intelligence gathered by the unit indicates a strong association between raptor persecution and grouse moor management. Our recent reports, including Birdcrime 2014 and The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland are just two examples from an overwhelming body of evidence which supports the need for specialised law enforcement to tackle wildlife crime and the serious threats it presents to biodiversity, both in the UK and globally.
Providing a real deterrent to wildlife crime needs both effective penalties and effective enforcement. In December we welcomed an announcement from UK Environment Minister Rory Stewart that better implementation is needed for the Nature Directives. Making a commitment to the enforcement needed to crack down on wildlife crime and end the persecution of protected species is one of the RSPB’s eight recommended actions needed to make this happen. The Nature Directives have driven recovery of species like the white-tailed eagle and red kite, which now represent a valuable tourism resource to many communities. It is vital that these laws are effectively enforced to protect our most spectacular wildlife.