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.
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.
At the end of giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the value of EU environment policy (you can watch it here), I was asked about the RSPB’s position on the referendum regarding the UK’s membership of the European Union.
This is clearly an issue that will dominate the political and public debate this year and is something to which we have given a lot of thought. The outcome of the referendum on EU membership could have significant implications for the RSPB's ability to fulfil its charitable objects ie acting for nature for public benefit.
Given that nature knows no boundaries and our primary interest has been birds (many of which migrate), the RSPB has always believed we need to act internationally especially as the threats (such as pollution) are often diffuse. Comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment – together with a robust and enforceable governance framework – are therefore essential. The RSPB will always promote the generic principle of effective international agreements, which ensure common environmental standards and protect our shared wildlife.
Chris Gomersall picture of Danish trawler fishing for sandeels with gannets and kittiwakes (rspb-images.com)
As has been explored through the Committee’s inquiry, UK environment policy has over the past 40 years evolved in parallel with European Union policy. Evidence suggests that the EU has had a positive impact through some of its environment policies, most notably through the Birds and Habitats Directives (which after a statement today - here - seem safe in the hands of Environment Minister, Rory Stewart) but also in setting water quality, climate change, air quality and renewable energy targets. However, significant concerns remain about some sectoral policies (such as for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.
Continuing uncertainty about future membership of the EU presents unquantifiable risks for the RSPB’s ability to deliver on its charitable objectives. We do not yet know the results of the Prime Minister’s reform negotiations and those championing the UK leaving the EU have not outlined in detail how they would address environmental issues.
Very few issues are entirely clear-cut, so any decision about the UK’s future in the EU will require everyone, the RSPB included, to weigh up the evidence on both sides.
This is why, in the run-up to the Referendum, as both sides seek to clarify and present their respective visions for the future, the RSPB will challenge both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns to explain how their stance will help protect and enhance the environment. Through this ‘referendum challenge’ process, we hope to help RSPB supporters and the wider public to gain greater clarity about the environmental implications of the UK remaining in or leaving the EU and to ensure that nature features in the public debate.
Therefore, while the RSPB will, at no stage, tell anyone how to vote and will not join any official campaign, we will nonetheless play a very active role in the debate. This is why we shall in a few weeks launch, with WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, a report outlining the environmental consequences of both our membership of the EU and the implications of UK leaving.
We want an informed debate and whichever way the public votes, we want the UK to be in a better position to restore nature in nature in a generation.