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.
Yesterday, the UK Government produced its latest set of biodiversity indicators (see here). Not only did this demonstrate that nature remains in trouble but it also showed that government investment in nature conservation had declined by 26 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15 and the contribution from others (eg charities) had plateaued. We don't expect this funding picture to change any time soon which is why all the talk is of finding innovative sources of funding. Here, my colleagues Lynne Osgathorpe and Sally Mills highlight a RSPB project that offers a potential new sources of revenue by using the byproducts of wetland management for energy.
Investing in nature is an investment in our future, it makes implicit sense - our natural environment, when looked after, provides us with a wealth of benefits, from food and fuel, to clean water and places to unwind. However, it is often a challenge for conservationists to get this message across, as investing in nature is commonly seen as a luxury that conflicts with the Government's drive for economic growth. Our recent study Energy for Nature, published by Defra this week, demonstrates why investing in nature is the clever thing to do.
Energy for Nature was one of several projects funded through the third round of Defra’s Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) Pilot Scheme between 2014/2015. The project aimed to develop a PES based model that creates a sustainable funding stream to support essential conservation work whilst providing a reliable, and ecologically sustainable, source of energy to local communities. It focused on the wetland landscape area of the Somerset Levels and Moors in southwest England.
The idea is based on utilising the vegetation generated as a by-product of carrying out habitat management for conservation, and turning it into a saleable product. Energy for Nature focuses on updating management techniques and employing new technologies to convert wetland material (i.e. reeds and rush) into environmentally sustainable bioenergy products, such as briquettes for woodburners, loose material for biomass boilers, or electricity that can be fed directly into the National Grid.
Reedbed at RSPB Ham Wall by David Kjaer (rspb-images.com)
Our research shows that land managers investing in this concept could offset their management costs and make a profit, particularly if converting material into electricity through anaerobic digestion. This income can then be reinvested in the management of the land where the material originated from. For example, our estimates for Somerset suggest that work which currently costs the RSPB c. £70,000/year could, through the adoption of this concept, generate an income of £150,000/year if markets were developed for wholesale loose biomass, or over £5 million/year if converted into and marketed as a specialist product such as biochar and sold retail.
For the RSPB this means that we could fund more habitat management, and also improve the quality of management through the use of these new technologies. The idea is transferable too, and could be adopted by land managers or in other wetland landscapes. This model developed through the project has similarities to a traditional PES scheme with payments moving directly between buyers of the bioenergy product (e.g. local community) and sellers of the biomass (e.g. RSPB).
This concept has the potential to support rural communities too, providing an ecologically and economically sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, as many of the wildlife sites which would provide material for bioenergy products are located close to such communities. It also encourages entrepreneurialism within rural communities, providing opportunities for the development of co-operatives or community benefit societies to deliver such schemes. This could bring new employment for local people, and investment opportunities yielding a share of profits generated from the sale of the bioenergy products.
Whether the driver is land management or community enhancement Energy for Nature has the potential to increase the opportunities for delivering biodiversity at the landscape scale, whilst helping to promote a low carbon, more sustainable economy through providing communities with greener, locally sourced alternatives to fossil fuels.
Earlier today, Defra with the support of the Office of National Statistics released two biodiversity indicators reports for 2015 (for the UK here and for England here). These reports use government-approved data to help assess whether we are on track to meet targets for nature (such as the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets agreed in Nagoya in 2010 or the outcomes in the England Biodiversity Strategy).
There is a huge amount of detail in these reports and I wish they triggered an annual parliamentary debate on the state of nature. While the FTSE 100 Index is reported daily and is subject to regular media commentary, Defra releases these data with minimal fanfare.
The reports themselves provide first-rate overviews of biodiversity trends and the presentation of the information and the assessment itself are excellent. However it is hard not to be disappointed by the underlying messages and progress.
For example, the highest priority species for conservation, most birds, butterflies, bats and pollinating insects in the UK continue to decline, especially when you look the recent short-terms trends. The key objective for species (target 12) is to improve the conservation status of threatened species, but today's data suggest there is little evidence here that we are meeting this challenge.
In England, there is the depressing reality that the condition of our finest wildlife sites - Sites of Special Scientific Interest - is actually declining (see below).
Perhaps most alarmingly, the data show that fewer people are taking action for nature and public sector expenditure on UK biodiversity is declining.
The frustration is heightened by the fact that as a nation we are not short of expertise and a huge amount of effort is being invested (see here). The only conclusion to be drawn is that our current approach, while good, is insufficient. Our ambitions for nature simply need to be bigger, better and more joined up – to steal a phrase from Professor Sir John Lawton’s report on 'Making Space for Nature'.
The Government has committed to produce a 25 year plan to restore biodiversity in England, and this is, of course, welcome. But these indicators underline how urgent it is that words and aspirations are turned into action on the ground. We set out, with other NGOs, what we think should be in this plan here.
And lest we forget, all of this matters because nature underpins our prosperity, it provides our life-support system and we want our children and theirs to live in a world that is rich and diverse in amazing nature.
As there is so much in these reports, I shall probably return to these reports soon, but in the meantime...
What do you think these indicators say about the state of nature and how should we respond?
It would be great to hear your views.
Twenty years ago this month, I started my first paid job in conservation. I worked on a project designed to raise the profile of our seas. Back then, it proved difficult to get the attention of decision-makers about the need for protecting our marine wildlife – which seemed out of sight and so out of mind. Indeed, I remember one senior civil servant telling me that new marine laws would not happen in his lifetime.
I have no idea if he is still alive, but today, Defra has published its latest suite of marine protected areas – 23 nationally important Marine Conservation Zones and announced consultations on 7 new or extended Special Protection Areas (sites of European importance for seabirds).
At times, the conservation wheels can turn incredibly slowly. It was back in 2001 that John Randall (now Sir John and a member of the RSPB’s Council) introduced into the House of Commons his private members bill for marine protected areas. This inevitably failed, but it paved the way for a marine campaign led by WWF, The Wildlife Trusts, Marine Conservation Society and the RSPB. With the help of more than 300,000 supporters, we secured commitments in the 2005 election manifestos and eventually the Marine and Coastal Access Act for England and Wales received Royal Assent in 2008. Equivalent legislation for Scotland and Northern Ireland followed.
Fifteen years on from Sir John’s Bill, we now have 50 MCZs. That is worth celebrating. And 37 years after the EU Birds Directive obliged the establishment of a network of SPAs, we have the promise of 7 new or extended marine sites for seabirds (to add the existing 38). If progressed to classification (today’s announcement is of an intention to formally consult) this suite of proposed new SPAs/extensions to existing sites should do much to address needs of non-breeding divers ducks and grebes in England and Welsh inshore waters and will be first sites in UK waters to protect the foraging grounds of some of our breeding seabirds (predominantly terns we think – although we won’t know until we see the detail). So this is a big step in the right direction.
However, foraging grounds used by both nationally and internationally important populations (i.e. SPA and SSSI colonies) of other species remain unprotected, risking these colonies being little more than safe places to starve. Also, there is still no sign of anything approaching a network of sites in the vital offshore areas for either breeding or non-breeding seabirds and no clear plan in place to identify these. One of the problems has been a lack of data or sufficient certainty to progress designations. Our continued investment in tracking seabirds (first through the FAME programme and now STAR) is the only show in town on this, and will help to address this deficit - albeit only during breeding season as to date this work has focussed on tracking foraging flights from breeding colonies. To date, government is not undertaking analysis of that dataset to find sites except where this overlaps with the very few possible areas identified using their now very out of date data.
It’s clear that seabirds have been dealt a poor hand in the designation process. The UK is home to internationally important populations of seabirds, with 8 million nesting seabirds of 26 species. Yet they are facing significant declines, around 600,000 seabirds were lost between 2000 and 2008.
Despite threats such as marine pollution and the impacts of climate change, charismatic at risk species such as puffin and gannet have not been included in the current designations.
We’ve had this silly situation where seabirds would not be included in the MCZ process because it was felt that the SPA network would deal with protection for seabirds, yet the network of SPAs is far from complete. We hope that this is addressed in 2017/18 when Defra plans to announce its third tranche of MCZs.
So, again, we welcome progress but there is still a huge amount still to do. Our job, as with any conservation issue, is to find the right way to make the conservation wheel move faster and more effectively.
Image of gannets by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)