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, I argued (here) that the EU Referendum debate needed to be sensible and based on evidence. I also said that we would do our bit to separate fact from fiction.
Alas, as emotions run high on this subject, I don't expect everyone to heed this advice. So, I plan to highlight any silly statements relating to EU and the environment.
The first silly statement I've spotted was made by Michael Gove at the weekend (here) outlining why he would be campaigning to leave the EU. He said, “EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).”
The last part of this sentence isn’t actually true.
Ben Hall's image of a Dartford warbler (rspb-images.com)
Mr Gove was referring to one of our nation’s most important wildlife areas, part of which lies within his constituency (Surrey Heath), covering parts of Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire.
The lowland heathlands of the Thames Basin Heaths are really special and of national and European importance. They are one of Britain’s best places for nature, home to rare birds such as Dartford warblers, woodlarks and nightjars.
The few remaining fragments are also highly valued by the large number of people who call this place home, many of whom use the heaths for local recreation.
Research by the Government’s nature conservation adviser Natural England highlighted that the majority of people will travel up to 5 kilometres to enjoy the heaths, and this recreational and other urban pressures were a significant problem for these birds and their heathland habitat.
Yet the solution was found courtesy of the EU Nature Directives. A coalition that included Natural England, the Local Authorities, housebuilders, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts devised an effective strategic planning solution of new green spaces for recreation alongside wardening on the important heathlands.
By taking the pressure off of these precious heathlands, these measures will enable at least 40,000 new homes to be built within five kilometres of the heathlands but in a way that safeguards this important habitat for future generations.
Mr Gove generally has a good track record on the environment but he shouldn't be mixing up wider problems with the EU with one of its best achievements.
Have you spotted any other silly statements in the EU Referendum debate?
If you have, and the silliness relates to conservation and the environment please do let me know. I am keen to receive examples from both sides of the debate!
“The debate must be fair, the attention to detail precise. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consider a matter that has divided the nation for decades – and perhaps achieve some resolution. That debate will be passionate, but we hope it will also be rational and forensic.”
This was the comment at the end of the editorial in today’s Sunday Telegraph (here), after the starting gun for the EU referendum campaign had been fired.
As I wrote last month (here), the outcome of the referendum on UK membership of the EU could have significant implications for the RSPB's ability to fulfil its charitable objects ie acting for nature for public benefit.
So, to contribute to the public debate, the RSPB has joined forces with WWF and TWTs to commission a report from IEEP into the environmental impacts of a UK withdrawal from the EU. This report will be launched on 9 March and will be an opportunity to challenge both sides of the debate how their stance will help...
...protect and enhance wildlife on land and at sea
...tackle climate change
...reduce waste and pollution of air, soil and water
...improve the environmental performance of agriculture and fisheries
...ensure no country gains competitive advantage by trashing their environment.
Mike Richards' image of RSPB Bempton Cliffs, part of the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs Special Protection Area designated under the EU Birds Directive
Over the course of the next 122 days, I expect there will an enormous amount of noise before people have a chance to vote.
In the run-up to 23 June, we shall do what we can to communicate the environmental challenges we face, to press for environmental issues to feature in the debate, and to ensure that arguments on either side are informed by fact rather than rhetoric, anecdote or hearsay.
Ahead of this year’s breeding season, I’ve put a spotlight on bird crime outlining the need for new actions and better cooperation to help protect some of our most iconic species.
I have shared our hopes for hen harrier recovery following publication of the Hen Harrier Action Plan, the RSPB's Head of RSPB Investigations, Bob Elliot highlighted the urgent need for commitment to long-term funding of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, Rob Yorke gave a perspective from someone who shoots while Charlie Moores gave the view of Birders Against Wildlife Crime.
The subject rightly attracts huge interest but my hope is that by sharing these different perspectives people have a broader understanding of the challenge we all face to end the illegal killing of wild birds.
Credit: Ben Hall rspb-images.com
To end the week, I want to profile the work we are doing with others to tackle illegal poisoning across Europe.
The UK is one of many countries that has international commitments to end wildlife crime, and has signed up to the Convention on Migratory Species Resolution calling on parties to prevent the risk of poisoning migratory birds. This includes a global phase-out of lead ammunition. Recent evidence indicates that hundreds of thousands of waterbirds are being fatally poisoned each year as a result of ingestion of lead shot as grit and that shooting can continue successfully using alternatives. Thanks to my former colleague Rob Sheldon, many are now signing an e-petition asking for an end to lead ammunition use, which the RSPB supports. If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to take a look and consider adding your name.
Use of poison baits also remains a threat. We are delighted therefore to be working in partnership with our Spanish BirdLife partner, SEO/BirdLife on this issue. Here, David de la Bodega, Project Coordinator for the European Network against Environmental Crime (ENEC), explains the work of the ENEC:
“Indiscriminate use of poison is illegal and is a threat to many bird populations, including charismatic species like the red kite and Egyptian vulture, plus many others. Illegal poisoning is a continuing problem throughout the EU and beyond and inadequate penalties and inconsistent levels of protection and enforcement seriously undermine efforts to protect migratory species.
“Our work with the ENEC aims to tackle these issues. The ENEC have published an EU-wide action plan to tackle illegal poisoning, which is the second of a series addressing illegal killing and taking of birds, illegal poisoning, and habitat destruction. The Action Plan has been presented to the EC, with endorsement from ENEC members, including European associations of prosecutors (ENPE), judges (EUFJE), police (EnviCrimeNet) and hunters (FACE).
“The project is a SEO/BirdLife and RSPB-led initiative, funded by the Criminal Justice Support Programme of the EU, to create a specialist European network to improve partnership working between BirdLife partners, legal professionals and authorities to better implement the laws protecting wildlife.”
If you are interested and would like to find out more, please visit the project website: lawyersfornature.eu.