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.
A curlew calling to welcome the spring is, to many, one of the most evocative sounds in nature. It is a sound that carries with it the hopes and expectations of everyone who cares about the future of our moorland and hills. For someone living in the flatlands of the East of England, it also evokes in me a sense of wanderlust - a desire to get out into the hills.
Yet, our internationally important curlew population is in trouble which is why we have embarked on a major species recovery programme to try to halt and reverse its decline (see here).
Indeed, there are a whole suite of upland species which are in trouble, which is why we plan to reinvigorate our conservation effort for these species over the coming years.
Through our experience as land managers, through the evidence our scientists and others have gathered, though our long engagement with the issues that affect landuse in the hills it has become an inescapable conclusion that the progressive deterioration of our uplands can only be tackled through a shared and ambitious vision.
The environmental impact of the landuse that supports driven shooting of red grouse is a case in point.
A group of my colleagues led by Pat Thompson, our senior uplands policy officer, has brought together the case for reform of grouse moor management practices. Our upland bogs and heaths are special, internationally important yet currently compromised by management practices designed to maximise the numbers of red grouse for recreational shooting.
The paper Environmental impacts of high-output driven shooting of Red Grouse Lagopus logopus scotica is now published (here) in the journal Ibis and is a clear summary of all the evidence that drives our concerns. Our concerns are not new.
The combination of intensive shooting practice with weak regulation has, the authors argue, created the conditions where the wider environmental impacts of driven grouse moor management have received little public scrutiny.
This is changing.
In recent years, there has been public outrage over the illegal persecution and extirpation of breeding hen harriers in England. Spotlight has also fallen on the culling of mountain hares, the unknown environmental consequences of treating a wild bird with medication, the impact of burning and the consequences of upland management for flood management.
The paper suggests that the grouse industry can deliver environmental benefits and can make a real and valuable contribution to species conservation – I selected the curlew to open this blog for that very reason.
It is difficult to conceive of a realistic rescue plan for curlews without the active and enthusiastic involvement of upland landowners and managers. But to achieve this, reform of the management of grouse moors and shooting style is needed - this is where our analysis of the evidence leads us. This is why we have called for licensing of driven grouse shooting (here). Some would prefer we went further, while others have argued for the status quo (see here).
We are determined to engage constructively with those keen to improve the environmental conditions of our uplands. And, this is why we have signed up to Defra's Hen Harrier Action Plan for England (see here). As spring approaches, I shall later this week set out our hopes and expectations for the season ahead.
One thing is certain, the reaction to the paper and to this blog will vary and mirror the extremes of the debate – and it is a debate. We publish this as a contribution – not the full answer but with the clear understanding that without leadership and reform there will be ever greater scrutiny of the impact of high-output driven grouse shooting.
It would be great to hear your views.
Curlew by Graham Catley
Bowland by me
Last month, the RSPB's Head of Investigations, Bob Elliot wrote (here) about our fears about the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit. Thousands of people also signed a petition calling for long term funding for the Unit's work. Today, Environment Minister Rory Stewart, in a written statement to the House Commons (here) confirmed government funding for the next four financial years.
Responding to the announcement today, Bob reflected the RSPB view by saying "We very much welcome the news that the National Wildlife Crime Unit has secured funding for a further four years. 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 offence in endangered species. We look forward to working closely with the unit on issues such as the illegal killing of prey and the sharing of intelligence."
I am particularly glad that the NWCU has some medium-term security. It allows it to proceed with confidence (at least to the end of the decade) to carry out its responsibilities which includes contributing to action 3 of the Hen Harrier Action Plan (see here). This is the bit of the plan that is explicitly about tackling persecution by working through the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) to analyse monitoring information and build intelligence picture. As the plan says...
"Raptor persecution is one of the UK’s six wildlife crime priorities, and the hen harrier is one of 6 species meriting special attention. Each priority has a delivery group which considers what action should be taken to prevent crime, gather intelligence on offences and enforce against it. The Hen Harrier Subgroup will work with the RPPDG to share intelligence on suspicious activity at nest sites and winter roosts and to seek advice on how to provide sufficient protection to reintroduced populations.
Maps showing confirmed cases of raptor poisoning are published annually, along with a protocol for gathering and using the information. The RPPDG will work on further datasets which it considers will be of use in highlighting and preventing different types of raptor persecution incidents and those other crimes which have the potential to harm raptors."
So, a good day in the fight against wildlife crime.
Yesterday, I spoke at an event in Manchester on the UK in the EU. It was an opportunity to inject an environmental dimension (see here) into the EU Referendum debate in the city where the result will be announced on 24 June.
My starting point was to say that the RSPB had always believed in international action: if we wanted to save just one species from extinction - say turtle dove (which we to address its 78% decline in Europe since 1980 and 91% decline in the UK since 1985 - see here) - then we must be prepared to intervene across its flyway. That means we must do what we can on its breeding grounds at home (where it is struggling to find enough food to rear it's chicks), during its migration (where it is vulnerable to unsustainable levels of hunting) and on its wintering grounds in West Africa (which is also experiencing changing land use).
This is why we invest in our Birdlife International partnership and support international agreements with enforceable governance arrangements.
Today, the theme continues with the publication of a report (see here) written by the Institute for European Environmental Policy jointly commissioned last year by the RSPB, WWF and the Wildlife Trusts. We are keen to cut through the emotion of the debate and try to present the evidence about the environmental impact of our membership and potential consequences of the UK leaving the EU.
IEEP is very well placed to comment, given that it has 40 years of experience of navigating EU policy on the environment, agriculture and fisheries. The report will be discussed by both sides at an event today in London and I encourage you to read what it says.
David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves
The context for those that care about nature, is that our shared wildlife is in trouble, that the pressures are growing and that we need a response that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge. The fact that there are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago (see here) clearly suggests that not everything is working perfectly for nature although we do know that European legislation designed to restore nature is working for some species (see here).
So, we are keen to know whether we are better placed to tackle these problems from within the EU or outside.
The findings of the report are as follows...
"...Membership of the EU has had, and continues to have, a significant positive impact on environmental outcomes in the UK as well as other parts of Europe, with cleaner air, water and oceans than otherwise could be expected although significant concerns remain around some sectoral policies (especially for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.
...This is because of a range of legislative, funding and other measures with the potential to work in combination. EU environmental legislation is backed up by a hard legal implementation requirement of a kind that is rarely present in international agreements on the environment; and which is more convincingly long-lasting, and less subject to policy risk, than national legislation.
...Complete departure from the EU (Brexit Scenario 2) would create identifiable and substantial risks to future UK environmental ambition and outcomes. It would exclude the UK from decision making on EU law and there would be a risk that environmental standards could be lowered to seek competitive advantage outside the EU trading bloc.
...Departure from the EU whilst retaining membership of the EEA (Brexit Scenario 1) would lessen these risks, as most EU environmental law would continue to apply. However, there would be significant concerns related to nature conservation and bathing water, as well as to agriculture and fisheries policy. In addition, the UK would lose most of its influence on EU environment and climate policies.
...Under both exit scenarios, significant tensions would be created in relation to areas of policymaking where responsibility is devolved to the governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but where a broadly similar approach has been required as a result of EU membership, including environmental protection, agriculture, and fisheries.
...The uncertainty and period of prolonged negotiation on many fronts caused by a UK decision to leave would, itself, create significant risks both for environmental standards and for the green investment needed to improve the UK's long-term environmental performance."
The uncertainty about UK withdrawal from the EU is neatly summarised by table on page 8 of the report (and shown below). Uncertainty breeds anxiety which is why we think it is important that voters in the Referendum are told what those advocating either position would do to improve the prospects for wildlife. We shall think about the best way of eliciting this information but for now, I encourage you to read the report and let me know what you think.