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.
Four years ago I announced that the RSPB had taken the serious step of making a formal complaint to the European Commission raising our profound concerns at the state of our finest designated wildlife sites in the North English moorlands - sites protected on paper as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) but which have been failing to deliver for nature for too long.
Our complaint related specifically to the failure of DEFRA, through its statutory agency Natural England, to take adequate measures to tackle serious and persistent damage to one site in particular, Walshaw Moor in the South Pennines. Subsequently the complaint broadened to cover the other Northern English moorland SACs - focussing on the issue of burning the heather and vegetation on the areas of deep peat soils – soils that should be supporting healthy blanket bog and the wildlife that depends on it.
The management of many of these places has been intensifying in order to produce more and more red grouse to support the driven grouse shooting industry see here, a land use that has shaped our hills, influenced some of our most iconic landscapes and had significant impacts on our wildlife throughout many decades stretching back into the 19th Century.
Today we have learned that our complaint and a separate complaint submitted by Ban the Burn have led to the European Commission beginning legal action against the UK Government by issuing a Letter of Formal Notice. This is the starting gun of a full infraction procedure when the Commission considers a Member State has not applied the relevant laws properly. From the limited information we have it appears that the Commission share our wider concerns over bad application of the Habitats Directive with respect to the blanket bog habitats that are meant to be conserved by SACs in England. We will update our page dealing with this case (see here) later today.
We welcome this move wholeheartedly. These are serious matters and much is at stake.
Moor burn by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
For anyone following these issues over the last four years it will not have escaped your notice that positions have become entrenched. This has manifested itself by, on one hand, repeated calls and petitions to ban driven grouse shooting in England and on the other vigorous defence of the role driven grouse shooting plays and especially the 'benefits' of burning.
We want a resolution.
We have been calling for reform of the way our hills are managed with proper regulation of an industry whose unfettered ambitions to produce ever higher red grouse numbers for the gun are causing growing concern over the direct and indirect impacts on wildlife, including hen harriers and other raptors, the ability of our moorlands to cope with increasing rainfall and to play a part in reducing the risk of catastrophic floods downstream, and the impact on deep peat soils that lock up carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere and into our drinking water.
Over the coming days we will see an intensification of the rhetoric from both perspectives. I fully anticipate repeated and sustained pressure for the RSPB to join calls for a ban.
That is not our position.
We will probably hear more from our critics, funded by backers linked to the grouse industry, who wish to deflect us from our purposeful work. Will these be direct or via the pages of supportive newspapers?
But now through the Hen Harrier Action Plan and this European Commission led process there is a chance of real progress. The challenge is now with DEFRA, Natural England and the driven grouse industry to respond constructively to the growing evidence that change is needed, and to do so positively - we will be returning to this critical issue regularly both here on my blog and on Saving Special Places.
And I want to hear from you. If you are frustrated that the RSPB is not supporting calls for a ban or if you are outraged that decades of traditional management for grouse are being challenged by our actions or if you are in a place where you see scope for a constructive way forward please let me know your views.
Walshaw Moor from the air
A fortnight ago, the RSPB's Council of trustees met in the new David Attenborough Building for the first time. The meeting coincided with the annual Cambridge Student Conference on Conservation Science and so our Board and Council dropped in to listen to first session which included a talk on ecosystem services by Taylor Ricketts.
Early on in his talk, Taylor asked the audience (which, as well as the hierarchy of the RSPB, was made up of over 100 students from around the world) to vote on whether people thought that "ecosystem services and biodiversity should be dual goals for conservation, whether ecosystem services are an effective means to the ultimate end of conservation or whether ecosystem services represent mission creep for conservation". The vast majority voted for the first of these options, some went for the middle one while noone thought (or were prepared to say) that ecosystem services were an unhealthy distraction.
This is a debate that been bubbling away for nearly two decades and is prominent now that governments have begun seriously talking about natural capital. Although I probably sit in the middle camp - as my prime motivation has always been wildlife - I'm intensely relaxed about the rise of ecosystem service thinking as it is a useful way of capturing the benefits that nature gives to people thereby offering another argument for its protection. Yet, I worry about any agenda that focuses exclusively on ecosystem services as this can lead to perverse outcomes: artificial substitutes for natural services - such as clean drinking water, flood protection and even pollination - can be found and may even be cheaper.
A solely utilitarian approach will always put the needs of humans first. Although I argue that a healthy natural environment is key to our prosperity, we should perhaps be honest and recognise that the loss of a few species or even a few thousand species may not necessarily be catastrophic for our own species. While we can never be sure of the long term consequences, it is at least possible that our species could flourish without many other species. And this is why I am happy, and believe it is essential, to make the moral case for nature conservation. If we allow threatened species (however use-less they are perceived to be to humans) to become extinct, it is my belief that we will have failed in our moral obligation to live in harmony with nature.
This is why the RSPB has, and will always, focus some of its finite conservation resources on those species most at risk of extinction. We are a UK based organisation and so our prime interest will be those at risk in this country - species such as willow tit and turtle dove which are our fastest declining species - but also those of our overseas territories which are home to hundreds of endemic species. Yet, where we think we can make a material difference and where the need is great, we have always been prepared to take action for species in trouble anywhere in the world. This is why we stepped in to support the 19 of 22 albatross species at risk of extinction, to help recover Asian Gyps vultures and even step in to help lesser known critically endangered species such as the Liben Lark in Ethiopia.
Black-browed albatross by Grahame Madge (rspb-images.com)
Scientists now estimate that "current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than natural background rates of extinction and future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher". It is clear that our moral cause of protecting the other millions of species on this planet is growing tough with every passing decade of inadequate action. We failed to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010, unless we think and act differently, we will fail to meet the 2020 target.
So when any government, such as the UK, comes up with a plan - even a 25 year plan - to protect the environment, ask what it will do to help recover threatened species not only to help people but also for their own sake.
Which of the Taylor Ricketts' camps do you sit in?
It would be great to hear your views.
You won’t have failed to notice that the EU Referendum campaign is now well and truly underway. Representatives from both sides of the argument are now regularly popping up on the TV, radio and even the doorstep.
But how much do we know about what either side is saying about what the referendum will mean for our wildlife and the natural environment? In short, almost nothing. I have yet to hear either campaign talk seriously about environmental issues.
The UK Government’s recent leaflet sent to every household included a welcome reference to climate change, but was otherwise lacking any environmental content.
Fortunately, these issues are being raised beyond the main campaign groups.
Today, for instance, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published a report (see here) on the value of EU environment policy.
I gave evidence on behalf of the RSPB to the Committee back in January (see here) and argued at the time that because nature – and the threats nature faces – do not respect national boundaries, comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment, together with a robust and enforceable governance framework, are essential.
Today´s report concludes that “EU membership has been a crucial factor in shaping UK environmental policy on air and water pollution, and biodiversity”. The report acknowledges this has been a two-way street, with EU legislation leading to improved environmental standards in the UK, but also giving the UK a platform to pursue its environmental objectives internationally. The Committee report also concludes that businesses like the certainty and opportunities for longer-term planning that EU policy allows.
RSPB Forsinard in the Flow Country protected by the EU Nature Directives by Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)
However, it is important to note that the Common Agricultural Policy – an EU policy that, despite some recent reforms, has unquestionably contributed to significant biodiversity loss across Europe – was not within the scope of this inquiry.
The EAC report follows two other significant reports which set out the possible implications on environment policy of the UK withdrawing from the EU: the IEEP report co-commissioned by the RSPB and a separate report by leading academics last week.
Despite this, we have yet to have a serious response to these reports from either side in the debate. The health of the environment matters to millions of people in this country and we deserve to know from leading figures on both sides of the debate how their respective positions will help address the many challenges we face.
That’s why, this week, the RSPB will be writing to the two official campaign groups – “Britain Stronger in Europe” and “Vote Leave” – asking them to set out clearly what their proposition will mean for the natural world and environment.
We will be asking them to explain how remaining in, or withdrawing from, the EU will address the crucial issues of nature protection, sustainable agriculture and fisheries, and climate change, and we will present their proposition to our members here in coming weeks.
I will also set out a series of issues that need addressing at a political level, and will be challenging politicians on both side of the debate to set out their vision.
Of course, I recognise that the environment is just one of a suite of issues that people need to consider when weighing up how to vote – but at present both the official campaigns and leading politicians are sadly neglecting this issue.
That’s not good enough. The stakes are too high. The millions that care about wildlife and the natural environment deserve some answers.