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
"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action"  should be the guide for all politicians and is especially apt in Wales at the moment.
Let me explain.
Last week, I heard an excellent talk from Andy Fraser from the Welsh Government outlining the good things that have been happening in the Welsh Assembly lately...
...the Well-being of Future Generations Act which set public bodies in Wales seven goals including one to make a resilient Wales, with a biodiverse natural environment and healthy functioning ecosystems and another to create a globally responsible Wales with sustainable development at the heart of decision-making.
...the Environment (Wales) Act which established the principles of sustainable management of natural resources as the purpose of Natural Resources Wales (the Welsh statutory body for the environment) and introducing mandatory emission reduction targets for greenhouse gases in Wales of at least 80% by 2050.
All this sounds very seductive: biodiverse natural environments, healthy functioning ecosystems, sustainable development principles, reducing emissions and sustainable management of natural resources.
It is, therefore, highly disappointing that right now the Welsh Government is consulting on draft Orders to divert a six-lane motorway through the heart of the beautiful Gwent Levels. If the scheme gets the go ahead the M4 motorway will be directed straight through four Sites of Special Scientific Interest which protect vulnerable habitats and species such as the water vole, shrill carder bee as well lapwings, otters and the great silver water beetle.
Gwent Levels by David Wootton (rspb-images.com)
The Welsh Government is quick to congratulate itself for passing “world leading legislation” on well-being and the environment. And there is much to be admired. But we can’t measure a government on the words in legislation it passes. It has to be judged on its actions.
In spite of the progress made, highly damaging and wildly expensive projects like the M4 motorway diversion are still going ahead. If we’re truly thinking about the well-being of future generations and the environment then ploughing six lanes of tarmac through sites protected for nature shouldn't even be considered.
All is not lost.
There is something that we can all do though. The Welsh Government is consulting on its M4 plans and anyone in the UK can ask for it to be cancelled. The RSPB is taking a lead and has produced an easy online tool to register your objection.
All you need to do is click here, add your details and personalise your response if you like. Thousands of people have already taken part and I hope you can spend just a minute of your time to add your voice. We want the Welsh Government to turn the fine words of its new legislation into tangible action and protect the unique Gwent Levels for nature and for future generations.
 From Hamlet, act 3, scene 2 to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare
At the end of his hugely entertaining talk to the RSPB’s Members’ Weekend on Saturday night, Stephen Moss, showed a film montage featuring memorable moments from programmes made over 50 years by the BBC Natural History Unit.
In it was a clip of Sir David Attenborough looking straight into the camera and saying “we have a responsibility to leave this planet healthy and habitable for all species”.
It was a simple statement but made powerful when accompanied by extraordinary footage of the amazing species with which we share this planet. Yet, I struggle to watch these films without being reminded that we have lost so much of this amazing inheritance – in Europe there are now 421 million fewer birds than there were 30 years ago (see here). This is a staggering statistic and one that the UK (whether we are in or outside of the EU see here) should be working with other countries reverse.
In the audience was Professor Sir John Lawton, who has been the lead advocate for more, bigger and better protected areas to provide space for nature and this ambition must surely be at the heart of the UK Government’s plan to restore nature in a generation through its 25 year plan for the environment.
I set out what we believe should be in the Government’s plan several months back (see here) and reflected on the Minister’s thoughtful and self proclaimed ‘boring’ response here.
Details of the new 25 year plan is beginning to emerge and we have been told that its main themes will be Modern, Integrated, Local and Open (see here), or MILO for short. This will be trailed through local ‘pathfinder’ projects covering urban, rural, catchment and coastal/marine areas. We’ll find out more about these projects in the summer, but we can expect the Cumbria catchment projects (initiated following this winter's floods) to be included in these.
Upland oakwoods: old oak, new oak at RSPB Haweswater (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I was in Cumbria last week looking at devastation caused by the winter floods and reflecting on land use challenges (which I have featured in previous blogs such as here and here). The December deluge followed two months of continuous rain which meant that the land was saturated, soil unstable so landslips contributed to the corrosive power of the rivers that coursed through towns and villages causing misery for many communities.
Rightly, the Environment Agency has been charged with exploring a new approach to managing the catchment to reduce flood risk whilst also looking to deliver other benefits such as improved water quality and benefits to wildlife. Land managing NGOs such as National Trust, Cumbria Wildlife Trust and the RSPB are ready to play their part in providing natural flood management solutions and we shall be exploring these at places like RSPB Haweswater in the Eden valley (see above).
If the pathfinder pilots are established with clear objectives and if the Government takes its time to learn from this and past experiences, then it has a chance to demonstrate a more integrated approach (the 'I' in MILO) to land management and make serious improvements to benefit both people and the natural environment.
There have already been a large number of previous landscape scale initiatives. For example, the previous coalition government launched a programme of Nature Improvement Areas which made progress in the management and extent of wildlife habitats whilst also protecting the free services that nature gives to people (see here). The key conclusions from this programme included:
- Visible government support and leadership and a clear policy message provided impetus for local project delivery and helped projects in sourcing additional resources
- The scale of funding available to NIAs was critical to their success; the initial government grant, for example, enabled partnerships to employ staff, leverage match-funding and initiatve demonstration projects that have encouraged others to get involved.
So, leadership and funding are essential to rally people and the plethora of plans behind shared visions of landscapes.
Thinking big will help but we must also keep an eye on those species whose needs may not be picked up by landscape approaches. There will always be circumstances where targeted action is necessary such as tackling wildlife crime to help birds of prey or eradication of invasive non-native species to help seabirds nest safely. To me, this must form a part of any integrated agenda.
Of course, we want to see improved flood risk management, enhanced water quality, improved soil health etc, but ultimately, we will judge the success of any government plan on whether populations of threatened species and the extent of land managed well for wildlife increase. And this must apply not just in England, but the other areas for which the UK Government has responsibility including on the UK Overseas Territories and by making a serious contribution towards the global conservation effort.
Only then will be able to say that we lived up to Sir David Attenborough’s challenge.
And, as I was reminded by RSPB members’ weekend, this is what the millions of people in this country that love nature want.