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.
When I think of the uplands of England, my mind usually heads north. So I enjoyed a couple of days a fortnight ago experiencing the southern uplands on Dartmoor. The visit was a chance to catch up with research our team is doing with others (Exeter University, Dartmoor National Park Authority, Natural England and Devon Birds) to diagnose the reasons for the major declines in summer migrants including cuckoo, whinchat, wood warbler and pied flycatcher.
John Bridges' image of a cuckoo (rspb-images.com) and cuckoo breeding distribution maps from Devon Bird Atlas (bottom left 1988, top right 2007-13) showing a massive contraction in range
The uplands of the south west are the same but different from those in the north. The habitats are familiar - blanket bog, heather and grass moors with deep wooded valleys - but Dartmoor (shown below) has its own distinctive cultural heritage, land use and wildlife to match. There is no driven grouse shooting down south but there are still plenty of challenges such as managing levels of grazing, swaling (a Devonian term for the tradition of burning gorse), and lots and lots of visitors.
The significance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of the Devon was highlighted with the publication last year of the Devon Bird Atlas. Many species’ ranges (like cuckoo and whinchat) have retreated to Dartmoor – at 954 square kilometres it is the largest chunk of semi-natural habitat in the county. These trends are reflected across the UK through volunteer surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Bird Atlas for Britain and Ireland published last year. This is why the RSPB will be giving more attention to the suite of species associated with the uplands over the next few years.
The uplands arguably are where we can make big conservation gains to live up to the Lawtonian* mantra of more, bigger, better and connected protected areas. We have been surprised and delighted by the speed of recovery of upland species on back of restoration activity. For example, through the Sustainable Catchment Management Project (SCaMP) with our partner United Utilities in the Peak District, we have done a huge amount to restore the peatlands especially through blocking drains and getting the right grazing in place. The conservation response has been really impressive leading increases in moorland breeding waders of conservation concern including dunlin which experienced a 775% increase in a decade. This landscape-scale approach to habitat restoration has benefitted a diverse range of bird species, from red grouse to buzzards. The SCaMP study provides strong evidence of the potential to transform damaged ecosystems. Across the wider English uplands, over 200,000 ha of blanket bog is in need of restoration. To achieve this, it has been estimated it will require annual capital costs of around £27 million for six years. With investment, there is the potential to secure future benefits for wildlife, carbon, water and people.
There is similar opportunity on Dartmoor, which has 8,500 hectares of blanket bog alongside other important habitats such as valley mires, upland heath and its wonderful woodlands. Nature needs scale and heterogeneity to flourish. Dartmoor can provide this. What we must provide is the ambition and wherewithal to make it happen. And this becomes a test of the promised 25 year plan for environment. What measures will be included in the plan to benefit Dartmoor's people and wildlife? Will there be new incentives to drive the changes we need to restore habitats and protect species? Will there be new obligations and resources for organisations to work together to reconcile their competing priorities? Will there be regular monitoring, reporting and scrutiny to assess progress?
Because of the growing importance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of Devon, attention is increasingly focused on the major landowners such as the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Park authority, South West Water but also the Commoners that have the rights to graze more than a third of the Park. We need these key players to work with charities like the RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust to rally around an exciting vision for the future for Dartmoor, with wildlife at its heart, and then to work hard to make it happen. Get it right, and then we will have done our bit for threatened wildlife of Devon including those summer migrants where improved breeding success can buy us time while we work with others to fix problems across their flyway.
One final thought, as today is international biodiversity day, whether on Dartmoor or elsewhere I hope you get out to see some wildlife.
*I refer, of course, to Professor Sir John Lawton and his seminal report, Making Space for Nature
Andy Hay's image of a wood warbler in Dartmoor (rspb-images.com)
On Friday night, the RSPB’s Chairman, Professor Steve Ormerod, gave a short talk to colleagues and partners who had gathered in County Antrim for the annual Council weekend timed to coincide with RSPB’s 50th anniversary of our work in Northern Ireland.
We had just spent a memorable afternoon in the sunshine at Lough Beg in Seamus Heaney country (see below) walking through wet grassland to Church Island where we were greeted by a nesting pair of peregrine falcons and finally a moving visit to Heaney’s grave.
In his talk, Steve alluded to the huge tragedy in Heaney’s writing but also the huge sense of community, of heritage, and enormous celebration of the land and landscape of Northern Ireland. He concluded by saying,
“I re-read Digging this afternoon, one of Heaney’s most famous poems.
He reveres how beautifully his father digs potato drills and, before him, how his grandfather cut turf with skill, and strength and precision.
Heaney concludes he has no spade to follow men like them, but instead he feels how the pen sits snugly in his hand - and decides he'll dig with that.
We all dig with whatever implements we use the best: therein lies the essence of partnership: of complementarity and synergy.
Working together for the common good of nature and our environment is reason enough to celebrate so I would like to say an enormous thank you to our partners and funders for the part you have played in helping us to dig over the last 50 years – and we would like to be at your side for the next 50.”
That sense of community and partnership was a constant theme throughout our weekend which included a visit to the sumptuous coastal heath and raucous seabird colonies of Rathlin Island (see below), curlew country of Glenwherry and our reserves at Portmore Lough and Belfast Harbour.
Our Council, which last visited in 2008, will have left with a sense that through our relationships with others, we were having real impact. Thanks to our work with farmers and on our reserves breeding wader numbers are increasing, we have put the foundations in place to boost the recovery of threatened species like corncrake and chough, while the 150,000 seabirds that choose Rathlin as their home continue to inspire those that make the short trip to our new seabird centre which opened last year.
It is easy to think that everything is rosy when you are escorted to some of the best places for wildlife, welcomed with warmth, great stories and wonderful food. But, wildlife in Northern Ireland, like across the UK, remains in trouble (with some species experiencing declines of up to 80% in my lifetime). This is why we must continue to find innovate ways to inspire others – politicians, landowners and businesses - to use whatever tools they have to dig for nature.
One final postscript for those that care about these things...
As tradition dictates, we handed out a cup to the person that correctly predicted the number of species (of birds and mammals) seen during the Council visit. This year, I fell agonisingly short underbidding by just two. But I was happy that the cup went to safe hands of our Treasurer who correctly predicted that we would see 82 species. But, there’s always next year when we shall return to Scotland.
While the debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union continues, it appears that another European debate has yet to be settled.
Information obtained this week by BirdLife International’s German partner, NABU, suggests that some continue to fight hard to weaken the EU Birds and Habitats and Species Directives – legislation that is currently subject to a ‘Fitness Check’ by the European Commission.
It appears that the Federation for German Industry (BDI) is continuing to try to influence the Fitness Check findings long after the evidence-gathering phase of the process was concluded.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed that the BDI wrote to the European Commission in December 2015, and in January and February this year, disputing the consultants findings, proposing significant changes, and claiming the report, “gives a misrepresentation of the position of the German Industry.” The timings are significant as it implies that the BDI managed to comment on a draft report before it was shared with anyone else.
Part of the South Dartmoor Woods Special Area of Conservation protected by the EU Habitats and Species Directive and a wonderful site which I visited last week
BDI’s intervention at this late stage in the process might have been understandable if they had not been given the opportunity to state their case. However a quick search of the evidence submitted to the Fitness Check confirms not only that BDI submitted a response to the consultation, but also that their submission, at 30 pages, is the longest submission received from any private sector respondent from an individual Member State. Indeed the Commission went to great lengths to ensure that businesses across the EU were given the opportunity to provide input to the Fitness Check.
So why such a late intervention from an organisation that has already provided significant evidence to the Fitness Check?
It may be that they don’t like the initial findings of the Fitness Check.
If you remember, the consultants tasked with undertaking the evidence-based review said that, “Where fully and properly implemented the Directives have effectively reduced pressures on biodiversity, slowed declines and, with time, led to some recoveries of habitats and species.”
The Council of Environment Ministers (including our own - Rory Stewart) does not want to open up the Directives nor does the European Parliament. In addition, more than half a million people that responded to the consultation were clear that the laws were good for wildlife, good for people, and good for business and that the focus should be on implementation to help restore wildlife populations across Europe.
Perhaps the BDI’s intervention is an ill-conceived and last ditch attempt to interfere with the findings of the Fitness Check, outside the consultation process, in order to get the outcome they want, i.e. weakening the Nature Directives, regardless of the evidence or the views of others.
An industry group continuing to lobby when they don't get what they want? Shocking, I know.
With a process as politically charged as the Fitness Check of the Nature Directives, it is unsurprising that some vested interests will want the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to see through his commitment to merge the directives “into a more modern piece of legislation”. I understand from German colleagues that there are other attacks from those wishing to reduce protection for various bird species.
The Commission must hold firm. It has a duty to ensure that the process is open and transparent, and that the findings are evidence-based, in line with the Commission’s commitment to better regulation. Whatever their true intention, this intervention from German industry comes at a particularly sensitive time.
Ten days ago, the RSPB wrote 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. We have asked them to explain how remaining in, or withdrawing from, the EU will address the crucial issues of restoring nature, sustainable agriculture and fisheries, and climate change. Voters need to know the political intentions of both sides which is why we will present whatever we get back from either camp.
So we have uncertainty at home and uncertainty across Europe.
The half a million citizens that participated in the consultation will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Fitness Check, including over 100,000 from the UK who provided a consultation response. The ongoing uncertainties about the future of the directives risk undermining nature conservation action and eroding public confidence in the process. It is high time the Commission explained its future plans for the nature directives, and what this means for Europe’s wildlife.
If you'd like to urge them to do so, you can join Birdlife's campaign calling on the Commission to move their review into action.