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.
In March, I promised (here) to provide an update on the hen harrier breeding season in England.
I genuinely hoped that this mid-season update would mark the beginning of a turnaround in the fortunes of England’s hen harriers, driven by the positive partnership approach set out in Defra’s hen harrier action plan. Unfortunately, the news on the ground suggests this is shaping up to be very poor year for England’s hen harriers, with only a tiny handful of nesting attempts to date.
Image courtesy of Dom Greves
This is obviously not what we were hoping to report. There are three principal factors which could, to varying degrees, explain the small number of nests this year.
And, of course, we know that persecution is the primary reason hen harriers are on the brink in the first place (link). This is one of the reasons why we continue to call for licensing of driven grouse shooting. As our Chairman, Professor Steve Ormerod, wrote recently (here in response to a challenge from my predecessor, Mark Avery) we believe that "a tightening up of regulation, with associated penalties and withdrawal of the opportunity to shoot on all areas if breaches are found, will achieve what we want incrementally".
Perhaps most worrying of all, is anecdotal feedback highlighting a general lack of hen harriers in England (as well as south and east Scotland). It’s not just that hen harriers aren’t breeding successfully, there seems to be a notable absence of birds in many areas where we would expect to see them. This makes it even more important for people to keep their eyes out for hen harriers. Our hen harrier hotline (link) is there to report any sightings.
First reports are also coming in from other areas of the UK through this year’s national hen harrier survey. It’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from this, as we are only half way through the survey period. Anecdotally, it does appear that the season got underway later than usual in Scotland, although birds are nonetheless present in areas which are free from a history of persecution.
A run of late nests might help to turn the situation around and it will be illuminating to see how the year plays out in northern England and south and west Scotland, compared with areas further north.
However, I must stress that, while this picture remains incomplete, the signs are not encouraging.
The RSPB (through the dedication of staff and volunteers) will continue to work hard to improve the situation including through the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project. We also remain committed to Defra’s hen harrier action plan. It would be premature to change tack based on early returns from a late season and it is in everyone’s interest for this plan to succeed. It might yet be that late nests save the day and we’re able to point to positive progress come the end of the season. The suspicious incident with the decoy and the pole trapping case were both disappointing and unhelpful in the extreme. However, the the action plan must deliver results (link) and that means more hen harriers.
I’ll report back in September when we have a complete picture of how the year has gone. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to relay some more positive news at that point. We'll continue to follow progress closely but, in the meantime, I’m looking forward to being at our Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August for one of several Hen Harrier Day events across the UK (events will also be held at our Rainham and Arne reserves).
Do check out the Birders Against Wildlife Crime website (link) for your nearest event and please come along to show your support for these magnificent birds. Our hen harriers are missing and we want them back.
By Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive
We have always believed that, because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive. This concept stretches back throughout the RSPB’s history, ever since the organisation joined international efforts to curb oil pollution in the 1920s. And this concept was our starting point when we began to weigh up the environmental impacts of the UK’s potential withdrawal from the EU.
Back in March we joined forces with the Wildlife Trusts and WWF to commission an independent report into the likely environmental impacts of leaving the EU. The report illustrated how EU measures have safeguarded birds such as the bittern, nightjar and Dartford warbler, protected habitats that are essential for butterflies and bees, and have delivered cleaner air, rivers and beaches.
Our report was soon followed by others echoing its conclusions, most notably from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and another from leading academics. The evidence was beginning to stack up: the EU has provided many benefits for wildlife that would be hard to replicate if we left. The Nature Directives in particular provide a robust international framework that ensures that roads, ports, airports and housing are not developed at the expense of our most valuable wildlife sites. 93.8% of UK citizens live within 20km of one of these protected places, which provide homes for species like otters, stag beetles, bitterns and butterflies. Some of our most spectacular landscapes – from the Moray Firth and the North Antrim Coast, to Ramsey Island and The New Forest – are protected by EU regulations.
People across Europe have also benefitted from water quality, climate change, air quality and renewable energy targets set at EU level, with the direct involvement of successive UK governments.
These benefits have been hard won. Our supporters have been at the forefront of many campaigns over the past 40 years that have helped to make our wildlife and fragile habitats safer and more secure.
But, these reports also point out that the EU isn’t perfect and there is room for improvement, particularly in areas such as agriculture and fisheries policies. So in April, with the referendum campaign officially underway, we asked the two campaigns – Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave – to set out for our members and supporters how their proposition will deliver for nature.
We are delighted that both campaigns responded positively to our challenge, and provided video and written statements clearly setting out their stall. You can find out what they said on our website.
However, no-one from the “Leave” campaign has yet been able to reassure us that we wouldn’t need to start again from scratch were we to leave the EU. What will happen to nature in the meantime? Recent calls from supporters of “leave” to scrap the Nature Directives – which have been proven to work so effectively where properly implemented – are of great concern.
That is why we are pleased that the Prime Minister has today recognised that the outcome of the EU Referendum could have significant implications for the future of our wonderful, world-renowned wildlife and it is great to see the environment featuring in the discussion. He has also recognised the role that civil society, including organisations like the RSPB, can play in democratic debate and we both welcome and endorse this remark.
The RSPB is a nature conservation charity with 1.1 million members. Yet we recognise that most people will consider a range of different issues when deciding how to cast their votes on 23 June and we won’t be telling anyone what to do. As a charity we are not aligned to any particular organised campaign on either side of the argument. The RSPB can only comment on the implications for nature and the environment, based on an objective assessment of the available evidence.
We want a secure future for our most precious wildlife and the places they call home. In weighing up the current evidence, the uncertainties and the balance of risks, we have concluded that the safer option for nature is for the UK to remain a part of the European Union.
The UK has voted to leave the European Union.
The RSPB has always believed that, because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive.
That is why, now the UK has decided to leave the EU, the RSPB believes the UK must continue to act internationally, and look to forge comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment.
But we also need action at home.
David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves - our fast declining migratory bird
There are millions of people in the UK who love nature – just think about the viewing figures of BBC Springwatch. We need clean air and water, and we want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.
It is essential that we do not lose the current, hard won, level of legal protection. Given the current state of nature, we should be looking to improve the implementation of existing legal protection and, where necessary, to increase it.
It will now be down to the governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to make this happen.
As the new constitutional settlement is negotiated over the coming months (and years?), the RSPB will continue to be a voice for nature, raising the importance of environmental issues that has an impact on people, wildlife and the economy. We will provide a constructive challenge to all governments across the UK where necessary, and give credit where it is due; just as we always have done.
And, of course, trans-national challenges such as protecting our migrating birds, tackling climate change remain, which is why we shall work internationally, as we have done so for over a hundred years, and will continue to act across Europe with our Birdlife International partners to tackle the many challenges facing nature.
In short, we shall continue to do whatever nature needs.
Finally, I hope that all those that have invested so much in this campaign take time to recover. We need our leaders to be at their best as they make sense of this result and to rise to meet the challenges we and nature face. Given that contact with nature is good for the soul, I recommend a visit to a local nature reserve this weekend.
Ben Hall's image of RSPB Arne at dawn (rspb-images.com)