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.
On the day that A Focus on Nature - the UK’s youth nature network. - launch their Vision for Nature, I am delighted to host a guest blog from Matt Williams, their Associate Director. You can follow Matt on twitter @mattadamw and find out more about him on mattadamwilliams.co.uk.
In 2013 the RSPB was part of a partnership of organisations that launched the State of Nature report. This unprecedented piece of partnership work showed that 60% of species we know about have declined in recent decades in the UK.
At the time, I had been involved with A Focus on Nature, the UK’s youth nature network, for about a year. I wrote then that as well as a State of Nature, we needed a Vision for Nature, to set out the path we wanted to be on and the future we wanted to see for the natural world. This vision, I argued, was especially needed for young people and future generations, and could even be put together by them. Indeed, I said that they of all people had the most legitimacy to write such a plan.
Since then, A Focus on Nature has spent the last two years working to put together young people’s visions for the future of nature and wildlife in the UK. And today we launch our Vision for Nature report. You can follow the launch today and the conversations that follow this week using #VisionforNature. I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who contributed in any way whatsoever to it, and also to use this blog as a chance to pay tribute to Lucy McRobert, the visionary, emerging young leader who founded A Focus on Nature four years ago.
The report uses not only policy analysis and recommendations, but also creative writing, photography and art to set out our vision, thereby trying to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads. It covers a number of topic areas and was put together by gathering the views of over 200 young people through focus groups, surveys, interviews and social media.
But we also know that we're not alone. Polling that we’ve had commissioned and are also publishing today reveals that nine out of ten 16-34 year olds think it’s important (quite important or very important) for politicians to take care of the environment.
The vision we have for the future is ambitious, some may even think it is unrealistic. We don’t know where all the money would come from for our ideas. We’d like to work with NGOs like RSPB, businesses and politicians to figure this out. But it is the start of a conversation about the future we need and want for wildlife.
For example, the UK Government has just indefinitely postponed publication of its 25-year plan for nature. We think delay is not an option: nature urgently needs our help now. However, our top recommendation is for the development not of a 25-year plan for nature, but of a 250-year plan for nature. While we can destroy a creature or special place in the blink of an eye it takes decades for nature to recover and it needs to be safeguarded for many generations to come, not just one generation.
We hope the new Secretary of State for the Environment will take a look at our ideas and be open to meeting with us. Where has the consultation with young people, whose futures will be most affected by it, been during the development of Government’s 25-year plan? The publication of our report today provides an opportunity for those conversations to begin where they have been lacking to date.
We also call for at least ten city national parks to be created across the UK; for all subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels to be redirected towards renewable energy; and for lots of land to be allowed to ‘rewild’ with lost species and large herbivores and omnivores reintroduced to help natural processes take hold again. We think these recommendations need to be adopted by all four governments of the UK. We’d love the opportunity to meet and speak with politicians, businesses leaders and NGO staff from across the UK to discuss our ideas.
This report does more than set out some recommendations though. It puts a stake in the ground for the UK’s burgeoning youth nature movement. Thanks to the work of RSPB and others, we know that people, and the young in particular, are less and less connected to nature than ever before. This is bad for them, their health and their communities. It’s also bad for nature, because if fewer people experience wildlife, then fewer people will protect and care about it.
But there is also a rapidly growing movement of young people who love wildlife who are using social media to create communities of support and enjoyment; and who are embodying the startup spirit to create events and projects of their own to reconnect with nature and wildlife. Groups like A Focus on Nature are being joined by others, such as Bristol and Sheffield Nature Networks and Action for Conservation, as well as initiatives in other countries like CoalitionWild and Bioneers whom we are now building relationships with too. Slowly but surely, I think we are building an international youth nature movement not unlike the international youth climate movement that I was also lucky enough to be part of for a number of years. It is a very exciting time to be a young person who’s passionate about nature.
So this is our vision for the future, and we’d love to hear what you think of it and for you to be part of it. If you’d like to help us address the challenge of making it reality, please get in touch with us.
Image courtesy of Matt Williams
In the white noise of the past couple of weeks you may have missed the publication of the latest Breeding Bird Survey results which showed turtle dove numbers have hit a new low, declining by 93% since 1994. This trend is mirrored across Europe, with a decline of 78% between 1980 and 2013.
As many of you will know, this is a species that is facing threats on migration and on its wintering grounds, but it has, like many other birds, also been affected by agricultural changes on its breeding grounds. This is why through Operation Turtle Dove the RSPB and its partners are carrying out a range of targeted actions including promoting turtle dove friendly land management to farmers through agri-environment schemes (paid for through the EU Common Agriculture Policy).
From the recovery of species, to the creation of habitats, planting of trees, maintenance of iconic landscapes and action to mitigate flood risk and address water quality, these agri-environment schemes have been pivotal to terrestrial conservation efforts and broader environmental land management. They have engaged farmers in more sustainable models of production, demonstrated the potential for more effective approaches to farm support and provided value for money to taxpayers across the UK.
And yet, all of this has been called into question by Brexit.
Andy Hay's image of Hope Farm research trial (rspb-images.com)
As I wrote in my open letter to the new Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom MP, on Friday, the uncertainty associated with Brexit means that these agri-environment schemes are now on hold as Defra and the Treasury figure out whether they want to carry 100% of the costs for these 5 to 10 years agreements once we leave the EU.
This demands urgent attention from the new Defra Ministerial team, which as of yesterday includes Therese Coffey MP, who replaces Rory Stewart MP as Biodiversity Minister. I am confident that the new Minister will grasp the seriousness of the issue given that she is species champion for the bittern and so no stranger to species conservation priorities.
Without incentives to encourage wildlife-friendly farming, governments across the UK will not just fail to meet their environmental commitments – such as those driven by the Convention on Biological Diversity or the country biodiversity strategies – they will go backwards. Farms will fall out of agreement, habitats will no longer be managed, and species conservation efforts will be fatally undermined. For species like the turtle dove that’s teetering on the edge of extinction, this could sign its death warrant as a breeding bird in the UK.
In England alone, between now and 2019/2020, over 4600 Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements will expire. If the new scheme is effectively discontinued now, that’s over 4600 farmers who have invested their time and effort let down, and millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money wasted. It would undermine the confidence of the farming community in the concept of environmental land management, and scupper any chances of taking the opportunities that a post-Brexit agriculture policy could offer.
As a quick example, our farm – Hope Farm - in Cambridgeshire is in an Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreement that expires in September 2017, slap bang in the middle of a potential Brexit no man’s land. Without Defra continuing with the new scheme in England, Countryside Stewardship, the management that has led to a 200% increase in breeding birds on the farm would be left unsupported. We’ll of course carry it on, but for many farmers in a similar position, to do so would not be economically viable.
While I do see real opportunity for reforming agriculture policy once we have left the EU, there is real jeopardy now.
Thousands of farmers have completed or requested application packs this year. If we are not to derail all of the potential good work these applications represent, we need firm statements from governments across the UK that they are committed to these schemes for the foreseeable future. We don’t have time to lose if the Government is to meet its manifesto commitment of restoring UK biodiversity within 25 years.
Dear Secretary of State,
Welcome to the best job in Whitehall.
People love the landscapes and wildlife of this country but nature is in trouble: one in ten UK species are at risk of extinction and the pressures are growing.
You have the opportunity and responsibility to do something about it by fulfilling the Conservative Party manifesto commitment “to restore UK biodiversity within 25 years”.
We appreciate you will arrive to a big “to do list”, so here are our suggestions for what you might want to achieve within your first week, your first month and by Christmas.
The most urgent issue in your in-tray will be to secure the backing of the new Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, to continue the Government’s financial support for protecting nature through agreements with land managers and farmers, known as ‘agri-environment schemes’.
These schemes have saved many species from the brink of extinction including cirl bunting, corncrake, stone curlew and supported re-introductions such as the short-haired bumblebee.
Andy Hay's image of an adult cirl bunting (rspb-images.com)
The immediate impact of Brexit has been to bring uncertainty over whether the UK Government will fulfil its commitment to existing and future agri-environment schemes and other critical environmental funding currently received from the EU. Given both the commitment in the Conservative election manifesto commitment to “spend £3 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy to enhance England’s countryside” as well as your own statement in March this year that the “UK Government will absolutely continue in the short term to provide those subsidies whilst we think about what makes sense” we are sure that this will be your top priority too.
Keeping agri-environment schemes going across the UK - and cooperating with devolved administrations to do so - will be a key to maintaining our natural environment and protecting British wildlife. Certainty on this issue is needed now in order for farmers to have the clarity and confidence to proceed with applications that are currently sat waiting in the farm office.
The next urgent issue in your in-tray will be to consider the environmental implications of leaving the European Union – particularly with reference to the laws that protect nature which are derived from EU legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directives (see our Defend Nature campaign) but also sectoral policies for agriculture and fisheries.
There is jeopardy and opportunity here for wildlife.
On the one hand the loss of the Habitat Regulations – proven to increase the populations of threatened species - would result in reduced protection of 80% of our finest wildlife sites. To fulfil the Conservative election manifesto commitment “to protect ... Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other environmental designations” you will therefore need to engage closely with the new Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union, David Davis, to consider how environmental protections and their implementation can be strengthened as we negotiate a new relationship with the EU27.
On the other hand, you have an opportunity to shape a public debate about how best to support land management that is good for farmers, good for people and good for the environment. We would encourage...
...a shift away from a focus on direct subsidies with few strings attached, towards a policy that supports progressive, innovative farmers, providing them with the certainty to engage in more sustainable production
...public money being focused on the environmental challenges that farmers are uniquely placed to meet, such as the conservation of species, restoration of habitats and natural flood risk management. This should build on the progress already made through agri-environment schemes and rural development programmes across the UK
...a transition period toward new arrangements that allows time for farmers and land managers to adapt, and for new policies to be piloted. This is particularly important for the most economically vulnerable farmers, such as those in our extensive livestock sector, who are often farming in marginal, but high nature value areas.
I hope that you will have begun to put flesh on the bones of your 25 year plan for the environment, demonstrating how land and sea can be well managed for both people and wildlife. There are many organisations including the RSPB that are keen to share their experience on what works. We are keen to help you develop a plan with the right mix of laws, incentives and public engagement so that you will be confident that you will be providing a legacy for future generations of ensuring life will be returning to our land and seascapes.
RSPB Haweswater, being restored with our landlord, United Utilities
This will also help you on the international stage as in December, you will have the opportunity to participate in the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It would be great for you and great for the UK to be able to report on progress that the UK has made in halting the loss of biodiversity at home, on our overseas territories and internationally. It is an opportunity to raise the political stakes for and inject much needed urgency into global action for wildlife.
Please do take time out in your new role to see some wildlife. We would be happy to show you some of the work we are doing with others to put life, sound and colour back into our landscapes. Not only will this inspire you but it will also help you remain resilient when you face major challenges for which Defra is responsible such as disease, invasive species and floods...
Rest assured, the RSPB is here to help you be a success for nature.
I wish you well in your new role.
Conservation Director, RSPB