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.
I am wrapping a few things up before heading off on holiday tomorrow to our family hut on the Northumberland coast (via RSPB Saltholme to help celebrate Hen Harrier Day).
Before I go, I wanted to reflect on the great intervention by National Trust on the future of agriculture and the environment this week. This received good media coverage including the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News.
The biggest membership organisation in the UK has put nature front and centre in its response to the EU referendum outcome and I am delighted.
In a speech to Countryfile Live, the Trust’s Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh argued for fundamental reform to agriculture policy if we are to restore nature across the four countries of the UK, rather than just manage its decline. Helen outlined six principles for the future of farming which we wholeheartedly support.
Andy Hay's image of stone-curlew: a species dependent on willing landowners and well funded wildlife friendly farming schemes
Many have welcomed the debate. Predictably perhaps, some have chosen to frame what Helen said as out of touch, as the ‘same old same old’ from farmer bashing conservationists. These letters in the Telegraph give a bit of a taste. They remind me of a colleague being asked by a farmer, “do these people want feeding?”
But this sort of response totally misinterprets what the National Trust is saying.
If you read Helen’s speech, she was clear that we need to look forward - not look backward with a nostalgia for what was, but towards a ‘21st century version’ of a world rich in nature. She was clear that the future of farming and the environment is intimately linked, with the former depending to a great extent on the sustainable stewardship of the latter. Few would deny that things are massively out of kilter as things stand, and the status quo is simply not sustainable.
Yet whenever organisations like the National Trust get involved in this debate, and make the case that policy needs to drive positive change for farmers and nature, some try to shut them up by the all too familiar, yet stale, dichotomous arguments of ‘nature vs food’. Everything we have done in the last decade or so (e.g. at Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire and through our work with thousands of wildlife-friendly farmers) has been to try and demonstrate that this is false dichotomy; that we can indeed have our cake and eat it.
A healthy crop at RSPB Hope Farm where we have increase farmland birds by >200% while maintaining yield
No one would deny that the maintenance of food security is one of any government’s most important jobs. What we (within the conservation and progressive farming sector) are calling for is a move away from a transparently bonkers system, where we soak the countryside in public money with no real aim or strategy, and get very little in return.
It’s completely reasonable to suggest that, after decades of environmental degradation, more of the public support that goes to agriculture should be focused on the restoration of the environment. This should be coupled with steps that enable farmers to get better value out of the supply chain, breaking the subsidy dependence that has trapped so many in the industry for so long.
And yes, the Government should support innovation in agriculture. No one is saying that this isn’t a legitimate public policy goal. But the current system does not do this. To defend such a transparent waste of public money is not politically, financially or environmentally tenable, and attempts to do so will only lead the farming industry into a political cul-de-sac.
What the National Trust was doing this week was to get on the front foot, and make the positive case for why and how we should support agriculture and land management in a post-Brexit world. Many farmers will recognise this, and understand that in a situation where spending on farming is set against the NHS and schools, we will all need to work much harder to demonstrate the added value taxpayers get beyond what they pay for as consumers.
So for making the positive case, and for getting the post-Brexit debate off to a constructive start, I say ‘congratulations to the National Trust’.
In the autumn, I look forward to joining forces with the Trust and many others with interests in food, farming and nature conservation to make the case for a new land management policy fit for the 21st century.
For now though, I’m off on holiday. Enjoy the rest of the summer.
A colleague shared their copy of Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald's 1946 New Naturalist book on British Game. It is a fascinating book, written by "a countryman of wide experience, a wild-fowler, Vice-President of the Gamekeepers Association, a friend of gipsies [sic] and we suspect of poachers".
In it, there is a chapter called "Enemies of Game". Here he describes a range predators from eagles to crows and concludes each section with a statement about how the keeper should respond to the presence of the predator. On the common buzzard for example, he writes "Too slow on the wing to harm game birds. Takes many mice, moles and young rabbits, and also insects. Altogether beneficial and should never be shot." On hen harrier, he writes "Will undoubtedly take game chicks occasionally, but is almost wholly beneficial and should not be shot". Similar sentiments are applied to other birds of prey.
Clearly, the context, land use and status of raptors was very different in 1946 than today (70 years ago, for example, buzzards were restricted to the north and west of Britain) but so was the style of shooting. Then, the grey partridge was the main target while pheasants made up a small percentage of the 'game bag'. As the grey partridge declined, the importance of releasing pheasants and red-legged partridges grew.
Modern shooting has changed significantly since this book was published. Persecution was clearly much more widespread then than it is today. We know that without a reduction in persecution in lowland areas, buzzards would not have recovered as they have, red kite reintroduction would not have worked and peregrines would not be gracing most of our cities. And many lowland shooting estates make significant contributions to conservation as I saw yesterday in the Brecks where stone curlew conservation is dependent on willing landowners and well funded agri-environment schemes.
Yet we also know that in some areas, persecution remains a serious problem.
It’s fascinating how perceptions of what is normal change and what society deems acceptable. A lot has changed since the 1940s in our society, yet it feels like some intensively managed driven grouse moors haven’t caught up. Wouldn’t it be nice if gamekeepers on driven grouse moors still considered hen harriers "almost wholly beneficial"?
In my previous blog on hen harriers, I reiterated why we see licensing as a mechanism for driving up standards of grouse shooting and ensuring that practices are acceptable to what our society wants from uplands, many of which let’s not forget are in our National Parks. Many of the comments on that blog and questions I’ve received since focus on exactly what a licensing system would encompass.
The short answer, is anything we as a society decided we wanted to include. Obviously compliance with the law and an end to bird of prey persecution would be line number one. Beyond that, we would certainly suggest some of the potentially more environmentally damaging practices could be encompassed – for example the end of inappropriate burning on peatlands, preventing drainage or creation of damaging tracks. As new evidence emerged about the environmental consequences of practices such as mountain hare culling and medication of the grouse, those could be addressed.
And this is why licensing grouse shooting is so attractive to me and could, if properly implemented (yes, obviously that’s a big if, as it is with anything), drive real change. It can be as broad or as focussed as we want to make it, but it can be targeted at specific areas of land and management types where damaging practice is occurring.
There are two stark choices facing the shooting community. It could acknowledge the environmental challenges linked to current shooting practices and accept the need to reform for example by embracing a system of licensing that would drive up grouse shooting standards in line with what modern society expects. Or, it could expect bag sizes to grow indefinitely and so continue to intensify management including a growing intolerance of predation, however insignificant it may be on the overall number of gamebirds that are taken.
I would encourage the shooting community to be bold and embrace the need for reform. Indeed, I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with driven grouse moor owners to talk about how licensing would work. This is the only way to give confidence to the public - many of whom will be participating in Hen Harrier Day events this weekend - and potentially secure a future for their sport.
I'll leave the final word to Mr Vesey-Fitzgerald and his dislike of the use the term "vermin" to describe predators. He wrote "It implies in us, and the game we preserve to kill, a superiority we do not in fact possess. We call these creatures vermin for no other reason than that they interfere with our pleasures, a poor enough excuse for bestowing upon them so degrading a title, and one which becomes even less valid when we realise that these pleasures of ours have, almost without exception, been born within the last 150 years..."