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.
It’s only just over a month since I wrote about the news that Natural England had issued a licence permitting the control of up to 10 buzzards to “prevent serious damage to young pheasants”.
At the time I said that “the decision sets a worrying precedent. What will be next?” Well now we have an indication of what the future might look like – the prospect of more legalised killing of buzzards. Yesterday, Natural England announced that there are four more licence applications in the system. While we do not, as yet, know how Natural England will respond to these licenses, my concern is that there could be four more places where native birds of prey could be killed in order to maximize the number of introduced gamebirds available for commercial shooting. Four more instances where a flawed policy framework could allow public interest to be trumped by commercial concern.
Image courtesy of Tim Melling
This is all happening despite the continued persecution of raptors. In Victorian times, buzzards were in a precarious position having been shot, trapped and hunted from all but the most remote parts of the country.
However, legal protection meant that the buzzard population was able to recover and it has slowly spread to many of its old haunts, where its soaring spectacle is admired by the many rather than the few.
So why, through current policy and law, are we allowing this still-recovering magnificent bird to be legally killed? In order to protect a private business concern. To protect a few of the tens of millions of non-native gamebirds that are released into the countryside each year.
This to me seems like a perversion of the licensing system. The system of licensing we have in this country is a good one. It sets a series of strict tests which must be met before the usual legal protection of a species can be put aside. However, any system is only as good as the way it is used. Killing a native and still recovering bird of prey to allow a few extra non-native gamebirds, dubiously classed as ‘livestock’ to justify the killing is wrong. Some will once again try to portray the RSPB as being ‘anti-shooting’. We're not. We are anti the killing of a magnificent and protected bird of prey for no good reason.
It’s striking that other birds of prey, most notably England’s hen harriers, are in the situation buzzards were 100 years ago – persecuted to the brink of extinction. Indeed the situation is more dire for hen harriers today than it ever was for buzzards. Something has gone terribly wrong in priority setting when the Government’s conservation agency is spending more time thinking about whether to grant licenses to kill a recovering raptor species, than it is trying to end the illegal killing of another.
I’d also like clarification about the process by which future licences will be monitored. The way previous licenses have been issued leaves a lot to be desired. The ability to take joy in seeing soaring buzzards across the UK should be available to all of us. Taking it away, even in small part to benefit a commercial interest, should be subject to public debate. That clearly isn’t happening here. Transparency is a must if this isn’t to look like a shady back room deal.
And just think what this could mean for the Police trying to tackle the illegal killing of buzzards. Every time they get a call about someone shooting a buzzard they would have to consider whether it’s under licence or not? Or has the licence holder exceeded the number of buzzards they can kill? The deterrent effect of legal protection has been slashed. The last thing we want is open season on buzzards, making the policing of the illegal killing we know still goes on, extremely difficult.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again. Reaching for the gun should not be the first course of action in perceived conflicts with nature. That’s not the sort of society I want to live in and I will be writing to the minister today to say exactly that, and to seek reform.
This week, I returned to RSPB Haweswater in the Lake District to see the final stages of the river restoration in Swindale Beck – a tributary of the River Eden. It was a real pleasure to be able to stand alongside our partners in United Utilities and the Environment Agency as water was diverted into a new channel which had been specially designed to restore conditions of a naturally meandering river.
The project will be good for wildlife but also for people as it will improve water quality whilst also slowing the flow of water leaving the valley – an important part in any flood prevention strategy.
Swindale Beck river restoration (image courtesy of David Morris)
A large part of the river was straightened at least 200 years ago to open up land for grazing and hay making but this change has caused problems for Atlantic salmon (a species whose population has halved since 1970s but one that is protected under the EU Habitat and Species Directive) as the old straightened and fast flowing channel does not provide the different habitats normally found in naturally meandering rivers which are important for spawning.
The new river will be broad and shallow thereby slowing down the flow of water – especially important in times of floods. Our landlords, United Utilities are especially keen as sediments and gravels will be deposited more naturally with less reaching the Haweswater reservoir which provides drinking water for 2 million people in the north west of England.
The old channel will be filled in to create a more suitable and productive meadow and support the farm operations as well as providing a home for wildlife.
The profile of natural flood management solutions was raised in the wake of last winter’s terrible floods in Cumbria and so, as a tenant in one of the important river catchments, we are keen to manage our land in ways that retains water for longer. We need more projects like ours at Swindale Beck and my hope is that this one will catalyse others in the Lakes and further afield.
There are a few ingredients necessary to make this happen.
First, we need to retain the legislative obligation to restore species like Atlantic salmon.
Second, as we review agriculture support grants in the wake of Brexit, we need to find ways to reward landowners for managing their land in ways that benefit wildlife and water.
Third, we need to make it is easy for people and organisations to come together behind a shared vision to have the inspiration to transform landscapes.
I look to Defra and the soon to be published 25 year plan for the environment to provide renewed political momentum to make this happen. For now though, huge congratulations to all those involved in the project.
The summer holidays are officially over as the kids go back to the school on the same day that MPs return to the House of Commons.
The dominant political debate this term will, of course, be the negotiation over Brexit. Despite the first big Cabinet discussion last week and the words from Prime Minister May this weekend calling for a 'unique' deal, we we still really do not know what sort of Brexit arrangements Prime Minister May wants or can get from her 27 European counterparts and therefore what the full implications will be for nature.
Brexit could be at the ‘hard’ end of the spectrum – if the UK no longer has access to the single market thereby losing all EU environmental laws – or at the 'soft’ end – if the UK secures membership of the European Economic Area with access to single market, thereby inheriting an obligation to respect environmental standards so that it is not tempted to secure competitive advantage by trashing its environment. My guess it will be somewhere in between which will inevitably mean that we shall have to clearly make the case to replace any legal protection that is lost.
This is not just a concern for environmental NGOs, it must also be a concern for the UK Government that was elected on a promise to restore biodiversity in 25 years. As the new State of Nature report to be launched next week will spell out very clearly, politicians will need to be investing their finite political energy in finding new ways to make it easier for people to help restore wildlife while also stepping up efforts to reduce pressures on nature. The debates about new agriculture and fisheries policies will begin in earnest this term but there is at least one thing that the UK Government can do immediately. It could follow the lead of the US and China and ratify the Paris climate agreement and then publish an effective carbon plan that keeps us on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in step with the ambition in the carbon budgets.
This term should also see a parliamentary debate on the future of driven grouse shooting triggered by more than 100,000 people signing a petition for a ban. Reform is desperately needed to improve the environmental conditions of our uplands and to end the illegal killing of birds of prey. We shall, as my colleague Jeff Knott explained while I was away, be making the case for a system of licensing but I hope that the shooting community recognises that this is the moment to clean up its up.
The map shows the widespread nature of crimes against birds of prey and evidence suggests that the level of persecution has continued this century.
Whether or not we secure regulatory reform this session, enforcement of the law will remain essential which is why the work of our investigation team is so important. This is the team that works tirelessly with the police to protect birds of prey (including the new hen harrier class of 2016) and catch criminals. And it is why I am taking part in the Great North Run next Sunday to raise money for their work. I have said that I will add 50% of any funds raised if I run the half marathon in under one hour forty-five minutes but will double the donation if I am over that time. Despite my warm weather training over the summer, I have a feeling that this could be an expensive weekend for me. If you would like to help the work of our investigations team (and make it even more expensive for me), then please do sponsor me here.
And finally, if you are returning to school, to the office or to Parliament, I hope the memories of your summer help to make your new term successful and productive.
My warm weather training involved toasting Coquet Island and the remarkable recovery of the roseate tern population