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.
Earlier this week at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, Baroness Kate Parminter spoke about how much she liked coalitions. Clearly, as the party’s environment lead she was proud about what the party had achieved in government but she was also talking about the impact that coalitions can have when people or organisations come together with an agreed purpose. Together they can be mighty.
I agree and have spent much of my working life working in or for coalitions to have positive impact for nature: State of Nature and the Climate Coalition are two good recent examples.
This week, another smaller but perfectly formed coalition was able to celebrate the protection of one of our most important sites for wildlife.
You may have seen the news that an independent Inspector has refused an appeal against two water abstraction licence renewal applications that threatened rare wildlife at Catfield Fen nature reserve, in Norfolk, which the RSPB manages on behalf of Butterfly Conservation.
Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, and the RSPB worked together as a mini coalition along with Natural England to provide ecological evidence for the Environment Agency's robust defence of its refusals at the Appeal inquiry in Spring this year. Using its expert knowledge of the reserve, the RSPB assisted with the argument that abstraction was having a detrimental impact on the condition of the protected wildlife site.
As I have written previously (see here, here and here), Catfield and its sister site, Sutton Fen, are of international importance and possibly contain the largest number of threatened species in the whole of the UK including some very rare water beetles and plants like the beautiful and delicate Fen Orchid shown here (of which the sites hold more than 90% of the UK population).
While there has been a bit of a reaction from the farming community about this, this is just another example of the big conversation that we need to have as a result of the Brexit vote.
The UK Government is clear that it wants to restore biodiversity in 25 years and has international obligations to do so (through the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals). It will not be possible to realise these commitments unless it starts with the basics of “stopping the rot and protecting the best” places for wildlife. That’s why the Inspector was right to uphold the original decisions from the Environment Agency to reject the water abstraction license applications.
But there is a bigger issue here. We want and need the UK to start “restoring the rest” and that’s why it is essential that Defra clearly writes into its emerging agriculture and landuse plan the ambition to improve the farmed environment.
This will then allow Government to line up the essential tools to drive restoration of our environment.
We are here to help and I hope that we can bring together a big, broad coalition of environment, health, food and farming groups to make the case for an environment, farming and rural development policy that works for people and for nature.
Party conference season is in full swing and over the next three weeks, the RSPB’s Westminster parliamentary team will be on the road heading for Brighton, Liverpool and Birmingham.
The conference season has its own rhythm, marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Despite having been going for twenty years, I still enjoy the opportunity to encourage competition between the parties for the best environmental policies.
Tomorrow, I am heading south to join the team at the Liberal Democrats’ conference.
The party is still languishing at around 6-8% in the polls although it will probably be feeling relatively chipper following a few particularly good by-election wins in recent weeks.
Interestingly, the Lib Dems are still thought of as the most trusted of the main UK parties on the environment according to a Lord Ashcroft poll which came out earlier this month (see page 81 here if you’re interested). 33% of people trust Lib Dems the most on the issue. Their next best issue is “improving schools” where they score just 13%.
Perhaps the yellowhammer should become the symbol for the Liberal Democrats? This would encourage the party to forge a new agriculture policy that will aid its recovery (as its population has halved in 50 years).
Their leader, Tim Farron met us during the referendum campaign at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s London Wetland Centre and reiterated the Liberal Democrat commitment to the environment. However they have yet to make any major environmental interventions during this parliament.
We don’t want them to remain silent for long. The Lib Dems did good things whilst in coalition – including agreeing the fourth carbon budget, supporting the first environment white paper in 20 years and defending the statutory conservation agencies. They must now keep up the pressure on their former partners to ensure that the Conservatives keep their manifesto promises on biodiversity and climate change.
The parliamentary party, while small, does have politicians prepared to use their voice for nature. They have two species champions – Norman Lamb for the Fen Orchid and John Pugh for the natterjack toad while Tim Farron, Norman Lamb and John Pugh have also all signed our environment pledge. We need them to establish a strong, radical, alternative agenda that will make the other parties sit up and take note.
This can start at this week's conference. For, one of the key ways the Lib Dem conference differs from other parties is that they actually vote on policy motions. On the Monday of conference there is a motion entitled “Investing in the Green Economy”. An amendment to the motion has been tabled which adds the line “Legislate to confirm the UK’s continued adherence to established EU environmental legislation and targets.” I hope that any Lib Dems reading that they might support this, if they are near the conference hall on Monday afternoon (it is amendment 1 to motion F29).
And clearly, Brexit provides the most significant context for this year’s conferences and it will be the focus of the events that we are organising with the Wildlife Trusts and WWF.
We need big policy ideas to help us meet the three commitments we have written into our political pledge:
As with all political parties, we are here to help, to share our experience and demonstrate how a healthy natural environment is crucial to our future prosperity.
I'll let you know how we get on.
Hot on the heels of Wednesday's successful and hugely enjoyable launch of State of Nature 2016, the UK Government gave us a reason to be cheerful. Here, Jonathan Hall, the RSPB's Head of Overseas Territories, explains...
Yesterday was an absolutely massive day for the UK's marine environment. The UK Government and four UK Overseas Territory governments jointly announced new protections for an astonishing 2.2 million km2 of rich ocean waters. This is by far and away the largest British site protection ever made. And it means that over the course of this decade, the Territories and UK Government are on track to collectively protect at least 4 million square kilometres of ocean- an area larger than India. This is going to mean that the UK makes a massive contribution towards the UN’s global Sustainable Development Goal 14 to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.
Fabulous image of Tristan shark by Sue Scott
There were four major announcements yesterday, representing far-sighted communities in four different Territories who are all passionate about their conserving their wonderful marine environments, and who will now be provided with very welcome funding and technical support by the UK Government. To summarise:
- The Government of the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific has designated its entire 836,000km2 marine zone as a fully-protected marine reserve, closed to all commercial fishing and extractive activity (bar continued personal fishing by the Pitcairn islanders). This vast archipelago includes Henderson Island, a UK World Heritage Site ringed by beautiful coral reefs, and holds the record for some of the clearest waters in the world. Over 1,200 marine species have been recorded around Pitcairn, including breeding humpback whales and endangered turtles.
- At least 220,000km2 around Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic will be designated a fully-protected marine reserve by 2019. This will be the first large-scale no-take zone anywhere in the Atlantic. The RSPB has been partnering with the Ascension Island Government for almost 20 years, undertaking a seabird restoration over ten years ago and today working with Ascension and other supportive NGOs from the Great British Oceans coalition to assist in marine protection. These are rich waters, famed for record-breakingly huge marlin, the second largest green turtle nesting site in the Atlantic, threatened tuna and one of the most important tropical seabird breeding sites in the world.
- The St Helena Government meanwhile yesterday designated its entire 440,000km2 South Atlantic marine zone as a sustainable use marine protected area. This important step means that certain destructive fishing methods such as bottom-trawling, gill-nets and purse-seining will now be banned in their waters entirely (traditional St Helenian technique was to use ‘pole and line’ fishing only). St Helena’s waters are currently suspected of being an area where whale sharks breed. Whilst still not definite, this is the closest that anyone has got to identifying where these beautiful giant fish, the largest in the world, actually breed.
- The wonderful 270-person community on Tristan da Cunha will lead a science-based process, supported by the RSPB, to establish a protection regime for their extremely rich 754,000km2 zone by 2020. The community are incredibly proud of their marine environment, and currently obtain the majority of their income from their vital sustainability-certified lobster fishery. Tristan da Cunha’s seas are filled with penguins, whales, dolphins, albatrosses and sharks, whilst the offshore UK World Heritage Site of Gough Island is described as ‘arguably the most important seabird island in the world’.
And to make all this happen, the FCO announced £20million of new funding to help monitor, manage, design and deliver all this. All this enormous progress has required great local leadership, UK Government support, backbencher effort, and tireless work alongside our five excellent NGO partners in the Great British Oceans coalition (www.greatbritishoceans.org). We’re now looking forward to continuing working with all concerned to make this world-leading contribution to ocean conservation a reality, giving penguins, sharks, turtles and whales a home in our diverse waters around the globe.