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.
Part of our democratic tradition is the right to protest and the freedom of expression. Charities have a rich and long history of influencing change in policy, law, attitudes and behaviour - the RSPB's own campaigning roots date back to our origins in 1889 and the ultimately successful campaign against the use of feathers in the hat trade while we also fought a decade long battle to ban the use of DDTs - a class of pesticides that was harmful to birds of prey.
I have been involved in a number of campaigns which resulted in changes in the law: to improve the management of our finest wildlife sites (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), protect the marine environment (Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2008) and set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Climate Change Act 2008). Each of these landmark achievements were hard fought and were the culmination of many years of campaigning and each required manifesto commitments before legislative reform was secured.
Since 2011, there has been a formal way of securing parliamentary profile with the Number 10 petition system established to enable parliamentary debate for petitions attracting more than 100,000 signatures. 39 petitions have secured such a debate and the latest took place today as a result of Mark Avery's campaign to ban driven grouse shooting. As most readers of this blog will know, the RSPB believes that a licensing system for driven grouse shooting should be introduced as an effective way of improving our uplands. In the run up to the debate, we shared our knowledge of the environmental consequences of driven grouse shooting.
My colleague, Jeff Knott, witnessed the debate and sent me this rapid assessment...
"There was lots of interest and a ticketing system had to be introduced because so many people came to listen: about 50 individuals which was approximately twice the capacity of the room. Equally, there was lots of interest from MPs with about 50 MPs attending at least part, with a majority speaking.
Overall, it was an interesting debate with a variety of contributions from MPs, varied in subject, opinion and quality. There was lots of agreement that biodiversity conservation is a major imperative. That is clearly good news! Yet, there were also various references to hen harriers doing better on driven grouse moors than off them. This simply isn't true. Several MPs said hen harriers are increasing. While they have increased from a historical low 100 years ago, the UK population declined between the last two national surveys. And clearly, it will be interesting to see what this year's survey says.
It was questioned why there are no hen harriers on RSPB reserves. There are! In 2015, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. And this year, one of the three pairs that successfully nested in England was on our Geltsdale reserve.
There was lots of support for greater enforcement of laws to prevent illegal killing of birds of prey, but this was short on detail. It was striking that the only real argument against licensing was that it would be bureaucratic. Indeed several MPs stated it was an option. This is easily solvable and we'd be very happy to work with parliamentarians to develop a streamlined system.
Clearly, there is huge interest in this subject, both from the public and from MPs, so it is vital that the Government sets out how it will enable further debate leading to action and real change."
While there will be some that will be downhearted that the parliamentary debate did not lead to an immediate commitment for legislative reform, I think that it would be a mistake to ignore the voices of more than 100,000 people wanting reform. The public anger about ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the state of our uplands will only grow unless action is taken. And, the RSPB will continue to make the case for reform both in England and in Scotland, where licensing will be considered through a similar petitioning process.
Change may take time, but it will come.
Earlier this year, a colleague was ferreting among the RSPB archives and stumbled across a crest made to mark the RSPB's centenary with the words "Respicite aves coeli" written underneath. My Latin is not great and I had assumed that it meant respect the birds of the air, but in fact it means "look at the birds of the air" and is taken from the Bible, Matthew 6 verse 26. This phrase was also incorporated into one of the first RSPB symbols/logos created in the early twentieth century and I really like it.
We are, of course, a conservation organisation and our recent straplines reinforce the active nature of our work: for birds, for people, for ever; a million voices for nature; giving nature a home. But I like the simplicity of "look at the birds in the air". It encourages us to look up, be amazed and inspired by the beauty of wildlife. For many, that is where our passion for nature starts and we know instinctively that nature is good for us.
During half term this week, I managed to escape briefly to our hut on the Northumberland coast and look at the birds of the air. As ever, the trip refreshed the soul: big skies, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks below, waders everywhere with redshanks, curlews and oystercatchers flying past at eye level as we sat on the cliff. It is remarkable how quickly life's problems can evaporate and the mind can be cleared while watching wildlife. I always leave our hut in a better state than when I arrive.
Oystercatchers by Chris Gomersall rspb-images.com
The recuperative powers of nature are now highlighted by scientific evidence. Dr William Bird has been one of the most vocal advocates about the links between nature and wellbeing. A decade ago, William wrote a report for the RSPB which documented the evidence that as a minimum, that contact with many aspects of nature benefits mental health, sometimes in quite dramatic and unexpected ways. He argued that "contact with nature may be an effective component of: treatment for children with poor self-discipline, hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); coping with anxiety and stress, particularly for patients undergoing operations or cancer treatment, strategies to reduce crime and aggression; benefiting elderly care and treatment for dementia; concentration levels in children and office workers; increased sense of wellbeing and mental health."
Over the past decade, the evidence has increased and there is growing acceptance of the links between nature and wellbeing. Environmental ministries seem to accept this but it has yet to seriously affect preventative health care policy. This needs to change and I hope that the soon to be published 25 year plan for the environment is embraced by the Department of Health and that contact with nature becomes a core part of future health policy.
An extreme example of the restorative power of nature is given by Amy Liptrot in her remarkable book, The Outrun. It is a raw and beautiful account of how she battled alcoholism while living, writing (and even doing corncrake surveys for the RSPB) on Orkney. So many families will have direct experience of the destructive nature of alcoholism and associated mental illnesses. I think they will take comfort from this book - it is an incredibly uplifting story of how living in nature can help rebuild a life.
Working in nature conservation or for the environment can be a pressured and at times depressing world to be in. Whatever is happening in our private lives, we are bombarded on a daily basis by dire statistics about the state of nature, our climate and our planet's prospects. I know that the grief and anger about the losses we are facing can be oppressive and for some almost intolerable.
The scale and pace of environmental destruction was illustrated again last week with WWF's latest Living Planet report that has shown that populations of vertebrates have declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. They warn that the decline will be 67% by 2020 unless we act now.
We have to believe that change is possible, that humans can find a way to live in harmony with nature. That is at the heart of the mission of environmental charities like the RSPB. And we need to be at our best to have impact, so being mindful and remaining connected with nature is a fundamental part of our collective coping strategy. We look at the birds of the air, so that together we can save them and in looking at them, they can save us.
So, this week, whether you are about to take part in a parliamentary debate on the environmental impacts of grouse shooting, finalising the draft of the Government's 25 year environment plan or simply making the case for better investment in nature, take time to look at the birds of the air and be at your best.
Listening to the news this week, I’m beginning to wonder whether we will ever run out of words to prefix ‘Brexit’ with – hard Brexit, messy Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit. I know that Brexit is meant to mean Brexit, but after a while, given the complexities associated with leaving the EU, the word begins to lose all meaning.
At the risk of adding to the prefix pile though, I would argue that, irrespective of the texture, what we desperately need is a green Brexit – one that helps rather than hinders our ability to restore wildlife in a generation and wean ourselves off fossil fuels in the fight against climate change.
Today, with our partners WWF-UK, The Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust, we set our stall in one of the most important policy debates for nature, by outlining our vision for environment, farming and rural development policies to replace the Common Agriculture Policy.
In this short document, we make the case that the countryside, and the nature that makes it so special, should be at the heart of future farm policies across the UK, and we set out five principles to inform how these should be developed.
Mike Langman's artwork used in a South Downs farmland birds leaflet
These should not be contentious. Who would argue against the idea that people want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife, giving us clean water, protecting us from flooding as well as providing good food to eat? Would anyone suggest that we don’t all have a stake in the future of our countryside, or that we shouldn’t strive to restore nature everywhere, for everyone to enjoy?
Our departure from the European Union will be one of the most defining events for farming and the environment in living memory. Following hot on the heels of last month’s State of Nature report, we know that urgent action is needed to stem the declines of once common species such as skylark, brown hare, lapwing, corn bunting, corn marigold, cornflower, hedgehog and grey partridge. If we are to achieve this, farmers and land managers will be key.
With over three quarters of the country farmed, farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to meet the challenges of restoring nature and capitalising on the opportunities this brings. But we need the future policies to do much more than the CAP has in the past. Despite the bright point of agri-environment schemes, and the notable successes these have provided, they have been too limited, primarily because they have only ever attracted around 20-25% of CAP spending (whose total UK annual budget is about £3.1 billion).
If we are to make a success of Brexit for nature, we will need future environment, farming and rural development policies to drive restoration of nature across countryside. We need to support sustainable farming that not only produces great food, but also rewards farmers and land managers for maintaining and restoring the farmed environment.
Some will try to convince politicians and public that this is a choice between food and nature; that farmers can be either stewards of the land or food producers, but not both. Today, we reject this false choice, and those who peddle it.
The future of food, farming and nature is inextricably linked – in a crowded country, we need farmers to give nature a home, and the long-term sustainability of food production depends upon natural resources such as soils, water and the services provided by pollinating insects. And, I know many farmers that are up for the challenge of trying to do both. At our intensive arable farm in Cambridgeshire - Hope Farm - we have maintained wheat yield while increasing key farmland bird populations by 190% since acquiring the farm in 2000.
This debate is only just getting going but things will hot up pretty quickly as demonstrated by Greenpeace’s intervention this week about who receives farm payments.
The UK Government has signed up to some very ambitious UN sustainable development goals and biodiversity targets and they oblige us to halt the loss of biodiversity and create genuinely sustainable farming by the end of the decade.
So, the opportunity to create policies that drive truly sustainable land management is not one we can afford to miss. One of our asks to Government today is create an independent Policy Commission to examine future policy options, and engage the public and stakeholders in an open and inclusive way. Regardless of where you sit or what your position is, we will need to work together if we are to achieve a countryside rich in nature alongside vibrant communities and a thriving food and farming sector.
What guiding principles do you think should govern our future agriculture and land use policy?
It would be great to hear your views.