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.
This time last week, I was making my first trip to the Isles of Scilly for 43 years. I was there to see the impact of our joint Seabird Recovery Project.
This project matters because the UK hosts a significant proportion of the world and European populations of two species: the European storm petrel and the Manx shearwater. Scilly’s population of storm petrel is the only colony in England while the islands are also one of only two locations in England where Manx shearwater breed. Yet, the breeding seabird population in Scilly has declined by nearly a quarter in the last 25 years primarily because of predation by brown rats which are not native to the islands.
The aim of the Seabird Recovery Project is to provide safe places for these seabirds to breed. That means removing the rats. The focus of the project has been St Agnes and Gugh and the tiny surrounding islands to create a rat free zone to allow the seabirds to successfully breed. Following an incredibly successful eradication programme (the first ever on an inhabited island), St Agnes and Gugh was declared 'rat-free' this February.
Having heard so much about the project, it was a privilege to speak to the community and team responsible for successfully removing the rats.
The biological impact of the project is already impressive...
...Manx sheerwater numbers are up from 22 pairs in 2013 (before rats were removed) to 73 pairs in 2016, with new areas being colonised.
...Storm petrels have been recorded breeding again with nine recorded storm petrel breeding sites and six chicks calling at night.
Yet, I was equally impressed by the universal support for the project from the community. And I mean, universal. Everyone I spoke to from farmers, councillors and even school children (shown below) were delighted by what they had achieved together and were playing their part in keeping the island 'rat-free' by regularly checking monitoring stations and being prepared to ROAR ('Rat On A Rat') if they find something suspicious.
It reminded me of the lessons that Professor Andrew Balmford drew from his excellent book, Wild Hope, which documented how many conservation successes around the world were dependent on the cultural context. Projects seem to work when the local community backed conservation action. I feel confident that the St Agnes and Gugh community will stick together to keep their wonderful island rat-free and it is pleasing to report that there appears to be interest and ambition from other islands within the Scilly archipelago to replicate the project on their islands.
It is easy to take these projects for granted - I was told that rat eradication had been attempted for twenty years without success prior to the start of this project. This time, the planning, funding, community support and professional approach to rat removal were critical in making the project so successful. Future projects require a similar approach. But, as we have demonstrated in Lundy and are currently proving on the Shiants, the results of rat eradication can be spectacular. The seabird return for the conservation buck invested in high.
The UK Government is committed to restoring nature in a generation, and it can take inspiration from what has been achieved through the Seabird Recovery Project: local people coming together with charities, government and funders to tackle big problems and delivering exceptional results for wildlife and people.
So, this Friday, let's give three cheers to the Seabird Recovery Project on Scilly.
The much anticipated debate on the future of driven grouse shooting will take place on 31 October.
To inform this debate, called for by over 123,000 people who signed Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting, MPs have invited people to submit evidence about the impact of the industry. Our evidence will be made public later this week and my colleague, Jeff Knott, will be giving oral evidence tomorrow.
We've taken the opportunity to renew our calls for reform and specifically licensing of grouse shooting and vicarious liability for estates where wildlife crimes.
Our logic is as follows...
...Grouse shooting takes place in the uplands and is reliant on increasingly intensive management to produce red grouse in high numbers, especially for the ‘driven’ form of the sport, which involves a team of ‘beaters’ flushing grouse towards a line of guns waiting in ‘butts’. Intensive grouse moor management has been linked to damage to protected habitats and wildlife, in particular the burning of internationally important peatland habitats and wildlife crime targeted at protected birds of prey.
Moor burn by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
...The plethora of incidents of wildlife crime directed at birds of prey this year provide a stark demonstration of a lack of capacity, or willingness for voluntary reform, which led the RSPB to conclude that a regulatory option is required and the withdrawal of our support for Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan. England supported just 3 successful pairs of hen harriers this year and none on grouse moors, despite habitat for over 300 pairs. Just last week (5 Oct) another peregrine falcon was found shot in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
...Burning is damaging our upland blanket bogs, which are home to protected wildlife and provide vital ecosystem services to millions: storing more carbon than all the UK’s forests combined, providing fresh drinking water, and regulation of water flow during storm events. Burning is not a suitable form of management for restoring blanket bog and we have challenged governments to bring a stop to this unsustainable practice which damages surface vegetation and leads to the release of carbon stored in the peat.
...Evidence of damage is accompanied by a lack of transparency about the role of public money in grouse moor management. Used well, agri-environmental subsidies can help to restore our uplands, as we have demonstrated at Geltsdale and in partnership with United Utilities at Dove Stone. At Dove Stone in the Peak District, restoration of natural bog habitat, via grip blocking and re-vegetation of bare peat, is helping to improve the prospects for upland breeding waders, including dunlin, golden plover and curlew.
...The Langholm Moor Demonstration Project has shown how a Special Protection Area population of hen harriers can recover in the presence of red grouse recovery to a level which once supported driven shooting, albeit the agreed target density for driven shooting was not met. Despite the lack of gamekeeping or diversionary feeding this year, the SPA has retained its designated breeding hen harrier population.
...Whilst we continue to work with those in the shooting community who share the desire to see upland wildlife and habitats fully restored in order to build and encourage good practice, we are also advocating new regulatory controls in the form of a robust licensing system and vicarious liability, to provide a statutory basis for more proactive approaches to ensuring obligations for protected species and habitats are met, supported by sanctions which provide an effective deterrent and investment in the enforcing authorities.
There may differences of opinion about the future of grouse shooting (status quo, license, ban), yet the case for reform is compelling. Our view is that self-regulation has failed and it is time to the Government to intervene.
You can watch Jeff here make the case for reform in the evidence session at 2.15pm tomorrow.
For nearly twenty years, the RSPB has worked with the politicians in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to benefit wildlife and the environment by influencing those areas of public policy that have been devolved to Stormont, Holyrood and the Sennedd.
Yet the profile and prominence of SNP has clearly grown and the party has a significant stake in the work of the Westminster Parliament.
That’s why our Westminster parliamentary team has joined up with our Scottish team to participate in this year’s SNP conference in Glasgow.
Below, Lloyd Austin, our Head of Policy in Scotland and pictured below with the First Minister, gives his impression of this week’s events.
The SNP conference this year is one of their largest conferences to date and the party has a renewed sense of purpose following the EU referendum. RSPB Scotland's stall has been a popular pit stop for MPs and MSPs alike, many of whom have been supportive of our work and enjoyed hearing about what we're doing. We had a visit from Nicola Sturgeon herself who, as a strong advocate for the role of women, was pleased to learn some of the RSPB's history - especially our foundation by a group of 19th Century women campaigning against the use of bird plumage in hats.
Whilst questions of independence were at the forefront of everyone's mind, as is to expected at an SNP conference, so too is the topic of what Brexit means for Scotland and whether other options were available to maintain Scotland's links with Europe. It was pleasing to hear regularly that the party's commitment to maintaining these links with Europe includes maintaining environmental standards There have also been repeated commitments to maintaining the Scottish Government's 'world leading' position on climate change. We hope this ambition is combined with a stepping up of efforts on implementation, especially on issues of land use. It was great to hear Baroness Barbara Young (former Chief Executive of both the RSPB and the Environment Agency and now chair of the Woodland Trust) quoted by the Cabinet Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, reminding us all if the importance of the EU in establishing environmental protections, including those that cleaned up our bathing waters and, of course, the Birds & Habitats Directives. As Brexit unfolds and Scotland's role in negotiations becomes clearer, we hope the SNP stands by their promises and maintains strong environmental protection in the face of economic and political pressure.