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 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.