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 is now over a week since the Westminster Hall parliamentary debate on the future of driven grouse shooting. I thought it would be appropriate to offer a further perspective on what the RSPB plans to do next to improve the environmental conditions of the uplands.
As many others have written, it was a deeply frustrating debate – especially to the 123,000 that called for a ban and of course those seeking reform. Our initial reaction tried to pick out some positives, but that was a real challenge. Clearly there is widespread opposition from within the driven grouse shooting community to any real reform. I think that the positioning by a majority of MPs was perhaps inevitable as it was the first proper outing of the issue in parliament. Imagine a parliamentary debate on climate change 20 years ago with lobbyists peddling their various views to MPs.
Yet, my view is that if pressure for reform remains then the quality of the parliamentary debate will inevitably improve as people won't be able to brazenly ignore the facts like some did on Monday.
Geltsdale by Chris Gomersall (rspb.images.com)
When more crimes get into the public domain it will be harder for MPs to turn a blind eye. We therefore have no intention of changing our current approach of working with local groups to deliver vital monitoring and surveillance through our Life project, and work with the police to investigate crimes. The team do a fantastic job in extremely difficult circumstances.
That is why, this week, we are raising awareness of the fate of the hen harrier Rowan, found dead in Cumbria in October, and which appears to have been shot. The fate of this bird graphically illustrates that illegal killing of hen harriers is ongoing, contrary to the impression given by some MPs in the Westminster Hall debate.
I think change will come if we can find creative and novel ways of maintaining the political and public profile of our concerns about the environmental impact of driven grouse shooting. This is not a party political issue – I am convinced that all parties want the law enforced and many want to see improved standards of land management associated with grouse shooting.
Clearly legislation is needed, as voluntary approaches have proved wholly inadequate, and Westminster is the legislature for England. That means a cross-party approach will be needed.
We will continue to keep up the pressure on these issues, and will also be talking with others to determine how best to secure reform.
In summary, we remain appalled by the environmental condition of the uplands and the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey. Our work in the uplands remains an important strategic priority for the RSPB – we are not going to go away. We believe that licensing is the way to deliver substantial change to the way our uplands are managed and we intend to keep the pressure on to achieve that. The irony is that commitment to reform and serious discussion about licensing is the shooting industry’s best insurance against growing calls for a ban.
In Scotland, I remain hopeful that tangible reform is possible (partly in response to a petition on gamebird licensing which we supported). If change does happens north of the border, it will make it that much harder for a Westminster Government to ignore the positive direction set out in Scotland.
Our commitment is unwavering. But this won’t be a quick fight and we will take the time now to carefully consider what comes next, talking to all those with a stake in this issue.
What do you think is the next key step for delivering reform of our uplands?
It would be great to hear your views.
One of the developments of this year’s State of Nature report was the inclusion of commentaries on the UK’s Crown Dependencies – the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. They are part of 'our' archipelago and it seemed right to profile the conservation challenges and opportunities on these islands.
So, I was delighted to visit the Isle of Man with my children for the first time this weekend to participate in a conference celebrating Manx birds. To be clear, I took part in the conference, while my children gallivanted around the island.
Although we have no formal presence on the island, the RSPB has had a longstanding involvement in conservation projects on the Isle of Man and we have about 1,300 members there. Most recently we have had a partnership with Manx BirdLife which evolved from the Manx Bird Atlas of the mid-1990s and who were the co-organisers of the conference.
Before the visit, I was able to tap into the knowledge and experience of colleagues who know the island intimately and even just about managed to get my head around how the Isle of Man might be affected by Brexit (because, although not a member of the EU, its fate is tied up with whatever future trading relationship that the UK forges with the EU). Clearly, as a recently designated UNESCO biosphere reserve, there is considerable pride in the island's natural heritage.
There are signs that nature is faring better on this island than others in our archipelago. As we wrote in the State of Nature report, "bird population trends in the Isle of Man are available between 1998 and 2014. These trends show that 17% of the 104 birds assessed – including wrens, robins, lapwings and yellowhammers – declined over this period; whereas 33% increased, including blackbirds, chaffinches, coal tits, goldfinches and willow warblers."
The importance of the island is demonstrated by a simple coincidence map of threatened bird species (see below).
Coincidence map of breeding species categorised as Endangered, Vulnerable or Near Threatened from European Red List of Birds (2015). The darker the red the more threatened species highlighting the significance of UK for threatened seabirds and the suite of species associated with our uplands. Source: BTO/SOC/Birdwatch Ireland Bird Atlas (2013) and http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/european-red-list-birds-0
Clearly there are differences in terms of the state of nature and the island's culture, but the principle building blocks for conservation on the island will be similar to any other territory across the archipelago and arguably around the world. The Island needs to...
...make more space for nature through delivering more, bigger, better and joined protected areas on land and at sea. The UK signature to the Convention on Biological Diversity has been extended to the Isle of Man and so the island should be looking to fully implement the Aichi targets, which among other things, obliges 17% of land and 10% of seas to be well managed for nature by 2020. With just 4.5% of land covered by Areas of Special Scientific Interest, there is a lot resting on sympathetic land management outside of protected areas.
...improve the conservation prospects of the most threatened species by diagnosing causes of decline, trailing solutions and checking to see if they work. The species that were given particular prominence at the event were curlew, chough, hen harrier and the only bird to adopt the island's name, Manx shearwater. The island has healthy populations of the first three while there is cautious optimism that a project to eradicate longtails (Manx people don't like to say R-A-T by name) on the Calf of Man will help to restore the Manx shearwater to somewhere close to their former glory (10,000 birds).
...and inspire more people to take practical and political action for nature for example by engaging the Tynwald: the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world.
It is, of course, impossible to get little more than a fleeting impression of a place when you first visit. But the Island seems to benefit from a a strong civil society and the many nature NGOs are clearly working well together. These are important foundations, and the RSPB will continue to do what it can to support Manx BirdLife and its conservation efforts on the island. I hope to go back soon - to catch up with the great people that I met and also, next time, to see more of its wildlife.
I heard two bits of news from Natural England today.
First the good news: Natural England has confirmed that it will protect the West Pennine Moors by making this important upland area a Site of Special Scientific Interest. I am delighted. This is the right decision and Natural England deserve huge credit. Conservation starts with saving the best places for wildlife and it is at the heart of Professor Sir John Lawton's vision for making more space for nature through more, bigger, better, joined protected areas. You can read more about this from my colleague, Tim Melling, who tells the story here.
Second, the bad news: Natural England has issued three further licences for killing of buzzards to protect pheasants for shooting. Their announcement says that these licences were issued for the killing of up to 26 buzzards, with 11 buzzards having been killed.
As I have written previously, the RSPB believes that killing of a recovering bird of prey to protect an introduced gamebird for the benefit of commercial interest is wrong.
The fact these licences have been issued without any public knowledge, let alone scrutiny, only makes things worse. Transparency is vital if the public is to have any confidence in the system. I don't blame Natural England - they are operating within the rules that they have been given. What we need is a public debate about how killing buzzards to protect commercial shooting of a non-native gamebird can ever be acceptable.
In my view, the legal framework is broken and the onus must be on Defra to fix it.