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.
Yesterday, the UK Government took the historic step of ratifying the global climate deal agreed in Paris one year ago. This announcement comes as countries are meeting in Morocco for this year’s round of talks. Ratification of the deal sends a strong signal that the Paris deal has ongoing momentum behind it and that the UK is intent on maintaining its global ambition on climate change regardless of anything else that has changed in the past 12 months.
Once again our ‘correspondent at the UNFCCC’, John Lanchbery, has been attending the negotiations on behalf of the RSPB and BirdLife International to follow and influence the discussions.
Coinciding with this year’s conference in Marrakech, scientists released new research suggesting that, without action, climate change could result in up to seven degrees of temperature rise this century, putting wildlife around the world at severe risk.
I had seen previous estimates that temperatures might rise as much as six degrees. But the new research has used historical data on the Earth’s temperatures and has identified that when the Earth is warmer it is more sensitive to climate change gases than normal. This means that temperatures could rise by as much as seven degrees.
These kinds of changes would fundamentally alter the planet’s ability to support life. Recently published studies such as The State of Nature 2016, and WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016 demonstrate the contribution that climate change is already making to the decline of both national and global biodiversity. The RSPB’s own Nature of Climate Change report last year highlighted some stark examples of these impacts, such as extreme weather events impacting on the breeding of bearded tits and tumbling numbers of kittiwakes around our coasts due to changes in sand eel distribution as North Sea temperatures warm.
Such effects will increase as the global temperature rises, and as our understanding of climate change also grows it seems that the scale and severity and the resulting impacts across the globe may prove to be worse than we could have ever previously imagined. The UN’s weather agency confirmed just days ago that the last five years have been the hottest on record.
The Paris agreement set out a goal to keep temperature rises well below two degrees and ideally below 1.5 degrees. The chance to achieve this is rapidly slipping away. At present the commitments countries have made to cut their emissions still leave us likely to experience three degrees or more of temperature rise, according to various studies.
The UK has been told by the Committee on Climate Change that its efforts to cut emissions are not putting it on course to meet its own targets. The Committee has also recently advised the Government that even those targets are only ambitious enough to contribute to keeping temperatures to two degrees. To do its fair share to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees the UK would need to do even more, hitting ‘net zero’ emissions by the 2040s.
In its forthcoming Carbon Plan the Government will set out how it will go beyond current efforts. The RSPB has been vocal in calling on Government to be as ambitious as possible and this week has published a report with NGO partners highlighting priorities and solutions for the Carbon Plan. While we have seen some real progress on efforts to generate renewable electricity, tackling heat and transport have proved trickier. A holistic strategy for reducing emissions across all sectors is urgently needed, including energy efficiency which is a no-regrets way to bring emissions down with no risk to the natural environment.
But the urgency to act could also put our wildlife at risk in the UK. Our recent Energy Vision report showed that strategic spatial planning and careful choices can avoid the negative impacts renewable energy developments can have on nature and we have been very active in showcasing this report to Government. However, many scenarios for achieving net zero emissions also rely on planting lots of crops or trees to suck emissions from the atmosphere. Some think this planting needs to be on a massive scale – a scale so great that it would cause significant damage to wildlife.
The UK has always played a leading role within the EU on climate change. Given Brexit, and a new US President-elect who has promised to reverse the US’s climate policies, there is, as our friends at Green Alliance have written, a chance for the UK to step up on the international stage; ratification of the Paris deal is an important first step. Now this must be backed up with action back home to make the emissions cuts we have promised. It is very clear that the threat to wildlife from climate change has never been greater and the need for leadership has never been more pressing.
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.
Tomorrow, in deepest Devon there will be a celebration of 25 years of work to save the ‘bird we nearly lost’ – the cirl bunting. RSPB staff, who have led the recovery project for this species will be there alongside Sarah Wollaston MP (the bird's parliamentary champion), Natural England staff, project sponsors and most importantly, the farmers who have been at the heart of this work. They should be proud of their role and we owe them a huge deft of gratitude - this bird was saved because they chose to take the nature friendly options on their farms.
Image courtesy of Andy Hay (RSPB-Images.com)
The reason we are celebrating is that our survey this summer recorded 1,078 breeding pairs – passing the 1,000-pair target the RSPB set when it launched the Cirl Bunting Project a quarter-century ago. This is fabulous news, a wild bird of farmland going from the brink of extinction in this country (there were just 100 pairs left in 1989) to a population which is now much more secure. Something magical has been going on in Devon - more than 100 farmers have responded to the cirl’s plight and helped make this giant step in saving a unique farmland bird.
What was the recipe for success?
Having decided to step in to help the cirl bunting, our team worked hard to understand why the species was declining (loss of food source and nesting sites brought about by changes in farming practices) and then come up with solutions.
But these solutions needed to work for the farmer. So we had to trying to see like the farmer - on their farm. Together we then put together all the ingredients that would allow farmers to take the nature friendly choice. Coming up with the right recipe hasn’t always been easy. There has been pain such as dealing with bureaucracy (filling in lots of forms) or farming problems like dealing with weeds (plants in the wrong place). But there has also been gain as farmers are rewarded through agri-environment schemes (the incentives provided by government as a result of the filled-in forms) and the joy in knowing that they are giving nature is hand. For these farmers, so far at least, the recipe has been a success.
Nationally, we take heart from knowing that hard work, willing farmers and government support can restore farmland wildlife. But, locally working on farms, the difference is even more tangible - success can be seen and heard in the way that abstract national targets or programmes cannot.
The experience we have gained from working on this project can help the UK Government as it strives to meet its international commitments to restore threatened species while restoring biodiversity in a generation through its 25 year environment plan: our future farming and landuse policy needs well designed, well funded nature friendly farming schemes with expert advice available to farmers. Yet, just as important is the mindset of those keen to effect change on farms.
Ultimately, the cirl bunting project worked because we worked with farmers to integrate pro-nature choices into a farm business. This is the best way to a genuinely sustainable recovery for some of our most threatened birds.
So, hats off to all those involved in this conservation success story from deepest Devon. May we learn the lessons and put more colour and sound back into our countryside