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.
At this time of year, when the days are still getting shorter, energy levels are low and you are surrounded by people with colds, we all need something to make us feel better. So, to bring early Christmas cheer, here are twelve highlights from the RSPB year. None of these would be achieved without the support of our members and the the dedication of our staff/volunteers working alongside our partners. Thank you for everything that you have done to help.
As you read the stories below, be reminded that, despite all of the pressures, together we make a difference for nature. And be optimistic that we can do even greater things next year.
Have a great break over Christmas and best wishes for 2017.
RSPB highlights of 2016
1. We continue to grow the number and size of our nature reserves to make more space for nature. In 2016 the RSPB added nearly 1500ha to our owned or leased land - including a new reserve in Scotland, where we will work with the local conservation group to manage the reedbed and open water habitat.
2. Our reserves provide a home for more than 16,000 species at over 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares. They continue to be an important safe haven for a wide variety of fauna and flora. For example, in 2016, for the second year running, both nightjar and woodlark were at their highest ever numbers on our heathland reserves and 2016 also saw the first evidence of wild breeding of smooth snakes at Aylesbeare – 7 years after the translocation project’s first release.
Image courtesy of Ben Andrew (rspb-images)
3. RSPB wetland reserves continue to support rare breeders and colonisers. Great white egrets fledged 10 young at Avalon Marshes and a pair of little gulls bred at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg and fledged two young. This is the first known successful nesting of little gulls in the UK. A once rare breeder and now brilliant example of a conservation success story, the numbers of booming bitterns on wetland reserves increased again to a record number of 161 at 76 sites.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
4. RSPB reserves continue to play a vital role in engaging with the public, increasing connection to nature and educating people. For example Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast is on track to experience a 10% growth in visitor numbers to their new Seabird Centre – with over 100,000 visitors being greeted face to face by staff and volunteers. This creates a unique opportunity to grow support for nature and build popular support and leverage for our casework and marine campaigns.
Image courtesy of Jesper Mattias (rspb-images)
5. RSPB and partnership species recovery projects continue to play an important role in protecting and enhancing biodiversity. The 2016 national cirl bunting survey has shown the population has increased to over 1000 pairs – 10 times more than in the 1980s. This is thanks to a highly successful reintroduction to Cornwall and decades of partnership working with farmers in Devon, supported by Natural England and grants to recover nature friendly farming.
Image courtesy of Andy Hay (rspb-images)
6. Our important island restoration programme continued this year: St Agnes and Gugh in the Scilly Isles were officially declared rat free in 2016, and the breeding population of Manx shearwater has increased from 22 pairs in 2013 (pre rat eradication) to 73 pairs in 2016 (post rat eradication) with two new locations colonised. The rat eradication phase of the Shiants project was completed in March, and so far no rat sign has been detected, which is bringing cheer to the local community! If all continues to go well we will officially be able to declare these islands rat free in winter 2017.
Image courtesy of Ed Marshall (rspb-images)
7. Our International work continues to yield fantastic results. 2016 saw the 10th anniversary of the hugely successful Albatross Task Force. Bycatch reductions of 80% have been achieved in five out of ten target fisheries and we are well on track to hit this figure in a further two.
Image courtesy of Alastair Wilson (rspb-images)
8. Captive breeding and development of Vulture Safe Zones as part of our vulture programme in Asia also continues, and in 2016 the Indian Government have pledged £200k per annum to the programme, after years of RSPB and BirdLife advocacy work.
Image courtesy of Chris Gomersall (rspb-images)
9. The UK Government has announced the creation of a 23-million-hectare fully-protected marine reserve around Ascension Island. That's roughly the size of the UK! We are delighted that the UK Government has pledged to safeguard at least 50 per cent of Ascension's rich waters, and it is a major success for our work on the UK Overseas Territories.
Image courtesy of Jolene Sim (Ascension Island Government)
10. The 2016 highlight of our work in the Gola forest landscape was the designation of the Gola National Park by the Government of Liberia in September. A variety of livelihoods projects are ongoing, such as building the capacity of over 3,000 farmers in Gola-Sierra Leone in the 70,000ha of forests and farms surrounding the protected areas. This led to the establishment of the first cocoa farmer association, and collection of the first Gola cocoa beans for export in early 2017. Studies have also shown the population of the critically endangered West African Chimp in Gola-Sierra Leone is stable, which is the only example across its entire home range where it is otherwise declining. Finally, we are selling independently verified carbon credits from Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone towards funding this vitally important tropical forest conservation.
11. Fighting to protect our most precious wildlife sites remains vitally important. In 2016 we felt vindicated and very relieved when a judicial review found in RSPB’s favour after we legally challenged the Scottish Ministers' consents for four large offshore windfarms in the outer firths of the Forth and Tay. These developments would lead to thousands of seabirds including gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and other species being killed every year. Unfortunately, the Scottish Ministers have decided to appeal this decision and so we will be back in court again in 2017. However, we remain confident our case is robust and hope that our actions will encourage other developments to be sited in less sensitive locations in future.
12. And finally...we saved the laws that protect nature! The importance of rallying support behind campaigns was illustrated by the amazing response to our Defence of the Directives campaign. The RSPB joined forces with over 100 other environmental groups to tell European leaders not to weaken the EU Nature Directives. Over half a million people joined us in responding to the public consultation. At every stage in the debates and discussions since, our politicians have highlighted the vast public support for nature protection that we've shown. On 7th December 2016, we received the fantastic news that the hard work was all worth it – the EU Nature Directives will remain unchanged, and there will be a plan for better implementation and enforcement.
This Wednesday, European Commissioners (including UK Commissioner Sir Julian King) will decide whether to save the EU’s flagship environment laws - the Birds and Habitats & Species Directives. This decision follows a public consultation with a record 520,000 respondents and an 18 month campaign run by BirdLife International and other environmental NGOs across Europe.
Just last week, I was reminded of the importance of these Directives. Petr Vorisek, co-ordinator the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, gave a talk at our excellent annual science meeting about what the data tells us about the impact of European policy and legislation. His findings are clear...
...the change in farming practices brought about by the Common Agriculture Policy has led to the decline in farmland birds - we know there are 421 million fewer birds than there were 30 years ago
...birds listed on Annex 1 of the Birds Directive perform better within Special Protection Areas (designated under the Birds Directive) than outside
...there is a higher abundance of farmland birds within Natura 2000 sites (both SPAs and Special Areas of Conservation designated under the Habitats & Species Directive) than outside
...there is a lower decline of farmland in sites which have management plans than those that do not
Starling murmuration above RSPB Ham Wall by David Kjaer (rspb-images.com). Starlings have suffered huge declines across Europe over the past few decades.
While, there is growing momentum to reform agriculture policy across Europe (including within the UK), we also need to protect the laws that are helping to save nature. The EU Nature Directives have worked for species and we also know they have helped to protect from inappropriate development our finest wildlife sites including Lewis peatlands and Dibden Bay.
As 100,000 UK citizens responded to the public consultation, many of them RSPB members and supporters, it is clear that people across the UK care about maintaining high standards of environmental protection. We also know that businesses want the certainty that the directives provide.
And finally, any European government that is serious about fulfilling its international obligations to halting the loss of biodiversity needs to maintain these laws and focus their efforts on implementing them better.
I am hoping for and wildlife needs good news on Wednesday.
Last night, I participated in a debate about our vision for 2040. The context, of course, was the Conservative Government’s 2015 manifesto commitment to restore biodiversity in 25 years which will be brought to life through Defra’s ‘soon’ to be published 25 year environment framework.
To prepare for the debate, I thought I would see what the futurists are predicting about social trends, technological advancements and political developments...
...robots will be common features of the homes and workplaces
...depression will be the number one global disease burden
...tobacco will be largely eradicated
...the European Union will have collapsed
...chocolate will become a rare luxury
Many of these may lead to eyebrows being raised a bit, yet, predictions about the state of the environment future are much more stark...
...global temperatures will be 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels triggering a large-scale melting of the permafrost and an acceleration in global temperature rises resulting in catastrophic impacts for people and wildlife
...there will have been major extinctions of animal and plant life including the loss of 50% of amphibians and 20% of birds in Europe; less than 2% of coral reefs will be remaining; nearly half of the Amazon rainforest destroyed with 2000 tree species becoming extinct
You can see why the 21st century has been categorised as a period of “an increasingly globalised humanity facing climate change, dwindling resources, overpopulation and technological upheaval”.
Scanning the horizon for a brighter future for people and wildlife (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
We’re currently on this pathway and it’s clear that we have our work cut out to avoid this dystopian view of the future.
I lay this out not to hasten the advance of mass depression, or to encourage you to give up and go party but to stress that we really do need to act and we need to act now not towards the end of the 25 year plan.
The impact on the natural environment is a function of how many people there are on the planet, how much they consume and available technology. Given current fertility rates, and assuming there are no major human catastrophes, global population will have reached 9 billion by 2040 leading to a 50% increase in demand for energy, 50% increase in demand for food and 30% increase in demand for water. Unless we find a development pathway which decouples growth from economic harm, it is difficult to see how we can avoid the apocalyptic future described above.
Yet, the world has a plan to tackle climate change and I am confident that technological advances will allow us to fully debarbonise the economy. While current national greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments are inadequate to keep global temperature rises below 2.4⁰C-2.7⁰C, it is not unrealistic to believe that technological advancements and growing public pressure will mean that we will have a chance to keep within the safe limits of 1.5⁰C set out in the Paris climate agreement. But hope and faith is insufficient, we need governments to plan, and most of all to act, to make this future become reality.
To avoid mass extinction we have to redouble our efforts to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 targets – especially to increase the amount of land and sea that is well managed for nature. But we also need to tackle the major drivers of decline (aka the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse): habitat destruction, invasive non-native invasive species, pollution (including climate change) and over-exploitation.
These issues are deeply complex and challenging and require political effort equivalent to that which has been afforded to climate change. For example...
...fundamental reform of our food and farming is essential. Changes in agriculture has been identified as the primary driver of change in nature both within the UK (for species assessed through State of Nature) and globally (for birds assessed by BirdLife International). What’s more a billion people go to bed hungry each night while a billion people are overweight or obese. Within the UK, as a result of the Brexit vote and our expected withdrawal from the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy, we have a once in a generation opportunity to rethink our farming and landuse policy. We must believe that we can lead the world in driving genuinely environmentally sustainable agriculture.
...greater action must be taken to control invasive species and intensify biosecurity efforts. We have, over the past decade, successfully eradicated non-native species as part of island restoration projects and I am delighted that plans are in place to extend this efforts. Yet, finances are limiting our capability to keep up with the challenge which is growing inexorably as global trade intensifies. Whilst the future of the EU Birds and habitats directives is thankfully now more secure (see here) there is still much work to be done to ensure the EU regulation on Invasive species is not weakened and is fully transposed into UK law.
... the value of nature need to be captured in decision-making. Our thinking about natural capital must improve and new policies developed to make it easier to invest in nature’s recovery, both for nature and for the benefits it brings us.
... people’s everyday connection with nature needs to be improved for our well-being today and to help create the environmental leaders tomorrow. We will know if we are on the right path if we see new interventions such as a) Defra and the Department of Health rolling out an extensive programme of natural health provision to transform the way we improve mental and physical health or b) Defra and the Department for Education revising the curriculum to make caring for the environment a key part of learning. We need these big transformative changes if we are to improve peoples lives and save nature.
I shall be 70 in 2040 and probably/hopefully be on the cusp of retirement. I want to be able to look back and feel that collectively we did a good job, that we did manage to pass on to our children the natural environment in a better state than we inherited.
Anything less is too painful to contemplate.
That’s why our Government’s 25 year plan for the environment needs to be ambitious and groundbreaking. Get it wrong and we will no longer be living in a green and pleasant land. Get it right and we can be proud of what we will achieve and have the confidence to inspire others around the world through our own actions.