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’s been a roller-coaster of a year and so, as 2016 draws to a close, I am delighted to be able to report good news about European wildlife - news which also has huge significance for the future of nature conservation in the UK.
Following a comprehensive 2-year evaluation process, the European Commission announced yesterday that the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives (the ‘Nature’ Directives) would not be ‘opened up’ for revision. Instead – and in line with the evidence as to what is urgently required – the Commission will draw up plans for better implementation and increased investment.
This announcement was made within the same 24 hours that the RSPB joined forces with four international conservation NGOs to launch a new report (here) on the lack of progress being made by all governments towards the Aichi Biodiversity targets (agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity). Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the tough job of ensuring humans live in harmony with nature.
Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said:
‘Our focus will now be on making sure that they are implemented in the most effective and efficient way to realise their full potential for nature, people and the economy’.
This is great news for our most important wildlife sites as well as our most threatened species especially those which don’t respect administrative borders (such as turtle doves, seabirds and cetaceans). It is exactly what we called for through our ‘Defend Nature’ campaign .
The RSPB played a key part in this campaign, working with 99 other UK civil society organisations to speak with one voice in the UK, but also with BirdLife International and other international NGO networks across Europe. Yet, we wouldn’t have achieved this success without the support of half a million people across the EU. If you were one of the hundred thousand people who supported the campaign in the UK, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you.
You might be thinking, now that we’ve voted to leave the EU what does this decision mean for the UK?
Cotton grass on peatland protected by the EU Nature Directives (image courtesy of Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Well, following the EU referendum result, Theresa May committed – where practical – to converting all EU legislation into domestic law as part of the Great Repeal Bill expected next year. Therefore, yesterday’s decision by the European Commission should help ensure that these important laws continue to provide the fundamental basis for domestic nature protection as we leave the EU.
However, there are still many questions to be answered about the Great Repeal Bill. Can all EU environmental regulation be successfully converted into domestic law, and how will it be enforced? The European Court of Justice has been such a powerful force to ensure compliance with these laws, so who will play this role in the UK after we leave the EU?
The guidance and financial support mechanisms available at EU level, along with the monitoring and enforcement processes, have also played a key role in driving nature conservation progress in the UK. To date we have relied on these, and they have helped the UK Government deliver their nature conservation commitments. Replacing these will be a significant challenge.
This is why today a group of 14 environmental organisations (including the RSPB) are coming together to launch GreenerUK – a new coalition working to make sure Brexit delivers the best for the UK’s environment.
In a joint letter to The Times, we are calling on the Prime Minister to commit to using the forthcoming Brexit negotiations to restore and enhance the UK’s environment and ensure its current protections are not lost.
With the future of EU environmental standards now assured, we must seize the opportunity to push for as strong or better standards here in the UK. This is essential if the UK Government wants to meet its international obligations to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 and meet manifesto commitment to restore biodiversity by 2040.
While EU Commissioners were announcing that the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives were safe (here), the nations of the world are also meeting in Mexico to discuss progress on meeting their international commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity. My colleagues, Sarah Nelson and Georgina Chandler, are in Cancun to encourage leaders to increase ambition and action. Here, they share the findings of a new report that assesses progress in meeting international commitments for nature. The report also includes five simple recommendations for all governments, including our own, to help them do better for nature. I hope and expect Defra will reflect these global ambitions in their soon to be published 25 Year Plan for the Environment.
In 2010, the world agreed to a bold and ambitious agenda to address the decline in global biodiversity. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set out challenges for the global community to meet by 2020.
This week marks the start of the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD COP13). These meetings happen once every two years, bringing together countries from around the world to discuss actions to reverse the declines in global biodiversity, as well as how well countries are progressing upon their commitments.
Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone - part of BirdLife International's Forest of Hope programme (Guy Shorrock, rspb-images.com)
Concerned by the continuing loss of global biodiversity, the RSPB partnered with four of the biggest global conservation organisations (our own Birdlife International network, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and WWF) to produce an assessment to highlight how well countries were progressing against the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.
The study is based on analysis of the CBD Secretariat, drawing on the 52% of countries who have submitted their national biodiversity strategy and action plans,. Our assessment then used this data to examine two things:
Although the data meant that analysis at the national level was not possible, the results could be used to show alignment and progress by target, by economic grouping and by political groupings.
The results are sobering. Only 5 percent of countries who have reported progress on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets are on track to reach their global biodiversity goals by 2020. With a massive 90% of countries who have reported setting national targets that are lower than the global ambition.
Examining alignment and progress of national targets by economic groups was particularly revealing, showing that low-income countries have set more ambitious targets than higher-income countries, despite making less progress. The same picture emerged when analysing the data by political groups, which showed that groupings with a higher proportion of developed countries, in particular the EU, showed less alignment with the scope and ambition of the Aichi Targets than other groupings with a higher proportion of developing countries, such as the African Group.
With four years left to meet the Aichi Targets, the message to countries is clear; continue as you are, and for the second time in a decade, you will fail to meet your commitments to safeguarding biodiversity. This week at CBD COP13 we will therefore be calling on all countries to:
The RSPB, working with, and through, the Birdlife Partnership will be playing its role to support countries with these recommendations, in the hope that when 2020 comes – we can say that we did our best to ensure we did not fail to save our nature.
For more information on this work, visit www.birdlife.org/aichi-progress
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.