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.
In her much anticipated speech today, the Prime Minister gave more detail on what the UK vote to leave the European Union will mean.
Crucially, she ended months of speculation by confirming that, in its upcoming negotiations with the EU, the UK Government will not be seeking membership of the EU Single Market.
Why does this matter for nature?
This matters because the trading arrangements between the UK and the EU have a bearing on environmental standards we need to adopt.
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
If the UK remained a member of the Single Market, it would have needed to continue to comply with most – but not all – EU environmental legislation. There would still have been some very notable gaps, including when it came to key pieces of legislation like the Birds and Habitats Directives and sectoral policies covering agriculture and fisheries, but many other policy areas would have been largely unaffected (the UK would simply have lost its vote on influencing the future direction of such policies).
Therefore, the implication of today’s announcement is that the vast majority of existing EU environmental legislation will not automatically apply following the UK’s departure from the UK.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has re-affirmed the Government’s commitment to converting the full body of existing EU law in UK law via the proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Of course, we know that this will not be a straightforward process. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee, it could still result in a significant weakening of environmental protections in the absence of full parliamentary scrutiny and a means of replacing the loss of existing EU governance mechanisms relied on to hold decision-makers to account and secure robust enforcement.
So, while the Prime Ministers speech provides some additional clarity, many questions still remain. As such, we agree with the Environmental Audit Committee’s call on the Government to urgently set out how it plans to “provide an equivalent or better level of protection” for nature as we exit the EU.
Looking to the future
Instead of Single Market membership, the Prime Minister has stated that the UK will seek “the greatest possible” market access via a bespoke Free Trade Agreement with the EU. On this issue, the Environmental Audit Committee has also been clear, recommending that when it comes to negotiating any such agreement, the Government must guarantee that “it will not trade away environmental protections...as part of the negotiations to leave, or as part of future trade deals.”
We agree. Indeed, to be a truly ‘Global UK’, maintaining current levels of environmental protection must be a red line in any such negotiations. We do not want to see a ‘race to the bottom’ in environmental standards as a means of trying to secure favourable terms in any future trade deal. Ultimately, protecting our environment and securing our future prosperity must go hand in hand. This will be a key message for the Greener UK coalition of which we are a founding member.
Working together to maintain standards and secure high levels of protection should be seen as an opportunity for on-going cooperation and collaboration both within the UK and across the EU as a whole. This is essential for future generations to be able to look back and know, as Theresa May put it today “...that we built them a better Britain”.
There are 1,092 days until 2020 - the date by which the nations of the world have committed to halting biodiversity loss. That's just over a thousand days to demonstrate that it is possible for our species to change its course and learn to live in harmony with nature.
Statistics about the state of nature at home and globally illustrate the scale of the challenge, and a growing population consuming more creates a desperate situation.
Over Christmas, I was struck by how deeply one of my relatives felt about the plight of the giraffe. He had heard the news that the global giraffe population had plummeted by up to 40% over the last 30 years, and the species had been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. He was in a pretty depressed state about it - there is clearly something about the plight of this iconic species that summed up everything that is wrong with how our species is treating our planet.
Wigeon flying over RSPB Ham Wall reserve by David Kjaer (rspb-images.com)
Many can feel helpless when faced with the enormity of the challenge of stopping the seemingly inexorable march towards mass extinction. Yet, we know what needs to be done and there are countless examples around the world of people improving their natural environment: saving special places from development, recovering threatened species and meeting human needs without compromising the needs of nature. This will be the feature of two significant events in 2017.
First, the Earth Optimism Summit taking place around the world on the weekend of 21-23 April (coinciding with the RSPB Weekend) is an opportunity to put a spotlight on solutions to 21st-century conservation problems.
Second, the BirdLife International Congress from 9-14 October will be the latest gathering of our global family, with partners from 120 countries coming together to share their ambitions for and experience of saving nature.
Both events should demonstrate the skill and expertise of the global conservation community, will build solidarity, and I hope will instill confidence that we are and will continue to make things better for nature.
At the RSPB, we have experience of:
Our impact is not the result of one individual, but thousands of staff and volunteers working with a wide variety of partners and supported by our million members. The RSPB is entering its 128th year of influencing change in the way humans relate to nature and it remains an enormous privilege to work for this institution - the vehicle through which we can channel our vocation to protect the natural world. And this is why, even in these changing times, we continue to work hard to ensure that the institution is in its best shape to continue to have impact for the next 128 years.
In order to keep us fit and flexible to deal with whatever the external environment throws at us, we’ve undertaken some internal reorganisation, and as a result my role will be changing this year. With the appointment of a new Director for England, and the retirement of two key people on our Board, I will assume responsibilities for our international work (on UK Overseas Territories and our work with and through the BirdLife International partnership to recover species on the the Palaearctic-African flyway and where we are making a material difference globally). I will still lead our conservation strategy but will start to lean out of England and focus instead on cross-UK and international matters.
As I look out at the year stretching before me, there are a few things that dominate the horizon: Article 50, the Great Repeal Bill, new policies for agriculture and fisheries all triggered by the Brexit vote. Each presents jeopardy and opportunity for nature and each will attract much debate and attention as the UK seeks to forge a new relationship with the European Union. The Greener UK coalition, which has been established to make Brexit work for nature, is made up of 13 organisations supported by 7.9 million people. Together, we believe that we can and must make Brexit work for nature. This is why I am pleased to read today's Environmental Audit Committee's report on Brexit and the environment which argues that we must maintain and improve environmental protections, re-balance support to farmers toward pubic goods, such as biodiversity and find more resources - both public and private – to meet challenge of restoring biodiversity within a generation.
So, in 2017, remain alarmed by the plight of giraffes and the other tens of thousands of species threatened with extinction, but also be optimistic that we can make a difference and turn things round. Go further and resolve this year to be when we start to create the future that we want and nature needs.
I’ve just finished reading a new review (the Hendry Review) on the Role of Tidal Lagoons. I think it is a considered piece of analysis that takes into account the many issues at stake in a place as precious for wildlife as the Severn Estuary.
In particular, I am delighted to see that the Review has taken on board the RSPB’s recommendation that the planned tidal lagoon at Swansea acts as a test project or “pathfinder” project from which we can learn the lessons ahead of a wider push to develop further lagoons in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere in the UK.
Hendry has recognised the potential opportunity of renewable energy from tidal but I’m really pleased that he is backing a measured approach such that if lagoon technology is to be expanded there is time to fully understand environmental impacts and avoid or mitigate them, so that this technology can be deployed in harmony with nature.
Shelduck in flight (Ben Hall, rspb-images.com)
A key objective for the Governments of the UK is to decarbonise our energy supply. In 2008, the UK Government introduced a legally binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 against 1990 levels. To achieve this our energy system will need to change, and we will need to significantly increase our use of renewable energy sources.
Last year ‘The RSPB’s 2050 energy vision’ looked at how we could do this. This was not a prescriptive document and we remain open to new ideas, innovations and technologies as the world works to meet the targets set out in Paris in 2015. As the UK transforms its energy system to meet the Government’s 2050 climate targets, our belief is that it must be in harmony with nature.
As well as being a key focus for tidal lagoons, the Severn is one of the UK’s natural wonders.
These habitats providing winter feeding grounds for up to 76,000 waterfowl and waders (such as shelduck, dunlin, redshank – all with Internationally important populations) according to the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count.
And, in the water the Severn is home to 110 different fish species, including seven migratory species (among which are three of the five known UK breeding populations of twaite shad, as well as sea lamprey and river lamprey – all of which are internationally important).
And that is just a snapshot of the amazing wildlife that inhabit or use the Severn and adjacent areas. So, as you might expect we are protective of this precious habitat.
The RSPB supports the Swansea lagoon proposal subject to the outstanding environmental questions for example the potential impacts on fish, being satisfactorily resolved. We have long urged that lessons are learned from this first scheme so that we can fully understand the environmental impacts and mitigation potential of this technology to inform any future developments. I am therefore pleased to note the emphasis the Review places on in depth monitoring and research to learn these environmental lessons.
The Review goes on to suggest the development of other small scale schemes from which further lessons can be learned. If Government chooses to adopt this approach, we see it as absolutely essential that the right coastal locations are selected for these projects, taking into account the likely wildlife impacts from the outset. The role of the National Policy Statement (NPS) will be key to selecting the right locations as will the role of a new Tidal Power Authority should Govenrment choose to adopt the recommendation to establish this body. It is essential that this process, is subject to the rigorous tests of UK wildlife law.
The challenge to address climate change is so great that we need an energy revolution and tidal lagoons may have a role to play. The Review concludes that tidal lagoons would help deliver security of energy supply and help us meet our decarbonisation commitments.
I believe that if we learn the lessons from the Swansea Bay lagoon project, and understand how to deploy this technology in an ecologically sensitive way, tidal lagoons can play a role in decarbonising our energy future. However, this is a new and expensive technology; it must also not distract from the need for continued investment in existing affordable alternative and potentially more sustainable sources of renewable energy. And it absolutely must not cause needless harm to nature and fabulous sites like the Severn or our other precious estuaries around the coast of the UK.