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 mighty cold outside.
But the good news is that it's Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.
This is your perfect excuse to spend an hour indoors sitting with a cup of coffee, watching birds in your garden.
And once you've finished, you could always turn on the telly and catch up with the wonderful Winterwatch on iPlayer...
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have a great weekend watching wildlife.
It has been hard to ignore what has been going on in the USA this week where hard fought environmental commitments or policies appear to be eroded on a daily basis.
But events in the UK have also been moving at pace.
The remarkably succinct Article 50 Bill has now been published and we also have the promise of a White Paper on the UK Government's Brexit plan. Clearly, we expect and need this White Paper to be more explicit about its negotiation aims and to consider how they will affect environmental ambitions, especially as these were not addressed in the Prime Minister's speech last week.
Yet, the Prime Minister also launched the hugely significant UK’s draft Industrial Strategy this week. This took place at her first regional cabinet meeting in the heart of England’s industrial North. It happens that this is just a stone’s throw from the RSPB estuary reserves of Burton Mere Wetland and Marshside where some of our most important areas for wintering waders and wildfowl sit alongside the bustling metropolitan and industrial centres of Manchester and Liverpool. I was pleased, therefore, to see that an Industrial Strategy that aims to deliver a “stronger economy and a fairer society”, also mentions the need to consider how we use and improve our stock of “natural capital” in the UK. This natural capital includes those vital estuaries at our reserve sites as well as all our natural capital assets: our rivers, woodlands and peatlands, and their wildlife, for example and the services they provide.
New industry and infrastructure can deliver more for people when they do not degrade our wildlife or “natural capital”, particularly if there is the opportunity to enhance these assets so I would like to see this concept placed at the heart of the Industrial Strategy. One way to embed this is to adopt a spatial approach to planning where new infrastructure is sited. If impacts on nature are taken into account in spatial planning, this makes it possible to identify the areas where we can avoid or minimise harm to nature, an important step in positive planning for any new industrial development.
There is a lot of detail in the strategy, but I want to focus on three key areas that have direct implications for nature and for the UK’s ability to reduce climate change: energy, transport and flood defence.
In the Strategy, the UK Government signals that it believes good progress is being made on security of supply and on emissions reductions. However, as the Committee on Climate Change has pointed out, the UK is currently not on course to meet its future climate targets enshrined in the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. These budgets may need to be even more ambitious (in line with aspiration in the global Paris Treaty on climate change) for the UK to help to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, instead of 2 degrees. There is much work still to be done and one way to deliver significant emissions reductions is to embed energy efficiency measures at the heart of the Industrial Strategy. I therefore welcome proposals in the strategy to review how best to support greater energy efficiency in the power and industrial sectors.
However, the Government seems to be leaving much of the heavy lifting on future decarbonisation of the energy sector to the forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan. This plan will need to set out a clear pathway for the UK to meet its existing carbon budgets. The hard-to-crack sectors of heat and transport will need particular attention, and the Plan will also need to provide long-term clarity on the timing, and support available for renewables in the coming years. A spatial analysis of where renewable energy can be deployed in harmony with nature would be an important element of this Plan, helping to minimise planning conflicts and ensuring the least ecologically sensitive areas are maximised.
Solar panels being installed at Old Hall Marshes RSPB reserve (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
The strategy places emphasis on large-scale projects that can cut journey times such as HS2, a new Heathrow runway and new road capacity. The RSPB is opposed to a new runway at Heathrow as it has not been demonstrated that this can be built without placing unrealistic decarbonisation objectives on other sectors of the economy in meeting our climate goals. Furthermore, any new road infrastructure will need to be carefully designed in order to minimise the impact on the natural environment and may also lead to emissions increases. I am pleased, though, to see the ambition of Government to support the rapid roll out of electric vehicles alongside a much-needed assessment of the impact of this on our electricity network. This is an exciting opportunity for the UK can demonstrate leadership, while avoiding the sustainability risks associated with many biofuels. However, it is disappointing that there is no strategy to reduce transport demand, which is a no-regrets way of reducing pressure on existing infrastructure and avoiding environmental impacts.
The strategy recognises that both flood and drought pose an increasing risk to our long-term economic growth. It references the UK Government’s National Flood Resilience Review call for key infrastructure providers to do more to ensure their assets are flood resilient. The Review could have gone further because it failed to explore opportunities to combine the significant investment companies are making in improving their own assets’ resilience with the Government’s commitment to flood risk management in order to determine whether working together could deliver better outcomes for communities and the environment.
There is no greater opportunity to obtain multiple benefits from investment than in tackling flood risk. Making space for water through recognising the value of green and blue infrastructure provides protection for businesses at the same time as a better place for people to live and work. It is early days but the National Infrastructure Commission recognises these opportunities and we look forward to its first review.
My conclusion is that In a period of great upheaval, this is a great opportunity for the UK to show the rest of the world how to renew infrastructure while driving a low carbon economy and investing in our natural environment. This Industrial Strategy has the potential to do just this: to deliver for the economy, nature and the climate but there is work to do if this potential is to be realised. I am pleased to see the Government accept its leadership role in industry, rather than simply leaving the market to act alone. Active intervention – whether through regulation, financial incentives or spatial planning – can play a positive role in delivering the right development in the right place, in harmony with nature.
The RSPB will actively seek to influence this draft strategy to ensure it delivers just that.
When Defra publishes its plan to address its manifesto commitment to restore UK biodiversity in 25 years, I hope and expect it will remember its responsibilities to the 14 UK Overseas Territories.
Our UKOTs are mostly small islands, and include two World Heritage Sites of exceptional natural beauty. Their inhabitants are British nationals, and the UK is responsible for helping to protect their incredible wildlife found in habitats ranging from tropical rainforests to coral reefs.
Despite incomplete data and limited knowledge about wildlife on many UKOTs, the conservation value of the UKOTs is clear with over 32,000 native species recorded of which over 1,500 are endemic i.e. found nowhere else in the world. It is estimated that there are a further 70,000 species (including a minimum estimate of 1,800 endemics) yet to be documented.
Last December, we celebrated conservation success with the St Helena plover, locally called the wirebird, and the Montserrat oriole both being down-listed from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List – meaning that risk of extinction had been lowered. Credit goes to the St Helena National Trust on St Helena, and the Department of Environment and the Montserrat National Trust on Montserrat with support from RSPB.
With the down-listing of these two species, this now means that the UK’s remaining Critically Endangered birds (the Tristan albatross and the Gough bunting) are dependent on Gough Island, a World Heritage Site that is part of the Tristan da Cunha group in the remote South Atlantic, highlighting the importance to see the delivery of the Gough Island Restoration Programme.
Yet, there are also featherless species in trouble. The spiky yellow woodlouse in St Helena, for example, was listed as Critically Endangered in 2015. With funding from the Darwin Initiative, the RSPB and Buglife are supporting our partners to do vital cloud forest restoration work to ensure this striking invertebrate has a home in the future.
Remarkably, through this Darwin project, we have discovered that the spiky yellow woodlouse glows under UV light. Glowing under UV is more commonly known in scorpions, and only one other species of woodlice has been recorded to glow in this way. The exact reason why spiky yellow woodlice glow is currently a mystery. However, this discovery has helped with surveying these woodlice as they are now much easier to spot! Using a UV torch, we are working out ways to survey the remaining colonies of this Critically Endangered species more effectively.
As highlighted in the 2016 State of Nature report, of the native species recorded in the UKOTs, 5,304 (17%) have undergone assessment against the IUCN Red List criteria. There are currently 449 globally threatened species in the UKOTs listed on the IUCN Red List, 121 are Critically Endangered, 111 are Endangered and 217 are Vulnerable (IUCN, 2017).
This still highlights however, the knowledge gaps existing for the native species of the UKOTs. Even species that are found nowhere else on earth are known to be highly threatened lack the most basic information (distribution, population size, number of populations, population trends, threats) to be able to track their current conservation status and evaluate required actions to safeguard them in the future.
Over 2016, there has been some positive progress from Defra in delivering its UKOTs Biodiversity Strategy. As well as the FCO’s commitment of £20 million to deliver the blue belt ambition to protect the UKOTs marine environment (as discussed in a previous blog), the UK Government has committed £1.75 million to support the Gough Island Restoration Programme, plus a further £1 million to advance biosecurity actions across the UKOTs, to prevent the further spread of invasive non-native species across these unique places. This is a positive step, but the challenge of invasive non-native species is vast, and is an issue for all of the UKOTs.
Currently, the UK government’s contribution to the UKOTs is still not adequate to protect the unique biodiversity present, and I will return to this subject again in due course. This is why we need Defra to outline a comprehensive plan for how it will work with the UKOTs to bolster conservation efforts in these remarkable locations. They need to outline how they will deliver the UKOTs Biodiversity Strategy, and in particular a plan is needed to address the threat of invasive non-native species across the UKOTs in a way that has a clear follow up investment on the ground. Critical to success will be better coordination of invasive alien species management efforts for UKOTs government departments of environment, agriculture and customs.
For now, though, marvel at the woodlouse that glows...