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.
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.
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”.
I am convinced that the RSPB is at its best when, through practical projects, it demonstrates how to reconcile the needs of people and wildlife and inspires others to follow our lead.
With partners, we’ve shown how to farm profitably while recovering farmland bird populations, how to catch fish rather than albatrosses and how to protect homes from flooding while creating new habitat for wildlife.
We recently turned our attention to housing.
The Westminster Government is expected to launch its Housing White Paper for England very soon. This will announce a number of changes as part of the wider drive to increase housing supply towards its stated ambition of a million new homes over the next five years.
Clearly, there is a significant need for new housing in the UK. However, the quality and location of this housing is just as important as the quantity: new housing developments should be delivered in harmony with nature and planned to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, whilst providing resilience to the impacts of climate change.
Through our work with the house builder, Barratt Developments, we want the Kingsbrook project near Aylesbury to set a benchmark for nature friendly housing developments.
Construction started in summer 2016. It is anticipated that the 2,450 home development will include a major new urban fringe nature reserve as well as nature-friendly elements in the built environment such as sustainable urban drainage system (such as swales and detention ponds), hedgehog highways in fences, flower-rich grasslands in public open spaces, native tree planting including the rare black poplar, fruit trees in gardens, and recently launched swift bricks.
These new bricks (below) are particularly impressive. Developed by Barratt, the RSPB, Action for Swifts and Manthorpe Building Products Ltd, the brick acts as a nest box while easily incorporated into the construction process. We hope that providing replacement nest sites in new buildings will help to reverse the decline in the swift population.
While we hope these measures will deliver environmental improvements, we are also keen to improve people’s lives. To investigate this, we have established a research project to assess the health and wellbeing benefits of access to nature and greenspace in the Kingsbrook development. We hope to demonstrate that it is good for us all to have contact with nature close to where we live.
In addition to the Kingsbrook project, our work with Barratt should lead a net positive impact for wildlife across all Barratt operations. This should be the ambition for all development. We need to build great places for people and nature to live.
So we urge the Government, through its White Paper, to...
...ensure all new homes are designed to the standard we are setting at Kingsbrook.
...maintain and enhance our network of protected areas of biodiversity (international, national and local) and other land of high environmental value as articulated in the National Planning Policy Framework.
...maintain protection for brownfield land of high environmental value.
...deliver new housing developments in harmony with nature and aim to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, whilst providing resilience to the impacts of climate change. A good place to start will be to show leadership and demonstrate what can be achieved in recently proposed Garden Towns and Villages.
With Barratt, we think we can set the benchmark for nature-friendly housing developments in the UK.
And we hope and expect the Government will share this ambition: to build new homes while fulfilling its commitment to restore biodiversity in a generation.