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.
I am often asked what role nature reserves play in modern nature conservation. There are so many things that we want from land - for example food, clean water and flood protection - some believe that our emphasis should be on engineering wildlife into working landscapes rather than worrying about isolated oases which are expensive to buy and hard to maintain. Of course, we work with land managers to help provide space for nature in the farmed environment. Yet, on its own, this will never be sufficient to help recover wildlife populations.
To my mind, nature conservation starts with our remaining areas of natural or semi-natural habitat which make up our protected area network (of A/SSSIs and Natura 2000 sites). There is consensus we need bigger, better and connected protected areas and we have set a target of at least 20% of UK land to be well managed for wildlife by 2025. This is essential not just to meet international commitments (such as Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets) but more importantly to help wildlife recover across landscapes. And we remain on track to double the extent of our nature reserves from 2006 levels by 2030 while ensuring our existing 210 nature reserves covering c150,000ha of land are in the best possible condition for wildlife. We set this target because we still believe that nature reserves - land managed primarily for wildlife - provide important source populations for species and can provide the beating heart of the landscapes we want to transform. What's more, through our management we can inspire others and provide wonderful wildlife experiences for our visitors.
To illustrate this point, Mike Pollard, Area Manager for the RSPB in the South Midlands, below provides an update on one of newer nature reserves - Middleton Lakes - which celebrates its tenth birthday this week. Have a read, then plan a visit.
Middleton Lakes celebrates tenth birthday
A decade ago, the RSPB secured 400 acres of wetlands, woodlands and meadows in the Tame Valley south of Tamworth and created Middleton Lakes nature reserve. Our vision is to establish a major new wildlife reserve that is readily accessible to people from across the greater Birmingham area and beyond. We worked closely with Hanson and Staffordshire County Council on the final stages of an award winning nature-friendly gravel quarry restoration, then, our RSPB staff and volunteer team took the lead and developed this site further into a fabulous nature-rich landscape.
Each year, the reserve has taken big steps forward, especially in 2011 when we opened to the public for the first time - enabling over 100,000 visits so far. But this is very much just the start of what we intend to become one of RSPB’s most visited reserves. It is already a great place to connect with wild nature – the raucous noise of the thriving black-headed gull colony, the graceful herons and egrets wading across the pools, the tell-tale muddy prints of an otter and blue flash of a speeding kingfisher.
Amongst many highlights was the arrival of our beautiful grazing animals - English Longhorn cattle and Konik ponies. By 2016 the ponies were helping create excellent conditions for wading birds by grazing across the Jubilee Wetlands, a specially designed shallow lagoon habitat in the heart of the reserve. Speaking of wading birds, possibly the two breeding bird highlights of the decade occurred in 2015, when avocets fledged young here for the first ever time in Staffordshire, and in 2016, when little egrets became the latest new breeding bird.
We also benefit hugely from our involvement in the Tame Valley Wetlands Landscape Partnership – currently delivering a major landscape-scale scheme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with local people, waterways, heritage and wildlife at its heart. The partnership’s exciting vision is “to create a wetland landscape rich in wildlife and accessible to all” across 104km2 area of the Tame Valley.
The future holds much promise for our fledgling nature reserve, with the promise of further additions to our breeding birds: a new area of reedbed has just been created, designed to be highly attractive to bitterns. We are looking forward to hearing the first booming call of the male bittern echoing out across the valley!
The Prime Minister has promised to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of next month. This action will signal the beginning of the end of our membership of the European Union - with March 2019 becoming the deadline for the completion of negotiations.
So it is time for the UK Government to demonstrate it understands the jeopardy and opportunity that Brexit poses to the environment and that it has a comprehensive coping strategy. We have seen major statements on this agenda from the Environmental Audit and House of Lords Committees, the Welsh and Scottish governments and Caroline Lucas MP. Yet, it is 21 months since the Conservative Party was elected with a manifesto promise to restore biodiversity in 25 years and we still await the publication of the plan designed to meet this commitment.
For the millions of people that care about the parlous state of nature in the UK and believe that environmental standards must be maintained and bolstered, a statement from the government about its environmental plans is long overdue.
Following last summer's referendum, we joined forces with 12 other organisations to form Greener UK and today we have published our manifesto outlining a vision for our islands and eight steps (including calls for a new Environment Act, sustained international leadership on climate change and action to ensure future policies for fisheries and farming improve the farmed and marine environments) that we believe need to be taken to create a Greener UK.
We are taking our arguments to Westminster and there are now more than 200 MPs signed up to an environment pledge so we need these and other politicians across the UK to use their voices for nature in the Brexit debates. And, we need the UK Government to listen to our concerns and take action.
You can read our manifesto here.
We don't yet know the future of our relationship with the European Union - the Brexit negotiations still have a long way to go. But whatever happens, we do know that the UK and its wildlife will remain inextricably linked with the European continent and many of the threats (such as climate change) require responses beyond natural boundaries.
I had a great reminder of this as I joined the BirdLife European partners last weekend on the Dutch island of Texel in the Wadden Sea – an important site for millions of shorebirds which migrate from northern breeding grounds to wintering areas in the south - many travelling more than 10,000km.
While I was experiencing Artic blasts and sub-zero temperatures, we toured the island and stayed next to the aptly named Utopia (below) which is a wetland that has been created to provide nesting habitat for a range of species especially waders and terns.
Utopia influenced the design of the lagoon at our own Hollesley reserve in Suffolk (below), which has inevitably been nick-named 'Holltopia' or 'Holl-utopia'. Our ecologists have also visited Dutch sites to increase our understanding of the breeding habitat requirements of potential colonists/re-colonists in the UK, especially spoonbills, great white egrets, purple herons and bluethroats. These are species that are on the move because of climate change and so we need to do what we can to give them a warm welcome by creating suitable habitats here in the UK.
Alongside the work we have done with BirdLife partners to influence EU law and policy (on agriculture and fisheries) over the past 40 years, the movement of staff and volunteers to work, learn and birdwatch around the European Union and beyond has been very important in our success.
Clearly the triggering of Article 50 could result in significant changes to that freedom of movement, and most immediately impact on those citizens from around the EU currently working at the RSPB, along with their families.
As there are events to highlight this issue today it seems appropriate to record my appreciation of the work of our diverse and multinational staff and volunteers. I am acutely aware of the uncertain situation some of them are currently facing.
Addressing environmental issues across Europe benefits enormously from shared research and cooperation across borders, and the RSPB hugely values the contribution made by all of our staff and volunteers. We could not do what we do without them.
And the same applies to saving nature. Irrespective of the future formal relationship the UK develops with the UK, we need sustained cooperation across Europe and internationally if we are to save our shared home. This will be a core part of the message we send to politicians on Wednesday when the Greener UK coalition outlines how we must make Brexit work for nature.