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.
A fortnight ago, I was checking the press release we were issuing in response to the latest plans to develop Lodge Hill. In it we referred to the 90% decline in our nightingale population in the last fifty years. I paused on the 90% figure. It didn't seem right. I knew the decline was significant, but for some reason I hadn't equated the nightingale decline to that suffered by turtle dove or willow tit. So, I went on the BTO website - the best place to check bird trend statistics - and this confirmed the 90% decline.
The nightingale population has declined by 90% since 1967.
Unless we take action to protect nightingales on its breeding grounds and work with others on its flyway and wintering grounds, we are going to lose this iconic bird from our countryside. Its evocative song, which adds so much to the avian soundtrack to our spring and summer, will be lost.
So, why on earth are we even contemplating developing the most important site for nightingales in England?
As I have written on eight previous occasions, Lodge HiIl (shown in the image above) in Medway, North Kent is protected as one of our best sites for wildlife - a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) . Normally I get excited if I hear one or two nightingales; in 2012, Lodge Hill had 85 singing males!
Now, Medway Council has just brought out a consultation looking at the overall future of the area in which they state their commitment to want to see the site developed; and we know they want 5000 houses to be built there. If, after the consultation, the Council does indeed put Lodge Hill into its Local Plan, it would help pave the way for one of the largest ever destructions of a protected site in the UK and would put two fingers up to the Governmental ambition to pass on the natural world in a better state to the next generation. I don't think the next generation would thank us for depriving them of nightingales.
We want your help to do two things......yes, to save Lodge Hill and its nightingales...but also to stop a dangerous precedent being set that would threaten all of our protected wildlife sites.
So we're hoping you will tell Medway Council that the nightingales matter and that to allocate it as a site for development would weaken the protection for all our best wildlife sites across England. The Council might think this is a local matter, but threatening such a nationally important site makes it a national matter. We need to #SaveLodgeHill.
Medway Council's consultation runs until 6 March 2017. You can join our campaign here and tell Medway why it must not develop the site. It will take you a minute and it would be great if you could add personal reasons why you want the site to be saved.
We have to change the current mindset that loss in inevitable and short term economic gain always trumps wildlife. And if you need any further motivation to act, remind yourself of the fabulous song of the nightingale here.
Andy Hay's photo of a nightingale (rspb-images.com)
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.