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!
When I joined the RSPB in 1963 you had just a handful of reserves (and little of that land was owned). Who would have thought then how important RSPB reserves would become for nature conservation in the UK. It's great to see that the Society's ambition to grow the reserves network is as strong as ever.
Influencing land management on the widest possible scale is of course very important. But reserves give you control and, if owned, protection for ever except in extreme circumstances. And most habitats in the UK (except mountains, sea cliffs etc.) need to be managed - and you need to decide what species / habitats you are going to manage for. We've lost so much wildlife and so many wild places in the UK; it's great to see the RSPB bringing back as much as it can and creating wilderness areas anew.