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.
As I reflected upon in yesterday’s blog, this week the UK Government has formally started a process that will redefine our place in the world.
Irrespective of our future relationship with the Europe Union, the UK has and will continue to have obligations to protect our most threatened species from extinction (such as Aichi target 12 under the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity). For us, the status of threatened species is a critical test of whether we are living in harmony with nature. It it is why, throughout our history, we have invested an enormous amount of effort to recover species such as great crested grebe, avocet, osprey, cirl bunting, stone-curlew, corncrake, red kite, white-tailed eagle, crane, albatrosses, Gyps vultures and spoon-billed sandpipers.
Yet, the number of threatened species within the UK has grown - for example, 361 species have been identified as in imminent danger of being lost from England whilst a further 785 are threatened, rare, range-restricted or declining. This is why we have had to think and act differently to scale up our conservation efforts.
Black-tailed godwit - one of the species that will benefit from the funding - by Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com)
Today, I am delighted to report the fantastic news that the National Lottery has agreed to invest £4.6m in backing one of the most ambitious conservation projects ever undertaken in the UK. The RSPB has joined forces with Natural England, the Amphibian and Reptile Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife to develop new ways ways of working together to inspire people to take action for threatened species.
The project is a mix of targeted work for 20 of our most threatened species alongside action in landscapes across England from the Yorkshire Dales to Cornwall to help a further 200 species including the grey long-eared bat, pine martin, willow tit, large garden bumblebee, lesser butterfly orchid and hedgehog. Back from the Brink is ambitious, it is exciting and I am confident will deliver fantastic results of nature.
We intend to pilot new approaches to inspire action from our own supporters, landowners, farmers and local community groups who will be recruited to observe and record these threatened species and help provide the habitats and help they need.
This has project has been a long time in development. With funding now in place, we can start to build the team to put life back into England's green and pleasant land.
I look forward to reporting more good news about this project soon...
It’s official - Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been triggered, the EU has been formally notified of the UK’s intention to withdraw and the Brexit negotiations can begin.
Parliament Green in London was packed yesterday with reporters and camera crews seeking reaction and comment from politicians from all sides. My guess is that few, if any, discussed the jeopardy and opportunity that Brexit brings for nature.
At such a significant moment, I thought it would be worth stock of what leaving the EU and the eventual outcome of the upcoming negotiations are likely to mean for the environment – and what the RSPB will be doing with its partners in Greener UK and BirdLife International to make sure that nature gets a good deal.
First, here’s a reminder of what’s at stake...
For over 40 years, the EU has played a central role in setting and enforcing common standards across a broad range of environmental issues – from pollution control to wildlife protection – helping to ensure a level playing field for businesses operating across EU markets and a coordinated approach to tackling transboundary environmental challenges. It is estimated that 80% of environmental policies in the UK are currently shaped by EU law, including key rules protecting some of our rarest and most vulnerable species and habitats.
min leaving the EU, there are some big questions regarding what will happen to these standards in the UK, how they will be enforced, and how the UK Government and the devolved administrations will work together and in partnership with the 27 remaining members of the EU on environmental issues.
While the nation was divided by the referendum, I believe that we are united by our love of wildlife – millions of people watch the remarkable Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch series, visit nature reserves every year and, a staggering half a million people took part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch (with the results being published today).
There remains a remarkably strong consensus that the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to lower environmental standards. Research published just last week indicates that the vast majority of people want to see the UK continue to follow EU standards on clean bathing water – a finding that is consistent with previous polling on EU environmental standards more generally. The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has also made clear his view that any future deal must guarantee “high environmental, social, and consumer protection standards”, not least in order to ensure “fair competition” between businesses in the UK and the EU.
Although the UK Government has committed to carrying over all existing EU environmental legislation into domestic law via its proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’, what happens to these standards post-Brexit will depend to a considerable extent on the deal that is negotiated between the UK and the EU.
The RSPB wants a future UK-EU partnership agreement, as sought by Prime Minister Theresa May, to include strong commitments to maintaining and enforcing environmental standards. In particular, the EU Nature Directives – vital for protecting species and habitats across the UK – should not be traded away as part of any deal.
David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves
As well as common standards, there is the issue of how we continue to work together to tackle environmental challenges. From fisheries to flood prevention, environmental issues are trans-boundary in nature. Species and the threats they face do not respect borders and leaving the EU will not change this simple fact. To save the turtle dove, a species that has suffered more than 90% decline in the past twenty years, we need action on its breeding grounds at home, during its migration across southern Europe and onto its wintering grounds in West Africa.
But we also need cooperation within the UK. Although environmental matters are largely devolved under the current devolution settlements, the requirement to comply with the common framework provided by EU environment law has to date effectively limited the scope for a substantial divergence in approaches to arise. As we leave the EU, it is not yet clear how (or if) environmental action might be coordinated across the four nations of the UK. The question of how future environmental action will be funded across the four nations following the loss of key EU funding streams – and how current EU policies on agriculture and fisheries might be replaced – are both topics that I will return to in later posts.
The UK Government and the devolved administrations must clearly work closely in tackling our own cross-border environmental issues, in line with their shared commitments under international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
What happens next?
“…voters may only really appreciate what the EU did for the environment as the UK slides towards the exit.”
The environment barely featured in the referendum debate last June (see the blog from which the quote above was taken) and – despite the huge amount of discussion that has taken place on Brexit since then – it has continue to struggle to get much of a mention (recent inflammatory headlines aside).
Nine months on, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the likely environmental implications of Brexit, with many issues to be resolved that are both politically and practically complex. For example, losing the European Court of Justice will create a significant gap in our enforcement "armoury". The European Court applies a more intense scrutiny of the merits of cases than the UK Courts currently undertake. There is also no comparable process to the EC complaints mechanism, which is the only free and easily accessible process for civil society to ensure the environmental obligations in EU Law are properly enforced. These have been important defences against politicians (from successive governments) tempted to over-ride enivornmental concerns for short-term economic interest.
The immediate priority will be to ensure that the proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ effectively carries across existing EU environmental legislation into domestic law so as to prevent a legal ‘cliff edge’ on Brexit day. A White Paper on this Bill is due today (Thursday) – we’ll be watching this complex process closely to ensure sure that no important protections fall through the gaps and that there is full parliamentary scrutiny in the case of any non-technical amendments.
In the coming weeks, months and years, it is vital that the environment is not ignored by those sitting either side of the negotiating table and we'll need politicians to use their voices for nature. The future of our shared natural heritage is at stake and is not something to be traded away.
The UK Government has committed to leaving the environment “in a better state” for the next generation. But it can only do this if nature gets a good deal from Brexit. Our role is, with the Greener UK coalition and BirdLife International, to try and make this happen.
The annual Invasive Species Week is launched today.
Why we are concerned
Invasive non-native species are known as one of the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse (alongside habitat destruction, overexploitation and pollution - the worst example being greenhouse gases resulting in climate change) which are responsible for the major drivers of biodiversity loss across the world This week the RSPB is joining organisations to raise awareness, understanding and vigilance of this key issue.
I’ve written before about the impacts of invasive species before (here, here, here, here). Whether intentionally (e.g. plants for horticulture, exotic pets) or accidentally (e.g. stowaways with transported goods) humans are moving species around the world and allowing them to escape into new areas at unprecedented rates. This movement of species breaks down the natural barriers – the mountain ranges, oceans, and deserts – which prevent wildlife in different regions from mixing. These natural barriers have allowed evolution to proceed independently in different parts of the world, and have generated and maintained the vast range of species that exist on our planet. When we introduce species into an area where they are not naturally found, some of them will seriously threaten the native wildlife, in a wide range of different ways. This can be through increased predation or competition for food and habitats, the introduction of novel diseases to which native species have no immunity, or even through hybridisation. Non-native species have negatively affected all major taxonomic groups, with birds being a notable case – around half of global bird extinctions since 1500 have been caused or assisted by invasive species.
The intensity of invasive non-native species problems is intensifying and expected to worsen over time - particularly as climate change makes it easier for species to establish in new areas, and as increasing global trade provides a major pathway for transfer of species across the globe. It’s more important now than ever, given the political imperatives for developing international trade, that everyone – government, businesses, conservation organisations, and individuals – is aware of steps they can take to stop the spread. Prevention is more effective, more feasible, and far more cost effective, than cure. We call behaviour that aims to prevent the spread of invasive species “biosecurity” - and everyone can do their bit.
What we are doing
The RSPB has a long history of engagement with invasive species matters, contributing to the development of government and organisational policies intended to tackle the issue, and promoting best practice on our own nature reserves and across all of our work.
Montage of seabird recovery projects (clockwise front top left: St Agnes and Gugh, Shiants, Henderson Island, mice eating albatross chicks on Gough)
Invasive species impacts are particularly severe on islands. As RSPB reserves include some of the most important and well-known seabird colonies in the UK, we are working to position ourselves as one of the international leaders in seabird island management and restoration. By protecting these sites against future invasions we will maintain safe breeding grounds for native species, maximising their breeding productivity and their resilience against other challenges, in particular climate change.
As a general rule, once a non-native species has established somewhere new it can be difficult and costly to remove it. However sometimes there is a clear conservation imperative to do so. Such work can be dramatically successful, such as on offshore islands where introduced mammals such as rats and house mice prey on seabird eggs, chicks and adult birds. Having evolved in isolation from mammal predators, often these seabirds have few defences against them. The RSPB has developed best practice guidance for advancing this island restoration work, and worked with partners to undertake invasive species eradication projects on seabird islands including the Scillies, Lundy, and the Shiants. Plans for major new projects on Gough Island and the Turks and Caicos Islands, UK Overseas Territories in the Atlantic, are well under way, with the latter project launching next week.
Each of these projects are major undertakings, and the job is not complete once the initial eradication has taken place: an invasive mammal eradication on an island cannot officially be declared a success until two years after the last sign of the target species is detected. For example, following an intensive programme of baiting and poisoning to remove brown rats from St Agnes and Gugh in the Isles of Scilly over the winter of 2013-14, last year the islands were officially declared rat-free. Rats are thought to have first colonised the islands in the 18th century following several shipwrecks. As a result the breeding seabird population declined by nearly a quarter in 25 years, including declines in globally important populations of European storm-petrel and Manx shearwater. This was the largest rodent eradication project on inhabited islands to date, and saw the RSPB working with four project partners, and a large number of island residents who volunteered to help. The success of the project has been reflected in the news that both Manx shearwater and European storm-petrel have since been recorded successfully fledging chicks from the islands.
In addition to the practical aspect of invasive species action, RSPB works to develop and advocate policy approaches to tackling invasive species issues at national, EU, and international levels. This is why we support the IUCN's Honolulu Challenge on Invasive Non Native Species. We were recently active in the development of a new EU regulation on invasive species which entered into force in 2015. Before this, action to combat invasive species had been inconsistent and patchy across member states, whereas this new regulation aims to being everyone up to the same minimum standard. As a result, 37 invasive species are now banned from sale, breeding, transport, captivity or release across the EU, and the European Commission has committed to updating this list regularly. In the context of the UK’s exit from the European Union, it is vital that future UK invasive species legislation continues to apply at the very least equivalent, and ideally stricter, control of species movements and release.
Governments in the UK Countries have produced a strategy to guide and coordinate approaches to invasive non-native species across Great Britain. In England and Wales it is currently illegal to release (or allow to escape) any animal not normally resident in, or a regular visitor to, GB, or any plant or animal listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act. Five invasive non-native aquatic plant species are also completely banned from sale. In Scotland it is illegal to release (or allow to escape) any animal or plant in any place that is outside of its native range, which could include movement of native species to parts of the country where they do not naturally occur.
How you can help
From March 27 – April 2 organisations across Britain are coming together to support Invasive Species Week - and you can take part too. From disposing of garden waste responsibly, recording and reporting invasive non-native species, to volunteering with an invasive species local action group, there are plenty of ways of ensuring that you do your bit to help tackle this key wildlife issue. You can find more information about events being held this week, and ways in which individuals can take part, on the GB Non-native Species Secretariat website: www.nonnativespecies.org/invasivespeciesweek, or by following Invasive Species Week on social media – just keep an eye on @CheckCleanDryGB and #InvasivesWeek.