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.
It was a gorgeous early spring day at the Lodge yesterday - birds in full song and butterflies finding their way in the sunshine. It was a good time to host a director from one of BirdLife's partners in the Mediterranean. Martin Hellicar, from BirdLife Cyprus, was over to help promote our joint report on the scale of illegal bird killing in Cyprus.
We have estimated that over 800,000 birds were killed on a British military base in Cyprus last year - representing a 183% increase since our joint illegal-killing monitoring programme began in 2002. The dead birds are sold via the black market to restaurants in the Republic of Cyprus for diners to eat (in a dish called ambelopoulia), with criminal gangs earning millions of pounds from this illegal activity.
While the story of bird killing in the Med is well known, these statistics and the video footage of illegal activity (taken on land in the Cyprus Republic) that our investigations team have obtained still have the power to shock.
We are used to distressing statistics about environmental losses. For example, I often cite the fact that there are 421 million fewer birds today than there were 30 years ago. I know that these statistics can sometimes be off-putting - some want to block out bad news or are just inured to them.
But it is so important that we continue to present the evidence to the relevant authorities and to the public as that can be a stimulus for action. The military base authority on Cyprus had stepped up and removed non-native acacia trees (used to lure in birds to be killed) on Ministry of Defence land. Unfortunately, operations were forced to be abandoned last year due to protests from the hunters.
BirdLife Cyprus and the RSPB will continue to do whatever we can to change attitudes to stop the demand for ambelopoulia in the Cyprus Republic while also encouraging the UK Government to do more to stop the supply of dead birds. We need the Ministry of Defence to provide enforcement support to help the military base authorities respond to the trappers and safely remove the remaining 90 acres of acacia so that they can no longer be used to kill hundreds of thousands more birds.
So please read the report, watch the video of the illegal activity on land in the Cyprus Republic, remind yourself that this sort of activity is also happening now on a British territory and then allow yourself to be shocked once again. Shock can lead to anger and anger can be a good motivator for action.
Judge Sturgess once famously said that justice is open to anyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel –anyone can walk in but only the rich can afford to order. Current moves by the Ministry of Justice to further restrict the process of Judicial Review (JR) will once again make this quote very apt for environmental claimants unless legal action lodged last week by the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth can prevent them going ahead. Our action has already been covered in the press (for example see here and here), but I thought it would be helpful for my colleague, Carol Day (who is a lawyer) to explain why we have taken this action.
For many years, the RSPB has been part of a coalition of environmental NGOs working on environmental justice - with the culmination of EU and UNECE complaint processes leading to the introduction of bespoke costs rules for environmental cases in April 2013. The beauty of the 2013 regime was that it capped the costs an environmental claimant was required to pay the defendant on losing a case (£5,000 for individuals; £10,000 in all other cases), thereby providing certainty as to the extent of one’s financial liability before embarking on JR. The capped sums are still sizable by anyone’s standards, but far less onerous than walking into court with a blank cheque book and, as such, provided many sectors of society with access to justice for the first time.
However, the regime was short-lived. On 3rd February 2017, the Ministry of Justice laid a Statutory Instrument before Parliament introducing amendments to the bespoke rules which came into effect just over three weeks later [yesterday]. Environmental claimants are now required to submit information about their financial resources when applying for JR (including disclosing any third party funding) and the rules introduce a “hybrid” approach, whereby the costs cap is set at an initial default level (the current caps), but can be varied by the Court on the basis of the financial information submitted at any time during the proceedings.
The RSPB is not a litigious organisation by nature. Prior to the introduction of the 2013 regime, we had taken just five JRs (to protect key sites such as Lappel Bank, the Cairngorms and our reserve near Derry Airport and to challenge licences granted for the killing of cormorants on the River Wye and Barnacle geese on Islay). We have taken three cases since April 2013 to challenge the lawfulness of the Lydd Airport expansion, gull culling on the Ribble Estuary SPA and the consents for the four offshore windfarms in the Firth of Forth.
Lesser black-backed gull - one of the species which had been targeted for a cull on the Ribble (image courtesy of Tim Melling)
Removing the element of advance certainty with regard to costs will make a significant difference to the number of cases able to be taken especially for smaller specialist NGOs, community groups and individuals resulting in a massive step back for access to environmental justice.
Our concerns are shared by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which in referring to evidence submitted by the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth concluded that:
“Although the Ministry of Justice states that its policy intention is to introduce greater certainty into the regime, the strongly negative response to consultation and the submission received indicate the reverse outcome and that, as a result of the increased uncertainty introduced by these changes, people with a genuine complaint will be discouraged from pursuing it in the courts”.
We have taken the important step of applying for permission to JR in the High Court with colleagues in the environmental movement because the threats to nature and the environment have never been greater. At this time of great uncertainty we must ensure that civil society has access to robust UK procedures to ensure public bodies act lawfully. The achievement of the breadth of our work relies on a range of tools and mechanisms of which legal action is an important strand of last resort. The rule of law is an essential pillar of any democracy in which effective administrative and judicial procedures provide a necessary check on the abuse of power and the protection of public freedoms, such as the environment.
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...