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 have been wearing a stone-curlew pin badge on my lapel this week to mark the recovery of this fabulous species.
Stone-curlews were once widespread in England and numbered two thousand pairs in the 1930s. However, numbers declined dramatically over the next 50 years when changes in land use resulted in catastrophic habitat loss. By 1991, only 168 pairs remained.
Image courtesy of Andy Hay RSPB Images
Yet, this is a story with a happy ending. Through 30 years of hard graft, the RSPB and Natural England have forged a powerful partnership with landowners, farmers and volunteers in Wessex and the Brecks to help bring the population to its current 400 pairs. Not only has the stone-curlew been downgraded from a species of Red Conservation Concern to Amber, but through a five year EU Life funded project we now think the stone-curlew population is large enough to support itself, given enough safe nesting habitat.You can read more about those who have made this happen - our stone-curlew heroes - in a series of blogs here, here, here, here and here.
On Tuesday we held a conference to mark this achievement and, as part of the day, we heard about other species recovery successes from across Europe (such as the Azores bullfinch) and elsewhere in the UK (such as the cirl bunting). It was quite a day. I joined the afternoon and evening session having spent the morning being updated on our work to protect 350,000 hectares of Gola rainforest on the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia and even sniffed the first chocolate made by cocoa farmers on land between the forested areas. We want to support cocoa farming that is good for wildlife, prevents pressure on the rainforest and also creates sustainable livelihoods for the people living around the forest. Our ambition, of course, is to be able one day to say to our members “eat this chocolate and help save Gola rainforest”.
Reflecting on the day, I was struck by the similarities of the various conservation successes which had been showcased. The ingredients of success in each of these conservation projects were common: more, bigger, connected protected areas with sustainable land use in intervening areas, coupled with targeted action and funding for threatened species, supported by committed partners from national/local government, business and local people. And, of course, all these projects all contribute to the global plan for halting the loss of biodiversity expressed through the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets – targets 11 (for well managed land and sea) and 12 (for recovering threatened species).
Putting a spotlight on success is important as it reminds us that, as well as documenting declines, we can improve the natural environment. Our collective experience gives hope and confidence that together we can make the world a better place for people and wildlife. What we need now is for decision-makers to stick to their ambitions to restore wildlife in a generation and come up with plans which build on the success of these projects, with resources commensurate to the scale of the challenge.
And, given the uncertainties around Brexit (especially about future status of internationally important protected areas and future funding for nature friendly farming), we within civil society must continue to make the case for action. This is why we are delighted to have 41 MPs, 83 MSPs, 25 AMs (in Wales) and even 4 MEPs who are Species Champions and who are prepared to use their political voices for the protection and recovery of threatened wildlife. Together, we can turn things around.
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.
Since last June’s referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, it has felt a bit like watching and trying to influence a 3-dimensional game of chess with the rules being made up as we go along. Tonight, as the Brexit Bill passes its final parliamentary stages, it seems that the final hurdle before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been overcome. All this on the same day that the starting gun to the next referendum (this time regarding Scottish independence) has been fired.
Our job, as always, is to rise above the political fray and ensure that the environment does not get neglected during these major constitutional debates. The solidarity within the environmental sector is high and there is a real determination to do what we can to make Brexit work for nature.
This morning, I heard how others are adapting.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations hosted a seminar on how the charity sector is responding to the UK vote to leave the European Union. There were contributions from charities working on issues relating to health, children and older people while I provided an environmental perspective (covering themes which will be familiar to regular readers of my blog).
Brent geese on the move (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO’s Chief Executive, gave the keynote speech and his six themes struck a chord: charities should work harder to engage communities, continue to be evidence-based, be bold in engaging in public debate and giving truth to power; the UK Government must act quickly to secure rights of non-UK EU citizens (which account for 5% of charity workers), think creatively about either continuing to invest in European funding programmes or replacing lost funding streams and take care in retaining legislative standards through the Great Repeal.
While there are some areas where Greener UK will clearly take a lead (especially on calls for bolstering environmental legislation, reforming agriculture/fisheries policy and on making the case for sustained international leadership on tackling twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change), there are some areas where it makes sense to collaborate beyond our sector.
For example, regarding the Great Repeal Bill, many will share our view that there must be robust parliamentary scrutiny of any future changes to regulations that transposed EU law. We know that the Government intends to use “the Great Repeal Bill to bring the current framework of environmental regulation in UK and devolved law” and the Brexit White paper makes it clear that, once we have left the EU, we will be free to “keep, amend or repeal” any of the EU laws converted into domestic law via the Great Repeal Bill. Our concern is that the Great Repeal Bill will create a scenario by which (current or future) ministers can alter and withdraw objectives with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. We, and I hope others in the charity sector, will be working hard to ensure that future legislative changes are subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
Equally, all of us that benefit from non-UK EU workers, want their rights secured as quickly as possible. The uncertainty over the current situation is clearly creating anxiety for everyone.
And finally, we have, within this country, a rich tradition of volunteering and of charities. The RSPB is 128 years old and today, in addition to our 1.2 million members, we benefit from nearly a million hours of time that is given for free by our supporters. All of us who work (in a paid or voluntary capacity) for charities want to make the world a better place. And that sometimes means challenging the actions of decision-makers. I believe that it is in government’s interest for civil society to have its voice heard in public debate as the evidence, expertise and challenge we offer can ultimately lead to better decisions. And this applies, even in the most complex constitutional debates relating to the future of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the European Union.