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.
If news of the general election is making you feel a bit like Brenda from Bristol, then there are two events this weekend that could bring cheer and perhaps even offer some clues for current or aspiring politicians about how they can effectively use their voices for nature.
First up tomorrow is a chance to celebrate #EarthOptimism in Cambridge. This is part of a series of events taking place on Earth Day, 22 April, uniting people across the world, from Washington to Hong Kong. The premise of #EarthOptimism is that conservationists have been very good at documenting declines in wildlife (as recent State of Nature reports testify) but we also now have experience of improving the natural environment. The events being organised are therefore designed to showcase conservation successes.
The RSPB is supporting the Cambridge event because we think it is incredibly important to tell stories about what has been achieved not only to learn from experience but also to give confidence that we can make a difference and inspire more people to step up for nature. Two of the stories being shared relate to work the RSPB has done in partnership with others...
Image courtesy of Dimas Gianuca.
...the Albatross Task Force: in 2004, 19 of the world’s 22 albatross species were (according to the Red List of Birds) threatened with extinction, largely due to commercial fishing practices. With BirdLife International partners, we influenced fishing policy and built an international team of expert instructors to work with fishermen to refine fishing techniques to help them catch fish rather than seabirds. The results have been spectacular. We have seen bycatch rates reduce dramatically in fisheries where we have been working (for example, there has been a >90% reduction in bycatch in some South Africa fisheries). And, this has played a significant part in the down-listing in threat status of four species (including the black-browed albatross).
...the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project: we have worked with Crossrail and others to create around 700 hectares of coastal habitat in the Thames Estuary. The project is designed to combat the threats from climate change and coastal flooding by recreating a wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture. It will also help to compensate for the loss of tidal habitats elsewhere. It is a fabulous project and demonstrates what can be achieved when business and charities work together.
As well as hosting talks from a wide range of world-renowned conservationists (including Sir David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Steven Pinker), #EarthOptimism also includes a 'Solutions Fair' – open to the public – where visitors can find out how their behaviour and choices as consumers can have the biggest positive effect for the natural world. I hope to see you there but if you are unable to attend you can watch live streaming of all the speakers here.
Second, it's also the RSPB Weekend with over 400 RSPB supporters joining staff in Nottingham to hear more about how we are saving nature together and to see some of our sites in the region. I'll be there on Sunday and look forward to catching up with friends and colleagues.
The two events are timely.
They will demonstrate the public love of nature and that despite huge pressures on the natural world there are brilliant people working hard to improve our environment. Yet, I also hope they serve as a reminder that if we want more good news stories and fuel our optimism for the planet's future, then current and future governments must make it easier for people to do the right thing for nature. That means politicians must set the right ambition, incentives and penalties while supporting institutions with clout to enforce the law and transform land/seascapes for wildlife.
Last month we launched our manifesto about how we create a greener UK following the UK vote to leave the European Union. In the run up to the election on 8 June, need the political parties to pick up this gauntlet and outline in their manifestos what steps they will take to restore nature in a generation. To give them an added incentive, I hope our supporters (most of whom vote) to 'ask the nature question' during the election campaign and challenge the prospective parliamentary candidates on the doorstep and at local hustings about what, if elected, they will practically do to help wildlife.
Whatever you are doing this weekend, be active and optimistic for nature.
Just in case you were busy looking at wildlife over the Easter weekend, here is the letter that was sent to the Prime Minister regarding the UK Government's environmental commitments. It received media coverage here, here and here. This was triggered by newspaper reports based on leaked documents that suggested that trade and growth would be prioritised at the expense of efforts to tackle global warming and the illegal trade in wildlife.
Dear Prime Minister,
We are alarmed by recent media reports suggesting that the UK's commitments to tackling climate change and ending the illegal wildlife trade could be watered down to secure post-Brexit trade deals.
The UK Government has repeatedly promised to leave the environment in a better state for future generations, and the majority of Conservative voters support maintaining environmental protections.
We are already seeing the effects of climate change in the UK and globally, especially on the world’s poorest people. Many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are wildlife-rich and among those on the front line of climate change, and want to develop their economies sustainably. In the UK, the State of Nature report showed that more than half of our wildlife is in decline.
To be a great, global trading nation, the UK must deliver on its promises for the environment and the climate and honour our international commitments. In doing so we will help build a greener, better and more prosperous future for everyone, rather than driving an environmental race to the bottom.
Bishop Richard Chartres
Sir Ian Cheshire
Graeme Le Saux
Stephen Poliakoff CBE
Lord Stuart Rose
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Andrew Triggs Hodge OBE
Lord Adair Turner
Tanya Steele, Chief Executive, WWF
Will Travers OBE, President, Born Free Foundation
Chris Bain, Director, CAFOD
Paul Valentin, International Director, Christian Aid
Oliver Smith, Chief Executive, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive, Friends of the Earth
John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace
Tamsin Cooper, Acting Director, Green Alliance
Penny Lawrence, Deputy Chief Executive, Oxfam GB
Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive, RSPB
Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive, The Wildlife Trusts
It's Good Friday tomorrow, so I have brought forward my weekly good news slot. Here, my colleague Nicola Crockford, who recently celebrated 25 years working at the RSPB, tells the story of the recent inclusion of the Yellow Sea on the UNESCO tentative World Heritage List.
There are some sites that are important for migrating birds and then there are others that are so fundamentally critical that their loss would spell the probable extinction of some species.
The coast of the Yellow Sea is one such place. Situated in between China and the Korean peninsula, it is the most important area for the millions of waterbirds that funnel down and back each year from breeding areas as far north as Siberia and Alaska, to wintering areas as far south as Australia and New Zealand and as far west as India.
The last few decades have seen an unprecedented rate of conversion due to industrial and other developments of the vital tidal mudflats and associated coastal wetlands. Today, in Nature Communications, a definitive paper that looks at trends in 10 shorebird species that spend the northern winter in Australia and New Zealand, provides the smoking gun; those species that have suffered catastrophic declines in the last 25 years are those most dependent on the Yellow Sea as a staging site.
Luckily, a recent decision of immense foresight by the Chinese authorities has added 14 key coastal sites of the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea as potential World Heritage sites. When nominated, together with sites from South Korea, and potentially North Korea, with which it shares the Yellow Sea, this stands to be the greatest site for migratory birds in the world.
The RSPB, through BirdLife International and the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, has been deeply involved in this story since 2010 when the spoon-billed sandpiper became a top priority for our international species recovery work. This bird is the most critically endangered of all the species that depend on the Yellow Sea and as such acts as a flagship for the work here. We soon realised that besides supporting the emergency captive breeding of the species and addressing illegal killing on its migratory route, we had to seek the conservation of the vital Yellow Sea staging areas where they refuel on spring and autumn migration, and moult in the autumn. Working with the IUCN and officials from both China and South Korea, we’ve been able to highlight the importance of the Yellow Sea ecosystem and the need for robust protection. So, you can imagine our reaction on hearing the astonishing news, adding to China’s growing reputation as a world leader in biodiversity conservation, that China has just added 14 of the most important coastal wetland sites on the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. World Heritage designation is the strongest global protected area designation in the world. Even just the first step of adding a site to the tentative list can give protection that is second to none, because for the subsequent nomination to be successful, top quality conservation provisions must be put in place and the integrity of the site ensured. Inevitably with an initial listing of that speed, not all the key sites are included. For example one absentee is Chongming Dongtan in Shanghai, with which the RSPB has a long standing relationship,. However, there is every chance that during the arduous nomination process, such missing sites can be included. This news is the first definite sign of hope, for those many people in the Yellow Sea countries and around the world, not least in the BirdLife Partnership and East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, who have been deeply concerned by the catastrophic declines of East Asian Australasian Flyway waterbirds dependent on the Yellow Sea. China and Korea are to be congratulated for the vision and leadership they are showing in recognising and conserving the outstanding global importance of their Yellow Sea coasts, and should be encouraged and supported in relation to these efforts and all further steps that they take in this respect.
For more information on the World Heritage Listing see here.