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.
All week I have been focusing on how the RSPB is helping to save nature in UK's Overseas Territories including in the Caribbean which is where I am this week. But, mentally I shall return to Europe today to provide an update on our work in Cyprus.
Robin caught in a mist net (image credit: BirdLife Cyprus)
Cyprus hosts some very particular UK Overseas Territories: the two so-called “Sovereign Base Areas” of Dhekelia and Akrotiri, home for some of our outstanding Armed Forces. Yet, describing these areas as ‘Bases’ may conjure up a very misleading picture for they are not surrounded by razor-wire fences, or inaccessible to local civilians. I have never visited the island, but I know from colleagues that the Bases actually include some Cyprus villages and the practice is to try to make the presence of British Territory as invisible as possible: there are no signs or flags or any indications given when you drive into or out of one of these areas.
They are also unique amongst the Overseas Territories as it is the Ministry of Defence (MoD) rather than the Foreign Office which has departmental responsibility for them. They contain some of Cyprus’ most spectacular habitats, from the vast flamingo-filled salt lake at Akrotiri, to undeveloped rocky shores where rich Mediterranean coastline habitats still grow in profusion, spared the concrete of hotel development which has covered so much of this habitat elsewhere.
These Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas, however, harbour a dark and incongruous secret: every year, illegal bird-trapping kills hundreds of thousands of migrant songbirds. This is organised, illegal crime on a British Territory, using rows of mist-nets strung between planted Australian acacia trees. I highlighted this issue in my blog here after the RSPB and our local partner, BirdLife Cyprus, jointly published our report on the illegal bird-killing which took place last autumn: an estimated 800,000 birds were killed on the Dhekelia Base alone last autumn. The video still shocks as to the depravity of the executions (though it makes unedifying viewing every time) – see video footage again here. The report findings were picked up by newspapers and radio and it is clearly a story which outrages and shocks many of you. One supporter, Harriet Allen, wrote to me as to how she had heard the Jeremy Vine Show discussion with Chris Packham on the issue and felt compelled to do something. Seeing to her surprise that there wasn’t a UK Government petition challenging the MoD on this issue, she set one up on the spot on behalf of herself and her three young children: you can support the whole family and help show that enough people care, by signing their petition here.
In the meantime our local partner, BirdLife Cyprus, met with the Base Authorities last week to discuss solutions to the issue further. There is a new Base Commander in charge, who affirmed his strong commitment to tackling this issue and asked if he could join BirdLife Cyprus on the ground in the worst trapping black-spot to talk through the detail and get a first-hand understanding. The Bases have now also started to develop a new 3-year strategy to deal with illegal bird-killing. We look forward to working with them on a deliverable plan to remove the avenues of planted acacia which create the support for mist netting that enables this slaughter to happen on such an industrial scale on the military firing range. This is an issue which the RSPB will keep going until the problem is solved, and I will update further later in the year as our work progresses.
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
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.