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.
This week, I am fortunate to be making my first visit to our Overseas Territories. I shall be meeting partners on the Cayman Islands and Turks & Caicos in the Caribbean to discuss how we can support them to address the many conservation challenges they face.
It seems timely to remember why we work in these places and, this week, through this blog, I shall give you an insight into the breadth of our work on the UKOTs.
Through the RSPB's strategy we make a contribution to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi targets – especially 11 and 12 which commit the world to managing for nature at least 17% of land and 10% of sea and recovering threatened species by 2020.
We want to have impact in the UK, our overseas territories, the African-European flyway and globally where we can make a difference. Outside of the UK, where they exist, we always work with and through the national BirdLife partners.
The conservation importance of the UKOTs
The UKOTs are particularly important, given that they are home to 1,547 endemics (although conservation status has been assessed for just 9% of these), and that 85% of critically endangered species for which the UK is responsible are found on these places. There are three main geographical UKOTs groupings: those in Europe (Cyprus and Gibraltar), those in the South Atlantic (Ascension, the Falkland Islands, St Helena, South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and Tristan da Cunha) and those in the Caribbean (Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos). The outliers are Pitcairn and the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Ultimately, the rationale for saving nature in our Overseas Territories is the same as it is in the UK: we have a responsibility to live in harmony with the species with which we share this planet and a healthy natural environment underpins our own species’ prosperity.
The pressures on nature in the UKOTs and our response
The threats to these places are no different to elsewhere in the world: habitat destruction from inappropriate development (both built and agricultural), the introduction of non-native invasive species (often cats and rodents, but in the case of the Cayman Islands, green iguana) pollution especially that which results in climate change (which for low-lying islands might be catastrophic), and over-exploitation (most dramatically through bird killing on Cyprus which we highlighted a fortnight ago).
Endemic Rock Iguana on Little Cayman threatened by the non-native invasive green iguana
Our conservation response is applicable wherever we work around the work: we need more, bigger, better protected areas that work for both people and wildlife, targeted action for the most threatened species and the political space to influence the drivers of loss.
Yet, the UKOT context is different. The Overseas Territories are not part of the UK but rather territories under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the UK (unlike the Crown Dependencies such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, whose relationship is technically directly with the British Crown rather that the UK Government). The Territories are to a greater or lesser extent self-governing devolved administrations – a bit like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some powers are reserved, some devolved and, as illustrated this week in the way Gibraltar has been caught up in UK-EU Brexit talks, the politics can at times become quite fraught.
Each of the Overseas Territories has its own unique written constitution which is approved by the UK Government. The Cayman Islands constitution, for example, includes a duty for the local government “to have regard to the need to foster and protect an environment that is not harmful to the health or well-being of present and future generations, while promoting justifiable economic and social development ... [and] should adopt reasonable legislative and other measures to protect the heritage and wildlife and the land and sea biodiversity.”
The role of the UK Government
The UK Government has traditionally been very supportive of conservation action on the UKOTs (both the FCO and Defra), for example funding successful seabird recovery projects for example on Ascension and designating marine protected areas. Yet, they could do so much more by helping to identify conservation priorities and then supporting action by the local government.
While in the Caribbean, I shall be exploring how well the constitutional duty is translated into action on the ground and how we can improve the way we work with our partners and the local governments to safeguard some of the most threatened places in the Caribbean. We shall also be launching a new joint project on Turks and Caicos to reduce the impact of invasive non-native species (more on that later in the week).
On my return, I shall make the case for the UK Government to reinforce its commitment for targeted funding and action for UKOTs as part of their promised (but still unpublished) 25 year plan for nature.
Saving nature is a shared agenda and together we have to do more to save our shared home.
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