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.
The RSPB has a clear mission: to inspire a world richer in nature. Core to this is the need for more, bigger, better and connected protected areas and for an improvement in the wildlife value of land outside of these protected areas.
Given that 70% of the UK is farmed and agriculture has been cited as the biggest driver of decline in species populations, we have to find ways for wildlife to coexist alongside farming.
While in places like the Cairngorms or the Flow Country, we are moving towards more passive management of the land to restore wildlife at scale, in many of our sites, we farm the land we manage for the benefit of wildlife.
It is perhaps at Hope Farm where this work is best known. Against a background of declines in the UK’s farmland birds and other wildlife, we have shown that is possible to meet both the needs of people and wildlife.
On this conventional, intensive, arable farm, we have increased the population farmland wildlife while maintaining profit. We’ve shown that targeted conservation work by farmers, backed up by science and supported by agri-environment schemes and financial mechanisms works. If you would like to find out more, why not come along to Hope Farm on Open Farm Sunday, 11 June. I'll be there and it would be lovely to see you.
RSPB Hope Farm (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
But our farming operations touch all parts of the UK.
At The Oa on Islay we own and farm 2,000 hectares of coastal and heathland habitat. With 140 breeding cows and 600 ewes this is not a small operation. Each group of animals is put on selected areas to make best use of the particular characteristics of different breeds and species and delivers the habitat management we need. By using the livestock in this way we can deliver the conservation benefit for species such as chough.
With Brexit on the horizon, wildlife friendly farming faces an uncertain future. However, it is also an opportunity to make the existing £3.1 billion of taxpayers money (that supports farming annually through the Common Agriculture Policy) work much harder for people and wildlife. Once we leave the EU, we need to develop a new farming policy that must create both a thriving farming community AND improves the natural environment. With the right policies and incentives, and by working together with land owners and the farming community, I am convinced we can create an environment that’s equally good for nature, farmers and us.
With this in mind the RSPB will be hosting a special event at the Hay Festival on 31 May, which will delve deeper into what the next 30 years could look like if the natural environment was placed at the centre of farming policies post-Brexit – with a specific focus on Wales.
Eighty four per cent of the Welsh landscape is farmland and the RSPB has been working closely with farmers in Wales for many years help show that farming and nature can work together.
Last year RSPB Ramsey Island struck a farm-to-fork deal with a local restaurant, St Davids Kitchen, to highlight the positives of environmentally friendly farming. The reserve sold all 66 of their ‘ram lambs’ along with eight red deer to St Davids Kitchen. Having travelled the mere three miles, the lambs grazed under the hill of Pen Beri on the St David’s Peninsula until they were ready for the restaurant.
RSPB Lake Vyrnwy (Eleanor Bentall, rspb-images.com)
More recently, RSPB Lake Vyrnwy has been holding live-lambing events offering a unique day out for families. When we see where our food comes from, we also realise what a big impact it has on nature. These events are not only a unique family experience, but also the perfect way to discover the connections between food, farming and nature at first hand.
Farmers have helped to turn things around for species like stone-curlew and cirl bunting, but the scale of intervention needed to see the same reversal of fortunes across the board for the UK’s farmland wildlife is clearly greater than is currently being delivered. What is needed are new and innovative ways of farming that deliver for wildlife at the same time as addressing problems faced by the current generation of farmers, such as herbicide resistant weeds and decreasing soil fertility.
This is why, through the Greener UK coalition, we have developed our vision for the future of farming policy in the UK. Following the General Election, we want to engage politicians in a debate about how to ensure our future land management and farming policy delivers a sustainable future for our countryside.
To get you in the mood, why not visit the Hay Festival and take part in the debate. You can find out more about it here.
I have just spent 42 hours in Cyprus at the invitation of our BirdLife partner on the island. Given the spike in profile and public reaction to the recent report on the number of birds being illegally killed on the island (c.2.3 million in 2016), it was an opportunity to get a better understanding of the challenges and to meet some of the key people working together to deal with the problem.
However, my visit also coincided with a more positive story. Below, I shall offer my reflections on the ongoing efforts to tackle bird crime but, first, I want to put a spotlight on some good news.
Yesterday, I helped open a new bird hide (my first ever ribbon-cutting event) adjacent to the Akrotiri Marsh which has been the focus of a two-year project supported by the wonderful UK Government Darwin Initiative fund. The RSPB has been working with BirdLife Cyprus, the Sovereign Base Area Administration (as the site lies within the area controlled by the British) and the local community to restore 150 hectares of a wetland to benefit populations of threatened species such as black-winged stilt, spur-winged lapwing, ferruginous duck and lemon-yellow tree frog.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with our Darwin project partners (from left) the chair of BirdLife Cyrprus, local community leader and the Sovereign Base Commander
The site we’ve been working on is a remnant of a much larger marsh that was drained to prevent the spread of malaria over a hundred years ago and has since been subjected to a range of other pressures such as the construction of a dam and changing land use. But the re-establishment of grazing coupled with some wetland creation techniques which we shared from our experience in the UK, promises to realise its nature conservation potential. It’s a cracking site and is part of an area that has already been recognised as a Ramsar site, Special Protection Area and Special Area Conservation.
It was a pleasure to meet so many people involved in the project and to celebrate what we have achieved together over the past few years.
Clearly, the RSPB has had a long history of working with and supporting BirdLife Cyprus, but much of what is reported understandably focuses on illegal bird trapping. When a nature conservation problem has been around for so long and seems so intractable it inevitably shapes the perception that RSPB supporters will have of the island. Some of our supporters have suggested that we should call for a boycott to deter tourists from visiting the island. I understand the rationale for this but disagree with it. A boycott would undermine our abilities (and especially those of BirdLIfe Cyprus) to engage with anyone actively on the island and is unlikely to deter the criminals. What’s more, it’s not the only story of nature conservation on Cyprus as the Akrotiri marsh project shows we are improving the natural environment by working together.
Even on the issue of illegal bird killing there is some positive news to report.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to explore Cape Pyla which is where the illegal bird trapping is most intensive. This is also an area governed by the Sovereign Base Area authorities and we were accompanied by the SBA police team responsible for enforcement. While fully aware of the problem, I was shocked by the extent of trapping infrastructure that is used to catch the birds: acacia planted in large areas with rides cut and then carpeted to allow the installation of mist nets with technology used to blast out bird song to lure the birds into the nets. Not only does this result in the outrageous and indiscriminate killing of both common and threatened species, this is also environmental vandalism on a massive scale within a protected area designated for its unique coastal scrub habitat.
Cape Pyla, showing the gap in planted and irrigated non-native acacia (you can see the pipe) used to erect mist nets and lure in birds
As I previously wrote, the SBA has controversially but rightly targeted acacia removal as a key part of its strategy. However, it was clear that while progress had been made, we want it to go further and faster especially before the autumn season. This issue, of course, was brilliantly highlighted recently by Harriet Allen in her Number 10 petition which attracted nearly 25,000 signatures in just four weeks prior to the General Election being announced. The Ministry of Defence’s response to the petition [here], and the meetings I have had demonstrate that the SBA authorities and the police do take this issue incredibly seriously and have made a difference. It was genuinely heartening to hear unity over the need for a strategy that looks at all possible ways to tackle both the demand for (those wanted to eat the birds in a dish called ambelopoulia) and the supply of illegally trapped birds.
This is a longstanding, diplomatically delicate but not intractable environmental problem. It is tarnishing the reputation of Cyprus and undermining the nature tourism potential of the islands. Yet, I leave believing that there is a coalition of the willing prepared to do what it takes to reduce and hopefully, over time, eliminate illegal bird trapping. The RSPB, of course, remains committed to playing our part.
It was serendipitous that the manifestos of the political parties emerged this week. New commitments to environmental protection are always welcome, but when it comes to stamping out bird crime (be it in the UK or on UK overseas territories), the ultimate test of success will be the number of criminals caught and the reduction in the number of birds being illegally killed.
I look forward to reporting more good news on the campaign to end bird crime very soon.
There is something deeply liberating about setting a 200 year vision. It allows you to paint a picture of the future you want and then make sure you take the right next steps along that path. While this may not be plausible for some (including politicians who rarely, if ever, look beyond the five year term of a parliament), it is essential if you want to restore a habitat like Caledonian pinewood.
This weekend, the RSPB’s Council of trustees and Management Board had their annual trip to a part of the UK to see the impact we are having for nature with others (while providing a little bit of competitive nature watching*). This year we were in the Cairngorms. We visited two of our iconic reserves (Abernethy and Insh) and explored neighbouring land at Glenfeshie and Glenmore. Together - through a partnership we are calling Cairngorms Connect - we are restoring a landscape on a massive scale (60,000 hectares) to help native woodlands expand to their natural limits and to restore peatlands, wetlands and rivers towards a more naturally functioning state all whilst working closely with the local community.
It is impossible not to be inspired by what is being achieved. Being in these landscapes is a step into the future. It is as if you can see the forest regenerating before you – saplings inexorably making their way across the moor and onto the hills. With a little imagination, you can sense what the landscapes will look like in the 2200s.
The work we are doing with others in the Cairngorms is setting the gold standard for landscape scale conservation and I congratulate the local teams who are making this happen.
Governments across the UK have signed up to international targets to provide more space for nature through more, bigger, better and joined up protected areas. The RSPB is committed to playing its part and we have identified landscapes which we want to transform in partnership with other landowners so that by 2025, at least 20% of our land is well managed or nature.
The opportunities to do this vary across the different parts of the UK as do the interventions available for us to achieve our outcomes. Working at the landscape scale in highly fragmented countryside of the south east England, for example, is very different to working in the highlands of Scotland. Yet, the ecological principles are the same – if you are able to think and act at scale then you can create the right mix of habitats that species need to thrive.
The steps we have been taking at Abernethy are working: a major reduction in the number of deer has allowed the pine to regenerate naturally; where the seed source for broadleaved trees is no longer viable, we have resorted to seed-sowing or tree planting using local provenance stock; and, of course, doing this means we are protecting the c4,800 species that live there including capercaillie, black grouse and osprey.
The same is true at Insh where we are responsible for protecting one of the most important populations of breeding waders in the mainland UK. Like any wetland site, Insh has its challenges – predation, grazing and development – but the team is working methodically through these issues and it remains one of the most important wetlands in Europe.
These Council visits to bring to life our strategy and provide context for the long conversations that we have in meeting rooms throughout the year. Reading about our aspiration to restore 60,000 hectares in the Cairngorms is useful but to really understand what we are trying to achieve, it helps need to visit the places we are transforming and to meet the partners that share our values, vision and passion. That's why this was such a great weekend.
Next year we'll be visiting the other end of the UK - down in the south-west of England. I can't wait.
*Each year, we award a cup to the person who predicts the number of species (birds and wild mammals) seen during the course of the Council weekend. For those of you who are interested in these sort of things, 83 species were recorded including Cairngorm specialities such as red squirrel, golden eagle, osprey, crested tit and a much-debated but indeterminate species of crossbill. Clive Mellon, chair of our Northern Ireland Advisory Committee, came closest with his prediction and so took home the trophy.