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 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.
Parliament has now 'prorogued', officially bringing an end to this Parliamentary session. As Peers doffed or tipped their hats to mark the remaining Bills becoming Acts this week, whether you like it or not, all eyes now focus on the official start of the General Election period – including the party manifestos being launched.
As charity, the RSPB is strictly non-party political and we don’t have a view on which party people should vote for. However, we do have an interest in what all candidates, of any political party, have to say on nature and the environment and we urge competition between the parties both for ambition on environmental matters and imaginative policies to realise that ambition.
As we have in previous elections, we have reached out to the political parties to remind them of the commitments they made previously and inform them of things we would like to see in their manifesto for this election. The current state of nature at home and internationally demands serious attention and we and our 1.2 million members expect clarity from the parties about how they will meet the international obligations to halt the loss of biodiversity.
Some of the issues we are highlighting for this General Election are featured below – though it is worth bearing in mind that many of the decisions about environmental matters are now made by the devolved governments rather than at Westminster, and there may well be manifesto commitments not suggested here that will have major environmental impacts. We have also drawn the attention of the parties to the Greener UK manifesto that we launched with our partner charities earlier in the year, urging that the impacts of Brexit proposals on the environment are fully considered. I will be returning to the General Election in the next few weeks but meantime here are some of the priorities we are looking to see featured in the party manifestos.
The UK has a strong record of protecting and promoting nature and the environment, both here in the UK and abroad. As such, we have urged all parties to commit to continued international leadership on the environment and climate change, including during the UK’s Presidency of the Commonwealth Summit, and to playing a full part in delivering the Paris Agreement on climate change; the Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi biodiversity targets. This will include taking a leading role in developing international biodiversity agreements beyond 2020. We are also asking that parties honour existing funding commitments to international climate change, biodiversity and environmental protection, and that they will ensure that new trade relationships are based on high environmental standards, for the benefit of the UK and other nations.
Cooperating for nature across the UK
We will be looking to see the parties commit to seeking liaison, cooperation and agreement between the four countries of the UK, to ensure that there is a coherent approach across the UK to the conservation and recovery of nature.
Making Brexit Work for the Environment
In March, the current UK government published the Great Repeal Bill White Paper which outlines how it intends to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and transfer EU legislation into domestic UK law. This is a monumental task and poses great uncertainty for the environment. We therefore seek strong assurances from the parties that their manifestos will seek to transpose all existing environmental law into UK law, including guarantees for the introductions of appropriate safeguards for the environment and nature. This process and beyond should involve the continued support to independent bodies such as the Natural Capital Committee, alongside well-resourced and robust environmental agencies, and ensure improved access to justice for environmental matters, as required under the Aarhus Convention.
Protecting Nature at Land and On Sea
We would welcome commitments to complete the designation of an ecologically coherent network of protected areas on land and at sea, and also to ensure the highest protection and appropriate funding and management for SSSIs, including other land of high environmental value, and improving the condition of our most important sites. Appropriate management of land and sea is vital and we would ask that these manifestos outline plans to develop a sustainable agriculture and land use policy, building on existing agri-environmental measures to incentivise wildlife friendly farming; and for development of sustainable fisheries policies.
Noting that 94% of unique British wildlife is found in our 14 Overseas Territories, we would welcome commitments to support local communities to protect their highly threatened nature, and in particular to complete the creation of world-leading networks of marine protected areas in their rich waters.
Nature for People
A strong connection between people and nature is fundamental to enriching both our lives and that of our incredible wildlife. As such, we would welcome manifestos committing to creating opportunities for people to enjoy the natural environment for health and wider benefits. These efforts should involve effectively using the planning system to build communities where people can access wildlife-rich green spaces on the doorstep of their homes and recognise the role of civil society organisations to work alongside government in conserving the environment and creating opportunities for people to enjoy and benefit from it. manifestos should also commit to tackling the effects of pollution, both on people and the natural environment and commit to improving water quality; putting in place a more sustainable approach to water resources, as well as a flood defence policy that protects both people and the environment.
This is clearly not an exhaustive list and we will be watching announcements closely over the coming days. But we shall also contact our members and supporters soon to let them know how they can help raise the issue of the natural environment during the Election campaign.
As I wrote yesterday, we need active optimists for nature and we need the next generation of politicians prepared to use their voice for nature.
At the end of the wonderful #EarthOptimism event in Cambridge ten days ago, psychologist Professor Steven Pinker gave a deeply thought-provoking talk. He had previously presented data to argue that as a species we are less violent today than we have been throughout our history and he has now turned his attention to our impact on the environment. His central argument, which will be laid out in a book to be published next year, appeared to be (and I paraphrase) that the rate of environmental destruction by humans was slowing in line with growing affluence and available technology. We therefore had good reason to be optimistic for the future of our planet.
We had spent the day hearing stories from around the world illustrating how we had moved beyond documenting loss and were improving the environment – for example saving frogs in Ghana, chimps in Tanzania, gorillas in Cameron, albatrosses in the southern seas and oysters in Essex. Professor Pinker argued that his data and these good news stories shouldn’t make us complacent optimists, rather conditional optimists (terms used by Paul Romer) where we should expect certain things to be in place to justify our optimism.
I’ve been reflecting on this and I’d like to propose the idea of active optimism where you can remain optimistic provided you continue to work and fight for protection and restoration of the natural environment. I’ll choose a couple of examples to make my point.
RSPB Ouse Fen (rspb-images.com)
The day after I listened to Steven Pinker, I popped up for the closing stages of RSPB weekend where I listened to my colleague, Matt York, tell the story of the creation of Ouse Fen – a 30 year project to transform a working sand and gravel quarry run by Hanson into a vast 900 hectare nature reserve including the biggest reedbed in the UK. It reminded me to return to the site, which I did this weekend. It is stunning – hooching with warblers, waders and now with a decent bittern population. Yet, this is just one example. We are replicating this approach with other companies at other sites such as CEMEX UK at Denge in Kent, Tarmac at Langford Lowfields in Nottinghamshire, Imerys at Arne in Dorset. What’s more, through our Nature After Minerals programme with Natural England, the Minerals Product Association and British Aggregates Association, over 64,000 hectares (in England alone) have a planning requirement to restore 2,000+ quarries and associated manufacturing sites. If all of this is delivered to the quality at Ouse Fen, it will be a remarkable legacy created by the minerals industry.
There is a similar story in the water industry.
Heather bales being used to block gullies at RSPB Dove Stone (Ben Hall, rspb-images.com)
I was with senior leaders from water companies at an event today to launch the new Blueprint for Water document designed to influence the environmental outcomes achieved through the latest round of company investment plans. At the heart of this is the desire for greater investment in catchment management to provide clean water to customers while improving the water quality of the catchment. This seems like a no-brainer today, yet it required a change in the rules 13 years ago to allow this to happen. From the early pioneering projects we did with United Utilities, most water companies will plan this round to invest in catchment management. The results can be very impressive. For example, at Dove Stone in the Peak District, we are working with our landowners United Utilities to improve the water quality and biodiversity across 4,000 hectares. Since 2004, populations of golden plover (+33 pairs), curlew (+17 pairs) and dunlin (+37 pairs) have significantly increased. We have achieved this through a combination of blanket bog restoration (with 60km of gullies blocked to improve the water table and Sphagnum moss introduced to over 100ha), native woodland planting and creation of species-rich grassland. And now, thankfully, there is a long list of projects delivering similar outcomes.
The water and minerals industries are not perfect and certainly should aspire to do more, but they have over the past two decades transformed the way they do business. Their environmental credentials today help provide their license to operate. Yet, this did not come about by chance or wild optimism. The changes to policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour arose through a combination of heroic leadership, creativity, evidence and a lot of hard work. Or to put it another way – active optimism.
At times, reform can be painful and dangerously slow, but experience suggests that together we can create the future we want and nature needs.