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.
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.
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.
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.