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 latest results from the 2016 hen harrier breeding survey make sobering reading. There are now just 545 breeding pairs left in the UK, down by 88 pairs from the last UK survey in 2010. Scotland remains the species’ stronghold with 460 pairs but even here there has been a drop from the 505 pairs recorded in 2010.
In England, the hen harrier has almost disappeared as a breeding species. In 2010 there were 12 pairs but last year only four pairs attempted to breed. There have been declines too in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Image courtesy of Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)
Longer term figures highlight the dramatic decline the UK hen harrier population has suffered over the past twelve years. The national survey in 2004 pointed to an estimated 749 pairs, meaning hen harrier numbers have fallen by 204 pairs (39%) in the years following.
So why, when most of our raptor species are increasing does the hen harrier continue to buck the trend? Simple - they are being illegally shot, trapped and killed (for example, see here).
We know that wildlife crime linked to grouse moor management is preventing the hen harrier population from recovering despite being fully legally protected. There are those that make this a binary issue: shooting vs conservation. This divisive simplification suits those who commit wildlife crime but undermines the work of some estates doing good work for wildlife.
The RSPB is not anti-shooting and is genuinely keen to identify like-minded people to work with within the shooting community. However, this approach only works if members of the shooting community are prepared to accept there are problems that need to be addressed. All too often when issues are raised with intensive driven grouse management, the reaction tends to be to pull up the drawbridge and deny there are any problems, rather than accepting the challenge to make things better. For as long as this denial persists, collaboration will always be challenging.
All of us who want to see these magnificent birds return to their rightful place as the totemic skydancers of our hills and moors are rightly angry and frustrated. And there are many, for example the volunteers, who without their help, dedication and expertise we wouldn’t be able to build up this accurate picture of these magnificent birds of prey.
However, recent positive developments promised in Scotland (see here) show what might be around the corner, north of the border and perhaps one day south of it too. The Scots want to look at the possibilities around regulating grouse moors, making them more environmentally friendly and clamping down on areas where birds are illegally killed. Licensing of this type could benefit shoots as well as wildlife. A fair set of rules for driven grouse shooting would stop unfair competition from damaging practices, and help those sticking to the law by improving the public’s confidence in the sport.
Ultimately, on many moors it comes down to the need for smaller ‘bags’ – the number of grouse shot across a season. The high end of intensification has practices that try and maximise the ‘bag size’ such as repeated heather burning, medication of grouse, drainage, burning on deep peat and the culling of mountain hares not to mention illegal killing of raptors; all of which would need to be reduced or halted in order to progress towards some semblance of sustainability.
Grouse can still be shot but there needs to be acknowledgment that managing a moor purely to maximise ‘bag size’ is not a sustainable land management practice. If not, then public confidence in grouse shooting will deteriorate even further putting into question the future of driven grouse shooting.
It was no surprise that Brexit dominated the Queen's Speech. Following the UK vote to leave the EU and the Government decision to leave the Single Market, work to "unravel 43 years of patiently-built relations" (as Michel Barnier described it this week) was always going to take a lot of parliamentary time and energy.
The Repeal Bill will come first and will be the principle way in which the whole body of EU law (including 650 laws which relate to the environment) will be 'saved' in domestic legislation.
This will be followed by seven other Brexit-inspried laws with two affecting 70% of UK land and much of our marine environment - the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills.
As always, each headline is accompanied by a paragraph describing the scope of the legislation and while we don't know yet the full content of the bills, these descriptions give some clues about what to expect.
The Repeal Bill we are told, will "repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert EU law into UK law as we leave the EU; create temporary powers for Parliament to make secondary legislation, enabling corrections to be made to the laws that do not operate appropriately once we have left the EU; it will also allow changes to be made to domestic law to reflect the content of any withdrawal agreement under Article 50; replicate the common UK frameworks created by EU law in UK law, and maintain the scope of devolved decision-making powers immediately after exit. This will be a transitional arrangement to provide certainty after exit and allow intensive discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations on where lasting common frameworks are needed."
Through Greener UK, we shall be tracking this very closely to ensure that existing levels of environmental protection and enforcement currently afforded by EU laws are maintained or bolstered. We have produced a briefing outlining our concerns - including to prevent subsequent changes to environmental law without full parliamentary scrutiny - and you can read this here.
The Agriculture Bill highlights the twin goals of "providing stability to farmers as we leave the EU" and "protecting our precious natural environment for future generations". Clearly, repatriating agriculture policy offers the first opportunity for more than four decades to fundamentally reform farming so that it works for people and wildlife. It is also a great opportunity to make better use of the £3.1 billion of tax payers money that currently supports farming so that we benefit from well managed land: abundant nature, clean water, resilience to flooding and climate change alongside high quality food.
The line on the Fisheries Bill is less clear. But, we need the Fisheries Bill to be similarly ambitious and to mirror the vision for land and provide measures that improve protection and management of the marine environment.
Again, through Greener UK we have already set out our stall on future of agriculture (here) and fisheries (here).
We are geared up to influence the new parliamentary agenda but we also need politicians to find the time to think about other positive interventions required to restore nature at home and abroad. The 2020 deadline by which we are meant to have halted the loss of biodiversity is just round the corner...
What do you think about theBrexit Bills in the Queen's Speech?
It would be great to hear your views.
*Image shows arable margin at RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
The much anticipated Brexit negotiations are due to start tomorrow.
I assume that the first item to discuss will be the order with which issues will be addressed. The EU laid out its stall in late March and proposed a phased approach. If it goes according to the EU’s plan, the island of Ireland will be a high priority (along with Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus where the UK also has land borders with another EU Member State) and should form part of first phase. Clearly border issues including trade will dominate the conversation, but environmental considerations must feature early to prevent creating a 'hard environmental border'.
This was emphasised at a conference I attended in Dundalk on Friday (covered in the Irish Times here). NGOs and officials from either side of the border explored the risks and opportunities arising from the UK vote to leave the EU.
RSPB Lough Foyle (David Wootton, rspb-images.com)
The island of Ireland has a shared environment: there are three cross-border river basins and there are a number of cross-border designated sites including Lough Foyle, Carlingford Lough and the Pettigo Plateau. That’s why, historically, we have developed a number of cross-border projects, most recently securing £4m from EU Interreg programme to improve the conservation status of 2,228ha raised and blanket bog while also aiding the recovery of breeding waders and marsh fritillary.
We have always argued that biogeography should trump geopolitics and we do not want regulatory divergence either side of the border resulting in lower environmental standards.
So, we think the island of Ireland should be recognised as a single biogeograhic unit. The economic reasons for the EU Nature Directives remain: no Member State should be allowed to gain competitive advantage by trashing the environment; Europe's network of protected nature sites currently provide economic benefits of €200 to €300 billion per year; and invasive species were estimated to have cost the economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland a combined total of €261,517,445 in 2013.
In the expectation that trade will continue to free across the Irish border (although, of course, this is not guaranteed), environmental standards need to be equivalent and that means maintaining the existing levels afforded by EU laws whilst ensuring that agriculture and fisheries standards ratchet up in tandem.
The severity of this issue has been recognised at a European level, with the EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, recently highlighting the risk of environmental "dumping" if there is a divergence of standards between the UK and member states. There are currently over 650 pieces of EU legislation in force to protect the environment, habitats, air quality, waste, food safety and a myriad of other areas.They are the principal drivers for the vast majority of environmental protection in place in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
While the Brexit vote has created enormous uncertainty and complexity, I was heartened by the desire for NGOs from either side of the border (coordinated by Northern Ireland Environment Link and the Environmental Pillar) to collaborate to make Brexit work for nature. I hope the same willingness to get good environment outcomes infuse the poltical negotiations starting today.