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.
In a little under 36 hours, the polls will open and I shall visit a local community centre in Cambridge to mark a cross with a pencil against the name that I want to be my Member of Parliament. I have voted in every poll since the local elections on 4 May 1989 and always enjoy what feels like a national rite of passage.
While the election campaign has been unpredictable and punctuated by appalling acts of terrorism, early on Friday morning (barring a hung parliament) we shall know which party will form the next UK Government.
From an environmentalist’s perspective, there will be things we expect from the new UK Government - things that only governments can do such as setting ambition for nature’s recovery, supporting powerful institutions that speak up for nature, establishing the right laws, policies and incentives to make it easy for people to do good for nature and prevent people from causing harm.
But while we have high expectations of the next government (as I outlined here), we shall also be clear that we are here to help. The challenge of saving nature is shared and we all have our part to play. That’s why we always work to create powerful partnerships between governments, businesses and civil society – communities of citizens linked by common interest and collective activity.
Charities like the RSPB epitomise civil society. We have a clear mission to inspire a world richer in nature and the impact we have is dependent on financial, practical and moral support of 1.2 million members, and over 12,000 regular volunteers from all walks of life (including doctors, lawyers, architects as well as learning and development professionals) and all ages (from the under 16s to the over 75s) giving a gift of time of over 900,000 hours annually.
Our volunteers carry out a whole range of activities from fundraising and administration through to helping out on the reserve and a whole host of things in between (including of course the 550,000 people that take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch). Recently, we have been piloting a new approach to involve volunteers in species recovery and helping to run our ‘schools on reserves programme’ where volunteers support outdoor learning for groups of students.
I know that the RSPB and the other fantastic nature conservation charities will continue to benefit from the tireless commitment of volunteers and I also know that our members vote – 96% of those eligible.
I am confident that we (RSPB staff, members and volunteers) will continue to play our part. But, we also need the next UK Government to be active for nature: to protect our finest wildlife sites, to recover threatened species and tackle the threats that nature is facing.
So, cast your vote wisely, elect a politician that is prepared to use their voice for nature and remember that together – civil society, business and government – we can provide a brighter future for the natural world.
Photo: Volunteers taking part in the heathland restoration program at the RSPB Lodge nature reserve, January 2017. Silver birch is cut down, then collected and burnt to allow the heathland underneath to grow (Credit: Heather Stuckey, rspb-images.com)
This blog was written to mark National Volunteers' Week. You can read more about volunteering opportunities at the RSPB here.
After the shock General Election results - a hung parliament which confounded even our own internal sweepstake - everyone is trying to work out what happens next and what it means for all of us.
What is clear, is that the UK political system has given us another entertaining night of shocks, soundbites and comebacks. All the chatter this morning was about Mr. Bucket Head, awkward high fives and the likely views of Brenda from Bristol on the fact that there will continue to be “too much politics” for a while yet.
As I write this, the Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have formed a minority government with support from the DUP. One can assume (although any assumptions seem dangerous or foolish given what’s happened over the last few weeks) that she will begin to make ministerial appointments over the next few days.
Despite the occasional reference to trees that sprout money and some now-infamous wheat fields, nature was largely absent from this election. This is concerning for a number of reasons...
...Nature is amazing and the public love it: most recently demonstrated by the remarkable BBC Springwatch and its viewing figures.
...Nature remains in trouble: the 2016 State of Nature report highlighted the huge challenges facing nature across the UK and on our Overseas Territories.
...To recover nature, we need to work together: all our experience of protecting or recovering our most important wildlife sites and threatened species shows that we can improve the natural environment when there is a strong partnership between government, business and civil society.
...We need governments that are active for nature: there are some things that only governments can do from providing clear direction, to have the energy to drive change in policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour and to have the capability and curiosity to bring all parts of society together to transform places to benefit people and wildlife.
Over the coming hours and days, we need our politicians to be at their best and work together to create the future that we want and nature needs. Top of their intray for the PM and her new ministerial team (it will have to be new given some ministers lost their seat overnight!) will be the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. We urgently need them to come up with a plan for how they will...
...bolster existing levels of environmental protection currently afforded by the European Union laws
...develop new farming, land use and fisheries policies that not only deliver thriving farming and fishing communities but also improve the environmental condition of land and sea
...play a leadership role to meet out international commitments to tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss.
And to be at their best, politicians need to think straight. I struggled this morning after a few hours sleep and I haven’t been travelling the country for the past month being grilled by the public or media during an election campaign. After a gruelling few weeks, I hope the major players in each of the parties can find a way to recharge their batteries before embarking on the tough negotiations to come.
My recommendation would be for all politicians to take a little time out and visit their local nature reserve. Watch some wildlife, listen to the birds and remember that we share this beautiful planet with millions of remarkable species.
Photo: Female wasp spider in web, at RSPB Lodge reserve (credit: Ben Andrew, rspb-images.com)
Yesterday, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove said on the Today programme that his brief was to “enhance the environment”, that he wants to “exercise humility” and “to listen and to learn”.
I am sure that he will be keen to hear about what the RSPB has learnt through its 128 years of saving nature and why we attract support from 1.2 million people.
So, to help fast-track Mr Gove into his new role, here are five areas where practical RSPB projects have shown how to meet the needs of both people and wildlife. This should help him devise the right plan to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment “to pass on the environment in a better state to the next generation”.
Haweswater (Andy Hay, rspb-images)
Mr Gove arrives with a reputation as a reformer and so it is refreshing to hear that he wants to ensure that new farming and land use policy helps “enhance the farmed environment” while producing “high quality food”. We agree - agriculture is cited as the biggest driver of species declines both nationally and internationally and needs urgent attention. Given the UK vote to leave the European Union, there is a once in a generation opportunity to make the existing £3.1 billion of tax payers money that currently goes into the UK countryside through the Common Agriculture Policy work much harder for wildlife.
Mr Gove should look at what we have achieved on our land including at Hope Farm (our 181 ha conventional, intensive arable farm). Since we bought the farm in 2000 we have increased the farmland bird index on the farm by 174% (compared to a national decline of 10%) while also maintaining farm profitability. We've done this using incentives previously available to all farmers. This weekend 550 visitors came to see this for themselves on #openfarmsunday (featured here) and Mr Gove will, of course, be welcome to come and visit.
We have a major shortage of housing supply and Mr Gove has been vocal about this. The RSPB recognises the challenges in delivering the new homes that the country needs but we also feel that it is possible to meet housing needs in a way that contributes to nature and people’s enjoyment of our natural world.
We have spent a lot of time objecting to housing developments being built in the wrong place and to poor environmental quality. That is why we are working with Barratt Developments to find a new way. We want new developments that provide homes for people and wildlife. The flagship scheme for 2,450 homes at Kingsbrook, Aylesbury, will include a major new urban fringe nature reserve as well as nature-friendly elements in the built environment.
I trust Mr Gove will have early discussion with his counterpart at DCLG, Sajid Javid, to help deliver high biodiversity standards for all new developments and ensure that they must be located away from sensitive wildlife sites such as Lodge Hill.
Thirteen years ago we made the case that Ofwat should change the rules that governed water company investment in catchments. The Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP) was devised to ensure the sustainable environmental management of 20,000 ha of water catchment land under United Utilities’ ownership in the Peak District and the Forest of Bowland. Our partnership, which included local farmers, developed a new approach to managing the land which complied with the Habitats Regulations, enhanced biodiversity and improved the quality of the water abstracted for drinking, as well as providing an enhanced source of income for tenant farmers.
As the approach has broadened and been taken up by other water companies, we have seen huge benefits as restoration of habitat has led to increased species populations and improved water quality. More recently natural flood management schemes such as Swindale Beck in Haweswater will also hopefully demonstrate how to reduce peak river flow to help mitigate in downstream flooding.
Mr Gove has spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of connecting people to nature, notably wanting to “get children to not only read and write, but also appreciate the valuen and the beauty of the environment them.” Connection to nature is important for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. We know it instinctively and there is a growing body of evidence that backs this up. That’s why the RSPB continues to explore new ways to connect people to nature. Of course, one of our best ways is through our ever-expanding network of nature reserves across the country. These are wonderful places that lift the spirit.
Creating more, bigger, better protected areas will be core to providing more space for wildlife. In our experience, most big projects are achieved through partnership with business and local communities. For example, Wallasea Island Wild Coast project is the largest managed realignment project in Europe and heavily reliant on the partnership with the Environment Ageny but also Crossrail that provided the spoil to raise the level of the land to allow for the sea wall to be breached. It is combating the threats from climate change and coastal flooding by recreating the ancient wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture. It will also help to compensate for the loss of such tidal habitats elsewhere in England obliged through the European Nature Directives.
The 650 hectare habitat creation project will not be complete for a few years, but we have already created 67 islands, 18 lagoons and provided homes for 12,000 wintering waterbirds and 102 pairs of breeding avocets.
The lesson for Mr Gove here is that smart regulation driving innovative partnerships result in exceptional benefits for people and wildlife.
Over the past couple of months, I have been reminded time and again (see here and here) that targeted environmental grants can help us fulfil our wildlife obligations at home and internationally. I would encourage Mr Gove to celebrate the impact that Darwin grants have had to catalyse action for wildlife in both our Overseas Territories and in developing countries but also think hard about how to replace EU Life funding* which we shall be losing when we exit the European Union. To complement this, it would also be worth Mr Gove asking his civil servants how he can help secure innovative sources of nature finance which are not reliant on the public purse. The RSPB is currently exploring lots of options and we would be very happy to share our thinking.
I am sure that Mr Gove is a fast-learner and we look forward to working with him. The RSPB will, as we always do with ministers, provide Mr Gove with ideas to follow through on his intention to enhance the environment. We want him to be successful and to do whatever nature needs.
*Since being launched in 1992, Life has funded 4,500 projects, invested €8.7 billion, helped conserve over 400 species and created 74,500 jobs