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.
Our Rainham Marshes reserve was at its best yesterday - hooching with waders (lawings and redshanks are having another good year) and children (enjoying some much needed out of classroom learning). It provided a great backdrop for a great conversation with the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove.
Rainham is one of eleven RSPB nature reserves on either side of the Thames and is one of the reasons why the Thames Estuary is celebrated as being internationally important for wildlife and part of the economic powerhouse that is London. The fact that London’s prosperity and environment quality has grown is testament to years of hard work in making smart regulation (especially the Habitat Regulations) and investment work for people and wildlife of the region.
From his media interviews earlier in the week, we knew that Mr Gove was in listening mode, which was probably why we had been set an exam question in advance: “If we want the UK’s approach to environmental protection and enhancement to be seen as the best in the world, what does that mean and what does it look like at a local, national and global level?”
This is the kind of positive question we like. While ultimately success will be judged by our ability to meet or exceed biological targets for species, habitats and sites in compliance with the Convention on Biological Diversity's targets and reflected through various reporting systems, I offered the following proxy indicators of what being the best would mean.
At a global level......fulfilling the promise to designate the Blue Belt of marine protected areas around UK Overseas Territories. On current trajectory, by 2020 we shall have more sea protected than any other nation..mobilising finance to support international conservation efforts by a) ensuring that 20% of the £5.8 billion UK International Climate Finance fund is spent on forestry especially, to help reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation and b) maintaining, bolstering and celebrating the impact of the Darwin Initiative which has benefited wildlife and people in both UK Overseas Territories and developing countries....championing environmental supply chains by a) ensuring all our imports are sourced from sustainable supply chains and then b) promoting the highest environmental standards where we grow our own food..innovative ways of cooperating across the Africa-European flyway to ensure the needs of species that do not respect administrative boundaries (such as our rapidly declining sub-Saharan migratory birds) are met
At a national level......establishing good governance and strong institutions which can give truth to power by, for example, creating the environmental equivalent of the Office of Budget Responsibility...ensuring nature is taken into account in decision-making through a more robust approach to natural capital accounting...making better use of existing public money (for example through reform of farming and land use policy and the £3.1 billion annual UK budget that flows from the EU's Common Agriculture Policy) and exploring how best to harness private investment
At a local level......investing in spatial planning to reflect existing obligations (for example the National Planning Policy Framework’s mandate for the creation of habitat opportunity maps) but also to help reconcile competing needs for housing, infrastructure, energy, recreation, water, farming and nature...statutory agencies, businesses and local communities aligned behind shared visions for local areas and ...exceptional projects that demonstrate how to improve the natural environment in harmony with the needs of people. We’ve shown how to do this for housing, water, farming and fishing. There is an urgent need to make progress in contested landscapes like the uplands.
While Mr Gove is still only in the fourth day of his new job, he is clearly keen to get out, meet people and see places. He also asked the right questions, took notes and listened. These are good signs. We need political leaders to be inquisitive about what is working well and what needs fixing. Then, we hope, they work out how to intervene to make things better.
We shall do what we can to ensure his time as Environment Secretary is a success for nature.
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
With Brexit negotiations due to start next week, I want to put a spotlight on a few key issues that the new Government will have to address if it is to ensure that the new arrangements help rather than hinder its environmental ambitions. Today, my colleague, Dr Euan Dunn offers his thoughts on the implications of new research on the relationship between fishing intensity and kittiwake breeding success.
Image courtesy of Anthony Griffiths.
There is a lively debate about how the UK should manage its fisheries once the UK leaves the European Union. Seabirds, like fish, range freely across the borders of territorial waters, which poses the challenge of how best to ensure their needs are met in the post-Brexit settlement for the seas surrounding these islands.
New research led by the RSPB, published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aqc.2780/full) throws this challenge into sharp relief. It suggests a link between the amount of sandeels (a small shoaling fish that is vital prey for our internationally important seabird populations) caught by fishermen and the breeding success of kittiwakes (a small species of gull, currently red-listed in the UK), with higher intensity fishing leading to lower numbers of chicks being produced.
In the North Sea, sandeels provide a vital food source for breeding seabirds but are also the target of an industrial fishery conducted mainly by Denmark. We found that individual kittiwakes electronically tracked from Yorkshire colonies at Filey and Flamborough ranged as far as the legendary Dogger Bank – a massive area of high sandeel density about 100 miles off the coast – to feed on sandeels for themselves and their chicks .
The Dogger Bank is also a prime target area for the Danish fleet targeting sandeels for processing into fish meal and oil (now mainly destined for fish farming), raising the prospect that the fishery could adversely affect the birds' populations. Denmark is alone among North Sea fishing countries in fishing commercially for sandeels in the North Sea, the UK fleet having no interest in this fish species. Critically, our study found that higher kittiwake breeding success at colonies was correlated with lower sandeel fishing intensity, suggesting that, at times over the last 30 years, fishing levels may at times have been high enough to reduce the number of chicks raised by Yorkshire kittiwakes. We need to ensure that the fishery on the Dogger Bank is sustainable both for the sandeels and the seabirds that rely on them, especially in the face of climate change which we know is reducing sandeel abundance widely across the North Atlantic. In a nutshell, we need to make sure that the sandeel fishery is not adding to the kittiwake’s problems, especially in a flagship site like Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs which host the largest surviving colony in the UK, making it outstandingly important for the potential future recovery of this species whose numbers have crashed nationwide.
Clearly, the management of the Danish sandeel fishery and the fate of our seabirds are joined at the hip. As we leave the EU, and anticipate the substitution of a UK fisheries policy for the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, we look forward to working with our new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, to ensure that the UK government continues to reach out to Denmark and our other European fishing neighbours to maintain the health of our seas, interlinked as they are across national borders. Our thinking must be as seamless as the seas on which we and our marine wildlife all rely.