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 am, by chance, a creature of the East of England and many of my recent memorable wildlife experiences have taken place next to the North Sea. These include a January 2014 dawn visit to see the Snettisham wader roost. My godson, son and I were joined by about 100 others who braved the biting cold to witness the incredible spectacle of thousands of birds feeding on the mudflats and flying overhead.
My visit was made more memorable as it was a month after the devastating tidal surge that left a trail of destruction along the UK’s coastline and our coastal reserves. The surge completely destroyed two of our hides at Snettisham and seriously damaged another, as well as causing devastating damage to the sea banks and lagoons. The image of our hide teetering on the edge of collapse was hard to forget.
In fact, much of East Anglia was hit pretty badly, with the most extensive impacts felt not just at Snettisham but also at Havergate and Dingle nature reserves (described via my blog here).
We worked hard to repair the damage to the reserve’s habitats, using money generously donated by supporters where it was most urgently needed, protecting wildlife, but to date we haven’t been able to rebuild the destroyed hides.
Now, with help from our supporters, we want to replace the two hides that were destroyed with one that is bigger and better, designed to stand up to future storm surges.
So earlier this month we launched a 30 day crowdfunding appeal* to help raise £120,000 to rebuild the wildlife watching hide at RSPB Snettisham Nature Reserve. We have until Tuesday, 8 August to raise as much as we can.
We’ve raised about £10,000 so far but need more support.
I rarely appeal for cash through this blog, but am prepared to make an exception for a new hide at Snettisham.
So, if you would like to help inspire a whole new generation of nature lovers with the sights and sounds of The Wash, please do donate here and also sign up to our Thunderclap happening on Thursday, 27 June here. Even if you are unable to support the appeal financially, you can join us for one of our Wader Watch events taking place during the crowdfunding period (more details can be found here).
Image from Les Bunyan
*For those of you who don't know, 'Crowdfunding' is the practice of funding a project by raising relatively small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet. In exchange for pledging money to the project through our crowdfunding appeal we will be offering money can’t buy rewards which include some fantastic products and experiences. These rewards are truly wonderful, many of which have been donated by local businesses, artists, photographers and our volunteers. We hope these rewards will inspire people to donate to help us raise the money we need to build the hide.
Earlier this year, the RSPB's best known reserve in England, Minsmere, celebrated its 70th birthday. It first became famous because avocets started nesting there a week after we took on management responsibility in 1947, then because wetland creation techniques pioneered by Bert Axell helped breeding waders and terns and most recently as the foundation for the remarkable rise in the bittern population. Today, 100,000 visitors a year enjoy Minsmere which now provides homes for 5,700 different species with more than 1000 moths and 1000 fungi, as well an amazing variety of plants, insects and mammals.
I am looking forward to returning to Minsmere tomorrow to find out about this year's breeding season. Minsmere has inspired a host of wetland creation projects in England over the past few decades from Otmoor to Ham Wall and from Lakenheath to Ouse Fen. The latter is still in development, as I saw last week when I was taken around the site by my colleague Matt York. We were joined by Alastair Driver who is Director Rewilding Britain. He has been touring England and Wales looking at great landscape scale conservation projects and had been spending a lot of time in the hills. So, I wanted to show him what can be achieved in the lowlands.
Andy Hay's image of Ouse Fen taken in 2012 (rspb-images.com)
Working with the minerals company Hanson, we are half way through a 30 year project to create 700 hectares of wetland habitat including the largest reedbed in the UK, spanning 460 hectares. It is demonstrating benefits for nature and people through minerals restoration required through the minerals planning system. Over 30 years, starting in 2001, 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will have been extracted from Needingworth Quarry. Once the aggregate is extracted, a new landscape is created providing homes of for wetland species that Minsmere made famous - marsh harrier, bearded tit and bittern. We are also creating a network of public rights of way which will help the local community and visitors to enjoy the site.
What I really like about this site, is that you can see (as shown in my photos below) the habitats at different stages of development - a bit like the wetlands we are creating at Langford Lowfield with Tarmac in Nottinghamshire or our arable reversion and chalk grassland restoration project at Winterbourne Downs in Wiltshire.
While the scale of Ouse Fen is impressive, it will also link up neighbouring RSPB reserves at Fen Drayton Lakes and the Ouse Washes, creating a near-continuous wetland of some 2,500 hectares. Add in the work that the National Trust is doing at Wicken Fen and the Wildlife Trusts at the Great Fen, and it is possible to imagine a very different future for the Cambridgeshire Fens.
The new Environment Secretary set out his ambition to restore nature on Friday and will soon finalise the promised and much anticipated 25 year environment plan. I hope he takes inspiration from practical examples such as Ouse Fen which show how the state can work with the private sector and with charities and local communities to engineer wildlife back into the landscape.
What should we expect from a first speech from a new Environment Secretary of State? We’d hope for personal commitment, a clear analysis as to why nature is in trouble, and an ambition to restore nature. And I think today, Michael Gove gave us that. But we also got a sense of where he will be investing his reformist energy – on the future of farming.
Michael Gove delivering his first major environment speech at WWF Headquarters today
He was right to suggest that farmers should be rewarded for restoring wildlife and protecting the natural resources on which we all depend for food production now and in the future. We’ve worked with farmers up and down the country who show it is possible to produce food whilst at the same time restoring farmland wildlife. Those wildlife-friendly farmers are bucking the overall downward trend for farmland wildlife, and we urgently need more of them.
We’re working with our partners in both the Greener UK and Environment Link coalitions to develop our shared thinking on the future of farming subsidies, and an approach that rewards farmers for doing the right things for nature is at the heart of that. We will be backing wildlife-friendly farmers by arguing for a system that supports their actions.
But, Michael Gove also gave us an indication that he was prepared to look at how you replace the enforcement powers currently provided by the European Union. To do that he’s going to have to influence the current Repeal Bill to make sure not only do we maintain existing levels of protection afforded by EU law, but also that we work out how to ensure that the laws are then enforced. As I’ve highlighted in recent posts, the Bill as it stands is woefully inadequate on both counts.
Overall it was a great first start, but of course the tough work starts now. He’s going to have to turn those fine words into actions and that means working across Whitehall with his ministerial colleagues to turn his vision into reality. It means working across the whole of the UK with the devolved administrations to make sure that his reforms will benefit all the UK’s wildlife and at the same time he’s going to have to carry on working with our allies in the European Union and globally to ensure that together we continue to do what we can to tackle the major trans-boundary challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.
We want and need him to be successful so will do what we can to provide constructive challenge and support.
Outside WWF HQ congratulating Michael Gove on his speech and wishing him well to turn the fine words into action (image courtesy of Claire Smith)