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 recent years, I have established a holiday tradition of getting up an hour or so earlier than the rest of the family and then sitting outside to read. At our hut on the Northumberland coast, I position my chair facing the rising sun, sheltered from the wind and enjoy coffee and peace for as long as family sleep allows.
As I sit on the cliff, the world seems to come to me. Gulls, linnets, pipits, swallows and starlings fly head high past me unperturbed by my presence. They are going about their morning business and I am an irrelevance to them.
Looking South to Coquet Island from my favourite sit spot
My seat outside my hut is what Claire Thompson in her excellent book, The Art of Mindful Birdwatching, would call my sit spot. She would probably like me to be a little more disciplined and put down the book and coffee to help me clear my mind as I connect with the sounds, sights and smells of nature. But I am happy with the impact of my sit spot tradition. By the end of the holiday I feel ready to return to the routine of ‘normal life’.
But sit spots should be for life and not just for holidays. So, I'll accept Claire’s challenge and make the time to find my sit spot at home. It is all too easy to ignore the garden birds as the kids are preparing to go to school, to be distracted by the endless chatter of the radio on the way in to work and to be wrapped up in my own thoughts as I head to the office before the inevitable series of meetings.
Claire is right, of course. Taking proper time out in nature is not only enjoyable but through real connection, we are refreshed and more equipped to take on the challenges that life throws at us. It should be something we do every day. Rather than be enveloped by the pressures and complexity of life, a ‘mindful’ approach allows us to respond better to events and use our finite emotional energy more sparingly.
RSPB's mission is to inspire a world richer in nature - for its own sake but also because our own lives (including our own mental well-being) depend on nature. It could be argued that the more nature there is around us, the more fulfilling any sit spots become. So, this autumn, as the memory and impact of my holiday recedes to be replaced by RSPB plans to have greater impact for nature, I shall find a new ‘sit spot’ at home and build it in to my daily routine.
My colleagues and family will be the first to know if this makes any difference.
Do you have a favourite sit spot? If you do, it would be great to compare notes...
August is traditionally a quiet time for policy developments. With Parliament in recess, most years we hear very little from governments as we all enjoy the late summer sun/cloud/rain (delete as appropriate). This August however, Westminster decided to buck the usual trend, and the UK Government released a series of position papers on some of the big issues relating to the UK vote to leave the EU. So while many of us have been away on our summer holidays, the UK Government has sought to clarify their aspirations for the nature of our future relationship with the EU.
Wednesday’s paper entitled ‘Enforcement and dispute resolution – a future partnership paper’ was the most recent installment. The RSPB, and our partners in the Greener UK coalition, were waiting for this paper, hoping it would clarify what the arrangements for enforcing environmental laws in the UK might look like post-Brexit.
All laws need to be enforced in order to have any impact – otherwise they are just pieces of paper. As you probably know, about 80% of our environmental laws stem from the EU. Establishing common legal standards across the board has been important for protecting our shared environment (since wildlife does not respect borders), as well as preventing any one member state from gaining a short-term economic advantage over others by trashing their environment. On that basis, it also made perfect sense for us to have shared, EU-wide institutions to carry out the monitoring and enforcement required in order to hold all member states to those common standards.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has played an important part in this. Unlike the UK’s Supreme Court, the ECJ can ultimately impose fines on a government if it fails to comply with the ECJ’s judgement based on EU environmental legislation – a strong incentive. Whilst these powers are rarely used in practice, the threat of their use gives extra ‘teeth’ to the court process, and means that most cases are resolved without resorting to the court itself, as we hope will happen with our complaint about management of protected blanket blogs in northern England.
Moor burn photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
As the UK withdraws from the EU, it’s important that we ensure there’s no weakening in enforcement of environmental laws in the UK. We need institutions in place to identify when environmental damage is occurring, who is to blame, and to hold them to account for their actions.
Sadly, this week’s Government position paper gave us no further clarity on exactly what future enforcement might look like and was instead focussed on the governance of a future UK/EU relationship – another critical area where environmental protections need to be considered, and which I will come back to in a future blog.
So we still don’t know how environmental laws will be enforced in the UK post-Brexit. We assume that the UK Government is still intending to rely on judicial review and the parliamentary processes. Judicial review is an important mechanism, but it is inadequate and incomplete for this task and is another issue I will return to in a future blog.
Every year the UK Government publishes a set of biodiversity indicators. These provide the official position on the state of the nation’s species, the pressures they face but also how well we are responding to these changes. These reports are of a very high quality and are by necessity incredibly detailed. If like me you are so inclined, they also invite healthy scrutiny and commentary.
The indicators themselves rarely bring good news and today’s release shows little improvement in the condition of our most important wildlife sites and the continued decline of our most threatened species. This year’s update also shows worrying trends in public expenditure for both domestic and international conservation.
The new Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has indicated a willingness to reform farm subsidies so that more of the £3.1 billion of public money that goes into farming is used to reward farmers for delivering environmental outcomes such as abundant nature and flood prevention. This would certainly help in tackling the continuing declines in our species, as would establishing a new fund to replace European funding that will be lost when the UK leaves the EU.
We also need to see the mobilising of 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. (A new funding round is now open which is good news for this important initiative.)
We are a nation that loves nature and the environmental NGO sector boasts 8 million supporters but we must to do more to activate our memberships.
The RSPB currently benefits from nearly a million hours each year gifted to us for free by our amazingly generous network of volunteers. However, across the sector volunteering is down by 14% over the last five years. Does this reflect a loss of connection with nature or a reassessment of personal time in increasingly difficult circumstances? It’s impossible to say.
What I will say is that the RSPB will continue to press the government to meet its promise to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation, whilst doing our utmost to support them in their efforts.