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.
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.
Not only does the indicator on public expenditure on nature show an overall decline it also shows that the proportion of GDP has declined. In contrast, it is good to see that NGO funding has been going up - but Government should be playing a fuller part in financing wildlife conservation too. Of equal concern for me is that one of the other key 'response' indicators, on the area of land in agri-environment schemes, appears to be at its lowest level since 2001! Mr Gove's encouraging words on reforming farm subsidies that you mention above need to be turned into action soon.