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.
Deciding to introduce any form of predator control (lethal or non-lethal) is something we never take lightly. It’s always based on evidence* and guided by our Council-agreed policy.
The RSPB’s approach to any type of predator control means that we first seek evidence of a problem, check whether there is a non-lethal solution and if so implement that. In many cases this does the job needed.
One such example is at the RSPB’s Otmoor nature reserve in Oxfordshire, currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, where our team of staff and volunteers have created a wonderful wetland giving homes to waders such as lapwing, redshank and snipe. Our management has also aided the return of bittern, marsh harrier and crane. Otmoor is providing the missing link to the wetlands in the Fens in the east and those in the Somerset Levels to the west.
RSPB Otmoor by Eleanor Bentnall (rspb-images.com)
Those of you that have visited the site will not have failed to have noticed the electric fence around the field we call ‘Big Otmoor’ (shown below). This is designed to exclude mammalian predators and has been instrumental in driving up the productivity of lapwings.
It may seem incongruous to see this structure in the middle of a nature reserve but this level of management is our response to the fragmented nature of our countryside and our motivation to re-engineer wildlife back into the landscape. As you can see from the graph below, the fence, which was installed in 2010, works and has helped deliver more wader chicks for visitors to see and to join the thriving population.
What's more, anti-predator fences are performing well across our reserve network. We now have fences at 28 reserves protecting breeding waders over 874 ha. At sites with anti-predator fences, lapwing productivity has been consistently above that necessary for population maintenance (0.6 chicks fledged per pair), even though at most sites only a proportion of the suitable habitat is protected by the fence. The graph below shows mean Lapwing productivity at RSPB reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored. Bars show + one standard error. The figures above the bars show the number of reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity was monitored.
But non-lethal methods, whilst always our preferred way of doing things, are not always practical. As I have written previously, lethal vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:
If we can satisfy ourselves of all these things then we can be sure to make the right decision.
* Using results of previously published studies, we have completed a review of the impact of predation on birds. This will be published soon and its results are consistent with those of our 2007 review: despite high and increasing densities of predators, we found little support that predation limits populations of pigeons, woodpeckers and songbirds, whereas evidence suggests that ground-nesting seabirds, waders and gamebirds can be limited by predation.
Vertebrates controlled on RSPB nature reserves 2015-16
As in previous years (see here, here and here), I have included two tables below which show the lethal vertebrate control undertaken (for both conservation and other reasons) on our reserves, which now number 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares across the UK, in the period 2015-16. Some of the numbers are lower than in the previous year as 2014/15 was a 17-month period due to the change in reporting date.
a) control for conservation reasons
b) control for other reasons
The RSPB has a long history of working in the UK Overseas Territories including, of course, those in the Caribbean which have been so badly hit by Hurricane Irma (about which my colleague Elizabeth Radford has written here). In that time, we have undertaken some pretty big projects. And today, I want to tell you about another one: the Gough Island Restoration programme. Gough is part of the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic (if you are not sure where is, have a look here).
Gough Island is a special place: it is a World Heritage Site and home to more than eight million birds from at least 23 different species, including the northern rockhopper penguin and the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross.
Yet, these seabirds are in trouble.
Populations have plummeted because they are being eaten by mice which were accidentally introduced to Gough by sailors in the nineteenth century. As a result, more than one million chicks are killed by mice every year. And these are no ordinary mice - they have evolved to become two or three times larger than normal by exploiting all the food sources on the island.
So, unless we do something about these giant albatross-eating mice, two species listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, Tristan albatross and Gough bunting, will head towards extinction.
That is why I am delighted to announce that we intend to mount an operation to eradicate the mice from Gough island.
The beautiful Tristan albatross courtship display on Gough Island. This year was the highest breeding success rate for this species in a long time. Still not sufficient to prevent extinction of the species but a much needed small boost to the number of birds in the wild. (Photo credit: Derren Fox)
We have been working hard with our partners on Tristan da Cunha, the Percy Fitz Patrick Institute, BirdLife South Africa and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs to plan this operation and I have been incredibly impressed by the work of the team, led by my colleagues Clare Stringer and John Kelly, that has helped us get into this position today.
The action of removing mice from Gough will help the UK meet its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Heritage Convention to protect this site and its unique threatened species. It is the sort of ambition that should be reflected in the UK Government's forthcoming 25 year environment plan. In the context of debates about natural capital (about which I wrote earlier this week), this is one of those projects that cost-benefit equations seem irrelevant - stopping extinction is just the right thing to do.
And that's why we've worked hard to find the resources needed for the operational phase. While we still have a funding shortfall, thanks to generous financial support from the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other sources, we are now sufficiently confident to plan the mouse eradication operation to start in 2019.
The operation will require some hard work and a bit of luck to get everything ready for our operational window during that year. But the preparations can now intensify. Indeed, this week three of RSPB's newest recruits (Fabrice le Bouard, Jaimie Cleeland and Kate Lawrence) departed Cape Town on board the S.A. Agulhas II and are headed for Gough, where they will live and work for the next 13 months. Their objective is to establish a monitoring baseline against which we judge the success of our proposed mouse eradication project. I expect they will have a fabulous time but I also hope their intensive training pays off especially as the first thing they will have to do is endure ten days at sea to reach Gough via Tristan da Cunha. The photos at the end of this blog give you a flavour of their new world.
Despite the tragedy of seabird losses that unfolds every year, sometimes the data collected about breeding success gives glimpses of hope. This year, the Tristan albatross has had one of the highest recorded rates of breeding success in well over a decade, if not more. This compares to the dismal rate of less than 10% recorded as recently as the 2014 breeding season. While the rate this year is still not enough to sustain the population, it is a much needed temporary lifeline for the Tristan albatross. All going well, the chicks that survived to fledge their nests this year, will return to breed on an island free of mice. Their offspring will have a much greater chance of survival to adulthood, while the gruesome images of mice attacks will stop for good.
The next two years will be incredibly exciting for all of us. We are embarking on one of our most important conservation projects. I hope that it inspires you and if you would like to support our efforts to prevent the extinction of the Tristan albatross and the Gough bunting, please use the form accessible by clicking here.
With your support, we can remove the mice and provide a brighter future for Gough Island and its critically endangered wildlife.
Fabrice, Jaimie and Kate attending wilderness survival training prior to their departure for Gough Island (photo credit: RSPB)
The view from the deck on board the S.A. Agulhas II showing some rough going as the team travel to Gough (photo credit: Jaimie Cleeland)
The weather base on Gough Island where the RSPB team will call home for the next 13 months. (Photo credit: Derren Fox)
Readers of this blog may remember that earlier this year the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth began legal action against the Ministry of Justice because of new rules brought in by the UK government which made it harder for people in England and Wales to go to court to protect the environment (see here). Last Friday, the High Court ruled in our favour, when Mr Justice Dove said that crucial additions were needed to bring the rules within the law, bringing a week of triumphs on environmental justice to a fulfilling end.
The rules, introduced in February 2017, scrapped fixed costs limits which capped how much people and charities had to pay if they lost a case against a public body. Before this, the cost cap had been set at £5,000 for individuals and £10,000 in all other cases. This provided upfront certainty as to the extent of one’s financial liability before embarking on a Judicial Review. Now, as a result of the High Court’s ruling, caps will still be fixed at the beginning of a case and can only be changed in exceptional cases, giving people and charities the early financial certainty they need when they stand up for the environment.
The RSPB only resorts to legal action as a method of last resort and when all other options have been exhausted, but it is a vital backstop as demonstrated in our successful challenge of the proposed Ribble gull cull.
Lesser black-backed gull - one of the species which had been targeted for a cull on the Ribble (image courtesy of Tim Melling)
As a result of taking this legal action the circumstances in which the costs caps can be varied in later stages are now confined to those in which the NGO or individual has effectively provided the court with misleading or inaccurate financial information or their financial situation has significantly changed as a result, for example, of a lottery win. This means that NGOs and individuals once again enjoy certainty as to the extent of their financial liability at an early stage of the case. The rulings also means that claimants will no longer have to expose their private financial details in open court when applying for judicial review, as these hearings will now take place in private. The Ministry of Justice will need to make changes to the rules as soon as possible to achieve this.
But as David Hart QC puts it “…it is dispiriting that it takes a judicial review for Government seriously to engage with the costs problems and practicalities facing environmental claimants - despite these having been spelt out time and time again by NGOs and judges here and in Europe.”
As mentioned earlier, last week was a very good week for access to justice. Peers debated a Motion laid by Lord Marks QC of Henley-upon-Thames expressing profound regret at the changes to the costs regime. We were inspired by the quality of the debate, with persuasive and passionate speeches from numerous Peers including the former RSPB Chief Executive Baroness Young, Baroness Parminter and Lord Pannick QC. The overriding theme was the recognition of the vital role that groups like the RSPB play in defending nature and the environment. The outcome was a defeat for the Government as the vote was carried by 164 votes to 97 – not bad for a normally quiet mid-week dinner slot just before the party conferences.
Last week, colleagues also attended a Meeting of the Parties to an international Convention governing access to justice (the Aarhus Convention) during which the UK conceded that it must take urgent action to make environmental legal action less expensive and more accessible.
The rule of law is an essential pillar of any democracy in which effective administrative and judicial procedures provide a necessary check on the abuse of power and the protection of public freedoms, such as the environment.
The judgment is vital in the face of the UK’s proposed exit from the EU. Without oversight from EU institutions and with uncertainty of what will replace the European Court of Justice, it is down to UK citizens and organisations to challenge decisions affecting the environment. This means that the protection of our air, water, countryside and wildlife will rely upon the courts, so everyone must be able to access them. The government is claiming that judicial review and parliamentary process are sufficient to replace the oversight of the EU. If people and charities are hindered by uncertain court costs, our environment could be at real risk.