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’m rebooting my "Good new for a Friday" series and what better way to do so than to reflect on some great positive renewable energy stories that emerged during August?
First, it was good to get back to my desk after my holiday and learn that the Secretary of State has approved a windfarm off the coast of East Anglia. We have worked closely with the developer, Scottish Power Renewables, to reach a solution that delivers significant low carbon power while minimising harm to seabirds. We have long been supportive of renewable energy providing it is sited in order to reduce harm to wildlife. Our 2050 Energy Vision report published last year highlights that, if we plan well, we can locate and deliver very high levels of renewable energy in harmony with nature.
The, somewhat unglamorously titled, East Anglia THREE wind farm proposal is an excellent example of this approach resulting in a solution that aims to reduce the collision risk to birds while ensuring a significant supply of renewable energy. Raising the height of the wind turbines should minimise the risk of collision for kittiwakes, gannets and great black-backed gulls, while a reduction in turbine numbers on an adjacent project (East Anglia ONE) limits the combined negative impact of the windfarms along the coastline as a whole.
We now have a development with which the RSPB has no major concerns, and which will help contribute to the clean green energy supply that is urgently needed. We’ll be continuing to work closely with the renewable energy industry to ensure future renewable energy projects that are located and designed to minimise harm to wildlife can go ahead.
It’s not just the solutions to climate change (renewable energy developments) that are affecting seabirds, but also its impacts. The latest climate science shows that we need to do everything we can to limit the worst effects of climate change on people and wildlife. And events like Storm Harvey currently wreaking havoc in Texas, reinforce the case for action: according to a statement issued by the World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday “climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise”.
More frequent and more intense storms are one manifestation of climate change. Yet, there are other more subtle shifts taking place. Kittiwakes, in addition to being vulnerable to wind turbines, are also very sensitive to climate change. This is a species close to my heart as whenever I am staying at our hut in spring or summer, I keep an eye on the kittiwake cliffs south of Crastor. They have, like other kittiwake colonies, over the years, become less raucous. The population has declined because sea temperature changes are affecting the availability of their key food source - sandeels. This compounds the impact of changing fishing intensity of the primary prey for kittiwakes.
Kittiwakes are a good example of the challenge we face in responding to climate change - take urgent action by making the most of the renewable energy resource our windy seas have to offer but without destroying our fantastic seabird heritage.
My second package of good news this month relates to solar. We know from our own research that there are plenty of opportunities for solar farms in the UK with low risk for wildlife, indeed it is possible to significantly enhance the wildlife value of these sites. I am therefore very pleased that this month we have been able to support the development of a new solar array at Gnaton Farm in Devon as it goes through the planning system. The developers have set out a range of measures to benefit wildlife (in particular cirl buntings and other farmland birds) on the site and we will be working with them to help them deliver this, if the application is approved.
In neighbouring Dorset, I am also delighted that the developers of a previously contentious solar farm at Rampisham Down have taken the decision to locate the scheme on an adjacent undesignated site that is not important for wildlife. They have done so in response to the concerns raised by Natural England, the Dorset Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. The developer, British Solar Renewables has agreed a range of wildlife-friendly measures for this new site including skylark plots and bird and bat boxes. They have also agreed to work on a new management plan for Rampisham Down SSSI, the largest expanse of unimproved lowland acid grassland in Dorset, to bring the site back into good condition after years of neglect and over August have been removing all but one of the remaining radio transmitting towers, which were widely held as a blot on the open landscape.
Successful solar sites are not just the preserve of the sunny south west: Scotland’s largest solar windfarm near Elgin in north east Scotland has recently been approved. Following input from the local RSPB Scotland conservation team a bird survey, looking in particular for curlews and corn buntings, was carried out by the developer. It discovered singing male corn buntings – once Scotland’s fastest declining species of bird – and we have requested that habitat management is undertaken to benefit this species as part of the development. I look forward to this scheme becoming a further example of renewable energy developed in harmony with nature.
While I’m pleased to share some good news stories in this post, it can be challenging to resolve the issues raised if a renewable energy development is sited in a sensitive area for wildlife. For this reason, the RSPB is calling on governments across the UK to plan from the outset where renewables will be sited, taking into account their wildlife impacts. This approach must be adopted in the forthcoming Clean Growth Plan, which will set out how the UK meets its carbon targets. Spatial planning (see here) means we can all avoid costly conflicts and deliver the high levels of renewable energy that we urgently need so that schemes can deliver for wildlife and for our climate.
Great "stuff" RSPB it is so important to have these renewable energy sites located correctly for wildlife as wind turbines have the potential to cause devastating impacts.
The success at Rampisham Down shows how important it is for all conservation organisations to work closely together. It this way the conservation message can be far more effective. In this respect the RSPB does an excellent job with its approach of Giving All Nature A Home. However at the individual membership level of some of the smaller conservation organisations I still detect a certain amount of parochialism. I think these organisations need to emphasise to their members the need to work together with the larger organisations like the RSPB so that the conservation voice is heard much more.