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.
Yesterday’s decision from Environment Secretary Michael Gove to back the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is not only good news for bees and other wild pollinators, but also for evidence-based policy.
It’s been a long road to reach yesterday’s momentous decision: neonicotinoids have been in widespread use since the early noughties, and concerns began to emerge about their potential impacts on pollinators over a decade ago. Since then, scientists (including some working for the RSPB) have been working to unpick and better understand that impact, with hundreds of scientific papers published on the topic, aiming to close knowledge gaps and test whether their use has contributed to the widespread decline of pollinators observed across Europe. As more evidence has emerged suggesting that neonics are indeed harmful to wild pollinators, we have been working in collaboration with the Bee Coalition to support calls for a ban on their use. And as the body of evidence of their impacts has increased, such calls have become harder to ignore, as Michael Gove himself said yesterday...
“While there is still uncertainty in the science, it is increasingly pointing in one direction. Not to act would be to risk continuing down a course which could have extensive and permanent effects on bee populations. That is not a risk I am prepared to take”.
Rapeseed by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
This story clearly demonstrates the need to invest in good science to inform policy and shape decision-making. The fact that the decision was so long in the making, however, highlights some key weaknesses in the current system: that concerns about potentially catastrophic impacts of a group of chemicals on wildlife are only addressed long after the chemicals have become established on the market and are in widespread use highlights a clear need to reassess the licensing process. This is a concern that was echoed by Defra’s Chief Scientist back in September.
I hope that Mr Gove’s decision to show real leadership on neonicotinoids is an indication of Defra’s wider commitment to base future policy development on good science, because neonics and bees aren’t the only issue for which we have a solid and growing evidence base. For several decades, RSPB and others have been working to understand the causes of declines in other farmland wildlife, including farmland birds (>40% decline since 1970) and butterflies (>30%). The second State of Nature report, published in 2016, highlighted the evidence that policy-driven changes in agricultural management are a major cause of these declines.
As well as understanding the causes of these declines, we have also worked with farmers to develop and test solutions. The UK has lead the way on agri-environment science, and there is a now a large and robust body of evidence as to “what works” for nature on farmland. From the work we have been doing on RSPB’s own Hope Farm, we have demonstrated that by making relatively small changes to management, you can make space for nature on a productive and profitable farm – resulting in a huge increase in farmland bird numbers.
Support for the ban on neonics is an important step in the right direction, based on robust evidence, but as we leave the EU the government has a unique opportunity to reshape agricultural policy more widely and to support farmers to reverse the declines of farmland wildlife. I hope that Mr Gove continues to show leadership and to use evidence to inform his decisions, and seizes this chance to create positive change for farming, for nature, and for the wider environment.
I’ll end today’s blog with a final quote from Michael Gove...
“Ultimately we must ensure that we think about the long term health of our environment, because unless we take steps now to arrest environmental damage we will all be the losers. We only have one earth and it is our responsibility to hand it on to the next generation in a better state”.
While I do not agree with Mr Gove’s stance on leaving the EU I can only say very well done on taking this decision and for the RSPB’s superb scientific ability and the very important contributions from Hope Farm, As you say Martin let’s hope that DEFRA will now pay much more and proper attention to science and the evidence that it provides.
One is certainly left wondering why this decision has taken so long to come about and why the “Precautionary Principle” has not been invoked long ago. The recent previous holders of the office of Minster of State for DEFRA. have a good deal to answer in this respect.