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.
If the number of nature books that have been published this spring correlates with a surge in action for nature, the planet should be just fine. Tomorrow night I shall be attending the launch of 'Wildling' by Isabella Tree which tells the story of the transformation of the Knepp Estate, next month I shall be helping to promote Mary Colwell's book Curlew Moon at the Hay Literary Festival and I hope to have time to read other new titles including Mark Cocker's Our Place and Peter Marren's Chasing the Ghost.
But, I have now read Tony Juniper's new book 'Rainforest' and so should you. It explains why rainforests are important, why they are in trouble and what has been and still needs to be done to save them. At the book launch in Cambridge earlier in the month Tony (who recently returned to the NGO world as Campaigns Director for WWF) gave a barnstorming performance bringing the book to life in his own inimitable fashion. Tony writes as he speaks - rooted in evidence, passion and great story-telling. Drawing upon nearly three decades of experience Tony delivers a wonderful rallying cry to all of us to step up for rainforests.
I write this the week after the launch of the latest BirdLife International assessment of the State of the World's Birds which reports that one in eight of all birds are globally threatened with extinction, the majority of which are found in tropical forests. If we want to save the world's threatened species and if we want to stop climate chaos (deforestation accounts for c18% of global greenhouse gas emissions), then we have to stop the rot and protect the remaining rainforests. Seven million hectares of forest are destroyed each year, driven by global demand for timber, paper and land for commodity crops and biofuels.
And some of this global demand is met provided by us - UK citizens. Research that the RSPB and WWF carried out has shown that between 2011-2016, the UK had an annual estimated overseas land footprint of 13.6 million hectares – an area more than half the size of the UK – to supply imports of just seven commodities: beef and leather, cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy and timber. What’s more, 44% of this footprint from UK imports is in high or very high risk areas for deforestation so clearly our consumption patterns have major impact on global nature.
This requires action both within tropical forest communities (such as the work we are doing with partners in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the Greater Gola Landscape) to find ways to improve their 'ownership' and protection of the forest, while also action by UK government and businesses to take strong action to eliminate illegal and unsustainable commodities from their supply chains.
Stronger protection of remaining forests is essential, which is why we celebrated the launch of the Gola Forest National Park last week, but we also need the governments in the Global North to play their part within tropical forested countries. Governments have, through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, committed to financially contributing to climate action, including forest protection, in the Global South. The UK, for example, has committed to £5.8 billion through its International Climate Fund (ICF) for the period April 2016 to April 2021. This all comes out of the 0.7% of GDP ODA commitment and it is designed to support both climate mitigation and adaptation activities and the aim was to spend about 20% on forests.
When the ICF was scrutinised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) in 2014, of the £1491.7 million spent to date £155 million (c10%) went on forests, about 1/3 via the World Bank and only 1/3 bilaterally to countries (two projects in Brazil and one in Columbia). As far as we could work out, this general trend has continued or possibly worsened. The government seems to have dropped its commitment to spend about 20% of the ICF money on forests. This is a problem – as forests need more, not less investment.
And, of course, if anyone needed any further reason for taking action, then when you celebrate the return of the cuckoos, wood warblers, pied flycatchers and swifts this spring, remember that they spend most of our winter on the edge of tropical forests of West Africa. These sub-Saharan migrants are rapidly declining and we need cooperation across the flyway to protect them. That's why the RSPB has joined forces with other BirdLife partners across the East Atlantic Flyway to build a powerful coalition for action.
I'll leave the final words to Tony...
"We know all we need to know... What it requires now is for all of us who are in a position to help to join in with this historic task. This is not only a call to action for company executives and government ministers, but all the rest of us, in looking carefully at who we vote for, what we and consume... There's no reason why we must continue to watch the inexorable decline of the tropical rainforests. We can save most of what is left and put back much of what's gone, if we want to."
“On behalf of the President... For the people of Liberia I officially launch the Grebo-Krahn and Gola Forest National Parks... These Parks are now officially open!”
With these words from Honourable Prince Tokpa, Chair of the Liberian Lower House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, two new national parks were launched yesterday. The second now connects to Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone protecting c160,000 hectares of the Upper Guinea forest - one of the top 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world and home to 60 species of global conservation concern including White-necked Picathartes and Gola Malimbe (pictured below).
Yesterday's launch was the culmination of a long campaign led by the brilliant Michael Garbo (pictured below), Executive Director of Society for National Conservation of Liberia (our BirdLife Partner, who the RSPB has supported for many years). Liberia is committed to protecting one million hectares of forest and yesterday's launch was a great step forward towards that goal.
My colleague Emily Woodfield, Head of the RSPB’s Tropical Forest Unit, is currently in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and sent me through a few images and quotes from the launch including from Michael who said,
“Today will go down in history and will always be remembered as the day the People of Gbarpolu and Grand Cape Mount Counties extended a hand of partnership to the Forest Development Authority to safeguard the National Park for the future and benefit of the people of Liberia and the world at large.
We recognise that today would not have been successful without the support of our partners (RSPB, Birdlife, Rainforest Trust, USAID, EU, World Bank and other international and local NGOs), we appreciate your efforts and ask you to please do more along with us to foster the partnership.”
My message to Michael is that the RSPB remains absolutely committed to supporting SCNL, the Liberian Government and their counterparts in Sierra Leone to deliver their vision. There is a great opportunity to protect up to 500,000 hectares through the Greater Gola Landscape and create a transboundary park that will set an example to the rest of the world.
Yet, as ever, the really hard work starts now.
During my visit to Gola earlier in the year, I saw the National Park boundary cut and met some of the rangers. Their work is essential to crack down on illegal activities within the Park – including poaching – and they need more support to build their capacity and capability to protect the forest.
Equally, outside of the Park, our work with local communities continues. As I wrote in February (here), our team has been training the community in beekeeping, rice, cocoa and groundnut farming. The idea is simple – improve production so people have enough food to live without relying on more forest-damaging extractive activities.
The work in Gola is hugely significant and symbolic of the global conservation challenge: to create more, bigger, better and connected protected areas while sustainably managing the environment beyond park boundaries. It's at the heart of what we and BirdLife do.
Congratulations to everyone involved and good luck with the next steps in protecting the Greater Gola Landscape.
here are some things that only governments can do to help protect the environment. These include actions such as introducing taxes or laws to deter or stop people doing bad things.
In recent years, voluntary approaches had become the preferred approach, yet I know of no environmental problem that has been resolved by voluntary means alone.
So, yesterday’s announcement that the UK Government is consulting on banning the sale of plastic straws and cotton buds was extremely welcome. This comes at a time that the Treasury is consulting on the role of taxation in tackling plastic pollution.
The UK Government is moving towards developing a more comprehensive strategy to tackle plastic pollution, and I am glad that environmental taxes or bans are back in vogue. There may also be the beginning of healthy rivalry between the UK Government and devolved administrations as different interventions are being rolled out and tested at different times. The challenge will be to learn from each other while giving clear signals to producers, retailers and consumers about the direction of travel.
Yesterday, I took part in a meeting with the Exchequer Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, to discuss options for taxes to tackle plastic pollution.
While plastic pollution is not the number one issue affecting wildlife (agriculture is the main driver of domestic and global species decline), it is a growing problem, public interest in rising and it is possible that pollution will compound existing threats facing wildlife.
For example, there is growing evidence of the effects of plastics on seabirds, including entanglement and ingestion, which can cause injury, starvation or reduced condition. While, marine litter has yet to be shown to be causing seabird population level declines (climate change, invasive non-native species and lack of sufficient protection at sea are the main issues with which we are grappling), at some of our coastal and island nature reserves we are seeing the impact.
At Grassholm, for example, a remote island off the Welsh coast, 18 tonnes of plastic debris have been recorded (because of discarded waste into the North Atlantic). This affects the gannet colony (boasting 36,000 pairs constituting 7% of the entire world population) as many birds and chicks get entangled in plastic and every October RSPB wardens work to free as many birds as possible helping to save the lives of 50 birds each year – a pretty depressing Groundhog Day for all those involved.
This is why the RSPB joined the UK Marine Litter Action Network (led by the Marine Conservation Society) to add its voice to the growing number of organisations concerned about marine litter. We welcome and supports the actions of its partner organisations to find practical solutions to addressing the issue of marine litter.
As a charity, we are also trying to find ways to reduce our own plastic pollution. For example, we have recently signalled that we shall move away from plastic towards potato starch wrappers for our Nature’s Home magazine. For many years, we have been successfully implementing a strategy for reducing the RSPB’s carbon footprint (especially from business travel and our built estate for example through a programme of investment in renewable energy and energy conservation measures). We are beginning to consider what other steps we might take to reduce plastic pollution as part of our wider strategy of waste reduction.
I am hopeful that the UK Government will develop a comprehensive strategy for ending plastic pollution. Interventions should be proportionate to the problem which means banning pointless plastics while taxing plastics at levels proportionate to their impact or recyclability.
If you have strong views on the subject you can read the government consultation here. Comments need to be sent in by 18 May.
And, while governments across the UK seek to develop the right strategy for plastics, I hope they look again at other forms of environmental pollution – from peat use in horticulture or pesticides and fertilizers in farming. Nature needs active governments to address growing environmental challenges.