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.
Six weeks ago, I made a mistake.
I was asked to take part in an event at RSPB Weekend – an adaptation of the TV quiz show, The Chase. The idea was that I would be the all-knowing Chaser up against contestants and the RSPB member audience.
“It'll be fun, the members will love it, you’ll be great”, I was told.
I had a nagging feeling that it might not be fun for me, that I might not be great and that the risk of personal humiliation was high. But I suppressed those fears and dutifully agreed to take part.
Our “Wild Goose Chase” took place on Friday night on the first day of RSPB Weekend and, you guessed, it didn’t go well. I found out what I think I knew already: that there are things that I just don’t know (such as old folk names for common sandpiper) and that there are things I know, but I forget (for example that Rathlin Island has an upside-down lighthouse).
I took those disappointments on the chin.
What annoyed me were the things that I should have known but didn’t. Why didn’t I know that white-tailed eagles disappeared from the UK in 1918 rather than 1818? If 1918, surely we’d be marking the centenary of this event by celebrating the remarkable recovery of this fabulous bird. Unknown to me at the time was that we had been celebrating its return, that we’d featured the story in Nature’s Home magazine and that Dave Sexton was going to be telling the story of Mull Eagles the next day – which he did rather brilliantly.
After a short period of self-flagellation about this, I decided to acknowledge my own inadequacy and accept that I don’t know everything that our charity is doing. Instead, I revelled in the fact that, as always, I learn a lot from RSPB Weekend. So, that’s how I spent my weekend – listening and learning.
Thanks to Ellie Owen, I now know that the volunteers contributing to the Puffarazi citizen science project (through 1,402 photos of puffins with fish in beaks allowing Ellie’s team to identify 12,000 items of prey) not only provided vital information about the red-listed puffin diet but their gift of time was worth £100,000. A montage of their work is shown below and I am delighted that we shall be repeating the survey this year.
Thanks to Rory Crawford, I now know that the number of seabirds being killed by gillnet fisheries (>400,000 seabirds a year mainly in the Baltic Sea) is more than longline and trawler fisheries combined. While mitigation methods are not as advanced as for reducing bycatch from longlining, fishermen and BirdLife International partners have a shared ambition to tackle the gillnet bycatch crisis. This gives us confidence that we should be to report positive progress soon.
Thanks to Jen Smart and her excellent talk about women in science, I now know that Darwin was not as enlightened as I thought. He once wrote in an 1882 letter to scientist and advocate for women’s rights Caroline Kennard: “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually”. I hope we all know that we have more to do to tackle our own conscious and unconscious biases.
Thanks to Paul Morrison and his groovy virtual reality headset, I now know what it is like to be immersed in Coquet Island’s roseate tern colony.
Thanks to Dave Sexton, I now know that I must visit Mull to see the white-tailed eagles – where the first eagle chick fledged in 1985 nearly ten years after the reintroduction project began on Rum. Today, Scotland boasts 118 pairs.
Thanks, as always, to the RSPB’s members, I know what I’ve known for a long time: they want us to remain passionate, ambitious and successful for nature.
And finally, thanks to my experience this weekend, I now know to avoid displaying my ignorance in public in the future. Well, I can but try.