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.
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.