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.
As the dust settles after last week’s launch, we’ve had time to consider more closely how the Westminster Government’s proposals for future governance arrangements after we leave the EU, fare against the tests that we set before its release.
You may have seen my initial response which outlined our serious concerns. We need an environment watchdog that can properly hold government and public bodies to account. Fundamental to this are robust and meaningful enforcement powers to bring about real remedy and recourse. That means the ability to apply appropriate sanctions including fines and the power to order environmental restoration. Without this, we’ll have enforcement only in name, and risk ending up with a system with far less bite than that of the European Commission and European Court of Justice: hardly the world-leading protection the Government promised.
This is why I believe that the proposals and options in the Government’s consultation fall seriously short. The Government’s preferred option is that the ultimate penalty the new body could issue would be “advisory notices”. Whilst these notices would request compliance with legislation, they would have no real teeth to compel that compliance and no additional backstop if they are ignored. Essentially, they’re merely a written ticking off.
Gannet by Danny Green (rspb-images.com)
Whilst there are other penalty options put forward in the document, there are no options to fine non-compliance or for the body to initiate or bring about legal proceedings itself. The consultation document repeats the Prime Minister’s promise in January for a “world-leading” watchdog, yet these proposals would not even adequately replace what we have now, let alone lead the world.
There are other concerning parts of the consultation. It aims to bring our important environmental principles into domestic policy, such as the polluter pays and precautionary principles which provide vital underpinning, direction and objectives to our environmental law. But the consultation provides no commitment to enshrine these principles in law. Without this robust, legal underpinning, ensuring consideration of them, they will lose meaning and effectiveness, weakening our environmental law.
And whilst recent rhetoric about environmental ambitions is laudable, the consultation proposals make no meaningful commitment to the aims and ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan. Without that we risk undermining the effectiveness of the Plan and the watchdog’s ability to deliver the ambition found within.
There are some positive parts of the consultation. It commits to a new ‘Environmental Principles and Governance Bill’, with a promise to introduce this before the summer next year. This will ensure that the new watchdog is set up using a robust Parliamentary process so that’s a tick against one of our tests. Likewise, the document outlines that the preferred option is for the body to be independently accountable to Parliament – again this is a plus (although the devil will be in the detail as to how this is set up and funded). And the consultation includes a complaints function for the new body - giving any citizen a vital opportunity to raise complaints about possible breaches of environmental law.
But there is clearly plenty of room for improvement and its now for us to make the case. The consultation asks some genuinely open questions for us to answer. We need to demonstrate the value of our environmental principles in underpinning our environmental law. We must show the real value of a watchdog with proper teeth to ensure that our laws are being properly upheld and followed, with meaningful sanctions if not. And the need for targets in legislation to help reverse declines in our species and habitats and support nature’s recovery.
Only then can the Westminster Government claim to have the “world-leading” watchdog promised by the Prime Minister and repeated in this consultation. Only then do we stand a chance of meeting the Westminster Government’s aims of leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it.
This is the moment to put in place something that could truly drive change, resulting in a healthier environment for us all. This is the moment to show how much nature matters to us all, and push the Westminster Government to show the world leadership they keep promising us. A failure to do so risks leaving our natural world, and ultimately us, in a much poorer state.
Do you want to be part of making that case, and push to secure a trusted green watchdog that genuinely protects the wildlife you love? We’ll be campaigning for this outcome so sign up here to find out how you can get involved.
Here is a lesson in the power of activism to deliver change. This week, Network Rail was forced to suspend their rail-side clearance operations during the bird breeding season thanks to the actions of a local resident. Below, my colleague Tony Whitehead (Communications Manager for the RSPB in the South West) tells the story which highlights what can happen when good people use their voice for nature.
For the past twenty years we have received hundreds of calls from all over the UK from concerned residents who have faced inappropriate rail-side vegetation clearance by Network Rail during the bird breeding season, on many occasions we have sprung to action informing the British Transport Wildlife Police and works have been stopped but not after considerable efforts by all concerned.
It was great earlier this week to be consulted directly by staff acting for the Minister of Transport, Jo Johnson, who had equally become concerned.
The concern, in part, had been prompted by press coverage of a particular issue in the sunny seaside town of Bournemouth, where local resident Ray Walton had, in his own words become “distraught” watching a team from Network Rail chop down dozens of trees near his house and more so when he discovered that this was happening all over the UK.
“I heard the noise of the chainsaws on the railway tracks behind my house this April. Running towards the sound I saw a group of men chopping down tree after tree, leaving nothing but tree stumps and wood chippings in their wake. Shockingly, this is taking place during spring nesting season when nesting birds are protected by the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside act. Either they are destroying nests, or they are chopping down the trees before the birds have a chance to nest - which is hardly any better.”
Ray contacted the RSPB’s Regional Office in the South West, and the local paper. We responded, providing supportive quotes, our hearts sinking yet again at another case of wanton destruction of nesting habitat in the nesting season. We also contacted the British Transport Police. Ray in the meantime took things further, starting a petition to “Stop Network Rail Chopping Down Millions of Trees!”. This clearly struck a chord, and today the number signed up stands at c66,000.
With all this interest, the story was picked up by the Guardian, who ran a piece, quoting Ray and detailing a number of other similar incidents, all involving the destruction of nesting habitat during the breeding season, and then attempting to detail the scale of the operation, both now and into the future. This brought the matter directly to the tables of both Defra and Department for Transport who in turn responded by calling on Network Rail to suspend its operations this season, and to review its work.
To say the least we were delighted! It demonstrated to us, once again, the power of individuals and communities standing up for nature where they live and, with the support of organisations such as ours, making a real difference.
The RSPB completely recognises the need for management of vegetation, especially if it's emergency work for urgent safety reasons. And we also recognise that judicious management of trees through selective felling and thinning can provide a habitat mix that is good for wildlife. But our call is, please, if it’s not an emergency, simply don’t do it during the breeding season when birds are nesting. Also, alongside minimizing harm, we’d call on National Rail to go further and maximise the value of their considerable land holding for wildlife.
Yesterday, a much-needed action plan was launched to save our most rapidly declining migratory bird: the turtle dove. The RSPB has worked for three years to get wide support for this plan and I am delighted to host this blog from my colleagues, Joscelyn Ashpole, Ian Fisher and Carles Carboneras, to say more.
Turtle doves are a sign of summer for many and iconic farmland birds. They’re also incredible long-distance migrants. Every spring, they make the journey northwards from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa to breed across Europe, returning to Africa in the autumn. On their journey, they cross landscapes far removed from the patchwork of fields and hedgerows that we mostly associate them with in the UK.
Over the past few decades, we have been losing this bird from its farmland haunts at a dramatic rate. Since 1995, the UK turtle dove population has undergone a 94% decline, and in other parts of Europe similarly stark declines are evident. The loss of turtle doves is now so significant that the species is considered Vulnerable to global extinction on the IUCN Red List.
For a bird that crosses so many borders, national conservation in isolation just isn’t enough. Cooperation is needed across the entire flyway to ensure that breeding, stopover and wintering habitats are all in good condition for this declining species.
The RSPB, in partnership with BirdLife International, has been working over the last three years to bring people together from across the turtle-dove’s European, eastern Mediterranean and African range, to develop a plan to save the species. The Action Plan was officially launched on Thursday at an event in Brussels. Representatives from 50 countries, from the Gambia to France to Russia, have been involved in fine tuning the actions that are most urgently needed to reverse turtle dove declines.
There is general acknowledgement that a loss of nesting, feeding and drinking habitats has been detrimental to turtle dove numbers and it is clear from reading the 130+ page Action Plan that work must happen right now to improve European breeding habitats if we are to halt further population declines. Key actions include: developing National Conservation Strategies for turtle-doves, creating Priority Intervention Areas where breeding habitats are specifically managed for turtle-doves, and ensuring that no measures that are detrimental are financed under the new EU Common Agricultural Policy framework.
While breeding habitat management is key, of course, actions must be taken elsewhere along the flyway to ensure safe passage of the species on its annual migration. In countries where it is legal to hunt the species, the Action Plan calls for a temporary suspension of hunting, under the precautionary principal, until Adaptive Harvest Management can be put in place to ensure that the level of take is compatible with the long-term conservation of the species. One of the highlights of the Action Plan has been to see conservationists and hunting organisations coming together to find solutions.
Other actions in the plan include ensuring that feeding, roosting and drinking habitats are available and in good condition on the wintering grounds.
Ian Fisher helping to launch the plan
We’re already doing great work in the UK
In the UK, a fantastic group of organisations (Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Fair to Nature and RSPB) is already working together under the banner of Operation Turtle Dove to find ways to help turtle-doves. Activities include research into drivers of decline and trialling management solutions, as well as advising landowners on how to provide suitable nesting and feeding habitats.
The next challenge will be to ensure that the UK government is serious about implementing key actions for turtle-doves identified in the Action Plan.
Looking to the future
Over the last three years, the turtle-dove has united people across borders, organisations and disciplines. It is vital that such collaboration continues so that the actions needed to save the species are put in place across the species’ range. In decades to come, our grand-children may then be able to know the turtle-dove as a common bird, much as our grand-parents did.
Carles Carboneras, Joscelyn Ashpole and Ian Fisher