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.
Whatever your views on Brexit, it can be easy to get ground down by the current uncertainty. For farming and wildlife in particular, the future is far from clear. It is at times like this then that we need to top up our reserves of hope and optimism in order to keep our eyes on the end goal of a countryside richer in nature, alongside profitable and productive farming.
After attending the Greener UK and Wildlife & Countryside Link Parliamentary Farmers Market on Wednesday, it’s safe to say that my optimism tank has been topped up. In a hot Members Dining Room overlooking the Thames, farmers and conservationists met with MPs and Peers to make the case for farming with nature at its heart. In a packed room that was buzzing with good conversations (and a farmland bird soundtrack), members of the Commons and Lords streamed in to hear from farmers directly about how it is possible to farm and manage their land with wildlife in mind as well as producing high quality food. And many if not all of them will have gone away with a goody bag of nature-friendly produce to prove it.
There were speeches from Neil Parish MP, the new National Trust Director-General Hilary McGrady, and an impromptu pitch from Thérèse Coffey (who it was great to see back after a period of illness and who also returned to the lectern later in the evening to inform the audience that Germany had been knocked out of the World Cup).
I particularly enjoyed hearing from David Corrie-Close (pictured below) of the Horned Beef Company and Vice Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network about his mission to farm with nature, and the personal, as well as professional reasons why this is so important to him. Remembering that at the heart of every farm are people with their own personal motivations is something that we as conservationists need to constantly remind ourselves of if we’re to get through to the other side of Brexit with a positive outcome for people, farming and wildlife.
And that personality was in abundance on Wednesday, as farmers from across the UK recounted the many different ways that they deliver for the wildlife and the environment. Seeing MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum, and from both Government and Opposition front benches, also gave me hope that there is political interest in getting the right outcome. Hopefully, this event will have gone some way toward converting that interest into political will, which we will need in spades ahead of the tabling of an Agriculture Bill at Westminster, expected either before, or just after the summer.
So, heading into another sunny weekend – although many farmers will be hoping that it isn’t as they need the rain – I go into it with renewed hope for a better future, reinvigorated to ensure that the RSPB does all that it can to get there. I’m also reminded though that there is strength in numbers, and that working with others, both established partners, but more importantly farmers from different sectors and countries, is more important now than ever, and more powerful than ever too.
So if you’re in need of an optimism boost for Friday, check out the #FarmingForNature hashtag on Twitter. Or, if you have five minutes, get a complete refill by listening to David’s speech to the room on Wednesday evening.
Images courtesy of Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The thing that strikes me about these farmers is that you have to be a very good farmer before you start to think about supporting wildlife. Despite the public image of 'rich farmers' farming is tough, and getting tougher even before we face the aftermath of Brexit. Whilst I strongly disagree with the idea that the countryside belongs to farming and that food production is all that matters, farming will always have a pivotal role in the nature of our countryside - we all - led by RSPB - need to pitch in behind these farmers to ensure that they are able not just to go on doing their great work, but to do even better.