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.
We’ve had a challenge today about some of our practices. Some of the claims we don’t believe to be true. This blog is our response and explains our approach where predator management is concerned. Making the decision to employ legal, lethal methods of predator control is never easy. In fact, it’s a practise we go to great lengths to avoid until we can see no other viable conservation alternatives and when the need is sufficiently great. In the case of saving the curlew, unfortunately that’s where we are. Our biggest wader is in serious trouble. Since the mid-1990s the breeding population of Eurasian curlews in the UK has halved. This decline has global implications as the UK is home to more than a quarter of the world’s breeding curlews. Vast tracts of moorland, rough pasture and hay meadows, which once rang to the sound of the rising, bubbling cries of these birds have fallen silent. The main reason for the decline is that too few pairs of curlew are producing sufficient young to maintain numbers. This is primarily due to changes in land management (agricultural practices and conversion to forestry), which has made curlew much more vulnerable to predation.Recovering the curlew is a high priority for the RSPB so we are undertaking a five-year recovery programme to improve the conservation prospects for the species It includes a science-led project to test the combination of habitat management and predator control interventions to inform the development of ‘curlew-friendly’ land management options across the wider landscape. Working with a range of partners, the trial management is being undertaken across six key areas in the UK: two in Scotland, two in Northern England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. The sites represent a mixture of RSPB reserves and privately-owned land. Eastern Moors, managed jointly by the National Trust and RSPB is one such trial site. Read more about the curlew Trial Management Project here.Working with experienced, professional contractors who can carry out the predator control as expertly as possible is key for us. We follow a rigorous recruitment procedure to check that our contractors have the required skills and qualifications, and to ensure they have no history of criminal activity involving wildlife. They are required to keep detailed records of the predator control they undertake, which they share with the RSPB on a weekly basis.In the short-term there are no non-lethal options available because the curlew is a widely dispersed species so options like predator fencing are not going to work across the wide expanses of the uplands that curlew inhabit. In the longer term, if we are to have any impact on the species, it will require working together with farmers, land-managers, other conservation organisations and communities to encourage the widespread adoption of curlew friendly land-management practices across the landscape. This includes working with land managers to reduce forest edge effects (forests provide cover for predators) and to improve habitat through changes to grazing regimes, as well as reducing the release of vast numbers of game birds into the countryside, as these may act as a major food source for foxes, so could contribute to the high number of predators currently present in the UK countryside.I know this is a hugely emotive and sometimes controversial subject. I know that not everyone is happy with this course of action. In fact, sometimes we’re not either. But in this case – based, as always, on scientific evidence – it’s what we think is needed. We always do our best to be honest and transparent with everything we do, including publishing an annual blog on the predator control we carry out as part of our work.
This summer, I have visited different parts of the organisation hearing about and seeing some of the great work that we are doing: from seabird protection through to moorland restoration. And this week, I am with my colleagues in the South West of England who recently reported the fabulous news about how we have boosted the population of the little tern colony at Chesil Beach in Dorset in partnership with Chesil Bank and Fleet Nature Reserve, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Portland Court Leet, Crown Estate. As always, it is hugely inspiring talking to colleagues about the impact for nature they are having with partners.
And last Thursday, I didn't have to go far to be inspired. I walked into the canteen at the RSPB's Headquarters to find a delegation from China on one table and one from Liberia on another. The former included six members of the Jiangsu Yancheng World Heritage Application team who were keen to explore how we can collaborate on coastal wetland conservation on the Yellow Sea to protect species like spoon-billed sandpiper. The latter was working with the RSPB tropical forest team and colleagues from TWIN to develop options for sustainable cocoa farming which as we are demonstrating in Sierra Leone can be crucial to both protecting forests like Gola and providing sustainable livelihoods for those that live there.
It was a great reminder not only of the scale of ambition that we have but also of our absolute determination to find willing partners with whom we can work to find lasting solutions to 21st century conservation problems. As my colleague Nicola Crockford reported on twitter last week, news from China was very, very encouraging. While the delegation from Yancheng was flying to Britain last Wednesday, the Chinese State Council issued a Circular on Strengthening the Protection of Coastal Wetlands & Strictly Controlling Reclamation. There's loads of great stuff in there but in short, the circular gives a massive boost to coastal wetland protection and restoration two years before China hosts the crucial 2020 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (when new global ambition for nature will be set). It is a welcome sign that the Chinese Government is prepared to take action at home to reinforce its global leadership ambitions.
And that's what we need from more countries. For example, we need the Scottish Government to do the right thing and reject the application for a golf course to be built on Coul Links - a site that is internationally important for wildlife. In England, we need to save Lodge Hill (our most important site for nightingales) from development. In Wales, we need to save the Gwent Levels from the M4 extension. In Northern Ireland, of which 75% is farmed, we need a new agriculture policy with environment at the heart of it so that nature and wildlife can thrive in our countryside.
Leadership for nature requires strong ambition to be backed by coherent and consistent action. The UK Government has rightly been applauded for its stated desire to restore nature in a generation and it is good to see the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, back this up with last week by helping to release of beavers in to the Forest of Dean. Yet, bigger tests are still to come. Governments need to grip both the detail and the big picture. So, not only do we need to move away from granting licenses to trial brood management for hen harriers (on which we heard today that the RSPB has been granted permission for a judicial review challenging Natural England's decision), but we also need more environmental substance (laws, enforcement powers, funding etc) in the UK Government proposals for life outside of the European Union.
I shall say more about these things next week.
For now though, I am off to find those peregrines that distracted me while in a meeting this afternoon in Exeter.
I am sorry to have been so quiet over the past week or so – the hot weather has slowed me down – which is why I am little late commenting on the fact that the Prime Minister has now promised an Environment Bill.
This news arrived after some knife-edge Brexit votes and as Westminster was beginning to wind down business for the summer break. The Prime Minister was in front of the Liaison Committee (the committee made up of chairs of all other committees) when she made the announcement which was later confirmed in a tweet from Downing Street.
Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
This was reported as the first specific Westminster Environment Act since 1995, though in that time we have seen the introduction of several good pieces of environmental protection legislation, for example the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000), the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006), the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2008) and the Climate Change Act (2008). Though originally asked about her plans to bring forward legislation on clean air specifically, the Prime Minister announced that it was the Government’s intention to look wider, stating “I want to be a little more ambitious than simply introducing a clean air Act…we can be ambitious in this, and become the first Government since 1995 to introduce an environment Bill”.
We don’t yet have any detail on scope let alone content of the Bill, but the urgency for action is clear. The announcement of a new Bill came the day before the Office of National Statistics released its annual report on UK biodiversity indicators. This, as ever, is a wonderful piece of work reinforcing the world-class evidence we collate about the state of the natural world. However, it also serves as an annual reminder that we are failing to halt the loss of wildlife (for example, look at the farmland bird index or the threatened species index), protect our finest sites (for example, look at the favourable condition of SSSIs which has flatlined for nearly a decade at just over 30%) or invest sufficient public funds to drive its restoration (the report highlights the 17% real-term decline in public sector funding for domestic nature conservation over the past five years). What’s more, as starkly demonstrated by this summer’s heat wave, there is an urgent need to find new ways to help wildlife adapt to more extreme weather brought about by climate change.
It is therefore great to see UK Government recognising the challenges facing the natural environment and showing intent to tackle them.
However, the Prime Minister’s plans haven’t got off to the best start, as the Environmental Audit Committee have published their report on the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment today. This report included looking at the current Government proposals in their consultation on an Environmental Principles and Governance Bill. The view of the committee is clear; the current proposals are not strong enough to deliver on the Government’s commitments set out in the 25 Year Plan.
The report stated that “The Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment signals a cross-government ambition for the restoration and recovery of the natural environment. This is both welcome and necessary. Worryingly, however, it lacks details of how these objectives will be achieved. The Government needs urgently to bring forward details on targets, implementation, governance and funding before the publication of the draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill. Legislation will be required to implement the Plan’s key proposals and to ensure it has a lasting impact.”
The commitment to an Environment Bill must be welcomed, but the ambitious intent must turn into equally ambitious legislation. Once it completes its passage through Parliament, the Environment Act must include robust targets for recovery of our nature, soil, water and air, all underpinned by strong enforcement methods to hold government to account. Only then do we stand a change of reversing decades of decline and help wildlife adapt to a more hostile climate.
Here's hoping everyone has a chance to rest and recharge their batteries during the summer holiday. When Parliament returns in September, environmental NGOs stand ready to work with civil servants and politicians to develop world leading Environment Bill to drive the restoration of nature.