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.
My evening of sadness watching England bow out of the World Cup last night was flanked by two very uplifting days.
Today, colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute were in Cambridge to explore how best to build on the success of Earth Optimism in 2017. These events were underpinned by the belief that the conservation sector should spend more time talking about the work we have done improving the natural world not just about the decline in wildlife populations that we have detected.
Recognising that most people are more likely to be inspired to act if presented with solutions (which is why we embarked on our ‘Giving Nature a Home’ campaign), the Earth Optimism events were an opportunity to showcase conservation successes and demonstrate what can be achieved.
While we were reflecting on what we might do in the run up to the crucial global biodiversity talks in 2020, I was mulling over the conservation successes in which the RSPB has played a part: from recovering threatened species, to saving special place and to influencing change in public policy to benefit nature.
This includes the work we have done in the Lower Aire Valley on the doorstep of Leeds which is where I was yesterday – paying a visit to our Fairburn Ings and St Aidan’s nature reserves.
Working, as ever, with a range of partners, our team has helped transform a landscape that was previously dominated by the coal industry. Evidence of its industrial past hits you as soon as you arrive at St Aidan’s as you are confronted by a massive Dragline machine (used as part of coal extraction which took place up until 2003) on show next to the visitor centre. Now, thanks to the work we have done with UK Coal, the Environment Agency and Leeds City Council, we have created a 400 hectare wetland nature park underpinned by its own Act of Parliament.
It is a very impressive site which works for wildlife and people – not just because of all the recreational benefits but also because of the role it plays in flood protection. As tested in the 2015 floods (and shown in the images below), St Aidan’s can store 7.5 million m3 of flood water and reduce the downstream flood peak by 400mm protecting homes in Allerton Bywater, Castleford and surrounding villages.
These landscapes are not transformed by accident. They require politicians (both local and national) not just believing in the role that this ‘green infrastructure’ can play in helping people and wildlife, but also putting in place the direction and support to make it possible. The RSPB has the expertise to turn visions into reality and the efforts of the team are rewarded for example with the arrival of breeding spoonbill, bitterns (two of the species we saw yesterday) and black-necked grebes (a species that we sadly didn’t see).
Successful projects like these serve as a reminder of what can be achieved and should be showcased to others (including perhaps at a future Earth Optimism Event).
And finally, if for any reason (football or otherwise) you need a boost, find an excuse to visit the Lower Aire Valley. I guarantee it’ll make you feel better.
John Bridges image of a bittern flying over a reedbed is reminiscent of the display we had yesterday at St Aidan's (rspb-images.com)
St Aiden's is great. I visited for the first time a few weeks ago. It is hard to feel optimistic though, Because for all the good work the RSPB and other nature conservation organisations do, many other natural areas, notably agricultural places and those managed by local authorities, are suffering from lack of attention. The other pressing issue is that of nitrogen pollution (and other elements that add fertility to soil and water) favouring the spread of fast-growing, luscious, invasive species at the expense of less robust species.
Wouldn't it be great if most people were able to be close to places like this ? The Natural Capital Committee recommendation that there should be 250,000 hectares of new Community Forest around our towns and cities seems to have gone unheeded by the conservation community - I haven't seen it mentioned at all in nature's Home, for example. Yet projects like this show the value - and are the sort of thing NCC has based its economics on. Perhaps its because 'Forest' isn't seen as anything to do with wetland nature reserves - but it should be, it's much more than just a few trees - a complete varied landscape, with the potential of turning our abused and eroded greenbelts into the sort of positive places once imagined, rather than the negative planning block they seem to have become.
More terrific work RSPB. I do so agree it is very important to demonstrate the achievements in order to show, by example, how difficult conservation work ahead might also be successful. I also think the Giving Nature a Home campaign has been a very great success in broadening the appeal of the RSPB.