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.
If, like me, you have been on holiday during part of August, you may have struggled to keep up with the news. To help you get back up to speed, I have listed below my pick of the best stories from the past few weeks. It's amazing what has happened in just a short space of time. These serve as a reminder that despite the huge pressures on the natural world, by working with partners, the RSPB continues to have a huge impact for species, for sites and for people. Many congratulations to all involved in these projects.
Record breaking year for the UK's rarest seabird: while sitting in my hut on a cliff opposite Coquet Island last week, we shared the news that the roseate tern, has enjoyed its most successful nesting season in the last 40 years with 118 pairs raising chicks at the Northumberland site.
Important milestone in battle to save Coul Links: after a great joint campaign, Scottish Ministers have “called-in” plans for a golf course at Coul Links near Embo, East Sutherland after deciding that the case is of ‘national importance’.
Project Godwit success: out of 55 black-tailed godwit eggs saved from muddy flooded fields in the Fens, 38 chicks have been fledged in captivity this year.
Agri-environment scheme success in Northern Ireland: a new RSPB study has shown that populations of three key farmland bird species (yellowhammers, house sparrows and tree sparrows) increased over a five-year period in response to an agri-environment scheme (AES), according to a study by the RSPB.
Game-keeper found guilty of illegally killing short-eared owls: on Tuesday, our Investigations team reported the successful conviction of a game-keeper for shooting short-eared owls on a grouse moor on Whernside.
The new Sherwood visitor centre opens: in time for the Robin Hood Festival which has been running this week, the £5 million centre is complete, offering visitors new experiences and insights into the iconic site which is home to over 1,000 ancient oaks.
New study highlights dramatic decline in mountain hare population: a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology shows that Scotland's mountain hare population is at just 1% of 1950s level due to large-scale culling.
A new collaboration to save albatrosses: Albatross Task Force teams in Chile and Argentina have joined forces to crack down on seabird bycatch in South America.
30th anniversary of Birdfair: once again loads of money was raised for conservation - this time the focus was on helping Argentina create its largest protected area providing a refuge for nearly a million flamingos and shorebirds.
I look forward to sharing more good news soon.
Today, I am delighted to host a blog from our Vice-President, Chris Packham. Below, Chris explains why he wants all of us to support The People's Walk for Wildlife on 22 September. I'll be there - will you?
56%. It says 56%.
I think back to 1970, I think about what I was doing in 1970, what happened in 1970. I remember Apollo 13, I remember Bobby Moore’s bracelet and Gordon Bank’s save. And that damned Mungo Gerry song. It seems like yesterday, going to see Kelly’s Heroes. But since that yesterday yellowhammers have declined by 56%. Almost half of the UK’s yellowhammers are gone.
I’m sat in my caravan on the Springwatch set waiting for the morning meeting to start and I’m looking at some notes. They say “we’ve lost 56% of our yellowhammers”. Except that isn’t true. Because its not like these birds have mysteriously disappeared into the ether, like they’ve been inadvertently misplaced, like they’ve annoyingly, accidentally vanished. They haven’t been ‘lost’, they are dead, or they don’t exist. Destroyed is the word. Our ‘little bits of bread with no cheeses’ have been destroyed. Their hedgerows have been ripped up and their food has been poisoned, since The Goodies, in my lifetime, whilst I was meant to have been looking after them - they’ve gone. It’s my fault. I’ve failed. I’ve let millions of yellowhammers die.
I look up the IUCN Red List website on my phone. It says ‘the species suffers indirectly from the use of insecticides and herbicides, as these reduce the abundance of arthropods and the availability of weedy patches rich in seeds (Perkins et al. 2002, Morris et al. 2005, Hart et al. 2006). And then I walk to the meeting and look out into the countryside. Nothing buzzes, no flowers speck the fields, there’s no bread and no cheese.
They are all talking, and someone is saying that the yellowhammer population on one of the farms has significantly increased because the farmer has been doing good things. So all’s not lost then, that’s okay, good, great, phew.
No, it’s ***. We are orchestrating an ecological apocalypse in our own back yard and for all the work done by good farmers and conservationists our ‘green and pleasant land’ is going to hell fast and we’ve got the data, the science, the graphs to prove it. The truth is we can make a difference, but we’re not, because what we are doing is piecemeal, tiny, inconsequential in the face of the ruthless and relentless agricultural monster which ploughs, pollutes and poisons our so-called countryside. Neither are we repelling the greedy concreting sprawl of our towns and cities or stopping the senseless slaughter of ever decreasing species for fun.
By the time I get back to the caravan I’m a very angry man. And for me anger is an energy, a fuel to be harnessed and re-directed into making a difference. So, I weigh up some options for a full five seconds and then decide its time to take to the streets. The People’s Walk for Wildlife.
Because it’s not my fault that the yellowhammers are dead, the foxes are hunted, the badgers are culled, the eagles are shot, the meadows are vacant, and they are cutting down all of Sheffield’s street trees. It’s not down to me that there are just three ‘no-take’ zones in our seas, that the uplands are barren, the farms are toxic, that children don’t meet wildlife anymore, that there are so few black birders. It’s our fault. Mine and yours. So, if I do something, that’s ‘me’, but if you do something too that’s ‘we’, and if there’s a whole load of ‘we’ then that’s a full bladder and something will have to be done. And quickly. So let’s walk.
By lunchtime I’ve got this idea that people could download an MP3 of yellowhammer song, nightingale song, and play it on their phones as they walk through London to remind us of the missing millions, the 44 million birds that have been destroyed in our countryside. Then I scribble a quick sketch for a poster and then I ring Patrick Barkham and he thinks a good idea and then I mail Robert Macfarlane and he is excited too. And that night I lie awake remembering the ‘Rock Against Racism’ carnival in 1978 when 100,000 people marched to Victoria Park and The Clash played ‘White Riot’ and the ground shook and my life was never the same again. I remember Billy Bragg saying that he was there, and his world changed too. So I sit up in bed and re-write one of his songs and ponder about having the balls to actually send it to him. I can’t sleep because I’m imagining Billy Bragg on a stage singing about Rachel Carson and loads of people ‘unsilencing spring’ with their mobile phones playing birdsong. It’s already beyond the point of no-return.
Three days later the date is set. And then the overall purpose begins to focus. I’m at home with Scratchy, in the lounge designing another poster and I draw a big heart and write ‘See The Bigger Picture. We Are United Because We Love Life – All Life’. It’s obvious to me that, for all our energies, passions, skills and endeavours, our simple failing is that we are disconnected. That we are all too focused on our own specialisms, too sure that they are the most important thing, that they, that we, can ‘save the world’ on our own. But we can’t. If those of us who campaign to stop the illegal persecution of raptors succeed, will that stop the decline in hedgehogs or water voles? If we finally stop fox hunting will that help restore our wildflower meadows? If we sort out the ludicrous mowing of our road verges will that help re-introduce the beaver? No. Not independently, but if we can just open our eyes for a moment, put our egos in a box, stop bickering over details, summon the courage to admit the truth about what is really wrecking our landscape and just SEE THE BIGGER PICTURE, then together we can make a real, a big enough difference. If we stop mumbling about ‘loss’, if we wake up to the fact that we have somehow normalised living without wildlife, if we collectively realise that it’s now or never, that our wildlife needs us, and needs us more than ever, then we can have our ‘little bits of bread and cheese’ back and a bright yellow bird will stir hearts from hedgerows again.
So please, whoever you are, get off your *** and join us on September 22nd in London and help us make the ground shake because we need to change the world now.
While on holiday last week, I re-read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, it exposed the destruction of wildlife through the widespread use of pesticides and arguably inspired the modern environment movement.
It remains a compelling read (similar in style to that of a modern dystopian novel but one based on facts rather than fiction) and provides a sobering reminder of what happens when humans fail to understand how their actions impact the natural world.
Most of the chemicals that Rachel Carson wrote about more than 50 years ago have long since been banned, but land management has continued to change as have wildlife populations: the UK Government’s farmland bird index has declined by 54% since 1970 and the farmland butterfly index has declined by 41% since 1976. In fact, evidence points agriculture as the biggest driver of biodiversity decline both in the UK (and globally).
It’s not just about butterflies and little brown jobs though. Evidence of invertebrate collapse, doomsday climate change projections and costs associated with soil degradation - £1.2 billion per year in England and Wales alone – suggest we are undermining the very natural capital that future food production depends upon.
That is why I have been enthusiastic about government proposals to reform agriculture policy in England after the UK has left the European Union. Getting the regulations and incentives right in a future policy will be crucial for the future of wildlife.
So, it was deeply concerning to come back from my holiday to hear rumours that the Government was thinking of watering down the previously unequivocal focus on payments for public goods – those things we need, such as wildlife and clean water, but which we can’t pay for at the till.
The cirl bunting population has had a eight-fold increase and shows what can be achieved when farmers, conservationists and nature work together supported by the right subsidy scheme (photo credit Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Last week, we joined forces with 54 other organisations (with farming, environment, food and public health interests) to sign a letter to the Prime Minister (attached at the bottom of this blog) welcoming her clear commitment to focusing public funds in return for public goods, such as biodiversity, animal welfare and public access.
Such a breadth of support for the Government’s position should leave them in no doubt how many different sectors and interests are counting on them to come good on their commitments to reform. Many in the farming community, represented by some of the organisations that signed this letter, are counting on government to provide them with the support to secure their long-term productivity by improving their soils, restoring pollinators and other beneficial insects, and taking steps to improve the management of shared water resources.
A public goods approach to future farming and land management policies in across the UK is essential to create a countryside rich in wildlife and underpin the credibility of the Government’s 25-year environment plan. An independent assessment of funding need (commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and the RSPB) suggests that at least £2.3 billion will be needed per year for environmental land management alone across the UK, 450% more than is spent on existing agri-environment schemes.
Yet this public goods approach is also essential to build the resilience of farming and food production to the inevitable environmental change that we all face now, and in the future.
As I said on this morning's Today Programme, this is the opportunity to create a different future for food, farming and wildlife.
As we look forward then to the Agriculture Bill and the policy statement that we expect to be published with it, we hope that rumours of a change in direction are just that - rumours. The Government’s consultation document in the Spring provided welcome clarity by saying that a new agricultural policy should be “…underpinned by payment of public money for the provision of public goods” and stating that the “…principal public good we want to support in future is environmental protection and enhancement”. I suspect that the 44,000 responses to that consultation largely agreed with this approach.
If we are not to fall at the final hurdle, the Agriculture Bill and policy statement will need to reflect this clarity in order to give farmers the confidence they need to plan for a transition to a future where they will be supported for delivering public goods.
I’ll leave the final words to Rachel Carson whose words in 1962 continue to resonate today:
“We stand now where two roads diverge… The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road… offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”