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.
Before I headed north on leave for a couple of weeks, I helped celebrate Hen Harrier Day at RSPB Rainham Marshes today. It was a fabulous event and I was delighted to join a great line of speakers (Ruth Tingay, Natalie Bennett, Barry Gardiner, Mark Avery and Chris Packham). This is (roughly) what I said...
I want to start by saying thank you.
Thank you to the founders of Hen Harrier Day for giving us the opportunity for people to take stand.
Thank you to the organisers of today’s event here at Rainham for bringing the sunshine and allowing us all to make our voices heard.
Thank you all for turning up and showing you care about the plight of hen harriers and demand change.
Thank you to a nine year old Isabell Haskell who, inspired by the story of hen harriers, raised more than £500 for charity (with half going to the RSPB) by cutting off her hair!
Thank you to the incredible work of the RSPB Investigations team for working tirelessly with the police to catch criminals who continue to persecute our birds of prey.
And a massive thank you to those that have spent their summer protecting hen harrier nests day and night. I am delighted that, this year, their dedication has been rewarded by a more positive hen harrier breeding season in England: 9 nests and over 30 chicks.
One of the RSPB’s founders, Etta Lemon, established the first ‘watchers’ at key breeding sites (for species such as hen harriers) in the early twentieth century. As Tessa Boase has described in her fabulous book about the origins of the RSPB (Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather), Mrs Lemon was an indefatigable campaigner and I think she would be outraged that more than one hundred years later, we still have to protect hen harrier nests around the clock.
We all dream of the day when 24/7 monitoring of hen harrier nests is a thing of the past, that changes have happened that mean it is no longer necessary. Only then will we know that we have learnt to live alongside hen harriers and that their future is secure.
Sadly, this won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen unless we continue to campaign for change. That is what the RSPB’s foremothers taught us. They ran a thirty year campaign against “murderous millinery” and the global plumage trade. And they didn’t rest until they secured what they wanted – the ban on the plumage trade through the passage of the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act 1921.
The good news is that things are shifting. In Scotland, there is a real prospect of gamebird licensing and in England, while the political context is very different, there are few outside of the die-hard grouse shooting industry who now defend the status quo.
The hen harrier has rightly become totemic. Because of illegal killing, it remains at risk of extinction as a breeding species in England – something that this government promised to prevent. The parlours state of our hen harrier population is a stark reminder that we are failing to live in harmony with nature.
"Living in harmony with nature" is the ultimate goal of the Convention of Biological Diversity that was conceived at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In 2010, the UK Government signed up to 20 CBD targets including to stop species extinctions.
In just over two years, world leaders will gather in China to report on how well we are doing against these targets designed to restore nature. We want the UK Government to report positive progress. A key test of success will be what is happening in our hills, and especially the fate of species like the hen harrier.
All of us attending Hen Harrier Day events across the country are sending a powerful message to landowners and politicians that the public demands urgent reform of the way our hills are managed.
And to deliver the change we want, we must remain united. I know that we all have different views about how best to secure that change – some seek a ban in grouse shooting, we propose licensing. But we are united in wanting reform.
Those of us that work for the RSPB follow in Etta Lemon’s footsteps which is why I urge you to remember what made those early campaigners successful: remain passionate, be persistent and above all remain united in our demand for more hen harriers and an end to the illegal killing of our fabulous birds of prey.
A guest blog from Chris Corrigan - the RSPB's Director of England.
Last summer we reported that many young lesser black-backed gulls had been killed at a breeding colony in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland. Because the gulls were part of a nationally (and indeed internationally) important population, any such actions would have required special consent from Natural England. However, there were questions as to whether a valid consent existed for this cull, particularly because the culling happened on land owned by United Utilities, so an investigation began. It has taken more than a year to conclude the investigation but Natural England has now responded by issuing a Compliance Notice – essentially a slapped wrist in the form of a legal document – against the Grosvenor (Abbeystead) Estate.
The Forest of Bowland - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
The Compliance Notice makes it clear that consents were not in place for the actions that took place, and that the killing of the gulls by the Estate was unlawful. Natural England could have chosen to prosecute for offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however, it has instead opted to issue the Abbeystead Estate with a gentle reprimand, reminding them of the legal position and basically telling them not to do it again. We’d hoped for a stronger response.
However, there are some positives to take from Natural England’s response, besides the fact that the Estate was at least found to have acted unlawfully. The Notice publicly recognises the national and international importance of the lesser black-backed gull colony on the Bowland Fells, highlighting that this is now England’s largest breeding colony. It also confirms that the 2017 culling of these gulls was inconsistent with the nature conservation objectives in place which aim to ensure the species can thrive at this important breeding site. Although this might not sound like ground-breaking news, these statements are important.
They are important because, despite Natural England having provided Defra with the evidence to demonstrate the international importance of the lesser black-backed gull colony at Bowland nearly four years ago, the gulls have still not been added as a qualifying feature to the Bowland Fells Special Protection Area (SPA); a move that would which give the gulls the highest level of protection. And this is important because, while the review of the Bowland Fells SPA has been sitting on Defra’s desk, some of the Bowland Estates (including Abbeystead) have been able to continue to use historic consents that allow them to kill unlimited numbers of lesser black-backed gulls on their land. In the past, these consents have allowed the killing of such vast numbers of gulls that their population at Bowland was reduced from 25,000 pairs (in 1981) to fewer than 8000 pairs (in 1985); something that Natural England might, on review, logically consider is inconsistent with the protection of a nationally and internationally important population.
In short, Defra needs to take urgent action to review the Bowland Fells SPA and confirm lesser black-backed gull as a feature of international importance on this site. Can they turn the positive rhetoric into positive practice?
This would then trigger a review of the existing consents to kill gulls on the Abbeystead Estate, and remove any precedent for further consents being issued to other Bowland Estate managers to cull this most important colony. Allowing continued culling of this declining species is sending out all the wrong signals from these Government bodies who should be focusing on ensuring the recovery of lesser black-backed gulls at this, the single most important site in England for them.
Origins are important. Knowing where you come from helps explain who you are today and can offer clues as to where need to get to in the future.
My backstory explains why I do what I do. As a child, I was encouraged to look at the natural world differently by my Mum (a biology teacher) and was injected with a puritanical zeal thanks to my father (a vicar). It was probably inevitable that I would end up working in nature conservation.
But origins are also important for organisations.
So, it was an absolute joy to read Tessa Boase’s excellent book “Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather” which weaves together the backstories of two movements – women's suffrage and bird protection - and two women Emmeline Pankhurst and Etta Lemon. The latter was, along with three others (Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and the Duchesss of Portland), instrumental in establishing our charity known today as the RSPB.
To mark the centenary of the right for some women to vote in the UK, Alison Enticknap wrote a brilliant blog about the complex relationship between the RSPB and the suffrage movement and about the different campaigning tactics used. This was all new to me.
In fact, while reading the book, I kept on finding stuff that I just didn’t know (such as the fact that neutrality on the ethics of shooting was written into our constitution in 1896 nearly a decade before the Society for the Protection of Birds achieved its Royal Charter) or that challenged my assumptions about the RSPB’s history (that the men in the famous picture with placards telling the story of the egret weren’t RSPB supporters rather they were hired for the job – essentially providing paid for advertising).
It also struck me (and I know that I should have thought this before) that the RSPB’s first campaign was focused on what we might categorise today as addressing the global environmental footprint of UK consumption i.e. by reducing the number of birds that were killed around the world to fuel the fashion for wearing wild birds and their feathers in women’s hats. And, it was noticeable that a network of like-minded groups such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society sprung up in other countries around this time.
As I have written previously, UK consumption remains a major challenge. While the supply chains may have become more complex, evidence shows that we are still living beyond planetary limits (as demonstrated by greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change) and our own consumption (of commodities such as beef, paper, soy and cocoa) are driving deforestation which affects some of the most threatened birds (and other species) on earth. This is why the RSPB will continue, for example through our work on developing rainforest friendly chocolate, to find ways to reduce the footprint of UK consumption.
Of course, the RSPB’s origins are also marked by success with the passage of the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act in 1921. Yes, the campaign took over thirty years, but Etta Lemon et al stuck at it and ultimately achieved what we aspire to do today – change the way that society relates to nature. As today's publication of the video of peregrine persecution filmed in Bowland shows, even though we now have much stronger legal protection for wildlife (thanks to generations of RSPB campaigning), we still have a huge amount to do to change people's attitudes and behaviours.
The RSPB has evolved over 130 years reflecting our own growth and the changing pressures on the natural world. And to be successful in the future, we need to keep on evolving.
With the support of our amazing 1.2 million members, we will continue to use evidence to drive practical conservation, to shape our work with others to influence public policy to benefit nature and to inspire more people to become active for nature. This will help us meet our ambitious plans to transform landscapes, protect the marine environment, recover threatened species and engage people both here in the UK, in the 14 UK Overseas Territories and working with our BirdLife partners across the African-European flyway.
All of this is underpinned by the same passion and dedication of our foremothers. And that is what I believe will drive our success over the next 130 years.
Picture of avocet courtesy of Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)