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.
For a number of years the breeding population of hen harrier has been on the brink – even failing to breed in England in 2013.
The RSPB had been part of an Environment Council-led process to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and grouse moor management. It was clear that, while providing a forum for increased understanding between different groups, this had not resulted in the necessary action: a different approach was therefore needed. In May 2012 (see here) we wrote to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders, including landowning and shooting organisations. Later on that year I published a blog by my colleague, Jude Lane, about the death of a hen harrier known as Bowland Betty. It was an emotional report from someone working on the front line of hen harrier conservation and even prompted a call to Jude from the then Environment Minister, Richard Benyon. That phone call and subsequent conversations with Defra officials gave us the belief that they recognised the seriousness of the issue. And it’s one of the reasons why we stuck with the difficult debate on the Action Plan. Today, after challenging and lengthy negotiations, this plan is published. You can read it here.
Image courtesy of Guy Shorrock
I welcome this plan - not because it is perfect, it isn’t - but because it reflects real potential for progress on one of the most deep-rooted conflicts in conservation.
The plan has two main objectives: "The hen harrier has a self-sustaining and well dispersed breeding population in England across a range of habitats including a viable population present in the Special Protected Areas designated for hen harrier; and the harrier population coexists with local business interests and its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy".
We shall play our part in making it a success, of course focussing on tackling the primary reason for the hen harrier's adverse conservation status - illegal persecution. Our ultimate goal is to secure recovery for hen harriers, while recognising that this is only one aspect of a wider range of impacts of current land management practices in our uplands.
Last year we provided a home for over 60 pairs of hen harriers throughout the UK and invested in the EU match-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, which combines satellite tagging, on-the-ground monitoring, nest protection, investigations work, awareness-raising, and working with volunteer raptor field workers, landowners and local communities to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern & eastern Scotland.
Image courtesy of Dom Greves
There are still lots of hurdles to overcome, especially regarding the long-term funding of monitoring and enforcement programmes, but also regarding the detail of proposed lowland reintroduction, its fit with IUCN guidelines, and the legal basis and thresholds for any trial brood management scheme. As set out in a blog by our chief exec last year, we think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer, but we’ve not said never to brood management.
The public profile of the plight of the hen harrier has rightly grown over recent years and there will understandably be a lot of interest on the detail of this plan. The detail matters, but we also need everyone to work together to implement the plan – its success will ultimately be judged by whether more hen harriers breed in England. The RSPB is committed to working in partnerships to deliver the changes needed to restore the health of our uplands and we hope many others will share these aims and be willing to work together to secure a better future for them.
What do you think of the Hen Harrier Action Plan?
It would be great to hear your views.
It is now over a week since the Westminster Hall parliamentary debate on the future of driven grouse shooting. I thought it would be appropriate to offer a further perspective on what the RSPB plans to do next to improve the environmental conditions of the uplands.
As many others have written, it was a deeply frustrating debate – especially to the 123,000 that called for a ban and of course those seeking reform. Our initial reaction tried to pick out some positives, but that was a real challenge. Clearly there is widespread opposition from within the driven grouse shooting community to any real reform. I think that the positioning by a majority of MPs was perhaps inevitable as it was the first proper outing of the issue in parliament. Imagine a parliamentary debate on climate change 20 years ago with lobbyists peddling their various views to MPs.
Yet, my view is that if pressure for reform remains then the quality of the parliamentary debate will inevitably improve as people won't be able to brazenly ignore the facts like some did on Monday.
Geltsdale by Chris Gomersall (rspb.images.com)
When more crimes get into the public domain it will be harder for MPs to turn a blind eye. We therefore have no intention of changing our current approach of working with local groups to deliver vital monitoring and surveillance through our Life project, and work with the police to investigate crimes. The team do a fantastic job in extremely difficult circumstances.
That is why, this week, we are raising awareness of the fate of the hen harrier Rowan, found dead in Cumbria in October, and which appears to have been shot. The fate of this bird graphically illustrates that illegal killing of hen harriers is ongoing, contrary to the impression given by some MPs in the Westminster Hall debate.
I think change will come if we can find creative and novel ways of maintaining the political and public profile of our concerns about the environmental impact of driven grouse shooting. This is not a party political issue – I am convinced that all parties want the law enforced and many want to see improved standards of land management associated with grouse shooting.
Clearly legislation is needed, as voluntary approaches have proved wholly inadequate, and Westminster is the legislature for England. That means a cross-party approach will be needed.
We will continue to keep up the pressure on these issues, and will also be talking with others to determine how best to secure reform.
In summary, we remain appalled by the environmental condition of the uplands and the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey. Our work in the uplands remains an important strategic priority for the RSPB – we are not going to go away. We believe that licensing is the way to deliver substantial change to the way our uplands are managed and we intend to keep the pressure on to achieve that. The irony is that commitment to reform and serious discussion about licensing is the shooting industry’s best insurance against growing calls for a ban.
In Scotland, I remain hopeful that tangible reform is possible (partly in response to a petition on gamebird licensing which we supported). If change does happens north of the border, it will make it that much harder for a Westminster Government to ignore the positive direction set out in Scotland.
Our commitment is unwavering. But this won’t be a quick fight and we will take the time now to carefully consider what comes next, talking to all those with a stake in this issue.
What do you think is the next key step for delivering reform of our uplands?
Part of our democratic tradition is the right to protest and the freedom of expression. Charities have a rich and long history of influencing change in policy, law, attitudes and behaviour - the RSPB's own campaigning roots date back to our origins in 1889 and the ultimately successful campaign against the use of feathers in the hat trade while we also fought a decade long battle to ban the use of DDTs - a class of pesticides that was harmful to birds of prey.
I have been involved in a number of campaigns which resulted in changes in the law: to improve the management of our finest wildlife sites (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), protect the marine environment (Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2008) and set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Climate Change Act 2008). Each of these landmark achievements were hard fought and were the culmination of many years of campaigning and each required manifesto commitments before legislative reform was secured.
Since 2011, there has been a formal way of securing parliamentary profile with the Number 10 petition system established to enable parliamentary debate for petitions attracting more than 100,000 signatures. 39 petitions have secured such a debate and the latest took place today as a result of Mark Avery's campaign to ban driven grouse shooting. As most readers of this blog will know, the RSPB believes that a licensing system for driven grouse shooting should be introduced as an effective way of improving our uplands. In the run up to the debate, we shared our knowledge of the environmental consequences of driven grouse shooting.
My colleague, Jeff Knott, witnessed the debate and sent me this rapid assessment...
"There was lots of interest and a ticketing system had to be introduced because so many people came to listen: about 50 individuals which was approximately twice the capacity of the room. Equally, there was lots of interest from MPs with about 50 MPs attending at least part, with a majority speaking.
Overall, it was an interesting debate with a variety of contributions from MPs, varied in subject, opinion and quality. There was lots of agreement that biodiversity conservation is a major imperative. That is clearly good news! Yet, there were also various references to hen harriers doing better on driven grouse moors than off them. This simply isn't true. Several MPs said hen harriers are increasing. While they have increased from a historical low 100 years ago, the UK population declined between the last two national surveys. And clearly, it will be interesting to see what this year's survey says.
It was questioned why there are no hen harriers on RSPB reserves. There are! In 2015, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. And this year, one of the three pairs that successfully nested in England was on our Geltsdale reserve.
There was lots of support for greater enforcement of laws to prevent illegal killing of birds of prey, but this was short on detail. It was striking that the only real argument against licensing was that it would be bureaucratic. Indeed several MPs stated it was an option. This is easily solvable and we'd be very happy to work with parliamentarians to develop a streamlined system.
Clearly, there is huge interest in this subject, both from the public and from MPs, so it is vital that the Government sets out how it will enable further debate leading to action and real change."
While there will be some that will be downhearted that the parliamentary debate did not lead to an immediate commitment for legislative reform, I think that it would be a mistake to ignore the voices of more than 100,000 people wanting reform. The public anger about ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the state of our uplands will only grow unless action is taken. And, the RSPB will continue to make the case for reform both in England and in Scotland, where licensing will be considered through a similar petitioning process.
Change may take time, but it will come.