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 believe that politics can change things for the better, then the first environment speech from a Prime Minister in a generation is not immaterial. It is a sign of personal commitment and that matters when there is 24/7 scrutiny of government performance.
So I was delighted to be able to listen the Prime Minister’s speech at the London Wetlands Centre today. This accompanied the publication of the much anticipated 25 year environment plan – a manifesto commitment from both the 2015 and 2017 elections.
I welcomed the ambition, tone and also some of the proposals that have survived the tough conversations that have clearly taken place across government.
Landscape scale conservation in action at RSPB Dearne Valley - Old Moor (David Wootton, rspb-images.com)
On first reading the document, there are lots of things to applaud…
…the restatement of ambition to restore nature in a generation
…the proposal to create a nature recovery network delivering 500,000 hectares of new habitat
…a commitment to deliver a net gain in habitat coverage as a result of development
…a commitment to review and refresh our biodiversity targets following the 2020 global meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity
…reconfirmation that all EU environment law will be retained
…a clear statement of intent to sustain international leadership role to deal with global climate and biodiversity challenges
…a commitment to report annually on progress
There are some things, however, for which we shall have to wait or continue to fight for…
…more specific metrics of success to judge progress
…new institutional arrangements to report on progress and hold governments account
…environmental principles to underpin this action
All of these will be subject to consultation. I don’t mind this too much – while frustrating that these issues have not yet been resolved, it makes sense to try to get these right and secure cross-government buy in.
However, the one thing that I think it notable by its absence is a commitment to translate ambition into law. The only way to ensure that the ambition in the plan is met and momentum sustained, is by establishing a new Environment Act essentially to do for the restoration of nature what the Climate Change Act has done for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This applies as much to site protection as it does to preventing species such as turtle dove and willow tit being lost from the UK in our lifetime.
While we may believe the statements of politicians today, legislation provides security to deal with any political volatility which may arise in the future. And besides, within the plan there is a very clear reminder of why voluntary targets just don’t work – we have yet another target to end the use of peat in horticulture, this time by 2020. This, I think is the third such voluntary target in 20 years but they have clearly failed: recent monitoring suggests 56% of all growing media still contains peat!
Over the next few days, we shall do further analysis of what’s in and what’s not. But for now, my final thoughts are with the civil servants within Defra who have worked so hard in getting the plan to this point. While Michael Gove rightly gets many of the plaudits for driving this agenda forward, he is supported by a committed and extremely able team. These are the hidden heroes who have sacrificed evenings, weekends and even Christmas holidays to establish a new framework for environmental protection.
I hope they can take a brief moment to recover, but not for too long, because the hard work starts now – turning the words into lasting and tangible action for nature.
Tomorrow is an important day for the environment. The Prime Minister will be launching the Government’s 25 year plan for the environment. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that this has been a long time coming, its gestation stemming from the Conservative 2015 election manifesto commitment to produce a plan to restore biodiversity in 25 years. I have written about it on several occasions - Oct 2015, Apr 2016, Dec 2016, Sep 2017 and Jan 2018.
In the second of these blogs, written before the vote to leave the EU, I set out a dream of what nature could look like in 25 years’ time. I am still an optimist and I hope that the plan is and ambitious and effective both for nature’s sake and for the next generation including my own children and, potentially, their kids too.
So what are the key things that hope Theresa May will announce tomorrow to help deliver my dream? Here are some of the key points that we will be looking for in the plan:
I have been impressed by the passion and energy that Michael Gove has brought to the production of this plan and his work as Secretary of State but for the plan to have lasting effect we believe that clear targets and accountability measures should be incorporated into a new Environment Act.
I will report back on how we think the published plan delivers against our tests.
During the first week of the new year, I try to get to RSPB reserves that I haven't yet visited. Shockingly, until last week, I hadn't been to our sites on the Ribble (Marshside and Hesketh Out Marsh) or the Dee (Burton Mere and Parkgate) estuaries. These are remarkable places and I was lucky to witness the wildlife spectacles provided at high tide last week. On the Dee, I was one of hundreds of people lining the banks of the estuary watching the drama unfold as the incoming tide flushed birds roosting on the saltmarsh such as short-eared owls while herons and egrets waited for tidal refugees seeking safety. Like crocodiles waiting for wildebeest on the Serengeti, the avian predators calmly hung around until the small mammals and small waterbirds came their way. Voles and water rails were targeted - mostly successfully but some did manage to escape.
RSPB reserves on the Dee and Ribble Estuaries: (clockwise from top left) Burton Mere, Marshside, Hesketh Out Marsh, Parkgate
Seeing the density of birds at these reserves (especially at Marshside where the concentration of waterbirds was extraordinary) was a great reminder of the the importance of UK estuaries for wildlife (we have 90 which is a quarter of all in Europe). Millions of waterbirds overwinter on the UK’s wetlands, many of which use estuaries to take advantage of their rich food supplies: c100,000 on the Dee and c300,000 on the Ribble. Yet, these estuaries are under pressure from climate change, fishing, recreation and development which is why we have been working hard to restore lost habitat. On the Ribble, we completed a managed realignment project to restore >300 hectares of saltmarsh while at Burton Mere we have converted arable fields into a freshwater wetland. Both projects (supported by Environment Agency, Natural England, local authorities and funders like WREN) took more than a decade to complete but the results are really impressive.
While much conservation attention has rightly focused on our declining summer migrants (especially those that winter in West Africa), we must not lose sight of the importance of protecting our internationally important estuaries and wintering waterbird populations. The State of UK Birds report gives an annual assessment of the health of our wintering birds (thanks to the Wetland Bird Survey - WeBS - led by BTO) and the 2017 report shows that "populations rose steadily from the mid-1970s into the late 1990s... [but the] numbers fell by 8%, with declines being particularly marked amongst wintering waders". While some species such as pink-footed geese are doing well (with 30,000 visiting the Ribble over the past few years) wintering numbers for some waders such as curlew are down. This is of particular concern as their breeding numbers are also down and is why we have established our curlew recovery programme. So, while we find ways to increase the breeding performance of curlew (where the UK provides up to 27% off the global population), we mustn't neglect the importance of its wintering sites.
The RSPB has been involved in a number of campaigns to protect UK estuaries over the past few decades (including protecting the Severn from an unsustainable tidal barrage and the Thames - repeatedly - from airport development) and we will be ready to take a stand again whenever the need arises.
Our estuaries are incredible places for wildlife and, if you need reminding, check the tide tables and visit one this winter. You won't be disappointed.