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.
here are some things that only governments can do to help protect the environment. These include actions such as introducing taxes or laws to deter or stop people doing bad things.
In recent years, voluntary approaches had become the preferred approach, yet I know of no environmental problem that has been resolved by voluntary means alone.
So, yesterday’s announcement that the UK Government is consulting on banning the sale of plastic straws and cotton buds was extremely welcome. This comes at a time that the Treasury is consulting on the role of taxation in tackling plastic pollution.
The UK Government is moving towards developing a more comprehensive strategy to tackle plastic pollution, and I am glad that environmental taxes or bans are back in vogue. There may also be the beginning of healthy rivalry between the UK Government and devolved administrations as different interventions are being rolled out and tested at different times. The challenge will be to learn from each other while giving clear signals to producers, retailers and consumers about the direction of travel.
Yesterday, I took part in a meeting with the Exchequer Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, to discuss options for taxes to tackle plastic pollution.
While plastic pollution is not the number one issue affecting wildlife (agriculture is the main driver of domestic and global species decline), it is a growing problem, public interest in rising and it is possible that pollution will compound existing threats facing wildlife.
For example, there is growing evidence of the effects of plastics on seabirds, including entanglement and ingestion, which can cause injury, starvation or reduced condition. While, marine litter has yet to be shown to be causing seabird population level declines (climate change, invasive non-native species and lack of sufficient protection at sea are the main issues with which we are grappling), at some of our coastal and island nature reserves we are seeing the impact.
At Grassholm, for example, a remote island off the Welsh coast, 18 tonnes of plastic debris have been recorded (because of discarded waste into the North Atlantic). This affects the gannet colony (boasting 36,000 pairs constituting 7% of the entire world population) as many birds and chicks get entangled in plastic and every October RSPB wardens work to free as many birds as possible helping to save the lives of 50 birds each year – a pretty depressing Groundhog Day for all those involved.
This is why the RSPB joined the UK Marine Litter Action Network (led by the Marine Conservation Society) to add its voice to the growing number of organisations concerned about marine litter. We welcome and supports the actions of its partner organisations to find practical solutions to addressing the issue of marine litter.
As a charity, we are also trying to find ways to reduce our own plastic pollution. For example, we have recently signalled that we shall move away from plastic towards potato starch wrappers for our Nature’s Home magazine. For many years, we have been successfully implementing a strategy for reducing the RSPB’s carbon footprint (especially from business travel and our built estate for example through a programme of investment in renewable energy and energy conservation measures). We are beginning to consider what other steps we might take to reduce plastic pollution as part of our wider strategy of waste reduction.
I am hopeful that the UK Government will develop a comprehensive strategy for ending plastic pollution. Interventions should be proportionate to the problem which means banning pointless plastics while taxing plastics at levels proportionate to their impact or recyclability.
If you have strong views on the subject you can read the government consultation here. Comments need to be sent in by 18 May.
And, while governments across the UK seek to develop the right strategy for plastics, I hope they look again at other forms of environmental pollution – from peat use in horticulture or pesticides and fertilizers in farming. Nature needs active governments to address growing environmental challenges.
I wanted to give you a brief update you on what’s been happening with our response to Natural England’s decision to issue a license to pilot brood management for hen harriers.
Since I last blogged on this thorny subject (see here) things have been progressing, albeit slowly, and I am now able to tell you that the RSPB have entered the next phase and have applied to the High Court for permission to judicially review Natural England’s grant of consent for a hen harrier brood management trail.
There will be many people interested in what happens next, the legal arguments and the debate surrounding these. Given that this now a legal proceeding it is our intention not to talk more about this matter until it is concluded so as not to prejudice the outcome.
I do just want to reiterate that we don’t enter into legal proceedings lightly and only as a last resort. However, in this case we feel that it is entirely justified. Brood management is about forcing hen harriers to fit in with driven grouse shooting. It should be the other way round.
Female hen harrier (Mark Thomas, rspb-images.com)
Last week, 50 experts from 20 countries gathered in Cambridge to examine the evidence required to drive a new global conservation strategy. This was part of a series of events (including a public panel discussion and communications workshop) convened by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative to shape debate about what needs to happen in the run up to 2020, when governments from around the world will meet in China, to adopt a new global biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
On Thursday, Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the executive secretary of the CBD, made a compelling argument (covered in the Guardian here) as to why we should be expanding the coverage of protected areas and offered a pathway to delivering our ultimate aim of living in harmony with nature. She played with the recent debate about how much space nature needs and coined the phrase HE + SHE = WE (Half Earth + Sustainably Managed Half Earth = Whole Earth). She then joined an excellent all-female panel (Alice Jay from Avaaz, Heley Crowley from Kering, Prudence Galega from the Ministry of Environment for Cameroon and Patricia Zurita from BirdLife) before Sir David Attenborough delivered a rallying cry to the packed audience. You can relive the event here.
I am excited by what we might collectively achieve over the next 30 months. RSPB colleagues were instrumental in shaping the events last week and we are committed to working with our BirdLife International partners to share our scientific knowledge and practical experience while mobilising public support to secure the right deal for nature in 2020. I shall return to the post-2020 agenda soon, but for now I want to acknowledge the crucial role being played by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
In recent years, CCI has grown in influence. Not only does it have considerable convening power, but it is also generating new funds for nature and driving conservation collaborations. It is an exciting partnership to be involved in and together we are breaking down organisational barriers. Working in the David Attenborough building in Cambridge - the home for most of the CCI partners including - is an inspiring experience taking you outside of the bubble of our own organisaton.
It helps, of course, to be working in a building named after the man who has inspired millions of people to do more to protect the planet. I shall leave the final words to the great man who concluded his Thursday speech by saying...
"The problems are enormous, and they’re also varied, and there is no single solution. Every country, every community will have their own problems and their own solutions.
As I said, just listening to you talking with such insight, and such passion, and such knowledge, makes me proud that this university has this institution, and that it is able to marshal this sort of intelligence and knowledge and insight. There are no simple solutions to these problems. There are solutions to some of the problems, but there is no single solution to them all. Looking back those 75 years: of course, there has never been a simple solution produced over those years, and of course, the problems have increased beyond imagination. But while there are people like you putting your heads together, people like you getting together and spending time together, it does seem to me, as an onlooker, that the world has a cause for optimism and cause for gratitude.
The problems are indeed increasing, but the solutions are there, and I wish you every success in your conversations and debates and arguments that will lead to China, to Beijing, and every success – my goodness, every success – for the deliberations that take place there: because the world desperately needs what you’re doing.
I wish you every success."