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.
Many of you may have been following the Radio 4 Shared Planet series. If you are still looking for answers, here is Hans Rosling providing the clearest explanation (and the most creative presentation) I have seen about what is happening to the world's population. If anything, it reinforces my view that consumption is the issue to focus on - as I outlined in my previous blog here.
So get a cup of tea/coffee, put your feet up and watch this...
In early April, Professor Sir John Lawton chaired a panel of experts who reviewed RSPB’s scientific programme. I was fortunate to observe the review and it was one of the most inspirational 24 hours I have spent at the RSPB, hearing about the breadth and depth of our science designed to find solutions to the plethora of conservation problems that nature faces. Sir John has taken over my blog for the day, and kindly outlines his thoughts on the Science Review below.
I was delighted to be asked to review the RSPB’s scientific programme, not least because I had undertaken a similar review 15 years earlier, and was interested to see how things had changed. I think that it is desperately important for conservation organisations to ensure that their policies and practices are based on the best possible evidence, and consequently was pleased to see RSPB opening its science programme up to external review. I was greatly assisted with the review by my co-panel members, Professors David Macdonald and Val Brown, and Dr Jenny Gill.
L to R: Dr David Gibbons, RSPB; Dr Jenny Gill; Professor David Macdonald; Professor Sir John Lawton; Professor Val Brown; Martin Harper, RSPB.
Over a couple of days, we learnt – among other things - about the RSPB’s role in the (then unpublished) State of Nature report, and about its work to find solutions to recover the fortunes of threatened species – from skylarks, hawfinches and curlews, to migrants, vultures and pygymy hippos. We also heard about the RSPB’s innovative seabird tagging work, the suite of experiments they have undertaken on their estate, their rainforest and climate change research, and the measurements they have made of the services provided by ecosystems. The review was meticulously run by RSPB staff, and the fifteen separate presentations we heard were excellent without exception.
My fellow panel members and I wrote a report of our review, which I was invited to present to RSPB’s Council in early July. Our overarching assessment was summarised in the report as follows:
“The review group are unanimous in their view that the RSPB’s Conservation Science Department is outstanding. The quality, depth and breadth of its research would be regarded as excellent in any large internationally competitive UK university”.
We then went on to say that:
“Some huge, very important and exciting research problems are being carried forward with great skill and imagination”, and that “..the ‘in house’ Conservation Science Department is fundamental to the Society’s mission”.
We each individually thought we knew broadly what research was undertaken by the Department through our long association with RSPB. We were wrong. We found the shear breadth and depth of the work “staggering” (to quote one panel member at the end of the second day).
Needless to say, there is always room for improvement, so we made a series of recommendations for the future. We particularly felt that the RSPB’s scientific work deserved to be better known, and that they should seek ways of communicating their science better. For example, they should make much more creative use of social media to publicise the amazing work done by the Department. We also felt that the RSPB should undertake more social science. Whilst biological research should remain fundamental to the society, we believe that economic analyses, conflict resolution, human behavioural studies, political science and governance are increasingly important in trying to find practical solutions to environmental problems. Finally, we thought that the science programme could sometimes be swifter of foot in the way that it works, because the fast-changing world of policy occasionally demands rapid responses. However, we accept that finding resources for such science could be challenging.
Professor Sir John Lawton
Today the NFU launches a new campaign called Farming Delivers. At the time of writing, I know little about the campaign but I have a feeling that there is a clue in the title and the staging posts of the website: farming delivers for the economy, Britain, the environment, clean energy, animal welfare, food security, world peace etc.
I jest. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.
Centuries of farming helped create the wildlife and landscapes which we love. But changes in agriculture practice led to wildlife declines. We trust the NFU's new campaign will put wildlife at the heart of its vision for the future of farming. The stakes have never been higher, some farmland species such as turtle dove and corn bunting are on the brink. Farmers are working with us to help put the wildlife back and the NFU's campaign should strive to support those farmers who want to put food on the table and wildlife in the landscape.
I started this year at the Oxford Farming Conference, talking about how to find a better balance between agricultural production and conservation. Several reports have come out in recent years highlighting the unprecedented challenges facing the food system, including IAASTD’s Agriculture at a Crossroads (2009), the Government Office for Science Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming (2011) and the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on Sustainable Food (2012).
All of these reports conclude that action will be needed on many fronts simultaneously if we are to end hunger and build a more sustainable food system. This includes action on biodiversity loss and ecosystem services, climate change, poverty and livelihoods, governance of the food system, health and nutrition, equity (including reducing consumption in rich countries), investment into agricultural research and development and reducing waste in all parts of the food chain.
These reports also emphasise the environmental degradation that has resulted and is resulting from intensive agriculture. Other reports have reinforced this point. The National Ecosystem Assessment (UNEP-WCMC, 2010) showed that increases in UK agricultural production to date have been associated with an increase in external environmental costs and have been at the expense of other ecosystem services. The European Nitrogen Assessment (European Science Foundation, 2010) concluded that the overall environmental costs of nitrogen pollution in Europe outweigh the direct economic benefits of nitrogen fertiliser in agriculture.
We need to work out what all this means for food and farming in the UK. What changes need to happen to ensure a sustainable future for the countryside, with profitable farming businesses, thriving rural communities, and healthy soils, clean water and flourishing wildlife? At the same time, how can we best play our part in the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population?
To help find the answers to some of these questions, the RSPB is participating in Defra's Green Food Project. In the Natural Environment White Paper the Government made a commitment to bring together stakeholders to discuss how to reconcile the aims of increasing food production and improving the environment. The RSPB is one of these stakeholders, taking part alongside other environmental, food and farming organisations.
We have been leading one of the working groups looking at case studies in different parts of the country. In each case study area we looked at conflicts and synergies between producing food and taking care of the environment, and discussed how land management could change to improve the balance. The conclusions of the Green Food Project are due to be published in July.
From our group’s work, I think it comes back to what I talked about at the Oxford Farming Conference: there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to the challenges facing farming. We have a diverse landscape in terms of soil, climate and other factors, so the way we farm also has to be diverse. This will help us to get the best our of our land – the full range of services including food, clean water, biodiversity and carbon storage – and to stay within environmental limits so that farming is sustainable for the long term.
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about how farming needs to change – actually achieving these changes on the ground brings a whole new set of challenges. Society expects a lot out of farming – safe, nutritious food; a healthy countryside; thriving farmland wildlife – and farmers have to perform a complicated juggling act every day to try to meet all their different objectives. They are supported and influenced by regulations, agri-environment schemes, advice and information. Farmers and wider society will need to work together to find the best ways of making sure farming delivers what we all need.
I wish the NFU well with its campaign.
Have a look and tell me what you think.
It would be great to hear your views.