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.
This week, my colleague, Mark Robins, leaves the RSPB after more than a quarter of a century. Mark has been a fantastic colleague and an inspiration to many. As he leaves us, he leaves South West England too. Here he shares his thoughts on a region rich in potential for much more nature.
After 30 years working for nature and mostly for the RSPB and almost all in South West England, what do I know, what do I feel, and where can I find optimism for a better future for our natural systems?
Nature and the South West are in my soul – spend some time here and who could avoid being seduced by Dartmoor, Exmoor, the South West coast in its many splendours, West Penwith - Cornwall, one and all!, Salisbury Plain – Europe’s biggest chunk of chalk grassland, the famous wetlands of the Somerset Levels, the Forest of Dean – the wooded land of rebels, and then the awe inspiring mother-of-all UK’s estuaries – the Severn? Soul food indeed. But so tragic too – despite successes, nature’s loss and decline in these of all places hurts me. The places are still there, and still inspire, but the actuality for nature has too often been grim.
Dartmoor. one of the South West’s famous upland landscapes - a huge area farmed semi-natural habitats’. Photo: Mark Robins
Down west, we have the places then. And so many people, including the visitors from up country with their consumer power, who care about nature, but together, so far, we just haven’t done enough. We haven’t made it easy to do the right thing for nature.
Thankfully exceptional people have broken through and done fabulous things but it’s not enough. Let’s call them the ‘outlaws’ (escaping the laws that lead to failure). And gladly I can think of a few down West!
So far, thirty years on then, using my sou’wester test of the state of nature in our most special places, I conclude: governments and the way our bureaucracies work, so far at least, just don’t fit with the kind of nature-restoring development that would honour generations to come. So, I hope these frameworks will change. And then away from a focus on central governments, while we mustn’t let the state escape its key roles (national leadership, coordination or facilitation), the question for us is whether we can imagine an approach that much better re-couples people and nature.
We’ve got more thinking to do about everyday life in our places and how this might change to offer more hope for nature. In the places where we live and love, we need to shift away from viewing ‘ecological’ and ‘social’ systems as distinct and separate things. Discovering a much more comfortable marriage between people, their places and the ecosystems that these are set in.
Somerset Levels. The UK’s largest floodplain wetland – where ‘safe’ water is the key to nature, farming and community resilience’. Photo: Mark Robins
Mine is a proposal for something much more lively and at a scale where most of the action to restore nature must happen. A ‘pro-nature’ localism that is people-centred, action- orientated, imaginative, innovating, learning, boundary pushing, and deeply-rewarding. At this local level, success is tangible and tactile – it can be tasted, touched, and felt. In just one example, imagine the South West coast, where the enjoyment of the so-many becomes a new form of shared leadership for nature. A leadership that offers and blends many kinds of investment: private, public, corporate and that of the so-many citizens and creates a zone of passion, care, sensitive demand and rich resources for something much better for nature.
People and place - the most beautiful thing! Surely the South West is as good as it gets on this. Rich in new nature-restoring opportunities cast around community, place and identity. And increasingly I hope, full of those outlaws escaping rules that fail nature.
The focus of this week’s launch of the fabulous State of UK's Birds report* was the impact of climate change on birds.
The headlines were that…
…climate change is happening: average UK temperatures have increased by nearly 1 °C since the 1980s; in the 20th century, UK sea levels rose by 14cm and the rate is increasing; rainfall has increased slightly across the UK, mostly during winter – with heavy rainfall events making a growing contribution.
…our predictions about the impact of climate change on birds are now being borne out by observation: some species are doing well, while some are vulnerable; ranges are shifting and the timing of migration is changing.
The report reinforces the need for action: both in terms of decarbonising our economy to mitigate the impact of climate change and taking action to help species adapt to a changing climate.
Today, I want to put a spotlight on the work that we have been doing through our nature reserve network to help species adapt to climate change.
For more than two decades, we have predicted that, as the climate warms, many species would move, predominantly northwards and to higher elevations. Our belief has been that for species at the southern edge of their range, the UK would become increasingly important for species as essential habitats for them could be lost. The UK also has a role to play in supporting species colonising the UK from the continent some of which may be moving north as conditions further south become unsuitable for them.
And that is why, we have been working hard to ensure our nature reserve network (which covers more than 150,000 hectares over 210 sites) develops to cater for the needs of species affected by climate change.
RSPB Ham Wall (David Kjaer, rspb-images.com)
We do this by planning for our whole network and at individual sites. For example, we try to recreate habitat that might be lost through climate change such as inter-tidal or brackish habitat which is why we embarked on the Wallasea Wild Coast Project.
We have also recreated freshwater wetlands (such as Lakenheath Fen, Ham Wall, Ouse Fen) inland away from vulnerable coastal areas and that has helped drive the recovery of species like the bittern.
As rainfall patterns are changine we are also finding ways to cope with sites that have too much water because they are increasingly prone to flooding (such as Ouse Washes) or those where there is not enough water. This is why we spend time rewetting peatlands at places like Dove Stone in the Peak District, where we are working in partnership with United Utilities. This re-wetting also reduces CO2 emissions from the dried out, oxidising peat and is also expected to reduce discoloration of drinking water.
The foresight and hard work is paying off…
…164 booming bitterns were recorded at 71 sites this year
…an increasing number of more southerly-distributed species are colonising the UK, with our nature reserves playing a key role in this colonisation (black-winged stilts at Cliffe Pools and the Ouse Washes, spoonbills at Fairburn Ings and great white egrets, little bittern and cattle egrets at Ham Wall).
This is another reminder that protected areas are already playing a critical role in helping wildlife to cope with the effects of climate change, and will continue to do so. That’s why, as the UK negotiates its withdrawal from the EU, governments across the UK must maintain or bolster existing levels of protection afforded to our most important wildlife sites.
While it is heartening that the UK has now reduced its greenhouse gas emission by 42% from 1990 levels as a contribution to the global effort, clearly the urgency to ensure we avoid the worst impacts of climate change intensifies.
Yet, as the State of UK's Birds report shows, climate change is already happening and that is why the RSPB will continue to do what it can to provide a lifeline to the most vulnerable species to buy them time to adapt.
*The State of UK's Birds 2017 is produced by a coalition of three non-governmental organisations — the RSPB, BTO and the WWT — and the UK Government's statutory nature conservation agencies — Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).
If humans are to live in harmony with nature, we need to find a way to decouple economic growth from environmental harm and that means finding a way to reflect the true value of nature in decision-making.
To me, this has always felt a bit like nature conservation’s Holy Grail. Fix the economic system and the problems facing nature should subside.
So, I’m excited to be in Edinburgh this week to take part in the World Forum on Natural Capital. This is the bi-annual opportunity for people from around the world to share ideas and experiences about how well they are doing to rising to this challenge.
This is particularly timely, given the UK Government’s commitment to produce a 25 year environment plan (due either side of Christmas*) as a roadmap for how they plan to restore the natural environment in a generation.
Our contribution to this conference will be the publication of a Natural Capital Account for the RSPB’s nature reserves in England. We have produced this because there has been a lot of talk about how natural capital accounting could provide a major leap forward in how we reflect nature in decision-making.
The theory goes, that if businesses, landowners, local authorities and even central government were obliged to produce natural capital accounts alongside financial accounts, they would be a greater accountability for the state of nature which in turn could lead to greater investment in and protection of nature and the services that it provides**.
Yet, this remains a theory. Some businesses have piloted this approach, but the implications for biodiversity remain uncertain. We wanted to see what natural capital accounting might mean for biodiversity. And that’s why, as a contribution to the debate, we have looked at our nature reserve network in England.
RSPB Dovestone by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Our reserves are amazing; in England there are 110 of them covering over 60,000 hectares, from purple-clad heathland at Aylesbeare Common in Devon, through wildlife-rich wetlands at Minsmere in Suffolk, dramatic seabird colonies at Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to swathes of restored blanket bog at Geltsdale, Cumbria.
However, until now we have not tried to quantify the value they provide to the public. The Natural Capital Account is the first step to doing just that, and even its partial assessment reports that the benefits*** provided by our reserves are more than double the costs of meeting our nature conservation objectives on our reserves.
These benefits are largely invisible in standard financial accounts, highlighting the contribution that Natural Capital Accounting can make in providing better information for decision-making. The account also demonstrates the importance of the public benefits provided by nature reserves and the need for public policy support to ensure that nature is managed in a way that is better for people and nature. This is particularly timely given Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s intention to reform the agriculture payments system so that farmers are rewarded for providing environmental services – living up to the public money for public goods mantra.
Done well, I believe a Natural Capital approach (which is a broader concept than Natural Capital Accounts) must have a central role in correcting the current paradox. This approach needs to be at the heart of the way decisions are made by both the private and public sectors. It is gratifying to see pilots being explored by individual businesses and the approach is already reflected in some of the UK Government’s recent initiatives, such as the Clean Growth Strategy and the National Infrastructure Assessment. This indicates movement towards the step change that is needed.
But, critically, Natural Capital approaches need to be applied in a way that reflects some of the more intangible values of nature. It is not possible to monetise all the values of wildlife and, therefore, there is a risk that Natural Capital assessments can exclude and even undermine the importance of biodiversity. This is increasingly acknowledged as a challenge in the way that the tools have been developed.
Our report, using the RSPB estate in England, therefore offers clues to what the steps are needed to ensure that biodiversity’s values remain visible within a Natural Capital Account. Crucially, we believe that biodiversity targets (for sites, species and habitats) are essential in making natural capital accounts work.
Why do I say this? Well, the RSPB is a nature conservation organisation and so we invest resources in meeting biodiversity targets for our reserves. We can measure these costs and reflect them in a natural capital account. What happens if you are not a nature conservation organisation? You can measure costs of meeting business targets and measures the value (positive or negative) in terms of contribution to water, carbon and human well-being, but will struggle to assign a value for biodiversity. The costs of managing land for nature will only feature if the business, landowner or public body has a stated ambition for the state of wildlife it wants. Introducing and publicly reporting against biodiversity targets are essential in making the accounting approach work. What’s more, natural capital accounts for public bodies could bring to life their legal obligation to have regard to conserving biodiversity (under s40 NERC Act 2006).
My final point is this, our ecologists and economists have worked together for a year to produce this account. It is a fabulous piece of work and reveals the range and scale of benefits that we, and others, who managed the land and seas for conservation provide to the public at large. But it still provides only a partial estimate of the public value of our English nature reserves. Embedding this approach across all parts of society will take time and investment. Until we have this, we need strong political commitment to and investment in meeting targets for nature.
Please do read our report and let me know what you think.
It would be great to hear your views.
*Given that we have been waiting for the 25 year environment plan since May 2015, you’ll note I don’t specify which Christmas the plan is due. A bit like the Chilcott Inqury, we just have to wait until those in power are ready.
** In 2002, before the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the RSPB assessed the global costs of degrading natural habitats along with the benefits of conserving them. The conclusion was that financing an effective global programme for the conservation of remaining wild nature would yield an estimated benefit one hundred times greater than the cost. Around the same time, we estimated that our reserves supported over 2,000 jobs, providing evidence of their local economic impact, helping to dispel the myth that protecting the environment is an obstacle to economic growth.
***Our account is partial as we were only able to provide estimates of the value of managing greenhouse gas emissions, providing opportunities for quiet recreation and volunteering. We were unable to measure contributions to clean water, flood regulation or reducing coastal erosion.