Yesterday, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove said on the Today programme that his brief was to “enhance the environment”, that he wants to “exercise humility” and “to listen and to learn”.

I am sure that he will be keen to hear about what the RSPB has learnt through its 128 years of saving nature and why we attract support from 1.2 million people. 

So, to help fast-track Mr Gove into his new role, here are five areas where practical RSPB projects have shown how to meet the needs of both people and wildlife.  This should help him devise the right plan to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment “to pass on the environment in a better state to the next generation”. 

Haweswater (Andy Hay, rspb-images)


Mr Gove arrives with a reputation as a reformer and so it is refreshing to hear that he wants to ensure that new farming and land use policy helps “enhance the farmed environment” while producing “high quality food”.  We agree - agriculture is cited as the biggest driver of species declines both nationally and internationally and needs urgent attention.  Given the UK vote to leave the European Union, there is a once in a generation opportunity to make the existing £3.1 billion of tax payers money that currently goes into the UK countryside through the Common Agriculture Policy work much harder for wildlife.

Mr Gove should look at what we have achieved on our land including at Hope Farm (our 181 ha conventional, intensive arable farm).  Since we bought the farm in 2000 we have increased the farmland bird index on the farm by 174% (compared to a national decline of 10%) while also maintaining farm profitability.  We've done this using incentives previously available to all farmers.  This weekend 550 visitors came to see this for themselves on #openfarmsunday (featured here) and Mr Gove will, of course, be welcome to come and visit.  


We have a major shortage of housing supply and Mr Gove has been vocal about this.  The RSPB recognises the challenges in delivering the new homes that the country needs but we also feel that it is possible to meet housing needs in a way that contributes to nature and people’s enjoyment of our natural world.  

We have spent a lot of time objecting to housing developments being built in the wrong place and to poor environmental quality.  That is why we are working with Barratt Developments to find a new way.  We want new developments that provide homes for people and wildlife.  The flagship scheme for 2,450 homes at Kingsbrook, Aylesbury, will include a major new urban fringe nature reserve as well as nature-friendly elements in the built environment.  

I trust Mr Gove will have early discussion with his counterpart at DCLG, Sajid Javid, to help deliver high biodiversity standards for all new developments and ensure that they must be located away from sensitive wildlife sites such as Lodge Hill.


Thirteen years ago we made the case that Ofwat should change the rules that governed water company investment in catchments.  The Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP) was devised to ensure the sustainable environmental management of 20,000 ha of water catchment land under United Utilities’ ownership in the Peak District and the Forest of Bowland.  Our partnership, which included local farmers, developed a new approach to managing the land which complied with the Habitats Regulations, enhanced biodiversity and improved the quality of the water abstracted for drinking, as well as providing an enhanced source of income for tenant farmers.

As the approach has broadened and been taken up by other water companies, we have seen huge  benefits as restoration of habitat has led to increased species populations and improved water quality.  More recently natural flood management schemes such as Swindale Beck in Haweswater will also hopefully demonstrate how to reduce peak river flow to help mitigate in downstream flooding.


Mr Gove has spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of connecting people to nature, notably wanting to “get children to not only read and write, but also appreciate the valuen and the beauty of the environment them.”  Connection to nature is important for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.  We know it instinctively and there is a growing body of evidence that backs this up.  That’s why the RSPB continues to explore new ways to connect people to nature.  Of course, one of our best ways is through our ever-expanding network of nature reserves across the country.  These are wonderful places that lift the spirit.

Creating more, bigger, better protected areas will be core to providing more space for wildlife.  In our experience, most big projects are achieved through partnership with business and local communities.  For example, Wallasea Island Wild Coast project is the largest managed realignment project in Europe and heavily reliant on the partnership with the Environment Ageny but also Crossrail that provided the spoil to raise the level of the land to allow for the sea wall to be breached.  It is combating the threats from climate change and coastal flooding by recreating the ancient wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture.  It will also help to compensate for the loss of such tidal habitats elsewhere in England obliged through the European Nature Directives.

The 650 hectare habitat creation project will not be complete for a few years, but we have already created 67 islands, 18 lagoons and provided homes for 12,000 wintering waterbirds and 102 pairs of breeding avocets.  

The lesson for Mr Gove here is that smart regulation driving innovative partnerships result in exceptional benefits for people and wildlife.


Over the past couple of months, I have been reminded time and again (see here and here) that targeted environmental grants can help us fulfil our wildlife obligations at home and internationally.  I would encourage Mr Gove to celebrate the impact that Darwin grants have had to catalyse action for wildlife in both our Overseas Territories and in developing countries but also think hard about how to replace EU Life funding* which we shall be losing when we exit the European Union. To complement this, it would also be worth Mr Gove asking his civil servants how he can help secure innovative sources of nature finance which are not reliant on the public purse.  The RSPB is currently exploring lots of options and we would be very happy to share our thinking.

I am sure that Mr Gove is a fast-learner and we look forward to working with him.  The RSPB will, as we always do with ministers, provide Mr Gove with ideas to follow through on his intention to enhance the environment.  We want him to be successful and to do whatever nature needs.

*Since being launched in 1992, Life has funded 4,500 projects, invested €8.7 billion, helped conserve over 400 species and created 74,500 jobs

  • Mr Gove's words sound fine but they are only words and one wonders how much Tory party vested interest's will influence his decision making . Vested interests, such as grouse moors and driven grouse shooting and the killing of most of the associated wildlife, plus developers wishing to build on SSSIs and on land protected by the Habitats Directive. I have to say I am not confident that vested interests will not prevail. I do see more major battles looming in the future to protect  the laws that currently protect our wildelife. "A leopard (Mr.Gove) has great difficulty in changing its spots."

  • Money, water, housing and inspiration: all come together in the Natural Capital Committees proposal that we should create 250,000 hectares of new 'community woodland' around our towns and cities and you can throw in reconnection with nature, places for nature and mental and physical welfare - adding up not to a big bill, but to £500m of economic benefit annually. NCC is on the Defra radar - but apparently not on the conservation lobby's. Old habits, especially the sectoral approach to land use, are dying hard - and with them huge opportunities to influence current politicians by talking their own language. NCC's proposals - and the extensive 'trials' already on the ground from bodies like RSPB, Groundwork and the Forestry Commission genuinely hold out the prospect of building the houses we need AND at the same time improving the environment for people, for wildlife, for resilience against threats like flooding and reducing resource use through, for example, cleaning grey water naturally and low energy.