Since I last wrote on 17 March, our whole way of life has been upended.  From a personal perspective, it's probably been the most challenging period of my career and arguably some of the most challenging weeks in the long history of the RSPB.  We’ve closed our nature reserves, halted our field work, postponed some vital conservation work such as the Gough Island Restoration Programme, brought home colleagues from across the world, spent long days working through how we keep our people safe and what government guidelines mean for our work.  

It’s been incredibly difficult and some tough choices remain.  But amidst the worry and the challenges I have been struck by the amazing response from my colleagues from every corner of the organisation.  It’s been very humbling to see how the RSPB (and the wider BirdLife International) family has supported each other, and no doubt, will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months.

The scale and speed of the transformation is brought into sharp relief for me today, as this week I was due to start my sabbatical.  I know it is only a little thing, but it did jolt me when I remembered it this weekend.

One of the perks of working for the RSPB is that after working for the organisation for five years, you are entitled to a month to do something different to develop new perspectives or capabilities.  I hadn’t previously taken a sabbatical so was determined this year to benefit from the scheme.

If it were not for the wretched virus, over the next few weeks I would have first visited some of the RSPB’s most iconic landscape-scale projects to reacquaint myself with the scale of achievement and ambition.  This would have included Abernethy, Insh Marshes, Dove Stone (see Alan Coe's image below from, Haweswater and Geltsdale.  My intention then was to visit two European countries to be inspired by what others are doing a) Norway with the Cairngorm Connect team to experience landscapes which are analogous to what we are trying to restore in our uplands and b) Holland with colleagues from the Wildlife Trusts and statutory agencies to visit some of the largest habitat recreation/natural climate solution projects to serve as inspiration for what we can do in an equally densely populated country. 

I wanted to learn the lessons from what we have already achieved to help us deliver the step change that we need to address the climate and nature emergency.  

As I have written before, if we are successful in securing (through the new UN global deal for nature) a new target of 30% of land to be well protected and managed for nature by 2030, we need a six-fold increase from where we are today, which based on condition assessments of terrestrial protected areas in the UK is just 5% of the UK.

I am sure my sabbatical would have been brilliant.  But that, like so many things has to wait.

Instead, like you, I am now at home spending my days in virtual meetings (via Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams) and worrying about friends, family and colleagues who have been affected by the virus.  But alongside managing the immediate challenges we face, we are also taking significant steps to ensure the long-term health of the organisation so that we emerge from this in a fit state to have the impact we need for our mission.

Because, when the restrictions are lifted, there are some things which will not have changed.

The UK will still be one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.  The UK Government (and devolved administrations) will still have to introduce new policies, funding and laws to meet its commitment to restore nature in a generation and replace the losses from the past fifty years.  It will still have responsibility to reduce its environmental footprint abroad, to save nature on its 14 Overseas Territories and to play a leadership role in addressing the ecological and climate emergency internationally.  And we shall remain a critical friend and partner in delivering that ambition.

The key principles of nature conservation still stand.  We will still need to provide more space for nature by delivering more, bigger, better and joined protected areas, by taking targeted action to recover threatened species and by reforming land and sea use so that we live in harmony with nature.  And we shall still need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Nature will still provide huge benefits to people.  While the RSPB believes in the intrinsic value of nature, we know that people continue to benefit from a healthy natural environment.  The lockdown has brought this into sharp relief which is why we have been promoting ways to connect to wildlife to lift their spirits such as #BreakfastBirdwatch.   It works for me.  My garden has been watched like never before and I am paying more attention to the returning migratory birds on my daily run round the common near home.  Nature still provides cultural and spiritual benefits as well as essential services such as flood management, carbon storage and the products we consume.  We shall still need nature based solutions to tackle some of our biggest societal challenges. 

In short, after this is over we shall still need to invest in nature.

For now though, stay safe and stay well.

  • Your month's sabbatical sounded wonderful.  I have no doubt that you'll get to all of those places very soon.  I'm hoping that a new connection with and love of nature amongst a wider population will be the positive outcome of this challenging period.  I've always firmly believed that nature and wildlife is essential to mental health and never is that proving more the case than now.  We need to prioritise our wildlife and natural habitats above all else now.  We have such stunning and varied scenery and geology in the UK but I find it so depressing that we're one of those most nature depleted countries in the world.  When will it stop especially with the government ploughing ahead with various projects right now that will damage our habitat even further.  I can only thank organisations like the RSPB, Wildlife Trust, Woodland Trust and so on from the bottom of my heart for all the work and fighting you do for our environment. 

  • I hope you get to visit those places eventually. Their scale is vital and very inspiring. Good to see an official RSPB blog mention the density of the population in this country too, even if in passing.