Before I complete my migration from the RSPB to start my new job as BirdLife International's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, I want to offer some final reflections from my decade as Conservation Director.  Today, I talk about the power of people and partnerships.

During the first lockdown last year, like many, I wasn’t sleeping very well.  The only way I seemed to be able to settle was to mentally travel around the UK ticking off RSPB nature reserves that I have visited.  While my memory is a bit hazy, I reckon I have visited 114.  Pretty good, but it still means there are 108 wonderful sites that I haven’t seen.

I learnt something from every visit because every site is different, has different challenges and is catering for different species.  The common feature is the quality of the management and the site managers.  Without exception, every site manager I met was passionate, engaging and extraordinarily proud of their site.  They were always welcoming and always happy to shared their knowledge with patience.  They are excellent ambassadors for their reserves, for the RSPB and for nature.

That is what is special about working at the RSPB. It is full of great people with expertise in science, ecology, economics, fundraising, finance, communications etc etc.  The skills and capabilities of our c2,000 paid staff are complemented by our c12,000 volunteers whether they are our President or Vice-President, our trustees, members of country advisory committees, those who work on our nature reserves, those who help with species recovery, those who ensure our offices run smoothly or promote our work by being active members of our 140 local groups.

But we are just one cog in the conservation wheel.  Real power often comes when we connect with other organisations.  The challenge of saving nature is clearly too big for any one organisation and this decade, we have invested in developing some new strategic partnerships, for example:

  • We have brought over 70 conservation organisations to develop a common evidence base about the State of Nature
  • We have allied with other single-taxa groups to champion new approaches to species recovery through Rethink Nature
  • We supported Green Alliance in creating Greener UK to try to ensure that the UK vote to leave the European Union dealt with the jeopardy and exploited the opportunity in creating a new environmental legal and governance framework for the UK required after Brexit
  • We joined forces with Barratt Homes to ensure housing developments are great places for both homeowners and wildlife to live in
  • We championed the formation of the Nature Friendly Farmers Network for those who are passionate about wildlife and sustainable farming
  • We joined Great British Oceans to campaign for marine protected areas around the UK Overseas Territories

These new strategic partnerships complement those that were already in place such as the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, Nature after Minerals, The Climate Coalition, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, the Environment Links UK, and of course, BirdLife International.

Ben Andrew's image taken from The Time is Now lobby (

Some of my closest working colleagues are outside of the RSPB and I hope that organisational boundaries continue to be more permeable so we learn from and complement each other.  More than that, we need to get better at developing and delivering strategy together.  Transactional partnerships where each party gets something are good, but I argue that for our sector to have the impact that everyone knows we need, then we have to develop a big and shared agenda and action plan.  That takes time, because you need build trust and be buffered from the demands of individual organisations.

This absolutely applies to BirdLife International which is the largest civil society nature conservation partnership in the world.  And, as the UK partner, the RSPB has invested significantly in growing individual partners in different countries around the world.  This approach is rooted in the belief that we need strong independent national champions for birds and nature around the world.  Some partners, in whom we have invested over the years such as SEO in Spain or BirdLife South Africa, have developed to such an extent that they now support other partners.  Of course, we will only be able to protect our shared nature if we have deep collaborations in key geographical regions such as the East Atlantic Flyway.

I'm not saying that working in partnership is good for its own sake.  I have spent long hours in unproductive meetings with partners where it is clearly not going to work either because there isn't the need or the organisational buy-in is completely absent.  Knowing when to end a partnership is as important as knowing when to invest in one.   

In the coming months and years, the UK nature conservation sector, of which the RSPB is a leading player, must continue to evolve.  It needs to:

  • be much more literate in social justice issues understanding its relevance to environmental concerns while being more proactive in improving equality, diversity and inclusion
  • develop a shared vision about what it means for 30% of land and sea to be well managed for wildlife and driving a practical and shared plan to make it happen
  • continue to take action to recover threatened species
  • support and challenge the UK farming industry make its transition to nature positive and net zero farming
  • champion action to tackle the nature and climate emergency in an integrated way not trading away wildlife in pursuit of laudable low carbon objectives
  • recognise our international responsibilities, supporting conservation within the UK Overseas Territories home to 94% of “our” endemic species, reducing our ecological footprint abroad and encouraging decision-makers to offer international leadership
  • And finally, it needs to continue to put in place the conditions to be really bold whether it is to conceive or deliver mega restoration projects like Gough Island or to challenge recalcitrant governments to go much further and faster.

Stick together, be bold, be resilient because you/we need continue to achieve great things for nature.

Fly well.