We approach D-Day for the protection of a key nightingale site in Kent.  Below, RSPB Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke, explains the significance of the decision and why this time it's personal.


The nightingale’s melody melted into the darkness of a warm June night that was heavy with the scent of honeysuckle. I was fourteen.  That’s my first memory of a nightingale.

Shakespeare knew about special places for nature and what it felt to come across the scent of honeysuckle, or woodbine, on a midsummers night:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine
With sweet musk-roses and with eglatine

My bank was called Lodge Hill. Part of the wooded ridge that runs above the marshlands of Cliffe and Cooling, Lodge Hill was mercifully within bicycling distance that allowed me to escape our crowded corner of Kent. My friends and I discovered our first ever robin’s nest in those woods, delicately hidden among bluebells and violets by a path. When we next came back, we found it scrambled under the tracks of a motorbike. That was the precise moment when I learnt nature needs protecting.

The future of Lodge Hill is now at a critical point. Sadly, the nightingales in the UK  have declined by half in the last twenty years – so much so, that Lodge Hill is now nationally important for its nightingale population. But Lodge Hill is also threatened by proposals for housing development. This week Natural England’s Executive Board will decide whether or not to notify an extended part of the site as a SSSI – a move that could prove crucial in saving this special place from the threat of development. I sincerely hope that they do, for the sake of the local wildlife, and the local people.

If Natural England do decide to designate this site as a SSSI, based on the scientific merits of its importance to wildlife in this country, it will uphold the fundamental principles on which its statutory role is based. This is a litmus test at the very moment that this Government is considering getting rid of its champion for nature and merging it into an organisation that could no longer focus on nature conservation.

The subject of government agencies might sound boring, but if you’re interested in conservation, you should be very interested in the Government’s review of Defra’s agencies. And, you should be very worried that it might lead to the loss of an agency focussed on conservation. Put simply, we cannot restore nature without an independent, expert agency that is devoted to the cause and has the necessary resources to deliver.

We must have an agency that can act as a true champion for all our wildlife, with the ability to restore all of our fragmented habitats on  a landscape scale and to aid nature’s recovery, as set out in the Government’s own Natural Environment White Paper. There is a strong case for strategic reform to Defra’s agencies. But the so-called Triennial Review has not provided that case. It would be fundamentally flawed and deeply damaging to merge Natural England with the Environment Agency.

The crises facing our wildlife dictate that we must have an agency largely devoted to its restoration – which is something that an agency responsible for flood defence cannot be. That is why we are so strongly in favour of a merger between Natural England and Forest Services  to create a new Forest and Wildlife Service. Far from boring - if you know the history - what the Government’s nature conservation organisations represent is nothing short of inspiring.

The state’s role in nature conservation is vital. This was recognised in 1949 when the first agency devoted to protecting the countryside was formed, and it remains true to this day.  Born out of a wartime vision of a modern, better Britain, they are a powerful symbol of the value of nature, even in the most austere and hardest of times.

That vision remains as relevant as ever. It’s what led me to work for the RSPB and keeps me campaigning now.  It’s why the decision today on Lodge Hill matters, so that we will have special places to escape to in the future. And it’s why the outcome of the Triennial Review is so important for the future of England’s natural environment. And for all of us.

  • Very eloquent and poetic Martin re nightingales and I agree with the fist half but I am not sure that I agree re architecture ! I do agree that the repeated re-shuffling of these desk chairs is an incredible distraction and debilitating to staff time. I would much prefer that it stopped. I reiterate my view that all these environment quangoes should be given the freedom of reporting to Parliament via the Select Ctte and not the Minister.