May, 2011

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Recovering my breath

    The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is not going to disappoint.  I promise you.  But you'll have to wait a little longer - 'til the launch on Thursday 2 June - to get the full picture.

    Bob Watson - Defra's Chief Scientist - posed a fascinatig question today.  Can you think of any major enviromental problem that has been solved by behviour change alone without relying on incentives and/or regulation?

    I can't. 

    It's an important question.  And if the answer is no, then this has consequences for future government policy - for ending peat use in horticulture, for lead in ammunition, for recovering farmland birds, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and for... well, the Big Society!

  • Breathless over nature

    I’m off to get a sneak preview of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) today. “The National Eco what?” I hear you say, as you no doubt
    stifle a yawn and hover     your mouse over the x in the top right corner of the screen.

    Wait...bear with really is quite interesting. The NEA is being launched next week and we think it’s great. It’s the first complete assessment
    of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to our prosperity and social well-being. It provides the case for why it pays to
    invest in the natural world.

    Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we, especially as many RSPB scientists and economists contributed to the report. The NEA has been produced by
    a wide number of stakeholders, from government, academia  and the private sector, as well as from NGOs like us.

    Given that it’s not a political or policy document, it’s great that politicians seem to like it too. Oliver Letwin does anyway. He said last month, in this
    article from the Western Gazette, that it made him “gasp for breath”. Now Mr. Letwin has been an MP since 1997, and has probably seen a few things
    in his time that would make the average person’s hair curl, so I don’t imagine many things leave him feeling light-headed these days.

    We have long argued that the value of nature needs to be recognised in decision-making. Some of the benefits are obvious. We can value apples
    and fish, for example, in monetary terms because we buy and sell them. And ecosystem services, like the complex biological processes that that
    create nutrient-rich soil and clean water have an economic value too.

    Other benefits though, like the value many of us place on the sheer existence of different species, is far harder to gauge in monetary terms, yet are just as significant. Capturing it in some kind of national well-being index is one thing, but the intrinsic value of nature needs to be taken into account across the full spectrum of government policy.

    We will never be able to express the full range of nature’s value in pounds and pence. And we probably wouldn’t want to, as putting a price on a bird, or a butterfly, is a potentially slippery slope. The idea of ecosystem services must complement, not replace, the ethical and scientific justifications for protecting nature.

    Here’s hoping Mr. Letwin manages to replenish his lungs quickly, so he can be equally enthusiastic when he discusses the NEA with his Cabinet
    colleagues. And hopefully he can sell them the benefits of protecting and restoring the natural world, as he apparently managed to do in securing
    the Green Investment Bank.

    See? It is quite interesting. No, really, it IS. And there’s more to come, as June will see a policy pile-up that could have huge implications for wildlife and the
    natural environment. I’ll return to this subject very soon....

  • Wildlife beneath the waves: out of sight, out of mind?

    I am off to my wife's family hut at the weekend for the Bank Holiday.  It's a wonderful location, perched on a (slightly eroding) cliff top looking out over Coquet Island.  I have spent many a happy hour sitting watching the terns and gannets feed wondering whether that great big black cloud will pass by or settle for the night.   

    Am sure that, weather permitting, there will be millions of us visiting the UK coastline over the Bank holiday period and throughout the summer.  My guess is that most will have a fantastic time but few will spare a thought for thewildlife to be found just underneath the waves - fewer still will appreciate that our marine environment is in trouble.  Marine conservation has long been the poor sister of terrestrial conservation - partly perhaps as it is out of sight and out of mind.

    The RSPB, like other organisations, has been campaigning for over a decade to secure better protection for marine wildlife, including seabirds.  I have been counting the years - my first paid job back in 1996 involved raising awareness of the problems facing the marine environment.

    Two years ago we celebrated new laws to establish nationally important marine protected areas in Great Britain (we're still campaigning for equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland).  These new laws sit alongside European legislation designed to protect internationally important sealife.  The UK Government has the means and obligation to offer comprehensive protection to all marine wildlife. What we need now is adequate and effective implementation of these laws, and soon.

    It is therefore a little frustrating that treacle has found its way into the designation processes.  Back in 1999, Greenpeace successfully argued that the EU Nature Directives applied to Member State's exclusive economic zone - out to 200 nautical miles.    This was confirmed by the European Court of Justice ruling in 2005.  Since then there has been insufficient effort made by successive governments to collect and assess the data to establish marine protected areas of European importance.

    Equally, it took the previous Labour Government 12 years to fulfil their 1997 manifesto commitment to "give better protection to wildlife" at sea.  But, eventually, after much public campaigning and cross-party support, to their credit, the Labour Government landed the Marine and Coastal Access Act in 2007. 

    My current worry is that more treacle is being poured into the process and it will be many more years before we have a marine protected area network at sea for seabirds.

    This is why, this summer, the RSPB will be gathering (more) public support for establishing Marine Protected Areas for all marine wildlife, including seabirds as a matter of urgency.  If you are interested in supporting our marine campaign, you can sign our pledge and help us send a signal to the UK Government that we are losing patience and want to see marine protected areas established soon.   We are also currently involved in Selfridges’ Project Ocean, an ambitious public awareness campaign created by the department store and the Zoological Society of London, to champion marine conservation globally.

    But probably our biggest investment right now is in trying to work out where the important sites for feeding seabirds at sea actually are. While the seas around the UK are probably some of the best understood waters in the world, it is still far more difficult to collect data and information than it is on land. And therefore we can’t employ the same wide-reaching and cost-effective methods as we do on land, for example we can’t get hundreds/thousands of volunteers out surveying the sea for us.

    Instead, we, along with partners in Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, are involved in a European Union-funded project, known as FAME (the Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment) to track the movements of seabirds from the Atlantic coastlines of the UK. The project involves electronic tracking of seabirds, using “seabird sat-nav” to map their movements and pinpoint areas of sea that are important for these ocean travellers. This knowledge should aid the identification of marine protected areas to protect the areas at sea where seabirds find their food. 

    But all the knowledge in the world won’t help designate marine protected areas if the political will to do so isn’t there.  I am sure that the ministerial team at Defra want to establish a marine protected area as quickly as possible, but we need to remember the great quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt who said "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it".

    So this summer whether you’re rockpooling in Rhossili, bathing in Bournemouth, snoozing on the veranda of a hut in Northumberland or even shopping in Selfridges, spare a thought for marine wildlife and show your support by ‘stepping up’ to sign our pledge demanding proper protection for all marine wildlife.