June, 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
  • Ever diminishing returns

    I have been thinking about where the environmental leaders of tomorrow will come from.

    I had a lovely morning on Saturday celebrating the role that one such leader - Adrian Darby - has played as Chairman and President of Plantlife over the last 18 years.   He's made a huge contribution to nature conservation over the years (including time spent as Treasurer and Chair of the RSPB Council). 

    I'll always have a soft spot for Adrian - not just because he was on the interview panel when I landed my job as Conservation Director of Plantlife in 1999.  He was a great mentor to me and others at Plantlife.  He loves his plants (especially arable flowers) and always brings intelligence and humour to any debate.

    But perhaps his greatest achievement has been highlighting the need to protect wildflower meadows. 

    Appropriately, therefore, we were at the Lugg Meadows in Herefordshire - where 18 hectares were dedicated to Adrian.  These flood meadows are the largest known surviving example of Lammas Meadow – areas of common land that date back to medieval times. 

    Just 5% of the original meadows remain - a fact that is heart-breaking whle walking through the meadows in the summer, when they are at their best - oozing colour and full of life. 

    I was with the kids and I was reminded of something that Chris Rose had said the day before at a conference: we are losing contact with nature partly because of our lifestyle which shelters us from the wild.  But this is compounded by a diminishing resource.  There is simply less wildlife-rich habitat for you to bump into.  Young people these days (did I really say that?) will have to be pretty smart to find their way to the patches of flower-rich grassland which remain.  So, how can they grow to love it if they never have contact with it?

    This is why I have always been keen on advocating the right for every child to have contact with the natural world as part of their formal education.  Others, such as Tony Juniper, have advocated introducing natural history GSCE. 

    This is also why I am disappointed that successive governments, whilst agreeing with the principle, have not done enough to encourage out of classroom learning. 

    Unfortunately, the Natural Environment White Paper, while saying all the right words, fails to provide the guarantees that I think are necessary.  This was a missed opportunity.  The RSPB and others will continue to provide high quality field teaching opportunities, but many schools simply cannot afford taking kids on school trips.  We had calculated that just £27m was needed to subsidise all children eligible for free-school meals to be given an annual opportunity to have contact with nature. 

    I know, there is no money, but surely it is worth looking again as this is such as tiny sum of money to invest in finding tomorrow's environmental leaders.

  • It's official - nature is good for us

    The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is out today.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s a staggeringly impressive piece of work.  So please read it – there’s even an excellent one page summary on page 5 – so no excuses. 

    My view is that it fundamentally challenges the way we currently make economic decisions.

    Well done to Hilary Benn for commissioning the work when he was Secretary of State and well done to Caroline Spelman and Oliver Letwin for launching it.  And praise also to the 500 scientists (some from the RSPB) who did the hard graft in pulling it together under the chairmanship of Prof Bob Watson and Steve Albon.

    It makes a compelling case for a step change in the way we value our environment – and it proves that if we carry on with the ‘business as usual’ approach we are selling ourselves, and our children, short.

    photo credit: Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

    Wildlife and natural landscapes are not just something nice for us to look at – they bring many benefits to society and these must be taken into account when we are making decisions that affect them. 

    The traditional view of economic growth is based on chasing GDP, but in fact, as the NEA implies, we will all end up richer and happier if we begin to take into account the true value of nature. Nature is good for us – plain and simple. It gives us clean air and water, it helps our crops to grow and it is vital for our mental and physical wellbeing. To ignore these benefits is crazy.

    Figures which illustrate the economic value of nature include the service bees provide in pollinating crops - estimated to be worth £430m - and the £2.6m brought to the local economy by tourists visiting the Galloway Red Kite Trail over the last five years. The NEA also cites the benefits of inland wetlands to water quality which are worth £1.5bn.

    Of course no-one can put a pounds and pence value on everything in nature - the song of a skylark hovering over a field, the sight of a salmon leaping upstream to its spawning grounds or a walk through a wildflower meadow buzzing with insects. But equally we cannot ignore the importance of looking after nature when we are striving for economic growth.

    The NEA confirms what we have been saying for a long time, that as a society we have consistently under-valued and over-exploited our natural resources. That needs to change.

    The Government has shown it is open to a new way of thinking by launching this fascinating report, but now it needs to follow through on its good intentions by imbedding this fresh approach to valuing nature in its decisions on development, transport, agriculture and energy.  This starts next week with the launch of the Natural Environment White Paper, but it must also influence the draft National Planning Policy Framework and the Treasury’s own green book which governs how and when Government should intervene.

    Ultimately, it would be great if this report did for protection of the natural environment what the Stern report did for climate change – by convincing people that it pays to take action today rather than do nothing and deal with the consequences in the future. 

  • The Natural Choice - the RSPB verdict

    The UK Government’s Natural Environment White Paper has been launched, and, overall, it is pretty good! 

    Congratulations to Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, and her ministerial team.

    The Government has clearly listened to the concerns millions of people in this country have about the state of our wildlife and green spaces. The aims laid out in this paper could steer us towards a future where farmland birds are no longer in decline, heathland and wetlands are no longer under threat, and some of our most threatened species are no longer teetering on the brink.

    We are working through the 70+ pages and 92 recommendations.   But, our initial assessment is that 5 of our 7 tests have been met.  Here are the highlights and the two low-ish lights.


    1. Defra ministers clearly do get it - "most people rightly believe in the innate value of nature and our strong moral repsonsibility to protect it".

    2. They have the right ambition and are prepared to set and report against measurable outcomes (for habitats, protected areas and land outside of protected areas).  More detail will emerge when the England Biodiversity Strategy is published later in the month but this is a promising start. 

    3. Most existing legislative commitments (including for water and the marine environment) get an airing.  International responsibilities under the Nagoya agreement are also clearly acknowledged.

    4. There are two clear proposals which should help deliver more wildlife close to where people live.  Local Nature Partnerships will be set up and supported along with a series of Nature Improvement Areas. These will be based on a pioneering approach to conservation which brings together farmers, charities, communities and public bodies to make a real change across a whole landscape. This is something the RSPB, through our Futurescapes programme, have been working towards for a long time. It would see an end to the unconnected patchwork of environmental measures in our countryside which limits our potential to restore the natural environment. 

    5. This is a White Paper on behalf of all of government and it was great to see ministers Greg Clarke and Norman Baker from DCLG and DfT respectively on the panel at the launch today.  There are some new initiatives including the establishment of a Natural Capital Committee which will report to the Chancellor and the value of nature will be considered in all relevant impact this assessments.  This may sound a little dry and policy-wonkish - but if they get this right, then it could help ensure nature is at heart of decision-making.  I don't expect this to be plain-sailing, and as I blogged today, there are already some existing problems, but the intent is admirable.


    6. Alas, there is no clear funding strategy for delivering the ambitions for wildlife.  But that is not surprising - there is no money!   The Government will need to be brave enough to intervene with the right mix of regulation and incentives whenever progress on wildlife and habitats is stalling.  And, existing subsidies will need to be worked harder for wildlife. For example, we know that the Entry Level Scheme is not delivering on its potential and ministers have an immediate opportunity to fix this through the Government’s review of the effectiveness of Environmental Stewardship.

    7.  It was disappointing to see that the Government has chosen not to seize the opportunity to introduce new legislation tackling environmental damage caused by horticultural peat use. The RSPB proposed a simple levy of £1 on a bag of peat based compost, and this idea has found support from within the growing media industry, the garden retail sector and amongst professional gardeners. But instead the Government will be continuing with a voluntary approach to phasing out peat use which has so far failed to achieve its desired outcome. There is simply no need to dig up carbon rich peatland habitats across Europe in order to grow flowers and vegetables in our nurseries, greenhouses and gardens. While this is a missed opportunity, we are slightly heartened that the proposed task force will be chaired by Alan Knight - a good man who previously tried to crack this issue when working for B&Q.  We will be delighted to work with him but to encourage industry and consumers to make the switch to decent peat-free alternatives which are proven to deliver the results gardeners demand.

    But, enough for now, I must go back to reading it.  If I find any more gems, I'll let you know.  Or if you do, let me know!