July, 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
  • Fixing the forests

    Other than a few fleeting mentions in the media, the furore around the future of England’s public forest estate seems to have simmered. The Independent Panel on Forestry has started to examine the issues and a few public pressure groups have mobilised. But it certainly isn’t the political hot potato that it was in February and March of this year.

    But it’s important that we don’t forget about it. As we said repeatedly earlier in the year, it’s a complicated issue and our views on it can’t be fitted comfortably onto a placard. But basically we want to make sure that, whatever happens, we get the best possible outcome for wildlife, habitats and people. And then it’s about finding the best possible way of achieving this.

    The results of a recent re-survey of deciduous woodland bird populations showed that 9 out of 34 bird species have suffered serious declines. Some, such as willow tit, have declined by more than 70%, one of the largest bird declines in any UK habitat. Changes in the structure of woodlands, caused by a lack of management, are thought to have had the biggest influence. And it’s not just birds - alarming declines in woodland butterfly and plant species have also been recorded.

    The Forestry Panel for England will need to address any shortcomings in the management of our woodlands if these iconic landscapes, and the wildlife that lives in them, are to have a secure future.

    So, what do we want?

    We’d like to see improved woodland management for rare and threatened  wildlife, through the protection, restoration and extension of our native woods and priority open habitats, such as heathland.

    We also need to ensure that the right trees are in the right places. This may sound a bit odd, but some important habitats have been overplanted with the wrong species of trees, often to provide commercial timber. Planting of non-native conifers has damaged some our most important habitats – both ancient woodland and heathland.

    It’s shocking to realise that over 80% of England’s heathland has been lost over the past 200 years, which has had a devastating impact on the wildlife that depends on it. We’d like to see these special and important places restored and see an increase in heathland species like the woodlark, Dartford warbler, sand lizard and heath tiger beetle. And restoring our ancient woodlands could benefit species such as hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker and the glorious purple emperor butterfly.

    And it’s not just about the wildlife. It’s also about you and me. Woods and forests need to be managed with people in mind, providing local areas for recreation, education and the enjoyment of wildlife.

    The Forestry Commission does some things well, but there are quite a few things that need to be fixed. For example, an area of heathland and ancient woodland almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight continues to be damaged by conifer plantations on FC-managed land.

    These are some of the issues that we will be asking the Forestry Panel to consider. What do you think?


  • Making the news

    Part of the RSPB's mission is to raise awareness of nature conservation and to do that we need a cracking media team and an abundance of good stories.  We are not short of either.

    It was a good news week last week, and we very nearly featured in in a soap too.
    The Observer printed a feature about the land grabbing that's happening in Kenya's Tana Delta to make way for crops for biofuels. We arranged for the paper's writer to visit the Tana Delta with Nature Kenya to see first-hand the affect it was having on the people who lived there and the wildlife.

    In The Sunday Times , AA Gill compared BBC's coverage of Glastonbury to that of Springwatch and asked 'Who'd have thought that rock 'n' roll would turn into the urban, middle-aged wing of the RSPB?' - I think we'll take that as a compliment...

    The BBC covered our story about data from the satellite-tracked seabirds in Scotland showing that they're travelling further for food. This is all part of our FAME project (Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment) and as time goes on will hopefully give us answers to why we've seen some dramatic declines in numbers of these birds. Also on Tuesday BBC 2  aired a programme called The Truth About Wildlife, where Chris Packham took a look at the nation's wildlife and its conservation. The episode focused on farming and the decline of many farmland species. The RSPB's Cath Jeffs was interviewed about the red-listed cirl bunting.

    The Daily Telegraph (the article's not online, unfortunately) reported how we've been working closely with the Forestry Commission to create an osprey-friendly environment in Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland and how this week all that hard work's paid off. In a breakthrough for bird conservation, a second pair of ospreys have produced a chick, which means it's the only place in England in more than 170 years where more than one pair of naturally recolonising ospreys have bred successfully at the same time.

    I wrote a letter to The Times after reading an article in the paper on Monday entitled "Millions more trees will be felled to fan flames of the wood-burner revolution". I think sustainable wood fuel has its place, but we need tight rules to ensure we don't destroy forests overseas to produce biomass so we can meet our renewable energy targets. I said as much in my letter and the paper printed it on Wednesday. 

    Despite lots of householders, building companies, and local authorities doing great things to help swifts as they spend the summer in the UK, it seems that many people are doing all they can to stop them breeding successfully. We've learned of people going to unbelievable lengths to stop the birds getting access to nest sites, such as putting up spikes, scaffolding, and plastic and we told Radio 5 Live all about it when one of our media officers was interviewed on Thursday morning.

    And finally, I mentioned how we (kind of) appeared in a soap this week. Well, those of you that listen to The Archers  may have heard Kirsty and Pat discussing the positive results of Patrick's bird survey and how excited they got when they discovered numbers going up. OK, so they didn't actual mention the RSPB by name, but we all know what they meant!

    We'll see what next week brings.  As things stand at the moment, I am due to be in the Today programme tomorrow morning talking about the Our Rivers campaign and on You and Yours on Thursday talking about biomass.  Things may scupper these plans, but it is always good when our work is noticed and picked up by the press.

  • Tough times ahead for Europe's wildlife

    I have mixed feelings about the EU Budget announcement. 

    I feel frustrated that once again the European Commission has failed to come up with a budget to tackle the environmental challenges we face.  Yet, I feel relieved that our worst fears about cuts to funding for wildlife-friendly farming have been largely allayed.  And, I also feel proud about the way that the RSPB, working closely through BirdLife International, our supporters (over 8,000 of them) and many farmers spoke up for nature by contacting Mr Barroso directly.

    Their support has helped retain most of the existing pot of cash for activities which can improve the environment. But we were looking for so much more.

    I am not convinced that the funding and proposed reforms will be sufficient for the EU (or indeed the UK for that matter) to fulfil its many environmental commitments to reversing wildlife declines or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

    While it is notoriously difficult to interpret the Budget figures, our economists have managed to draw out the following headlines:

    • The total EU Budget will increase by 5.5% in real terms (adjusted for inflation)
    • There has been a cut to the CAP budget of about 8.2%.  
    • The Rural Development fund (which includes the money to support wildlife-friendly farming) is cut by 7% in real terms.
    • 30 per cent of the CAP income subsidies will be attached to (unspecified) “greening” commitments
    • There will be re-orientation of the fisheries fund towards support for sustainable fisheries and conservation of the marine environment
    • There is environmental and climate proofing of cohesion policy investments
    • LIFE+ (the only pot dedicated exclusively to nature conservation projects) has increased from €2.18bn to €3.2bn: a significant rise (although in real terms less than 30 percent), which still falls far short of what RSPB and BirdLife International had called for.

    You can read the Commission's proposals here.  I will direct you to the RSPB analysis as soon as it is on our website.

    But this is just the beginning of a long process.

    The Council of Ministers now get their say.  And once the Council and the Commission reach agreement, the EU Parliament still needs to give it the nod.  The key completion date is the end of 2013 when the current budget term expires.

    So it is clear that we will have to roll up our sleeves and step up again for nature by lobbying governments and MEPs to honour Europe’s environmental commitments.  We'll keep campaigning to defend what we have, to seek improvement and ultimately to deliver a brighter future for Euorpe's wildlife.