November, 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
  • Whose side are you on?

    A colleague sent round a rather provocative email last night.  It was stimulated by a story told by a Defra civil servant at a seminar about the Nagoya Biodiversity Conference in December.  The civil servant said that the head of the World Bank turned up at the Nagoya meeting but was asked by surprised conservationists what on earth he was doing there.  The World Bank chap said to them that "the reason you are failing to save biodiversity is because you don’t get more people like me turning up to things like this".

    It's true that sometimes we (in the nature conservation sector) occasionally do spend too much time talking to ourselves rather than reaching out to others who do not necessarily share the same beliefs and values.

    My colleague (and I have confess at this point, that, yes, he is an economist) made a distinction between those that are focused on delivering nature conservation for its own sake (let's call them ‘supply-siders’ - S) and those that are more focused on addressing people's concerns (let's call these the ‘demand-siders‘ - D).  The former care about delivering more conservation directly, the later care about delivering more conservation indirectly (through changing the way the world works or the way people behave).  Its easy to identify an S from D.  If you want to play at home,  just answer the following questions. 

     ·        Are intrinsic/ethical reasons values more important to you than economic ones for saving nature?

    ·         Which Westminster department do you think is more important to influence if we are to save nature – Defra or the Treasury?

    ·         Close your eyes and think of an ecosystem service?  Did you think of an ecological function (carbon sequestered, water flow) or did you think of a human benefit (maintenance of a liveable climate, health benefits etc)

    ·         Does education constitute conservation delivery?

    ·         Is it more important to influence things like the NEWP or Lawton review or more important to influence the Treasury Green book or the National Planning Policy Framework?

    A classic supplyside organisation might be one where the Chief Executive buttonholes the rich and mighty on golf courses and uses the dosh to get on with conservation rather than waste time on politicians.  A demandside organisation might be more focused on tackling the root causes of decline by seeking to influence economic drivers.  (I have to confess I have never seen or heard of any senior RSPB exec anywhere near a golf course).

    Does this matter? Well, the evidence suggests that it should matter:

    a)      The drivers of loss are accelerating and unless we can understand and change what people do we will fail to save nature

    b)      The nature conservation sector has attracted more support over the years and as a result has grown.  We, and I am sure others, have ambitions to do more, but the next decade looks extremely challenging.  Nature conservation is tumbling down the list of government’s priorities for funding – if wildlife needs to compete with jobs, schools, or even weekly bin collection for more resources, it is unfortnately all too clear who'll win.  Defra has done remarkably well to retain the resources it currently has, but will need to smarten its act over the coming months and years if it is to attract new resources. 

    c)       All of us may gradually become worse off as escalating resource prices (especially for energy) reduce our real incomes and as a smaller minority have to start finding enormous sums to take care of our ageing relatives.  In the 1970’s there were 10 people of working age to support each retired person by the 2030’s they’ll be less than 2.  You can imagine the stress such financing will place on an already challenged economy?

    So we have a choice - stay on the supplyside and do what we can for nature directly or engage with those on the supply side to get us on the front foot to enable us to engage constructively with more challenging audiences including big business and thereby perhaps, just perhaps, begin to tackle some of the root causes for decline in nature.

    So the question is whose side are you on? Are you instinctively an S or a D?   And, if you want to save nature does it matter?

    It would be great to hear your views.



  • Conservation and intensive farming: unlikely bedfellows?

    Am looking forward to today.  I have a meeting with our Council this morning which is always fun.  And tonight I am giving a talk to the South East England Agricultural Society.  We are debating whether conservation is compatible with intensive farming.

    I am not sure what sort of reception to expect, but I am sure it will be colourful evening.  Judging by the state of the farmland bird and farmland butterfly indices, you could conclude that it is not possible to reconcile seemingly competing interests.  But it is always worth remembering that it was farming practices that allowed many of the species which we now value to flourish.  Many species even owe their vernacular names to their association with agriculture: cornflower and corn bunting to name but two. 

    But as we became better at producing food from our land - a fourfold increase in yield since 1945 - and as the Common Agriculture Policy exerted its influence, farmland wildlife suffered. 

    Great efforts have been made by many farmers over the past decade to try and reverse the declines but alas, the two biological indicators still show numbers are bumping along at the bottom of the graph.  Some of the solutions are in our grasp - environmental stewardship can be made to work harder, payment rates for these schemes need to provide sufficient incentive for farmers to take up the right options and the new CAP must, of course, be made fit for purpose.

    Given that so much of our nation is farmed, it is pretty clear that, if we want to recover farmland wildlife, we have no option other than to find harmonious coexistence between nature and farming.  This is why I am so pleased that Defra, in its Natural Environment White Paper, committed to explore the question about how to improve productivity whilst enhancing the envirionment.

    With luck, we should get a chance to explore some of the solutions at tonight's debate.

    I'll let you know how I get on.

    Do you think that it is possible to increase productivity whilst enhancing the environment? If so how? If not, what do we do?

    It would be great to hear your views.


  • When was your first time?

    On Saturday afternoon, I went to collect my wife from Madingley Hall, where she teaches Literature.  I was late (probably) and she was sitting on a bench outside, waiting in the dusk, and spellbound by a flock of starlings coming in to roost.  As ever they were painting amazing patterns in the sky and for once my wife was captivated by birds.

    She is not a birder.  Over the years, she has sat in many cars/hides/fields reading a book while I potter around looking for flowers or watching birds.  Everyone has their own way of connecting with the world and, to be fair, I have to say that Jane Austen has never quite done it for me.  But I did wonder whether Saturday afternoon was a turning point.  Maybe, just maybe, the starlings’ performance would do more to awake a feeling for nature than a couple of decades of my detailed explanations of animal behaviour and ecology.

    I know that many people believe that a love of nature always starts in childhood.  I am not so sure.  I think that it can get you at any time.  My Dad, on walking from John O’Groats to Lizard Point during his retirement took more interest in the wildlife that he encountered than at any time in his previous 50 years of walking.  And I think that I came to birds quite late.  I had been a bit distracted by butterflies and big carnivores.  It was when I saw my first lapwing through the scope of a vet (the detail never leaves you) that I first began to appreciate birds in all their glory.  I was struck by the beauty of its plumage and then its distinctive flight and call.  I haven’t wanted to stop looking since.

    It goes without saying that I am a huge fan of David Attenborough’s new Frozen Planet series and am delighted to marvel at the latest escapade of an Adélie penguin, but I think that it is only through direct contact with nature that a deep and inspirational connection with nature can be forged.  The sad truth is that we face a vicious circle with dwindling available wildlife-rich places meaning chance encounters are less frequent.  That means fewer people catching the bug which means fewer people caring enough to do something to save nature.

    This is why encouraging contact with nature through everyday living is a core part of the RSPB’s strategy.  Through our youth and education work, our people engagement initiatives and even through site visits with politicians – we want more people to see nature at first hand and see how it can change your life.

    As for my wife, only time will tell whether she’ll look up from her book the next time the starlings come home to roost.

    When did you first fall in love with nature? How do you think we should encourage more people to get in contact with nature?

    It would be great to hear your views.