July, 2012

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
  • Vote for your farming heroes

    The RSPB has had a long and at times fraught relationship with farming.  It’s not surprising considering the loss of 300 million birds from Europe’s farmed landscape in the past 50 years.

    But after more than decade running our own commercial farm in Cambridgeshire, we have a much greater understanding of the pressures that farmers face and we also have direct experience of what it takes to recover farmland wildlife. 

    On Friday, I was delighted to be able to show our farm to the Chair of Natural England, Poul Christensen.  The Farm’s Manager, Ian Dillon, explained how we have managed to triple the numbers of farmland birds, increase wheat yields and maintain a healthy profit. 

    Poul Christensen and myself at the RSPB's commercial farm in Cambridgeshire

    We are learning what many farmers up and down the country are doing – farming with wildlife in mind. 

    And now voting is now underway in the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Award, our annual competition to celebrate wildlife-friendly farmers, run in conjunction with Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation

    The next twelve months are also a key for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy.  22,000 people took the trouble to vote last year and we want more people to take part this year.  It is vital that we demonstrate the support for farmers like our four finalists.  Decision-makers across Europe need to know how strongly people feel and we will continue to press them to ensure the CAP rewards wildlife-friendly farming.

    Every vote is a vote of confidence for those that hold the future of our countryside in their hands.

    You can show your support for wildlife-friendly farmers by voting here today. 

    And once you have voted, why not encourage your friends to vote too. One of them may even win a luxury break for two sharing a suite at Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa in Leicestershire, worth over £500. The prize includes breakfast, lunch and dinner on one day, plus full use of the facilities and free 50-minute massage or facial per person. 

    I know that my wife will be voting and so should you. 

    Don’t be distracted by the Olympics, get your vote in early, and certainly before the closing date on 5 September.

  • Book review: "Fighting for Birds" by Mark Avery

    When I accepted the job as Conservation Director of the RSPB, I knew I had big shoes to fill.  Mark Avery’s new book, “Fighting for Birds”, reminds me just how much he achieved in his 25 years working for the RSPB and, alas, the scale of the challenge that still remains. 

    The book is everything you’d expect from Mark: beautifully written, instructive, forthright and fun. 

    Although Mark claims this is not an autobiography, for those of us who know Mark so well, it is good to get an insight into his backstory. 

    The early chapters explain how he moved from birding around Bristol to studies at Cambridge and Oxford before he joined the RSPB as a scientist working in the Flow Country and then on seabirds.  These chapters are a joy to read.  As expected, he helps you understand the science, articulates the conservation challenge but he also gives generous acknowledgement to the people around him nurturing and inspiring him in the early days of his career.

    His own experiences and conservation philosophy help to bring to life the RSPB conservation toolkit: sound science, protecting species from direct threats, saving special places, improving the wildlife value of land and sea and putting back lost biodiversity.  This approach evolved during his time at the charity and remains in place today.  These chapters are so good, they should serve as a text book for any budding conservationist. 

    Mark has always been a passionate birder and made his mark as a scientist.  But, he is also a brilliant communicator, lobbyist and gambler.  And it is his love of horses and gambling that gives a clue to how he approaches life.  Yes, his is unconventional and occasionally courts controversy.  But he is never rash.  He plays the odds and is not interested in investing in battles that he cannot win.  This is why you won’t get him to join a sweepstake – he’s not interested if the stakes are unknown and the outcome is left to chance. 

    Mark is at his best when science and politics collide.  His book provides excellent accounts of what it was like to be at the frontline of debates about genetically modified crops, avian influenza, farming and raptor persecution.  He prided himself in being on the right side of the argument.

    As you’d expect, he doesn’t pull punches – he no longer needs to.  It’s clear that he is enjoying life as an independent commentator.  Like his blog, this book is bound to upset some people but that is because he speaks from the heart, points out inconvenient truths and always does whatever he thinks nature needs. 

    The only downside to this book is you are reminded of past battles that, despite Mark’s best efforts, just don’t seem to have gone away.  The prospect of an airport in the Thames still looms nearly a decade after Mark led the RSPB’s fight against Cliffe Airport, birds of prey are still persecuted, wind farms still get built in the wrong place and farmland birds have yet to recover. 

    The closing chapters offer a constructive critique of the sector and of the organisation he left and the one I still work for.  I didn’t squirm, it’s a fair summary of where we are and the choices we have to make.  And the final chapter is an optimistic call to arms to the whole conservation movement.  Following last week’s reminder about the parlous state of many of our breeding birds and the row over climate change, it is a call that we need to respond to.  If we slip up, or fall short for whatever reason, one thing is certain – he’ll tell us what we did wrong on his blog.

    For a change, I’ll have the last word.  If Mark had won more battles, my life would be a lot easier today.  So, if I was harsh, I’d blame him for all those sleepless nights I've had over the past 14 months. 

    But I’ll be nice (which is what he’d expect).  Without Mark, the natural world would be in a much worse place than it is now.  So thank you Mark for everything you did over the past 25 years (and that includes giving me my first job at the RSPB in 2004).

    Read the book and tell him what you think.  I’m sure that he’d love to hear your views.

  • You asked the questions, the Deputy Prime Minister has provided some answers

    In June, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, outlined his ambitions for the Rio+20 conference in a blog here.  He kindly invited people to submit some questions (which many of you did).  We then asked him to come up with some answers. 

    While the process has not been quite as slick as Any Questions/Any Answers, the Deputy Prime Minister has taken time out from this hectic schedule (which those of you who read my blog on Tuesday will know that this does, of course, mean visiting some of our finest wildlife sites) to provide some answers.  As many questions we received were similar, we did lump them together (and prioritise) a bit.  Let me know what you think of his answers!


    1.       You were going to push for GDP plus at Rio. But I haven't seen a media word mention it?

    While in Rio I made a speech on Natural Capital Accounting at the Natural Capital Summit which I co-hosted on 20 June. You can read the speech in full on my website here http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/nick-clegg-speech-natural-capital-summit

    Pushing for GDP Plus was one of my priorities at the Rio summit.  The Natural Capital Summit was an important opportunity for us to urge more national governments to broaden their understanding of wealth. We simply cannot go on ignoring the state of natural capital - assets like forests or coastal areas and only judging how well a country is doing by looking almost exclusively at the money it makes.

    GDP is vital in measuring economic performance – but it doesn’t capture the full picture. It says nothing about this natural capital on which future prosperity depends. The UK has committed to including natural capital within our system of national accounts by 2020. Botswana has pioneered this kind of thinking since the 1980s. The government calculates the cost to the environment from mining and then invests in other parts of the economy, like education, to offset the damage.

    We want to see others follow suit.  So we worked hard at the summit to ensure that all the nations that attended recognised the importance of broader measures of environmental and social wealth to complement GDP. I was pleased that the final declaration asked the UN Statistical Commission to launch a programme of work to develop GDP Plus, and that it also recognised the importance of broader measures of progress beyond GDP in order to inform governments’ decision making.

    I was delighted to also be able to announce at the summit that all businesses listed on the Main Market of the London Stock Exchange will have to report their levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the start of the next financial year. We are the first country to make it compulsory for companies to include emissions data for their entire organisation in their annual reports, enabling investors to see which companies are effectively managing the hidden long-term costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

    2.       In Pavan Suhkdev's memorable phrase (in the TEEB Report), our economic compass is broken.  What is the single most important thing we need to do to reset it?

    3.       Governments must provide the investment needed to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems."; Does this imply we expect countries like Brazil to pay for the Amazon, (at a cost to their agricultural development I guess), or are we doing anything to help poorer countries maintain the investment to help maintain the upkeep of our planet's biodiversity hotspots and key ecosystem services? I think if the world paid what some of these services are worth - developing countries would be planting forests; estimates of ecosystem services are surely worthless if they generate no real value... compared to say selling a mangrove for woodchip and farming shrimp on it.

    I believe strongly that our economic, social and environmental agendas must go hand in hand.

    Sustainable growth is essential to raise living standards at home and abroad. It is often the poorest people who are most reliant on natural resources and our natural resources provide essential economic resources for long-term growth. Globally the green sector is worth about $5 trillion a year. And being green makes good business sense - UK business can save $35 billion a year from no or low cost measures to use resources, such as energy, more sustainably.

    In Rio I was able to underline the UK commitment to playing our part and to working with our international partners.

    One of the specific goals recommended by the ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report is mainstreaming the consideration of the values of biodiversity in our decision making, not just in government but across society as a whole.

    Our Natural Environment White Paper and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment commit us to working with business, land managers, local authorities, environmental organisations and others to protect and improve the natural environment; setting up a Natural Capital Committee has provided us with advice and a well rounded picture of the natural capital we all depend on; and we are working with our statistical authorities to develop a more multi-dimensional statistical assessment of our well-being.

    We have also provided £3 million worth of support to the World Bank’s WAVES initiative which is designed explicitly to help other countries develop their own measures of growth, taking into account the resources upon which we all depend

    Where there are global benefits, for example, through protecting and restoring tropical forests we are already investing with the Government’s International Climate Fund which wills see us provide £2.9 billion for climate projects across the world by March 2015.

    But of course government cannot act alone. Crucially, at Rio national governments recognised the importance of working alongside businesses. Thanks in no small part to the leadership of UK firms and the Government, Rio recognised the role of corporate sustainability reporting to their shareholders and to prospective investors, something which would have been inconceivable even a year ago. I also announced in Rio that we will be the first country anywhere to mandate large companies to report on their greenhouse gas emissions.

    A growing number of companies and investors are realising that their own success is directly linked to sustainable, green growth. I hope that the call from all nations for businesses to report their sustainability performance will usher in a new era of transparency and consistency in the global business community.

    4.       Firstly I would like you to note that there are more Heads of Government attending the Olympics than Rio+20. This is a sad commentary on the "sustainability agenda" and Mr Cameron's absence defines his "green conservatism" as hogwash. Post Rio 1992 CO2 emissions have risen 40 per cent when our ambition, legally defined by the Rio signatories was to have them falling. There is nothing defined or legally binding in ambition at Rio plus 20 and my own conclusion is that society prefers to prepare for war than peace ie it would have been preferable to spend the Iraq/Afghan monies on energy security via sun, wind, wave and tide.

    Britain is a world leader on environmental issues, but we cannot tackle these matters in isolation. The Rio summit was an opportunity for us to make the case for all nations to match our progress. I led a UK delegation committed to making the case that growth does not have to come at a cost to the environment and that sustainable use of natural resources will be essential for long-term prosperity.

    The summit set an enormous task for all of us who took part. Important progress on reducing poverty and protecting our environment had been made since the original Rio Earth Summit, but all in all, ambitions had not been met. We needed to agree ways to grow our economies without hoovering up or destroying our precious natural resources. And weighing heavily on our minds was the need to take the right decisions, not just for ourselves, but for the next generation which – in just 18 years – will need 30 per cent more water, 45 per cent more energy and 50 per cent more food. 

    It is true that the summit did not go as far as we would have liked, but we did make progress on the key areas the UK sees as the priority for sustainable development and green growth. It revived a global commitment to an agenda that has come under threat and the UK Government played a crucial role in this.

    Progress was made in the areas were progress needed to be made. I am clear that the declaration agreed by all196 countries should not be seen as the upper end of ambition, it should be our baseline and all countries should strive to surpass its expectation. We must now build on the steps that were taken to reinvigorate the drive for sustainable development and lasting growth.

    5.       The Coalition today announced a limited Plan B; its home ownership initiative fails to address the monopoly of land banks and thereby does nothing to "rebalance" the economy through reducing housing costs and rents (which it is driving up) but specifically can I get a commitment from you to start developing the energy potential of the Severn Estuary whether it be a Hain's Barrage, RSPB's "reefs" or FoE's "lagoons.

    The UK is a seen as a world leader in developing wave and tidal technologies and we are the global focal point for their development. With our excellent wave and tidal resources and our expertise in oil and gas exploration, the UK is in a unique position to benefit from this type of renewable energy and to develop related wave and tidal services. It is estimated that the UK has around 50 per cent of Europe’s tidal energy resource, and a study in 2004 estimated our technical resource is around 16 TWh/year (4 per cent of supply).However the industry is still in its early stages and further research is needed to determine how best to exploit these assets.

    In October 2010 we published a two year Severn tidal power feasibility study, which concluded that the Government does not see a strategic case for public investment in a Severn tidal scheme, which could cost up to £34 billion.  However, the outcome of the feasibility study does not preclude a privately financed scheme coming forward and my Ministerial colleagues and officials are talking to private sector consortia about their ideas for developing tidal energy schemes in the Severn and elsewhere.

    6.       I would like to ask you why so many of the recommendations from the excellent review "Making Space for Nature: A review of England's Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. Chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton CBE FRS" seem to have been ignored?

    The Making Space for Nature report was warmly welcomed by the Government when it was published in 2010. The Report's recommendations shaped the direction of our long-term policy ambitions, including the creation of ecological networks, promoting landscape scale approaches to conservation, ensuring important wildlife sites are protected and establishing Nature Improvement Areas.

    The report was also one of the key drivers of our Natural Environment White Paper published in June 2011, and the England Biodiversity Strategy published later in 2011.

    7.       Despite austerity, what concrete actions are you taking, right now, to protect marine life in British waters?

    Part of my work at Rio was encouraging the summit to lay the foundations for a new international agreement to create marine protected areas in the high seas in order to preserve more of the precious flora and fauna of our oceans.

    In the UK we are creating a network of Marine Protected Areas to conserve rare and threatened habitats.  Over 22 per cent of English inshore waters are already protected and we will roll out more protected areas over the next four years. We have also said we will consult on new Marine Conservation Zones later this year. This will mean that, by 2016, over 25 per cent of our inshore waters will be within well managed marine protected areas. We are also working to ensure that all UK waters reach what is known as ‘Good Environmental Status’ by 2020.

    We have also recently announced a new marine protection zone totalling a million square km in South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands and already have marine conservation measures in place in uninhabited overseas territories. These are vital steps to preserve marine life and crucially to replenish fish stocks.

    8.       Nick, what actions the coalition have taken to justify the PM's claim to be the greenest government ever?

    RSPB members should not be in any doubt of our commitment to being the greenest government ever. We have pledged to half greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 - the boldest target set, in law, by any government, anywhere in the world, we are leading the biggest shakeup of the electricity market in thirty years and we are creating the UK’s first ever market in energy efficiency through the Green Deal. We are investing in a series of world firsts despite the huge pressures on the public purse. The first ever national bank devoted to green investment, the first ever Carbon Capture and Storage project at commercial scale and in just a few days, the greenest ever Olympic and Paralympic Games.

    Periods of economic reinvention force us to do things differently, but lean times can be green times too. We have the sixth largest low carbon market in the world, our green industries are booming. They employ 940,000 people - up 2.8% from last year. Sales in the green economy are also growing at a rate of 4.7%.
    At the Rio Summit, we could play a lead role precisely because we were able to point to leadership at home. The economic situation creates challenge, but it has not weakened our resolve, it has only strengthened our ambition. The Summit is over but the work continues and the UK will continue to lead from the front.