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
  • Public forests should stay in public hands

    So the Independent Panel on Forestry report has been published.

    The stand out headline is that public forests should remain in public hands.  But, the report goes further by calling for the public forest estate to be managed by a securely funded public body, whose remit is focussed on maximising the estate’s full value to people and wildlife. There will probably be a collective sigh of relief for anyone who loves these woodlands and wants to see greater investment so that they realise their full potential.  But there is still detail to work through.

    The report also called for:
    -       Government to fully value the plethora of benefits woods and forests provide to society, and reward those who provide them.  I thought that the Bishop of Liverpool was right to emphasise this point in his Today programme interview this morning.
    -       Government and other woodland owners to give as many people as possible ready access to woodlands, for enhancing health and wellbeing. 
    -       Increasing the area of woodland cover from 10% to 15% - using the principle “the right tree in right place”
    -       Greater protection, management and restoration of England’s woodland and associated wildlife habitats at a landscape scale.  This should Include a renewed strategy for restoring some of the damaged ancient woodland and open habitats on the public forest estate. 
    -       Support for a “green” woodland economy to drive the delivery of public benefits from existing and new woods and forests
    -       This is just a snapshot, take a look at the full report here

    So, what do we think?

    Our aspirations for this report were outlined here. So on face value, we have a lot to be pleased about. I was particularly pleased to see the report shining a spotlight on woodland wildlife declines and identifying some of the actions that could contribute to addressing them. If nothing changes, we could lose our woods in a different way. We could lose the diversity of wildlife that makes them so special.

    In yesterday’s blog, I outlined the importance of bringing more woodland into management, and I was happy to see this is one of the central themes within the Panel’s report. It points firmly at the role of a “green” economic revival to drive the types of woodland management needed to benefit people and wildlife. If we get it right, then economic woodland management could work hand in hand with increasing woodland access, and fighting wildlife declines. However, government will need to be brave and step in with right mix of incentives and regulation to ensure that this report delivers on its “green” promises.

    Next steps

    This is a good start but it is now up to the government to decide how to take these recommendations forward.  We understand that we may need to wait some months for this although someone has just pointed out this Defra tweet to me "We’re keeping the public forest estate in public hands, as recommended by today’s #ForestryPanel report ".  The RSPB will continue to make the case that any changes must lead to greater benefits for wildlife and for people.  And, we'll look more closely at the detail and share further thoughts tomorrow.

    In the meantime, have a read of the report and let me know what you think.

    Juniper woodland, Andy Hay (rspb-images-com)

  • GUEST BLOG: Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB and member of the Independent Panel on Forestry

    My boss, Mike Clarke, was part of the Independent Panel on Forestry which published its report yesterday.  Here are his personal reflections of his time on the Panel and his thoughts on the way ahead. 

    I felt enormously privileged to be a member of the Independent Panel on Forestry, appointed last year in the aftermath of the Government’s decision to cancel its consultation on the future of our public forests.

    I say “privileged” because the Panel has met many people who care passionately for our woodland heritage. It’s a passion I share. As a kid, my first encounters with wildlife were in local coppice woodland. These experiences later inspired me to embark upon a career in conservation, which began with a job at the New Forest.

    We love forests for many reasons: For their spiritual tranquillity, for relaxation, fresh air and exercise away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Most especially, we love them because of their wildlife. In a recent public survey asking people why they valued woodlands, wildlife was the most popular response.

    But, as the Panel’s report explains, our woodland wildlife is in crisis. A sixth of woodland flowers are threatened with extinction, we have lost half our woodland butterflies, and the index of woodland birds is at an all-time low.

    When the Panel visited the Forest of Dean, I was staggered to find that it has minimal formal protection – less even than that of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This iconic national landscape urgently needs to be safeguarded. Meanwhile, important woodlands are threatened by development, including my old stamping ground at Lodge Hill in Kent, with its melodious population of nightingales.

    The Panel has filled a vacuum in the national policy debate on forests, as it was the first time in several years that forestry has been taken out of its traditional ‘box’  and examined in terms of its wider relationship with society. In this respect, the Panel has been playing policy catch-up, and I admire the commitment of my fellow panellists and the Secretariat staff to building a common vision for the nation’s forests.

    Our report calls for a re-evaluation of the worth of our woodlands. Draw up the balance sheet and the wider economic benefits of public access, clean water, carbon storage and wildlife far exceed those of timber production. In the New Forest alone, tourists enjoying the greens and golds of the woods and the purple carpet of heather deliver over £170M of VAT income to the Treasury. There is a massive economic case for investment in the Nation’s natural capital.

    This needs to be a moment of awakening when Government recognises that future forestry policy should be based on public benefits. It needs to be a moment in our culture when local communities, landowners, voluntary organisations and government embrace woodlands and their relationship with the wider landscape.

    So, what are the future implications of our report?

    Firstly, we need to tackle the deterioration of our forests. Fixing this has to be the top priority, so that new woodland creation doesn’t simply increase the scale of the problem. This means putting the right trees in the right places, ensuring appropriate woodland management, and tackling inappropriate past planting on ancient open-country habitats.

    The wider economic value of the Public Forest Estate is derived from its wildlife, people’s ability to access it and in the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides. The Panel recognised these benefits, which underpin the overwhelming case for continued public ownership. Our public forests also provide some 70% of our domestic softwood supply. In future, timber production should support the delivery of wider public benefits and management decisions will need to reflect this.

    This doesn’t apply to forests in isolation. These are common principles for the management of land and natural resources. The Panel focused on the ends, in terms of the things that people want and need, that are also good for nature and for the economy, before considering the means of delivering it.

    Institutions need to be designed, resourced and regulated in the interests of society as a whole. I would urge the Government to adopt this principle, as it starts to scope the forthcoming review of its other agencies, such as Natural England and the Environment Agency. It should be asking how best to deliver the laudable ambitions outlined in its Natural Environment White Paper last year.

    The outcry over our forests reflected the passion that England feels for its wildlife. The Panel has shown that passion and common sense are rooted in ecological and economic reality. The Government can score some easy political points if it recognises this and responds in the right way.

    Have you had time to reflect on the detail of the Panel's report?  What did you think?  Did Mike and his colleagues on the Panel get it right?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • How to save a species: the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone...

    I have spent much of this week at the Lodge.  This makes a change from my usual, slightly nomadic lifestyle.  I celebrated by spending my lunchtimes running round our reserve.  It has the halmarks of a true forest with its mix of woodland, heath and grassland.  And it felt right to be amongst this landscape as the future of our forests were debated this week.

    Most will now agree that it is important that we get the institutional arrangements for forest management right.  We need the right investment and management to help our forest (woodland and heathland) wildlife recover.   I am glad that this week's report from the Independent Panel on Forestry has been so well received.

    But I also know that this is only part of the picture. 

    I was reminded this week of a rather flattering extract from a speech given by Lord Chris Smith (Chair of the Environment Agency) this spring.  And yes, sorry, it  did remind me of the Dry Bones song. In Lord Smith's speech (press coverage of which was slightly dominated by his remarks about fracking) he says:

    "I sometimes remind my erstwhile political colleagues that organisations like the RSPB and the National Trust have far more members, each, than all the political parties put together.  And what they do is help to take people on a rather remarkable – dare I say political – journey.  They take a tiny thing – a dipper, say.  And they tell you, “if you’re interested in what’s happening to this dipper, you need to understand about the habitat it lives in and which it needs for survival.  You need to understand about water quality and about the fate of our hedgerows and about patterns of agriculture.  You need to understand about the planning system and how it protects valuable landscape.  You need to understand about the pressures of development and urban expansion and industrial growth.  You need to understand about how the crucial decisions are taken, by business, by local government, by national government, by European institutions.  And you need to understand about the impact that climate change is going to have and what causes it.  And you need then to understand about the faltering international discussions and negotiations and how we must press for more and quicker action.  And before you know what’s happened, you’ve been taken on a journey of understanding from something incredibly small and tiny and vulnerable – a dipper – and you’ve reached into a hazy understanding of the global and national political forces that shape the future of our environment, and the dipper’s environment. "

    I'd hope most of readers of this blog have more than a hazy understanding of how it all fits together...

    But, as we look to save species like the nightingale - which has experienced a staggering 60% decline - we know that we will need to get to grips with a vast array of issues. 

    We need to understand and provide the right habitat requirements for nightingales.  This means that we need to improve the management of woodlands.  To do this, we need the right institutional arrangements and incentives in place to assist with the management of publicly and privately owned woods.  But we also need to tackle other threats they face while they are with us during the summer.  Crucially, we need to protect key sites (such as Lodge Hill) from inappropriate development. And, yes that means getting stuck into the planning system and understand why pressures on land use are growing.

    Our work cannot be restricted to the UK. We need to work with our BirdLife partners to stop persecution during their migration; understand their ecological needs during the winter months they spend in sub-Saharan Africa.  As in the UK, we then need to identify threats from and drivers of changing land use. Before you know it we have to engage in debates about changing demography and consumption patters in West Africa.

    All this to save the nightingale.  But I am sure you'd agree that it's worth it. 

    I hope you have enjoyed my woodland warblings this week.  Next week I shall return to the challenges facing farmland widllife.

    Until then, have a great weekend.