August, 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
  • Proof that we need to cherish protected areas across the UK

    Today’s guest blogger is Richard Bradbury from our Conservation Science team.

    Our changing climate is forcing wildlife to move in response (see this blog, 26th June) – yet for decades nature conservation has placed huge emphasis on protected areas which are, by their very nature, fixed – do they have a future as climate change takes its toll? The answer, which we reveal in a paper published today in a leading scientific journal, is a resounding yes.

    Here in the UK we have some very special place for wildlife. They have been shaped by both natural and human influences.  We have been left with a patchwork of sites that , with a few exceptions, require continuing management to maintain their nature conservation interest. We at RSPB are therefore great fans of protected areas – those sites like Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, where conditions can be managed for our special wildlife and where species are given critical protection from damaging development proposals.

    The legal protection these sites receive has been criticised as a barrier to economic development, though sense prevailed in the review of the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives in England back in March. But issues remain – one concern is that, if species ranges need to shift in response to climate change, all these sites will be in the wrong place, reducing their relevance.

    This sounds plausible, but it is flawed. Yes, some species may move out of some of the sites which have been designated for them, but research modelling the likely affects of climate change on species distributions suggests that many sites will retain their important species – in effect the quality of the site’s habitats will outweigh the impact of climate change for some time to come. Moreover, most sites are important for more than one species, so it’s unlikely that all the key species from a given site will move on.

    And here’s the crunch. A lot of rare and threatened wildlife is very picky about what it requires from the landscape, so given their sensitivity, where on earth will species on the move find suitable locations to set up new homes anyway? Today’s paper, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles this question head on.

    Led by the University of York, with RSPB among the research partners, the paper capitalises on two things. First, in the UK we have a wonderful collection of data on the distributions of a wide range of wildlife, thanks to the magnificent efforts of both professional, and especially amateur, recorders. The paper was therefore able to analyse millions of records of wildlife species, sent in predominantly by members of the public. Secondly, and thanks largely to the availability of these great data-sets fuelled by citizen science, the UK has been at the fore-front of demonstrating that our wildlife is already responding to climate change, with wildlife as varied as birds, butterflies and dragonflies already showing strong northwards movements.    


    Dartford Warbler, Ben Hall (rspb-images-com). One of the species shown by the study to be using protected areas to help its northwards spread.

    In this paper, we were able to show the absolutely crucial role of protected areas in these northwards movements. On average, when arriving in new locations, species as varied as birds, beetles and spiders were around four times more likely to colonise protected areas than might be expected, given how much of the land surface they cover. And yes, we did account for any differences in recording effort between protected areas and other places! For seven species of birds and butterflies that we were able to study in the greatest detail, 40% of new colonisations occurred in the 8.4 per cent of the land that was protected, even though those sites hadn’t originally been protected for those species.

    So, here is convincing proof that these sites will remain crucially important under climate change. Even if the composition of species within them may change, they remain the most important parts of the landscape for our most picky and vulnerable species.

    Interestingly, despite the overwhelming importance of protected areas, the paper found that some sites which are not currently protected were also important. It will be crucial to assess these sites, and protect them where appropriate, if we are to complete the network called for in the Making Space for Nature and achieve the landscape-scale conservation that will be so crucial to helping our wildlife adapt to the challenge of climate change.

    Perhaps this isn’t surprising, but it’s always good to have the data to prove the apparently obvious! So, a huge thank you to everyone who submits their records and makes these analyses possible! And it provides another good reason to make sure that we cherish our protected areas across the UK, and that we have the resources to look after and manage them properly.

    Have you noticed nature changing in ways which might be caused by climate change? If so, please do share your experiences below.

  • What Price Power from the Severn?

    Gwyn Williams, Head of Reserves and Protected Areas, contributes this blog about the Severn Barrage, following this week’s publicity around a new proposal by Hafren Power:

    With a week gone, Martin’s prediction that it was likely to be a quiet fortnight is looking a little insecure, given the coverage over the weekend [19 August] to a new proposal from Hafren Power for an energy-generating barrage across the Severn!

    In thinking about energy, the RSPB starts from a similar place to most, including those who support a Severn Barrage: we need a renewable energy revolution to combat climate change. However, if energy developments are not to put even more pressure on a natural environment that is already deeply stressed and further threatened by climate change, we need to make sure we use the right renewables in the right places.

    The potential for energy generation from the Severn has attracted engineers since Victorian times. The most recent DECC study focussed on whether a scheme generating maximum power using current technology could be economic, and if so with what side-effects, including - very much as a secondary consideration - impacts on the natural environment. The RSPB strongly criticised this approach: we thought that the starting point should be to look for a type of technology which could provide maximum energy output from the Severn for minimum environmental harm. It took two years and a small forest of paper to conclude that construction of a high-head barrage with high-velocity turbines would be too costly, and result in big negative environmental side effects.

    Now Hafren Power has resurrected the idea, with a lower-head, low-velocity turbine concept, that it believes can still produce c5% of UK electricity needs, but with less harm to the environment than the high-head, high-velocity options which have been the focus of barrage proposals to date. The company has now presented its ideas to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a meeting brokered by ex-Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain MP. Mr Cameron is reported as being very interested and has instructed officials to look into the project.  Powerful sponsorship indeed!

    The undertaking remains mammoth – a wall over 18km long, housing over 1,000 turbines of 9 metres in diameter across an estuary with the second highest tidal range in the world.

    The company claims the barrage can be built without up front public funding, and that it can raise £30bn needed without public money, using sovereign funds from Qatar and Kuwait. Its ask of the UK Government is that the electricity generated should be subsidised in the same way as offshore wind energy, and that time should be made available for the ‘hybrid’ Parliamentary Bill necessary to give powers to the company to construct it.

    The big worry is obvious – that in order to give investors confidence to back the scheme, Government will reduce the scrutiny process to a minimum (think red-tape challenge, and all the proposals for planning reform!). We can expect the checks and balances on development projects created by the Birds and Habitats Directives to come under renewed pressure. It is also obvious that consumers will be expected to pay for the scheme through the new subsidy system that Government is currently designing as part of the Energy Bill, and that will be key to the scheme‘s viability. This will also have considerable implications for other forms of renewable power generation, given the current Treasury cap on renewable generation subsidies.

    So what are the environmental concerns? The big one is that whilst a lower-head barrage should reduce the immediate loss of mudflats, which are the reason why the Severn is so important for wildlife, the geomorphological impact of the structure will be felt for many decades and quite possibly over several centuries – and could eventually result in an impact as severe as the high head option. Removal of so much energy from the Severn is likely to result in sustained erosion of mudflats and saltmarshes, as the estuary seeks to find a new equilibrium to match the conditions created by the presence and operation of a barrage. 

    Once lifted by the tides, sediment is likely to be deposited into the deepest parts of the estuary in an attempt to reduce the depth of the channel. The result could be the loss of protective mudflats and the undermining sea-defences within the estuary - bad for wildlife and bad for people. The Dutch understand this well, having seen changes of this kind following the Eastern Scheldt barrage.

    The risk of extinction of important fish populations has always been a major concern in relation to tidal power generation in the Severn. The threat to migratory fish from low-velocity turbines should be less, but to date we have not seen evidence to support this, and much will depend on the design and deployment of untested technology.

    We continue to regard estuarine barrages with scepticism because of their high cost and potential for environmental damage.  However, as with the DECC study, we will seek to work constructively with Hafren Power to contribute to understanding of the implications of their proposals. A structure that will be with us for more than a century is just too big to get wrong!

  • "It’s hard to deal with hate"

    Regular readers of this blog will know what the RSPB thinks about the Angling Trust’s calls to get cormorants and goosanders added to the general licence – I’ve blogged on this subject here and here

    I invite you now to read someone else’s view.  In the latest issue of Birds magazine, Simon Barnes offers his own opinion on the controversy surrounding the much-maligned cormorant.  You can read his article at the bottom of this post.

    Simon is a writer on the environment and sport (you may know him as the Chief Sportswriter for The Times newspaper).  He doesn’t pull any punches in this article, but why should he?  Any decision to permit the killing of wild birds must be based on facts and evidence, not anecdote, perception and myth.  To the best of my knowledge, none of the sports gripping the world’s attention at the London Olympics are calling for the unrestricted and unjustified destruction of part of our native wildlife.

    I’ll return to this topic soon, as we are concerned that some facts – regarding the real causes of failing fish stocks – are being at best forgotten, at worst ignored.  The Government’s Water White Paper identifies water industry discharges and agricultural diffuse pollution as the two biggest pressures on waters in England and Wales, while the impact of fish-eating birds is not even mentioned.

    In the meantime, what do you think of Simon’s article? 

    It would be great to hear your views.

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    IT’S HARD TO DEALWITH HATE by Simon Barnes

    No matter how calm and rational you are, you’ll never argue people out of hate. You can explain gently that the object of their hatred is not half as bad as they thought, but you won’t get anywhere. They don’t think they’re hating: they believe they’re fighting evil.

    For some anglers, cormorants are evil. They are embodiments of greed and voracity and should be shot to bits at every opportunity. The idea of a cormorant sitting insolently on its tree with a belly-full of fish, drying its wings with a smug expression on its face, knowing that the angler is unable to do a thing about it – well, that makes the angler’s blood boil.

    Especially if he is having a poor day. Under investigation It’s a visceral response from the guts of the hunter: a howl of anguish from a person who feels unjustly deprived of what should be his by right. And there is a cormorant: so big, so black, so gloriously ugly. Of course it’s the cormorant’s fault: you only have to look at the expression on its face.

    That is what many fishing people feel, and it’s fair enough. The problem is that they want this howl of anguish to become the law of the land. They want the right to shoot cormorants any time they see one, any time they feel like it. The world, they believe, would be a better place without cormorants.

    How can you oppose so deep-seated a feeling? Rationality doesn’t work, facts don’t convince, anger is not going to help. As I write, Defra is reviewing the position of cormorants in England. With any luck, by the time you read this, this won’t have made things worse for cormorants. As we stand, cormorants can be shot in certain circumstances. You can apply for a licence to do so, and it is considered on a case by case basis. Since 2004, it’s become much easier to get such a licence in England.

    You no longer have to show that cormorants are causing serious damage: you just have to show they are there and therefore might cause serious damage. And up to 3,000 a year can be shot.

    That’s not enough for the angling lobby. They are campaigning to have cormorants put on the general licence. That would mean that you could shoot them without reference to anybody, just as you can shoot magpies, crows and woodpigeons. This would be devastating: there are about a million woodpigeons in Great Britain; there are just 35,000 cormorants.

    A number of bogus arguments have been put up to support the anti-cormorant lobby: arguments that make good headlines, but which lack a basis in those pesky things called facts. It has been claimed that cormorants are not native British birds: that they are vile interlopers like Canada geese and ring-necked parakeets.

    That is simply wrong: cormorants are as much a part of British life as the robin in your back garden. Other arguments grossly exaggerate the amount of fish that cormorants take: in a year a cormorant eats the equivalent of a blue whale, or enough to feed a third world country for five years – I exaggerate, but so do they. Cormorants eat what they need to survive, and no more.

    There is another suggestion that cormorants eat the fish that would otherwise be taken by kingfishers and grebes, and so they are depriving us of our ‘real’ British birds. It’s an argument that reminds me of the famous marginal note from a national newspaper editor: “interesting if true”. And it is not. There is no decline in kingfishers or grebes. It’s an idea that’s just been made up, plucked out of the air. It convinces people because one look at a cormorant tells you that they are capable of any enormity. Cormorants eat fish. That’s accepted.

    In some cases, they cause problems to those who take part in the sport of angling. The RSPB doesn’t oppose shooting in such cases as a last resort. But it’s also a good idea to introduce such things as fish refuges, which give the fish somewhere to hide. Such practices are more sustainable than shooting a cormorant every time one comes along. But constructive moves don’t appease the hatred. Only destructive moves will do that. The perfect enemy Cormorants look like vultures. They look sinister. What they do for a living can compromise what some humans do for fun.

    They are the perfect enemy: a bird that attracts little sympathy. I love them for the heraldic shape they make when they hang their wings out to dry, for their pterodactyl silhouette in flight, and because they are just so damn good at fishing. Precisely the reasons they are hated, but there you go. I’ve just given you some emotional reasons for having cormorants about the place. We must discard them at once. And the opposition needs to discard emotion as well. We have a serious clash here, and no amount of shouting will solve it. We bird-people must set aside love as we continue the argument, just as the anglers must set aside hate. And it is always a sad day when hate wins any argument.