September, 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
  • A sad day for badgers and for farmers - Part 2

    Yesterday, Natural England issued a licence permitting the control of badgers in West Gloucestershire for the purpose of preventing the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB). 

    As I have written previously here and here, the dairy industry has endured terrible times while trying to cope with this devastating disease.  However, we have never been convinced that the best way to help farmers is to force them to foot the bill for a contentious cull that is only expected to reduce outbreaks by about 16 per cent.  The 16% figure is a mean figure for the whole of a cull area from para 5 of a Defra report by leading scientists which you can read here

    I think that this is a lot of effort for a small gain. Bovine TB needs tackling properly and we believe vaccination offers the best hope for cattle, badgers and the industry.  It is clear that the Defra's Chief Scientist, Professor Sir Bob Watson, agrees.  Have a listen to what he says in the video clip which you can watch here.

    And there is another reason why there needs to be a broader response.  If, after the trials, a cull in all affected areas (39,000 square kilometres in England) is sanctioned then up to 30 per cent of the English badger population could be removed. This reduction through a cull would be unprecedented and would severely affect the conservation status of one of Britain's most-loved mammals. 

    What's more, there are problems with the design of these pilots.  Another Professor (Sir John Krebs) has pointed out that two six week trials will not produce results with any statistical rigour.  It is also the case that there will be no testing or analysis of the impact of shooting free ranging badgers on perturbation. 

    We have taken the decision that this autumn we shall be taking positive steps towards controlling bovine TB by vaccinating badgers on our land at Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire which lies just outside one of the two UK badger trial control zones.  While this is a small step, we think this is the best way to both ensure the health of the badgers on our land and act as good neighbours to nearby farmers who could be affected by the forthcoming trial.

    If you feel strongly about the issue, there are two current live petitions (here and here) which are encouraging the government to stop the badger cull and think again.

    What do you think about yesterday's decision?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • What price species conservation?

    Did you hear the Today programme yesterday or see Fiona Harvey's piece on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 100 species list in the Guardian yesterday? The Guardian article raised the question of whether humans care only for species from which they can extract benefit, and dismiss the rest as 'worthless'. If you missed it, you can read it here.  

    To be honest I think this is a false debate and one that is in danger of distracting conservationists from the rather important task of tackling drivers of decline.

    It is a bit like the rather odd question about the value of each Olympic/Paralympic gold medal .  Sure, you can work out how much Lottery money went in to each sport and how many gold medals were won, but does that give a true indication of what those medals were worth?

    So, at risk of further distraction, let's try and unpick the argument by looking at some of the species on the list.

    The angel shark is still found in vanishingly small numbers off the UK coastline. It doesn’t look much like a shark – its flattened body and broad fins make it look more like a member of the ray family. In fact for whoever honoured it with such a beautiful name those pectoral fins clearly brought to mind the wings of a celestial being.  Also on the list was the spoon billed sandpiper – a bird so endangered that the RSPB, Birds Russia, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and others were forced to embark on an emergency mission to a remote part of Russia to transport individuals back for a last ditch captive breeding programme. 


    Spoon billed sandpiper, photo credit: Peter Ericsson

    Other evocatively monickered species in the line-up include the leaf scaled seasnake, the Galapagos damsel fish, the Hula painted frog and the peacock parachute spider. Each one has its own incredible individual story of evolution, adaptation and survival against odds, but each with its own tragic reasons for decline: overfishing, habitat destruction, hunting etc. 

    The article appeared to argue that the problem for many of these plants and animals is that as beautiful and fascinating as they are, they don’t give us anything back. Nothing they do provides us with a tangible financial benefit seems to be the verdict.   Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, was quoted as saying that the conservation movement is “increasingly leaning towards a 'what can nature do for us?' approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritised according to these services they provided for people”. 

    But this really does completely misunderstand a long-standing debate which is now referred to valuing ‘ecosystems services’.   We, and others may have a strong belief in ethical or other imperatives for conserving nature but these arguments have never been that helpful in challenging the drivers of loss.  I have always felt we need to win the battle for both hearts and minds.  We need to demonstrate that the public cares and that there are economic reasons why investment in nature makes sense. 

    There has been a lot written over the years about the motivations of conservation action.  And it is fair to say that a number of campaigns (which doubtless many of you have been a part) have been built on emotions: the "don't build it here or kill that species - it's just plain wrong"  approach has worked without needing to rely on traditional economic arguments to win support.

    But, when it comes to addressing the drivers of loss,  we have for many years, emphasised the utilitarian importance of saving nature.  For us, ecosystmem services (those things that nature gives us) are about life supporting services, like food, carbon,water and life enhancing ones.  The value we and others place on the sheer existence of species is as much an economic value as the value of carbon stored in peat.  So long as there are people who place a value on the angel shark (for whatever reason) it will diminish our wellbeing if it is lost.
    There are those that claim that using utilitarian arguments somehow undermine moral arguments for conservation.  I think this is twaddle for which there is no evidence whatsoever.  Recognising the value of peatlands for storing carbon and regulating the climate has nothing whatsoever to do with my conviction that humans should not act so as to endanger the existence of other species on the planet.  Most conservationists, in my experience, get this and will carry on using all the arguments at their disposal to save species from extinction.

    What do you think?

    Without wishing to cause any further distraction from the core business of nature conservation and tackling the drivers for species loss, it would be great to hear your views.

  • High Speed 2 a low carbon future?

    High Speed 2 – the high speed train line that is to connect London with Birmingham via the Chilterns – has long divided the nation, before any ground has even been broken.

    Inevitably, a new train line in this crowded country will have significant implications for wildlife, not to mention the many people who live near the proposed route. The RSPB is working hard to make sure these impacts are minimised, and where there are unavoidable impacts we will be holding Government and HS2 to their legal requirement to provide compensatory habitat.  Yet, we’re not opposing HS2 outright as many others are. This is principally because high speed rail could be a vital component of a the low carbon, green transport system that this country urgently needs.

    This week we’ve published a report by GreenGauge21 consultants for the RSPB, CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport. You can read more about the report here -  but, in summary, the report explores whether HS2 really can fulfil this role, and its findings are both predictable and challenging.

    Predictable because although the report finds that HS2 can indeed be low carbon, it demonstrates that this is only the case if government acts to ensure HS2 takes passengers and freight off the roads and out of planes. It also underlines the importance of ensuring that the electricity used to power the trains is from low carbon sources.

    Challenging because we have few guarantees from government that they will take these actions. There is currently no coherent plan to reduce emissions from transport and reduce the use of private vehicles and planes in favour of trains. And just last week, the UK Government was warned by their own advisers that their current energy plans would breach our legal commitments to cutting carbon by wedding our electricity supply to gas.

    So, the ball is firmly in the new Transport Minister’s court. It’s a simple choice between big, shiny new projects that could undermine our chances of fighting climate change, or a coherent strategy (which could include shiny, new projects) that delivers a low carbon, green transport system.

    Maybe, it is just my odd personality that wants to have coherent strategies.    But surely if decision-makers were up front about the challenges (in this case of tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment whilst modernising transport infrastructure) and explained how activity and projects helped to deliver their objectives, people would be more likely to support the overall package.  And who can blame them for opposing new ideas if the plans don't make sense?

    What do you think?  Do you think that HS2 will provide the answer to our low carbon transport problems? Do you hanker for coherent strategies from government?

    It would be great to hear your views.