October, 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
  • My badger nightmares

    I have real worries about the badger cull.  I’m not pretending that my anxiety can be as great as those farmers who are suffering when they lose their cattle to bovine TB, but I fear that the cull could make things worse.  See previous comments here, here and here. We have made detailed considered responses to the Government on this issue over a number of years.

    The situation is volatile with rumours that the cull might be postponed or the pilot culls might start very soon. If they do go ahead, I am concerned at the risk of trouble. Let me be very clear about this.  The RSPB is opposed to the cull but we do not support the intimidation of farmers who are carrying out a cull under licence.  It is difficult to see how you can have a safe protest in a situation where firearms are being used, especially at night, so whilst we appreciate anyone’s right to legally and peacefully protest we urge people to consider their safety, and the safety of others, and not interfere with culling operations.

    There are other ways you can show your opposition to the culls.  The first of these is through the Government e petition, anyone opposed to the cull should sign this petition, if they have not done so already.  Already over 150,000 people have signed and many have been asking what else can they do.  The petition should result in a debate in the House of Commons, which could happen as early as 25 October.

    We hope that this is an informed and searching debate.  There are still many questions about the effectiveness, practicality and impact on the badger population of the pilot culls and the projected programme of control in the future.  Here are three key questions that we think MPs should be asking:

    1. How will Natural England ensure that culling does not result in local badger extinctions?  We know that badgers are very difficult to survey accurately, the cull aims to kill 70% of the population within the cull zone but there is significant variation in local populations which could result in anything from 51-100% of badgers being killed.
    2. What assessment will the Government make of the health of the remaining badger population after the pilots culls?  Owen Paterson has said the Government wants ‘healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle’, we strongly agree with that but the science behind culling shows that it will increase the prevalence of bovineTB in the remaining badger population. Culling badgers does not improve their health but vaccination will.
    3. How many badgers could be vaccinated with the £2 million that will be needed to police the pilot culls?   Badger vaccination is possible now, it may not be the cheapest option but opting for a contentious cull that risks making bovine TB worse may be a false economy.

    It will also be important for government to ensure that concerns over biosecurity are addressed and that the red tape that is currently preventing cattle vaccination from being used in the UK is removed as swiftly as possible.

    If you want to get in touch with your MP about the debate you can find out who they are and how to contact them here.

    What are the key questions you think MPs should be asking about the badger cull?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Why the RSPB has submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission regarding Natural England’s dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate

    I think that everyone involved in nature conservation is on basically on the same side.  People and organisations may have different priorities or perspectives but broadly speaking we all want the same thing: to save nature.  So I find the, fortunately very rare, occasions when we fundamentally disagree with another nature conservation body to be both disappointing and upsetting.

    Such an occasion has arrived. Today, the RSPB has filed a complaint with the European Commission regarding Natural England’s approach to protecting important habitats in the South Pennines. Below I explain why we have taken this unprecedented step against an organisation that we otherwise hold in high regard.

    In simple terms, we believe that a management agreement reached between Walshaw Moor Estate and Natural England, in March 2012, fails to uphold both EU and UK environmental laws for the legally protected, globally rare and very sensitive blanket bog habitats on the estate.  Walshaw Moor form part of the South Pennine Moors SAC, SPA and SSSI conservation sites.

    But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s easiest to explain by winding back the clock a few years. Back in 2005, Walshaw Moor Estate was successfully prosecuted by English Nature for building a track and dumping spoil on protected habitat, and the Court ordered the Estate to restore the damage. In 2010, a local bird club, the Calderdale Bird Conservation Group, noticed more damaging activities and contacted the RSPB.  We raised concerns with Natural England, who, it turned out, were already investigating unconsented damage, and had started separate legal proceedings against Walshaw Moor Estate to modify old, ambiguous consents which allowed damaging activities such as intensive burning on blanket bog.

    Through 2011, the RSPB supported Natural England in its efforts to modify the old consents – this included making a written submission to the Public Inquiry which formed part of the legal action. Natural England also decided to prosecute the Estate on no less than 43 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to European and national protected sites. The sheer number of alleged breaches (track construction across moors including converting a stream to a track, drainage of peat bog, installing grouse butts, damage to habitats from vehicle use), together with the Estate’s previous conviction and lack of a voluntary offer to restore or mitigate the damage, demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.

    And then, in March 2012, Natural England and the Walshaw Moor Estate suddenly announced that all legal actions had ceased and that they had come to a settlement. To our great surprise, the settlement included dropping all the prosecutions without any restoration and agreeing to a new consent that allows existing infrastructure (including the tracks, butts and some of the drainage that were the subject of the prosecution) to be maintained, and permits burning of blanket bog to continue.

    On the day that the agreement was made public, we wrote to Natural England to try to establish the justification for their action.  We then spent the next six months trying to get to the bottom of what happened in order to understand its implications. The clearest conclusion is this: the legal requirement to protect and restore these designated sites has not been upheld by this agreement.

    The reasons for it are less clear.  Natural England apparently changed their mind about pursuing their legal action to prevent the estate from burning blanket bog, and the price of settlement was, amongst other things, that they dropped all 43 grounds for prosecutions for habitat damage. Why they lost confidence is unclear, because they were mounting a robust defence only weeks before, supported by independent expert witnesses as well as the RSPB.

    Whatever the reason, we now have a management agreement which protects better quality blanket bog but allows burning on degraded blanket bog, effectively preventing it from being restored, as required under EU law. And, critically, the 43 grounds for prosecution for damage have been dropped and the agreement does not seek restoration.

    But, even given all this, is it really worth escalating our concerns to the European Commission? Shouldn’t we just accept that this is only one estate with a complicated set of circumstances and that everyone has learnt something? Is it worth tying up Natural England and Defra officials’ time for months with another investigation, and the undoubted hit to relationships with some in the upland community that we will take?

    Well, we’ve decided that it is.

    Because we can’t ignore the neglect of environmental laws; habitat damage has now been normalised on this estate in a way that will prevent vital habitats being restored to function as the carbon and water stores and bog ecosystems they are meant to be.

    Because it isn’t just this one estate; Natural England is due to revisit around 100 management consents for moorland habitats over the coming years, and the Walshaw Moor settlement will set an unavoidable precedent to aim low.

    Because it’s not just our fight - local community and environmental groups have registered their great concern about the implications of continued habitat degradation on Walshaw Moors for wildlife, water, cultural heritage and flood protection.

    Because the UK Government has a number of commitments to restore biodiversity (including its own Coalition Agreement, the Natural Environment White Paper, England Biodiversity Strategy and the 2020 EU and CBD bidoiversity targets) and the Walshaw agreement is inconsistent with these objectives.

    And because, over the next few months, Defra will be reviewing their environmental agencies (Natural England and the Environment Agency) and this case underlines how much we need a government agency that is able to exercise its powers to deliver and uphold laws that protect wildlife.

    Does this mean that we’re at war with estate managers in the uplands, or with the Government?

    No, of course not. Launching a European complaint is a serious step, but it doesn’t change our commitment to supporting the Government and the moorland community in working towards environmental improvements in the uplands.

    So disappointed and upset, yes, and a bit angry too, because we had supported a process in good faith only to be cut out and presented with an unacceptable fait accompli. But, my main emotion as we launch our complaint is hope. I hope that this will allow the issue to be examined dispassionately and away from the pressured politics of England’s environment and land use issues, and hope that that will, in the end, result in clearer protection for our most vulnerable habitats, and a stronger hand to play for wildlife’s most important government agency.

    More details of our complaint will appear online soon.  I shall point you in the right direction once available.  In the meantime, a question for you...

    ...do you think we are we right to complain?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Birdcrime: it is time for action

    Today sees the publication of our annual Birdcrime report, detailing offences against birds of prey in 2011. I take no pleasure in relaying its graphic contents to you, but highlighting the scale of the problem remains vital to efforts to tackle wildlife crime. We have consistently argued that more needs to be done to help birds of prey live in harmony with people.

    So how are our birds of prey faring, how have decision-makers reacted, is there cause for optimism and what can you do to help?

    Let’s start with the bottom line and the fate of birds such as the hen harrier. The news, unfortunately, is grim. Very few hen harriers nest successfully on land managed for driven grouse shooting, despite it providing the food and nesting sites they need. In England, extinction as a breeding species looms, with just one nesting attempt in 2012.

    And it isn’t just hen harriers. A study of peregrines in northern England by the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum found breeding success on grouse moors to be half that in other habitats. There are those who argue that the relative rarity of prosecutions is evidence that crimes against birds of prey are equally rare. Yet, much persecution against birds like peregrines occurs in remote, inaccessible places. This, coupled with a shortfall in proactive enforcement activity, makes it difficult to collect sufficient evidence to support prosecutions. The RSPB’s Investigations team, whose work you can read about in Birdcrime, do an amazing job in spotlighting illegal practices. But it is the numbers and distribution of the birds themselves that provide the clues as to the real impact of persecution.

    The UK Government acknowledges the problem – raptor persecution is a UK wildlife crime priority. It is difficult, however, to point to meaningful progress against the recommendations we made in last year’s report. The future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit is uncertain beyond March 2013. Opportunities, such as implementing controls on possessing pesticides used to poison wildlife, have been missed. The good news is that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is scrutinising Government’s performance in this area and will report soon. I hope that it makes a strong case for change.

    2012 and 2013 are important years in the fight to tackle wildlife crime in the UK, particularly in England and Wales. The respective governments have the opportunity to improve wildlife laws and associated enforcement structures, and make a lasting difference to the prospects of birds such as the hen harrier and peregrine.

    Over the next few months, the Law Commission will consult on its proposals for reform of wildlife protection laws in England and Wales. This brings the possibility of new offences and penalties that would aid the prosecution of those who harm wildlife.  This is what is wanted by the 210,000 people who signed an RSPB pledge calling for an end to illegal killing as well as all those people that signed the petition on the Number 10 website. 

    You can have your say about the wildilfe law review here.  We need the Law Commission to recommend the right measures to tackle bird crime.

    Any changes will need to be accepted by the governments in England and Wales, and implemented via new legislation. This will take time and it is worth getting right. The police service is being re-organised, with the creation of the National Crime Agency to tackle serious and organised crime across the UK from 2013. The RSPB believes that persecution of birds of prey is both ‘serious’ and ‘organised’ and that the NCA has a vital role to play in supporting police forces in tackling it. New police and crime commissioners will be elected in late 2012 in England and Wales, guiding police forces in prioritising their work and ensuring that criminal activities affecting local communities are addressed. Last, but definitely not least, the future shape and direction of the nature conservation agencies in England and Wales will be decided. We will argue that any change must bolster our collective capacity to deliver the Coalition Government’s ambition to ‘protect wildlife and ... restore biodiversity’.

    Collectively, this amounts to the best opportunity in a generation, since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, to tackle wildlife crime and, in particular, the intolerable Victorian throwback of persecuting birds of prey and other wildlife in the name of sport.  In 2010, over . It is time for their voice to be heard. For birds like the hen harrier in England, this could literally be the ‘last chance to save’. I sincerely hope that governments across the UK seize this opportunity and step up for nature.

    It would be great to hear your views.