November, 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
  • Greenest government, whatever?

    A recent poll of the British public suggests that the coalition Government is falling short of its commitment to be the greenest Government ever.  Only 17% agreed that the Government is the greenest ever, whereas 55% disagreed and 27% did not know. 

    The poll was commissioned by Wildlife and Countryside Link, which includes 39 NGOs - including the RSPB.  It was produced to provide an insight into public attitudes to run alongside the publication of Link’s annual Nature Check assessment of the Government’s progress against its own commitments.  Link has given a red, amber or green rating to each of the Governments wildlife or natural environment pledges.  This is the second such report and the Government may take heart from a slight improvement in the assessments from last year, but the overall message is that there is still huge room for improvement. The report does not include commitments relating to climate change which was subject of a previous assessment by the Green Alliance.

    The only two commitments to get a good progress (green) rating were on international issues, opposing commercial whaling and pressing for a ban on ivory sales.  Commitments where Link believes the Government has failed (red) include: to improve flood defences and halt unnecessary building in the floodplain; to introduce a science led badger control policy; and designate a network of Marine Conservation Zones. In a few areas the Government has responded positively to public concern e.g. on forestry policy and planning reforms and these get moderate progress (amber) assessments compared to red last year.  The Link poll and the report suggest that the government is lagging behind public opinion on the importance of the environment.

    Well, what should the Government do to improve its ratings in the future and to live up to its Greenest Ever aspirations?  I think we need leadership from the top. David Cameron has to recognise that protection of the environment is part of a smart economy and that the green economy is working.  In tackling what he likens to an 'economic war' , he has to ensure that the environment does not suffer collateral damage.  The Link poll provides a useful insight on public opinion here.  Only 6% of people feel strongly that the natural environment is less important than economic growth and 81% believe that the natural environment and wildlife should be protected at all costs.

    I also believe that we need to treat the loss of biodiversity as a crisis.  The new(ish) Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, deserves credit for the speed with which he responded to the Ash die back crisis, mobilising an emergency response and convening, for the first time I can remember, a Cobra committtee meeting to tackle a threat to a native species.  We now know that this genie is out of the bottle but this is not the Secretary of State’s fault. We now need the same determination and commitment to address the decline of farmland wildlife, to prevent species extinctions and set up a properly protected marine site network.  The most immediate issue of these is the need to protect and strengthen support for wildlife friendly farming.

    A good pub question would be which government was the greenest ever?  Well, although I cannot give a first hand assessment I suspect that Clement Attlee’s post war Government will be difficult to beat.  It took one of the most far sighted and green steps possible by passing the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.  With the economy and the country on its knees they realised the importance of establishing nature reserves, ensuring access and preserving natural beauty for the well being of people. Incidentally, it was this act that established the forerunner of Natural England.  

    I believe that nature needs such an enlightened and long term view now, just as much as it did then.

    What do you think this government needs to do to become the greenest ever? Which government to do you think they would have to beat?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • A message to European Heads of State: don't cut the life from our countryside

    Over the past 40 years Europe has lost 300 million birds and in just the past 15 years we have lost 70% of European grassland butterflies.  Farmland wildlife remains in crisis.  Following proposals released yesterday, the situation will get a lot worse unless leaders show an enlightened approach to EU Budget discussions next week.

    Yesterday, new figures were released on the proposed EU Budget for 2014-2020 and they make for frightening reading.

    These figures aren’t the agreed budget but they will form the basis of discussion, and potential agreement, when EU leaders gather in Brussels next week (22-23 November). What has been proposed by the President of the EU Council is an out an out attack on the bits of EU expenditure which deliver real value for money.  And they could have devastating consequences for wildlife across Europe and in the UK.  To be fair, cuts are being applied to virtually every area of EU spend and at a time of economic austerity and creaking treasuries across the EU cuts are virtually inevitable. But cutting across the board, with no apparent interest in how well, or badly that money is being spent is not just careless, it’s wildly irresponsible.

    I’m most concerned about the cuts that are being proposed to the Common Agricultural Policy’s Rural Development Pillar (also known as Pillar 2).  This Pillar isn’t perfect but it is based on sound principles and is home to some of the best examples of value for money found anywhere in Europe.  This is exemplified by  well-designed agri-environment schemes, like Higher Level Stewardship in England.  This provides a lifeline for species such as turtle dove and cirl bunting as well as supporting farmers to deliver environmental public goods which the market doesn’t reward.

    As I have written herehere and here, rural development money is a lifeline for wildlife and a vital income stream to farmers. These facts make it all the more incomprehensible that the Council President is proposing that Rural Development funds should be slashed by an unbelievable 9.1%. And it’s worth remembering that this cut is in addition to the real terms cut of around 8% contained within the European Commission’s original budget proposal from last year.

    You’d think this was bad enough but no, it gets worse...

    Controversial (actually scrap that, let’s just call them indefensible) proposals to allow Member States to ‘reverse modulate’ (that is shift money from Rural Development into Pillar 1 subsidies (direct payments) have been extended from a relatively small group of countries to everyone, and the rate increased from 5% to 15%. This means that the proposed 9.1% cut could leap to over 20%. 

    All this is taking place at a time when our natural environment needs more investment, not less.  If we lose funding for wildlife friendly farming, we know that the vast majority of farmers will stop doing the things that wildlife needs.  And this would mean the Government's ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to the next will be shattered.

    Some might argue that the proposed ‘greening’ of Pillar I payments will make up the environmental shortfall but this simply isn’t the case: rural development schemes are designed in a way that delivers much more than Pillar I approaches can – primarily  because Pillar I has to be simple and relatively broad brush. Greening can help create a strong baseline of delivery if done well (and it’s a big if at the moment) but it can’t do the really special stuff that Rural Development can.

    The EU Budget is under enormous pressure, in fact the odds for it being cut that are probably so short you wouldn’t waste the bus fare to the bookies. But EU leaders have to demonstrate that there are bits of the budget that simply must not be cut, in fact all the arguments are that they should be increased.

    Rural Development is one such example and the proposals to cut it must be rejected. If these savings have to be applied elsewhere then there they must fall on areas of EU expenditure that cannot demonstrate value for money and do not help our farmers to become more resilient, more market orientated or rewarded for protecting and improving the environment. When it comes to the CAP, we know where savings can be made, and it isn’t Rural Development.

    You can help us protect Rural Development funding by emailing David Cameron in advance of his meeting next week – our PM may have been ‘given a mandate’ by Parliament to cut the budget but there are some bits of the budget that need to be spared the knife.  

  • Shuffling the deck-chairs (2): tests to judge the review of England’s environment agencies

    I promised here to say more the future of England’s statutory agencies.

    Sorry that it has taken a while for me to return to this topic – I have been distracted by the EU Budget and my trip to Brussels where we were celebrating the success of our EU funded wildlife friendly farming project.  Local communities working with farmers to help recover farmland wildlife.  The importance of incentives to help farmers do more for wildlife came through loud and clear.  I hope that Heads of State take note before the EU Budget talks recommence in January. 

    Back to the agencies.  Natural England, Environment Agency and we now hear Joint Nature Conservation Committee are being reviewed.  I have no problem with this, provided that the results help the government do more for the natural environment.

    On Tuesday, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson repeated the laudable ambition that this would be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to the next.  Good - this remains the right ambition.

    The agencies have a critical role to play in helping the Government meet its commitments in the Natural Environment White Paper and the Water White Paper, and the Triennial Review must enhance their ability to do so.

    But this review is taking place against a backdrop of floods, ash die-back and real threats to the future of funding to support wildlife-friendly farming. 

    At a time of crisis, the benefits of any reorganisation must outweigh the inevitable cost and disruption that a merger would create.

    With this in mind, the RSPB, with others have issued to Defra some tests against which we will assess the proposals and outcomes of this review:

    1) Is there an independent champion of the natural environment, with a clear focus on its restoration and protection? [Is there a body whose primary purpose is to think, speak and act for nature?]
    2) Are the Agencies free to inform evidence-based policy and aid its implementation, based on sound science? [Can they gather and use the most up to date information about the state of nature to inform policy?]
    3) Do the Agencies have the necessary resources, capacity and technical expertise to protect and enhance the natural environment? [Do they have what they need to do their job?]
    4) Can the Agencies provide effective, co-ordinated place-based delivery of conservation objectives, alongside non-governmental organisations? [Can they work with others to help wildlife recover across landscapes?]
    5) Can the Agencies effectively carry out their regulatory functions? [Are they able to uphold the law?]

    Next week (taking time out for the Chancellor's autumn statement), I’ll focus on each of these tests and try to bring to life what they mean in practice.

    In the meantime, do you agree with these tests?  Are there others you would add?

    It would be great to hear your views.