February, 2013

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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
  • The EU Budget: why it is a terrible deal for wildlife

    On Friday afternoon, 27 European Heads of State emerged bleary-eyed from 25 hours of talks about the EU Budget for 2014-2020.  Those who were looking for an overall cut in the Budget, including David Cameron, hailed the talks a success.  From what I have read, most commentators seemed to agree and give credit to our Prime Minister.

    But those who wanted a greener Budget that delivered more value for taxpayers' money (for example the RSPB) are left bitterly disappointed.  Given that Europe has lost 300 million birds over the past forty years, we were looking for a Budget that helped the EU to meet its commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020.  We have no so such thing.  It is a terrible deal for wildlife. 

    It appears that the price of winning on the budget amount was failing to reform what the money will be spent on. 

    Agriculture Commissioner Ciolos must be devastated.  He wanted the Common Agriculture Policy to help improve the environment and tackle climate change.  Not only has his ambitions been kicked in to touch, some of the new elements of the deal mean that the new Budget could lead to more rather than less environmental damage. 

    As I explain below, there is still much to play for.  CAP rules still need to be finalised by the European Parliament and Member States have the discretion to make things better (or worse) for the environment.  Attention in the UK now turns to Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, and his counterparts in the devolved administrations.  They have a chance to salvage something from the wreck of the Budget deal.

    Here's the detail...

    What is the overall size of the Budget?  The new Multi-annual Financial Framework (aka the EU Budget) for 2014-202 will now be 960 billion Euros.  This constitutes a cut of just 3.4%. So, taxpayers will be paying slightly less for the European project but what will this mean for the policy that governs how our countryside and many of our protected areas are managed?

    What happened to the Common Agriculture Policy Budget?  The CAP was cut by about 11% - not surprising given it's such an expensive and controversial area of spend.   Those of you who know your CAP will be aware that its budget is divided into two bits: payments to farmers (from the so-called Pillar I) and rural development measures including funding for wildlife friendly farming (so-called Pillar II).  Pillar I was cut by less than 10% and Pillar 2 was cut by almost 12%. Not much difference you may think, but there is much more devil in the detail...

    Members States now have the discretion to move money between the Pillars (technically known as modulation).  For the first time, Member States will be allowed to shift up to 15-25% of funds from rural development into direct payments to farmers.  While Member States will be able to continue to move money from Pillar I to Pillar II, only the UK and Portugal have, to date, ever shifted money like this and it seems unlikely that many will choose this option.

    Any hopes that there would more support for farmers to help protect the environment and recover farmland wildlife have therefore been smashed.

    It makes neither environmental nor economic sense.  We know that rural development measures, such as England's agri-environment schemes, have the potential to invest and drive sustainable land management, provide a lifeline to threatened species such as turtle dove, stone curlew and marsh fritillary butterfly and underpin vibrant rural economies.

    Did EU Leaders fix any other CAP rules? Yes! They obviously didn't like the idea of placing environmental conditions on direct payments to farmers(so-called greening).  So they have watered proposals down to make them meaningless.  There had a been a proposal to require farmers to manage a percentage of their land for environmental benefit (known as ecological focus areas).  This had been Commissioner Ciolos' big idea.  But EU Heads of State didn't like it.  They have now said that no land should be taken out of production - rendering the idea of 'greening' meaningless.

    What about Life? The funding programme called Life, the only bit of the EU Budget which is dedicated to the environment, fractionally increased in size (from 2.5 billion Euros to just shy of 3 billion).  But it  remains tiny at just 0.3% of the overall budget.  We had been arguing for 1%.  Given that 65% of European habitats remain under threat through mismanagement or lack of protection, nature conservation needs all the funding it can get.   

    This is, thankfully, not the end of the process.  The European Parliament still has to have its say and, as I describe above, individual Member States have to set their own rules about the CAP Budget.  RSPB supporters (especially the c30,000 that last week asked Mr Cameron to protect environmental spending) now look to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and his counterparts in the devolved administrations to make the right decisions so that there are sufficient funds to meet their commitments to "protect wildlife... and restore biodiversity".

    And this is what I shall turn to tomorrow.

    Until then, what do you think of the Budget deal?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Not getting our neonics in a twist

    Those with long memories might remember a guest post from our Head of Conservation Science last April on neonicotinoids (see here).  Concern was growing that use of these insecticides was accidentally harming honeybees and other beneficial insects.

    Since then a lot has happened.  Scientists across Europe have continued to investigate whether neonics really are a threat to bees, policy makers have debated their findings, and the chemical companies that manufacture these products have increasingly been on the defensive. 

    The question all along has been: should farmers carry on using neonicotinoids given this possible risk?  It’s not a simple question to answer.  Neonics aren’t like the old chemicals that were sprayed onto the crop and (in many cases) killed practically any insect they came into contact with.  Neonics have much more subtle effects. They are usually applied to the seeds and then spread into the  plant – so they’re present inside the crop as it grows.  They are extremely toxic to pests that eat the plant (that’s the idea), but what no one realised was that even tiny amounts can affect the behaviour of bees that merely sip the nectar or gather the pollen from the crop. 

    There are lots of factors making life harder for bees – diseases, parasites, loss of habitat, weather – it’s very difficult to determine what effect neonics might be having on top of all this.  If neonics were banned, would farmers have to go back to the old sprays, and would that be better or worse for the bees overall?

    The RSPB has been following the debate and doing a lot of thinking. One of the questions we have considered is, “What would farmers do if neonics were banned?” If farmers decided simply to switch to different chemicals, like pyrethroids, for example, what would be the environmental consequences?

    The conclusion we have reached, having weighed up all the evidence available to us, is that the risk from neonics to pollinators probably outweighs the risks from the alternatives.  The evidence that honeybees are at risk from neonics is now pretty clear.  While there are known dangers from pyrethroids, like spray drift and pollution of waterways, these can be mitigated by good practice. 

    So given the increasingly strong evidence for harm to pollinators and in line with the precautionary principle, the RSPB is joining calls on the UK government to suspend all approvals for uses of neonicotinoid insecticides on crops that are attractive to pollinating insects. This includes flowering arable crops such as oilseed rape and beans, crops that exude contaminated sap such as maize, and horticultural crops such as fruit and flowers.  Approval should also be suspended for neonicotinoid-based products sold for ‘amateur’ use by gardeners and these products immediately removed from the market.

    The RSPB works with plenty of farmers who are fully aware of the importance of providing safe habitat for pollinators and protecting water courses.  We believe that, with proper support from government and industry, farmers could manage the transition away from neonicotinoids in a way that is good for bees and the wider environment.  We’re already trying this approach on our own land – there certainly are challenges to farming without neonics, but it’s do-able.

    While we’ve been scratching our heads, others in Europe have been doing the same, and last month an important report was published that recommended a ban of three commonly-used neconics from use on crops that are attractive to bees (which would include oilseed rape, but not wheat, for example).   The European Commission has taken this report on board. At a meeting on 25 February, Member States will vote on whether to impose these restrictions.

    The Commission’s proposal would also limit neonic use to professional users, which would stop companies selling neonic-based products to amateur gardeners. Given the conclusions we have reached, the RSPB fully supports the Commission’s proposals.

    Under the weighted voting system, the UK’s vote will be an important deciding factor on whether Commission’s proposal is carried.  The UK government therefore has an important decision to make next Monday. I have some sympathy for them as the science is tough. However, the RSPB’s position is the result of a lot of research and thought, and I truly believe that it is the right one. 

    The European Commission’s proposals to restrict neonic use would be an important step towards protecting our bees.  We shall be working with partners, such as Buglife, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association to ensure the UK Government plays a leading role in tackling this issue rather than kicking the ball into the (bee-unfriendly) long grass.

    Do you support our call to ban the use of neonics on flowering crops?

    It would be great to hear your views.


    Photo credit: Bumble bee Bombus terrestris, pollenating oil seed rape flowers - Richard Revels (rspb-images.com)

  • A fair deal for farmers? The money and modulation debate kicks off

    The NFU launched their "Fair Deal for English farmers" at their conference yesterday. 

    Although I was unable to attend the event, I hear NFU President, Peter Kendall, was on typically pugilistic form claiming that "every farmer was united in their hatred of modulation".


    As I wrote here, it is no surprise that NFU and the CLA are opposed to moving funds away from direct farm support towards support for farming that delivers public goods such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife. 

    Yet, given the pretty dismal CAP deal, there is no way Defra will be able to maintain its £1.8 billion of agri-environment commitments in England without modulation.   As I have written previously, Environment Stewardship is not perfect and the entry-level scheme certainly should deliver more, but a reduction in funds could be disastrous for wildlife.  The higher level scheme provides a lifeline to many species such as turtle dove, cirl bunting and marsh fritilary butterfly. 

    I appreciate that this is a pretty tough time for many farmers, but many farmers will lose out if there are big cuts to agri-environment.  For example, these schemes currently consitute a third of income to many hill farmers.  No modulation would essentially mean that those farmers would not be able to renew there schemes. And for hill farmers in higher level agri-environment schemes, they'd receive more money than the 15% of direct support payments that they would retain.

    There is also a strange contradiction in the position statement where the NFU states that CAP greening measures should be diluted to the point of absolute ineffectiveness (points 1,3 & 4), and then argue that greening negates the need for modulation (point 6).

    So, given this nonsense, it was reassuring to hear the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, stick to his guns and say that he did plan modulate to "support those things that the market cannot provide".

    I'd go further.  When it comes to recovering farmland wildlife, Defra has no plan B.  It is almost entirely reliant on agri-environment funding.  Failure to modulate would be like giving up on government ambitions in its Natural Environment White Paper.