February, 2013

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
  • 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)

  • Crakey, whatever next!

    I always expect the odd surprise when I visit one of our nature reserves.  And last week’s half term visit to Minsmere with the boy and the girl was no exception.  The mating teal in front of the hide provoked debate ("why are they fighting?"), the marsh harriers grabbed their attention, but it was a fabulous view of a kingfisher which probably will live long in the memory.  A strategically placed branch provided the perfect perch between fishing trips.  

    And our reserves threw up a few more surprises last year.
    The January issue of British Birds contains a fascinating article which describes the astonishing influx of, and probable breeding by, Baillon’s Crakes in Britain last summer.  Astonishing, because Baillon’s Crakes were last recorded breeding in Britain as long ago as 1889 (coincidentally the year the RSPB was founded), and until last summer had only been recorded in Britain three times since 2000.

    The story of how these Baillon’s Crakes were found is quite remarkable.  It started when a team of our ecologists went on a study tour of wetlands in the Netherlands in 2011, as guests of our Birdlife partner Vogelbescherming Nederland.   Two of the wetlands which they visited had supported breeding Baillon’s Crakes, a species which had been re-discovered breeding in the Netherlands in 2005.  Baillon’s Crakes nest in swampy vegetation and are highly secretive during the breeding season.  It is usually only possible to detect breeding birds by hearing the male’s song, a strange little ‘trrrrrr’ noise made mainly at night.  Our ecologists were intrigued.  Could we have been overlooking breeding Baillon’s Crakes in the UK? It was a long shot.  But definitely worth a go searching for them.

    We therefore decided to ask staff at RSPB reserves with suitable habitat to listen for Baillon’s Crakes in 2012.  By coincidence, the second national Spotted Crake survey then received the go-ahead.  Spotted Crakes also sing from swampy areas at night, so people surveying Spotted Crakes were also asked to listen out for Baillon’s Crakes.  Amazingly, during the summer, a minimum of six, and perhaps as many as eleven, singing Baillon’s Crakes were found.  Most remarkably, this total included at least four males (and very possibly additional unrecorded females) all at the same site.

    It seems that the decision to search for Baillon’s Crakes, and the national Spotted Crake survey, both happened to coincide with an exceptional influx of Baillon’s Crakes into Northwest Europe.  This appears to have been caused by Crakes dispersing north from their usual main breeding grounds in the wetlands of Donana in southern Spain, because Donana was too dry for Baillon’s Crakes and many other waterbirds in spring 2012.  Climate projections show Spain becoming even drier.  So, while the return (or re-discovery?) of probably breeding Baillon’s Crakes in Britain after more than a hundred years has been an amazing event, it also highlights some worrying problems ahead.

    So what next? During the last few years, we have seen the first recorded breeding in Britain by Purple Herons, Great White Egrets and Cattle Egrets;  the second recorded breeding by Little Bitterns (with birds summering at the same site in the following two years and perhaps also breeding);  and the first breeding colony of Spoonbills for more than 300 years.  Maybe breeding Glossy Ibises in Somerset?

    I hope to report more surprises from our nature reserves soon.

    Photo caption: A pair of Baillon’s Crakes in a rare foray into the open.  Photo by Eric Menkveld.

  • The EU Budget: modulating messages

    The Common Agriculture Policy remains contentious and complicated yet, following the disastrous EU Budget deal (here), it is worth trying to make sense of it as it is the detail which matters.  After European haggling, attention now turns to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and his counterparts in the devolved administrations who now have a chance to salvage something from the wreck of the EU Budget deal.

    At the time of writing we still don’t know how much CAP money the UK will receive.  We're most interested in what happens to the UK’s rural development budget (the bit of the budget which funds wildlife-friendly farming).

    The EU Budget deal last week slashed the rural development budget by 12% and on top of that a series of ‘sweeteners’ were given out to Member States “facing particular structural challenges in their agriculture sector or which have invested heavily in an effective delivery framework for Pillar 2 expenditure”, including France who received a huge ‘bonus’ of €1bn. The UK didn’t make it onto that list, almost certainly because David Cameron’s firm ‘cut the budget’ line meant he couldn’t ask for more for the UK in any policy area. These sweeteners reduced the rural development pot by more than €5.5bn – further reducing what’s left to be divided among other Member States.

    The UK has received a very low rural development budget for political and historical reasons.  Because of this poor hand out, the UK has been left with little choice but to shift money away from direct support for farmers (aka Pillar 1) into rural development (aka Pillar 2) – a process referred to as voluntary modulation. And the UK Government and devolved administrations have all moved money at varying rates, with England consistently applying a higher rate.

    These transfers, particularly in England, meant the difference between offering an open-to-all agri-environment scheme to farmers and not. Without modulation, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the entry level stewardship scheme in England as well as the higher level scheme

    We think the higher level scheme offers the best value for money and those farmers that have entered this scheme tell us that this has now become a core part of their business (see here).  As I have written before here, the entry-level scheme needs work.  But the bottom line is we need well funded, well designed, geographically targeted schemes.  How much we need is not yet clear.  A study commissioned by the Land Use Policy Group suggests we should be spending somewhere between £1-3bn every year to meet our stated environmental objectives for climate, water, soil and biodiversity but even with voluntary modulation we don’t spend anywhere near that. That kind of spend is restricted to Pillar 1 direct payments, by far still the lion’s share of the CAP budget here.

    So we know that voluntary modulation is going to be needed this time round, and as much of it as we can get.  But this is going to need some bold political decisions across the UK.  Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has been clear on the need to secure voluntary modulation and we look to him to turn these words into action. But the picture is not so rosy across the UK. For example, last year, the NI executive decided to opt out of voluntary modulation and ‘give the money back to farmers’ via their direct payments.

    Not everyone likes modulation.  The NFU and CLA don't seem to like it.  For the life of me I can’t think why. The money stays in the farming and land management sectors, it's pretty flexible and agri-environment schemes provide a degree of economic stability for the duration of their (ten year) terms.  There’s strong evidence that agri-environment schemes have a ‘multiplier effect’ which means that for every pound spent, more money is generated in the local and national economies. When well designed, these schemes can really deliver for wildlife too and over the years many of the farmers we’ve worked with have become passionate about the birds, butterflies and other species these schemes have enabled them to support on their farms.

    The usual criticism is that modulation undermines the competiveness of UK farmers.  But this should also be given short shrift.  Unlike direct support payments under Pillar 1 which lacks a clear policy objective, the rural development programme is partly designed to boost competiveness and its schemes are able to support farmers to adapt, diversify and adopt more sustainable land management approaches. If the NFU was serious about  competitiveness, and supporting farmers to reduce their dependency of direct payments, they would be championing modulation.

    Yes, we have to accept that if we modulate from Pillar 1 into Pillar 2 and others don’t (or worse yet, choose to do the opposite) then our farmers will have to do different things to get their CAP money compared to their EU counterparts. But this is no bad thing – by supporting our farmers to earn more of their money through Pillar 2 schemes we’ll not only go a long way to meeting our environmental targets, we’ll help put UK farming on a more sustainable footing and justify the public’s investment long term

    To modulate or not to modulate, what do you think?

    It would be great to hear your views.