April, 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
  • Europe throws a lifeline to our bees

    In the end, the European Commission won the day and new restrictions will soon be placed on the use of the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.   

    Much of the comment in our press has focused on the fact that the UK, with seven other Member States, voted against a ban.  In fact, despite the recent campaigning effort from a number of NGOs, the UK hardened its position as in March they had abstained. 

    Here are the details of yesterday's agreement:

    • Three chemicals (clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid) will now be banned on all crops attractive to pollinators, including both seed treatment and foliar sprays.
    • Treated seeds cannot be used or put on the market from 1 December.   Member States must amend or withdraw existing product authorisations by September 30th.  Any period of grace granted by Member States must end by 30 November.
    • The ban will lasts for two years then the European Commission will review the situation.
    • Member State governments are still free to impose additional/more rigorous restrictions than these in their own countries. 

    Behind the headlines, two interesting debates that have at times been colliding.  One has been on the strength of the evidential link between neonics and bee declines.  Avid followers of this blog will note that we took our time to support calls for a ban on flowering crops - we had been worried about the environmental consequences of farmers switching to more harmful chemicals.  In the end though, the conclusion we reached, having weighed up all the evidence available to us, was that the risk from neonics to pollinators probably outweighs the risks from the alternatives. 

    The second debate focused on how much environmental harm we are prepared to inflict if we are to grow enough food to feed the world.  Some highlighted the potential loss in yield if neonic use was banned.  Putting aside the spurious debates about the the UK's capability to feed the world (for a reminder of our views on the subject see here), I think that concern has been growing amongst the farming community that neonicotinoids were really bad news.  The last thing that farmers want is for their own pesticide regime to lead to a loss of pollinators.  The value of bees to the economy is estimated at about £500m yet replacing those free services would cost nearly four times that amount - £1.8bn - but that assumes that this level of pollination by hand is feasible.  To be honest, like many debates about the utilitarian value of wildlife, priceless might be a better description (as captured by the banner at last Friday's march of the beekeepers).  

    So what should happen next?

    First, we need the ban to be in place as quickly as possible.

    Second, we should use the two year period to improve our understanding of neonicotinoid use so that the 2015 review is informed by the best science.  Equally, we also need to monitor the impacts of the ban - including the use of alternative pesticides - on populations of pollinating insects. 

    Third, we need to use this opportunity to develop and promote safer alternatives to neonicotinoids – including non-chemical techniques.  We've long argued that pest control in the EU should follow the principles of integrated pest management.

    Finally, we hope that our government will now strive to get the best result for UK farmers: helping them manage pests successfully and safely as part of wildlife-friendly systems of farming, without the need for neonics.

    So a good day for wildlife and a good day for anyone who wants the value of nature to be recognised in decision-making.

  • Challenging times

    Last week, the UK Government announced plans to cut the ‘soaring’ number of Judicial Review applications being made in England and Wales’.  These include proposals to halve the time limit for applying for a review of a planning decision.

    We joined forces with WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to express our concerns. Why?

    First, because this is another example of the triumph of anecdote over evidence.  The 2012 consultation bemoaned JRs as “stifling innovation and frustrating much needed reforms, including those aimed at stimulating growth and promoting economic recovery” yet the proportion of JRs for cases other than asylum or immigration (such as planning) is tiny has not changed since 2005.

    Second, we are concerned because JR is a key tool for civil society to challenge the State when it gets things wrong.  This is particularly important at a time of increased development pressure and when there is a political desire to get the economy moving.

    The RSPB comments on hundreds of planning applications a year.  We speak up for nature when special places of important populations are threatened by inappropriate development and when necessary make our views heard at public inquiries.  We win some (such as Dibden Bay or 2011 battles to save heathland wildlife at Crowthorne, Talbot Heath and Hurstleigh) and we lose some (such as the recent decision to expand Lydd airport in Kent).  But if we feel that the law has not been respected then we will take steps to challenge the decision. 

    We did this, most famously, over Lappel Bank.  Here, Medway Ports Authority were granted permission for the reclamation of Lappel Bank for a car and cargo park.  In 1993, the Secretary of State for the Environment designated the Medway Estuary and Marshes as a SPA, but decided to exclude Lappel Bank on the grounds that the economic need for port expansion outweighed the site’s nature conservation value. The RSPB took the bold decision to challenge this on the grounds that the Birds Directive did not allow economic considerations to be taken into account in the designation of an SPA. The RSPB brought a judicial review against the Secretary of State, which was eventually referred by the House of Lords to the European Court of Justice.  The European Court ruled in our favour and although the development had already gone ahead and the site was lost, this case established the principle of compensatory habitat for damage to an internationally important site.  This led to new habitat being created on Wallasea Island, now the site of a much greater habitat recreation scheme of which we are rather proud.

    The process of judicial review is a part of good governance enabling civil society to challenge when they believe the law has not been upheld.  Government's new proposals will make it harder for citizens and NGOs to have their voices heard.  My fear is that will lead to bad decision-making and projects which cause needless harm to the natural environment.

    And that is not a great legacy for any government to leave.

  • Knowledge is power?

    The debate about the future of our marine wildlife intensified this week when 86 scientists called on the UK Government to inject some urgency into their plans to establish Marine Conservation Zones.    The fear is that unless ministers act quickly we shall be condemning our seas to over-exploitation and, as I wrote on Monday, marine wildlife needs more protection to help withstand pressures posed by human activity.  This latest intervention comes hot on the heels of the recent report of the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology which also pressed for immediate action. 

    Ministers have said that the current suite of zones is proportionate and will protect economic interests.   We disagree.  We vehemently argued against the consideration of socio-economics in the selection of Marine Conservation Zones.  On land, SSSIs are selected based on science alone (hence Natural England making the right decision to notify Lodge Hill a SSSI because of the importance of its nightingale population) and we felt that a similar approach was appropriate at sea.  We lost this argument with the then Labour Government.  But the political issue is this - if your stated ambition is to establish an ecologically coherent network, then you should be judged on the adequacy of that network. 

    The decline in the Kittiwake is being driven by a slump in the availability of sand-eels. Image by Genevieve Leaper (rspb-images.com)

    The role of science in policy making and decision taking was brought into focus by two other events in the last week. 

    First, the new Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, outlined his approach in his first speech and first broadcast interview last week.  He sees his role as ensuring that the best available evidence is available to inform political decisions.   Yet, he also notes the importance of addressing issues from all perspectives.  I have no problem with this unless, as a result of the decision, political commitments are ignored or, much worse, we fail to respect environmental limits such as the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases or we condemn species to long term decline or even extinction.  History suggests that the pendulum of decision-making swings against the environment.

    Second, following the death of Margaret Thatcher two weeks ago, I dipped into her autobiography (the copy was borrowed not owned).  In that she writes, "For me, the proper staring point in formulating policy towards [global environmental problems] was science ".  We agree! Which is why we invest so much in our scientific research: we monitor what is happening to the natural world, we diagnose problems and then test solutions.  Just last week, our science programme was subjected to an independent review from four distinguished academics: Professor Sir John Lawton, Professor David MacDonald, Professor Valerie Brown and Dr Jenny Gill.  While we await their formal report, I wasn't surprised that they went away impressed by the quality and breadth of our science. 

    We try to act on evidence to help make a difference and urge others to do the same.  We intend to continue to invest in our science capacity and capability.  This will, I argue, help us remain credibly and authorative.  While it will never be enough to win every argument (a good dose of public pressure is often needed), having the evidence to back up an argument sure helps.    And when it comes to protecting marine wildlife, we shall continue to make available the data we gather from our ground-breaking sea-bird tracking programme and we shall expect better from our politicians.

    What do you think should be the role of science in decision-making?

    It would be great to hear your view.