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
  • Facing up to inconvenient truths

    If you care about what happens to the millions of species with whom we share this beautiful planet, then you have to face up to some inconvenient truths: intensive food production can harm wildlife populations, inappropriate housing or port development can destroy important habitats, introducing non-native species can lead to species extinctions.  And, most inconvenient of all, our continued dependence on fossil fuels is causing climate chaos with wildlife and the world's poor on the front line.

    Some refuse to accept this and instead choose to ridicule those that are trying to find solutions to help us live in harmony with nature. 

    In today's Mail on Sunday, James Delingpole, continues to ignore the scientific consensus about climate change caused by human activity driving up greenhouse gas emissions and has attacked the RSPB's position on renewable energy.  He implies that we are in the pocket of the wind industry, citing our new partnership with Ecotricity as evidence.

    I think there are many in the wind industry would splutter on their Sunday morning coffee at this news.  Where developers choose to build windfarms in locations which are likely to affect important populations of wildlife or special places, we have and will continue to fight them.  Which is why I am delighted that Ecotricity, who want to build the right renewable projects in the right place, want us to help them.  And, in turn, for every person that switches their gas and electricity supply to Ecotricity, the RSPB will get £60 which we will invest in nature conservation projects.

    As I wrote here, we have spent the past fifteen years working with developers and the planning system to ensure windfarms are put in sensible places where they are unlikely to cause harm.  This is consistent with how we work with other developers from the housing sector, port and indeed with individual farmers.  I am proud of the RSPB's record at influencing smart development.

    In his piece Mr Delingpole is selective with his facts and has chosen to ignore the large body of science that supports the principle that appropriately located windfarms have negligible impacts, and instead highlights a few studies from other parts of the world that are deeply misleading when extrapolated to windfarms in general, or indeed windfarms in the UK.

    I am not surprised that Delingpole has not looked into the evidence in a balanced way. He has already made his mind up about windfarms – dubbing them ‘bird-blending eco-crucifixes’ –  as he has on climate change, and he was looking for further evidence to support this conclusion rather than investigating the issue for real.  His article goes beyond the realm of an investigative journalist.  He has a personal agenda (see here, here and here) and the Mail on Sunday has chosen to support it.  He quotes us in the article but didn't try to track down any of the many independent scientists who would back our line. They have no links with us, the "green lobby" or energy companies. Instead he chooses one, with whom he is presumably well acquainted as a fellow sceptic, and presents him as representative of independent science.  This is shabby stuff.

    With every year that goes by, I am more and more concerned about the very real impact climate change is already having on wildlife. Our global climate is increasingly destabilised and, on average, is continuing to warm; wildlife is on the front line of these changes and is already feeling the crunch. Last year, we were horrified by the impact that the extreme rainfall throughout spring had on birds attempting to breed on our reserves, whilst the evidence that increases in North Sea temperature have disrupted the food chain and are causing declines in seabirds continued to stack up.

    The RSPB exists to save nature for current and future generations. Nature conservation is for the long-term; each nature reserve we create, species we save, wetland we protect, is a gift for future generations as much as it is for this one. Unbridled climate change threatens to take away these gifts, reverse our successes, and leave future generations with a natural world that is profoundly undermined, even dysfunctional.   This is not me saying it, there is a weight of evidence in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. 

    This is, to say the least, inconvenient.

    It is also why I believe that if you want to save nature then we must address climate change, and windfarms, in the right place, can offer a small but significant part of this effort.

    And this is why I have switched my electricity supplier to Ecotricity and have chosen for 100% of my electricity to come from renewable sources.  I encourage you to do the same.

  • 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.