May, 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
  • One Big Thing for Nature: guest blog post by Andy Spencer

    Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome Andy Spencer, Sustainability Director for the UK Operations of Cemex.

    I was disappointed to hear recently that a health check of nature undertaken by many UK Wildlife organisations is showing limited success, a general continuing decline in biodiversity, and increasing threats to many endangered species.

    Andy Spencer, Sustainability Director for the UK Operations of CemexIt struck me that the time has come for all nature conservation organisations to rethink aspects of their strategies to accomplish their desired goals of increasing biodiversity and nature conservation. But what  new strategies might they adopt?

    One area of huge opportunity is working with business. Historically this concept of working together would have been quickly dismissed. More recently, there has been some success; but there is huge, untapped potential. Most large businesses now run Sustainability and CSR programmes and have a genuine desire to make a positive impact – partnering can deliver much needed resources to nature conservation organisations to enable businesses to increase conservation and positive impact - a ‘win win’ situation for both parties.

    My 18 year career in the minerals sector has seen such a shift take place over time from hostility on occasions to great partnership approaches - with fantastic benefits for all concerned. As CEMEX we have a long term memorandum of understanding with the RSPB with the aim of delivering net positive biodiversity and the creation of 1000 hectares of priority habitat by 2020. Working together has engaged employees, increased awareness, driven innovation and new ideas and redrawn the concept of how we view many aspects of the Natural Environment. Whether it is changing a restoration plan to deliver wide expanses of heathland, creating sand martin habitats in 60 working quarries, installing bee hives at operational sites or creating wild insect havens in small readymix plants on industrial estates, the effect has been highly positive and there’s plenty more to come!

    This partnership model could be extended to sectors with high impact potential such as house building, construction, water, energy, waste, farming, estates and land managers. Even if a small proportion were engaged the positive impacts would be huge – why can’t we build biodiversity into flood defences, waste infrastructure, water treatment facilities, housing developments, new hospitals and schools, or even new railways? Not only is it good for nature but it is good for people too – leaving a legacy for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

    It is not easy to break tradition and historical relationship barriers. In addition many nature conservation organisations may be reluctant to be seen to engage with business. But times have to move on - we have an urgent task ahead of us and the opportunities have to be seized. This is not green wash, it’s a genuine green push!

    One thing I have learnt in recent times is that good biodiversity management is rarely expensive and the tangible benefits are becoming clearer as the true value of ecosystems services to the economy is emerging. Conservation is an opportunity, not a threat. The long term price for not taking action will be severe – so let’s start breaking down barriers, engaging, trusting, sharing and innovating – and in doing so inspire others and create an epidemic of activity to enhance nature!

    Do you agree with Andy Spencer?  And what would be your One Big Thing for Nature? 

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • One Big Thing for Nature: guest blog post by David Fursdon

    Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome David Fursdon, a farmer and landowner in Devon. David chairs the newly formed SW Rural and Farming Network and the established SW Chamber of Rural Enterprise. He is a Commissioner of both English Heritage and the Crown Estate and a former President of the CLA.

    You invite me to suggest the one 'big thing' that can be done to kick-start nature's revival. I believe that it is to have courage but probably in a different way than you might expect and I explain why.

     In a world of competing pressures on land use; in a society with expectations of permanent economic development and in a democracy we will only improve the state of nature if the ideas of how to do this are acceptable to a wide sector of society. This means these ideas must be acceptable to those that create jobs as well as to those that have no jobs and to those that have expectations and aspirations in economic terms as well as to those for whom nature comes above all else. This means that we need to learn to stand up for nature in a world full of humans. While we live in a world where human needs have not been fully met, limiting the ambition to do so can only succeed if there is a convincing case around which a consensus can emerge.

    When this is coupled with the effects of climate change (and I see little appetite for the self-control measures that mankind will need to take to slow this) we need to 'get real'. This means:

    1. Prioritise the 'big wins'. We have to find a way of evaluating our priorities and what is really important. Preserving the Amazon rainforest is an example. The preservation of an iconic species may be another. There may be yet undiscovered plants that hold the key to cures for human disease and must survive or landscapes where the case for protection rests on the solace they provide for holidays or the inspiration they provide for art or poetry. We will not be able to do everything that we wish. Perhaps there are some situations where we can accept loss of nature. We need to state publicly when and why this is. We need to be able to identify where the needs of mankind with its myriad set of economic, societal and cultural needs, comes first.

    2. Ditch the fanatics. There is a tendency for organisations involved in making the case for nature automatically to support each other come what may because there is an unwritten rule that not to do so would be disloyal- whatever the strength of the argument. This makes it hard to be honest and self-critical. Membership organisations can be too polarised and frightened of the economic consequences of open debate or compromise to argue effectively the case for (or against) nature. Leaving it to zealots though is even more dangerous. Some of these are contemptuous of human need. They need to be robustly and publicly challenged.

    3. Deal with the difficult issues. Examples of the sort of challenges that need proper debate include churches where the continuing protection of bats may make the church unusable; grey squirrels where the propensity of the young males to strip bark kills the trees on which other wild life depends, harming the carbon balance and making it uneconomic for the owner to plant more; what is an acceptable rate of loss of songbirds to domestic cats; whether there are optimum populations of successful species (e.g corvids) particularly if such a population threatens other species; the disturbance of archaeological remains and building foundations by burrowing animals and the hi-jacking of some protests against some developments that would have created jobs by spurious environmental concerns to disguise NIMBYism. Some of this can only be debated properly with the benefit of research which needs to be undertaken even where we might worry that we won’t like the outcome.

    4. Work with financial reality. We have to put a price on nature one way or the other. This is a natural corollary of point 1 above. This enables us to engage with the rest of mankind who see their lives and livelihoods in economic terms. This means developing further the concept of public goods and their valuation. It also means accepting some economic realities (e.g. that farmland birds will change as farming techniques change) and working constructively with others to find solutions.

    If you run a business you have to take hard decisions about priorities such as making people you like redundant; ceasing trading with a friend because you feel that they are in financial trouble or promoting one person and not another. Standing up for nature should also involve taking difficult decisions about priorities, about fanatics within our midst, about publicly debating difficult issues and understanding economic realities. Have we got the courage to do so?

    Do you agree with David Fursdon?  And what would be your One Big Thing for Nature? 

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • One Big Thing for Nature: guest blog post by Rob Wilson

    Following the launch of the State of Nature report, I am keen to stimulate a debate about what else we need to do to live in harmony with nature. Over the next few weeks, people from differing perspectives will propose their One Big Thing for Nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome Dr Robert Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter.

    Biodiversity conservation as an end in itself
    Despite a national fixation with natural history, Britain’s biodiversity is increasingly under threat. Some rare species have been saved by the targeted actions of conservation organisations, but wayside wildlife continues to decline. To restore a landscape rich in biodiversity, conservation may need greater recognition as a legitimate land-use in its own right. Biodiversity provides benefits for humanity ("ecosystem services"), but these are not the raison d’être for conservation. Biodiversity has to be an end in itself, rather than simply an attractive side-benefit of what else we use the environment for. Not convinced? Here are some reasons why.

    Doesn’t Britain's wildlife benefit from existing land-uses?
    Before humans changed Britain’s landscape irrevocably, many species probably depended on natural disturbances to survive. Traditional management serendipitously created conditions where such species could thrive; but the margins of our intensively exploited landscape no longer provide sufficient habitat for these species. If we want nature to flourish outside nature reserves, then conservation may also need to be a goal in locations primarily devoted to other purposes. Funded landscape-scale projects, where conservation practitioners advise land managers or regional planners, could be essential to achieve this.

    Don’t protected areas already conserve biodiversity?
    It sometimes feels like the business of conservation is to reduce declines, when in fact we should be dealing in recovery. Nature reserves represent a tiny fraction of Britain’s land area; designated sites such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest increase protected area coverage, but only a fraction of these are managed primarily (or at all) for nature conservation. Increasing the coverage of protected areas that are managed directly for conservation could help us to avoid consigning remnant biodiversity to a few reserves in otherwise hostile landscapes. Again, properly funded landscape-scale projects may be essential.

    Don't planning regulations already protect biodiversity?
    Planning can play a vital role in safeguarding biodiversity: my own interest in wildlife was inspired by childhood visits to London's Green Belt. But mounting demands for housing increase the need to ensure the protection of important locations for biodiversity, whether greenfield or brownfield. We cannot dismiss legislation designed to protect biodiversity as "red tape". Where commitments are made to offset unavoidable losses of habitat, our aim should be improvements for biodiversity, rather than no net loss.

    Aren't social and economic needs more pressing?
    The message needs to be made clearly that safeguarding biodiversity is itself a central part of sustainable development. By diminishing the importance of biodiversity relative to conventional "land-uses", we reduce the opportunities for nature itself to provide a host of services freely, affecting food, water, and our own health and well-being. We do not fully understand how biodiversity loss affects these and other ecosystem services: so rather than predicating conservation on measurable natural capital, why not conserve biodiversity for itself, now, before it is too late?

    The tangible value of a nightingale’s song (or a cuckoo’s, or a robin’s) may be debatable, but the cost of its disappearance from everyday life would be intolerable.


    Do you agree with Rob Wilson?  And what would be your One Big Thing for Nature? 

    It would be great to hear your views.