June, 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
  • Wildlife Licensing: how the RSPB uses it to support nature conservation.

    Since 1981, all wild birds, their eggs and chicks have been protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA). This means they cannot be killed, have their eggs taken or have their occupied nests destroyed unless this is done under licence.

    We have been quite vociferous over licensing recently, particularly in relation to our anger at licences issued by Natural England for the destruction of buzzard nests to benefit shooting businesses. Although we have opposed the issuing of licences for the purpose of protecting game interests, we need to rely on the WCA licensing system for conservation, occasionally, too. And, in the interests of openness, I thought I’d share this information with you.

    The bulk of the work we complete under WCA licences relates to ‘disturbance’ of wild birds, including those sensitive or rare species listed on Schedule 1 of the WCA. For example, armed with licences authorised staff and volunteers can: monitor the nests of declining wading birds; erect temporary fences around the nests of Montagu’s harriers in arable fields; or place nest protection cages over little ringed plover nests, or electric fencing around little tern colonies. All of this work is done to increase the breeding success of threatened bird species. We have also needed to rely on the licencing system when setting up reintroduction projects for red kites, corncrakes or cirl buntings, or when our investigators try to thwart the attempts of collectors to steal the eggs of some of our rarest birds.

    In all of these cases, disturbance is temporary. And, all of this work is only done for research, educational or conservation purposes. Every year we submit a comprehensive report of all our work carried out under these licences to the licensing authority.

    Occasionally, we also have to control certain bird species under licence on some of our reserves, but only after all possible management has been done but failed to provide all the conservation needs for those species of concern. In most cases, this is to recover the numbers of threatened wild birds: for example, we remove certain predators to aid the recovery of ground-nesting bird populations. We always favour approaches - such as habitat management and predator exclusion techniques – but, as a last resort, killing may sometimes be necessary.

    It is certainly not an everyday tool, and it must be justified on a case-by-case basis. In line with legal requirements and our own policies, we will only contemplate predator control when predation is shown to pose a threat to species or populations of conservation concern, and is sufficiently serious to warrant action. We will also only countenance lethal control where there is no satisfactory alternative and where any control measures are restricted to the predator, are humane and are capable of reducing predation pressure.

    To benefit breeding wading birds, such as black-tailed godwit or lapwing, we carry out lethal control of carrion crows on some reserves. This happens under the so-called general licence, which means – like everyone using this provision - we’re not obliged to submit records on the number of birds killed (which we think is wrong), but we keep the records anyway and here are the most recent figures we have available:

    In 2011-12, 292 crows were killed on our reserves. Eleven magpies have also been killed under general licence on RSPB reserves for conservation purposes during the same period.

    To protect breeding terns from predation, licensed control of herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and great black-backed gulls is also undertaken on specific reserves as a last resort. In 2011-12, 76 large gull nests were destroyed (mostly lesser-black-backed gull) and three adult lesser black-backed gulls were shot on RSPB reserves. Both herring and lesser black-backed gulls have an unfavourable conservation status. So we would never carry out lethal control which endangers the predator species.

    We also carry out control (through egg oiling) of greylag and Canada geese on two reserves in England for aircraft safety. In 2012 this amounted to 73 greylag goose eggs and 25 Canada goose eggs. Also 195 eggs of introduced barnacle geese have been destroyed on another reserve to reduce the impact of aggressive behaviour towards nesting species of conservation concern. At one site we also oil Canada goose eggs to prevent hatching to avoidserious crop damage to a neighbouring landowner.

    The licensing system for permitting disturbance or control of wildlife exists for particular problems and we believe it is legitimate to make small-scale interventions for conservation, or as the law allows. However, we remain opposed to any plan to reduce the integrity of the licensing system and make it easier to kill things in general.

  • Give Nature a Home

    Today the RSPB launches its Giving Nature a Home campaign. 

    We want everyone to give nature a home in their own gardens or communities. This is good for garden wildlife, good for people and will evolve into a growing force that demands action from others in society.

    The State of Nature report has been a wake-up call for all of us. Despite the best endeavours of conservationists and progressive parts of the landowning and business community, nature remains in crisis.  60% of species for which we can assess trends continue to decline. The findings of this report are remarkably consistent with the UK National Ecosystems Assessment of 2011 which showed that 30% of the services that nature gives us for free are continuing to decline. 
    Whether for moral or utilitarian reasons, if we want to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment to the next in a better state, halt the loss of biodiversity and begin its recovery by 2020, then we all need to rethink our collective strategies. Our current efforts are inadequate.

    The pressures on nature are growing. These four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse (habitat destruction, non-native invasive species, over-exploitation and pollution especially climate change) are driven by a growing population consuming more.

    To win, we need change.  But there is hope. There has to be.  In your vision of a world richer in nature, imagine this: birds and other wildlife are no longer declining.  Nature is being restored and is enriching people's lives.  We have a world where clean air and water are guaranteed, in a stable climate, with rich and varied wildlife and a robust, sustainable economy.

    Ultimately, we need to end the battle for ecological space between humans and the millions of other species on which we share this planet. Instead, we must create the conditions for harmonious and mutually beneficial co-existence. We need to decouple growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world. The value of nature needs to be reflected in economic thinking, decision-making, models of governance and in scientific and technological advancement.

    However much we want these changes, they will not happen overnight.  In the short term, the guiding philosophy for all of us should be, in the words of Richard Mabey, to DO NO HARM and to make things better.  All parts of society can play a role and help give nature a home...

    Politicians: Think about the planet when you make big decisions about where to invest and where to make cuts. Make it easier for people to do the right thing and stop bad things from happening. Create institutions that are free to do what nature needs and are immune from political interference. MONEY, LAWS and INSTITUTIONS all need to work harder for nature. As an electorate we will be intolerant of politicians that fail wildlife or renege on their commitments.

    Landowners: Manage your land with wildlife in mind. We want more farming heroes who dedicate more of their land to nature and who ensure that food production does not come at the expense of wildlife.  Award-winning wildlife farmers like Henry Edmunds need to become the norm. Support Conservation Grade, which ensures that farmers are paid a premium for the food they produce. 

    Businesses:  Find new ways to make a profit without trashing the environment.  United Utilities gets it – they know their business model depends on well managed water catchments. Get it right and you’ll save money, deliver a high quality product and help recover threatened wildlife populations. CEMEX gets it – they are restoring their sites to become fantastic places for wildlife. Make investment in improving the wildlife value of land the norm and prioritise investment in the greening of your supply chains.

    Developers and local authorities: Make space for nature and encourage sympathetic development on land and at sea, in harmony with nature. As a society, we will continue to be intolerant of developments which sacrifice our finest wildlife sites, depriving us and future generations of beauty, wonder and our own natural assets.

    Environmental NGOs: Let’s work smarter together. Let’s be committed to ensuring that our collective actions are greater than the sum of our parts. The State of Nature launch was just the start. Let’s work together wherever we can.  We are stronger together and we will prove it through our actions.

    All of us: Let’s give nature a home in our gardens and our communities and in the wider landscape - wherever we feel we can make a difference. In the aftermath of the State of Nature Report, some of us said (see here) that we want the campaign to inspire more people to make a difference in their own lives and where they live. 

    The RSPB has decided to invest resources in a campaign to do just that, reaching new audiences in different ways. While there is a risk in doing this, the prize is potentially enormous. If enough of us take action for wildlife at home, we may take more interest in wildlife in our communities and in the wider landscape. Imagine what we could do if we turn that concern into an unstoppable demand for greater action by others.

    And the RSPB? Our conservation strategy is clear: we will do whatever it takes, with others, for ever... to stop common species becoming rare and threatened species from going extinct. 

    Image credits: Orchids by Andy Hay (rspb-images), Heath fritillary by Jackie Cooper (rspb-images.com), Frogs welcome by Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)

  • Reshuffling the deckchairs (7): a verdict on the outcome of the triennial review of Natural England and Environment Agency

    Last summer, the Government initiated a review of  the Environment Agency and Natural England. Yesterday, it published the results of its review.

    We argued that any review should improve the agencies' abilities to meet the ambitions set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.  Has it achieved that?

    It has been clear that some sections of the Government saw this as an opportunity to reduce costs, reduce the number of quangos and quieten any pesky bodies who might get in the way of commercial interests.  The question of whether to merge EA and NE dominated the discussions.
    The review has taken a year to complete. This is not a great use of taxpayers' money and no way to motivate staff in organisations that are already feeling the squeeze from hefty cuts.  This level of uncertainty is not conducive to high performance, particularly if you feel obliged to continuously prove yourselves to your paymasters.

    For all that, the review is now complete.  And the good news is that Natural  England and the Environment Agency rightfully remain as two separate agencies.   They have distinct, important jobs and can now be free to get on with them.  Both organisations have excellent staff and I am glad their independence was defended by their advocates in government.

    But, if you delve into the detail, there are a few nasty surprises about how the Govenment wants the agencies to operate.

    1. There is continued talk about  the agencies having a duty to support economic growth. The whole point of agencies is to provide specialist advice. In the case of Natural England, this should mean providing impartial scientific advice on ecological matters decision-makers. Ecologists should not be expected to factor economic considerations into their advice.  This not only undermines their scientific integrity and impartiality, there is a very real danger of ill-informed decisions, which fail to safeguard our legally protected wildlife and habitats.

    2. The report highlights the need for ‘more stretching targets for reducing regulatory burdens’. Time and again, the value of the natural world to our economy is laid bare. Defra’s own research shows that biodiversity-related regulations in England have a benefit-cost ratio of almost 9:1. Meanwhile, the net direct costs are only a small fraction of total turnover of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Despite this, some in Government seem fixed on a race to the regulatory bottom that will severely undermine the sustainability of our economy.

    3. The report talks about consolidating the planning functions of the Environment Agency and Natural England. In such a scenario, how do you maintain transparency? Part of the rationale for separation is to maintain transparency where there might be conflicting advice. For example, in a case of flood defence v habitat restoration, how do you ensure that ‘a single conversation’ for developers doesn’t mean one agency doing what two agencies are needed for? This sounds a little like a merger by the back door.

    There are only so many ways in which you can protect wildlife: incentives to encourage people to do the right thing, penalties to get them to stop doing bad things, pricing natural assets and creating a market in which to trade them or... exhortation.  The Chancellor has confirmed that there is no money. If the Defra spending axe falls in the way we predict, by 2015-16 Natural England will be about half the size it was in 2009.  Markets for natural assets are either a long way off (eg for carbon rich soils or water resources) or inapporpiate (for species).  So, no markets, much less money, and fewer laws.  That leaves exhortation - good old-fashioned persuasion.  And, as Professor Sir Bob Watson once said, no environmental problem has ever been solved solely by voluntary means. 

    Failing to invest properly in the natural world will either sell us short or, worse, come back to haunt us.  And it means we shall undoubtedly leave our natural environment in an impoverished state for our children to grow up in, which is counter to the ambition set out in the Natural Environment White Paper.

    We are where we are. 60% of species declining (State of Nature Report), nature's life-giving services being eroded (Natural Capital Committee) and the slow abdication of the State's responsibility for any of it. 

    In the short term, we may have to make do with the decisions that have been made: use existing money well, prevent bad things from happening and be creative about how to get new investment. 

    We are sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe and it is time to wake people from their slumber.  Not just politicians, but businesses, landowners and, yes, you and me.

    We need a new deal for wildlife and we need it fast.