July, 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
  • Guest blog from Rob Yorke: Conservation hang-ups - be braver, bolder!

    Before travelling to the Game Fair this weekend, I welcome a guest blog from Rob Yorke, rural commentator and hunter/naturalist.  Have a read and let me know what you think.  Both Rob and I would be delighted to hear your views.


    Conservation hang-ups; be braver, bolder!

    This year the RSPB will have its usual presence at the Game Fair, one of the UK’s largest annual rural events. Some may have expected the RSPB just to attend Birdfair, but recognition that the countryside is a melting pot of multiple land uses demands, requires engagement in dialogue.

    Little terns and pheasants both benefit from electric fences; but we tend to get ‘hung up’ on the differences between EU funded protection of terns from foxes and shooting interests keeping foxes out of pheasant release pens.

    We cannot ignore both the huge financial costs of conservation and the environmental impact of poor shooting practices. There is much common ground between conservation and shooting that could result in biodiversity being the first beneficiary, before we ‘profit’ from recreational ‘cultural ecosystem services’ of shooting and birdwatching.

    The RSPB’s Game Fair theme this year is woodland – managing them to ‘provide for wildlife, people and the economy’ and you can’t manage woodland without cutting down trees (unless you let your wood take an unpredictable Monbiot-style rewilding course).

    The same interventionist principle applies to nature conservation.

    Deep pockets are required to start managing woodland before major benefits accrue to wildlife, let alone to the economy. Grey squirrels are a major threat to broadleaf woodlands - as red deer are to Caledonian pine forests – and the benefit of onsite shooting interests assisting in woodland management, are considerably cheaper than bringing in hired ‘guns’.

    We need, as Sir John Lawton put bluntly, to get more conservation bang for our buck (1). Especially during austerity and reduced funding from Europe.

    Science puts a case within the complex interaction of habitat and predators, that intervention may be a necessity in modern conservation practice. Habitat management on our crowded island is not enough. The RSPB and shooting interests both lethally control wildlife - whether by egg oiling, Larsen trapping or shooting – and Lawton himself encourages us to ‘get on with it [predator control] (2)’.

    The shooting lobby must self regulate. The release of high densities of pheasants must change. The culture of what guns pay for must change. Less birds, higher standards, more habitat for wild pheasants and wider benefit to biodiversity and forestry. Those that persecute raptors must be ostracised. Shooting organisations could seek funding looking at ways of reducing predator impact on shoots – similar to Defra’s research into reducing raptor conflicts with rural livelihoods elsewhere.

    There are some who cannot understand how those that shoot have a deep knowledge and love of nature; even after Sir Peter Scott gave up wildfowling, he said the wildness of the hunt was integral to his love of nature. Conservationists must not mistakenly snuff out that hunting instinct which also nurtures the habitat we all want to conserve. This appreciation is as valid as wanting to have a bird reserve on your doorstep; shooting a woodcock in a woodland devoid of wildlife would be as pointless as a twitcher ticking off a rare migrant in a zoo.

    Those that would like to see shooting banned should be aware of the tradeoffs (3) in loss of interest, rural investment, cultural and wildlife diversity. As one environment columnist commented; ‘there’s no denying that across the Norfolk Estate [managed for grey partridge shooting] wildlife has exploded.’

    For biodiversity to thrive in today’s world, some conservation practices may seem ‘unfair' to some flora and fauna. We must be bolder and braver with our practices to demonstrate how shooting, wildlife and woodland management can all benefit the widest biodiversity while remaining both economically and environmentally viable.

    Please agree or disagree www.twitter.com/blackgull

    (1), (2) Sir John Lawton comments at RASE ‘Sustainable Intensification & Farmland Birds’ Seminar

    (3) Dr Mike Clarke at BOU Conference 2012

  • Going wild: a guest blog from George Monbiot

    Last month, I wrote a review of George Monbiot's book, Feral.  Today, I am delighted that George has offered this contribution following a recent visit to the north of England.


     I’m writing this on the train home, after visiting two places in the north of England celebrated for their “wildness”. One of them is Ennerdale in the Lake District, now officially known as Wild Ennerdale, a valley in which the river has been allowed to move freely once more, and in which native trees are succeeding naturally up the hillsides.

    The other is the Sheffield Moors (in the Peak District), from which most of the sheep have been removed and where the structure of the vegetation has been allowed to change a little. I found both visits fascinating, not least because of the eruditon and enthusiasm of the people who walked me through these places.

    But sitting on the train, watching the chemical deserts of the English lowlands flash past, I’m struck by how pathetically grateful I feel. For what? For the fact that, in two small conservation areas, located in national parks, a few natural processes have been allowed to resume.

    Were I to explain to a foreigner that these places are now celebrated by conservationists in Britain for their radical approach, he or she would think I had gone mad. “What?,” they would say, “you are telling me that this is the cutting edge of nature conservation in your country? Where have you been for the past 50 years?”

    I don’t know if there is any other country in which people - including conservationists - are as afraid of nature as they are in Britain. I don’t know if there is anywhere else in which conservationists are so convinced that if they relax their intensive management of the natural world, something dreadful will happen.

    Nowhere else do conservationists subscribe more enthusiastically to the biblical doctrine of dominion: that we have a holy duty to control and corral nature, in case it gets out of hand. Nowhere else does conservation look more like a slightly modified version of the farming which trashed the land in the first place.

    In my view most of our conservation areas aren’t nature reserves at all. They are museums of former farming practices, weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching. The ecosystem’s dynamic interactions are banned. Animals and plants are preserved as if they were a jar of pickles, kept in a state of arrested development, in which little is allowed to change.

    But nature is not just a fixed assemblage of species, maintained as if it were a collection in a museum. It is also the ever-changing relationships between them, the successional processes, the shifting communities: all of which, in many of our reserves, are prohibited.

    The problem begins with designation. The “interest features” of a site of special scientific interest - its species and habitats - must be kept in “favourable condition”. Often this means the condition in which they happened to be when the reserve was created. In most cases that’s a condition of dire impoverishment and depletion: ecosystems missing almost their entire trophic structure, most of their large herbivores, all their large predators, in many cases even the trees. They have to be kept like this by extreme and intrusive management, in order to sustain the impacts which reduced them to this woeful state.

    In Wild-ish Ennerdale and on the Sheffield Moors, there has been a partial relaxation of this draconian regime. But even in these places, there is much that I question.

    On the Sheffield Moors, for example, cattle are kept: at much higher densities and for far longer periods than large herbivores would exist in a self-willed ecosystem. In many parts of the moors, trees, if they have the temerity to return, are cleared. The effort, even here, is to ensure that the landscape remains farmed, open and bare.

    This is done partly to favour breeding populations of wading birds. It’s likely that these species are being maintained at artificially high populations. A tendency I’ve noticed among some groups is to try to make all their target species common, even if they were naturally rare. Perhaps some species ought to be rare. Those which lived in open habitats - which would have been small and occasional before people started cutting and burning the forests - are likely to have been rarest of all.

    Think of the varying fortunes of grouse populations in Britain. The palaeontological evidence is extremely sparse, so this is guesswork, but during the Boreal and Atlantic phases, 9,000-5,000 years ago, when closed-canopy forest covered most of Britain, the commonent grouse species in this country might have been hazel hen. Perhaps the second commonest would have been capercaillie, followed by black grouse, followed by red grouse, which are likely to have been very scarce.

    That likely sequence has now been reversed. Hazel hen is extinct, capercaillie extremely rare, black grouse are sparse and in severe decline and red grouse are bloody everywhere. The red grouse is the magpie of the uplands: it benefits from human intervention, which in this case means the clearing of land.

    Arbitrarily, conservation groups in the uplands of England and Wales have decided that their priorities are, for example, dunlin and curlew, rather than capercaillie and pine martens. I’m not insisting that this is always the wrong decision. But it’s a decision that should be rigorously questioned, especially if this intensive management means the destruction of habitats which would have sheltered a much wider range of species.

    Spend a couple of hours in an open upland nature reserve, and count the diversity and abundance of the birds you see. Then spend a couple of hours in a bushy suburban garden and do the same thing. In my experience you’re likely to see more birds of more species in the garden. That’s hardly surprising: most birds - indeed most wildlife - require cover to survive. Am I the only one who thinks that something has gone badly wrong here?

    It’s not just common species I’m talking about. Many of those excluded by our brutal upland management are not just rare in Britain; they are extinct.

    Whenever I meet a conservation manager, I find myself acting like a 3-year old: I keep asking “why?”. Why are you preserving this and not that? Why is this site designated for moorland flea beetle and pearl-bordered fritillary, rather than blue stag beetle and lynx? Why are you protecting the wretched scrapings of life that remain here, rather than reintroducing the species which would once have lived here, but have been excluded by the kind of interventions that you - the conservationists - have sustained? 

    When I worked in the Amazon, the conservationists I met were fighting to defend the rainforest against cattle ranching. In Britain the conservationists are - literally - defending cattle ranching against the rainforest. Britain was once covered by rainforest: woodland wet enough for epiphytes to grow. (Epiphytes are plants which root in the bark of trees). Our closed-canopy rainforest was likely to have been richer in species than any of our remaining habitats. Given half a chance, it would return. But it isn’t given half a chance, even in conservation sites, because conservationists keep clearing the land and running cattle on it, in case the wayward and irresponsible ecosystem does something that isn’t listed in the rules. In doing so, they preserve a burnt, blasted and largely empty land with the delightful ambience of a nuclear winter.

    Conservation groups in this country are obsessed by heather. Heather is typical of the vegetation that colonises land which has been repeatedly deforested. You can see similar vegetation - low, scrubby, tough, thriving on burnt ground and depleted soils - covering deforested land all over the tropics. There, the dominance of these plants is lamented by ecologists, for it is rightly seen as a symptom of ecological destruction. Here it is fetishised and preserved.

    Even in the Eastern Sheffield Moors management plan, published by the RSPB and the National Trust, “cutting and burning” are listed as the requisite tasks for managing heather. Imagine what a tropical ecologist would say if she saw that. “You people have been telling us for decades that we should stop cutting and burning. You’ve been sending us money and lobbying our governments to discourage us from doing it. And all the while you’ve been telling yourselves that cutting and burning are necessary for the protection of wildlife.” If she concluded that we are hypocrites, that we are unambitious, irrational, anally retentive and ecologically illiterate, she would not be far wrong.

    The same plan reveals that these two august conservation bodies will maintain cattle on the moors at their current level, but keep them there for longer. “Their grazing and trampling will manage the vegetation in a way which should improve the condition of the habitats and benefit wildlife.” What does this mean? Yes, it might benefit some wildlife, but only at the expense of other species. Yes, it might “improve the condition” of a habitat, if by improvement you mean a better representation of the state of arrested development you’ve chosen. It sounds uncomfortably close to the 19th Century agricultural meaning of “improvement”: which means draining and clearing land to make it more suitable for farming. 

    It astonishes me to see statements like this left unpacked. Asserted without qualification, they create the impression that all wildlife benefits from management of this kind. Of course, all interventions (including a complete cessation of management), are better for some species than for others. But in my view, the losses inflicted by cattle ranching - here, as in the Amazon - outweigh any gains.

    A starker example is provided by a report commissioned by the RSPB on changing livestock numbers. It contends that “undergrazing and loss of vegetation structure is now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some species such as golden plover and other waders.” http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/Final_Report_tcm9-340975.pdf “Undergrazing” is an interesting concept. The report seems to be referring to “undergrazing” by sheep. How can a native ecosystem be undergrazed by an invasive ruminant from Mesopotamia? Is our wildlife underhunted by American mink? Are our verges underinfested by Japanese knotweed? But I would question what undergrazing by any domestic animal means. “Not farmed enough” is what the term appears to signify, “or not sufficiently damaged”. Sure, the golden plover is among a small group of species that benefit from scorched-earth policies, but a far greater number are harmed by them. So why is the golden plover the priority? And how can a report for a conservation organisation blithely use the term undergrazing without qualification or explanation?

    Another RSPB report advocates “the eradication of invasive tree species” from the bare uplands of Wales and claims, without citing any evidence or explaining what this means, that “extensive grazing, ideally mixed grazing, is important in maintaining upland pastures in a state that benefits upland birds and other wildlife.” http://www.assemblywales.org/6_rspb_formatted.pdf A document published by the Welsh government revealed something I have never seen in the RSPB's literature: that the society advises farmers “to cut down trees to discourage buzzards which kill other birds.” I checked with the RSPB in Wales and it confirmed that it does “at times provide advice to landowners on the management of trees to reduce available vantage points and nest sites for some avian predators.” Isn’t that more or less what the British government wanted to do to protect pheasant shoots? And didn’t the society contest those efforts? I wonder whether, in their arbitrary choice of target species and target habitats, British conservationists are influenced by the legacy of hunting. Many of the birds on behalf of which this extreme and brutal simplification of the ecosystem takes place are those which, in the 19th Century, were pursued by gentlemen with guns. Perhaps we should see conservation efforts in Britain as a form of gamekeeping, which regards some of our native species as good and worthy of preservation, and others (such as trees and buzzards) as bad and in need of control.

    Sometimes I receive coherent answers from the conservation managers I speak to, which are debatable but at least consistent. Sometimes the only answer I receive is “that’s what the rules say.” But isn’t it time we began to challenge the rules? Isn’t it time we began to question the way sites are designated, and to challenge the ecological blitzkreig required to maintain them in what is laughably called “favourable condition”? Isn’t it time we began asking why we have decided to privilege certain species over others? Isn’t it time we started wondering whether the collateral damage required to support them is worth it?

    After all, how did nature cope before we came along? To judge by the actions of British conservation groups, it must have been in a pretty dismal state for the three billion years before humans arrived to look after it.

    George Monbiot’s book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is published on May 30th by Allen Lane.

  • Going as wild as we can

    With all the hullabaloo over planning reforms in Northern Ireland, the anticipation over Defra's biodiversity offsetting announcement, and the England cricket team's heroics at Trent Bridge, I neglected to report on some good news.  

    Monday's guest blogger, George Monbiot may not be a fan of farm subsidies, but I hope that even he would be pleased to know that last week the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, confirmed his commitment to funding for wildlife friendly farming in England.  He said in the House of Commons that he would make use of the full flexibility allowed by the CAP and EU Budget deals to move 15% of CAP funding in Pillar 1 (the direct payments to farmers) into the next England Rural Development Programme, made up largely of agri-environment schemes.

    This is good news for the natural environment and for those farmers that want to help recover the c60% of farmland species which have declined in recent decades.  This is the benchmark against which Mr Paterson's counterparts in the devolved administrations should be judged.

    The CAP reform deal fell a long way short of our aspirations for a Sustainable Land Management Policy but we now need to make the best of what we have. That means working with Defra and Natural England to help design agri-environment schemes to deliver as much for the environment as the funding allows and then supporting farmers put the right management in place.

    And this makes me reflect on what George was saying in his blog this week. He wants us, and other conservation organisations, to go further and fast to remove human intervention from landscapes.    I admire this aspiration - I know that I am not alone in finding wild landscapes and big predators awe inspiring.  But it just isn't always possible or perhaps desirable in a highly fragmented and managed landscape like ours where there are so many demands from the land.

    Our brilliant site managers have responsibility for looking after over 200 nature reserves and 150,000 hectares across the UK.  They face constant choices, balancing objectives for the 15,000 species on our land as well as the needs and values of our neighbours and visitors.  Whether they are restoring climax communities, such as at Abernethy and Mawddach Valley, managing semi-natural habitats like heathland and grasslands or creating new habitats at places like Lakenheath or Wallasea, I think our site managers do a remarkable job and our wildlife benefits as a result.  It's worth noting that even in very big National Parks like Yellowstone, which is about half the size of Wales,  there is still a fair amount of habitat management, including burning, but I'd hope that George celebrates what they have been able to do including, for example, reintroducing wolf.

    And, as I have written previously, we do have to take some tough choices when trying to protect threatened species often struggling to survive on tiny postage stamps of land.  Sometimes this may even mean trying to protect every individual.  Crisis conservation sometimes demands intensive intervention and sadly this is what we face in parts of the country.   So, yes, in extreme circumstances, we may try to find ways to minimise predation of lapwing chicks from buzzards by removing potential nesting habitat outside of the nesting season while enabling the buzzards to look for suitable habitat elsewhere.  But to be clear, this certainly does NOT mean killing buzzards, or destroying active nests.   We take action while still wanting to address the ultimate causes of species decline and investigating why predation is a problem.  Our ambition is always to recover populations to such a level so that predation is no longer a problem.

    I'd go further, our ambition is to go as wild as we can, working out what we can realistically do help restore natural processes for wildlife and, yes, for people as well.   I hope that you, perhaps even George, would share this aspiration.