October, 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
  • Shaping the countryside we want and nature needs: how to spend c£2 billion of English taxpayers' money

    In the next week or two, Defra is set to release their proposals for the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England. The rest of the UK is either already consulting on theirs, as in Northern Ireland and Wales, or planning to do so.

    It’s no exaggeration to say that the future shape of the CAP will have a significant, and in some instances decisive influence over the future shape of our countryside, and many of the species that call it home.  It is the single biggest opportunity to do something to address the declines in farmland wildlife documented in the recent State of Nature report: not just farmland birds (↓50% over the last four decades) but also carabid beetles (↓64%) and farmland moths (↓70%).

    I’ve written about the CAP many times before (for example see here and here), and it can be an impenetrable and frustrating policy for all involved, for the civil servants responsible with drawing it up, NGOs trying to keep up with the process but especially the farmers tasked with making sense of it so they can adapt their businesses.  

    At its root though, the CAP is a multi-billion pound policy which has the potential to do both harm to the natural environment, but also a great deal of good.  Where the balance falls is in large part down to each government in how they implement it, and between now and early next year, Defra will be deciding how to do so in England. 

    The consultation Defra publish will be the best chance that the public have had to influence the shape of this critical policy for around seven years, and it will be the last chance to do so until 2020.  

    So, I will be using this blog over the next few days to talk all things CAP (covering exciting topics such as "transfers", "greening", "scheme design", "institutional architecture"), and outline our views on just what Defra should be doing to ensure the CAP delivers for the environment, and in the process, for the public purse.  

    And that last point is key.  For a policy with such a low profile, the CAP represents a large amount of public money. Between 2014 and 2020, nigh on £20 billion of public money will be spent in the UK alone. In 2012, UK farmers and land managers received £3.26 billion in public payments, with £2.055 billion of this being spent in England.

    Big issue number 1: Transfers

    We’ve been campaigning to reform the CAP for years, focusing our efforts to shift this expenditure away from direct subsidies, (whose objectives are poorly defined and often inefficiently achieved), to payments for public goods, such as an attractive countryside, rich in wildlife to which people have access. In the jargon, this means moving money from Pillar I direct payments, to Pillar II Rural Development Programmes including agri-environment schemes such as England’s Higher Level Stewardship.

    Despite our best efforts, and the efforts and many others besides across Europe, direct payments will still receive around 75% of the CAP budget.  

    To his credit, Secretary of State Own Paterson has been one of the few progressive voices during this round of reform, and has led the Defra fight to boost funding for Pillar II. As a result, the final deal, rubber stamped just last week, offers the scope to transfer 15% of direct subsidies toward Pillar II, and therefore the agri-environment schemes which will be so important to the conservation of our wildlife.  Yet, the opposition against transfers, led by the NFU, is vocal.  There have been scare-stories in the farming press about this being farmers' money and that it will somehow be taken away from them.  This is nonsense. In reality, money transferred will primarily be used to reward farmers that help give wildlife a home on their farms.  

    It is important that the Secretary of State sticks to his guns, transfers the full 15% into Pillar II and continues to argue for the CAP to move towards a policy focused on the provision of public goods, from which the whole of society can benefit.

    Encouragingly, the Secretary of State seems firm on this maximum transfer, recently confirming in the House of Commons his ‘long standing belief’ that it’s the right thing to do, and our own Westminster Wigeon tells me that the message was the same at fringe meetings at the Conservative Party Conference this week. This step is essential to ensure that the funding is available for the agri-environment schemes which will be the key mechanism needed for government to meet it commitments for example in the Natural Environment White Paper and in Biodiversity 2020.  More importantly, it will be farmers that enter these schemes who will provide a lifeline for some of our most threatened species such as turtle dove, lapwing and curlew.

    In reality though, a maximum transfer is just the first step that Defra need to take. Over the next few days I'll outline other decisions that Government need to take in the next few months, and the tests that we will apply to assess if there proposals are to get  anywhere near a CAP that works for wildlife friendly farming.

    For now, I'll leave you with this question...

    How would you spend c£2.055 billion of English taxpayers' money a year?   [This is equivalent to the salaries of 66,151 nurses per year, the gas and electricity bills of 1,447,183 households, 146 secondary schools, tuition fees for 228,333 students per year,  the annual public funding for 9098 libraries or you could cover the  annual cost of environmental options needed to meet all of England’s environmental policy objectives and have c£800m to spend on other things - see page iv of this government report here.]

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • The badger cull – why was there no plan V?

    In a rational world, when you set up a pilot to test something, you conduct the pilot and then evaluate its success against pre-agreed criteria.  You then take your time to learn the lessons from the pilot and decide whether you do it again, do it differently or stop completely and try something else.

    When it comes to badgers and bovine TB, we don't seem to be operating in a rational world.  Yesterday's reporting of how many badgers have been and still need to be killed and over what time period and whom, demonstrated how murky the pilot has become.

    I wish the independent panel well in making sense of the results of the trial.

    The key thing to remember is that these pilots were designed to test assumptions that the Government has made about the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of shooting free ranging badgers with a view to rolling out this method of culling across many other areas of the country.  Crucially, it needs to know whether it is possible to kill 70% of the badgers in a target area predominantly through free ranging shoot over a six week period.

    One can only conclude from yesterday's reports that that the objectives of the pilot are changing.

    I've written previously about the RSPB's position on the badger cull - we are against it.  But the point I want to make is that for the public to have confidence in government-led trials on highly contentious issues, then there needs to be extra vigilance taken to ensure transparency in reporting, monitoring and evaluation of any trials.  I am not convinced that re-negotiating the terms of the trial in public is a healthy thing to do as it breeds suspicion.

    Earlier in the week the Guardian carried an article quoting an ex Defra employee who had been drafted in to assist the Somerset cull by increasing trapping activity.  Shooting free ranging badgers had been the preferred method of culling because it was cheaper than cage trapping.  So it would be interesting to know what difference this additional trapping effort has made to the cost of the cull.  

    In addition, the latest proposal appears to be to extend the Somerset cull by a further three weeks (from six weeks) to enable the target number of badgers to be shot.   This appears to change the terms of the license that Natural England granted for the culls and change the objectives of the pilot (see section 5.28 of the government's policy on the pilot here).

    Shooting less than the target number increases the risk of making the bovine TB situation worse by stirring up the badger population (perturbation).  The reason for limiting the culls to six weeks was because the science behind culling tells us that culling should be simultaneous across the cull zone.  Extending the shooting over a long period is known to increase the risk of perturbation, therefore making the TB situation worse!  Just to be specific about this the advice on the duration of culling came from Defra’s Science Advisory Council and Bovine Science Advisory Body (the Joint Group) and it was that culling should extend to ‘no longer than 4-6 weeks’.  So we do not see that extending the cull to 9 weeks can be based on science - something that the coalition agreement stated as the precondition for any cull.

    We shouldn’t forget that there will be farmers just outside the cull zones who will no doubt be worried sick that they will be at increased risk of a devastating TB outbreak in their herd as a result of an ineffective cull. 

    The big problem here is that Defra do not appear to have planned an exit strategy for a failing pilot – there is no plan B.  Defra were advised during the consultation on the cull that one key way of reducing the risk of making the situation worse was to vaccinate all of the badgers in a ring around the cull zone, using the injectable badger vaccine that was languishing in their toolbox.  I guess this should have been plan V.  Why they chose not to do so is just one of many unanswered questions on this issue.

    Here are some more.

    If estimates of badger numbers vary so much from year to year how can a cull ever be accurately managed?

    If the weather can have such a significant effect on badger numbers overall does it have a differential effect on those infected with TB?

    Why are the badgers being killed as part of the pilots not being tested to assess whether they were carrying TB?

    What would be the police costs of extending the cull by a further three weeks and how will this be funded?

    What are the crieria for determining whether the cull has been undertaken humanely? 

    Will the data from the two pilot projects be published and available for public scrutiny?

    As the pilot proceeds, I expect even more questions to emerge.  And here is one for you.

    What do you think about the latest debate about the status of the pilot cull?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Finding solutions to 21st century conservation problems: guest blog from Dr David Gibbons

    Those of you who came to the AGM on Saturday would have heard Dr David Gibbons talk about the breadth of our science.  It was inspiring stuff.  

    Here, David announces our intention to establish the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.


    At the RSPB we are very proud of our science and for good reason - for over four decades we've invested in science to help us identify and tackle some of the biggest problems facing birds and the environment.

    Our first research officer started in the 1960s with none of the cutting edge technology our scientists enjoy today. By the 1970s we had a small team whose pioneering work led to some early success stories including the recovery of the stone curlew which was on the brink of disappearing in the early 1980s.

    From there, our research activity has grown steadily. Research pinpointing the lack of over winter stubbles led to the successful recovery of cirl buntings in the 1990s. Meanwhile we were investigating the cause of the bittern’s disappearance from the UK and developing methods to help bring it back, while at Hope Farm our scientists developed farming measures to restore numbers of skylarks and other farmland birds. Our monitoring work has helped us track the recovery of corncrakes in Scotland and the decline of hen harriers in the English uplands, and has contributed to groundbreaking studies such as the Birds of Conservation Concern and this year’s State of Nature report.

    Our work on the UK Wild Bird Indicators has informed government farming policy here and in Europe. Today we are tagging seabirds to build a picture of their lifecycle, monitoring breeding success of turtle doves and modelling the effects of climate change. Earlier this year, a panel of eminent external scientists judged our science to be ‘outstanding’ – the news was covered on this blog here.

    Our team of more than 50 scientists is busier than ever finding solutions to 21st century conservation problems.

    So I think it’s about time we did something to highlight and celebrate this vital part of the conservation story. That’s why we are embarking on a new phase in our scientific journey - in February we will be launching the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.

    Our aim is to open up our research to a wider audience, to promote the cutting edge work we are involved in and to encourage new partnerships and collaborations. There will be a new online hub where people can learn more about our latest research and we are also hoping to give a boost to the next generation of conservation scientists.

    The launch event in February will see us presenting the very first annual RSPB Conservation Science Awards. One of these will recognise an outstanding PhD student attending a UK university. We are now accepting nominations from heads of academic departments for students whose work is likely to make a significant contribution to the conservation of any species of animal or plant, communities or habitats anywhere in the world.

    For full entry details visit out science page here –www.rspb.org.uk/science

    There will also be an award recognising the ongoing work of a leading conservation scientist and another for an outstanding RSPB scientist. The event will see the unveiling of a decadal report looking at the highlights of RSPB science over the past ten years.

    I’m very proud to be part of an organisation that invests in robust research which is essential for our understanding of wildlife declines and the measures needed to reverse them. And I am very excited at this opportunity to celebrate the work of my talented colleagues and share it with the rest of the conservation community.