December, 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
  • Learning lessons from... California

    The Chancellor will stand up to deliver his autumn statement.  I'm looking forward to hearing how the Chancellor plans to grow prosperity, decarbonise the economy, whilst enhancing the natural environment.  I am hoping for a long term vision that embraces all these elements.

    I'm hoping... but I am also fearful.  News of further cuts could spell more bad news for our rapidly diminishing environment budget.

    I'll offer a verdict on the statement as soon as I can.

    In the meantime, here's an insight about what is going on across the pond....

    In a week dominated by news about changes to energy infrastructure and prices (see here for Decc's latest news), reflecting the climate change and cost of living imperatives, it was refreshing to hear how California has been there, seen it, done it and has lessons to share from which we can learn. 

    On Tuesday, I participated in an evening discussion in Brussels with heads of organisations committed to overhauling Europe's energy transmission infrastructure to accommodate the increase in capacity from renewable energy capacity.  This was organised by the Renewable Grid Initiative (see here and below) of which the RSPB is a member.

    The atmosphere was more positive than expected.  The theme of the evening was that shed loads of renewable energy capacity is coming on line across Europe, that improving connections between countries is an essential way to manage intermittency of supply and demand and that it is right to plan how they need to renew the infrastructure whilst respecting the natural environment.

    We heard how, in California, they have taken a strategic approach to ensuring they meet and are prepared to deal with their target for c33% of their electricity supply to come from renewable sources by 2020.   Being Californian, they decided to get everyone (with different interests) together to make this happen.  Their Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (see here) identified Renewable Energy Zones using both economic and environmental criteria then determined what transmission was required to access and deliver the targets for renewable energy.

    We also heard how, in positive political conditions created by successive Governors, they created a positive vision of the future behind which many people (developers, regulators and environmental NGOs) could rally.  

    It was refreshing to hear what was being achieved in the States but also about ambitions across Europe.  This was a group of businessmen thinking in the long term.  Thinking about where the investment will come to renew infrastructure if the cost of energy plummets because once installed, renewable energy is well, free, and what happens (as is beginning to happen in some countries) when too much renewable energy comes on stream at any one time.  

    Nice problems to have.  But they are thinking about it.  And they are happy to talk to nature conservation organisations to renew our energy infrastructure  in ways that does not cause needless harm to wildlife.  All power to their elbow.

    These are lessons from which, I hope, the UK will learn.

    Where else do you think the UK should be looking for answers?

    It would be great to hear your views.

    ---------
    The Renewable Grid Initiative's SuperSmart Grid 60 second story...

    VISION

    ...electricity is the lifeblood of modern society, it empowers almost all aspects of our lives.
    ...in Europe, we have an amazing opportunity to harness infinite sources of clean, renewable power
    ...we will use renewable power to meet Europe's surging electricity demands, drive economic growth and greatly reduce our dependency on fossil fuels...

    SHIFT

    ...today's grid makes the vital connections that empower our way of life, but as we transform our power system, they will need to be transformed too
    ...renewables present two key challenges: the places that generate the most renewable power aren't near the places where we use the most electricity: and we can't control when the wind blows or how much the sun shines
    ...so how will we make renewable electricity reliable?

    SOLUTION

    ...the 'SuperSmart Grid' will connect all of us to Europe's renewable energy future
    ...'Super' means the grid will reach far enough to connect enough renewable energy sources to create a reliable energy supply right through Europe
    ...'Smart' means the grid will enable us to generate and use more electricity intelligently
    ...the 'SuperSmart' Grid is essential to Europe's renewable future, so what is holding us back?

    MAKING IT HAPPEN

    ...grid development must address legitimate concerns about the impact that it will have on communities, health and wildlife
    ...policy and technical ability must facilitate not hinder our renewable future, particularly when it comes to necessary grid development
    ...we must work together to ensure that the vital connections are in place to empower us today and into the future
    ...because connected = empowered

  • Turbulent times: the need for an active response

    On the day that the winds blew, storms surged and we experienced the highest tides in nearly sixty years, the Chancellor delivered his 2013 Autumn Statement on the fairest economic wind” that has blown since the devastating financial crash of 2007-08.

    However, despite the green shoots of growth that have emerged since the Budget earlier this year, the public finances are far from fixed, and the deficit remains amongst the highest in Europe. Therefore, the Chancellor was keen to stress the need for a “responsible” recovery, one that is secure for the long-term. This meant, amongst other measures, further departmental budget cuts. Across Whitehall, the Chancellor has sought out cuts of 1.1% over each of the next two financial years. This means that the Defra budget has been cut by an additional £37 million over the next two years. These cuts come on top of the deep cuts already announced in the comprehensive spending review earlier this year, meaning that the Defra budget will be nearly half its 2010 level by 2015-16 in real terms (I have written previously about this here). 

    In light of these announcements, it is right to contemplate what a “responsible” recovery might look for the natural environment.  We know that nature is in trouble and that there is a growing gap between stated political ambition and available resources (see my blog here). In such a fiscally constrained world, we need some big and bold decisions.

    The first thing we need is for Ministers to make the right decisions about the scarce resources they do have at their disposal.  That means they must find the funds to support wildlife friendly farming through agri-environment schemes.  It's not difficult - they have the opportunity through their approach to implementing the Common Agriculture Policy.  As they finalise decisions, they must be acutely conscious of the need to demonstrate good value of taxpayers money and be true to their commitments to recover threatened wildlife. 

    In the toughest economic conditions faced for a generation, it would be scandalous if the CAP money (£2 billion per annum) was not made to work hard to help farmers recover threatened wildlife improve the environment.

    And then, we need to start thinking about new and innovative ways to tackle the funding gap for nature conservation (actually, we have explored some of these ideas before).

    Environmental protection and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand; as the Chancellor commented today in his statement, “...going green doesn’t have to cost the earth”. The business-led Ecosystem Markets Task Force report published earlier this year showed that  there is considerable potential for the private sector to benefit from some of the new market opportunities that valuing nature correctly could provide. However, the Government has a key role to play. Despite the best efforts of some businesses to take advantage of such opportunities, markets continue to consistently undervalue the environment, meaning that that those businesses who try to “do the right thing” face strong competitive pressures to do only the minimum required to comply with existing regulatory standards. One of the key findings to emerge from the EMTF review was that, in order to develop and grow greener markets in ecosystem goods and services or even to establish new mechanisms such as biodiversity offsets, the Government needs to help create the right legal and regulatory conditions for these markets to flourish.  I’ll explore some of these ideas in more detail in the New Year.

    The point is, this or any future government cannot afford to be passive.  They have to find ways to make it easier for people to do the right thing.

    That's enough economic chat for now though.  My thoughts now are with those people and places that are still being battered by the wind and waves...

  • Bird Crime: a test of anyone's temper

    Simon Barnes is a fantastic writer.  He is my favourite sports' journalist and his regular column in Nature’s Home is always one of the first I flick to.  In the last issue, he writes as eloquently as ever on shooting in our uplands and the persecution of birds of prey, but when I read the first draft of our annual Birdcrime report, detailing the offences against wild bird legislation in 2012, I'm not sure I quite lived up to Simon’s challenge.

    In his column, Simon discusses how as people who love wildlife have to get used to dealing with getting sad and angry. He concludes that while talking about illegal killing of birds of prey “anger here is for our own private use: in public we must be cool and measured.”  I am a naturally emollient person (too emollient for some), yet reading Birdcrime 2012, I struggle to control my emotions.

    Birdcrime again details the ongoing incidents of illegal persecution of birds of prey in the UK, through shooting, trapping and poisoning. It’s not an easy read, but its important stuff, so I encourage you all to have a read. What I find particularly depressing is how similar it is to last year’s report. And the one before that...

    In the week that we published the State of UK Birds report, it is clear that the pressures on the natural world are growing and, as we know from CAP calculations, our response is both inadequate and is slowing. Given the many challenges that nature faces, it is depressing that we still have to deal with problems that should have been stopped long ago.

    I've been in this job long enough to be able to predict how some will respond.  Through our report, we maintain that illegal killing of birds of prey is wrong and must stop. Many within the shooting community will respond by condemning the illegal killing of birds of prey (good), but suggesting either explicitly or implicitly, that RSPB is exaggerating the problem to make money, that it’s a historic problem that has largely stopped and that it’s only a tiny minority or a few bad apples who give everyone else a bad name. There will probably then be much complaining about how RSPB is undoing all the good work we do with some of the shooting community, by publicising all this stuff about birds of prey.

    The last one is the one that particularly gets me. It seems to suggest that in order to work with one bit of a community to achieve positive conservation gains, we have to not say anything about bad things happening. So, in the interest of cutting through this usual back and forth and find some common ground, here are some no-brainers that I would hope everyone could agree:

    -       Illegal persecution of birds of prey is still happening and is unacceptably common in some areas.

    -       Illegal persecution of birds of prey is sufficient to have conservation level effects on some species.

    -       Illegal persecution of birds of prey has declined in many lowland areas, allowing the recovery of species such as buzzards (which the Bird Atlas confirms now has the sixth - the sixth! -  largest wintering range of any British and Irish species) and red kites.

    -       Since 1990 out of 160 people that were convicted of bird of prey crime 70% of those (that stated their occupation in court) were gamekeepers.

    -       Illegal persecution of birds of prey is associated with intensively managed upland grouse moors.

    Many shooting estates make positive contributions to wildlife conservation and I hope no-one will find too much to disagree with in those bullet points. I would go further and say that illegal persecution of birds of prey is a stain on the conscience of our country.

    Clearly there is a massive challenge here.

    Gamekeepers on upland shooting estates could be the guardians for birds of prey like the hen harrier, but this is not where we are at the moment. The RSPB stands ready to work with any shooting estate to provide sustainable land management to benefit all, but we cannot and will never turn a blind eye to the illegal killing of birds of prey.

    It is great that many within the shooting community condemn illegal persecution. This is positive as far as it goes. However, actions speak louder than words and the time for action is now. The challenge to the grouse shooting community is to demonstrate that their activities are sustainable - helping to look after some of the wildest parts of our country. If they do, we stand ready to work with those who operate within the law and to agreed environmental limits.

    But for those who continue to flout the law and illegally kill birds of prey, I’m sorry Simon, I struggle to maintain my normal “cool, measured demeanour”. Anger is dangerous and rarely helpful, but one way or another we must remove this stain on the conscience of our country.