February, 2014

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
  • Preventing future floods: the role of land management and the CAP

    More rain and tidal surges have meant that it has been another traumatic weekend for people in the West Country, and parts of Wales.  February started where the wettest January for 100 years left off, and more rain is forecast for this week. The crisis in the Somerset Levels - and let's not forget other parts of the country also affected by floods - will continue until the water ebbs, but it is increasingly clear that the story must not end there.

    While no-one can say for sure that these particular floods are caused by climate change, milder, wetter winters have been predicted for some time (see here) and the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing.  The risk of flooding is here to stay. This knowledge should guide future investment in flood risk management (there is no bottomless pit of public money as Professor Dieter Helm pointed out this weekend see here) and should influence the type of farming and land use we (and wildlife) need in the future.

    Because how we manage the land can have a bearing on flooding (although the evidence of impacts is uncertain at the catchment scale - see here).   The type of land management we have today might not be possible or desirable in the future.  Get it right and land management can slow and store floodwaters.  Get it wrong, and land management can contribute to floods by increasing run-off or silting rivers.

    So, while those on the Somerset Levels and Defra develop their action plan (to which we are contributing - see here), we need to debate the role of land management and payments through the Common Agriculture Policy in preventing and managing floods in the future.

    How could the CAP help? Let's look at five key principles of a sustainable flood management strategy...

    ...Focus flood defence resources on protecting lives, homes, businesses and utilities: this is the Environment Agency's job and I would argue that their strategy is working; most of the areas saved have been communities and major infrastructure and most of the areas flooded have been floodplain farmland (obviously this doesn't take away the trauma if your house or business is in that flooded floodplain farmland...)

    ...slow the water flow upstream to reduce peak floods: land use policy has a role to play here

    ...use the existing water management infrastructure better by spreading flood water more appropriately when it reaches the floodplain: land use and drainage policies are important here

    ...build greater resilience in the floodplain land uses, especially in farming: land use policies are obviously important here

    ...maintain critical watercourses to ensure appropriate levels of drainage: this one is back in the hands of the authorities

    So, imagine we had a brilliant and sustainable flood management strategy constructed around the five principles above. Three of them would depend, wholly or in part, on changes to land use policy to help our countryside become more resilient to flooding. What could those changes look like?

    This isn't an idle question. Over the next seven years, £15 billion of tax-payers money will be distributed to farmers and land managers in England.  About £3 billion (not enough, but we've lost that particular battle - see here) will be spent supporting environmentally sensitive farming. Surely that big chunk of public money should be doing something towards managing how water flows through the countryside, and whether homes and businesses are ruined by uncontrollable flooding.

    Defra have two options: they can place the tougher conditions on direct payments and they can reward those that nurture the free services that nature gives us.

    Option 1 - tougher conditions on direct farm subsidies

    Last week WWF suggested that in return for receiving £12 billion of subsidies, farmers and land managers should be obliged to put in place measures that could prevent flooding.  While existing rules do place some conditions on payments made, they are poorly enforced and there are loopholes. When it comes to flooding, the quality of soil is crucial.  Compacted soils and inappropriate drainage lead to much faster water flow at times of heavy rain and soil erosion silts up rivers. Growing crops like maize close to water courses, heavily stocking fields or cultivating very steep slopes cause and exacerbate these problems.

    Defra could toughen (and improve enforcement of) the rules and close the loopholes.   Maize farming, for example, is not subject to the same rules on soil management despite the fact that maize is deemed a 'high risk' crop for both soil compaction and erosion. Research indicates that c50% of the sediment (the sediment that people want to dredge) transported by the river Culm in Devon and the river Tone in Somerset over winter could be the result of erosion from maize fields.

    So Defra should impose some common sense conditions which protect soils by limiting cultivation on very steep slopes; by obliging farmers to plough across the gradient of sloping fields (rather than up and down, which increases water flow speeds); by providing uncultivated buffer strips by watercourses of sufficient width and impose robust soil management plans.

    The 2013 CAP reform also introduced new ‘greening’ requirements attached to a proportion of Pillar I payments. Although greatly watered down during negotiations, the permanent pasture protection measure has potential to contribute to flood risk mitigation.  Member States have the option to designate areas of environmentally sensitive pastures, effectively subject to a ‘no-plough’ rule. This measure could, if targeted at river catchment areas where there is a high risk of conversion from pasture to arable, be an extremely cost-effective way of contributing to more flood resilient landscapes as well as improving water quality with spin-off benefits for wildlife as well.

    Option 2 - rewarding farmers for nurturing nature's free services

    I am torn on this one.  We know that there is already a gap between government ambitions for protecting and restoring biodiversity in England and available resources especially through agri-environment schemes.  We want the majority of money available to help recover the 60% of farmland wildlife that is declining.

    But it is clear that well-designed agri-environment schemes can reduce damage from flooding, by making farms more resilient to floodwaters and controlling which parts of a landscape receive and store floodwaters. Measures might include...

    ....maintenance of semi-natural grasslands and extensive grazing. This management is much less vulnerable to flooding, and reduces levels of soil erosion and compaction.

    ...creation of wetlands that store water on the flood plain, creating extra capacity and reducing the risk to property elsewhere in the area.

    ...targeted support for managed realignment, especially after the initial creation works. Realignment sites such as Medmerry (see here) – which defended 350 homes from flooding this month – buffer storm surges extremely effectively.

    ...restoration of upland blanket bog and other peatlands. The run-off that can cause flash-flooding is significantly slowed when uneconomic drains are blocked and the habitat is restored.

    ...funding river restoration projects, can store and slow floodwaters while also benefiting people and wildlife.

    Decisions about new rules on farm payments and design of schemes are being made now.  We shall do what we can so that we learn lessons from the existing floods and tax payers' money helps to deliver more sustainable land management in the future.   Just like the dredging debate, CAP doesn't hold all the answers. But it does hold some of them.

    What else do you think Defra should be doing to support the land management we want and need in the future?

    It would be great to hear your views.

    Image: lapwings on winter flooded grazing land close to Ham Wall RSPB reserve (David Kjaer: rspb-images.com)

  • Three good things


    It was so refreshing to hear late on Monday that we had agreed a joint vision for the future of Somerset Levels and Moors (see here). Those with long memories might have thought it impossible for farmers and the nature conservation community to agree anything in that part of the world.  But a joint vision for 2030 has been agreed, through a process kicked off by former Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon MP.  I now hope that the action plan to be developed over the coming weeks helps to realise that shared ambition.  We'll continue to work to try to make that happen.


    The RSPB's HQ hosted the ritualistic handover of a cheque to Birdlife International yesterday.  A staggering £270,000 had been raised from Birdfair 2013 - the 25th anniversary of this great event promoted by the RSPB and the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust (see here).  The money will, as ever, support an international project of conservation importance and on this occasion it will go towards conservation efforts on the Americas flyway.  To mark the occasion, a lovely collection of artwork and conservation stories was produced.  This documents how over £3.5 million has been raised for species conservation over 25 years and how the event has grown in stature since its founders, Tim Appleton and Martin Davies, came up with the idea in 1989.  It has been a heroic conservation effort and if you can, I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy (see here) of 'The Art of Conservation' not least for a reminder of the fabulous artwork that Robert Gilmore has contributed over the years.  Oh and book your tickets for Birdfair 2014 (15-17 August). 


    Two excellent senior civil servants held a leaving event which I popped along to at Defra.  Despite Ministers, the Environment Agency and many civil servants working round the clock to deal with the floods, it was great that so many were able to turn up and celebrate the contributions that Martin Nesbit and Robin Mortimer had made over 45 years of collective public service.  It showed how much warmth and respect people have for them.  Civil servants often get bad press, but in my experience the majority are smart, diligent and creative in solving big problems that come into their intray.  They have to deal with people with very different views and try to find a way forward - our job is try to keep them on the right path even when other pressures come down on them.  They are also, if the occasion calls for it, remarkably adept at defending the indefensible when, heaven forbid, their political leaders of the day make decisions which seem well... bonkers.  On the outside it may seem a thankless task, but these people put in the hard graft and they deserve our respect.  Martin and Robin are moving on, and I wish them all the best for the future.

    So three good things have happened over the past 24 hours.   

    But, there is, of course, one big bad thing and that is the short/medium term weather forecast.  We now have a real taste of what the predicted milder, warmer, stormier winters look like... 

  • Another reason why prevention is better than the cure

    Last September, I shared our position (see here) on non-native invasive species and the new draft European regulation designed to address the serious threat they pose to wildlife and economies.  Like flooding and climate change, this is another issue where it pays to take action to prevent bad things occurring rather than wait and pick up the costs of the consequences (relevant to today's announcement by the Prime Minister at PMQs today - see here).

    Yet, it seems that, despite the best intentions, tough new rules to prevent non-native invasive species causing problems are being watered down by a powerful lobby of vested interests. 

    We had been working with our colleagues in Birdlife International to strengthen the legislation and get rid of the arbitrary cap of 50 in the list of species on which action could be taken.  We have also been calling for a better set of arrangements to assess risk and ensure that costs associated with any clean up of the damage rests with those liable for causing the problem in the first place i.e. to apply the polluter-pays principle.

    So what's happened? 

    A proposal from Denmark to protect the fur industry interests is now set to derail the best of European intentions.  Denmark, much loved home of Borgen, Sara Lund and progressive economy etc, has managed to introduce a permit system in the draft that was rapidly taken up by other Member States and their supportive MEPs.

    The new system would allow commercial cultivation of plants and commercial breeding of animals (including fish, reptiles or amphibians) to contine provided those species have a high economic, social or environmental value.   This means that, if the proposal is adopted, the American mink industry in Denmark, the bioenergy industry in Germany, the horticultural industry in the UK and the pet trade all over Europe would be able to continue to trade in species irrespective of their invasive qualities and the risks they may pose.  This proposed derogation in Eurospeak is the mother of all "get out of jail" free cards.

    This would completely undermine the rationale for the new regulation, a rationale that has emerged following almost a decade of discussion among experts, member states and the Commission:
    1.    That action is taken to control those species deemed to be of EU based on a transparent and scientific understanding of risk.. 
    2.    That preventing damage is far better, and far, far cheaper, than attempting to solve problems after they have occurred. 
    3.    That the draft legislation must seek to secure balanced but effective action on the most damaging and costly species.

    This is a mess.  A plan to act in the public good is threatened to be undermined by private interests.  On Friday, the Member States will be meeting to discuss these proposals.  We hope they see sense and enter into discussions with the Parliament and Commission to unpick this and put the regulation back on track so that it actually helps to relieve the threats that non-native invasive species pose.

    Oh, and when it comes to the European elections in June, please do have higher expectations of your candidate MEPs.  Urge them to use their voice for nature.

    Photo credit: American mink geting stuck into a juvenile gannet (John Anderson): The European Commission is using the American mink as a symbol of invasive alien species on its dedicated web site . It has been listed as one of the 100 worst invasive alien species in Europe. We know how it gets here – importation for fur farming. Its ability to escape from captivity into the wild is also well understood and has occurred on many occasions.  Its impact on native mammals and birds – especially the water vole, seabirds and waders, all groups that are severely affected by additional environmental pressures – is indisputable, as is the impact on poultry and fish farming. One estimate puts the associated costs of mink in Germany alone at 4,200,000 Euro (see here).