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
  • The New Environmental Land Management Scheme: putting life back in the countryside?

    In the week when Meurig Raymond succeeded Peter Kendall as the President of the NFU (seehere),  Defra has announced (see here) more details about how farmers will be rewarded to protect the environment and recover farmland wildlife.  Details of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) for England have emerged and I am pleased to say that we are pretty pleased with what is being proposed.

    Those of you that have been following the endless and painful saga of Common Agriculture Policy reform and implementation will remember that about £3 billion of the £15 billion that will be given to farmers in England over the next seven years will be used to support wildlife-friendly farming.  We wanted it to be more, but we lost that particular debate.   Earlier in the month, I wrote about how the £12 billion could be made to work much harder especially to prevent flooding (see here).  But we were also keen that the new scheme built on the experience of the past twenty years, that it was well-designed and that it focused on meeting government's biodiversity commitments (especially for sites, species and habitats).  

    The good news is that Defra says that "biodiversity should be the priority for the scheme and we [Defra] will seek to maximise opportunities to deliver biodiversity, water quality and flooding benefits together”.  

    Andy Hay (rpsb-images.com)

    Defra have also announced a shift away from the ‘spray and pray’ approach of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), with a commitment to ‘directed option choice’. This means agreements should include the right mix of options for the priorities that they’re trying to address. So if a farm is in a farmland bird hotspot, the design of NELMS should ensure that it provides the ‘Big 3’ management prescriptions for farmland birds: a safe place for birds to nest, enough food to rear their chicks and enough food to survive the winter.   Based on our research and experience at places like Hope Farm, we have been calling for this for some time and this new approach could, whisper it quietly, help to reverse the declines in farmland bird. 

    The strength of the old Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) has also been recognised.   This site-specific package, supported by expert advice from Natural England and Forestry Commission will still be available.  I am also pleased to see attempts to incentivise collaboration between farmers encouraging them to bid together for funds (akin to the Nature Improvement Area competition).  Anything that encourages landscape-scale action is good news for wildlife.  More sympathetic management over a larger area (such as the Thorney Farmland Bird Friendly Zone involving 14 farmers and 3,782 ha - see here) is something that must be encouraged.

    It's not all perfect (the proposed universal capital grant scheme which will struggle to deliver environmental benefits) yet our first impressions are that this new scheme is good news for wildlife and for farmers.  The Defra team have done a good job.

    But uncertainties remain.

    How the pot will be divided up between the competing objectives?  Biodiversity is the ‘overall priority’, but Defra also expect the new scheme to realise ‘synergistic outcomes’.  What are they and do they exist in practice?  The announcement focused on biodiversity, water quality and flood risk management (FRM), but also notes that “nonetheless we have concluded that the new scheme should be broad in scope”, with soil management, historic environment, landscape, genetic conservation and educational access all remaining priorities. If you were to put this in a pie chart, the balance of spend available for new schemes might look like simple chart below. That purple wedge will have to work pretty hard for those "other priorities".

    And finally and perhaps most importantly, will farmers actually go for it? We’re hopeful that they will and I hope that the new President Meurig Raymond, gets behind the new scheme.  Wouldn't it be great if, in one of his early interventions, Mr Raymond made an clear statement about the need to farm profitably whilst helping to put wildlife back in the countryside?

    What do you think about NELMS and the new President of the NFU?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • 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)

  • The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science: finding solutions to 21st century conservation problems

    It is a perennial frustration that many people I meet are unaware of the scale and breadth of our science programme.  It is a part of our work which rarely gets the attention that it deserves.  Which is why I am delighted that we are today launching our new RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.  We want to raise the profile of our "outstanding" science (see here) but also to announce our intent to work with others to find (and apply) solutions to 21st century conservation problems.  

    We have created a new online hub (see here) and this will feature a database of more than 1,000 peer reviewed papers written by RSPB scientists. We have also published Where Science Comes to Life, a report on some of the most important work carried out by our scientists over the past decade.

    From corncrakes and cirl buntings to vultures and albatrosses, we have helped (with a huge range of partners) identify conservation problems, discover the causes and identify practical solutions to help recover our most threatened wildlife.  

    But, lasting conservation success only comes if we are able to persuade others (usually decision-makers, land managers  or fishermen) to adopt these solutions.  There is only so much we do on our land.

    Which is why, as we look to the future, we need to consider why, when our science has helped identify solutions to big problems we have failed to get others to step up.  

    We have, for example, identified how to recover skylark populations whilst farming profitably (through our work at Hope Farm, see here) but have failed (to date) to adequately influence the design and promotion of farm incentive schemes to make them sufficiently attractive for enough farmers to create the right conditions for skylarks to thrive.  

    The illegal killing of birds of prey is another example where, with others, we have identified solutions (such as diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce their predation on red grouse - see here) but have failed to convince others to apply these practical solutions.   

    And, more topically, on our nature reserves and with organisations like United Utilities, we have shown how restoring natural upland habitats may not only contribute to reducing flood risk for downstream areas, but could also help some bird species adapt to the drier summers predicted under climate change.  With our uplands in such poor condition, we desperately need more people to adopt this approach to land management in the hills (as I have previously written here).  

    So, as we celebrate our past successes, we also planning for our science to evolve in the future.  Professor Sir John Lawton, chair of the independent panel that reviewed our science programme, said "the RSPB should undertake more social science...  we believe that economic analyses, conflict resolution, human behavioural studies, political science and governance are increasingly important in trying to find practical solutions to environmental problems".  

    We agree.  The pressures on the natural world are growing and the causes are increasingly complex.  We want to build on our excellent track record but embrace new disciplines.  We plan to reach out to others to address the major conservation challenges (such as the ten listed below).

    Do have a look at our new online hub.  And, while you are exploring, let me know if there are other conservation problems you think we should be addressing.

    It would be great to hear your views.

    Ten conservation challenges for the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    1. Improving our knowledge of the status of UK and UK Overseas Territories' wildlife.

    2. Understanding the causes of decline of UK's summer migrant birds.

    3. Improving the status of threatened species in the UK and overseas.

    4. Producing food, fibre, energy and infrastructure alongside wildlife.

    5. Guiding the restoration of degraded habitats and ecosystems.

    6. Understanding the impacts of, and helping wildlife adapt to, a changing climate.

    7. Understanding the impacts of environmental change in the oceans.

    8. Informing designation and management of protected areas on land and at sea.

    9. Understanding how people benefit from, and connect to, nature.

    10. Building capacity in conservation science.