March, 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
  • Half a pint of beer

    It's the weekend, so I am allowed.  As I keep telling my daughter, the Lenten discipline only applies to weekdays - excluding Fridays, of course [see note 1].

    But is it half full or half empty?

    At times this weekend, the glass felt half-empty.  It might have had something to do with Mr Wenger's nightmare at Stamford Bridge [see note 2], or perhaps my boy's rugby team being knocked out of the County Cup in the Semi-Finals by Huntingdon or maybe it was the rain turning up at the wrong time.  

    And, many of us probably have every reason to adopt a glass half-empty approach to nature conservation as well...

    This week we heard that there would be £7.1m less funds available for nature conservation from the Landfill Communities Fund.  This cut is on top of the ever-diminishing resources and capacity for nature conservation: Defra budget down from £2.5b in 2009-10 to £1.6b in 2014-15, Natural England about half the size it was in 2009 and ecological capacity within local authorities still being cut.  

    The result of all of this is that we remain heavily reliant on agri-environment funds to help farmers find space on their land for wildlife, but following the pre-Christmas CAP deal, these funds are woefully short of what we need to meet government's tough ambitions for recovering wildlife and protecting our water bodies.  

    These cuts have, by and large, happened after 2010 - the date when everyone agreed that we had failed to halt wildlife declines.  They would matter less if existing laws were being enforced properly (for example to tackle wildlife crime or to protect SSSIs) or if the political consensus did not favour freeing people from 'red tape' .  As it is, the collective capacity to tackle to the biodiversity crisis has diminshed.  The conservation cavalry of innovative finance for paying for so-called ecosystem services (such as clean water, storing carbon or natural flood defence) seems a long way off at the moment.

    This was not the political or social response needed to put the 2010 failure behind us.

    But let's look again at that glass, perhaps it is half-full...

    Last week, we celebrated 41 booming bitterns at Avalon Marshes - yes, 41!  Hard work by Natural England, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB has boosted this extraordinary recovery (see here).  I'll say more about the bittern's recovery later this spring - there are loads of lessons to learn from the long-term planning and implementation. And I was thinking about bitterns on Thursday when I was down at our Dungeness reserve where bitterns bred first bred in 2010 - a feat that was somewhat overlooked by a pair of breeding purple herons.  Dungeness is a weird and wonderful place buzzing with life in the shadow of the nuclear power station and the prospect of an expanded airport [see note 3].  In fact, development pressure seems to loom large over much of Kent's nature - airports, housing  etc - but there are signs of nature's recovery elsewhere.  Up the coast near the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, we are embarking another great wetland creation scheme at Lydden Valley (see here).  I first went to the site about 8 years ago, but it was great to return on Friday and find out now our vision to create a new internationally important wetland is beginning to take shape.

    Even in the face of huge pressure, good things can still happen.  

    And, tomorrow, I shall be with a number of allies from other NGOs.  Each of these NGOs will have their own positive story to tell and I sense that the solidarity amongst the groups is growing.  We know that we speak and act for millions of people that want to help nature and we know that it is in all our interests to work together to make things better.

    And that, more than anything else, is why I remain a glass half-full kind of chap.  There are enough good men and women working together to help us live in harmony with nature.

    Enjoy the week, whatever the state of your glass. I'm now going to finish mine.  Cheers!


    Note 1: the girl has theoretically given up sweets for Lent.  I see no sign of respect for this discipline.

    Note 2: a football reference which needs no further elaboration

    Note 3:  the expansion of Lydd airport (here) is currently the subject of a legal challenge by the RSPB 


  • Budget day - the environmental bunting stays in the cupboard for another year

    Budget Day...

    ...not traditionally the time for environmentalists to get out the bunting.

    We tend to hope rather than expect the Chancellor of the day to recognise that a healthy environment underpins our prosperity and that it pays to invest in nature.  

    Having looked at the detail from today's Budget, I think that the bunting can stay in the cupboard for another year.  

    The day before the Prime Minister meets his European counterparts to discuss the EU plan to tackle climate change up to 2030, the Chancellor sent the wrong signals to industry about our much needed shift to a low carbon economy.   Tax breaks for energy intensive industries were preferred to investment in more energy efficient manufacturing while a freeze in the carbon tax floor price led to fears that energy generation from coal (which we have campaigned to end) would remain economic for longer.  

    Recent debates about the need to restore our natural capital and deal with predicted extreme weather events brought about by climate chaos seem to have little impact on overall Treasury thinking.

    For example...

    ...the cost of this winters floods is over £1 billion. The Treasury has found a further £140 million, “to repair flood defences that have suffered damage in the recent severe flooding”. That money gets us back to the position we were in before being flooded but does not even begin to cover the £500 million per year funding gap identified by the Climate Change Committee.  And no mention of the need to address unsustainable land management through better targeting of the £15 billion of subsidies being given to farmers over the next seven years.

    It is not as if the political classes are ignorant of the need for action to address unsustainable use of our natural resources...

    ...last week, with little fanfare, the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) which reports directly to Treasury stated that many of nature's free public services (eg clean water, carbon storage, flood protection and inspiration) are at high or very high risk.  The NCC suggests a 25 year plan to restore our natural infrastructure and we understand that the Prime Minister has looked favourably on this proposal.

    So, while the Chancellor today said they would soon announce (grey) infrastructure spending for the rest of the decade, what a great opportunity to address investment plans for green, natural infrastructure.  That would help reconcile our socio-economic and environmental needs and might even force me to get out the bunting.

    As all political parties wrestle with the challenge of building up to 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, the first test of whether the UK Government gets the need to link the green with the grey will be at Ebbsfleet.

    My colleague, Simon Marsh cautiously welcomed the announcement for Ebbsfleet Garden City in our Saving Special Places blog here. An Urban Development Corporation will be set up with £200 million to deal with the investment risk concerns which have held up private finance at this site to date. This is a sensible way to support a scheme of this size. It is largely brownfield and already has infrastructure connecting it to London and beyond.

    So, the Government has an opportunity to show how to develop truly sustainable communities - communities that we want our children to grow up in. The original garden city vision was to bring the country into the town.  Today, we could go further.  Let's put high quality green space at the heart of the design of the new city - green space that could be managed for wildlife, help buffer existing protected areas and encourage people to have contact with nature on their doorstep.   I understand that there are also serious flood risks to tackle but if this new city can deal with these issues, it could provide a blueprint for how our new homes should be built over the next decade.   

    What was your verdict on the Budget? What would make you get out the environmental bunting?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Are we fit to frack?

    The UK Government that has said it wants to maximise the economic development potential of shale gas.

    Yet, this is also a government that, laudably, wants our generation to be the first that passes on the natural environment in a better state to the next.  

    And this is a government that has committed to tackle climate change by halving UK greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2027.

    Given that fracking has potentially significant environmental consequences, how do we reconcile these seemingly competing objectives?

    The Prime Minister is a strong advocate of fracking and believes our regulatory regime is fit for purpose.  He has said, “There is no reason why the process should cause contamination of water supplies or other environmental damage, if properly regulated. And the regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world... We cannot afford to miss out on fracking”. More recently, Owen Paterson went a step further, declaring that he “would like to see shale gas exploited all over rural parts of the UK”.

    Given the scale of a commercial fracking industry, we thought it would be useful to do more to understand the environmental risks and to assess the current regulatory regime.  This is timely because the Government is currently consulting on its Strategic Environmental Assessment of the draft licensing round for onshore oil and gas. 

    To address these issues, we joined forces with fellow countryside conservation charities the National Trust, The Wildlife Trusts, the Angling Trust, the Salmon & Trout Association, and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Today we are publishing the fruits of this collaboration: a review of the evidence for potential impacts in this country that has been peer-reviewed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and Are we fit to frack? – a summary of the evidence and ten recommendations to improve how the industry is regulated. 

    Photo-shoot to launch the report with representatives from the NGO coalition, Tessa Munt MP (Lim Dem), Alan Whitehead MP (Lab) and Zac Goldsmith MP (Con)

    Environmental risks

    Our review, which was largely based on experience in the US to date and spatial analysis to identify potential risks here in the UK, concluded that there are serious risks associated with commercial-scale fracking.

    These are particularly significant for the water environment, both because of the risk of water contamination but also because of the impact of significant water use in areas already vulnerable to water-stress.

    But wildlife is also at risk to habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance as a result of the infrastructure requirements of a commercial-scale shale gas industry (from increased noise directly from the fracking process but also from enhanced transport activity).

    This latter point is critical. A commercial-scale industry will require many drill sites across the countryside; based on the most recent estimates for the Bowland shale in the North of England, for example, Andrew Aplin of Durham University calculates that 33,000 wells would be needed for full commercial exploitation. That’s anything between 1375 and 5500 separate drill sites.

    Finally, we make an assessment of the carbon intensity of electricity from shale gas and assess its compatability with UK Government climate change commitments.  We conclude that it is hard to justify large-scale investment in extracting UK shale gas.  We argue that further independent evidence is needed to address the impacts of commercial shale gas exploitation - in the absence of carbon capture and storage - on climate change.

    Shale gas drill site Southport. Photo credit: Cernan Elias (Alamy)

    What’s the solution?

    After reviewing the evidence we examined the Government’s approach to regulating the industry. Our conclusion is that it is not currently fit for purpose.  It does not offer the level of protection we would all expect for wildlife and our countryside. We have put forward 10 proposals that we believe would significantly address this. They are based on the principles of fully understanding the risks, preventing needless harm, the polluter pays and ensuring full transparency and monitoring of the industry.

    As a starting point, we are calling for the most special parts of our countryside to be protected through the creation of shale gas exclusion zones. These zones would cover protected areas, nature reserves and other important sites, including land that we and partner organisations own/manage, which alone amounts to approximately 4% of UK land. In our report you can see the proposed exclusion zones overlaid with existing licenses for onshore oil and gas extraction and areas that Government are ‘minded’ to license later this year. The overlap is considerable: 89 RSPB nature reserves, 634 National Trust sites and 251 internationally important protected areas lie within the potential license zones.

    Our view is that we need a clear steer from government that these sites are not up for grabs.  These special places should be excluded from fracking.  This would send an important signal to the industry that ‘going all out for shale’ must never be at the expense of a far more precious resource – our natural heritage.

    Do you think the UK is fit to frack?  Do you think Shale gas Exclusion Zones are a good idea?

    It would be great to hear your views.