June, 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
  • After the deluge, still searching for the right response to the floods of 2014

    Flooding has hit the headlines again as the Efra committee released their report into last winter’s floods today. Funding and dredging were the defining debates around events in Somerset and from the press coverage you would be forgiven for thinking that the Efra Committee made a compelling case for turning back the clock to a time when rivers were routinely de-silted, re-profiled and straightened.

    Where the Parrett meets the Tone: the location of the dredge

    So, I was pleasantly surprised when I actually opened the report to find that far from claiming dredging was the answer to all our ills, the report threw its weight behind the findings of CIWEM’s report Dredging a reality check  – a publication the RSPB supported alongside others from the Blueprint for Water Coalition. In fact, once you get behind the headlines the Efra report seems to be asking for little more than dredging where there is a good case for doing so stating...

    When dredging is beneficial as part of a portfolio of measures, Defra must give a long-term commitment to fund regular maintenance in the relevant catchment area. (Paragraph 35)”

    Where we do part company is in defining what that business case should be. Efra suggest that the benefits of land drainage and defence of farmland should be given a greater priority in the funding system – something that, given the current state of public finances, would inevitably divert resources away from people and property towards an industry that, not only needs to do much more to clean up its environmental act, but also receives over £2 billion a year in public subsidy.

    But perhaps my biggest disappointment in the report is its failure to address the question of what government should do to help communities, landowners and households who are finding themselves at increasing flood risk because, as the chair of the committee herself said “..to be honest, it is a bit like the health service: you will never have enough funding”.

    I wish I could offer a simple solution but this cuts across a range of economic, political and ethical questions that can only be resolved if we face up to the fact that change is inevitable and start a public debate about what is fair and affordable for those affected by increasing flood risk.

    What I can say with confidence is that if we don’t plan for change it will be forced upon us by climate change. I also believe that schemes like Medmerry and Holnicote that work with nature to reduce flooding and give nature a home will be central to building adaptation and resilience into our rural and urban landscape.

  • Together For Biodiversity - A Natural Partnership Progresses

    I am looking forward to welcoming the EU Environment Commissioner, Janez Potocnik, to our Northward Hill Reserve tomorrow.  He has been a good Commissioner, a champion both of nature but also a defender of the right of NGOs to speak out.  His term in office has coincided with the economic crash and the political response to it.  It's clear that he has had to fight hard to protect environmental interests during this period.  There has been a lot of nonsense spoken and written about the costs and problems associated with EU environmental legislation particularly the Birds and Habitats Directives.  This is why I am delighted that some enlightened businesses have invested the time and effort to understand and work with the legislation.  To coincide with today's visit, I am delighted to host a guest blog from Martin Casey, Director Public Affairs & Communications of the aggregates company, CEMEX, a company that we have enjoyed working with over the past seven years.


    There has recently been a lot of focus by the media on the European Union and the future of the EU itself following the outcome of the elections for the parliament. The TV, radio and newspapers have talked about little else but the political message delivered by the voters in supporting parties that have a nationalist agenda and a focus on issues such as immigration. Little attention was given to any positive aspect of the EU, or indeed to the fact that despite the headlines most voters across the 28 Member States still voted for pro-European parties. On the day the leaders of the EU Member States travelled to Brussels to chew over the outcome of the elections, some of us were already there to acknowledge the role of two of the major successes of the EU and launch a new agreement to deepen cooperation between a leading business and NGO. 

    On 27 May, the respective European operations of CEMEX, the global building materials company, and BirdLife International, came together, supported by the EU Environment Commissioner, Janez Potocnik, to sign and launch their new joint statement 'Together For Biodiversity’  which demonstrates the commitment of both parties to the Birds and Habitats Directives.

    Dove Holes quarry where the RSPB and CEMEX are working together to help save twite

    At CEMEX we have worked hard to develop our business as an environmental leader in the sector, not just in how we reduce impacts at an operational level, but also in being resource efficient in the energy and raw materials that we use, as well as producing thermally efficient building materials that can help society achieve a lower carbon future. Working with BirdLife International and its national affiliate associations has been key to that.

    In the presence of the Commissioner and an audience made up of representatives from the media, NGOs, the EU Institutions and business, both BirdLife Europe and CEMEX highlighted the success to date of their partnership agreement signed in 2007 and this new enhancement. The statement moves the relationship to a new level beyond pro-active joint work on biodiversity action plans to a joint understanding on the key fundamentals of good environmental legislation. Anyone who works in or has experience of an extractive industry knows that well-designed, consistent and fairly enforced policies and regulation work not just for the environment, but also for business; a level playing field is fundamental for our competitiveness. 

    At a practical level the fruits of this relationship can be seen in many of the European Countries in which CEMEX operates and the very active working relationships that we have with the national BirdLife partners such as OTOP in Poland, LPO in France, SEO in Spain and the RSPB in the UK. For example since 2010 the relationship in Britain with the RSPB has helped to deliver the restoration of more than 500 hectares of priority nature habitats, an area equivalent to more than 750 football pitches.

    So while the headlines have all being about the negatives of the EU, it was good to be in Brussels to help redress the balance a little, and stand up for responsible business and the environment.

    Martin Casey Director Public Affairs & Communications CEMEX

  • Why Defra's decision on 'greening' is a missed opportunity for the environment

    I am off to the Cereals show (see here) tomorrow afternoon - the Mecca for arable farmers.  The RSPB is there, as ever, talking to farmers about how they can help wildlife while farming profitably. 
    Some farmers might have been wondering what they will have to do differently as a result of new 'greening' conditions placed on their Single Farm payment (see here for background). 
    Not much is the answer.
    Defra (see here) has decided to promote simplicity and flexibility rather than focusing on environmental outcomes such as reversing the declines in farmland birds, beetles and butterflies.
    The defence would say, well, Brussels gave them a hospital pass by coming up with a messy measure whose environmental outcomes were always going to be limited and besides, we'll deliver our environmental improvements through the £3 billion available for agri-environment.
    The case for the prosecution would say, hang on, if the UK Government was really committed to realising its laudable ambition for being the first generation to be passing on the natural environment in a better state to the next, then perhaps it would have made the £15 billion of taxpayers money (about £400 per taxpayer per year) that goes into farming work much harder.  Instead, it has failed to maximise the amount of money that it could have invested in wildlife-friendly farming and now it has made the greening measure meaningless.
    Here's an example of why the final decision is so poor.  Arable farmers are now obliged to put 5% of their land in Ecological Focus Areas.  That sounds good, doesn't it - a sort of modern set-aside measure to help wildlife alongside productive land?  Alas, the options available for farmers mean that they are able to include nitrogen-fixing crops like peas and beans in their EFA contribution.  
    At our commercial, intensive, 183 hectare arable farm in Cambridgeshire, we already grow peas and beans on 34 hectares of land which once odd weighting rules are applied mean that we have about three times the amount to meet our EFA target.  What makes this so bonkers is that peas last year were our most profitable crop netting £684 per hectare.
    So we have a situation where public money which could have been used to protect semi-natural habitat is being used to support a commercial crop.
    We live in a strange world.
    The upshot of all of this is that Defra has now put all its environmental eggs in the agri-environment basket.  Over the next few months, hard-working Defra civil servants will be putting the finishing touches to the new scheme and we hope for great things.  But, when the NFU come knocking on the Defra door inevitably saying it is "their" money, please, for once, tell them that the priority is to deliver more for the public money, protect our finest wildlife sites and recover farmland wildlife.