September, 2015

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
  • Power to the people and getting the best value from public money

    I attended the excellent launch of the Wildlife and Countryside Link visions for food and farming and for water today.

    Secretary of State, Liz Truss, offered a response and I was again struck by the emphasis that she placed on data and the importance of volunteers to both collect the data and be empowered it use it to act for conservation.

    We are a nation of naturalists and we should be proud of the quality of the datasets that allow us to report on the state of nature.  This is the information that allows us to detect changes in the natural world, uncover problems and begin to put in place the right responses.

    Yet, as I reported in a previous blog (see here) I remain worried that the current round of spending cuts may threaten the very system that delivers so much.

    The monitoring of the UK’s wildlife covers a wide range of taxa, some through the compilation of species records from a variety of sources such as local studies and unstructured ‘ad-hoc’ recording, and others through more structured schemes, such as the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey which uses a robust sampling design and rigorous survey methodology. What these schemes have in common is that they rely on the efforts of a great number of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteer surveyors, who give their time and expertise freely. In 2014, for example, volunteers made over seven thousand visits to BBS squares, and nearly two thousand visits to squares in the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

    The figure below, courtesy of the JNCC, shows the annual costs some of the major wildlife monitoring schemes, funded by partnerships between Government (JNCC and the four national statutory conservation agencies) and NGOs. These NGOs include many of the State of Nature partners, including the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, Butterfly Conservation, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and others.

    Yet, it would be wrong to think that this voluntary effort organises itself.  Most schemes rely on some funding from government which, coupled with charity investment, provides the infrastructure to support and mobilise volunteers to collect data.

    Whilst the financial investment in these schemes by Governmental and NGO partners is not insubstantial, the graph makes it clear that this is dwarfed by the value of the volunteer contribution. Whilst the values shown might not be exactly right – these are based on estimates of volunteer effort – the general pattern is certainly true. The value of this volunteer effort very likely runs into eight figures; without the contribution of these volunteers this monitoring, and the conservation action it enables, would simply not be possible. However, without the scheme design, coordination, data collation, analysis and reporting enabled by the Governmental and NGO funding, the massive value of the volunteer effort would not be realised.

    I hope that the Secretary of State’s passion for data comes through in her conversations with the Treasury over the spending review and she is able to protect investment in these schemes.


    Estimates of volunteer contribution are standardised using Heritage Lottery funding volunteer rates. They are very conservative (they exclude the additional value provided by volunteers leading workshops, entering data, undertaking internships, funding their own travel etc.) with a high degree of uncertainty. The exact value of NBN volunteer contribution is unquantified (known 4.5million submissions per year) – the value will be off the scale.

    Note that BRAIn (Biological Recording Analysis and Interpretation) recording only includes volunteer contributions from those volunteers organising the 85 schemes. BRAIn recording effort is included in NBN.

    The volunteer return (not including the value of NBN records recorded from BRAIn schemes and from ad hoc NBN records) is a minimum of 3.7 times the total investment from Government and NGO sources, and around 7 times the Government investment.

  • Reflections on the hen harrier season

    As the hen harrier season comes to an end, I thought I'd welcome Bea Ayling, the RSPB's hen harrier officer, to give her reflections on the season.

    Whilst hiking in the Pentland Hills last weekend, enjoying the fresh smell of the blooming heather after the rain and the stunning views over Edinburgh, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Not because the summer is coming to an end, but because I knew, yet again hen harriers are struggling to survive in our uplands and I had little chance of seeing a hen harrier myself that day.

    It’s been a turbulent year for hen harriers and for those of us trying to protect them and given all the confusion, I thought that it would be helpful if my end of year round-up set the record straight. This year, there were only six successful nests in England, fledging 18 chicks. Although this is the most successful year since 2010, we are still a long way from the 300 or more breeding pairs that there should be in England’s uplands. The main reason hen harriers are in such a desperate situation is illegal persecution because they are perceived as a threat to the production of high numbers of red grouse for shooting.

    The RSPB was involved in the protection of three of these successful nests this year, one in Bowland and two on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, where we are part of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership with the Forestry Commission and Natural England. This was the first successful pairing and breeding of hen harriers on a public forest estate in Northumberland for several years

    However, it wasn’t an easy ride. We are aware of an additional seven nesting attempts in England that sadly failed. Of these, five failed due to the still unexplained and unusual disappearances of five apparently healthy adult males (four from Bowland and one from Geltsdale). Males are vulnerable when travelling far and wide in order to provision the female whilst on the nest. If the male fails to return to the nest, the female is forced to leave to look for food and the nest will fail.

    At Bowland, there was a second egg laying attempt by one of the females in one of the original nests (i.e. two egg clutches in one nest). Unfortunately this second attempt failed and we think this might have been due to the adopting male being a young bird who lacked the experience to provision well enough. The final failure at Bowland was likely due to predation by a small, ground-based predator such as a stoat.

    CREDIT: James Bray, RSPB

    Happier news is that RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. This was on the tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves, which is why we are working hard to help hen harriers beyond our reserves too. In some cases, the RSPB and our partners operate 24 hour nest protection under necessary licences from statutory authorities  and following strict protocols to ensure there is no unnecessary disturbance. It’s a drastic measure, but one that works, protecting two successful hen harrier nests last year and we have operated many similar successful nest watch schemes over the years for other rare birds, such as the bee-eater nest in Cumbria this summer, Montagu’s harriers and red kites.

    We’re also doing everything we can to protect these birds once they leave the nest and are able to satellite tag hen harriers thanks to the support of the EU LIFE+ Programme. The JNCC identifies illegal persecution as the key threat to hen harriers and satellite tagging is helping to improve understanding of this threat. We can follow the birds where they go and recover bodies if they die which we send for post mortem. This has allowed us to identify cases of illegal persecution that would have otherwise gone undetected. For example, Annie, a female hen harrier chick satellite tagged last year on Scotland’s Langholm Moor went missing in March 2015. Thanks to satellite tagging, her body which had been shot was recovered elsewhere.

    Through the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, the RSPB was able to satellite tag one male chick in Bowland in July. When the tag showed that the bird was not moving, our Investigations Team went out to check on the birds. Sadly, three of the four chicks in the nest were found dead close to the nest; however, one chick had fledged and was seen flying around.

    The post-mortems and other tests on the three chicks were inconclusive. Our camera footage shows that the juveniles were alive at least two days after tagging and that they were not killed during the day. Since the close proximity of the three bodies doesn’t suggest predation, we therefore suspect that they succumbed to either disease or starvation and were subsequently scavenged.

    We are closely following the movements of the other birds that we satellite tagged this summer, and we hope to share some of their stories with you soon on the project website:

    Working with partners and volunteers, the RSPB is doing more than ever to protect hen harriers across the UK thanks to our supporters and EU funding from the LIFE+ Programme. The work underway through the  Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project includes:

    -          making use of the improved understanding of hen harrier movements to enhance the protection of hen harriers at both breeding and wintering sites.

    -          ensuring as far as possible that habitat availability does not limit harrier recovery.

    -          raising public awareness throughout the UK of hen harriers, the threats they face, and conservation efforts to overcome these.

    -          encouraging recognition by local communities and land managers of the hen harrier as an iconic species of upland landscapes, to increase support for their protection.

    With better understanding of the movements of hen harriers coming from the LIFE+ Prroject, we remain hopeful that England's harriers can look forward to better prospects. 

  • The 2015 Spending Review: what's at stake and why it pays to invest in nature

    While some of us have been off on our summer holidays, spare a thought for those civil servants that were tasked with developing departmental spending bids over the past six weeks.

    In late July, the Chancellor George Osborne charged non-protected departments with producing plans for 25% and 40% cuts in their resource budgets and that these plans should be submitted by 4 September ie today!

    Defra is one such department and our economists have been trying to understand the options and implications for spending reduction plans. I thought it would be useful to share their thinking to outline some of the choices that the government faces and to be clear about which areas need to be defended.

    First some guiding principles...

    ...the free market is very good at providing many things like affordable cars and loom bands but it has a poor track record on the environment. For that reason, protection of the environment relies heavily on the public purse (and market controls through regulation).
    ...the Chancellor has said that departments should do nothing that undermines manifesto commitments which is a good thing as there are many laudable aspirations in the Conservative Party manifesto
    ...value for public money is key, which should help Defra defend existing investment in nature. There is a growing understanding of the value of the natural environment to society (see stats below) in part thanks to the work of the Government's own Natural Capital Committee

    The scale of the challenge

    Public spending that is protected includes the NHS, Ministry of Defence, overseas aid and education and this collectively makes up nearly two-thirds of the Government's overall budget.

    Figure 1 shows the revised total resource budget savings projections from the summer budget and our estimate of the savings required in the non-protected departments.  It is clear that some non-protected departments might need to make cuts over 40% in 2019-20 in order to meet the overall objectives.

    Figure 1: Estimated yearly budget cuts.

    Figure 1: Estimated yearly budget cuts.

    When considering the impact of any future cuts it is worth remembering recent history as Defra has already made 36% real terms spending cuts since 2010.

    The pie charts in Figure 2 show the gross change in Defra’s funding since 2010 and the consequences of a 40% cut. We’ve made some assumptions about a couple of spending areas (the Rural Payments Agency which administers CAP payments and the flood defence budget) which we feel are less likely to be squeezed to give an idea of what might happen to more vulnerable parts of the budget.

    FIGURE 2: Pie charts representing net DEFRA cuts since 2010 in 2015 and 2020 after 40% cuts.

    Figure 2: Pie charts representing net DEFRA cuts since 2010 in 2015 and 2020 after 40% cuts.

    Given that Defra has at times been labelled the department for floods, plagues and pestilence, it is likely that other budgets for areas such as animal health and biosecurity will also be politically difficult to cut.

    While it could be argued that the first wave of savings will have led to efficiency savings with no discernible affect on environmental outcomes, this analysis suggests that the next wave of cuts cannot be achieved without government abandoning core responsibilities.

    It is worth remembering just how tiny DEFRA’s budget is. In truth the total abandonment of natural environment spending and more would win the government only a 0.2% saving in its overall budget where it needs to make 40% savings across unprotected budgets.

    Of course, all of the departments will have moral claims to the public purse. Yet, it is hard to see how DEFRA, which has already cut by 36% can achieve even a 25% cut without abandoning, not merely cutting back, on important manifesto promises, legal obligations and in the long run losing more overall than we save in tax money.

    Why it pays to invest in nature

    In recent years, large amounts of data have been accumulated to demonstrate that money spent on protecting the natural environment is a wise investment as well as a moral obligation.  For example...

    • The NEA suggests that if the UK’s ecosystems were properly protected and enhanced then they could add an extra £30 billion to the UK economy. Neglect and loss of the free services that nature gives us may cost as much as £20 billion to the economy per year.
    • The impact of non-native invasive species costs England £1.3 billion a year and the UK £1.7 billion.
    • Some models predict the total exhaustion of global fishstocks by 2050 but restoring depleted fish stocks in Europe would lead to £2.7 bn additional annual revenues and 100,000 new jobs.
    • £10 billion is spend on tourism in England’s rural areas each year in large part due to the quality of the natural environment.
    • Increasing UK woodland cover from 6% to 12% has increased carbon sequestration worth £680 million per annum.
    • Government's own figures suggest that the cost-benefit ratio of managing our finest wildlife sites - SSSIs - is at least 1:8

    Of course, responsibility for action is not exclusively reliant on government intervention - wildlife charities like the RSPB are willing to play our part and already do great things for nature.  Business and land managers can increasingly provide support but none of this can be done without basic funding from government to create the foundation for environmental protection.

    What's at stake?

    The UK Government made a range of commitments in its election manifesto which will need support and indeed the Chancellor has suggested these must not be compromised through spending cuts.  These include...

    ...spending  £3 billion on the environment through the CAP.  For this commitment to be met, the Exchequer must continue to provide co-funding in order to draw down the money from Europe that we use to pay for agri-environment schemes. Any cuts to this funding would mean sending money back, losing a further £3 for every £1 saved. What's more, this is the single most important funding source for delivering positive land management change for nature and deliver its England Biodiversity Strategy commitments for sites, habitats and species.  

    ...creation of a 'Blue Belt' of marine protected areas both in the UK and around our 14 Overseas Territories.  In reality this means funding the expansion of the English Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) network and completion of the Natura 2000 network of Marine Protected Areas at sea.  What's more, commitments to marine protected areas around the UK Oversees Territories (UKOTs) will require some investment while the prize is great given the riches in the seas around those islands.

    ...delivering a 25 year plan to recover biodiversity.  While there are a range of innovative finance options that can help to underpin the proposed plan, some key capabilities are essential and will provide the bedrock to the realising any ambition that is set. These include...

    • a strong, independent champion of the natural environment with the capacity to deliver its statutory obligations for sites, species and habitats.  Natural England is roughly half the size it was five years ago and it is difficult to see how further cuts will do anything other than compromise its core services.  In fact, a properly resourced Natural England can provide timely responses to planning requests and the support that business needs to reduce costs and drive the sustainable development. Cutting NE would prove a false economy.  
    • sustained investment in science and monitoring.  Science underpins everything we have achieved so far. It helps us to understand what is happening the natural environment and how to better support it. As the current Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, has repeatedly said, good data can drive positive action for the environment.  And it is clear that a little investment can go a long way.  Monitoring is an excellent example of how government money can enable charitable funding and then leverage far greater commitments from society at large. The combination of small amounts of government spend can support NGOs in providing the infrastructure necessary to mobilise thousands of volunteers to collect data through schemes such as Breeding Bird Survey.  The value of this voluntary action eclipses the spending from government or “other partners”.  It is staggering what this partnership between the State, NGOs and volunteers has achieved over the years.  Indeed, the schemes that enabled the monitoring of birds, bats, butterflies etc enabled the production of the 2013 State of Nature report which highlighted the 60% decline in species (for which we have data) over the past 40 years.  

    What should the Chancellor do?

    Nature conservation has never been fully funded and government's own assessment has shown that there is a mismatch between ambition and available resource.  We continue to work proactively with government and increasingly with business to try to bridge that gap and we are keen to explore new ways to finance conservation and facilitate the kind of overwhelming public response that can be seen in our monitoring work. That work is however intended to take us forward and we can’t achieve any of it if we start going backwards in terms of the funding we do have and rely on from government.

    There is no hiding the fact that significant cuts to DEFRA - especially if agri-environment is affected - could undermine a great deal of the work we are engaged in. That loss would save the government a fraction of a percent of the money it needs to save to meet its objectives but in the long run we'd all lose as we would be adding to our ecological deficit.

    So as the Treasury officials reflect on Defra's submission, I hope that there is recognition of the core investment required to deliver its environmental commitments while also exploring how best to align existing spend especially as there is something like £100 billion (from taxes and bills) going into English catchments over the next 15 years (see here).  Finally, we hope that the government chooses this moment to initiate a really creative conversation about new sources of finance such as the ones proposed in the third Natural Capital Committee report.  We are keen to be part of that conversation so that when the results of the Spending Review emerge on 25 November, together we still have the resources to do good things for nature which in turn will be good for people and the economy.

    If you were the Environment Secretary, how would you frame your budget bid to the Chancellor?

    It would be great to hear your views.