November, 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
  • The Nature of Climate Change

    Only a fortnight remains before world leaders will head to Paris for the most important climate change negotiations in several years. These talks will hopefully see the agreement of a new global deal on climate change and will be an opportunity, after the appalling events in the French capital at the weekend, to demonstrate continued support for multilateral cooperation to tackle global problems.

    As UK negotiators, our Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, and perhaps even Prime Minister David Cameron prepare to head to Paris, I hope they'll be taking with them a copy of the new report the RSPB is launching today.

    The Nature of Climate Change brings together some of the most compelling scientific evidence on the effects climate change is already having on Europe's wildlife.

    You can have a read of the evidence and summary reports here.

    The evidence is very clear: climate change is already affecting wildlife, and the impacts are only going to intensify over the course of this century, resulting in a much more challenging situation for nature.

    We're also today releasing the results of new polling by ComRes, showing that the risk to the natural world is the UK public's number one concern about climate change. 79% of us are concerned about the effect on wildlife, higher than any other impact of climate change.

    Our report is an update of one we produced (here) five years ago when we posed twenty tough questions and provided twenty rough answers.  Since then there has been a huge increase in the number of studies about the impacts of climate change on wildlife and the evidence of changes happening now has grown: from extreme weather events to wildlife being forced uphill or northwards, the effects on our natural world are clear and they are already evident.

    There are some instances where it looks like wildlife might benefit. Climate change may result in exciting new colonists for the UK - birds like black-winged stilts and cattle egrets attempting to breed here. But across Europe as a whole in the coming decades, the picture is very worrying indeed.

    One third of Europe's bumblebees could lose up to 80% of their range by 2100.

    Kittiwakes, found at locations like the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve, have been affected. The 70% decline they have suffered in the UK has been linked to climate change.

    Thanks to heathland restoration and management, the Dartford warbler has managed to extend its breeding range much further through England in recent decades. But at the southern edge of its range in Iberia, losses in coming years due to climate change are likely to far outweigh those gains.

    Maps showing how the climate range of Dartford warbler changes under of a mid-range warming scenario (3 degrees C above pre-industrial averages).  The one at the top is today, the one below is what may happen if we fail to prevent global temperature rises (taken the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds

    The report also shows that nature is one of our best allies in helping both wildlife and people to cope with climate change. Restoring peatlands, for example, boosts cranefly numbers and in turn helps struggling golden plovers; it locks away carbon in the soil; and it can even help to improve the quality of public water supply.

    As world leaders head to Paris, I hope that the risks to our natural world will be front and centre of their minds as another key reason to negotiate an ambitious deal to limit climate change to no more than two degrees.  And if you want to remind them of this, please do book 29 November in your diaries for the upcoming climate march in cities across the UK (here).

    The report has demonstrated another key finding too: that protected areas are already playing a critical role in helping wildlife to cope with the effects of climate change, and will continue to do so. 

    Not only do we need to protect more space on land and at sea for nature. We also need to make sure the laws that underpin our protected areas are safeguarded. As part of the EU's Fitness Check we are calling for no change to be made that could jeopardise the Birds and Habitats Directives, our most important nature laws.

    In just a week or two, BirdLife International, the international partnership of which the RSPB is a member, will be publishing their own report on the impacts of climate change on birds around the world. This report, coming just days after ours, will add to the growing picture of severe risk to the natural world if we do not act quickly and decisively to limit climate change and to adapt to the impacts we can't avoid.

    I'll offer more on the progress and outcomes of the UN climate change talks on my blog in coming weeks, but for now I encourage you to read our new report.

  • The State of... Defra's Budget

    The Chancellor's announcement on Monday that Defra along with four other departments had agreed their budget settlements took most people by surprise. 48 hours on and no further details have appeared. It seems we shall have to wait for the full Spending Review announcement on 25 November.

    What we do know is that planned cuts across the five departments average 30% and it is difficult to conclude anything other than this will lead to a massive reduction in government capacity to meet its environmental commitments.

    This would be bad news for nature and for people.

    The Chancellor stated that if it didn't provide economic security, national security or extend opportunity it would be cut. Given that the natural environment underpins our prosperity, you could just about fit Defra's work any of these categories. The natural world when properly protected can support our economic security and expand opportunity for people through health and wellbeing. The Natural Capital Committee eloquently showed that the UK is running an environmental deficit and the Budget settlement will make things worse.

    Below, I outline analysis that the RSPB's economists have done to understand implications.

    What is being cut?

    Capital budgets are protected. For Defra this largely means flood defence infrastructure but does not include all the running costs and other day to day expenditure on flood risk mitigation.

    It is day to day spending on things like grants and projects and people that is being cut.

    What cuts have already been made?

    If we compare total resource budgets in 2009/10 and 2015/16 and adjust for inflation we find that the Department of Justice and Defra come out joint losers on -34% in total resource spend.

    What cuts are to come?

    All we know is that the group of departments which have agreed cuts have cuts averaging 30% so we use a 30% cut as the basis. The announcement said the cuts would be over four years but the OBR say that government spending is projected to increase in real terms in 2020/21. So our economists have adjusted for inflation for the full cut to 2019/20 as it provides more conservative figures.

    Based upon a 30% cut from 2015/16 happening in 2019/20 the full impact would be a real terms cut of 57% in Defra's budget since 2009/10. Given that Defra was the hardest cut last time, unless that 30% average hides some very significant discrepancies, then Defra is currently on target to be the biggest loser.

    In return for heavily slashing the environment budget the government saves 0.1% from it's overall budget. The Defra budget was never large, though its responsibilities are, so little can be saved from abandoning environmental obligations.

    The impact on staff numbers could be quite significant. Between 2010 and March 2015 Defra lost 6,806 full time equivalent staff from its family of bodies. The next few images describe those cuts visually.

    The first two are taken from published Defra reports. In the third image, the team have calculated the impact of a 1% real terms cut on staff numbers in each department over the last 5 years and projected that forward with the expected cuts. They used only the cash terms cut of 30% to estimate future losses as it is the more conservative bound of a rough estimate. Even so the total job losses over this decade would be over 14,000 from the Defra family cutting their staff resource in half.

    It is hard not to feel a personal kinship with all of those people who lost their jobs. Environmental professionals bicker constantly but I find that whatever they work on and whether they work in the private, public or charitable sectors one thing binds us all. None of us got into it for the money. So when I see job losses of that scale I see a massive loss of highly trained people who committed their lives to protecting something bigger than themselves. We need all shoulders to the wheel and when people slip off the loss is not only personal but to the cause.


    How can these cuts be mitigated?

    To mitigate the impacts of these cuts, ministers have pointed to the possibilities of cost recuperation (charging) and savings in back office efficiency. Whilst these are important and useful they will not be significant enough to prevent huge losses to service.

    Our calculations suggest that back office savings in addition to those already made are unlikely to be significant while income generation ambition would need to be raised dramatically. For example, last year Natural England made about £14 million from other activities whilst its government grant was £179 million. If NE is squeezed by ring-fencing elsewhere then it might have to increase that £14 million seven-fold quite rapidly. Moving from £14 million to nearly £100 million a year will take time at least and the interim period could be painful.

     What are the impacts on services?

    I try to stay positive and look to what can be done but sometimes it is worth being frank. It's clear that Defra is already struggling to meet its existing obligations with the budget it has...

    ...this year the Supreme Court has had to force the government to scrap its air quality plans and start again.

    ...WWF and the Angling trust recently filed for a judicial review against the government for failing to meet its statutory obligations towards Nature 2000 sites under the Water Framework Directive

    ...and as illustrated by the State of Birds publication yesterday, wildlife continues to decline.

    If the budget is squeezed further it is hard to see how the government could make good on its ambitious manifesto promises for the natural world. The sustained rhetoric about restoring the natural environment in a generation will increasingly seem incredible considering the growing mismatch between ambition and resources.

    What needs to be done?

    If the Government wants to stay true to its environmental commitments, over the next three weeks it is now faced with a simple choice: either re-think the budget decision or, if these cuts do have to go ahead, ring-fence spending within other departments for environmental protection.


  • Reforming wildlife law

    It seems like ages ago that the Law Commission consulted on its proposals for reforming wildlife management law.  But then it was back in August 2012!  After considerable deliberation and several postponements the Law Commission’s final report and accompanying Bill was published on Tuesday.

    The brief was to consolidate the varied laws that cover the control, exploitation and protection of wildlife species in England and Wales into one streamlined piece of legislation. Everything from egg collecting, game management, badgers, seals and poaching to licensing and criminal liability.  

    This was always going to be a complex task given the age of some of the legislation, and the need to ensure that we comply fully with our international obligations under the Nature Directives.  

    If you want a detailed analysis of its strengths and weaknesses including what we support and what we are concerned about, well I’m afraid you are going to have to wait.  Basically, it is big at 465 pages and 266 recommendations!  So we haven’t digested it all yet. 

    But we will and in doing so we will consider the pros and cons of what is being proposed and then respond to Defra accordingly.

    My colleague, Robin Wynde, has managed to skim-read the report and this is his initial assessment...

    "An initial look suggests this will be a curate’s egg of a report with some proposals that we will support, some that we will need to consider carefully and others that fall disappointingly short of what wildlife needs.

    For example, the proposal to protect roost sites of protected birds is a positive step.  The report also underlines the importance of licences not being issued to control birds when there are other satisfactory solutions.  However, the report also suggests opening up the use of licences to cover the, ill defined, ‘judicious use’ of birds, which would mean much more work for NE’s hard pressed licensing staff.

    The Law Commission makes the welcome recommendation that the ‘reverse burden of proof’ should be retained in relation to certain possession offences.  For example, if you have an egg collection the burden of proof is on you to show that it was taken legally rather than on the prosecution to show it was taken illegally.  Conversely, they do not support the introduction of ‘vicarious liability’ where an employer would be liable for wildlife crime by a person under their control.  This is despite originally consulting on such a proposal, similar to the law in Scotland, and the majority of consultation responses supporting such a proposal.  In this case they cite reverse burden of proof as being one of the reasons for rejection.  This was a golden opportunity to bring this aspect of the law in England and Wales up to the standard set north of the border.

    In addition to covering control, exploitation and protection from harm there is a fourth and vital role that wildlife law should play.  The Law Commission recognise in their introduction that the law has a role ‘to conserve wild animals and plants as a fundamental part of our common natural heritage and as integral components of complex ecosystems.’ I agree.  This review must do more than making the law less of a burden and easier to use for people.  The key test for the Law Commission's proposals should be what they will do for the conservation of wildlife?"

    Defra aspires to lead the world in environmental protection.  Responding positively to the Law Commission’s review and conservation proofing each and every proposal would be a start. 

    Of course, there is an argument that the most effective use of time for our politicians and civil servants at the moment would be to focus on implementing existing legislation.  This is essential as a response for nature and the 25 year plan to restore wildlife.

    At a time when the EU Directives are subject to review (with initial findings emerging yesterday - see here) and Defra is facing considerable budget cuts, one has to question the wisdom of embarking on a major exercise in consolidating legislation. 

    Yet, this is, as I say, a preliminary assessment and I shall return to this once we have all managed to assess the report in greater detail.

    In the meantime, I would be delighted to hear your views.