February, 2016

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
  • Take a leap for the cuckoo and for all nature

    I don't like February.  It is a month synonymous with cold, grey days, man-flu and the end of Arsenal's title ambitions.  To make matters worse, this year, February is one day longer.  

    To cheer myself up, I have been reading Nick Davies' wonderful book about the harbinger of spring, the cuckoo (see here).  Drawing on thirty years of research he describes the cuckoo's curious breeding habits and meticulously deciphers how the cuckoo and those species whose nests are parasitised have evolved.  

    Reading about Nick's time on Wicken Fen is to be transported forward to the sights and sounds of spring and summer; seasons that are just round the corner but seemingly out of reach as February drags on.  

    To many of us the cuckoo and its breeding habits are easy to take for granted.  Last year, I enjoyed shocking a group of 90 kids when I gave a talk my daughter's year group on migration. They didn't seem particularly surprised by the scale and extent of bird migration (brilliantly brought to life for example by BTO's tracking research here), but jaws gratifyingly dropped when I showed them the image below of a newly hatched cuckoo chick ejecting reed warbler eggs from nest. 

    Mike Richards, rspb-images-com

    I hope that all these children get to hear, even if they don't ever see a cuckoo.  

    Yet, this is a species, like many of our summer migrants that have experienced massive declines: recent figures suggest that populations of nearly half of our summer migrants have declined in the last three decades. Alarmingly, one in ten of Europe's migratory species is now considered to be of global conservation priority.  The last decade has seen declines of between 37 - 66% in the UK breeding populations of the cuckoo, spotted flycatcher, turtle dove, nightingale and wood warbler.

    The RSPB is giving more attention to this group of species and has over the past few years developed our Birds without Borders programme (see here).  Working with many partners (especially through Birdlife International) we are trying to understand the reasons for their decline but also to do something about it here in the UK on their breeding grounds but also on migration and in their wintering grounds.  

    As Nick Davies writes at the end of his book...

    "...the current scale and pace of change is unprecedented, involving climate change, habitat destruction and fragmentation, ever more intensive farming and fishing, urbanisation, and a new biotic environment of invasive species, pathogens and parasites.  When I was a young boy, I thought there would always be cuckoos calling to greet the spring, and swifts would forever scythe the skies on hot summer days.  But the alarming declines in populations of these and many other familiar species mean that our generation will surely be the last to take the natural world for granted."

    We want people to take cuckoo and the wonders of nature for granted.  

    To do that, we need transformational change in the way that we humans interact with the natural world.

    So, as it's a leap year, why not promise to do something transformational to mark 29 February.  

    As luck would have it, tomorrow we shall be having a small celebration to mark the operation of our wind turbine at the Lodge - a project that will deliver electricity equivalent to half of the RSPB's requirements for all 127 of our sites.

    And, tomorrow I shall also promise to show my daughter a cuckoo this year.  The more contact with the natural world young people have, the more they will grow to cherish it.  And if they cherish it, then they'll fight for it.

    So, go on, take a leap for the cuckoo and for all nature.

    John Bridges (rspb-images.com)

  • Back from the Brink: Saving England’s Most Threatened Species

    On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of sitting in the room with colleagues from a variety of conservation organisations to discuss progress with developing a game-changing project to bring species back from the brink of extinction in England.

    It’s always nice to have the opportunity to think big, especially amongst friends.  It’s even more motivating to have plans to turn big ideas into practical projects.

    Black-tailed Godwits by Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com)

    The RSPB has joined forces with Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Natural England and Plantlife to save 20 species from extinction, whilst helping populations of another 118 move along their recovery curve* from emergency care to steady state.

    Our current approach while good is clearly insufficient so these organisations have come together to think and act differently.  Late last year, we were delighted to be awarded a development grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (see here) and work has begun in earnest to turn ambition into reality.

    The context for this work is that over 900 of our plant and animal species are in need of help, with 140 of these in danger of being lost now unless we act urgently.   The UK Government’s own data (see below) shows that we have a major challenge to fulfil political and legal commitments to recover threatened species.


    The good news is that specialists from a wide range of NGOs and government agencies have been developing a list of actions to prevent species going extinct. This work, co-ordinated through the brilliantly named STAG (Species Technical Advisory Group), has ensured the work is endorsed by the whole environment sector.

    You may remember that the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, 2006, lists our most threatened species in Section 41.  140 are at considered to have a high risk of extinction within England, with 60 considered likely to be extinct by 2020. Over the last year, STAG and the Back from the Brink partners have led a review of actions required to refine priorities, actions and costings. These findings form the basis of the Back from the Brink programme. 

    There is one additional part of the programme and that is our intent to encourage thousands of people to get involved.  We want to translate people's latent love for wildlife into practical action.  

    Together, through this partnership and involvement of local communities we want to transform the places where these endangered species live. And, after this collaboration, not only do we want to ensure sustinable management of these places, but we also we intend to share our experiences so that threatened species thrive in other landscapes.


    Shrill carder bee image courtesy of Bob Gomes

    By working together, we will...

    ...change the way woodlands are managed, clearing more open spaces or coppicing trees regularly to help a butterfly

    ...create scarified areas in grassland to help specific plants germinate new seedlings more effectively

    ...improve habitats by planting different wild flower mixes for invertebrates

    ...extend habitats by recreating lost areas

    ...translocate a species from where it flourishes to a new suitable site

    ...provide digital information available to all with a plan for promoting our website and apps

    ...produce pictures, information, stories and progress reports from staff, volunteers, visitors and the many people inspired by wildlife, so there’s always something new to read and always something to learn

    ...give local communities to chance to visit and enjoy the site and its very special species

    ...monitor what we are doing so we know how much progress we are making and to help us work even more effectively. The learning from this cross-sector collaboration will also help the partners to work better together in the future. 

    In all, we plan to develop seven landscape-scale projects complemented by 13 single species projects, targeting species which will benefit most from specialist and focused efforts, including Black-tailed Godwit, Field Cricket, Grey Long-eared Bat, Little Whirlpool Ram’s Horn Snail, Shrill Carder Bee, White-clawed Crayfish and Willow Tit. These species require targeted action at an individual level to secure their future.

    It’s exciting stuff and I look forward to the day when I can report positive news about these species.

    *The ‘recovery curve’ is a simple means of representing the way we seek to restore the favourable status of a species.

  • How to compete for nature

    The EU referendum has dominated the headlines over the past week and this looks set to continue right up to 23 June.  This triggers two thoughts.  First, journalists will need different angles to keep folk interested and so the environmental consequences of remaining of leaving the EU should (eventually) get decent coverage.  Second, I have a feeling that many will tire of the EU debate pretty quickly. 

    So I promise to help with the former and try to avoid the latter.

    Despite the wall to wall news coverage, one aspect of the EU reform deal secured by the Prime Minister (here) that has to date attracted little media attention is arguably the most important from an environmental perspective. 

    This is the one focussed on enhancing the EU’s economic ‘competitiveness’ by reducing ‘red tape’. Specifically, the deal includes a commitment to introducing targets for reducing the total cost of EU regulation to business, similar to the targets that were recently introduced in the UK.

    Within the UK and the EU, a more competitive economy is interpreted as key to delivering more growth and jobs.

    In that context, it is sometimes argued that, by placing restrictions on what businesses can and cannot do, EU regulations (including those protecting the environment) put EU firms at a disadvantage compared to their non-EU competitors (at least to the extent that these competitors face less stringent rules). However, an alternative view is that such regulations actually promote environmentally-friendly innovation and protect the ‘natural capital’ assets that underpin the economy as whole. Meaning that they can be good for people, for business, and for nature too.

    This latter view has come to the fore in the review of the EU Nature Directives. Many businesses have supported them, in part because they provide common standards across the EU thereby providing a level playing field, but also because they deliver demonstrable benefits for people and nature too.

    Recent studies have shown that the natural environment supports almost 750,000 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) jobs and over £27.5 billion of economic output across the UK (photo credit: Ben Hall rspb-images.com)

    A more ‘competitive’ economy should not mean weaker environmental safeguards; the notion that we can only ‘compete’ globally by trashing our environment is one to which few economists should give much credence.

    To be clear, it is not that I don’t see the argument that reducing so-called ‘unnecessary regulatory burdens’ on business is important;  making sure that our laws are properly enforced and that they do not impose any unnecessary costs on business is eminently sensible. But, the drive to reduce regulatory ‘burdens’ could result in unintended consequences including for nature.

    As highlighted by the UK Environmental Audit Committee in their report on the subject in late 2014, regulation is “the essential underpinning of environmental protection”.  What's more, the UK Government's own report suggests that the benefits provided by Defra's stock of environmental regulations (which includes EU environmental regulations) are estimated to outweigh costs at least 3:1 and for biodiversity regulations 7:1 (see here).

    So, we need to ensure that any approach that seeks to review and potentially revise existing laws is based on the best available evidence as to what works (or doesn’t work), why (or why not), and for whom; we need a balanced approach that looks not only at short-term costs to business but also long-term benefits to the economy, the environment, and wider society. Setting arbitrary targets to reduce regulation without any proper scrutiny of what this might mean for the protections that such laws provide could be an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

    Whatever the result of the referendum, the ‘competitiveness’ and 'better regulation' agendas will continue to have an important impact on the ways in which we protect the natural environment in this country.

    We will be keeping a close eye on what happens next in this and other aspects of the EU debate.  As promised yesterday, in the run up to the referendum I shall continue to try to separate fact from fiction but I promise not to bore you on the subject.  Well, I’ll try...