March, 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
  • UK membership of the EU: what it means for wildlife and what might happen if we leave

    Yesterday, I spoke at an event in Manchester on the UK in the EU.  It was an opportunity to inject an environmental dimension (see here) into the EU Referendum debate in the city where the result will be announced  on 24 June.

    My starting point was to say that the RSPB had always believed in international action: if we wanted to save just one species from extinction - say turtle dove (which we to address its 78% decline in Europe since 1980 and 91% decline in the UK since 1985 - see here) - then we must be prepared to intervene across its flyway.  That means we must do what we can on its breeding grounds at home (where it is struggling to find enough food to rear it's chicks), during its migration (where it is vulnerable to unsustainable levels of hunting) and on its wintering grounds in West Africa (which is also experiencing changing land use).  

    This is why we invest in our Birdlife International partnership and support international agreements with enforceable governance arrangements.

    Today, the theme continues with the publication of a report (see here) written by the Institute for European Environmental Policy jointly commissioned last year by the RSPB, WWF and the Wildlife Trusts.  We are keen to cut through the emotion of the debate and try to present the evidence about the environmental impact of our membership and potential consequences of the UK leaving the EU.

    IEEP is very well placed to comment, given that it has 40 years of experience of navigating EU policy on the environment, agriculture and fisheries.  The report will be discussed by both sides at an event today in London and I encourage you to read what it says.

    David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves

    The context for those that care about nature, is that our shared wildlife is in trouble, that the pressures are growing and that we need a response that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge.  The fact that there are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than there were 30 years ago (see here) clearly suggests that not everything is working perfectly for nature although we do know that European legislation designed to restore nature is working for some species (see here).

    So, we are keen to know whether we are better placed to tackle these problems from within the EU or outside.

    The findings of the report are as follows...

    "...Membership of the EU has had, and continues to have, a significant positive impact on environmental outcomes in the UK as well as other parts of Europe, with cleaner air, water and oceans than otherwise could be expected although significant concerns remain around some sectoral policies (especially for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.

    ...This is because of a range of legislative, funding and other measures with the potential to work in combination. EU environmental legislation is backed up by a hard legal implementation requirement of a kind that is rarely present in international agreements on the environment; and which is more convincingly long-lasting, and less subject to policy risk, than national legislation.

    ...Complete departure from the EU (Brexit Scenario 2) would create identifiable and substantial risks to future UK environmental ambition and outcomes. It would exclude the UK from decision making on EU law and there would be a risk that environmental standards could be lowered to seek competitive advantage outside the EU trading bloc.

    ...Departure from the EU whilst retaining membership of the EEA (Brexit Scenario 1) would lessen these risks, as most EU environmental law would continue to apply. However, there would be significant concerns related to nature conservation and bathing water, as well as to agriculture and fisheries policy. In addition, the UK would lose most of its influence on EU environment and climate policies.

    ...Under both exit scenarios, significant tensions would be created in relation to areas of policymaking where responsibility is devolved to the governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but where a broadly similar approach has been required as a result of EU membership, including environmental protection, agriculture, and fisheries.

    ...The uncertainty and period of prolonged negotiation on many fronts caused by a UK decision to leave would, itself, create significant risks both for environmental standards and for the green investment needed to improve the UK's long-term environmental performance."

    The uncertainty about UK withdrawal from the EU is neatly summarised by table on page 8 of the report (and shown below).  Uncertainty breeds anxiety which is why we think it is important that voters in the Referendum are told what those advocating either position would do to improve the prospects for wildlife.  We shall think about the best way of eliciting this information but for now, I encourage you to read the report and let me know what you think.

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • What’s driving change in the state of nature? A focus on climate change

    In this second blog about the pressures on nature paper published yesterday (here), I move from farming to climate change.

    The new analysis shows that climate change is already the second biggest factor affecting wildlife across the UK. Yet the detail may be a surprise to some – climate change seems to be benefiting as many, if not slightly more, of our UK species than it is disadvantaging – hence this headline in today’s Daily Telegraph “Climate change has helped more species than it has harmed”.

    Scientific studies have repeatedly shown climate change to be a major problem for wildlife: so what is going on here?  

    It’s worth noting that climate change is the factor assessed to have the second biggest negative impact on the 400 species studied (after agriculture, which is clearly the most important driver).   So that is an important message: alongside whatever benefits it may bring, climate change is already causing serious negative impacts on some of our wildlife.

    But why would climate change actually benefit some of our other species?  The paper identifies climate change as having a larger positive impact on the UK’s wildlife than any other driver. Actually, there are a few reasons.

    Firstly, let’s consider the UK’s geographical position in the north-west of Europe.  Here, we have more species that are at the northern edge of their distribution, or range, and fewer that are near their southern limit.  We’d expect a warming climate to enable those species at their northern range edge to expand north – and that is exactly what we are seeing.  However, we are not seeing so many species ‘drop-off’ the southern end of their range, simply because we have fewer of these species.  We are however seeing some changes in hillier and mountainous regions, with some uplands species such as the mountain ringlet butterfly seeming to be retreating up the hill – a lower altitude limit acting similarly to a southern latitude limit in a warming climate. 

    Mountain ringlet by Oliver Smart (rspb-images.com)

    This picture is further complicated by the fact that we are also seeing that species seem to be moving forward at their leading, northern range edge more quickly than species retreat from their southern, trailing edge.  Part of this comes down to how we record change – it only takes a few individuals to move north for us to register a range expansion, whereas an entire population has to vanish from an area before we register a range retreat.  So we anticipate seeing the tail-end, negative impacts increasing over time.

    Then secondly there’s the exciting arrival of species unfamiliar in Britain – for example the recent arrival and successful breeding of black-winged stilts and great white egrets.  This leads us to consider our wider role in the stewardship of western Europe’s wildlife.  At this larger geographical scale, many of these north-advancing species also have the tail end of their range in southern Europe.  For Dartford warblers, for instance, we’re seeing exactly what we might expect: range expansion across England, but with larger declines across Spain (see here).  Europe faces much more severe future climate change than here in the UK, particularly in the south, so our role will grow as a refuge for European wildlife escaping changing climatic conditions in their current range.  You could say that the UK can be seen as an ark for many species affected by climate change.

    And thirdly, it is worth remembering that we are still in the early days of climate change.  The impact on our wildlife has only been apparent for around 30 years: we are witnessing the first signs of change, and there’s a good deal more to come.  For a world with 3°Celsius average global temperature rise, Europe’s breeding birds are expected to need to shift location by an average of nearly 550 km north-east to stay within suitable climate conditions. What’s worse is that there will be less space for them overall: the extent of those suitable climate conditions is projected to decrease by 20%.  And of course, each species will also need appropriate habitat in those new areas of climate suitability, as well the ability to get there –consider the dispersal challenge for a sand lizard that already finds it tricky to cross a road.  

    So let’s welcome whatever benefits climate change brings for the UK’s wildlife.  But we mustn’t let this cloud our overall view of climate change and the devastation that it could bring to people and wildlife. 

    This is why the RSPB will continue to work with others to help wildlife become more resilient and adapt to climate change whilst also pressing governments across the UK to meet their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    You can read more about our work on climate change here.

  • What’s driving change in the state of nature? A focus on farming

    Cast your mind back to May 2013. Summer was just beginning and I had the pleasure of being at the stunning Natural History Museum in London, with colleagues from across the nature conservation sector, government and business, listening to an impassioned speech from David Attenborough. This was the launch of our sector’s own State of Nature report (see here).

    The report was an important milestone. Twenty-five organisations came together, contributed data and expertise, and presented some shocking statistics about the fate of the UK’s wildlife. Several of these stats have been widely cited since, including the top headline that 60% of species have declined in the past 50 years.

    The report was well received, but prompted some valid questions from commentators, including what had caused these declines.  For the past couple of years, we’ve been working with our partners to help answer this.

    Today, a paper exploring the pressures that led to those declines has been published in the journal PLOS ONE by a subset of the same partners. You can read the paper in full here.

    The study looked at a comprehensive range of pressures, both positive and negative, on a sample of 400 species of plants and animals and ranked the significance of the different drivers of change.

    This sort of analysis is incredibly useful as it helps us work out where we (and I mean all of us) should be investing effort.  Those within government should be interested in the policy implications of this report, businesses can use this to identify how their practice may need to evolve, and those in civil society can work out the most important issues for which they should be using their voice for nature.

    Through our study, we found that that intensive management of agricultural land and climatic change have had the greatest impact on wildlife since 1970. In a blog post tomorrow, I’ll focus on the climate issue in more detail. Today, I’m going to focus on farming.

    Andy Hay's image of RSPB Hope Farm where we have demonstrated that it is possible to grow food profitably and recover farmland birds

    Farming practices have changed dramatically since 1970, such as a change from spring- to autumn-sown crops, losses of hedgerows and farm ponds, and use of novel pesticides and herbicides.  These changes have had overwhelmingly negative impacts across many groups of animals and plants – including butterflies, beetles, bees, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and plants.  Indeed agriculture has also been identified as the biggest pressure on the world's threatened birds by BirdLife International (see here).

    Yet with c75% of UK land being farmed, and the clear impacts of farming practice on wildlife, the UK’s farmers are in a unique position to reverse wildlife declines and secure a brighter future for countless species of plants and animals.

    Farmers up and down the UK are bucking the downward trend, by taking targeted action to benefit wildlife on their farms. As an organisation we are lucky enough to work with numerous passionate farmers committed to seeing wildlife thrive on their farms.  Locally, these actions have noticeable effects, but the sad truth is that current effort is inadequate.  Reversing national declines will require action by many more farmers and that inevitably will mean a change to the current policy and regulatory framework.

    Fortunately, financial support is available to help farmers take action for wildlife. Government schemes to support wildlife-friendly farming (called agri-environment schemes) are in place across the UK.  In England, the new scheme launches for its second year this week – applications are open for the new Countryside Stewardship scheme until the end of September, but farmers interested in the higher-tier (akin to the old Higher Level Scheme) will need to get in touch with Natural England in the next couple of weeks.  Whilst it hit a few snags in its first year, I'm confident that, with the support of farmers, the new scheme will provide real benefits for nature.  In fact, the impact of these schemes have increased since they were first piloted in the mid 1980s.

    The funds to support these schemes ultimately come from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.  The CAP (as I have explained on many occasions for example here), is a behemoth of a policy and financial instrument, absorbing 40% of the EU budget, or €1 billion per week. It’s impact on Europe’s environment are complicated but (as illustrated in the IEEP report a fortnight ago - here) widely perceived to be negative overall, despite the localised promise shown by agri-environment schemes.

    With the referendum of the UK’s membership of the EU taking place this June, the future of agri-environment schemes in the UK is far from certain.  Whatever happens – remain or leave – fundamental reform of agricultural policy to ensure greater financial support for wildlife-friendly farming will be a vital next step.  Indeed, CAP reform was a core component of our Response for Nature (here) which has formed the basis of our engagement with government plans for nature across the UK.

    We need politicians across the EU to acknowledge that agriculture is the key driver of biodiversity decline and grasp the nettle on CAP reform.  Only then will farmers across the EU secure the long-term support they need to take widespread action for wildlife.