August, 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
  • 100,000 people call for a ban on driven grouse shooting

    This is a guest blog by Jeff Knott, Head of Nature Policy marking the enormous achievement  by the campaign to ban grouse shooting.

    Over 100,000 people have now signed this petition to ban driven grouse shooting. This is a huge achievement from everyone involved, including of course the petitions creator, my former boss, Mark Avery.

    What makes it all the more impressive is that this is a genuine grassroots movement. It’s not the result of a coordinated campaign by a big conservation organisation. Its support has grown organically, as groups of people have flocked to its message.

    We have not called for a ban, our position is to press reform through licensing but we are under no illusion ... this is a spectacular achievement this is a powerful message that will not be ignored.

    So what happens next? Well, having secured the magic 100,000 signatures, something only a tiny handful of petitions manage, there will be a parliamentary debate on the issue.

    The RSPB will actively promote this to MPs, encouraging them to attend the debate and emphasising why change is vital. We don’t believe a ban is inevitable, so in the briefing, we will highlight our view that licensing is the best way to secure these changes and talk about why this approach could work. The best way for law-abiding shoots to avoid a future ban, is to embrace licensing and deliver meaningful change.

    We will also ask our supporters to write to their MPs, asking them to attend the debate and speak positively.

    We should all be realistic. This debate is unlikely to lead to an immediate change. I’d be amazed if either a ban or licensing was introduced off the back of it. However, it can still make a huge positive contribution to moving the debate forward. 100,000 signatures for change, backed by a strong debate where the necessity and options are clearly set out can be a major turning point in the fight for our hen harriers and our uplands.

    That fight will need to go on and we will of course continue to be part of it, as I’m sure everyone who signed this petition will too. This isn’t the end, but it might be the beginning of the end.

    So congratulations to everyone involved in the petition. Now let’s work together to make the debate a success and then to secure the changes we need to see.

  • The effect of toxic lead on duck populations in the UK

    On the day our new Prime Minister took over, the then Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss announced that she would not accept the advice given by the expert Lead Ammunition Group (LAG), set up by Defra, that she should phase out the use of toxic lead ammunition for sport shooting and replace it with readily available non-toxic alternatives.  The RSPB thinks that this decision is regrettable because many birds die in the UK every year when they swallow lead ammunition. Long-running attempts to reduce this toll by a partial ban on its use in wetlands have been disregarded by many shooters and have not worked, as Ms Truss accepts. I have asked one of my colleagues, Professor Rhys Green, who is a member of Lead Ammunition Group and has published widely on the effects of lead, to offer his perspective on this decision and describe results from a newly-published paper of which he is a co-author.

    One of the reasons the Secretary of State gave for rejecting the LAG’s advice was that their report did not provide direct evidence of an impact on bird numbers in England of poisoning by lead ammunition.  Whether this assertion is correct or not is debatable. The report provides plenty of evidence of impacts in England that would be likely to have a population-level effects and such impacts have been documented in other countries where lead ammunition is used. However, no detailed research on population-level effects on birds in England or the UK had been published when the LAG’s report was finalised, so Defra took absence of evidence to be evidence of absence.  However, a peer-reviewed scientific paper providing evidence of such effects on duck populations in the UK had already been accepted for publication in the international journal Ibis at the time. Defra had been informed about the details of the research by the LAG two months earlier and had a copy of the accepted paper.  That paper has now been published online and is free-to-view here.

    The study analysed systematic annual counts of wintering ducks in the UK over a 40-year period. It compared the average rates at which populations of different duck species have changed over time with species differences in their tendency to swallow spent lead gunshot, which they find in mud and eat in mistake for food or grit.  These differences between species are consistent in different countries, and even on different continents, and seem to be linked to the birds’ diet and the way they feed.  Duck species like gadwall that feed mainly on leaves take in fine grit particles and rarely swallow gunshot, but other species like pintail that often eat large seeds also take in large particles of grit to help grind up their food. These species, especially the pintail and pochard, but also the much commoner mallard, also often swallow gunshot pellets, which are of similar size to the seeds and grit they are seeking.  The new study found that populations of species with a propensity to swallow gunshot have been declining whilst those that rarely swallow gunshot have been increasing. Some would argue that this pattern is just a coincidence, even though it is a strikingly close relationship.  However, the study also goes on to estimate how large the differences among species in the annual death rate caused by lead poisoning should be, based upon data on the proportion of dead birds with gunshot in their gizzard. This shows that the size of the species differences in population trend are pretty close to what would be expected if they were caused solely by differences in levels of lead poisoning.  Therefore these results constitute correlative evidence that lead poisoning is causing population-level effects on birds in the UK and indicate that it alone may be  sufficient to have caused the marked population declines of some duck species.  Of these, the pochard is of special concern because it has declined so much that it is now listed by IUCN as globally threatened.

    We know that a previous attempt to remove unnecessary lead from the environment in England paid off because government action to achieve it  had a population-level on an iconic bird species in England. After much unjustified protest about a supposed lack of definitive scientific evidence about adverse effects on wildlife, anglers were prevented from using lead weights for fishing in 1987.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it? On that occasion, the restrictions on the use of lead were respected, lead poisoning of mute swans decreased dramatically and their populations increased.

    I think that the huge amount of evidence that lead ammunition poses an easily avoidable hazard to the health of wildlife and people already available in the LAG report and its annexes should have been sufficient to convince Defra to phase out its use.   That said, the one evidence gap the previous Secretary of State appears to have focussed on, a lack of population-level impact on birds, has now been plugged. This now presents an even clearer case for change and we trust the new Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, will take the opportunity for progress which her predecessor neglected.

    The full report to Defra by the Lead Ammunition Group can be seen here.

  • In praise of the National Trust for making the case for radical reform of farming policy

    I am wrapping a few things up before heading off on holiday tomorrow to our family hut on the Northumberland coast (via RSPB Saltholme to help celebrate Hen Harrier Day).

    Before I go, I wanted to reflect on the great intervention by National Trust on the future of agriculture and the environment this week.  This received good media coverage including the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News.   

    The biggest membership organisation in the UK has put nature front and centre in its response to the EU referendum outcome and I am delighted.

    In a speech to Countryfile Live, the Trust’s Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh argued for fundamental reform to agriculture policy if we are to restore nature across the four countries of the UK, rather than just manage its decline.   Helen outlined six principles for the future of farming which we wholeheartedly support.

    Andy Hay's image of stone-curlew: a species dependent on willing landowners and well funded wildlife friendly farming schemes

    Many have welcomed the debate.  Predictably perhaps, some have chosen to frame what Helen said as out of touch, as the ‘same old same old’ from farmer bashing conservationists. These letters in the Telegraph give a bit of a taste. They remind me of a colleague being asked by a farmer, “do these people want feeding?”

    But this sort of response totally misinterprets what the National Trust is saying.

    If you read Helen’s speech, she was clear that we need to look forward - not look backward with a nostalgia for what was, but towards a ‘21st century version’ of a world rich in nature. She was clear that the future of farming and the environment is intimately linked, with the former depending to a great extent on the sustainable stewardship of the latter. Few would deny that things are massively out of kilter as things stand, and the status quo is simply not sustainable.

    Yet whenever organisations like the National Trust get involved in this debate, and make the case that policy needs to drive positive change for farmers and nature, some try to shut them up by the all too familiar, yet stale, dichotomous arguments of ‘nature vs food’. Everything we have done in the last decade or so (e.g. at Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire and through our work with thousands of wildlife-friendly farmers) has been to try and demonstrate that this is false dichotomy; that we can indeed have our cake and eat it.

    A healthy crop at RSPB Hope Farm where we have increase farmland birds by >200% while maintaining yield

    No one would deny that the maintenance of food security is one of any government’s most important jobs. What we (within the conservation and progressive farming sector) are calling for is a move away from a transparently bonkers system, where we soak the countryside in public money with no real aim or strategy, and get very little in return.

    It’s completely reasonable to suggest that, after decades of environmental degradation, more of the public support that goes to agriculture should be focused on the restoration of the environment. This should be coupled with steps that enable farmers to get better value out of the supply chain, breaking the subsidy dependence that has trapped so many in the industry for so long.  

    And yes, the Government should support innovation in agriculture. No one is saying that this isn’t a legitimate public policy goal. But the current system does not do this. To defend such a transparent waste of public money is not politically, financially or environmentally tenable, and attempts to do so will only lead the farming industry into a political cul-de-sac.

    What the National Trust was doing this week was to get on the front foot, and make the positive case for why and how we should support agriculture and land management in a post-Brexit world. Many farmers will recognise this, and understand that in a situation where spending on farming is set against the NHS and schools, we will all need to work much harder to demonstrate the added value taxpayers get beyond what they pay for as consumers.

    So for making the positive case, and for getting the post-Brexit debate off to a constructive start, I say ‘congratulations to the National Trust’.

    In the autumn, I look forward to joining forces with the Trust and many others with interests in food, farming and nature conservation to make the case for a new land management policy fit for the 21st century.

    For now though, I’m off on holiday.  Enjoy the rest of the summer.