November, 2016

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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
  • For peat’s sake, let’s make Brexit work for nature

    I was delighted to be able to make a small contribution to the IUCN Peatland conference today.  Twenty years ago (with the help of some people at today’s conference) I compiled a report called “The Great SAC Race” – which included a shadow list of sites (especially peatlands) which we believed were worthy of protection under the EU Habitats and Species Directive - many of which were subsequently designated.  So, it was a little ironic that I had been asked to speak today about the implications of Brexit for peatlands.

    This is what I said...

    We live in a period of political, constitutional and economic uncertainty but some things remain constant...

    ...climate change remains the greatest threat to life on earth with an estimated 10% of the world’s species pushed to the brink of extinction with every degree centigrade rise in global temperatures (compared to pre-industrial averages)  BUT since the Paris climate agreement, we have the beginnings of a plan to prevent catastrophic climate change and an aspiration to stabilise temperatures at 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial averages.  What's more, the UK Government remains legally committed (through its UK Climate Change Act) to reflect this ambition and decarbonise the economy by 2050...

    ...nature remains in trouble as demonstrated by the recent State of Nature report and WWF's Living Planet Index.  Degradation of our natural 'assets' means we are eroding the services that nature gives to us for free BUT the nations of the world have agreed a plan to halt biodiversity loss through the Convention on Biological Diversity with 20 measurable targets to be achieved by 2020 (which are also reflected in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals)...

    ... governments across the UK have made their own political commitments to save nature, for example the Conservative Party won the Westminster General Election with a manifesto commitment to restore UK biodiversity within 25 years BUT there is a growing gap between political ambition and the measures available to restore nature...


    ... we remain a nation of nature-lovers as demonstrated by the millions of people who watch programmes like Autumnwatch, Springwatch and Planet Earth, and we continue to be inspired by the wonders of wildlife.

    All of this applies to our peatlands – the habitat for which the UK has global responsibility...

    ...80% of our peatlands remain damaged or modified, only 13% of blanket bog SSSIs and just 5% of lowland raised bog SSSIs in England are in favourable condition

    ...greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatlands in the UK is approximately to 16m tonnes of CO₂e which is more than the emissions that the UK has reduced since 1990

    ...successive assessments from government reports (such as the UK National Ecosystem Assessment) and committees (Natural Capital Committee and the Climate Change Adaptation Sub-Committee) have highlighted the importance of increasing efforts to restore our peatland assets

    ...for many, getting up close and personal with our peatlands is the best wildlife experience you can get. 

    RSPB Forsinard reserve, bog pool with Cotton grass, Sphagnum etc (Andy Hay,

    It is clear that it will not be possible to... 

    ...stay within the 1.5⁰C global temperature threshold without reducing emissions from land use and especially high carbon habitats like peatlands (which contribute c5% of global greenhouse gas emissions - equivalent to all emissions from air travel) Aichi target 11 (which obliges 17% of land to be well managed for wildlife by 2020) within the UK without an active programme of peatland restoration

    ...restore peatlands without a change a change in land management steered by the right mix of strong legal powers for protection and incentives for recovery

    And this is where the jeopardy and opportunity associated with Brexit comes in.

    In the run up to the referendum, we said that it would be safer for nature for the UK to remain part of the European Union.  We reached this conclusion by...

    ... interrogating the evidence which demonstrated the environmental benefits that EU laws had provided particularly through the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives yet also highlighted sectoral problems associated with agriculture and fisheries

    ...and asking (then assessing) both sides of the debate to say how they would honour their biodiversity commitments after the vote

    Yet, as we all know, just after 4 o'clock in the morning of Friday 24 June, it was announced that the UK had voted to leave the EU.  This triggered a changing of the guard at Westminster with a new Prime Minister and new Cabinet to oversee Brexit. 

    This is now our political reality.  Yet there remains great uncertainty about what it means for nature and this affects our response for peatlands.  To bring this to life, I shall channel my inner Donald Rumsfeld.

    There are some knowns...

    ...nothing changes until it changes which means that all EU laws apply until we leave

    ...article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will (subject to a parliamentary vote, probably) be triggered by the end of March 2017

    ...the UK will leave the EU two years later in 2019

    ...the proposed Great Repeal Bill will ‘save’ all EU laws (both those EU laws already transposed to domestic legislation, but also those EU regulations which do not require transposition into domestic law)

    ...EU funding agreements will be guaranteed (by the HMT) up to 2020, but

    ...the UK will not be able to access EU funds (such as Life, the only dedicated fund for wildlife) once it has left the EU

    ...manifesto commitments (including to biodiversity) and international obligations remain in place

    But there are also some known unknowns...

    ...we still have no clear idea of the future relationship between the UK and EU following Brexit

    ...we do not know how the UK will deal with EU legislation that is intimately linked to EU processes or institutions

    ...we do not know how or whether the UK will replace the enforcement powers and arbitration role provided by the EU

    ...we do not know what sort of settlement the UK Government and devolved nations will strike regarding future legal and policy regimes

    In the face of this uncertainty, environmental NGOs have joined forces to make the case that a vote to leave the EU was not a vote to weaken environmental protection, rather it is now a once in a generation opportunity to raise environmental standards UK.

    We are focusing on three main areas...

    ...maintaining or bolstering current levels of environmental protection whilst ensuring that the strong institutional arrangements for driving action are in place.  For peatlands, we would hope and expect that our statutory nature conservation agencies continue to work with landowners to improve the condition of peatlands and clamp down on unsustainable practices such as burning on deep peat soils

    ...ensuring new policies for agriculture and land use and for fisheries improve the environment alongside thriving farming and fisheries communities.  For peatlands, we would hope that more public money (perhaps by redirecting more of the current £3 billion annual public subsidy for agriculture) is available to drive restoration.

    ...consolidating the UK’s international leadership role in tackling global environmental challenges like climate change and global biodiversity loss.  For peatlands, as we are one of the 25 nation’s which are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands, renewed vigour is needed to drive down emissions from degraded peat soils.  This is why I was delighted to hear Biodiversity Minister Thérèse Coffey announce that that some of the new Defra £100m available for capital projects will be applied to peatland restoration.

    The good news is, that we know from our own experience, that it is possible to turn things around and restore habitats like peatlands.  From the Flow Country to the Caingorms, and Peak District to the Pennines, peatland partnership projects have shown what can be achieved. 

    These examples, coupled with the drive provided by the excellent IUCN UK Peatlands Programme, give us confidence that we can create a different future, where peatlands come back to life for wildlife and for people.  Yet, for this to happen, we must make Brexit work for nature.

  • The Autumn Statement: the calm before the storm?

    On a day when the Financial Times leads with a Climate Change story on an Arctic November heatwave, one might have hoped for a political response commensurate with the scale of the threat.   The autumn statement delivered by Chancellor Philip Hammond did not provide that but it was very different from the kind of statements we have become used to.

    Last week the Environmental Audit Committee released a new report on the Treasury’s record on the environment. They were concerned about the Treasury’s tendency to make unilateral decisions that affect the environment without appropriate scrutiny or transparency. In addition they called for more action on climate change to match the commitment established through the UK Government’s ratification of the Paris climate agreement.  

    2015 Climate March (credit Nick Cunard

    As a contribution to the debate, the RSPB co-authored a Green Alliance report asking the Treasury to take action (on heating, transport and power) to develop a low carbon economy and stimulate environmentally sustainable growth.

    What we saw from the new Chancellor was an open and honest appraisal of where the country is economically, the challenges faced and how he hopes to deal with them. Brexit has clearly created a great deal of uncertainty and along with low productivity the UK’s tax receipts are not as healthy as they might be for the fastest growing developed economy. 

    Philip Hammond’s emphasis on infrastructure and research could be a much needed spur if directed at low carbon development in the right place ie away from sensitive wildlife sites and if there is genuine recognition of the value of green infrastructure to people.  Money for Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles development is a step in the right direction. The Carbon Floor Price, thought to be on the chopping block, was instead frozen. However the Levy Control Framework (LCF), which supports low carbon energy development, still has an uncertain future.

    The statement said that a decision on the LCF beyond 2020 will come in spring. What's more, I hope and expect that Defra officials, as they scope the 25 year environment plan, are working shoulder to shoulder with Treasury officials to come up with a tangible plan to resource the ambition to restore biodiversity in a generation.

    We heard today that this is to be the last of the autumn statements.  In future there will be just one major intervention a year designed to provide more stability for business.  So, in that spirit we will look to spring for the new Chancellor to make his mark – to demonstrate how he will drive a low carbon economy and invest in the nation's natural capital.

  • More good news for a Friday: announcement of Tristan da Cunha Marine Discovery Expedition, January-February 2017

    I am delighted to welcome back my colleague, Jonathan Hall (who heads our work in the UK Overseas Territories), to report on a new expedition designed to improve the protection of the marine environment around Tristan da Cunha.  


    We are very excited to announce that in January next year, the RSPB, Tristan da Cunha Government and the National Geographic Pristine Seas team will be conducting a joint 5-week marine discovery expedition to Tristan da Cunha archipelago, the UK Overseas Territory situated in the South Atlantic Ocean.

    At least seven days sailing from Cape Town (with fair winds and calm seas, potentially many more if the roaring forties live up to their reputation), Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited island in the world. The four main islands in the group are the peaks of gigantic underwater volcanoes which reach up from the abyssal plain. Tristan erupted as recently as 1961. Above water, their hard-to-access slopes are breathtaking and even give rise to the name of “Inaccessible Island”.

    The islands provide vital nesting sites for many endemic albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels as well as some truly unique landbirds, whilst their shores are lined with seals and penguins.

    Atlantic Yellow-nosed albatross, endemic to the Tristan group

    Underwater, they are home to massive kelp forests and the unique lobster population upon which the Tristan da Cunha community depends via its MSC-certified sustainable lobster fishery. Further out to sea, these vast rich waters are still almost entirely unknown, but hold numerous seamounts and reports of important whale, dolphin, shark and tuna populations.

    With a world-leading science team, underwater film-makers, deep-diving cameras, satellite trackers, a terrestrial film crew, expert local knowledge and plenty of places which no human eye has ever investigated before, we’re hoping to discover new species and records for Tristan, as well as to showcase the archipelago’s wildlife treasures to the world!

    The expedition will help the Tristan community fulfil its ambition of establishing a regime for protecting the waters across the entire Tristan da Cunha Exclusive Economic Zone by 2020. This will be driven by the community, be science-led, and will meet both local economic and conservation needs. It will have the full financial support of the UK for management and enforcement, as part of the UK Government’s world-leading ‘Blue Belt’ commitment.

    Most excitingly, the resulting protections will cover more than three quarters of a million square kilometres of rich ocean and also surround Gough Island World Heritage Site, described by the IUCN as ‘arguably the most important seabird island in the world’.

    We’re very excited about this new partnership. If you would like to hear more as the work unfolds, please make sure to check in to our ‘Saving Special Places’ blog in January & February for updates, photos and short films from this cutting-edge expedition.