November, 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
  • Improving the environmental condition of our uplands: planning the next steps

    It is now over a week since the Westminster Hall parliamentary debate on the future of driven grouse shooting. I thought it would be appropriate to offer a further perspective on what the RSPB plans to do next to improve the environmental conditions of the uplands.

    As many others have written, it was a deeply frustrating debate – especially to the 123,000 that called for a ban and of course those seeking reform. Our initial reaction tried to pick out some positives, but that was a real challenge. Clearly there is widespread opposition from within the driven grouse shooting community to any real reform. I think that the positioning by a majority of MPs was perhaps inevitable as it was the first proper outing of the issue in parliament. Imagine a parliamentary debate on climate change 20 years ago with lobbyists peddling their various views to MPs. 

    Yet, my view is that if pressure for reform remains then the quality of the parliamentary debate will inevitably improve as people won't be able to brazenly ignore the facts like some did on Monday.

    Geltsdale by Chris Gomersall (rspb.images.com)

    When more crimes get into the public domain it will be harder for MPs to turn a blind eye. We therefore have no intention of changing our current approach of working with local groups to deliver vital monitoring and surveillance through our Life project, and work with the police to investigate crimes. The team do a fantastic job in extremely difficult circumstances.

    That is why, this week, we are raising awareness of the fate of the hen harrier Rowan, found dead in Cumbria in October, and which appears to have been shot. The fate of this bird graphically illustrates that illegal killing of hen harriers is ongoing, contrary to the impression given by some MPs in the Westminster Hall debate.

    I think change will come if we can find creative and novel ways of maintaining the political and public profile of our concerns about the environmental impact of driven grouse shooting. This is not a party political issue – I am convinced that all parties want the law enforced and many want to see improved standards of land management associated with grouse shooting. 

    Clearly legislation is needed, as voluntary approaches have proved wholly inadequate, and Westminster is the legislature for England. That means a cross-party approach will be needed.

    We will continue to keep up the pressure on these issues, and will also be talking with others to determine how best to secure reform. 

    In summary, we remain appalled by the environmental condition of the uplands and the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey. Our work in the uplands remains an important strategic priority for the RSPB – we are not going to go away. We believe that licensing is the way to deliver substantial change to the way our uplands are managed and we intend to keep the pressure on to achieve that. The irony is that commitment to reform and serious discussion about licensing is the shooting industry’s best insurance against growing calls for a ban.

    In Scotland, I remain hopeful that tangible reform is possible (partly in response to a petition on gamebird licensing which we supported). If change does happens north of the border, it will make it that much harder for a Westminster Government to ignore the positive direction set out in Scotland.

    Our commitment is unwavering. But this won’t be a quick fight and we will take the time now to carefully consider what comes next, talking to all those with a stake in this issue.

    What do you think is the next key step for delivering reform of our uplands?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • 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...

    AND

    ... 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, rspb-images.com)

    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)

    ...meet 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 rspb-images.com)

    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.