July, 2017

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
  • Great or otherwise, the Repeal Bill is a big deal for nature

    The Repeal Bill has had a makeover: published tomorrow it has now dropped its less-than-humble adjective. But whether or not the Bill is indeed great, its importance for the environment is as monumental as it was three months ago, when the Government published its plans for the Bill alongside the triggering of Article 50. A report by the House of Commons library predicts that this Bill will be “one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK”.

    Over the last 44 years, EU and domestic laws to protect the environment have become increasingly intertwined, with EU laws playing the lead role in setting standards for, and providing the tools to achieve, the protection of our wildlife, air and water.

    The idea behind the Repeal Bill is to ‘roll over’ EU-derived laws into domestic law, such that the law will be the same on the day that we leave the EU as it was the day before – vital if we are to maintain  protection for the environment and the regulatory stability that businesses require.  

    In reality, it’s a lot more complicated than you might think, and, as I have highlighted in recent blogs , the potential risks to the environment are huge.

    Protect the Principles

    The Repeal Bill needs to carry over both the nitty-gritty detail of European directives and regulations, and the big-picture thinking which informs both their aims and application.  We’re particularly concerned about the EU’s over-arching environmental principles enshrined in European Treaties, such as the polluter pays and the precautionary principle.

    These common-sense principles underpin the European laws that protect our nature, air, water and seas – but unless explicitly translated into the Repeal Bill, may be lost.  So, even if the ‘rolling over’ of the detail of the individual laws was done to perfection, protection for the UK’s environment would be substantially watered-down if these vital principles are not also translated into domestic law.

    No weakening laws behind closed doors

    As EU laws are ‘rolled over’ into domestic law, the UK Government has plans to give its Ministers the power to amend the legislation as they go.  Some technical changes will be needed (for example, references to European agencies and institutions may need to be changed to new or existing domestic agencies and institutions), and it will be important that Ministers are able to make these changes to ensure that the roll-over process can be completed in time.

    But these so called ‘delegated powers’ must not be abused. If not sufficiently constrained, they could allow Ministers to make significant changes to the law - a role usually reserved for Parliament - to ensure that material changes to our laws are subjected to full democratic scrutiny. Such a power to amend laws behind closed doors could pose an unacceptable risk to the environment.

    It is crucial that any changes to the intent or scope of EU laws are made only through full democratic processes and are given full parliamentary scrutiny.

    Mind the Governance Gap

    Laws on paper are only as good as our ability to enforce them. They require good governance - and at present we rely on EU institutions to provide most of that too.   Those institutions provide guidance and funding, sets targets and monitors environmental progress to ensure things get done, monitors and polices compliance with our environmental laws, and can provides affordable access both to justice and remedy.  Leaving the EU will therefore leave us with a big ‘governance gap’.

    We’d like the UK Government to provide clarity on how they intend to fill the ‘governance gap’ left in the wake of Brexit – a particular challenge in the face of the sustained loss of independence, resources and expertise from the environmental agencies across all four countries of the UK, and at a time when access to justice in UK courts is being further restricted (see here). 

    Cross-border cooperation

    In all this, it’s vital to remember that our nature, air, water and seas are not constrained by national borders and therefore coordinated action to protect this shared environment is essential, from the quality of our sea water to the safety of our migratory species. However environmental matters are largely devolved and at this stage it is unclear how the Repeal Bill will impact on this.

    What is clear is that the four countries of the UK will need to work collaboratively together, and beyond UK borders, to ensure that high standards of environmental protection are maintained and that we are able to effectively address our cross-border environmental issues.

    Add your voice to ours

    The Repeal Bill is a crucial moment for environmental protection.  Please visit our Repeal Bill campaign page where you can email your MP to remind them of their crucial role in making sure our environment is protected throughout the Brexit process.

    You can find out more about the Repeal Bill and its impact on the environment in this Greener UK briefing.

  • Initial reaction to the Repeal Bill

    The publication of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (aka the Repeal Bill) today was the first real test of what leaving the EU will mean for the future of environmental protection in the UK.  

    While we are still digesting the implications of the proposed legislation, on first reading our conclusion is that, as currently drafted, it is inadequate.  

    If the UK Government’s wants to be a world leader in environmental protection it will have to match or bolster the safeguards provided by the existing European legislative and governance framework, which has been responsible for recovering some of our most threatened species, protecting our most important wildlife sites, keeping our beaches free of sewage and cleaning up our water and air.

    As I explained yesterday, the Repeal Bill needs to...

    ...transfer environmental legislation into domestic law with the necessary support and infrastructure needed to implement the intent, scope and ambition of the laws

    ...set out in law key environmental principles such as ‘polluter pays’ .

    ...ensure there are strong enough enforcement powers so punishments can be handed out to anyone who damages our environment

    ...prevent changes to the intent or scope of EU laws without full parliamentary scrutiny.

    Unfortunately the Repeal Bill fails to...

    ...provide any certainty as to how important environmental standards and principles will be upheld.  Instead an environmental factsheet accompanying the Bill reiterates the government’s position that future enforcement of environmental protections will be done by judicial review and parliament.  As I wrote last week, this is considerably weaker than the current powers exercised by the European Court of Justice.

    ...guarantee that key environmental principles will be transferred to domestic legislation

    ...provide certainty that future changes to 'banked' EU environmental laws will be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny

    Engineering our removal from the EU was always going to be complex, but that is no justification for failing to at least match existing levels of environmental protection.  

    Over the next few days, we shall work hard with our colleagues in the Greener UK coalition to develop a more comprehensive analysis.  We shall then make the case for changes and work with those politicians prepared to use their voices for nature to amend the bill as it passes through the Houses of Parliament.

    It was what our members would want and what nature needs.

  • Island restoration on the world stage: RSPB partnership projects headline at international conference

    Today is the start of the Island Invasives Conference in Dundee, Scotland, hosted by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the University of Dundee. This is a week-long affair, attended by conservationists working on saving, protecting and understanding island ecosystems from across the world. The conference is an international event occurring only once every seven years, this being the first time it is being held in the Northern Hemisphere. So, to mark the event, my colleague Sarah Havery (Island Restoration Officer) has written this post to highlight the breadth of RSPB work on this issue.

    The spread of invasive non-native species presents one of the greatest threats to biodiversity globally: invasive species are the primary driver of biodiversity loss on islands and the second largest everywhere else. Species adapted to islands are particularly vulnerable, where long isolation has led to the evolution of species that often lack adequate defences against introduced species. This is highlighted by that, of the 724 recorded animal extinctions in the last 400 years, about half were island species. Three-quarters of all threatened bird species occurring on oceanic islands are currently at risk from introduced species (Birdlife, 2017). Invasive predators, especially rats and cats, represent the greatest threat, but the impacts of habitat modification by herbivores and reduced fitness resulting from introduced micro-organisms are also significant. 

    Many island ecosystems have been damaged by the arrival and establishment of invasive non-native species, including islands in the UK and UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). Introduced predators have caused particularly catastrophic damage to waders and seabird colonies, undoubtedly causing numerous extirpations as well as contributing to ongoing declines in the UK. Our UKOTs support many unique species, many which are on the brink of extinction partially or wholly due to the impacts of invasive species. Removing invasive species from islands is an important conservation tool to protect and restore island ecosystems and to prevent further declines and extirpations of native species. 

    Thrift on Lundy Island. Photo: Sarah Havery/RSPB

    Since the 1990s RSPB and its partners have been involved in a range of complex and challenging island restoration projects, mostly across the UK and UK Overseas Territories. Each project has typically involved the eradication or control of invasive mammals or plants. This has lead to the recovery of internationally important seabird species on important sites, ranging from European storm petrel to Ascension frigatebird. Other observed benefits have included the recovery of native habitats and the protection of vital eco-tourism income for local communities.

    Over this week long event, RSPB will be showcasing our successes and aspirations in island restoration in the UK and UKOTs, with presentations on eleven partnership projects we are involved in, as well as facilitating important workshop sessions to tackle some of the biggest current questions in this field of work. Not only does this provide an opportunity to celebrate our successes thus far in island restoration, but it is also an opportunity to learn from others tackling similar challenges from around the world.

    Celebrating success

    One of the opening talks today is being given by Jaclyn Pearson, Project Manager of the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery project, where brown rats were eradicated from St Agnes and Gugh, Isles of Scilly, in 2016. This project represents one of the largest successful community-based eradications worldwide and has since seen the first Manx shearwaters fledging in living memory and the recolonisation of European storm petrel, as well as having positive impacts on the local economy.

    Jaclyn with a manx shearwater chick on St Agnes. Photo: Nick Tomalin/RSPB

    Jaclyn will be followed by a talk by Charlie Main, Project Manager of the Shiant Isles Seabird Recovery Project this afternoon. Success of the black rat eradication at the Shiant Isles will be confirmed in early 2018 at the earliest. If successful, the eradication is likely to benefit a range of UK seabirds including Atlantic puffins: the Shiants are thought to provide habitat for approximately 10% of the UK’s breeding population.

    Puffins on the Shiants Isles. Photo: John Tayton/RSPB

    Other successes that will be celebrated during this week include the seabird recoveries observed on Ramsay and Lundy Islands since the removal of rats. Ramsay Island has seen a 500% increase in Manx shearwater population and the recolonisation of European storm petrel since the rats were removed in 2001. Lundy Island has seen a ten-fold increase in Manx shearwaters in a decade since rat removal, as well as the recolonisation of European storm petrel and has likely contributed to an increase in Atlantic puffin, from 5 individuals in 2004 to 375 individuals in 2017.

    The RSPB has also lead to the development of a resource providing technical advice specific to the UK, in a UK Rodent Eradication Best Practice Toolkit, which is being launched on the GB NNSS website this week. This has been produced in partnership with other UK-based governmental and non-governmental organisations working in the field island restoration with input from international experts in this field.

    Prioritisation exercises have been completed by RSPB’s Centre of Conservation Science for the islands of the UK and UK Overseas Territories, allowing us to be strategic in our approach to allocating limited resources. A recent paper produced by RSPB’s Centre of Conservation Science this year looked at the UK’s offshore islands and identified those where action against invasive non-native species would have greatest gain for species of conservation concern. The paper can be accessed here..

    Our aspirations in island restoration

    RSPB priority island restoration efforts include the Gough Island Restoration Programme. This programme aims to eradicate invasive house mice from the island. Gough is a World Heritage site and considered one of the most important seabird islands in the world. Sadly, the impact of mice on Gough is shocking by its scale. Research carried out by the RSPB and our partners at the University of Cape Town has shown that invasive mice kill over 900,000 seabird chicks each and every year.   This island is also home to the last two species of British birds classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Successfully eradicating mice from the island will prevent the deaths of seabirds in such unimaginable scale and give these two Critically Endangered species a chance to thrive and recover.

    Gough is situated 1,550 miles from South Africa in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. As one can imagine, any operation on Gough is logistically complex. Should funding allow, and by working with the Tristan da Cunha Island Council, we hope to commence an operation in 2019. 

    To date, we have successfully attracted grants from the UK government and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Funding efforts continue today but we have cause for optimism.

    The Gough Island Restoration Programme will be presented by John Kelly, the Programme Manager, tomorrow morning.  

    Tristan albatross on Gough Island. Photo: Andy Schofield/RSPB

    A partnership project with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is also underway, aiming to eradicate invasive stoats from the Orkney Isles (Scotland) to protect important populations of ground-nesting bird species. Although stoats are native to mainland UK, they were never originally present on the Orkney Isles and have been introduced there and are impacting important native wildlife. A feasibility study for eradication has been completed, and eradication has been deemed feasible together with ongoing biosecurity to keep the islands stoat free. Currently funding is being sought for what would be the largest stoat eradication attempted worldwide. This project will be presented this afternoon, jointly by Graham Neville from SNH and Sarah Sankey from RSPB Orkney. 

    Black guillemots on Orkney. Photo: Steve Sankey.

    It is important to mention that our successes and future aspirations could not be achieved without the support of our funders, notably from EU LIFE, EU BEST, Heritage Lottery Fund, Darwin Initiative, David & Lucile Packard Foundation, and the UK Government. 

    To summarise, over this coming week we will be engaging with world leaders in this field of work, showing what we and our partners have developed and learnt over the last three decades as well as developing new ideas for facing one of the biggest conservation challenges worldwide.