September, 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
  • Good news from last Friday: an important victory in the battle for better access to environmental justice

    Readers of this blog may remember that earlier this year the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth began legal action against the Ministry of Justice because of new rules brought in by the UK government which made it harder for people in England and Wales to go to court to protect the environment (see here). Last Friday, the High Court ruled in our favour, when Mr Justice Dove said that crucial additions were needed to bring the rules within the law, bringing a week of triumphs on environmental justice to a fulfilling end.

    The rules, introduced in February 2017, scrapped fixed costs limits which capped how much people and charities had to pay if they lost a case against a public body. Before this, the cost cap had been set at £5,000 for individuals and £10,000 in all other cases. This provided upfront certainty as to the extent of one’s financial liability before embarking on a Judicial Review. Now, as a result of the High Court’s ruling, caps will still be fixed at the beginning of a case and can only be changed in exceptional cases, giving people and charities the early financial certainty they need when they stand up for the environment.

    The RSPB only resorts to legal action as a method of last resort and when all other options have been exhausted, but it is a vital backstop as demonstrated in our successful challenge of the proposed Ribble gull cull.

    Lesser black-backed gull - one of the species which had been targeted for a cull on the Ribble (image courtesy of Tim Melling)

    As a result of taking this legal action the circumstances in which the costs caps can be varied in later stages are now confined to those in which the NGO or individual has effectively provided the court with misleading or inaccurate financial information or their financial situation has significantly changed as a result, for example, of a lottery win. This means that NGOs and individuals once again enjoy certainty as to the extent of their financial liability at an early stage of the case. The rulings also means that claimants will no longer have to expose their private financial details in open court when applying for judicial review, as these hearings will now take place in private. The Ministry of Justice will need to make changes to the rules as soon as possible to achieve this.

    But as David Hart QC puts it “…it is dispiriting that it takes a judicial review for Government seriously to engage with the costs problems and practicalities facing environmental claimants - despite these having been spelt out time and time again by NGOs and judges here and in Europe.”

    As mentioned earlier, last week was a very good week for access to justice. Peers debated a Motion laid by Lord Marks QC of Henley-upon-Thames expressing profound regret at the changes to the costs regime. We were inspired by the quality of the debate, with persuasive and passionate speeches from numerous Peers including the former RSPB Chief Executive Baroness Young, Baroness Parminter and Lord Pannick QC. The overriding theme was the recognition of the vital role that groups like the RSPB play in defending nature and the environment. The outcome was a defeat for the Government as the vote was carried by 164 votes to 97 – not bad for a normally quiet mid-week dinner slot just before the party conferences.

    Last week, colleagues also attended a Meeting of the Parties to an international Convention governing access to justice (the Aarhus Convention) during which the UK conceded that it must take urgent action to make environmental legal action less expensive and more accessible.

    The rule of law is an essential pillar of any democracy in which effective administrative and judicial procedures provide a necessary check on the abuse of power and the protection of public freedoms, such as the environment.

    The judgment is vital in the face of the UK’s proposed exit from the EU. Without oversight from EU institutions and with uncertainty of what will replace the European Court of Justice, it is down to UK citizens and organisations to challenge decisions affecting the environment. This means that the protection of our air, water, countryside and wildlife will rely upon the courts, so everyone must be able to access them. The government is claiming that judicial review and parliamentary process are sufficient to replace the oversight of the EU. If people and charities are hindered by uncertain court costs, our environment could be at real risk.

  • Good news for a Friday: green light given to Gough Island Restoration Programme

    The RSPB has a long history of working in the UK Overseas Territories including, of course, those in the Caribbean which have been so badly hit by Hurricane Irma (about which my colleague Elizabeth Radford has written here).  In that time, we have undertaken some pretty big projects.  And today, I want to tell you about another one: the Gough Island Restoration programme.  Gough is part of the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic (if you are not sure where is, have a look here).  

    Gough Island is a special place: it is a World Heritage Site and home to more than eight million birds from at least 23 different species, including the northern rockhopper penguin and the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross.

    Yet, these seabirds are in trouble.  

    Populations have plummeted because they are being eaten by mice which were accidentally introduced to Gough by sailors in the nineteenth century.  As a result, more than one million chicks are killed by mice every year.  And these are no ordinary mice - they have evolved to become two or three times larger than normal by exploiting all the food sources on the island.

    So, unless we do something about these giant albatross-eating mice, two species listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, Tristan albatross and Gough bunting, will head towards extinction.  

    That is why I am delighted to announce that we intend to mount an operation to eradicate the mice from Gough island.

    The beautiful Tristan albatross courtship display on Gough Island. This year was the highest breeding success rate for this species in a long time. Still not sufficient to prevent extinction of the species but a much needed small boost to the number of birds in the wild. (Photo credit: Derren Fox) 

    We have been working hard with our partners on Tristan da Cunha, the Percy Fitz Patrick Institute, BirdLife South Africa and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs to plan this operation and I have been incredibly impressed by the work of the team, led by my colleagues Clare Stringer and John Kelly, that has helped us get into this position today.  

    The action of removing mice from Gough will help the UK meet its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Heritage Convention to protect this site and its unique threatened species.  It is the sort of ambition that should be reflected in the UK Government's forthcoming 25 year environment plan.  In the context of debates about natural capital (about which I wrote earlier this week), this is one of those projects that cost-benefit equations seem irrelevant - stopping extinction is just the right thing to do.

    And that's why we've worked hard to find the resources needed for the operational phase.  While we still have a funding shortfall, thanks to generous financial support from the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other sources, we are now sufficiently confident to plan the mouse eradication operation to start in 2019.

    The operation will require some hard work and a bit of luck to get everything ready for our operational window during that year.  But the preparations can now intensify.  Indeed, this week three of RSPB's newest recruits (Fabrice le Bouard, Jaimie Cleeland and Kate Lawrence) departed Cape Town on board the S.A. Agulhas II and are headed for Gough, where they will live and work for the next 13 months.  Their objective is to establish a monitoring baseline against which we judge the success of our proposed mouse eradication project. I expect they will have a fabulous time but I also hope their intensive training pays off especially as the first thing they will have to do is endure ten days at sea to reach Gough via Tristan da Cunha.  The photos at the end of this blog give you a flavour of their new world.

    Despite the tragedy of seabird losses that unfolds every year, sometimes the data collected about breeding success gives glimpses of hope. This year, the Tristan albatross has had one of the highest recorded rates of breeding success in well over a decade, if not more. This compares to the dismal rate of less than 10% recorded as recently as the 2014 breeding season. While the rate this year is still not enough to sustain the population, it is a much needed temporary lifeline for the Tristan albatross. All going well, the chicks that survived to fledge their nests this year, will return to breed on an island free of mice. Their offspring will have a much greater chance of survival to adulthood, while the gruesome images of mice attacks will stop for good.

    The next two years will be incredibly exciting for all of us. We are embarking on one of our most important conservation projects. I hope that it inspires you and if you would like to support our efforts to prevent the extinction of the Tristan albatross and the Gough bunting, please use the form accessible by clicking here.

    With your support, we can remove the mice and provide a brighter future for Gough Island and its critically endangered wildlife.


    Fabrice, Jaimie and Kate attending wilderness survival training prior to their departure for Gough Island (photo credit: RSPB)


    The view from the deck on board the S.A. Agulhas II showing some rough going as the team travel to Gough (photo credit: Jaimie Cleeland)


    The weather base on Gough Island where the RSPB team will call home for the next 13 months. (Photo credit: Derren Fox)


  • A message to those working on the 25 year environment plan: why biodiversity targets are essential to make natural capital approaches work

    At the RSPB’s parliamentary reception last night, it was good to hear Environment Secretary Michael Gove reiterate his desire to enhance the natural environment.  Clearly the detail behind that ambition will be included within the much anticipated 25 year environment plan.

    Image courtesy of Andy Hay, RSPB Images

    Michael Gove has asked the Natural Capital Committee to advise him on what success should look like and to come up with some metrics to assess progress.

    I fear that the importance of biodiversity targets might get lost in all of this and we might end up with a sterile fight where one side says that it is the value of nature to people that matters and others argue that biodiversity is important in its own right.

    So, here I’ve worked with my colleague Dr Katharine Bolt (who is an economist) to set out the rationale as to why biodiversity targets are essential to make natural capital approaches work.

    It is increasingly understood that nature provides a stream of benefits to people, which we have chosen to call ecosystem services, and that these are currently not reflected in decisions that affect it.   This is what the UK National Ecoystem Assessment says, what the Natural Environment White Paper says and indeed is the reason why the Natural Capital Commitee exists.

    The failure to take the true value of nature into account in decision-making is the driver of its over-exploitation and under-investment.

    By taking a natural capital approach, the 25 year plan presents an enormous opportunity for a structural change in the way that nature is managed, offering the potential of immense benefits for both people and nature.

    However, the natural capital approach must be done in the right way.  Get it wrong, and wildlife will lose out.

    Why do I say this?

    Well, experience suggests that when implemented in practice, a natural approach puts a spotlight on the economic values alone.  As the Natural Capital Committee makes clear, the natural capital approach is a stock based approach. This requires all values that relate to the stock to be accounted for and this cannot be wholly measured by economists valuing the benefit flows that we receive from it. This, unfortunately, is not a technicality, as real-world applications of the natural capital approach frequently demonstrate.

    This is a bit technical but it is of particular significance for biodiversity, which is at the heart of natural capital as it provides the living component.  

    Let me try to unpick this.  We know that the value of biodiversity is much more than the sum of its parts (which include cultural services, such as recreation and inspiration, and its role in regulating services such as climate control or clean water). 

    Attempts to measure the economic value of biodiversity will only ever capture important but relatively minor elements of the values that society holds for biodiversity.  Alongside, the inability of science and economics to measure all values related to biodiversity’s role in ecosystem functioning and its systematic value, the moral and intrinsic reasons for saving nature just aren’t amenable to economic valuation as explained more fully in the paper we prepared with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

    As a nature conservation charity with more than 1.2 million members, the RSPB is well aware of the deeply held concerns many people hold for conserving nature, driven by the their belief that it is the right thing to do, rather than any direct benefits they receive from it. This is also evident in concern for nature abroad, which many will never see.  

    As in other areas of public policy, our society’s moral choices are considered alongside economic concerns and are not considered separately.  For example, every child’s right to an education is driven by attitudes of fairness and freedom: that each child should have the right to achieve their unique potential. In addition, a well educated population is the bedrock of any successful economy.

    Changes in attitudes to gender equality in this country are also driven by values of fairness.  It may be true that gender equality brings economic benefits, as gender equal companies tend to be more profitable.  But, this should never be considered to be the sole driver of public policy.

    The same, of course, applies to the environment.

    While there may be many examples of where natural capital improvements driven by economic values have also resulted in improvements in the stock, there are also examples where they are in conflict.

    The economic values of nature should never solely drive ambitions to improve the state of nature and must always complement moral and stock values, which are not amenable to economic analysis in the same way.

    So, with the natural capital framing at its heart, the 25 year plan presents the opportunity to do what Michael Gove wants and to improve the natural environment – in economic language, improve its stock.  This will result in better outcomes for nature and people.

    For the reasons set out above, its success will be judged by improvements in the state of natural capital, not by changes in the values associated with it.

    To put it bluntly taking a natural capital approach will not work without clear biodiversity targets.

    Targets need to be specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART).  This shouldn’t be too tricky given how well we can monitor our natural world.  To enable progress to be assessed and implementation to be adjusted as necessary, these targets will need to be expressed in shorter-term milestone (e.g. 5 year milestones).

    We already have, for example through global targets or indeed the national England Biodiversity Strategy, targets for species, sites and habitats and we still need them. 

    Chasing the holy grail of maintstreaming the value of nature in decision-making must not result in trading away the moral value of nature.

    So, yes, frame the 25 year plan around the natural capital approach, but also recognise that unless accompanied by clear biodiversity targets, we risk degrading the natural environment we want to improve.

    Our arguments are based both on logic but also informed by practice.  By applying the natural capital approach and thinking about its use by others that may not have biodiversity as core to their mission, we have concluded that targets are essential.  Later this year, I shall be speaking at the World Natural Capital Committee Forum and shall be sharing the results of our first natural capital account for the RSPB’s nature reserve network in England. 

    I urge all those involved in the 25 year plan to embrace biodiversity targets as an integral step to adopting the natural capital approach.