My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Deciding to introduce any form of predator control (lethal or non-lethal) is something we never take lightly. It’s always based on evidence* and guided by our Council-agreed policy.
The RSPB’s approach to any type of predator control means that we first seek evidence of a problem, check whether there is a non-lethal solution and if so implement that. In many cases this does the job needed.
One such example is at the RSPB’s Otmoor nature reserve in Oxfordshire, currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, where our team of staff and volunteers have created a wonderful wetland giving homes to waders such as lapwing, redshank and snipe. Our management has also aided the return of bittern, marsh harrier and crane. Otmoor is providing the missing link to the wetlands in the Fens in the east and those in the Somerset Levels to the west.
RSPB Otmoor by Eleanor Bentnall (rspb-images.com)
Those of you that have visited the site will not have failed to have noticed the electric fence around the field we call ‘Big Otmoor’ (shown below). This is designed to exclude mammalian predators and has been instrumental in driving up the productivity of lapwings.
It may seem incongruous to see this structure in the middle of a nature reserve but this level of management is our response to the fragmented nature of our countryside and our motivation to re-engineer wildlife back into the landscape. As you can see from the graph below, the fence, which was installed in 2010, works and has helped deliver more wader chicks for visitors to see and to join the thriving population.
What's more, anti-predator fences are performing well across our reserve network. We now have fences at 28 reserves protecting breeding waders over 874 ha. At sites with anti-predator fences, lapwing productivity has been consistently above that necessary for population maintenance (0.6 chicks fledged per pair), even though at most sites only a proportion of the suitable habitat is protected by the fence. The graph below shows mean Lapwing productivity at RSPB reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored. Bars show + one standard error. The figures above the bars show the number of reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity was monitored.
But non-lethal methods, whilst always our preferred way of doing things, are not always practical. As I have written previously, lethal vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:
If we can satisfy ourselves of all these things then we can be sure to make the right decision.
* Using results of previously published studies, we have completed a review of the impact of predation on birds. This will be published soon and its results are consistent with those of our 2007 review: despite high and increasing densities of predators, we found little support that predation limits populations of pigeons, woodpeckers and songbirds, whereas evidence suggests that ground-nesting seabirds, waders and gamebirds can be limited by predation.
Vertebrates controlled on RSPB nature reserves 2015-16
As in previous years (see here, here and here), I have included two tables below which show the lethal vertebrate control undertaken (for both conservation and other reasons) on our reserves, which now number 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares across the UK, in the period 2015-16. Some of the numbers are lower than in the previous year as 2014/15 was a 17-month period due to the change in reporting date.
a) control for conservation reasons
b) control for other reasons
All across the northern hemisphere, the southward autumn migration of birds is now in full swing. This migration is undeniably perilous, with a host of natural and now increasingly human-induced factors all taking their toll on the many millions of migrants that undertake these journeys out of necessity to find safe wintering grounds.
On one part of UK territory, the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area (SBA) of Cyprus, this migration heralds the start of the autumn killing season. I wrote on this issue in April highlighting the scale of the bird trapping issues, and again in May, after my visit to Cyprus, when I witnessed first-hand the acacia groves where this killing is, once again, taking place. I want to give you a brief update as to what has been happening over the summer, and, at the end, suggest what you can do.
Juvenile red-backed shrike on lime stick. Image credit: Birdlife Cyprus
Last week, the memory of these acacia groves was thrust back at me, as I watched two videos taken by our Investigations team in 2016 relating to two recent convictions of another five bird trappers. Not for the squeamish here and here but this is just so utterly wrong. And it is of course illegal. This is the tragedy of Dhekelia.
These videos were the result of the excellent work jointly undertaken by the RSPB Investigations unit and SBA police last autumn. It has been in no small part because of this evidence that convictions against 14 trappers in six operations have been secured by the British authorities over the last few months (with one final case of five defendants still to come). Faced with such damning footage, it is little wonder that the trappers have been entering guilty pleas. Moreover, the sentences that are being handed out reflect the seriousness of the court in Cyprus. We hope that this may all finally begin to act as a real deterrent: fines have been imposed of up to Euro 2500 per person, while six month prison sentences suspended for up to three years dramatically raise the risks for any of the trappers who are caught again.
In contrast, however, in the Republic of Cyprus itself, the relaxation of the hunting laws at the end of June – in direct contravention of the EU Birds Directive – suggests less respect for the environment and legal obligations. This relaxation effectively decriminalises the use of lime sticks to catch birds (a particularly barbaric technique) while making enforcement against restaurants that serve pickled songbirds (‘ambelopoulia’) virtually impossible. We continue to support our local partner, Birdlife Cyprus, in any way that we can to help reduce the crucial demand side of this problem.
The UK’s direct responsibility is, of course, more in terms of the supply rather than the demand. In this respect, we applaud the two operations carried out by the SBA authorities over the summer to disrupt the irrigation infrastructure used to water the acacia groves. A measure of the importance of the acacias can be seen in the videos (linked above): they provide both the support for the trapping nets and cover for the trappers themselves, but also act to bring in concentrations of songbirds which otherwise would be safely on their way. This underlines the fact that the end goal must remain the total removal of all these acacia groves by the SBA authorities.
We still care deeply about this issue and I remain appalled that the killing continues. As the season unfolds, I will seek to keep you updated. If you would like to support the work to combat this killing in Dhekelia directly, please consider writing to your MP, asking them to encourage the MoD to persist with this very positive work until the acacia is all removed.
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.