October, 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
  • What does Brexit mean for nature-friendly farming in the uplands?

    Yesterday, I blogged about a new report on the potential impacts of Brexit for UK farm incomes and what this might mean for wildlife and the environment. As promised, today I’m hosting a blog from Janet Fairclough, RSPB Conservation Advisor in the North Pennines - the first of two guests giving a first-hand perspective on the challenges and opportunities that Brexit could present.

    What does Brexit mean for nature-friendly farming in the uplands?

    Marshes Gill farm at Harwood in Upper Teesdale (credit Janet Fairclough) 

    I have been an RSPB farm adviser since 2000, and during the past 17 years (blimey, that makes me feel old!), I have managed a variety of projects that promote nature friendly farming all over Northern England. My current role is as a Conservation Advisor, working in the North Pennine Dales helping farmers to manage their land for wildlife whilst also running their farm businesses.

    The North Pennine Dales are very special, being some of the most remote and unspoilt places in England – for instance we have more breeding waders than anywhere else in mainland UK, over 80% of England’s black grouse, and 40% of England’s upland hay meadows.

    Working with hill farmers, I see the challenges of making a living from upland livestock farming every day, and I see the amazing work that many farmers in the uplands are doing for nature.

    At the moment, these farmers are supported for this good work through agri-environment schemes. Agri-environment schemes provide a guaranteed income stream, which helps make farm businesses more resilient. The price a farmer gets for his lambs and cattle at market is very unpredictable and can go up and down considerably, so for many farmers in the uplands, agri-environment support is a vital element of their business model.

    Agri-environment schemes are great for wildlife. They pay hill farmers to reduce or adjust their stocking rates and avoid using machinery in pasture fields during the spring so that birds like lapwings, that nest on the ground, are protected. They also require farmers to spread farmyard manure on these fields before the breeding season, which provides camouflage for nests and chicks. In the meadows, the gates are closed from stock so the grass can grow, then these are not cut for hay until July, to make sure curlews have time to breed.

    The report from Cumulus presents some really challenging scenarios, and I know the results will be alarming for many farmers and their families – particularly those in the uplands, where farming is already difficult. It’s clear that if we end up in a scenario where the level of financial support available to these farmers is reduced, even by a third, that this will present considerable stresses on many upland farm businesses.

    The types of farming that are crucial for some of our most sensitive species in the uplands (known as “High Nature Value” farming) are already economically marginal, and could potentially be pushed over the edge by Brexit.

    The farmers that I work with don’t want to be dependent on subsidies, but they do deserve to be adequately paid for the amazing stuff that they do for nature on their farms. In the current system, they are not. I feel they should be rewarded for producing locally-distinctive, high-quality food in a way that delivers an outstanding range of benefits to wildlife and society, so as to secure the long-term economic viability of High Nature Value farming.

    It goes without saying that I want agri-environment funding to continue post-Brexit, but I also know that some of the underlying farming systems in the uplands may be at risk if the total level of financial support falls much below current levels. If we move away from direct payments after

    Brexit, it will be more important than ever that farmers are better rewarded for the work that they do for nature.

    Birds like curlews and lapwings depend on the continuation of low-intensity hill farming in the North Pennines. Post-Brexit, I’d like to see farmers being offered a joined-up package of support that ensures that nature-friendly farming in the uplands is profitable. Environmental payments should be at the heart of this, but it would be great to see wider support for farmers to help them access local or niche markets for their wildlife-friendly lamb or beef so they can get a better price for their products; and for holistic business advice to be available to help them navigate potentially dramatic change.

  • What does Brexit mean for farmers and for the environment?

    Over the last fortnight, the media have focused on the state of the Brexit negotiations and preparations for a ‘no deal’ scenario. Against this background of continued noise and uncertainty, this week I am going to focus on what Brexit might mean for agriculture – a sector expected to be more profoundly impacted than most, and a land use that covers over 70% of the land area of the UK and the biggest driver of change in species populations over the past few decades.

    To help us understand how Brexit might impact farm businesses and the farmed landscape, we commissioned an independent report from Cumulus Consultants which was published today. The report focuses on two potential drivers of change – a decrease in financial support for farmers, and a failure to agree a trade deal with the EU – acting as a ‘stress test’ to help identify key risks and opportunities for the environment.

    Given that focus, it is perhaps unsurprising that the report predicts declines in farm incomes in a vast majority of cases. This is not a prediction, and does not represent what we want to happen, but rather looks at what could plausibly happen. Doing this work now, despite the inherent uncertainty of our situation, is really important in understanding how farmers in different sectors might respond to these changes, what this might mean for their businesses, for the countryside and of course for wildlife. This also allows us to consider what policies we need in order to mitigate the risks, and realise any opportunities for both farming and the environment.

    What does the report tell us?

    The headline economic analysis is based on average farm business income for each sector and country, and therefore masks a huge amount of variation in terms of farm business performance.

    Some farms achieve above-average incomes – often through improved production efficiency, better management of costs, economies of scale, diversification or by achieving higher value for local or niche products. Even in the uplands (where average income is lower and dependence on subsidy higher), there are trends on some farms towards improved economic performance. These sorts of farm businesses are likely to be more resilient to change, and the report suggests that existing trends in these directions are likely to continue on some farmland.

    Some of these changes could be beneficial for the environment (e.g. more efficient application of fertilisers could benefit water quality; enhanced yields could be achieved through improved soil stewardship etc.); but if poorly regulated could equally pose environmental risks (e.g. increased stocking densities in some areas could lead to biodiversity loss, soil damage and water pollution).

    At the same time, the report highlights the challenges that would face some farms, particularly where a majority of their income is from subsidy, and where opportunities for improved productivity or diversification are inherently limited. This is particularly true of upland livestock farms in so-called ‘Less Favoured Areas’ (LFA). Under all scenarios in the report, average income in this sector was projected to fall by more than 50%. For many of these farms, and particularly those within Severely Disadvantaged Areas, their future direction may depend hugely on the shape of future government policy, and some significant shifts in land management are plausible. If financial support is available – which we argue for – some such farmers may focus their business around the delivery of public goods (carbon storage, flood protection and biodiversity) including through continued nature-friendly farming. Others though may shift towards other upland land uses including sporting interests or forestry and some land may experience significant de-stocking, or in the extreme, land abandonment.

    Again, the environmental impacts are mixed. Some of these economically marginal farmland systems are characterised as ‘High Nature Value’ and their loss would have negative consequences for a range of sensitive species and habitats. For example, the loss of stock from some important upland habitats could reduce their suitability for open-habitat species like curlew (shown in Andy Hay's image from rspb-images.com), and under-grazing could lead to a deterioration in SSSI condition. On the other hand, a shift in policy support towards a ‘public goods’ model could deliver a wide range of environmental benefits. Reduced stock numbers could allow the natural regeneration of native woodland on some suitable areas, with benefits in terms of carbon storage, soil protection and flood risk reduction.

    In terms of detail, the results of this report chime with other recent publications for the UK and devolved governments, for the Land Use Policy Group, and for the farming sector itself, with broadly similar findings. The picture it paints is complex, and highlights the huge uncertainty that farmers are facing about their future. It doesn’t present any answers, but we hope that by identifying the potential challenges and opportunities, it contributes to ongoing conversations that we are having with farmers, land managers, other NGOs, Government and other stakeholders across the UK now, and in the months ahead.

    Over the next couple of days, I’ll be hosting guest blogs from Janet Fairclough, an RSPB farm advisor working closely with farmers in the uplands; and Chris Clark, an upland farmer from  Langstrothdale in the Yorkshire Dales, to share their perspectives on what Brexit could mean for the farmers at the heart of this story. At the end of the week, I will share my own reflections on the important role that public policy has to play in shaping the future of the countryside.

  • How to mind the “environmental governance gap” created by Brexit

    Laws are only as effective as their enforcement.

    So what happens when enforcement powers are lost? It surely follows that the effectiveness of the law diminishes?

    This is our fear when the UK leaves the European Union.   

    As a new report published today by IEEP and Client Earth highlights, EU institutions including the European Commission and the European Court of Justice provide us with a range of monitoring, compliance and enforcement mechanisms meaning there is robust implementation of and governance for EU environmental laws.

    Two guillemot, a bridled guillemot, a razorbill and a shag perch on a rock on the Isles of Scilly (Ed Marshall rspb-images.com)

    When the UK leaves the EU, it will therefore lose an important element in the governance of its environmental standards. This is important, not just because current EU arrangements ensure that environmental laws are properly implemented but because any shared environmental standards agreed as part of the future relationship between the EU and the UK will depend on having effective enforcement mechanisms in place. In their absence, there is no guarantee that any agreed environmental rules/commitments in a future UK/EU deal will be met.

    Let me explain. 

    The European Commission’s monitoring of Member States’ implementation of required legislation, backed up by the European Court of Justice’s ability to impose effective sanctions, has been vital in helping to ensure that our environmental legislation is effective and enforced.

    Perhaps the most totemic example of this was our legal challenge on Lappel Bank in the 1990s.  The internationally important intertidal mudflats Lappel Bank were excluded by the UK Government from the Medway Estuary and Marshes SPA for economic reasons and destroyed to extend a Port.  This was challenged by the RSPB and subsequently found to be unlawful. The proceedings were referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ confirmed an important issue of principle, namely that sites that qualify as SPAs must be classified on their scientific merits and economic reasons cannot be taken into account at the designation stage and that compensatory habitat was needed to replace what was lost.

    Our experience suggests that the domestic courts have important roles to play in environmental governance but are often insufficient on their own to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of environmental law. As I have written before, judicial review is too narrow in terms of scope and remit (usually focusing on due process), too restrictive in terms of access, and too limited in terms of remedies and sanctions. The system does not compare to the existing arrangements within the EU, with no appointed overseer taking those actions. Basically our domestic institutions on their own are not adequate as things stand to fill the governance gap-in terms of scope, resource, expertise or accessibility.  

    This poses problems both for the UK Government’s commitment to ensure that environmental standards are maintained and enhanced and also for the EU 27, who have emphasised the importance of avoiding unfair competition arising from any potential weakening of environmental protection in the UK post-Brexit. In addition, it is clear that any lowering of standards in the UK or the EU could have negative environmental implications for both sides given that issues such as species conservation and air and water pollution do not respect borders/are transboundary in nature.

    Tackling this “governance gap” will require action on a number of fronts. In particular, new, independent institutions in the UK will be required with the responsibility and powers to ensure monitoring is carried out, possible breaches highlighted and compliance ensured, meaning environmental standards are enforced. In addition the important role of civil society needs to be recognised and their ability to get involved not limited as a result of Brexit. Therefore we need new governance mechanisms that will be able to effectively fill this governance gap. Given that environmental matters are largely devolved, this will require the UK and devolved governments to work closely together to address this gap. These new mechanisms need to:

    • Monitor and measure the state of the environment transparently
    • Ensure proper implementation of environmental law and policy. For example, by supervising plans that give effect to environmental law, overseeing permitting regimes (including responsibility for granting exemptions), and ensuring robust and consistent application of the law.
    • Check compliance with environmental law and policy by government, business and other actors. This includes reviewing progress against plans, assessing the legality of decisions and scrutinising whether targets, conditions and requirements are being adhered to.
    • Enforce environmental law by initiating investigations into possible breaches and responding to complaints from citizens and civil society organisations. Breaches must be identified and acted on, with the application of appropriate remedies and sanctions.
    • Review and report information regarding both the state of the natural world and performance against policy objectives.
    • Publish environmental information fully and transparently.

    The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is designed to bring the European acquis into domestic legislation. However, as currently drafted (and as I have written previously here), it fails to require and ensure that the governance functions that we have as members of the EU are replaced at domestic level.

    If the UK Government wants to be true to its promise not to weaken levels of environmental protection as it leaves the EU, this has to be addressed and done quickly.