Skip navigation
Print page

In Mike's view...

Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB

Image: Eleanor Bentall

Anniversaries are a good opportunity to take stock. I completed my first year as Chief Executive in May, about the same time as David Cameron has been in Downing Street. Of course, our respective jobs are very different (and I wouldn't swap roles for all the world), but many of the challenges faced by the RSPB are directly related to the policy agenda of governments, both in the UK and overseas.

The start of my second year has been a great example of this. June was a busy month, notable for a stream of announcements. These had huge potential significance for the natural environment and the work of the RSPB.

The UK National Ecosystems Assessment (NEA) was published on 2 June. This world-class analysis, written by more than 500 scientists and economists (including some from the RSPB), outlines the multitude of benefits that wildlife and landscapes bring to our society. The NEA makes the case that these benefits must be taken into account when decisions are made, giving them equal weight with financial, market-led considerations.

We have often made the same argument. Some of the benefits brought by the natural world are very tangible and can be given a monetary value. These are often grouped together as 'ecosystem services', such as the positive effects of inland wetlands on cleaning up pollution, and insect pollination of crops.

Intrinsic value

Others are harder to quantify. There is an intrinsic value in the song of the skylark, the fleeting glimpse of a red deer breaking cover, or a windswept ocean view. These are things that lift our hearts and give us a feeling of physical and spiritual well-being. The NEA acknowledges these too, though it is unapologetic about its refusal to put a value on them. They are, after all, priceless.

Just as significant for the government is the lack of evidence in the NEA that any major environmental improvement in the UK has been achieved in the absence of regulation. Now please don't get me wrong, the RSPB is not slavishly pro-regulation - indeed we have campaigned to remove the bureaucracy that creates the crazy barriers to children playing and learning outdoors - but there is a role for sensible regulation in protecting public goods for the benefit of everyone.

I expect this debate to intensify as Defra's portfolio of laws to protect wildlife and the environment comes under regulatory review in the next two months. It got off to a rocky start just before Easter, with the Government's clumsy, crowd-sourcing Red Tape Challenge, which put all 159 regulations relating to biodiversity, wildlife management and the countryside up for grabs.

'I am grateful to all of you - your message was heard personally by Ministers and they modified their approach'

Now, the RSPB has been campaigning ever since its foundation. So, it was no surprise that there was an instant response from 16,000 of our supporters when we alerted them to these daft proposals. In three days over the Easter weekend, the Government's systems were overloaded by their outcry. I am grateful to all of you for this rapid response - your message was heard personally by Ministers and they rapidly modified their approach. So, please stay involved in this debate to ensure that common sense prevails.

The NEA has been described as 'game changing' and it should be. The Coalition Government is to be congratulated on the weight they have given this report. The NEA was, then, a great start. It was rapidly followed by the Natural Environment White Paper.

The White Paper is the most comprehensive policy statement by Government on conservation for two decades, and it sets out the Coalition's ambitions for England's wildlife and habitats.

Taken as a whole, it contains some laudable ambitions, such as the proposals for a series of Nature Improvement Areas. Our own Futurescapes programme contributes to this approach, which aims to bring together charities, farmers, communities, businesses and public bodies, to make space for nature on a co-ordinated, landscape scale.

The proof of this ambition will, however, be in the delivery. And that means money - and here the clarity ends. The Government's own ability to deliver is shrinking substantially due to last autumn's budget cuts. Following our vigorous campaign on the cuts at the time - from Caroline Spelman's constituency to Westminster tube station - we welcomed the fact that the funds for environmentally-friendly farming were saved. But, we pointed out that the budget reductions to Natural England and other agencies went way beyond 'efficiency-savings' and would impact on their effectiveness.

Under threat

The agri-environment schemes are one of the Government's major tools for helping nature. Yet, in the last two weeks of June we suddenly found ourselves dealing with a threat which had the potential to pull the rug from under all of the Government's carefully constructed policy launches.

Reports emerged from Brussels that the European Union was planning to scrap the so-called 'Pillar 2' funding from the Common Agricultural Policy. This provides the money that for those grant schemes that give famers an incentive to help wildlife on their land. Removing it would have made it impossible for the Government to meet its biodiversity objectives. The White Paper, remember, doesn't provide any more money, so to remove an existing form of funding into the bargain would be nothing short of disastrous, not only in the UK but across Europe.

On hearing the threat, we mobilised immediately. We spoke to our contacts in Government departments, our BirdLife partners across Brussels, fellow NGOs and environment journalists to make them aware of the threat. Most importantly, we asked you, our supporters, to help by sending an email to President Barroso in Brussels.

Once again, you responded magnificently. Amongst the thousands of emails were several hundred from farmers, anxious to do the right thing for wildlife. Our actions did not go unnoticed and, while the overall funding for wildlife-friendly farming is disappointing, we are delighted that, thanks to your efforts, Pillar 2 was saved.

As the end of June approached, we expected the final piece of the jigsaw, at least as far as England is concerned, in the form of the England Biodiversity Strategy. This is the fine print that should tell us just how far the Government's ambition extends to real benefits for wildlife. At time of writing, we're still waiting, as the launch has been postponed. We'll keep you posted.

Just as you were stepping up for nature in your thousands as part of our CAP action, we were taking our new campaign to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. We launched Stepping Up for Nature in England back in March, but have waited until after the elections elsewhere and we have been delighted by the response.

A world richer in nature

Our campaign is a call for urgent action to create a world richer in nature. The RSPB is stepping up its effort in the UK and beyond our shores. In the case of Henderson Island, our work is about as remote as it can possibly be - far out in the Pacific.

As June drew to a close, you may have read about the 'voyage of conservation' to save the Henderson petrel from extinction. The project will eradicate introduced rats on the island, and has been supported by many of you. Henderson is a UK Overseas Territory, which means it is the responsibility of the UK Government, and we are pleased it has helped to fund the work.

The start of my second year has already provided a few challenges. But I am always reassured by the backing and enthusiasm of RSPB members, volunteers and supporters, who are brilliantly responsive in a crisis. The start of the Government's second year will mean actions speaking louder than the words. Mr Cameron has to decide which incentive, regulatory and delivery levers to pull. I wonder if he feels the same level of reassurance. As I said, I wouldn't swap jobs with him for all the world!

Mike Clarke, chief executive of the RSPB

In Mike's view...

The RSPB's Chief Executive, Mike Clarke, provides his opinions on the major issues affecting wildlife and the environment in this regular online column. You can read more from Mike in the quarterly membership magazine, Nature's Home.