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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

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Yesterday was fun but a bit exhausting.

Being picked up at 0515 by the BBC to do a live TV slot at 0640 or so is fun, but by midday you feel as though it's already been a long day.

But in the afternoon we were thanking a room full of our active supporters for their help in Letter to the Future.  Lots of people signed up, and the campaign is still active, particularly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a few months yet, but the emphasis in England now shifts to Stepping up for Nature.

Do have a look at the Stepping up for Nature video - it has some fantastic images of beautiful creatures.  My favourite is the one of the blue tit being a cold heartless predator.  Which is your favourite?  When I was shown this video I wanted to watch it over and over again - it's only 4 minutes, but it's 4 minutes when nature can come into your life.  I can imagine having a sneaky look at it during my lunch breaks for weeks to come - why don't you too?

A room full of keen RSPB members is an inspiring place to be - and a somewhat humbling one if you work for the organisation.  Our members are great!  We had a question and answer session and the questions covered subjects as wide as EU policy, bird-killing in the Mediterranean, sea level rise and climate change, our rainforest work, using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, working with others and a host of other things.  What a great bunch.

And four of our active volunteers spoke at this event too - and they were just wonderful.  Dominik, aged 10, had handed in the Letter to the Future signatures to 10 Downing St that morning.  He is a really bright young man and I told him to come back to us in a while if he is looking for a job.  It was great to meet Gary who had cycled around all the RSPB's nature reserves last year - that is some feat (and some feet, too).  He was full of the thrill of nature and I promised him a trip to our Nene Washes nature reserve to hear corncrakes later this year.  And Joan and Gill from the North Kent Marshes are long-standing friends of the RSPB because we worked together to stop an airport being built at Cliffe.  Wonderful people all of them.

This was an uplifting event, and we had a short break where I grabbed a pizza and drank gallons of a well-known fizzy drink to keep awake, and then we had a more formal launch of Stepping up for Nature with our Chief Executive Mike Clarke setting out the thinking behind the campaign, Caroline Spelman, the Defra Secretary of State saying a few words and then our President, Kate Humble, rounding things off. 

We were grateful to Caroline Spelman for her enthusiasm for nature and for the RSPB.  I'm sure we'll irritate her now and again in the future, at least I am pretty sure we will if we are doing our job - so, rely on it, but she is a true believer in the importance of nature in our lives, and indeed as the basis for a healthy economy.  And Kate Humble, who I found wandering around in the street looking lost outside the venue, gave a very witty and inspiring closing address.  And we got to see that evil blue tit again.

The speakers had kept me awake but by now I was flagging a bit and it was a quick pint with colleagues and then to bed with another full and inspiring day at the RSPB coming to an end.


  • Mirlo I understand what you say but think the false publicity of farmers getting rich out of these wildlife payments has got you believing it,can tell you that in my experience these payments on most farms just cover costs of implementing them and paperwork.Think most farmers would happily do without subsidies as long as market place pays for produce but do not forget the idea of subsidies was to keep food relatively cheap to consumer not for farmers benefit.

    Think you should not worry about a hard working farmer running a business of over a million pound having a nice car,you would find if you looked around much worse misuse of your and my taxes.

    Can assure you but somehow do not think you believe that profits from wildlife grants do very very little for farm profits.

    Think the way to prove it is to find out how much towards the farm profit these wildlife grants come to on Hope Farm but allow some expense for paperwork claiming.Think that proves it.

  • This is exactly right - looking ahead to 2020. The horizons in politics are 5 years at best and next week at the worst. Its absolutely essential that the 2020 deadline is kept up there. My worry is that Government is not serious and will rely on pure rhetoric . Already Caroline Spelman, on Today Radio 4, brushed off the 30% cut in Natural Englands budget and portrayed the 2020 initiative as RSPB members helping to count wildlife.If thats all it is I don't think its going to make a difference. The litmus test will be the White Paper . The RSPB should make common cause with other environmental organisations in advance of the white paper to make absolutely sure that it breaks the mould and creates a foundation for a transformation of our approach to biodiversity here and worldwide.Its way beyond time that biodiversity is portrayed as far more than an 'environmental' issue - its absolutely crucial to maintaining the life support system on the planet. No business can survive without that. Its a political and economic issue and has to be driven to centre stage. A good place to focus would be on the media.Why dont the 'environmental' organisations mount a concerted and sustained campaign to shift the terms of the debate?

  • Sooty I am not kicking farmers, what I am objecting to is that my taxes are being paid to farmers to take part in the ELS scheme without having to produce any evidence of increase in biodiversity. I do not see much wildlife on many farms but what I do see is plenty of volvos, saabs and mercedes when I drive past the auction mart. Why should my taxes be used to enhance a farmers living standards. It is time that we stopped paying farmers any subsidies, grants or compensation at all  and made them earn their own income from agriculture and in a sustainable manner. Why should there not be a law made to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats without a compensation element. Good wildlife habitats are so few and far between nowadays that they should be strongly protected by law before we end up with nothing left.

  • Yes Graham you are absolutely correct but people tend not to blame the scheme it is always put at farmers door and while agreeing with you there are other serious issues affecting farmland birds as well as what farmers are doing as other types of birds are also declining that cannot be blamed on farmers,for certain House Sparrows living in towns probably suffered a more serious decline than farmland birds so more thought needs putting into the problem but for sure Arne RSPB patch of wild bird seeding is the most impressive thing for small birds I have seen and am convinced one in each parish would be a big step forward,been proved as well locally with a private reserve attracting lots of birds including Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings amongst others.  

  • I think the population trends for small farmland birds speak for themselves. Has the work done through stewardship schemes seen any increase in populations of tree sparrow, yellowhammer or corn bunting. Just look at the BTO figures. More is needed than some effective RSPB seed patches or a single project supplementary feeding. Sooty - I don't see why you see this as criticism of farmers - it's criticism of the scheme and what farmers are being asked to do.

  • EP - your comment really is disingenuous and adds nothing to this debate. The fact is that bird populations on the whole have crashed and particularly farmland birds. There are numerous studies which confirm this and yes, whilst some species are doing better than others it's all relative. Just because the economy grew by 0.4% doesn't mean we've all got richer. When some species have crashed by up to 90% over the last 20/30 years there is something seriously wrong in the countryside and a snide comment from an NFU mouthpiece won't convince me otherwise.

  • Completely agree with Gert,Mirlo always complains about farmers and gets facts wrong which are farmers comply with what is asked of them,what you wildlife lovers need to do is recognise that a border of relatively sterile grass round a hedgerow is a waste of time compared with the wild bird mixture seeds that surprisingly GrahamHawker gets completely wrong and he needs to check out how productive Arne RSPB patch of wild bird mixture was in late February for hundreds of small birds and interestingly have never seen any of those larger birds on it when we visit,sorry Graham you got that completely wrong.I have come to the conclusion the RSPB make the figures look worse than they are to put pressure on farmers to do more not realising farmers do NOT have to do anything completely voluntary and not profitable,all that happens when they,Mirlo and others kick them is that farmers are likely to do less,really ridiculous.

    If you say what farmers are doing is no good ask the E U to change what they are asking of farmers as obviously farmers are going to do what it is that they are paid for.As usual Mirlo,others and RSPB got it wrong way round.Repeat all farmers in scheme only get paid these grants if they do what is asked of them.

    REALLY REALLY SIMPLE STUFF.For goodness sake if you are unhappy you have to get the rules changed.  

  • Gert - yes HLS is fine generally. ELS is where my problem is.

  • Well, I've not got the best twitchers eyes but I reckon I counted 36 british bird species in the video.  26 are listed as common breeding birds on page 19 of the RSPBs State of UK birds. Of those 26 listed, 14 are increasing in terms of long term trend and 12 decreasing.

    If thats 'nature in big trouble' I think the Advertising Standards Agency need to have another look at the RSPBs claims.    

  • I have to strongly disagree with Mirlo and GrahamHawker. I have seen Higher Level stewardship make significant differences to bird, mammal and plant populations on farms where these are fully embraced. To say we simply abandon these for some other conservation projects oversees is defeatist in the extreme and sends completely the wrong message in this country. I agree that Entry Level schemes are open to 'abuse' in the sense that easy option will be chosen which will make little or no difference but it's all down to farmers embracing the spirit of it rather than a problem with the system per se.

    The answer is certainly not to preserve some farms in aspic as some form of model reserve whilst the rest of agricultural land is allowed to be fully exploited. The whole point is that the landscape outside of reserves need to be connected to allow species to move and increase.

    If you want to read a book on how we've managed to trash our countryside in this country I'd recommend Graham Harvey's (he's the agricultural editor for the Archers amongst other things) Killing of the Countryside or Marion Shoards Theft of the Countryside. Let's not abandon the precious little wildlife we have left in this country please.

  • There certainly seems to be a ground swell of support among "the troops" for another rainforest project like Harapan and Gola before too long, assuming funds permit. Maybe funding support from the EU?

  • I agree with Mirlo, it's clear that some of these environmental schemes are a waste of money. Heard a great talk by Alan Larkman of Oxfordshire Ornithological Society recently. One of the main problems is that we can grow seed crops for birds but this is great for pigeons, jackdaws and pheasants while the small birds are out-competed. There's little or no effect on populations of smaller farmland birds and they still starve in January, February and March as by then the seeds are all eaten. So we need fields with lots of small weed seeds. Or as they have done provided feeding stations especially for tree sparrows which has significantly helped the population.

    On topic, stepping up is OK but many opportunities to do this will be lost as local projects lose funding so again the Government say great idea but provide no support, let local government withdraw support and leave it to the charities to do the best they can.

  • I agree with Essex Peasant , a nice video and I would say to him probably any of the birds in the video that can be classed as farmland birds have probably declined. Why we continue to throw money at farmers for environmental improvements or rather waste this  money I do not know. All the figures seem to indicate that these payments are not doing the slightest bit of good for our wildlife. Certainly for overwintering birds such as tree sparrows,reed bunting, yellowhammers etc it seems that it is better to buy a bag of mixed cereal grains and throw these onto a bit of stubble to attract many more birds than much farmland in environmental schemes. Please can the government spend some of this money on buying up some farmland and managing it similar to Hope Farm. Can we not have some farm national nature reserves?.

    To talk about biodiversity loss always confuses me. Generally it should mean the loss of a species through extinction, but it seems to be more often used as biodiversity loss on an area of habitat where I guess it means not so many NUMBERS of each species in this specific habitat, but also perhaps fewer species as well. Maybe we need some new words.

    I think it is great that the RSPB stepping up for Nature Campaign is to encompass global environmental problems more than in the past. Regarding tropical forests ( and I am pleased it wasn't stated as tropical RAIN forest) I feel that this should be concerned with both protection of existing tropical forest but also and perhaps as an even greater component the restoration of trashed tropical forests.

    Bob Philpott who is a regular contributor to this blog advised me to read a book called Green Phoenix Restoring the tropical forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. I did this and it is an excellent book and shows just what it is possible to achieve. In summary the book describes how several enthusiastic and passionate conservationists, scientists and government officials worked together to develop Guanacaste Conservation area in Northern Costa Rica. It started off in 1989 as Santa Rosa National park at 39 square miles and developed over the next 11 years into 463 square miles of protected land and 290 square miles of protected marine area. Most of the land area had been heavily degraded mainly dry tropical  forest with only a few trees remaining. The forest revival has been extremely successful and the mix of dry forest rainforest and cloud forest gives life to 235,000 species or more of plants and animals. Many other species have been saved from local extinction that still remain unknown to science.

    The main promoter of the Guanacaste scheme was an ecologist called Daniel Jantzen. He was an exceptional fundraiser on a worldwide basis and raised 3.5 million dollars which was exchanged in a complex debt for nature deal and eventually the project had turned the initial $3.5 million sum into more than $17 million and now this project has a vast endowment which will maintain the conservation area almost indefinitely. As an aside the conservation area employs hundreds of people and is one of the biggest employers in the area. Definitely a recommended book.

    As i said in a previous blog if we redirect DEFRAs environmental payments to UK farmers to tropical forest restoration schemes we will be doing more for global biodiversity than what we waste the money on in this country.

    About bringing biofuels from the tropics to the UK; i feel this is so wrong and believe that biomass for biofuels should be produced locally . If we buy biofuels transported half way around the world we just do not fully understand the environmental implications involved in  their production

  • An excellent day Mark, I would think you and the team are feeling a bit tackered today! As mentioned,  if the RSPB, together with our Bird Life International colleagues in say, Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, etc can have as much success and influence in the EU in the next few years with all the important issues coming up there, as recently in the UK that would be really something. To that end good luck.

  • Mark,

    really liked the stepping up for nature video.

    A little test for you, of the british bird species featured in the video, how many have increased, how many have been stable and how many have decreased since 1980?