Northumberland didn't disappoint. It rarely does. The rain stayed away and although the wind was strong, the skies were big. The seabirds were, as ever, spectacular - none more so than the gannets. Although the boats stayed in the harbour, I spent two delightful evenings watching the gannets do what they do best - go fishing. But it is more than fishing - it is aerial harpooning.
Staying at the hut meant that I missed my very brief cameo performance on Countryfile (it's about 20 minutes in) talking about farmland wildlife. While some continue to want to investigate the impacts of predation, the RSPB is convinced that the fortunes of farmland birds could be turned around by making environmental stewardship more effective. And this is why we are delighted that Defra has been looking into this very issue. They have even given the project its own acronym - MESME. I know, it is a little odd.
But advice will soon be given to ministers and we await their verdict with interest. In its coalition agreement, the UK Government stated that it was committed to "restoring biodiversity". They don't have much money at the moment, so they need to make sure existing subsidies work much harder for wildlife.
In one of his final blog entries, my predecessor laid down this gauntlet to Defra ministers:
"We need government to make it easier for farmers to do the very best things and more difficult to do things that don't add up to much wildlife benefit. That is a Big Government job - it's 'Big Money' and it ought to provide 'Bigger Wildlife Outputs'. And so, what Defra needs to do is to adjust the details of the Entry Level Scheme so that it is just a little bit more testing for farmers (not very much at all - we aren't talking thumbscrews here) and a lot more productive for wildlife. Simple ask - if the Defra Ministers are reading this blog (and I'm sure that they will have this pointed out to them) - that's what I'd like as a leaving present please. But it's not for me - it's for wildlife, it's for good value from public spending and it's not against farmers. "
Even if ministers weren't mesmerised by Mark's blog, I do hope that they are convinced of the logic of tweaking the scheme so that wildlife benefits.
Stop press – some good news in today!
Just over 4 years after the event, we’ve finally been compensated for expenses incurred by our response to the Napoli incident, back in January 2007. For most people the enduring image from the Napoli incident might be the cargo looting that took place on Branscombe beach, with opportunists rolling away full kegs of beer, and dragging out brand new motorbikes from the containers that were washed ashore after the Napoli was beached.
But for us what sticks in the mind most is the toll on local bird life – with thousands of oiled birds as a result of the incident (just over 2,200 were counted by our staff and volunteers during the event – but many more will never have been spotted). And this is from a minor incident that spilt very little oil, certainly no Deepwater Horizon...
While our ‘compensation’ does not exactly cover our actual expenditure over the event, and certainly doesn’t cover the effects on local birdlife, it’s great to know that there is at least a process in place to make the polluter pay. This is something that just wouldn’t have happened in the past – so we’re pleased to have stuck with the cost recovery process, even if it did take 4 years, making our point that all the efforts to deal with the environmental impacts of the Napoli deserve recognition and recompense. It wasn’t just about the motorbikes.
Just my luck. The rain has come and the wind has picked up. This afternoon (after watching the boy perform as a clown in the school show), I am off up north to our hut on the Northumberland Coast for the long weekend. I had planned to take the kids on a seabird trip out to Coquet Island or the Farne Islands (pictured in sunnier times) but I think the boats are unlikely to go out in this weather.
But, if you are stranded indoors this weekend and you are still in need of a wildlife fix, there is some good news. Springwatch is back on the telly on Monday night. And this year it is coming from one of RSPB's nature reserves - Ynys Hir. It's a fantastic site - a mix of Welsh oak woodland with wet grassland and saltmarshes. I think armchair naturalists are in for a real treat.
A week or so ago, the prospect of Springwatch at the end of May seemed a little odd - we appeared to be entering mid-summer. But, now that the dark clouds have finally arrived, we can sit back, relax and hopefully enjoy nature being amazing from the comfort of our living rooms.
BBC Springwatch is on Monday at 8pm, BBC2. Follow our Ynys-hir blog for behind-the-scenes news from the reserve.
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is not going to disappoint. I promise you. But you'll have to wait a little longer - 'til the launch on Thursday 2 June - to get the full picture.
Bob Watson - Defra's Chief Scientist - posed a fascinatig question today. Can you think of any major enviromental problem that has been solved by behviour change alone without relying on incentives and/or regulation?
It's an important question. And if the answer is no, then this has consequences for future government policy - for ending peat use in horticulture, for lead in ammunition, for recovering farmland birds, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and for... well, the Big Society!
I’m off to get a sneak preview of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) today. “The National Eco what?” I hear you say, as you no doubt stifle a yawn and hover your mouse over the x in the top right corner of the screen.
Wait...bear with me...it really is quite interesting. The NEA is being launched next week and we think it’s great. It’s the first complete assessment of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to our prosperity and social well-being. It provides the case for why it pays to invest in the natural world.
Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we, especially as many RSPB scientists and economists contributed to the report. The NEA has been produced by a wide number of stakeholders, from government, academia and the private sector, as well as from NGOs like us.
Given that it’s not a political or policy document, it’s great that politicians seem to like it too. Oliver Letwin does anyway. He said last month, in this article from the Western Gazette, that it made him “gasp for breath”. Now Mr. Letwin has been an MP since 1997, and has probably seen a few things in his time that would make the average person’s hair curl, so I don’t imagine many things leave him feeling light-headed these days.
We have long argued that the value of nature needs to be recognised in decision-making. Some of the benefits are obvious. We can value apples and fish, for example, in monetary terms because we buy and sell them. And ecosystem services, like the complex biological processes that that create nutrient-rich soil and clean water have an economic value too.
Other benefits though, like the value many of us place on the sheer existence of different species, is far harder to gauge in monetary terms, yet are just as significant. Capturing it in some kind of national well-being index is one thing, but the intrinsic value of nature needs to be taken into account across the full spectrum of government policy.
We will never be able to express the full range of nature’s value in pounds and pence. And we probably wouldn’t want to, as putting a price on a bird, or a butterfly, is a potentially slippery slope. The idea of ecosystem services must complement, not replace, the ethical and scientific justifications for protecting nature.
Here’s hoping Mr. Letwin manages to replenish his lungs quickly, so he can be equally enthusiastic when he discusses the NEA with his Cabinet colleagues. And hopefully he can sell them the benefits of protecting and restoring the natural world, as he apparently managed to do in securing the Green Investment Bank.
See? It is quite interesting. No, really, it IS. And there’s more to come, as June will see a policy pile-up that could have huge implications for wildlife and the natural environment. I’ll return to this subject very soon....