One of the joys of starting a new job is to be able to inherit the success of others.
Hope Farm is perhaps one of my predecessors' great legacies. Bought in 2001, thanks to the generosity of RSPB members, we have managed to demonstrate that it is possible to run a profitable arable farm and restore farmland wildlife. I was there on Friday filming for Countryfile. John Craven was putting together a package on farmland birds to be shown on telly on 29 May. It was great to meet John and even better to be able to celebrate the fact that over the past decade we have tripled the number of farmland birds on our farm.
Populations of skylarks, yellowhammer, linnets, reed bunting and starlings have all increased, while grey partridge, yellow wagtail, lapwing, turtle dove have all returned to the farm. And this year, greeted with much excitement, we also have a pair of corn bunting.
We've done all this while still returning great wheat yields.
So what's the secret of our success? Well lots of praise should go to the farm managers we have had over the years - especially Chris Bailey who moves on to a new job within the RSPB in Scotland later this summer. But it is simple really, we have put 3% of our farm into Entry Level Stewardship Scheme (ELS) - a government grant scheme available to all farmers. This subsidy allows us to get paid to get the basics right for farmland birds: habitat which provides somewhere to nest, food in spring/summer as well as food in the winter.
If it is that simple, why aren't farmland birds doing much better across the whole country?
Unfortunately, not all the options in the the schemes are effective. This is why the UK Government is currently reviewing the scheme. We are encouraging them to concentrate on scheme quality, ensuring all agreements contain a minimum of the best options for wildlife, while ensuring that farmers get better advice about what's appropriate for their their farm.
My predecessor was convinced that if you could get ELS working more efficiently, you could see farmland bird numbers rise again - offering more people a chance to enjoy the sountrack to spring and summer.
Have a great Sunday.
P.S. This blog will be silent for three days until Thursday 19 May. The RSPB computer people have some maintenance/upgrade work to do. After a couple of weeks in the new job, I might ask them to reboot me as well.
Today, the RSPB has joined forces with fourteen other organisations to send the Prime Minister a letter - a kind of end-of-year exam to let him know how he's getting on.
Not surprisingly, it's a bit mixed. There are good things, bad things and quite a lot that's simply too early to judge. We think we've been pretty fair and we're not trying to make a political point. The planet desperately needs the Coalition Government to succeed. We're willing to work with the UK Government to help them make the right decisions, but we'll continue to challenge them when we think they are deviating from their green ambitions.
To help bring our letter to life, here are a few examples of what’s gone really well, a few "could do betters" and one where the Government may need to stay behind after school for extra coaching. It’s a mixed picture, but certainly enough to build on next year.
Let’s start with...
WHAT WENT WELL?
1. Funding for farmland wildlife: We lobbied hard to protect the higher-level scheme during the Comprehensive Spending Review and were pleased that Defra decided to save it - although many farmers with excellent applications are still being turned down for the scheme. At the same time nature conservation needs more investment from innovative sources, particularly if the Government’s commitments to “protect wildlife ... and restore biodiversity” are to work.
2. Nagoya biodiversity summit: Caroline Spelman did a good job negotiating the Nagoya biodiversity deal, committing countries to halting wildlife decline across the globe by 2020. The challenge now is to go to the 2012 Rio+20 Summit armed with evidence of real progress in recovering lost biodiversity at home.
WHAT NEEDS MORE EFFORT OR TOO EARLY TO JUDGE?
3. Planning reform: Reforming the planning system to prioritise growth is a definite threat to the environment in England. Growth can't be at all costs - the need for new jobs and homes must not be at the expense of the environment. It's a difficult balance, but it's important that planning laws recognise that the environment has a value all of its own.
4. The Natural Environment White Paper: This will be published next month and we have been promised that it would be "bold and ambitious". We'll be watching with interest. We are hoping to welcome a white paper that sets out clear measures of progress and success and that has the support of government departments beyond Defra.
5. Delivering sustainable onshore wind power: More effort needed from the Coalition on this if it is going to fulfil its ambitions. Approval rates for onshore wind are falling, as conflicts with wildlife conservation increase. Planning reform threatens to make it worse. The solution? Putting wind farms in the right place would be a good start, so the government needs a decent strategy for doing just that.
6. The Green Deal: We all want low carbon homes, but we won't get these without the right investment. The Green Deal is a flagship coalition policy that should unlock funds and help all of us to slash our emissions and energy bills. But we'll all play hard to get unless the Government offers us something genuinely attractive that allows us to borrow funds easily and at super-low interest rates.
7. Green Investment Bank: The ambition for the GIB has been scaled back. It has been relegated from a bank to a fund with no borrowing powers until 2015. That's not much use. It needs to be an independent bank with borrowing capabilities. And it needs to be enterprising, funding pro-environmental investments in all sectors of the economy instead of being confined to predictable carbon-related initiatives.
8. Green Fiscal Reform: Not good. The Government promised to increase the proportion of the tax revenue coming from green taxes. It sounded promising, but they reduced fuel duty, froze Air Passenger Duty and ignored calls for a peat levy. We all need a bit of encouragement to live in a cleaner, greener way and tax reform is a good way to encourage us to think more about energy efficiency and reduce our consumption. The Government must stick to its pledge and offer us all some green incentives please.
WHAT'S IN TROUBLE?
9. Marine Protected Areas: The UK is an internationally important site for many seabird species. But thirty years after the deadline was set in the EU Birds Directive, we have only three marine sites protected for wintering seabirds, and none for foraging birds in the breeding season. This really isn't good enough. We need to designate known sites immediately, and move swiftly to identify the remaining sites. One of the first steps would be systematic surveys at sea to fill the gaping holes in the data needed to do this.
So, has Cameron passed his first year exam? He has probably scraped a pass, based more on effort than achievement. And he's a new boy, so we're giving him the benefit of the doubt. But he will need to do better in his second year, or he'll be letting himself down, the school down, and, more importantly, the whole of the environment down.
From the RSPB examiners
P.S. For the purposes of this school report, we will be kind and ignore the aberration that is the Red Tape Challenge. We hope and expect Mr Cameron will recognise the error of his ways and scrap the Challenge rather than biodiveristy laws.
I've started my new job as Conservation Director of the RSPB today.
I feel lucky to be doing a job that I love with a bunch of brilliant people around me.
My challenge is simple: to try to protect and build on Mark Avery's legacy and do more to look after the millions of species with with we share this planet. Mark has made an enormous contribution to the RSPB and nature conservation over the past quarter of a century. Having worked with him closely for more than a decade - he was my boss for the last seven - I, and I know many others, will miss his passion, insight and plain-speaking.
One thing I won't thank Mark for is the in-tray that I have inherited. Those of you who have enjoyed reading his top twenty sticky issues will appreciate that the environment movement, and the RSPB in particular, has its work cut out to help and cajole governments to meet their ambitious commitment to halt biodiversity loss and begin its recovery by the end of the decade. The political climate is not easy - there is currently little money to go around, successive governments have pursued a deregulatory agenda and pressures on modern life mean that there is less time for people to stop, think and appreciate the wonders of the natural world. But I am an optimist: most of the problems facing wildlife - from non-native species to climate change - are fixable. We know what needs to be done, but often leadership and political will are lacking.
I will work with my new boss, Mike Clarke, to ensure that the RSPB does whatever it needs with political intelligence, creativity and courage. I am sure that any of you reading this will tell me when we fall short.
A resounding victory for SNP in Scotland, a stronger Labour in Wales, a night of mixed fortunes for the parties in the local elections and a rejection of a new voting system. The count in Northern Ireland is underway.
As ever, it will take time for the implications of the results to become clear - particulalry for the UK Coalition Government. But we know some things already such as the new cast list of AMs and MSPs and the likely programme of government which is spelt out in the manifestos spell of SNP and Labour. The striking SNP manifesto commitment to secure 100% of electricity from renewable resources by 2020 is one which we support and will be working hard to ensure that this is done in harmony with the natural environment.
I and some colleagues were lucky enough to be at the Senedd in Cardiff yesterday as the results were coming in (Carwyn Jones, the First Minister in Wales was moving between cameras doing interviews - no doubt wondering if only Labour had secured one more seat they'd have a majority). It is a wonderful building, open and accessible with the public allowed to mingle with the politicians and look in on the chamber and committee rooms. It is so different from the atmosphere at Westminster where the public does not have the same freedom to wander without being challenged (or at least steered with a firm hand).
But wherever there are politicians, the RSPB tries to develop relationships with them - across the political spectrum. This is why it is always sad (and sometimes frustrating) at election times when friends that you have worked with for years step down or lose their seat. But a fresh intake of politicians can bring a fresh perspective. Colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will now be setting up a programme of meetings to introduce themesleves and the RSPB to these new elected representatives. Our hope is that they will want to become voices for nature and we'll help them do that..
It's quite a week to start a new job. There are five elections going on - separate elections for national governments in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, local elections and a referendum on a new voting system. Today and tomorrow, I'll offer a couple of thoughts on what these elections might mean for the environment.
Let's start with the country elections. Devolution has been a reality for much of my working career. But I do remember lobbying the old Scottish Office on seal conservation issues in the mid-1990s and wondering whether change in powers would affect nature. It is odd to think that now any seal, be it common or grey, will be protected under different bits of legislation depending on where it decides to swim. Am not sure they're particularly bothered, but, as nature conservationists, we have to care about and know how the law affects species wherever they live in the UK.
When environmental powers shifted north and west in the late 1990s, it created many challenges and opportunities. The challenge for environmental NGOs was to get increased capacity in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff to influence policy-making and decision-taking. The opportunity was that, if we were smart, there would be a race to the top for environmental legislation.
In the early days, the RSPB recruited wisely, including people like Andy Myles as a parliamentary officer in Scotland. Andy was a political insider who understood the impact devolution would have and began the, at times, tortuous process of educating and training colleagues about the new reality. Colleagues clocked on eventually: when new environmental laws were agreed in Europe, they would need to be tranposed (agreed through secondary legislation) separately by each of the countries; and if we wanted to improve the protection and management of our finest wildlife sites (which in the late 1990s we did), we would need to fight for new laws not only in Westminster (for England and Wales) but also in Holyrood and Stormont.
Andy (who is now works as Scottish Environment Link's Parliamentary Officer) and others fast-tracked our learning so that more than a decade on we work closely with each of the political parties in the countries to try to ensure that their policies benefit wildlife.
As a charity we cannot and do not take sides. But we do try to influence the party manifestos. You can see what we want them to do and what they've been saying by visiting the election pages of our website. These elections matter for wildlife and I am delighted that RSPB members are inclined to vote - 96% at the last time of asking.