Other than a few fleeting mentions in the media, the furore around the future of England’s public forest estate seems to have simmered. The Independent Panel on Forestry has started to examine the issues and a few public pressure groups have mobilised. But it certainly isn’t the political hot potato that it was in February and March of this year.
But it’s important that we don’t forget about it. As we said repeatedly earlier in the year, it’s a complicated issue and our views on it can’t be fitted comfortably onto a placard. But basically we want to make sure that, whatever happens, we get the best possible outcome for wildlife, habitats and people. And then it’s about finding the best possible way of achieving this.
The results of a recent re-survey of deciduous woodland bird populations showed that 9 out of 34 bird species have suffered serious declines. Some, such as willow tit, have declined by more than 70%, one of the largest bird declines in any UK habitat. Changes in the structure of woodlands, caused by a lack of management, are thought to have had the biggest influence. And it’s not just birds - alarming declines in woodland butterfly and plant species have also been recorded.
The Forestry Panel for England will need to address any shortcomings in the management of our woodlands if these iconic landscapes, and the wildlife that lives in them, are to have a secure future.
So, what do we want?
We’d like to see improved woodland management for rare and threatened wildlife, through the protection, restoration and extension of our native woods and priority open habitats, such as heathland.
We also need to ensure that the right trees are in the right places. This may sound a bit odd, but some important habitats have been overplanted with the wrong species of trees, often to provide commercial timber. Planting of non-native conifers has damaged some our most important habitats – both ancient woodland and heathland.
It’s shocking to realise that over 80% of England’s heathland has been lost over the past 200 years, which has had a devastating impact on the wildlife that depends on it. We’d like to see these special and important places restored and see an increase in heathland species like the woodlark, Dartford warbler, sand lizard and heath tiger beetle. And restoring our ancient woodlands could benefit species such as hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker and the glorious purple emperor butterfly.
And it’s not just about the wildlife. It’s also about you and me. Woods and forests need to be managed with people in mind, providing local areas for recreation, education and the enjoyment of wildlife.
The Forestry Commission does some things well, but there are quite a few things that need to be fixed. For example, an area of heathland and ancient woodland almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight continues to be damaged by conifer plantations on FC-managed land.
These are some of the issues that we will be asking the Forestry Panel to consider. What do you think?
Part of the RSPB's mission is to raise awareness of nature conservation and to do that we need a cracking media team and an abundance of good stories. We are not short of either.
It was a good news week last week, and we very nearly featured in in a soap too. The Observer printed a feature about the land grabbing that's happening in Kenya's Tana Delta to make way for crops for biofuels. We arranged for the paper's writer to visit the Tana Delta with Nature Kenya to see first-hand the affect it was having on the people who lived there and the wildlife.
In The Sunday Times , AA Gill compared BBC's coverage of Glastonbury to that of Springwatch and asked 'Who'd have thought that rock 'n' roll would turn into the urban, middle-aged wing of the RSPB?' - I think we'll take that as a compliment...
The BBC covered our story about data from the satellite-tracked seabirds in Scotland showing that they're travelling further for food. This is all part of our FAME project (Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment) and as time goes on will hopefully give us answers to why we've seen some dramatic declines in numbers of these birds. Also on Tuesday BBC 2 aired a programme called The Truth About Wildlife, where Chris Packham took a look at the nation's wildlife and its conservation. The episode focused on farming and the decline of many farmland species. The RSPB's Cath Jeffs was interviewed about the red-listed cirl bunting.
The Daily Telegraph (the article's not online, unfortunately) reported how we've been working closely with the Forestry Commission to create an osprey-friendly environment in Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland and how this week all that hard work's paid off. In a breakthrough for bird conservation, a second pair of ospreys have produced a chick, which means it's the only place in England in more than 170 years where more than one pair of naturally recolonising ospreys have bred successfully at the same time.
I wrote a letter to The Times after reading an article in the paper on Monday entitled "Millions more trees will be felled to fan flames of the wood-burner revolution". I think sustainable wood fuel has its place, but we need tight rules to ensure we don't destroy forests overseas to produce biomass so we can meet our renewable energy targets. I said as much in my letter and the paper printed it on Wednesday.
Despite lots of householders, building companies, and local authorities doing great things to help swifts as they spend the summer in the UK, it seems that many people are doing all they can to stop them breeding successfully. We've learned of people going to unbelievable lengths to stop the birds getting access to nest sites, such as putting up spikes, scaffolding, and plastic and we told Radio 5 Live all about it when one of our media officers was interviewed on Thursday morning.
And finally, I mentioned how we (kind of) appeared in a soap this week. Well, those of you that listen to The Archers may have heard Kirsty and Pat discussing the positive results of Patrick's bird survey and how excited they got when they discovered numbers going up. OK, so they didn't actual mention the RSPB by name, but we all know what they meant!
We'll see what next week brings. As things stand at the moment, I am due to be in the Today programme tomorrow morning talking about the Our Rivers campaign and on You and Yours on Thursday talking about biomass. Things may scupper these plans, but it is always good when our work is noticed and picked up by the press.
I have mixed feelings about the EU Budget announcement.
I feel frustrated that once again the European Commission has failed to come up with a budget to tackle the environmental challenges we face. Yet, I feel relieved that our worst fears about cuts to funding for wildlife-friendly farming have been largely allayed. And, I also feel proud about the way that the RSPB, working closely through BirdLife International, our supporters (over 8,000 of them) and many farmers spoke up for nature by contacting Mr Barroso directly.
Their support has helped retain most of the existing pot of cash for activities which can improve the environment. But we were looking for so much more.
I am not convinced that the funding and proposed reforms will be sufficient for the EU (or indeed the UK for that matter) to fulfil its many environmental commitments to reversing wildlife declines or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is notoriously difficult to interpret the Budget figures, our economists have managed to draw out the following headlines:
You can read the Commission's proposals here. I will direct you to the RSPB analysis as soon as it is on our website.
But this is just the beginning of a long process.
The Council of Ministers now get their say. And once the Council and the Commission reach agreement, the EU Parliament still needs to give it the nod. The key completion date is the end of 2013 when the current budget term expires.
So it is clear that we will have to roll up our sleeves and step up again for nature by lobbying governments and MEPs to honour Europe’s environmental commitments. We'll keep campaigning to defend what we have, to seek improvement and ultimately to deliver a brighter future for Euorpe's wildlife.
England is currently undergoing the most radical overhaul of its planning system in a generation, and today marks an important stage in this process.
Today the UK Government launched its own draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – an important document that will provide the national context for local planning decisions. It is slimmed down guidance, replacing over a thousand existing pages of national planning policy with around fifty.
All that might ring a few bells if you’ve been trying to follow the UK Government’s planning reforms. For just two short months ago, a small group of expert practitioners, tasked by ministers at the department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), with my colleague Simon Marsh amongst them, published their draft of the NPPF.
The critical difference is that today’s publication is the Government’s own draft. Whilst this bears more than a passing resemblance to that produced by the practitioners’ group, there have been a number of significant changes.
Before I get ahead of myself and into the devil of the detail, today’s launch provides a moment to take stock of where we are. Consolidating national policy is enough of a challenge to get right, but today’s draft NPPF offers two other important milestones for the English planning system.
Firstly, it formally marks the government’s desired shift in the emphasis on planning decisions, placing one factor – economic growth – higher than others in decision-making. Of course, the draft NPPF isn’t the first indication of this trend – let us not forget clause 124 of the Localism Bill which I blogged about here.
It is understandable why some are clamering for economic growth, but we must have the right checks and balances in place to ensure this does not come at the expense of nature. It is already clear that the draft NPPF fails to put in place the measures necessary to ensure that the purpose of planning really is ‘to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’. It is therefore unfit for its own, self-defined, purpose.
Secondly, it also marks a lost opportunity to use the NPPF to support the Government's ambitions to restore the natural environment as outlined in the Natural Environment White Paper. The RSPB has long argued that the NPPF should be ‘spatial’ – to help decide how to maximise the value that our natural resources offers us. This would help us guide development to the most appropriate locations, thus avoiding conflict, as well as identifying areas which would be suitable for restoring wildlife to England.
We will be pouring over the draft in some detail over the next few days, and I may come back to this subject over the next few days.
For now, despite the strong, and welcome, references to restoring the natural environment in Greg Clark’s foreword, the draft NPPF is effectively green-wash. During the consultattion phase, the balance of truly sustainable development - which helps us to live within environmental limits - needs to be restored.
Yesterday, the BTO, JNCC and RSPB published the latest Breeding Bird Survey results. This updates trends in the UK's widespread breeding birds up to 2010. At a time when we are being encouraged to think differently about how people can help the State deliver public services, it is worth remembering that the BBS would not happen without volunteers. Last year, 2,519 volunteers helped to collect the data to inform the report. They would each have invested about six hours of fieldwork. They will have made two early-morning visits to their randomly selected 1-km square during the April-June survey period and will have recorded all birds encountered while walking two 1-km transects across their square. Together, these volunteers managed to record data from 3,239 1-km squares. A fantastic achievement.
Our view is that this form of monitoring is essential to identify current conservation problems, allowing us to decide among competing priorities for deployment of limited resources. By providing information on the trends of individual species biodiversity monitoring tells us which species we need to worry about. It also provides information to help us assess whether we are living sustainably by keeping an eye on how the other species on which we share this planet are faring.
And the BBS is one of the most powerful surveys we have. By using birds as an indicator of wider biodiversity, it provides a snapshot of the health of the natural environment. And, because this is the sixteenth year that the BBS has been running, the survey is able to detect trends in populations to help assess effectiveness of conservation policy and practice.
Here are the headlines from this year's results:
It's too easy to take this information for granted. But just imagine if we didn't have this system. We would have no meaningful way to understand the health of the natural world and no means of working out which species were in trouble to enable us to allocate finite conservation resources. So the 2,519 people who annually give up six hours of their time every spring to collect information about birds are doing us all a huge favour. They are the genuine heros that make up our big birding society.