Today the NFU launches a new campaign called Farming Delivers. At the time of writing, I know little about the campaign but I have a feeling that there is a clue in the title and the staging posts of the website: farming delivers for the economy, Britain, the environment, clean energy, animal welfare, food security, world peace etc.
I jest. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.
Centuries of farming helped create the wildlife and landscapes which we love. But changes in agriculture practice led to wildlife declines. We trust the NFU's new campaign will put wildlife at the heart of its vision for the future of farming. The stakes have never been higher, some farmland species such as turtle dove and corn bunting are on the brink. Farmers are working with us to help put the wildlife back and the NFU's campaign should strive to support those farmers who want to put food on the table and wildlife in the landscape.
I started this year at the Oxford Farming Conference, talking about how to find a better balance between agricultural production and conservation. Several reports have come out in recent years highlighting the unprecedented challenges facing the food system, including IAASTD’s Agriculture at a Crossroads (2009), the Government Office for Science Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming (2011) and the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on Sustainable Food (2012).
All of these reports conclude that action will be needed on many fronts simultaneously if we are to end hunger and build a more sustainable food system. This includes action on biodiversity loss and ecosystem services, climate change, poverty and livelihoods, governance of the food system, health and nutrition, equity (including reducing consumption in rich countries), investment into agricultural research and development and reducing waste in all parts of the food chain.
These reports also emphasise the environmental degradation that has resulted and is resulting from intensive agriculture. Other reports have reinforced this point. The National Ecosystem Assessment (UNEP-WCMC, 2010) showed that increases in UK agricultural production to date have been associated with an increase in external environmental costs and have been at the expense of other ecosystem services. The European Nitrogen Assessment (European Science Foundation, 2010) concluded that the overall environmental costs of nitrogen pollution in Europe outweigh the direct economic benefits of nitrogen fertiliser in agriculture.
We need to work out what all this means for food and farming in the UK. What changes need to happen to ensure a sustainable future for the countryside, with profitable farming businesses, thriving rural communities, and healthy soils, clean water and flourishing wildlife? At the same time, how can we best play our part in the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population?
To help find the answers to some of these questions, the RSPB is participating in Defra's Green Food Project. In the Natural Environment White Paper the Government made a commitment to bring together stakeholders to discuss how to reconcile the aims of increasing food production and improving the environment. The RSPB is one of these stakeholders, taking part alongside other environmental, food and farming organisations.
We have been leading one of the working groups looking at case studies in different parts of the country. In each case study area we looked at conflicts and synergies between producing food and taking care of the environment, and discussed how land management could change to improve the balance. The conclusions of the Green Food Project are due to be published in July.
From our group’s work, I think it comes back to what I talked about at the Oxford Farming Conference: there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to the challenges facing farming. We have a diverse landscape in terms of soil, climate and other factors, so the way we farm also has to be diverse. This will help us to get the best our of our land – the full range of services including food, clean water, biodiversity and carbon storage – and to stay within environmental limits so that farming is sustainable for the long term.
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about how farming needs to change – actually achieving these changes on the ground brings a whole new set of challenges. Society expects a lot out of farming – safe, nutritious food; a healthy countryside; thriving farmland wildlife – and farmers have to perform a complicated juggling act every day to try to meet all their different objectives. They are supported and influenced by regulations, agri-environment schemes, advice and information. Farmers and wider society will need to work together to find the best ways of making sure farming delivers what we all need.
I wish the NFU well with its campaign.
Have a look and tell me what you think.
It would be great to hear your views.
Defra wants to spend close to £400,000 of taxpayers’ money (that’s our money) on a trial in England to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults. You can read the Defra tender document here.
I want to tell you why I think that this approach is fundamentally flawed, why I am angry and why we need help to call on Ministers to think again.
Buzzards are one of the nation's best loved birds of prey. I remember as a boy walking on the Long Mynd being inspired by seeing a buzzard soar over head and I've always had a soft spot for these fabulous animals.
In the early 19th century, buzzards were a common sight throughout the UK, but persecution resulted in widespread declines and by 1875, they remained only in western Britain. Subsequent recovery was undermined in the late 1950s, when rabbit populations were decimated by myxomatosis and it was not until the 1990s that the rate of spread accelerated, with birds recolonising much of their former range.
Happily for me and for anyone else who loves these birds, buzzards now breed in every UK county. It is a sad fact in some areas the rate of expansion has been restricted illegally. Buzzards are still the most persecuted bird of prey, with 291 having been confirmed as poisoned in the last 10 years. And as always with wildlife crime, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.
But not everyone loves buzzards.
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Buzzards will take pheasant poults, given the opportunity. Although generally scanvengers, buzzards can be lazy and will take the easiest meal available – no different to you or I nipping down to the fish and chip shop to save cooking. Current estimates suggest that pheasant shooting leads to 40 million non-native gamebirds being released into the countryside, often at very high densities. The result is a meat feast that any self-respecting buzzard is unlikely to ignore. So how many pheasants do buzzards eat? An independent report for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) found that on average only 1-2% of pheasant poults were taken by birds of prey. This is tiny compared to the numbers which die from other causes, like disease or being run over on the road (which accounts for about 3 million pheasants a year). Even if predation levels are higher in a few instances, there are plenty of legal, non-contentious techniques for reducing predation, which don’t involve destroying nests or confining wild birds to a life spent in captivity. Scaring devices, visual deterrents, more vegetation and diversionary feeding of buzzards could all make a difference, if done well. A few years ago we endorsed a BASC produced guidance note advising gamekeepers on how to reduce bird of prey predation using some of these techniques.
And is capturing buzzards likely to work? If you swat a wasp, but leave a pot of sticky honey open to the air, it won't be long before another wasp takes its place. The same is true of buzzards. Two gamekeepers previously employed on the Kempton estate in Shropshire were convicted of, amongst other things, illegally killing buzzards in 2007. They had killed over 100 buzzards in less than six months in one small part of Shropshire. As soon as one buzzard was removed, another (ill-fated) buzzard took its place. We think that the research project is the wrong answer to address what we see as a minor problem.
We think Defra is taking the proverbial sledgehammer to a walnut in reacting to calls from a small part of the pheasant shooting community to do something about buzzards.
And I am angry at what I see as bad use of public money.
At a time when there is so little to go around, when we know that there is a massive shortfall in funding required to meet the coalition government's ambition "to protect wildlife... and restore biodiversity", it seems ludicrous to be spending a large slug of public money to protect private interest.
I can think of loads of ways to spend £400,000 on nature conservation. Helping save hen harrier from extinction in England would seem a better use of cash.
I should point out that ours isn’t a knee jerk reaction. We’ve been working with Defra for a while to try to identify possible solutions for the small number of pheasant shoots that – we are told – are experiencing losses to buzzards. I genuinely hoped that we would find common ground and that I wouldn’t have to write this blog. That has not been possible.
Buzzards are a conservation success story, due in no small part to effective legal protection and a general warming of attitudes towards buzzards and other birds of prey on the part of many lowland land managers. While some will simply see this as a pilot project and will tell us not to get over-excited. I think that misses the point. If we have a perceived conflict in the countryside, let's first look at whether the conflict is real and serious and then look at the underlying causes of the conflict - in this case the release every year of c40 millions pheasants into the countryside. What are the environmental consequences of those releases? Addressing the symptom will do nothing to address underlying problems in the long term.
I would like to publicly call on Richard Benyon MP, the Minister responsible, to think again and pull the plug on this project.
If you are as angry as I am by this misguided use of public money and attack on buzzards, please step up and write to your MP and ask them to pass on your concerns to Mr Benyon. I will come back to this subject soon, and may seek your further action and support in the coming weeks.
If you do write to your MP, you may like to highlight;- Predation by buzzards is a relatively small cause of loss of pheasants- Buzzards are a native and recovering species, while pheasants are a non-native gamebird- The good that £400,000 could do for species of highest conservation concern, such as the hen harrier
I consider it a huge privilege to see buzzards nearly daily on my way to work. Let's not do anything to undermine the protection which led to their spectacular comeback.
Do you think Defra should spend c£400,000 on a trial to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults in England by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults? If not, what would you prefer them to spend the money on?
I thought I'd continue the wind theme and pass on some more statistics.
As I have written previously, we know that we will be unable to achieve our objectives for wildlife and tackling climate change unless we work smarter with others.
This applies as much to our work with energy companies as it does with farmers to reverse farmland bird declines or with fishermen to reduce seabird bycatch. We want renewable energy projects which do not harm wildlife.
We will scrutinise windfarm applications across the country, advising developers as to how they can ensure their proposals don’t damage wildlife.
The key issue that determines whether wildlife is damaged or not is where a windfarm is to be located. Sometimes, the site is simply inappropriate, and in these cases the RSPB will object to the proposal and even campaign against it. I said on Monday that from 2006-2010, we commented on 1288 wind farm applications and upheld objections to about 55 (4.3%). Well here's another statistic over a longer time period, between 2001 and 2010, we engaged in 2,174 windfarm applications and placed sustained objections on 182 of them. And here's a map showing the projects we have been consulted on (red dots cases with objections and green dots without objections ).
In recent years we have received money from renewable energy companies, as well as traditional energy companies with renewables divisions, for specific projects. These generally fall into three categories –
• Corporate partnerships which fit with our aims to promote green energy and to reduce our own carbon emissions • Funding for monitoring and research into the impact of wind farms on wildlife• Wildlife conservation and public engagement activity on reserves, funded through Corporate Social Responsibility grant schemes
Examples of the latter include a grant of £20k from Welsh Power for interpretation and infrastructure at Newport Wetlands and a £5k grant from Scottish Power Renewables for the production of a white tailed eagle educational DVD.
Monitoring and research funding projects are concentrated in Scotland and include tagging of curlews and red kites and monitoring of waders in areas around wind farms. These are generally the result of legal conditions which we have called for during the planning process. We also have a member of staff on secondment to Scottish Power Renewables helping them to ensure their developments do not impact on the wider environment.
There are two main long term corporate partnerships we have engaged in with energy companies to promote renewable energy and reduce our own carbon emissions. The first, which I highlighted on Monday, is a project with Ecotricity to build a wind turbine at the RSPB’s Lodge headquarters which is a major part of our efforts to reduce the RSPB's own carbon footprint. The only financial benefit we will receive from this partnership is a reduction in our electricity tariff at the Lodge.
The largest sum we have received from a corporate energy partner is through a ten year project with Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) which ended in 2011. RSPB Energy allowed customers to purchase renewable energy and make a donation to the RSPB at the same time and resulted in a total income for the organisation of around £1million.
Throughout this relationship we never compromised our independence and objected to several SSE wind farm proposals. The most high profile of these was the Waterhead Moor proposal in Ayrshire, Scotland, which would have been built on an entirely inappropriate site which would have harmed local wildlife, including Hen Harriers. Following our objection, SSE abandoned the proposal in 2011.
I am convinced that partnerships with energy companies are essential if they are to understand our concerns, help to provide new data, ensure that projects are implemented in ways that do not cause needless harm to wildlife and ultimately help remove our dependency on fossil fuels to help us tackle climate change.
What do you think about our relationship with energy companies?
I wrote last year that Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, might lose sleep over known threatened species which might be committed to extinction on his watch. The parlous state of Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England ought to force the Minister to jump out of bed and take action immediately.
It is clear that Hen Harrier is on the verge of extinction as a breeding bird in England. This season there has been just one known breeding attempt. This compares to four successful attempts in 2011. While it is early in the season to draw conclusions, the signs are not good.
If we lose Hen Harrier, the Government will have failed in its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to avoid human-induced extinctions of threatened species in England.
Government-commissioned research has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight. What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.
The Government has identified raptor persecution as one of six UK wildlife crime priorities, focussing on golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine and goshawk.
The RSPB is doing its best to protect hen harriers in England, with the support of HLF, United Utilities, Northern England Raptor Forum and other partners, including many volunteers. We have initiated our Skydancers programme and you can read more about it here.
We have now written to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders including landowning and shooting organisations.
We think that years of talking must now translate into action.
Adult hen harrier in flight with twig (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I accept that this is challenging for the shooting/landowning community. It is, of course, the case that hen harriers can be a problem for game managers by eating grouse. However, long-term declines in grouse bags are related to land use practice and habitat condition.
Our point is simple - grouse moor owners and managers should comply with wildlife law, protect hen harriers and adopt legal approaches to minimising predation of grouse, such as diversionary feeding which has been shown to effective in places such as Langholm.
There has been much talk about an approach termed 'a brood management scheme' which would involve translocation of eggs away from moors and establishment elsewhere to remove the conflict with grouse. We have said to Defra that this could be included in a recovery plan and may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to an acceptable level and diversionary feeding has been widely trialled.
Finally, we are pleased that the Law Commission is seriously considering the introduction of vicarious liability for birds of prey persecution. We think that this is an appropriate measure to help take to tackle the problem. It has been introduced in Scotland and we think that it is timely for it to be adopted in England and Wales.
If you agree, please do sign the petition here and then please tell your friends and family to do the same.
One last point, I want the UK Government to lead the world in tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss. I want Mr Clegg and Mrs Spelman to play strong leadership roles at the Rio +20 Summit in June this year and make the case for urgent global action to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world. Losing Hen Harriers as a breeding species in England would seriously blot their copybook.
How do you think the Government should respond?
"Planners should take ecological advice on landscape development at all levels". This is not an epitaph to the recent planning reform campaign in England, but the words of Peter Conder in 1967 when, as Director of the RSPB, he lamented the British Government's "lack of a strong conservation policy to ensure that there is some countryside left for us to enjoy".
I read these words in a new book by my colleague, Conor Mark Jamieson. It is called Silent Spring Revisited and is published tomorrow. I would argue that it is essential reading for all contemporary environmentalists. As any current politician who knows their history will testify, there are lessons from the past which inform our response to today's challenges. So as we try to save places like Hintlesham Woods SSSI in Suffolk (and many other sites from inappropriate development), it is clear that some challenges just don't go away but we need to get smart about dealing with them.
In providing a 50 year history of environmentalism in the UK from the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal work, Silent Spring, in 1962, Conor has provided a rich and important record of the triumphs and disasters experienced by nature, the RSPB and the rest of the sector. It is in part an autobiography, and anyone who has grown up enthralled by nature, will enjoy the young Conor's early experiences of wildlife and how the interest turned into a healthy obsession. Weaving in references to the music he was listening to at the time, it made me think that if Nick Hornby loved nature, he might write a book like this.
It was sobering to be reminded of the shock and near panic which befell the tiny nature conservation movement in the early 1960s when faced with "the slaughter being occasioned by the use of toxic chemicals on the land". The impact of pesticides such as aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, DDT and others were having a devasting effect on wild bird populations. "The Sparrowhawk all but disappeared from large areas of the lowland arable countryside. The kestrel wasn't far behind". The crisis "united falconers and conservationists in a common cause". Years of campaigning followed before the government of the day eventually responded by banning the use of these chemicals.
And in this book there are countless examples of tireless campaigns and battles fought over many years - to clean up after oil spills, oppose new roads on SSSIs, fight for new laws to protect land or sea. The stories are the stuff of legend for modern day conservationists, but it was great to have these events described in the the context in which they took place. Those of you that took part in these battles should feel proud of what you achieved.
But having read Conor's book, I was left with the realisation that there are some battles that don't go away. My former boss, Sir Graham Wynne, used to sum up the nature conservation mission as to "stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest". As I write this in 2012, we still haven't stop the rot (just look at what is happening to our migrants), we have failed to protect some of the best (at sea especially) and while we have started (for example through the RSPB Futurescape programme) we have a long, long way to go to restore the rest.
But, that's the point about Conor's book. If you love nature and want to do something to save it, then you just need to face up to the fact that this nature conservation business is your life's work - get over it. And then do something about it.
You could start by trying to save Hintlesham Woods SSSI, here's what you can do to help.