If you care about what happens to the millions of species with whom we share this beautiful planet, then you have to face up to some inconvenient truths: intensive food production can harm wildlife populations, inappropriate housing or port development can destroy important habitats, introducing non-native species can lead to species extinctions. And, most inconvenient of all, our continued dependence on fossil fuels is causing climate chaos with wildlife and the world's poor on the front line.
Some refuse to accept this and instead choose to ridicule those that are trying to find solutions to help us live in harmony with nature.
In today's Mail on Sunday, James Delingpole, continues to ignore the scientific consensus about climate change caused by human activity driving up greenhouse gas emissions and has attacked the RSPB's position on renewable energy. He implies that we are in the pocket of the wind industry, citing our new partnership with Ecotricity as evidence.
I think there are many in the wind industry would splutter on their Sunday morning coffee at this news. Where developers choose to build windfarms in locations which are likely to affect important populations of wildlife or special places, we have and will continue to fight them. Which is why I am delighted that Ecotricity, who want to build the right renewable projects in the right place, want us to help them. And, in turn, for every person that switches their gas and electricity supply to Ecotricity, the RSPB will get £60 which we will invest in nature conservation projects.
As I wrote here, we have spent the past fifteen years working with developers and the planning system to ensure windfarms are put in sensible places where they are unlikely to cause harm. This is consistent with how we work with other developers from the housing sector, port and indeed with individual farmers. I am proud of the RSPB's record at influencing smart development.
In his piece Mr Delingpole is selective with his facts and has chosen to ignore the large body of science that supports the principle that appropriately located windfarms have negligible impacts, and instead highlights a few studies from other parts of the world that are deeply misleading when extrapolated to windfarms in general, or indeed windfarms in the UK.
I am not surprised that Delingpole has not looked into the evidence in a balanced way. He has already made his mind up about windfarms – dubbing them ‘bird-blending eco-crucifixes’ – as he has on climate change, and he was looking for further evidence to support this conclusion rather than investigating the issue for real. His article goes beyond the realm of an investigative journalist. He has a personal agenda (see here, here and here) and the Mail on Sunday has chosen to support it. He quotes us in the article but didn't try to track down any of the many independent scientists who would back our line. They have no links with us, the "green lobby" or energy companies. Instead he chooses one, with whom he is presumably well acquainted as a fellow sceptic, and presents him as representative of independent science. This is shabby stuff.
With every year that goes by, I am more and more concerned about the very real impact climate change is already having on wildlife. Our global climate is increasingly destabilised and, on average, is continuing to warm; wildlife is on the front line of these changes and is already feeling the crunch. Last year, we were horrified by the impact that the extreme rainfall throughout spring had on birds attempting to breed on our reserves, whilst the evidence that increases in North Sea temperature have disrupted the food chain and are causing declines in seabirds continued to stack up.
The RSPB exists to save nature for current and future generations. Nature conservation is for the long-term; each nature reserve we create, species we save, wetland we protect, is a gift for future generations as much as it is for this one. Unbridled climate change threatens to take away these gifts, reverse our successes, and leave future generations with a natural world that is profoundly undermined, even dysfunctional. This is not me saying it, there is a weight of evidence in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
This is, to say the least, inconvenient.
It is also why I believe that if you want to save nature then we must address climate change, and windfarms, in the right place, can offer a small but significant part of this effort.
And this is why I have switched my electricity supplier to Ecotricity and have chosen for 100% of my electricity to come from renewable sources. I encourage you to do the same.
I trust you all had a good Easter. I assume, however, that like me you were thwarted in your attempts to find the first signs of spring. Chiffchaff anyone?
So for spring cheer, I suggest you read the Environmental Audit Committee report on ‘Pollinators and Pesticides’ which was published this morning. You can find it here – and it’s well worth a read.
This inquiry delved into the controversies surrounding neonicotinoid insecticides, their importance in farming and their possible impacts on pollinators. The MPs on the committee have concluded that not enough is being done to mitigate the risks. Among other things they recommend a moratorium on the use of the three main neonics on crops that are attractive to bees, and an immediate ban on using these chemical in amateur gardening products.
The RSPB welcomes this report and we support the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations (you can see what I've been saying on the issue here). This has been a comprehensive inquiry, during which a wide range of stakeholders and evidence was consulted.
The EAC also recommends that Defra should do more work on the recently-published UK pesticides National Action Plan. This is, I think, an extremely important point. We agree with the EAC that the reduction of pesticide use through integrated pest management approaches should be at the heart of UK policies on pesticides. So, we join with the EAC in calling for clear objectives, timetables, measures and targets designed to promote more sustainable pest management in the UK.
Obviously, we also fully support the EAC’s recommendations for a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids on crops attractive to bees, and for an end to the use of these chemicals in products marketed for gardening and amenity use.
This report comes at a critical moment in the debate on neonicotinoid pesticides. The European Commission has proposed a moratorium on the use of certain neonicotinoids on crops that attract pollinators. EU Member States will vote on whether to implement this proposal at the end of this month. The UK government abstained from an earlier vote on this matter, saying it was awaiting the results of field trials. These results have now been published, but the RSPB along with many other commentators has serious reservations about the quality of this research. These concerns are echoed by the EAC, who describe the field trials as “fundamentally flawed” and “not a compelling basis for inaction.”
The UK’s position will be important in determining the outcome of the European vote on neonicotinoids. Our government therefore has a significant decision to make in the coming weeks, which could have far-reaching consequences for the health of Europe’s wildlife. I would urge Ministers to heed the evidence and vote in favour of the moratorium on neonicotinoids. It would be great to think that the publication of the EAC’s report will mark a turning point in UK pesticide policy, and the beginning of a more sustainable approach to pest control in the UK.
What do you think of the EAC report?
It would be great to hear your views.
Lodge Hill has been in the news again (see here and here). There has been a bit of nonsense said and written about this case, so I thought I'd disrupt my Easter break to put the record straight. This is not just a straightforward battle between nightingales and houses. It is as much a question about what consitutes good planning and how to build houses without causing needless harm to environment. The last thing anyone should be doing is blaming Natural England for doing its job.
A couple of weeks ago, I reported the great news that Natural England has decided to protect a nationally important population of nightingales, by enlarging an SSSI at Lodge Hill in Kent.
Last year the BTO conducted its National Nightingale Survey and found that there were at least 84 singing males at Lodge Hill. The BTO have since calculated the 2012 national population at around 6,250 – 6,750. This means that Lodge Hill holds at least 1.3% of the national nightingale population.
This case brings into focus some important parts of the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF). Much of the new SSSI is a former military training school and is being proposed by Medway Council and Land Securities as the location for 5,000 houses. Medway Council sees the notification of the SSSI as a major blow to its plans for development (see here).
We see it a little differently. The NPPF is designed to encourage the provision of housing where it’s needed, while at the same time protecting the environment we care about. The notification of this site as an SSSI simply puts into proper context the environmental importance of this site, for those making planning decisions about its future.
The NPPF doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs. In exceptional circumstances development affecting an SSSI could be possible (even if it may not be desirable). But the NPPF contains important safeguards, to ensure that these special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and on the national network of SSSIs. Pretty sensible tests of sustainable development in my book.
If Medway Council can demonstrate that there are no alternative places - with less harmful impacts - to provide its housing allocation and that the benefits of the proposed development at Lodge Hill clearly outweigh both the impacts on the nightingales, ancient woodland and important grasslands at the site as well as any broader impacts on the national network of SSSIs, then it could go ahead with development, provided that the developer can mitigate, or as a last resort compensate for the harm that would be caused.
We don’t think Medway Council has met those tests. That the Council sees the SSSI notification as a major threat to its development plans rather suggests it doesn’t think it can meet them either. That is why the RSPB is encouraging Medway Council to go back to the drawing board and think again about where to provide their houses.
This year's Big Garden Birdwatch results are in and, as ever, they give us all food for thought.
Almost 590,000 people across the UK, including 75,000 pupils and teachers at schools, took part in January. This figure includes at least three Harpers: my two kids and I spent a great hour on a snowy Saturday morning compiling a pretty decent list this year - all except redwing appearing in this year's top 20 (see below). It is great that so many people want to take an hour out of their weekends to count birds!
But, as ever, the results offer us a clue as to what might be happening to some of our best loved species. Starlings hit an all-time low last year and their numbers sunk by a further 16 per cent in gardens this year pushing it down from number 2 in our chart to number 4. Numbers of house sparrows dropped by 17 per cent in gardens compared to 2012, whilst bullfinches and dunnocks fell by 20 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. These are species that are also struggling in the wider countryside and so this news gives further cause for concern.
You can draw your own conclusions about what these results mean, but I think there are two main messages here...
First, we should all try to do our bit for garden wildlife. Gardens make up around 4 per cent of land area in the UK and their role as habitats for our wildlife is clear. They are the places that birds come to for food and shelter when conditions in the countryside are especially tough and together, we can all play a part in making them more welcoming and supportive for wildlife, whether we have a garden full of greenery, a yard or a window box. This can complement the efforts that we and others make to protect our finest sites, advise land-managers and influence change in policy and legislation.
Second, contact with nature is good for us. We know that family attitudes – including things like taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch – help children connect to nature which, in turn helps create environmentally aware and, hopefully, responsible citizens. This is something that I try to do with my kids. While there results can be mixed (I will not forgive the girl for uttering the immortal words, "borin' birdwatching") I do try to reveal the wonders of the natural world by giving my kids a chance to have firsthand experiences of nature.
And this brings me on to a topical debate about the future of the national curriculum in England. I have some anxieties about the current proposals. You can read a bit more about our views here. There are some good bits that we welcome. This includes retention of statutory requirements for fieldwork across all key stages of geography for 5-14 year-olds - something we succesfully campaigned for in 2005-8. There is also now a requirement for robust range of ecological knowledge in science. My concern is the loss of overt references to learning about environmental responsibility, biodiversity conservation, and how to respond to impacts of human-induced environmental change such as climate change. We need the next generation to be equipped to deal with the legacy of what our generation leaves behind. We are continuing to think about the best ways of responding to the consultation to address these challenges, and I will keep you posted as to how you may be able to assist.
In the meantime, enjoy finding out where 'your' birds featured in the top 20. And have a great Easter weekend. When not eating chocolate, the kids and I plan to be looking for the first signs of spring. Well, I can but dream...
Big Garden Birdwatch Results 2013
2013 UK species
% change since 2012
Long tailed tit
Today, I welcome Professor Sir John Lawton, Vice-President of the RSPB and champion of landscape scale conservation. His groundbreaking report, "Making Space for Nature", argued that to save nature we needed to up our game.
John's report advocated five key elements: "improve the quality of current sites by better habitat management; increase the size of current wildlife sites; enhance connections between, or join up, sites, either through physical corridors, or through ‘stepping stones’; create new sites; reduce the pressures on wildlife by improving the wider environment, including through buffering wildlife sites".
In short, we need "more, bigger, better and joined". Over the coming weeks I plan to profile some of the projects that are applying these principles and delivering more for people and wildlife.
I am delighted to be a guest blogger on Martin's page today to celebrate the first anniversary of the Nature Improvement Area (NIA) programme. Some of you many be aware that I chaired the group that produced what has become known as the “Lawton report “or to give it its full title Making Space For Nature: A Review of England’s Wildlife sites and Ecological network. You can find the full report here. One of the recommendations made in that report was to establish Ecological Restoration Zones, large discrete areas where through collaboration significant enhancements to the ecological network could be delivered.
The report also recommended that we start the process with a competition for 12 recognising the restrictions on public finances. These subsequently became known as NIAs and I am delighted that they are now one year old and are already showing what can be done at different locations across the UK by coalitions of the willing.
Interest was strong in the competition with 76 applications all of them very strong so whittling it down to a final twelve was a difficult task but speaks volumes of the quality of the applications from those chosen. Indeed many of those who did not make the final 12 have carried on and have sought funding from other sources.
And where have we got to in one year?
Although modest in the grand scheme of English nature conservation, the 12 have already made noteworthy progress. Indeed it is calculated that the original fund of a modest £7.5m has helped leverage in an additional £40m in both cash and in kind contributions.
It has created a programme of partnership based conservation work that involves all the major players: NGOs, landowners etc and is a testing ground for landscape scale conservation. This is how we need to work - the wider societal benefits of a healthy environment are now recognised and development must not compromise our ability to conserve. Yes, of course, I would say this but please look for example at the report of the ecosystems task force on "Realising Natures Value" that makes the argument about the true relationship between business and nature much more clearly - compulsory reading I would suggest for all.
I applaud the efforts of the teams involved in the NIA process around the country and indeed had had the pleasure of visiting many of them. However as we celebrate, let's not miss the real challenges to the approach. Much of the collaborative work is underpinned by public money through programmes like agri-environment schemes - these must be kept and improved, whatever the outcome of the current CAP discussions.
Finally, when one looks at the challenges we face - and I have seen dramatic negative changes in my life time - we must see that as a call to action to work better as a collective for the greater good. I do look forward with some guarded optimism to having even more bigger better and joined up NIAs in the next ten years.