All this talk about agency restructuring can be a bit ‘niche’ to say the least. But this is (trust me) vital stuff.
Yesterday, I made our pitch for the establishment of a new Forest and Wildlife Service to act as an independent champion for wildlife in England and act as the one-stop shop for sustainable land management.
Today, I want to make the case against a merger between Natural England and the Environment Agency.
Before I do, it’s worth remembering why we need agencies. Governments need them because some issues are so complicated, and important, that they require very specialist expertise and focus. We have, for example, an Office of Budget Responsibility to keep an eye on the economy and we have the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to help ensure we have the best standards in health care.
Broadly speaking, Natural England is needed to protect wildlife and landscapes, while the Environment Agency is needed to protect the public from natural disasters such as flooding and pollution. Both tasks are growing increasingly complicated, and both are considered by the public to be hugely important in their own right.
But these are very different functions which can come into conflict (eg a flood defence scheme which impacts on a protected wildlife site). A merged agency might mean that it needs to consent its own actions. As Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, accepted the decoupling of operational functions from regulatory functions by proposing to separate the management of the public forest estate from wider forestry services, so should he respect this principle in the current debate about the future of EA and NE.
In a single body, our great fear is that the EA’s core business of flood defence would inevitably be prioritised over wildlife and landscape protection. Currently, the Flood Risk and Coastal Erosion Management team has almost 4,500 staff while NE’s biodiversity team has less than 500. If there were a merger between the two organisations, this asymmetry would be reflected in management structure and organisational priorities, with conservation objectives inevitably suffering as a consequence. What's more, if Defra had to make further cuts in public spending (which sadly looks increasingly likely), my fear would be that cuts would fall disproportionately on those functions which did not relate to flood protection.
And a full merger would lead to more upheaval at a time when the pressures on the natural world appear to be growing (ash die-back and extreme weather events compounding the many problems that the natural world faces). I am also sceptical about savings that might be found from a merger. As those involved in the creation of Natural England in 2006 or Natural Resources Wales today will testify, mergers don’t come cheap. If the driver is to reduce costs then there are initiatives such as sharing back office systems and procurement processes which could realise savings without the disruption that a full merger would bring.
As I have said throughout this process, we will judge any decision on what’s best for the natural environment. Nature remains in trouble: over 40% of priority species, 30% of priority habitats and 30% of ecosystem services are still declining. If Mr Paterson decided to create a single body, then this would leave England without a government agency devoted to protecting and enhancing the countryside, for the first time since 1949. We think this would be the wrong decision and do little to help deliver this government’s stated aim to “protect wildlife and … restore biodiversity”.
But what do you think? Are you attracted to the simplicity that a single body would bring, or do you fear that focus on wildlife would be lost?
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?
Although government orders are now in place banning the import of all ash trees into Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the next 48 hours will be critical for determining the extent of the ash die-back disease Chalara fraxinea.
A nationwide survey of selected woods in all 10km grid squares within Great Britain began this weekend. This was designed to give a clearer picture of the extent of this disease. This work is being carried out by staff and volunteers from various bodies including the Forestry Commission and the deadline for receipt of the results of these surveys is tomorrow evening.
So, we should, by the end of this week, have a clearer idea as to how prevalent the disease is in the wider countryside. At present we hear that there are about 82 reports of infections - the main focus (away from recently planted sites) is in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent.
If the disease is restricted to isolated locations then, of course, through stricter biosecurity controls there is a chance to contain the disease. However, if it has spread considerably further then containment may prove to be extremely difficult.
As a major landowner ourselves, we are taking this seriously. 8,000 hectares of our 140,000 hectares of nature reserves are wooded. We have been asking all reserves (even those outside the main infection areas) to remain vigilant for signs of this disease and as a precautionary measure we will have to stop planting ash trees until further notice.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, has convened a summit to discuss the issue. We shall be there and, of course, adapt our guidance as the picture unfolds.
There are wider lessons to be learnt from the outbreak and we shall be outlining these in due course. But for now I think the focus has to be on determining the extent of the disease and the immediate steps we can take to contain it.
If you want to know more or find out how you can help, please do visit the excellent Forestry Commission website here.
Have you spotted ash die-back in your local wood?
If so the Forestry Commission needs to hear from you.
Last November, the Chancellor described hard-won legal protections for our most precious wildlife sites, as a “ridiculous cost on British business”.
I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say he was having a bad day.
I think there is another Chancellor waiting to break free. A Chancellor who before the election said: "Quite frankly, when it comes to environmental policy the Treasury has often been at best indifferent, and at worst obstructive. That attitude is going to change if the government changes. I want a Conservative Treasury to be in the lead of developing the low–carbon economy and financing a green recovery.””
Watch our ‘Wake Up George’ animation to see the real George in action.
The current economic crisis means the Chancellor needs to deliver economic growth and create jobs. But we don’t believe that the environment is a barrier to success. It is crucial to our well-being and our economic performance.
What we want is smart growth that does no environmental harm.
Please step up for nature and e-mail George Osborne now. Urge him to use his Budget statement on 21 March to put the environment at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery.
It only takes a couple of minutes.
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.