Standing up for Protected Areas
Male hen harrier (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
This week Dumfries and Galloway Council planning committee will make an important planning decision. It will put the spotlight on Scotland’s duties to protect the best places in Europe for wildlife and it will test our decision makers’ commitment to uphold Europe’s extremely popular protected areas legislation.
On the 23rd September, Councillors will gather in the Council offices at Dumfries to decide the fate of an important area of upland habitat, proposed to be developed as the Spango wind farm. Approval of this development would set a dangerous precedent that could have repercussions far beyond the Dumfriesshire hillside where the windfarm is proposed. Unlike any other wind farm proposal in mainland Scotland, the Spango wind farm is proposed inside a Special Protection Area (SPA) – an area identified and given legal protection by the Scottish Government, and declared as one of the best places for wildlife in Europe under the European Birds Directive. This site, the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPA, is particularly important for hen harrier, a species already under huge pressure from illegal persecution and now almost extinct in England. There are also golden plover and other important species using the SPA. Protected areas like this offer hen harriers a vital refuge, and this SPA was selected following a rigorous assessment by SNH of the best areas in Scotland for harriers.
I started my career at the RSPB just two years before the Birds Directive was agreed in 1979. We fought hard for this ground-breaking legislation, which requires Governments across Europe to identify and protect the most important places in their member state territory for birds. Together with the Habitats Directive (brought in just over a decade later) these laws now play a vital part in conserving wildlife in Scotland and across Europe and protecting it from damaging and inappropriate development. They recognise that we have a wider, international obligation to protect our ‘natural capital’, and they help provide a level playing field across Europe by preventing a ‘race-to-the-bottom’, where member states might seek to gain competitive advantage by destroying the natural environment. Here in Scotland, although we have some serious problems from other pressures such as illegal persecution of birds of prey and grazing management, we have a generally positive record of protecting these sites from development threats. Onshore wind has been a particular success story, with a significant increase in wind power generation being achieved without significant harm to protected wildlife sites. Landmark cases such as the refusal of the Lewis Wind Power project in have set the benchmark for sound development decisions affecting SPAs. The refusal by Scottish Ministers sent a very clear message that damaging these special places is just not acceptable. Unfortunately, the Spango wind farm proposal, along with another current application in Sutherland by SSE at Strathy South, threaten the good reputation Scotland has built up in navigating its way through the site based issues that arise.
RSPB Scotland firmly supports renewable energy but not at any cost. Wind farms must be sited and designed appropriately to avoid unacceptable impacts on wildlife. As for any type of development when they threaten important bird populations or other wildlife we will oppose them vigorously. There are many consented wind farm sites in Scotland which provide good examples of environmentally sensitive renewable development. Unfortunately, Spango wind farm is just simply in the wrong place, and should be consigned to the scrap heap.
For more information on Spango wind farm – see our saving special places page. I for one will be following the decision very closely. Scottish Natural Heritage have also objected which means that if Councillors decide to approve the application, it would need to be notified and potentially ‘called in’ by Scottish Ministers, The planning committee meeting on the 23rd September will be at 10.30am at the Council Offices, English Street, Dumfries. Local RSPB Scotland staff will be attending the meeting and I would encourage any concerned members of the public to do the same.
The Islay goose strategy and why we have complained to Europe
Barnacle geese (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Of all our extraordinary wildlife, some of our most significant responsibilities in global terms are the populations of Arctic-breeding wild geese which migrate south annually to spend the winter in our country. I’m always moved as the first skeins of geese appear out of the northern skies.
These geese come to Scotland to feed on saltmarsh or merse, as well as pastures and stubble fields, and escape the harsh arctic winter weather. The Hebridean island of Islay is one of the key sites for wintering geese, hosting large proportions of the world populations of Greenland barnacle geese (more than half of the world population winters on Islay), and Greenland white-fronted geese (a quarter of the world population winters on Islay). The geese have arrived each autumn since time immemorial and, in the past, fed on the merse, and boggy grasslands. But over time these have been improved for agriculture, and many geese are now found on farmers fields.
Geese feeding on agricultural land has been a longstanding issue in Scottish conservation. Farming is an important industry on Islay and it benefits a range of key wildlife, including corncrakes and choughs. Indeed, RSPB Scotland owns and manages farmland nature reserves on the island, notably at Loch Gruinart - where we raise prize-winning beef cattle as part of our conservation operation. Our reserve hosts tens of thousands of geese in winter, and breeding waders and other species in summer.
Wintering barnacle goose numbers increased on Islay throughout the late 20th century until 2005/6, since when the population has levelled-out, fluctuating at around 40,000 birds. Greenland white-fronted geese, in contrast, have been in steady decline since 1995 and are a species of serious conservation concern across their global range.
RSPB Scotland Loch Gruinart on Islay (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Grazing geese can undoubtedly impact farm pastures – this fact is not at issue. Nor is the fact that Scotland has a global conservation responsibility for these migratory goose populations, and for implementing wildlife legislation properly. Following some intense exchanges between agricultural interests and conservation interests in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in court cases brought by RSPB Scotland and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), the Scottish Government established Local Goose Management Schemes in areas of conflict, including Islay. The court cases established some ground ‘rules’ that helped establish a working arrangement to manage this issue. The local groups were advised by a National Goose Forum (later the National Goose Management Review Group), on which conservation bodies – including RSPB Scotland and WWT - sat, alongside agricultural representatives, notably the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland (NFUS). In this forum balance was struck between the two sides of the debate. The local schemes combined management payments to affected farmers, with the designation of protected goose feeding areas, alongside programmes of scaring to protect vulnerable fields. Some of that scaring involved the shooting of a limited number of barnacle geese under licence and in a way that met the legal constraints set by the EU ‘Birds’ Directive. The hard-won consensus between farmers and conservationists called for some flexibility on both sides but we felt a workable deal that met the needs of farmers and geese had been found.
This ‘deal’ lasted up until the financial crisis when the Scottish Government sought to save money, and in the process its policy changed. An unexpected doubling of the numbers of barnacle geese allowed to be shot under license intensified the concerns of conservationists, and an attempt to cut payments to Islay farmers was criticised from all sides. Payments were increased again in response, but the plans for shooting protected geese have taken a worrying turn. Late last year, the Scottish Government, and its agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), teamed up directly with the NFUS to produce a new strategy for Islay geese. This strategy proposes:
“... that the Islay barnacle goose population is lowered, in increments, to a minimum range of 28,000 to 31,000 geese and is then maintained at that level. This represents a maximum reduction of 25-30% of barnacle geese…”
This is a huge shift in policy, and points to a major increase in the number of barnacle geese shot under SNH licence on Islay. In our view, this new strategy:
We have made our concerns clear to the national goose group and to Scottish ministers – but the Scottish Government/NFUS Strategy is now being implemented.
White-fronted goose (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I and my colleagues have strived for years to be flexible and helpful in building a consensual approach to goose management – but we believe that this approach has now been abandoned by government. Accordingly we have, reluctantly, resigned our seat on the National Goose Management Review Group, and have lodged a formal complaint to the European Commission. We feel this situation is deeply regrettable – but at the very least, we hope to ensure that the EC will thoroughly scrutinise the Scottish Government/NFUS plan and that in this way a damaging precedent in the Scottish Government’s application of international wildlife law can be avoided. As for the affected farmers – we believe that they should be given the practical support they need to farm, as well as to support our globally important wildlife populations. We see this as the delivery of a precious public benefit in today’s Scotland, and deserving of sustained investment.
Geese will remain fully protected on RSPB Scotland’s reserves on Islay. If you are concerned about this shift in policy by the Scottish Government you can make your views known by contacting your MSPs (if you live in Scotland) or MEPs (in any UK country).
Why farming matters to conservation and RSPB Scotland
Making a living from farming is never straightforward at the best of times but sometimes events conspire to make it particularly challenging. This year’s poor summer weather combined with difficult market conditions (exacerbated by Russia’s President Putin banning much EU produce) coupled with changes afoot in CAP support regimes are taking their toll, with many farmers and crofters facing financial uncertainty and concern for their future.
This matters not just for farmers but for all of us given the vital role farming plays, not only producing food but also managing our natural environment and determining the fate of much of our valued wildlife and landscapes. It is in all our interests to ensure that farming is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, both now and for future generations.
These are some of the issues we touched upon at a recent meeting with the NFUS President, Vice President and staff. Although RSPB Scotland and NFUS may not always see eye to eye, I suspect there is much we can agree on when it comes to thinking about the future of farming. Some of this is set out in the Scottish Government’s document ‘The Future of Scottish Agriculture’, published this summer.
First and foremost, I’m sure we can all agree that farmers should be paid a fair share of the price of food. We would go further and argue that the price of food should properly reflect the cost of producing it, including the costs of good environmental management. I think we would also all agree that farming should be part of a profitable and sustainable food and drink sector, be a sector that offers rewarding careers and is populated by trained and skilled individuals. Farming must, above all else be resilient and adaptable to the challenges that it will inevitably face, be they economic ones such as price volatility or environmental ones such as climate change.
As an organisation, we recognise the invaluable role that farming plays in supporting wildlife in Scotland. The management of many of our own nature reserves depends on the extensive grazing of livestock to create the right pasture conditions for birds such as lapwing and curlew and, in some places, we farm directly ourselves in order to achieve our nature conservation objectives. Elsewhere, Scotland’s ‘High Nature Value’ farming and crofting, as seen typically in the hills and islands, is the last refuge of species like corncrake, and many scarce plants, and bees and butterflies.
But we also don’t shy away from raising awareness of the serious declines in wildlife that are occurring in Scotland,and highlighting environmental problems in our countryside which result from certain, usually more intensive farming practices. Our members would expect nothing less. Nor are we hesitant about demanding the Scottish Government does more to provide the right policies and funding that will support environmentally responsible farming.
All is not well currently and we believe that farming does need to be greener - much greener in terms of the ‘public goods’ it should sustain and produce. We therefore support the Government’s aim for Scotland to be a ‘world leader in green farming’. Achieving this objective requires some significant changes in our current approach to farming; business as usual is not enough to meet that laudable aim.
Of course, greener farming will never be achieved unless farmers believe it is important and take the necessary action. You don’t have to be passionate about birds and other wildlife – although we know some farmers are – to see that caring for the environment makes good business sense. Sustainable food production can’t happen without well managed, fertile soils, insects to pollinate crops, or a stable climate to work in.
Reducing the use of expensive pesticides and fertilisers not only helps the environment but saves money too. Marketing Scottish produce under ‘green’ branding may help increase returns to farmers, but is only feasible if such brands have real environmental credentials – consumer confidence is a fragile beast that businesses ignore at their peril. It would be good if farm accreditation schemes that encourage us to buy Scottish or British produce recognised this and helped improve the contribution made by farming. This is something we are willing to explore with NFUS and others.
Meanwhile, farm businesses that have diversified into tourism activities know better than most that people will only come and spend their money if there is something worth visiting. For eco-tourism in particular, it is a wildlife rich countryside, good access and wildlife spectacles that draw the crowds. We can help with our advisory outreach, providing farmers with practical and low cost land management options (often tested on our own ground), to encourage the wildlife on their farms or crofts.
We have, I believe, a common agenda. It is not, and shouldn’t be ‘farming vs environment’ but all of us working together to ensure a better and sustainable future for the things we all care about.