Stuart Housden's blog

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Stuart Housden's blog

Director of RSPB Scotland. Blogging on conservation topics & many of our projects.There will be an emphasis on Scotland,but the rest of the UK & work with BirdLife International will get mentions too.You can also follow me on Twitter @StuartHousden
  • What comes after CAP?

    What comes after CAP?

    Of all the areas of life that will be affected by Brexit, agriculture is unlikely to be the one that generates the most headlines. But it is vitally important. Not just for the food it produces but for the much wider range of wildlife, landscape and cultural benefits that agricultural land management delivers. Or should deliver.

    Formal negotiations to leave the EU have not yet begun. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government continues discussions regarding Scotland’s future in the EU, given the majority vote here to Remain. Much is yet to be discussed and decided. The options are still unclear, let alone the outcome. For those of us interested in rural issues though, thoughts are now turning to the implications of leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which has provided a route map for food and farming for most of the past 40 years. Now is the time to start planning  how farming, rural land management and the environment can best be supported, going forward.

    Many organisations, including RSPB Scotland, are taking time to think through the implications, talk to each other and consider the future. It would be unhelpful to start making detailed policy demands immediately when so much about the future is unknown. But there are some things we can say now about the broad principles and objectives we believe should inform future thinking.

    The first to say is that we need to think not just about farming but about other sectors such as forestry and rural land use more widely. Our vision is for sustainable land management in Scotland in all its forms and farming, whilst very important, should be considered in context alongside the other uses we have for land. Reminding ourselves of the sustainability principles and objectives contained in Scotland’s Land Use Strategy seems sensible at this juncture. The aspirations contained in the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation and Future of Scottish Agriculture documents are also worth keeping in mind. If they signal a direction of travel, then the policies and not inconsiderable public support that replaces the CAP should deliver these options. 

    Going forward, farming, forestry and other rural land use activities will need to be underpinned by the right balance of incentive, advice and effective regulation. The latter is our starting point.  We must ensure that, whatever the future constitutional arrangements and trading agreements, we protect the environment to a level at least equivalent or better than that provided by current EU law. That means maintaining protected areas and supporting the management they need, minimising risks from pesticides, meeting water quality standards and a host of other requirements designed to protect the public interest. Protecting our environment is good for farmers, land managers and society - it will help ensure we can go on producing food, timber and other products and secure a healthy countryside for future generations to work in, and enjoy visiting.  

    For many though, thoughts inevitably turn to money. For decades the CAP – albeit imperfectly - has represented a major investment of public money in Scotland’s rural areas. It currently stands at some £650 million .We are clear that a significant level of public investment will continue to be needed post CAP if we are to secure farming and land management in Scotland that is good for people and nature, and fair to those who seek to make their living from the land. It is good that the UK Government has signalled that this will happen, until 2020 at least. But it will be for the Scottish Government to determine where the money is spent. We believe this investment should reward the many vital public services that agriculture, forestry and other land use activities can provide, and build on the great work already being achieved through the Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP).  It should help shape more sustainable rural businesses by encouraging land management that benefits nature, helps tackle climate change and offers opportunities for the people of Scotland in the round. 

    We must however take the opportunity to shift away from a focus on subsidies with very few strings attached, towards a strategic policy framework that supports progressive, innovative farmers and land managers, providing them with the certainty to engage in more sustainable food production that benefits the environment and the wildlife found on their farms. A much greater proportion of this public investment in rural areas must be focused on meeting the environmental challenges that farmers, foresters and other land managers are uniquely placed to meet, such as the conservation of species, restoration of damaged habitats and resilient natural flood risk management. This should build on the progress already being made through our Agri-Environment-Climate Scheme and other SRDP schemes. I am pleased the Scottish Government has said it is the intention to retain the EU Environmental protections our countryside has, but of course the incentives to positively deliver this must be in place as well. Public support should be directed at achieving this in future.

    Key to ensuring the effectiveness of regulations and payments is the provision of information, training and advice for farmers and other land managers. This is an area that, in future, we believe should be given much greater attention in order to help farmers and other land managers adapt to changing circumstances, get the skills they need and make the most of the opportunities.

    As well as changing the way we support farming and other rural land uses through the public purse, we also need market reform. Ultimately, there needs to be a framework in place that works much harder to improve the return farmers and crofters receive from the market and increases transparency about where money goes in the supply chain. This will help ensure farmers are profitable whilst allowing them to deliver for nature in addition to food and other services. The Scottish food brand must become synonymous with a wildlife rich, pollution free countryside which the market rewards. We need to engage wider society to support these changes so they can select nature and environmentally friendly choices in their weekly shop.  

    We now need a transition period toward new arrangements that allows time for farmers, foresters and land managers to adapt, and for new policies to be piloted and introduced. This is particularly important for the most economically vulnerable farmers and crofters, such as those in our extensive livestock sector, who are often farming in marginal, but High Nature Value areas. At the moment they do not get a fair share. The recent UK Treasury announcement guaranteeing CAP direct payments to farmers to 2020 was welcomed by the farming industry. The commitment to pay for agri-environment and other scheme agreements, signed this year, will also help transition but it is critical that such schemes remain open for applications next year and beyond, until replacement schemes are operational. Without them, birds such as corncrakes, which have been brought back from the brink of extinction in Scotland through years of targeted public investment in wildlife friendly farming methods, will disappear very rapidly. We cannot let this happen for corncrakes, or the hundreds of other species that need extensive and sympathetic farming management to survive. 

  • Raise a glass to black grouse

    Raise a glass to black grouse

    The RSPB’s conservation projects are often carried out in partnership with a number of fantastic organisations and this extends to our corporate partners who support and sometimes fund key areas of our work.

    We’re particularly proud of the partnership between RSPB Scotland and The Famous Grouse which I’m delighted to announce has now raised over £600,000 to support black grouse conservation since its establishment in 2008.

    The partnership stands as an excellent example of a relationship between a brand and a charity and has gone from strength to strength over the last 8 years.

    The Famous Grouse originally approached us in 2007 to let us know about plans to launch of a new whisky in the UK called The Black Grouse.  The whisky’s namesake, the black grouse took pride of place on the label of the bottle.

    We were able to convey to The Famous Grouse the full extent of the problems that black grouse populations faced in the UK, and an opportunity was identified that would not only help to raise the profile of the whisky, but also to help raise funds to support action at a range of sites to help this iconic bird.

    The Black Grouse is one of the UK’s most striking bird species, yet in 2005 there were fewer than 5,000 lekking males; a fifth of the numbers recorded in the 1970s. Following this decline the birds became Red Listed as birds of “conservation concern”. It became a top priority for the RSPB.  

    Funding provided by The Famous Grouse has directly benefited seven RSPB reserves where management for black grouse has been accelerated – Abernethy and Corrimony (Highland), The Crannach (Deeside), Inversnaid (Stirlingshire), Wood of Cree (Galloway), Geltsdale (Cumbria) and Lake Vyrnwy (Powys) – allowing us to improve habitat for this iconic species by planting trees and managing heather amongst other work. The partnership has also supported three new black grouse research projects whose results have helped target our management.

    At Geltsdale in 2015 reserve staff counted 59 lekking males; a huge increase on the results from 2012 and 2013 of 27 males.  The largest single lek at the reserve was made up 28 males and is one of the largest to be reported across the UK that year. It is in large part down to the habitat work (including rush cutting and fencing to facilitate grazing) carried out thanks to the support of The Famous Grouse, that we have seen such a fantastic success story.

    Working with our partners and many landowners, across the core black grouse range in England, Scotland and Wales, we set about reversing these declines. The recent launch, by Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity at the Scottish Game Fair of the black grouse conservation in southern Scotland strategy is a good example of this close collaboration.  This strategy outlines management required to stop the decline of black grouse in southern Scotland, increase numbers and encourage recolonisation of lost range. The plan was jointly funded by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Lammermuirs Moorland Group, Scottish Borders Council and RSPB Scotland.

    Recently The Black Grouse whisky has been rebranded to become The Famous Grouse Smoky Black and the partnership has evolved to be supported by The Famous Grouse family portfolio (including The Famous Grouse and The Famous Grouse Mellow Gold).

    So next time you fancy a wee dram, reach for a bottle of The Famous Grouse Smoky Black and take satisfaction in knowing that your tipple will be supporting essential conservation work for one of the UK’s most fascinating species.

  • Getting ready for Birdfair

    Last week I encouraged everyone to come along to Birdfair, hosted each year in August at the famous Rutland Water Nature reserve, run by our partner the Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust. Directions to Birdfair can be found here.

    I am confident you will want enjoy every bit of Birdfair, and will want to participate in the many discussions, and see what the many wildlife organisations who attend have to say about the state of nature in the UK. Firstly the RSPB will be there in strength and staff from across the organisation will be manning our stand in Marquee 2 and our Wildlife Explorers stand for families in the Outdoor Tents area.

    If you have a question, want to know more about our work at home or overseas, or simply want to find out about visiting our wide network of nature reserves, don’t hesitate to ask.

    This year Birdfair is held in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. This will have major ramifications for the protection of birds, wildlife generally and of course the sites and habitats across the UK which are so critical for the future of all nature. This key topic reminds us how important all supporters of wildlife organisations are in campaigning to protect nature from the consequences of these upheavals.

    Campaigns to win the necessary safeguards and statutory protections needed as we Brexit are being discussed. Expect more news at Birdfair, and your support will be needed even more in the future. Birders and all concerned for nature must collectively step up to the plate in the months ahead. The best way to achieve that is through a strong set of wildlife organisations, backed by a growing membership.

    Turning to the talks programme, our programme (with Birdlife) to protect Albatrosses will be showcased in Lecture Marquee 1 on Saturday 20 August at 4pm. We have good news from the front line in the Southern Oceans to report - but many challenges for the worlds albatrosses remain. Do come and hear Stephanie Winnard show what the RSPB, and our partners, are doing in these most testing of environments. I can also recommend nature photographer Neil Aldridge, who gave a fascinating and well received talk at the RSPB members conference in April - his advice is not to be missed (Lecture Marquee 3 at 09.30am on Saturday 20th August).

    Keep your eye open for some of the celebrities who are regulars at the Birdfair too. Simon King, Chris Packham, Bill Oddie, Mike Dilger and others are giving talks, signing books and chatting to visitors. My old friend Mark Avery is also on hand, and I look forward to appearing with him on Friday at 4.45pm to discuss grouse moors and the future for our hen harriers.

    Lastly another part of Birdfair that always fascinates is the Art Marquee. Art has been inspired by nature since the dawn of time, and in turn it can inspire people to love nature today. The quality of the art on offer is simply astonishing and this must be the biggest showcase for wildlife related art on display at any one place in the UK. Certainly I find it hard to keep my wallet in my pocket as I walk past some of my favourite artists; do check out Chris Rose, Bruce Pearson, John Threlfall and Darren Woodhead to name just a few.

    So do come, buy your tickets here and remember RSPB members get discounted tickets on the Sunday. I look forward to seeing many of you over the weekend of 19-21 August at Rutland Water.