Stuart Housden's blog

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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
  • Scotland must keep its eyes on the prize of truly sustainable fishing

    Scotland must keep its eyes on the prize of truly sustainable fishing 

    We are at a critical turning point for fisheries management in Scotland, but you’d be forgiven for missing that fact. When the end -of -year fisheries negotiations in Brussels concluded in the usual late night scramble, there was the predictable surge of press releases from all quarters - Governments claiming victory for ‘their’ fishermen, while environmental groups berate politicians for discarding scientific advice. When backed into our opposing corners, we fail to recognise collective progress and the opportunities ahead.  And we can be forgiven that, given the lamentable approach adopted by the Council of Fishery Ministers in recent years.  But some strategic progress, albeit grudging, has been achieved.

    Banning discarding: 2015 will be a game changer for Scottish fisheries. The Landing Obligation (‘discard ban’) comes into force on January 1st for the pelagic fleet (fishing for herring and mackerel etc). 12 months later, the discard ban will kick in for the demersal fleet (fishing for cod, haddock etc) which will be difficult to implement and police, as many of these species swim together. Government and industry must do all that can be done to prepare for the Landing Obligation, including closed areas to avoid catching unwanted fish, on-board cameras to show progress is being made, and maximum uptake of selective gear on fishing vessels.

    At present, of the 30 vessels in the Scottish fleet segment of over 24 metre demersal trawlers, almost half (14) are not using identified selective gear.  While phasing out discards will undoubtedly cause hardship for some vessels, Scottish Government economic analysis identifies that there will be offsetting economic benefits.  The report estimates that eliminating discards of the six key whitefish stocks by Scottish vessels has the potential to add up to £200 million to the landed value of these species between 2013 and 2020 compared to the status quo.  By 2020, the additional value of landings of the six key stocks by Scottish vessels each year could be worth £26m-£28m.  So a win-win if it can be delivered.

    Razorbill Alca torda, pair displaying, Isle of May National Nature reserve, Andy Hay

    Ending overfishing:  Scotland, and Scottish fleets, must demonstrate that they are doing all within their powers and abilities to fish at sustainable levels (Maximum Sustainable Yield, or) by 2015 where possible, and at the latest by 2020 where there is proof that the earlier deadline would seriously jeopardise the social and economic sustainability of the fleets involved.  The danger is that this ‘jam tomorrow’ approach will persuade Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead to delay full implementation of necessary measures.  We want to see a clear roadmap of how Scotland will meet this commitment for all Scottish stocks.

    Changing how we manage quota:  For the first time in decades, the Scottish Government is considering changing how it allocates quota. RSPB Scotland and WWF believe there should be a ‘quota pot’ to reward the ‘best’ Scottish vessels, which bring social and economic benefits to local communities without damaging the marine environment, with more opportunities to fish than others. This would include vessels fitted with onboard cameras, which is the only effective way to monitor the Landing Obligation and wider environmental targets such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

    It’s worth repeating that RSPB Scotland supports sustainable fishermen. Our vision is for fisheries which are discard free, with minimal bycatch of non-target species including seabirds and operate within laws to protect Scotland’s emerging network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). We want a future where boats catch sustainable, high quality catches and bring pride and profit to their home ports, and are rewarded for doing so with even more opportunities to fish. Scotland must keep its eyes on the prize of truly sustainable fishing and do what it can to meet the challenges head on with innovative and sustainable solutions.

    However, if the Scottish Government wants to keep our confidence, closer liaison with us and our colleagues WWF Scotland throughout this critical year is required.

  • Has the environment fallen off the political agenda?

    Has the environment fallen off the political agenda?

    Has either of our governments forgotten the environment?  At Holyrood, Salmond, Davidson and Lamont scarcely give it a mention. At Westminster it sometimes seems to have disappeared completely from the agenda of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg.

    Whilst most of the decisions that impact on the well-being of nature are taken at the Scottish Parliament, Westminster still matters, too.

    Worldwide, nations and territories failed to deliver on their pledge, made in Rio in 1992, to halt the loss of Biodiversity by 2010. Indeed all the indicators suggest that loss of wildlife, habitats and ‘natural capital’ is continuing unabated. This is caused by the direct loss and degradation of wildlife rich landscapes, the fragmentation of special areas, over exploitation, the impact of invasive non native species and the pressures caused by climate change and other pollution.  Politicians have now offered 2020 as the new date to achieve this goal – but it’s hard to see it happening even then.

    Recently, scientists at WWF and the ZSL estimated that we have lost half of the globe’s wildlife in the past 40 years. Within Europe farmland birds show similar declines over the same period and the birds are an indicator of all the other species found in our forests, farmed landscapes, wetlands and waterways.

    The seminal ‘State of Nature’ report compiled by 25 leading UK NGO’s and agencies and launched by Sir David Attenborough, shows that over 60% of all the species (where good data exists) found in the UK are in decline. The Scottish part of that report demonstrates that losses and/or threats are as significant here as elsewhere in the UK.

    Politicians are failing to grasp the scale of the crisis and offer the leadership required. Indeed, in the EU newly ‘elected’ President Juncker has set out an agenda to water down some of the critical environmental protections that currently hold the line all across Europe. He is doing this in the face of the clear popularity such measure enjoy amongst Europe’s citizens. Moreover, while the de-regulation is often proposed as being pro-business, many businesses welcome the certainty and clarity provided by good environmental regulations, as well as the knowledge that it means they are working in harmony with the environment.

    We will continue to campaign vigorously to ensure politicians know that the public wants to see action to protect wildlife, and, in particular, with our Birdlife partners, will be responding to Juncker’s agenda. Leadership is increasingly being offered by civic society – NGOs like the RSPB, Business leaders, academic institutes and other novel partnerships of interest, but the political ‘class’ seem absent or bewildered as to how they should respond.

    The debate is no longer about technical solutions and policies. Instead, it is moving to establishing societal values and partnerships across society that work alongside Governments, supporters and partners who will engage with, and grow support to challenge the indifference of our politicians to this crisis facing the world’s wildlife and wild places. These are the new trend setters and champions that will inspire action for the public good of sustainability, saving the planets resources and life ‘support’ systems for future generations, and concern for other species we share this planet of ours with – great and small, well known or secretive and unseen. They all matter.

    So RSPB Scotland will be working hard to turn this around. We have a strong evidence and science base, we can, with our partners, help set the agenda and we must together raise expectations of our political leaders and hold them to account.  It’s time to stand up and be counted – and get passionate about it! We can and must be the ‘team’ that does halt the loss of Biodiversity.

  • Why driven grouse moors should be effectively regulated in Scotland

    RSPB Scotland calls for the licensing of driven grouse moors

    Hen harrier by Mark Hamblin (

    Birds of prey have been given full protection by the law in Scotland for many decades. There is now a significant body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence; alongside many reported cases of illegal killing of birds of prey; and documented evidence of vacant traditional territories of key raptor species; to show that they are being systematically killed in large swathes of our uplands managed for driven grouse shooting. In the absence of any improvement, and the damaging intensification of some grouse moor management practices, RSPB Scotland is now calling for driven grouse moors to be formally regulated by a cost covering licensing regime. 

    The illegal killing of our native birds of prey was described as a “national disgrace” by the late first Minister Donald Dewar MSP in 1998. The damage that this activity causes to Scotland’s international reputation, as well as to the populations of the birds of prey themselves, has been repeatedly acknowledged by successive Scottish Government Ministers.  Good wildlife protection laws are now in place, but  effective enforcement is often lacking since these crimes often take place in remote areas.

    RSPB Scotland has worked hard with land management and other partners in PAW Scotland to stamp out illegal practice, however on most driven grouse moors this message seems to fall on deaf ears. The Langholm Demonstration Project is making good progress in showing how sustainable grouse moor management might be achieved. Unfortunately the practical solutions developed at Langholm, including the successful diversionary feeding of hen harriers, have not been widely deployed by the grouse moor sector. Meanwhile, the illegal killing of hen harriers, golden eagles and other protected birds of prey continues unabated.

    Instead of delivering the modern day public expectations from sustainable land management practices, many involved with driven grouse moor management have embarked in recent years on ever more intensive practices designed to produce ever increasing grouse bags. This business model has led to burning of vulnerable peatland habitats and Caledonian pinewood regeneration; catching and medicating the iconic wild red grouse against disease;  the widespread removal of mountain hares and deer; and the construction of new and intrusive hill-tracks across wild land. These practices do not meet any definition of environmental sustainability.

    We welcome new measures introduced by the Scottish Government to bear down on the perpetrators of crime against birds of prey, including “vicarious liability”, designed to make landowners more responsible for the actions of their employees. However, we believe that the time is now long overdue for a step change in our approach. A meaningful deterrent to the persistent illegal killing of birds of prey is required. Whilst Scotland has largely unregulated gamebird hunting and limited sanctions against those who break wildlife laws, in contrast to other European countries, we believe that the entrenched cultural attitudes towards protected birds of prey will persist amongst many in the driven grouse moor sector.

    This is why we are now calling for the Scottish Government to develop a system of licensing for driven grouse moor management with effective sanctions, including the removal of sporting rights, against those who break wildlife laws. The welcome review of gamebird management practices in other similar countries that was recently commissioned by the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change should provide a platform to develop a licensing system appropriate to Scottish circumstances.  Those who do not break wildlife protection laws should have nothing to fear from such regulation, indeed this approach might be expected to help support those land managers who wish to lead the industry towards good practice.