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
  • A Plan of Action for Peatlands?

    A Plan of Action for Peatlands?

    A letter published in the Scotsman this week was a real gem. Roy Turnbull, argued well that Scotland should do more to value its forests, peatlands and upland areas as huge stores of carbon and for their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soil and vegetation. He described these areas as Scotland’s Amazon. I agree with his sentiments - especially the need for Government to put the same efforts into peatland restoration as it has into renewables.

    Perhaps Mr Turnbull was a few days too soon with his letter as today sees the long-awaited publication of the National Peatland Plan by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). But does this document outline how Scotland’s vast peatlands will be restored and how their profile raised to Amazonian status?

    RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows (Eleanor Bentall

    A restored peatbog is a wonderful wet mossy world capping a deep store of carbon rich peaty soil, and is a haven for special wildlife. Hen harriers, dunlin, black-throated divers, and otters all thrive there, and amazing plants like the insectivorous sundew find a niche amongst the mosses and bog pools. A healthy peatbog is naturally a great home for nature and locks away huge quantities of carbon in its damp peaty soils – so good also for our climate targets.

    RSPB Scotland has worked for years to restore a section of the huge 1,500 square miles of the Flow Country. At our reserve at Forsinard we have blocked ditches and removed poorly-sited conifer trees from mile upon mile of damaged peatbog to stop the carbon emissions and restore ideal habitat. It’s hard work but we have experimented to find the best techniques and seen the benefits. We have a vision to work in partnership with Government, SNH, landowners and others to extend the reach of these efforts so that much more of Scotland has the opportunity to experience the benefits of wonderful peatland wildlife, clean water and carbon savings.

    Black-throated diver (Andy Hay (

    Peatlands often exist in remote rural areas where the extra resources and jobs associated with managing and repairing our peatlands are much needed. Restoring peatlands offers rural communities not just a better environment with stable soils and improved water quality but also a chance to become part of the new agenda where the benefits to society of healthy peatlands are reflected in the public and private support given to land managers. This is a far more stable, long-term funding route than exploiting our peatlands and damaging them for short term gain.

    SNH’s Peatland Plan sets out why peatlands are so important to Scotland and makes the case well for putting right the damage done to our peatland habitats. I welcome the vision to secure healthy biodiverse peatlands and supporting their natural function. But is this an effective plan - a sound plan of action?

    Interestingly, page 28 details the ‘restoration chain of action’ needed to realise successful peatland restoration on the ground. It lists: ‘a) knowledge of what needs to be done; b) practical expertise to carry out the restoration work; c) a willing landowner/ manager; d) sufficient resources to undertake the work; e) the know-how to secure resources and f) the commitment and support to maintain the benefits.’

    Sundew (Ben Andrew

    If we apply these planning steps at the national scale we find that there are a few links missing in the national chain of action. We have the knowledge and the practical expertise to make peatland restoration happen in Scotland. There are also plenty of land owners and land managers willing to act now. What’s missing is the sufficient resource and the commitment to keep going till the job is done.

    These missing links must be addressed by the Scottish Government. It holds the purse, controls the policies which can commit Scotland to long-term peatland restoration and has the power to prevent activities which damage peatlands. Government must now provide a response. It must bring these commitments to the new National Peatland Group which will oversee the tasks ahead. There are lots of people and organisations wanting to see peatland restoration happen, not least those experiencing the impact of climate change right now. No-one wants to rely on a weak chain.

  • An inspiring time at the British Birdfair 2015

    An inspiring time at the British Birdfair 2015

    I was down at the British Birdfair for the best part of 2 ½ days, and as ever enjoyed it immensely.  Partly it’s about meeting people, old friends of course, but also making new contacts and getting inspired! Equally it’s about being available to talk to members and supporters, or to listen to those who feel a bit disgruntled. 

    And it was great to see the buzz around the RSPB stand.  This year we gave space to some of the Cyprus Sovereign Base Police who are trying to combat the illegal killing of migrant birds that is so widespread in the base areas.  There does seem at last to be a renewed enthusiasm to do something about this long standing problem.

    Cyprus Sovereign Base Police are trying to combat the illegal killing of migrant birds (photo by RSPB

    On Friday I attended the Rare Bird Club lunch and met Patricia Zurita, the new Birdlife CEO. She is a dynamic and engaging person and just what the global partnership needs.  Friday evening saw me host the RSPB birders event, and this year we had a competition, in the form of four keen and well known characters giving a ‘mini’ lecture competing for the audiences support for their best British birding day.

    Bill Oddie, Lucy McRobert, Adam Rowlands (of Minsmere and British Birds Rarities Committee fame), and Ian Wallace, famous veteran Birdwatcher, author and artist, all gave the audience 12 minutes setting out their best day.  All were great, all thought provoking, but it was the kilted ‘Dim’ Wallace who stole the show with his panache, style and storytelling.

    During the course of the Fair I met lots of quite well known people, had my photo taken with Henry the Hen Harrier, but of greatest interest was the feedback from our supporters, members and the interested public.

    Female hen harrier (photo by Andy Hay

    What did they tell me? Overwhelmingly people were disgusted at the illegal persecution of raptors and exhibited a level of anger about this I can seldom remember.  Most were understanding of our position, and respected our desire to see driven grouse shooting better regulated rather than banned.  But some clearly feel the time has come for a fresh approach and were delightfully clear in their views.  This is new in my experience. 

    A good number of people were anxious about what is happening to migrant birds in Europe, but also on the wintering grounds in Africa.  It was good to re-assure them of the new work we are doing called ‘Birds without Borders’. This is going to be one of the main issues we have to tackle in the years ahead and it is a huge challenge that needs big thinking, novel partnerships spanning many countries, and some serious money to solve.

    Wood warbler (photo by Andy Hay

    And then some people had reflections on the Birdfair itself which I will feed back.  Key amongst them was the suggestion we need to broaden the interest to reflect the fact that many NGOs who work on things other than birds now come, so ‘Bird fair’ should perhaps become more of a Birds and Nature celebration. And those who have attended our equivalent fair in Scotland suggested that we were taking the lead in terms of the offer for families. But overwhelmingly everyone had a great time in the sunshine!

    Finally I was struck how much investment so many countries from Africa, Asia, South America and Southern Europe put into the fair.  Regional and National Governments had sponsored impressive stands to showcase their wildlife and landscape wonders.  All power to them, but where was Visit Scotland?  I bet they would have been at a golf convention!


  • Why I’m attending this year’s CLA Gamefair

    Why I’m attending this year’s CLA Gamefair 

    A redshank at RSPB Geltsdale (photo by Andy Hay

    I have decided to attend the CLA Gamefair this year, being held at Harewood House.  There was a time back in the day when I was a regular attendee, but I found it more useful to meet folk in small groups, for more constructive discussions, rather than at big set pieces.  But the risk in that I suppose is that chance meetings that inspire some new opportunity, or learning about a project led by a landowner or farmer escapes your attention.  So I will go along with renewed interest.

    I have no doubt that some people (if my Twitter presence is anything to go by!) will want to come and have their say about me, or the RSPB’s stance on issues like predation, birds of prey, upland management and every permutation of the above.  I still meet people who think the RSPB is at the centre of some plot to stop all field sports. We are not. Indeed our Royal Charter requires us to be neutral on the issue, and we observe that with considerable care. To be truthful we don’t very often talk about field sports per se. But we do talk about the wider environmental sustainability of the practices they adopt and seek to provide sound ideas, backed by solid evidence, to help land managers be more sustainable. And of course we are resolute in fighting illegal activities that blight the reputation of all sporting estates and we are determined that raptors will have a secure future in our countryside. Better regulation should be at the heart of this. 

    Recent evidence we have presented on the intensification of burning in the Uplands is a case in point. More burning is happening, often on protected areas, and in some cases this is leading to erosion, the release of carbon to the atmosphere, and the loss of favourable conservation status (particularly on deep peatlands) – and even adds to dissolved carbon in water courses (and hence water supplies). One would hope the grouse industry would be keen to minimise these impacts, and thus welcome this research (indeed why are they not taking responsibility for this?). But the reaction has at best been muted and not very positive, I am afraid.

    Similarly some commentators present as ‘fact’ that RSPB reserves are failing to protect birds. A look at the evidence would demonstrate the extra-ordinairy things that are being achieved, and at scale by the RSPB on its reserves. It’s great to see breeding waders soaring at farms that are part of the RSPB Geltsdale reserve – despite the trends elsewhere. In 2003 farms which had 29 pairs, supported 114 pairs in 2014.

    RSPB Dove Stone (photo by Ben Hall

    At Dove Stone in the Peak District management by the RSPB has seen substantial increases in curlew, golden plover, dunlin and other species. Again all achieved by blocking drains put there by previous owners, that drain and dry out the peatlands, controlling grazing and burning, modest levels of targeted predator control, and restoring the right mosaic of vegetation. These contributions should be studied by other land managers. In the same way  we accept we can learn from the work of farmers, and sporting land managers who document the results of their work in a way that it can be evaluated and replicated. One of the most useful studies from the sporting sector is that conducted by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) at Otterburn, which was published following peer review; it has influenced our management. But the growing trend of asserting myths and circumstantial evidence to justify current practise helps nobody, and I am sceptical of attempts to ignore good science, and award anecdote and gossip an equal status to rigorous field trials and research. 

    My point though is that presenting sound, evidence-based ideas to the land managing and sporting fraternity should be seen as positive engagement by the RSPB.  Hopefully people in these communities will see that too. 

    Dunlin numbers have increased at RSPB Dove Stone (photo by Chris Gomersall

    Of course there are well publicised areas of disagreement where the evidence is less in dispute but where agreement on what to do is hard to find, but it would be so positive if reason broke out – especially on the use of lead shot, but also over the long term future of upland management, including burning, peatlands and of course hen harriers and other raptors. I don’t believe it is in the self-interest of the sport shooting fraternity not to adapt to the best evidence – wherever it comes from, whether that’s Government agencies, the GWCT or RSPB.  Let’s hope I meet some landowners and game managers who feel the same way on 31st July.  If you are going to the Gamefair please do come along and say hello at the RSPB stand.  And yes I am happy to engage in robust, but courteous discussion!

    Oh and you can follow me at @StuartHousden on Twitter. These issues do arise periodically!