Stuart Housden's blog

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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
  • Where next for Scottish farming?

    Farming is, and always has been, a regular theme in my working life. Whether I’m meeting those who lead Scotland’s National Farmers Union or challenging politicians and senior civil servants on the decisions they make on agriculture policy, wildlife friendly farming is at the heart of those conversations. And I proudly admit, I like being out on a farm with practical land managers who share my enthusiasm for wildlife friendly farming, and are making it happen.

    Championing wildlife friendly farming has, for many years, been a core part of the RSPB’s mission. So, when last year, the Scottish Government published a discussion document on the 'Future of Scottish Agriculture' and in it stated its ambition for Scotland to be a world leader in green farming, we applauded. RSPB Scotland staff engaged in this discussion and contributed lots of ideas as to how to make greener farming a reality. This included making sure that by green farming we mean farming that produces quality produce, and is good for birds, butterflies, plants and all nature, as well as good for our climate, soils and water resources.

    Our vision for Scottish farming is of a sector which puts nature and the environment at the heart of business decisions and, through this, is delivering real environmental improvements. We want farming to be productive, resilient, diverse and carried out in ways that are appropriate to the land and that maintains and enhances nature rather than degrades it. In other words, we want the sustainable and long term use of our precious resources and a farming sector that prides itself on improving wildlife whilst achieving reliable incomes for farm businesses. This requires us to support those who take environmental action, through a mix of public policy, consumer choice and market prices.

    Our discussions with others in this debate, including farmers, crofters and their representatives, suggest there is much common ground. We all want a viable farming sector, providing decent livelihoods and employment, producing good food and other products and doing so in ways that do not harm the environment. Where we may disagree is on the scale of the challenges we face, especially the climate and biodiversity challenges, and the steps we need to take to make a difference. Much farmland biodiversity is in decline, as a result of some farming practices, or the abandonment of less profitable management. But farmers are the people best placed to remedy this, and those that do will gain a competitive edge for their produce, and livestock in the future.

    Here are the 10 key steps we have identified that we think would really help us move towards greener farming:   

    1. Every farmer should undertake an environmental audit on their land, identifying the best aspects and the worst. This audit should be used to produce an integrated whole farm business and environment plan which is implemented and then reviewed on a 3 year cycle. Audits and plans should be compulsory for those in receipt of public money through the CAP.
    2. There should be more rapid uptake on all farms of best-practice farm management techniques that deliver environmental improvements such as soil testing, nutrient budgeting, Integrated Crop and Pest Management, alongside greater adoption of simple measures to help wildlife. 
    3. An increase in the area of farmland managed under agri-environment-climate options (in the new AEC scheme) designed to help wildlife, improve water quality, reduce floodrisk, and reduce GHG emissions.
    4. Growth in the organic sector with at least 10% of Scottish farmland managed according to organic farm standards and expansion in the market for organic produce with more people purchasing organic food.
    5. High Nature Value (HNV) farming and crofting systems – those which are of particular importance for wildlife but which struggle to survive financially  –  being fully recognised, valued and supported through the Common Agricultural Policy, other funding streams and wider Government policy.
    6. Greater effort being made to ensure that all protected sites (SSSI’s, SPAs and SACs) on farmland which are currently in unfavourable condition have moved to favourable condition as a result of the introduction of appropriate land management practices.
    7. More farmers working collaboratively to manage land at landscape and catchment scale in order to achieve enhanced environmental outcomes.
    8. More research being carried out to further identify those farming systems and practices that can protect and enhance the environment whilst meeting our food needs.
    9. Greater effort focused on knowledge transfer, advice and training to encourage and promote uptake of best environmental practice amongst farmers.
    10. More consumers choosing Scottish produce because it is recognised for its quality and is being produced in ways that are beneficial for the environment.  The supermarkets, other food outlets and retailers, and public procurement should all help to encourage and drive such demand. 

    Of course, it isn’t all just about the environment. The long term viability and prosperity of the farming sector in Scotland will only be secured if other changes also happen, many as highlighted in the Government’s discussion document. From farmers getting paid a fair share of the price of food to ensuring that farming is seen as a desirable profession and is populated by well trained and skilled individuals. RSPB Scotland believes that demonstrating benefits for wildlife will help get a fair price for Scotland’s farmers; consumers increasingly do care how their food is produced and where it comes from.

    We now need the Government to connect its aspirations for agriculture with its wider aspirations for Scotland to be a ‘Good Food Nation’. This desired direction of travel for our food and farming systems needs also to reflect the principles the Government has set out in its Land Use Strategy, for how we use all our land resources more sustainably. All of this needs to be brought together into a real plan of action with commitments to deliver it. It would be a good first step to see Ministers setting up a Task Force to take this forward and we would be keen to help. If Government were to commit to this, that really would be worth applauding. 

  • Marine Spatial Planning in Scotland – a stock take

    Marine Spatial Planning in Scotland – a stock take

     

    In recent years Scottish Government has progressed leaps and bounds towards meeting their vision for Scotland’s seas that are ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive, biologically diverse marine and coastal environments, managed to meet the long term needs of nature and people.’ Our first National Marine Plan and the designation of 33 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are unprecedented steps, which deserve applause and congratulations. Yet we need to ensure we don’t get ahead of ourselves with said approbation; there is still a great deal to be done and we won’t be resting on our laurels anytime soon. Just beyond the horizon are the ratifications of the measures to manage those MPAs; a whole new suite of marine Special Protection Areas for seabirds and Special Areas of Conservation for marine mammals plus the ‘local’ tier of marine plans, in the form of 11 Regional Marine Plans (RMPs). All of which are to be delivered in the coming months and years.

    The designation of protected areas for nature is a well-rehearsed act and RSPB Scotland will be using all the tools available to us to ensure Government do indeed achieve what they have committed to do and establish ‘an ecologically coherent and well-managed network of marine protected areas’ by the end of 2016. We have high hopes given Richard Lochhead’s (Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment ) recent commitments to secure, from our MPA network, long-term benefits both for the environment and our coastal communities. Especially as he has avoided simply reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to vociferous lobbying voices of the mobile fishing industry.  Time and again research is proving that robust management of MPAs that excludes, in the right places, the most damaging fishing practices actually contributes positively to healthier ecosystems and stronger commercial stocks into the future. We look forward to these commitments holding fast.

    Perhaps, however, less well rehearsed, is the development of a new framework for sustainably managing our seas called marine spatial planning, which has been emerging since the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. RSPB Scotland has consistently championed the virtues of town planning on land and the marine environment is no different, indeed we believe that marine spatial planning is central to delivering on Scottish Government’s vision for our seas. Marine planning is the thread that ties together fisheries, aquaculture, environment, tourism, renewables, shipping, oil and gas and more. It enables an oversight of the challenges, pressures and opportunities available to all sectors, which ultimately enables robust, informed and improved decision-making for the long-term.

    The next step is the delivery and adoption of RMPs, which sit under and are to be guided by Scotland’s first National Marine Plan adopted in March 2015. This represents an entirely new area of work requiring adequate resourcing and commitment from Government to ensure ambitions are fulfilled. Marine Planning Partnerships (MPPs), the bodies tasked with writing and delivering the RMPs, are yet to be established although the Clyde region will be one of the first, and yet it is still not clear what Government’s intentions are for supporting the Partnerships and ensuring efficiencies are achieved through, for example, collaborative approaches. Government needs to provide more at this point, not less, adopting the National Marine Plan was just the start and they must now support and empower the marine regions by providing a clear steer and facilitating robust planning and policy decision-making.

    We mustn’t underestimate the scale and urgency of this challenge: Scotland’s seas are in a seriously denuded state following decades of a free-for-all approach to extraction and development, exacerbated by the long-term effects of climate change and persistent pollution. The results are stark, in Scotland around half of our seabirds have disappeared since the mid 1980s and Scottish Government’s own trend data show sustained declines since 1986 for nine of 11 seabird species. Arctic skuas have plummeted by 80%, Arctic terns by 72% and kittiwakes by 68%. Seabirds are regarded as sentinels for the health of the marine environment, so what of the rest of Scotland’s marine wildlife? Out of 15 areas of shallow and shelf subtidal sediment habitats 12 areas are shown to have ‘many concerns,’ whilst 56% of all habitat areas assessed are shown to be deteriorating (as assessed in Scotland’s Marine Atlas 2011). 

    Marine Spatial Planning can meet this challenge and start turning these declines around. It can focus efforts on protection and enhancement of depleted species and habitats that in turn can strengthen the natural marine environment that we ultimately depend on for everything from the fish that we eat to the carbon that we need to store.  The problem is that Scotland’s National Marine Plan falls short of being effective, it lacks real substantial guidance for sound policy development at the regional and local levels (see Scottish Environment LINK’s collective view of the NMP). We wanted the National Marine Plan to contribute towards resolving the varied and increasing pressures resulting from all marine activities vying for space and resources within and across our seas. Compromises and difficult decisions need to be made; we simply cannot have growth in every sector as the current plan will have you believe. These challenges now land squarely at the feet of the new Marine Planning Partnerships as we have missed the boat with the current National Plan, and the first review is not scheduled until 2018.

    As we transition focus from the National Marine Plan to the Regional Plans, Government needs to redouble their efforts to fill the policy void and commit to adequate resourcing at the regional level. As a priority we believe the focus should be on:

    • Committing adequate resources to enable Marine Planning Partnerships to draft and adopt the first ever RMPs for Scotland’s seas.
    • Delivering national level guidance that, with the ecosystem approach at its heart, facilitates high quality decision-making that can effectively resolve conflicting pressures;
    • Making best use of the knowledge we do have and in the case of uncertainty ensure that the precautionary approach is applied in a manner that effectively manages risks to the environment (especially with prioritised focus on cumulative impacts);
    • Delivering a coherent and transparent long-term national monitoring framework that addresses knowledge gaps in the environmental baseline, prioritises these and answers them to inform and adapt future plans and policy. Such an adaptive management approach will ultimately support and inform development of RMPs and their own monitoring priorities;

    Should Government prioritise these actions the forthcoming RMPs will be much better aligned to delivering a robust planning framework for our increasingly intensively utilised marine environment.

    In the year ahead, we look forward to engaging in the development of Marine Planning Partnerships and the process of developing entirely new RMPs. We will be scrutinising proposals with a focus on securing policy that prioritises and enables compromises; is adequately monitored; and is decisive without unnecessarily risking the health of our natural marine heritage. 

  • Ask Rory to #DefendNature and keep the path to conservation clear

    Ask Rory to #DefendNature and keep the path to conservation clear

    When you can’t see clearly where you are going everything gets much slower and more difficult. The recent stormy weather is a reminder of this in action - whilst driving to work last week the rain was so heavy that it was difficult to make out the car just a few metres ahead of me and this brought to mind what the situation would be like if the EU Nature Directives were weakened.

    Just as on a bright and cloudless day I can see the sun illuminating the tops of the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh as I approach the office, so the Nature Directives clearly define protected areas, helping industry put the right development in the right place, and to do so quicker and with greater ease than if they didn’t exist. In fact, even leading industry bodies such as Cemex agree, and that is why they, too, support the retention of the Nature Directives in their current form.

    Corncrake (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com) 

    Since their implementation the Directives have proven beneficial for wildlife, for people and for business, but this isn’t clear to all, including our own government. Clouded by the false belief that the directives are a burden on business and that weakening them will help speed up development and boost the economy, a minority of EU member states are pushing for the Directives to be weakened. As a result the EU is in the midst of a review of the Directives. As part of this process on the16th December, at the European Council of Ministers in Brussels, Environment Ministers will agree a response to the review. Rory Stewart MP will represent all four countries of the UK at this meeting and we need your help to make sure he defends the Nature Directives.  

    This summer over half a million people spoke up to save the EU Nature Directives through the Defend Nature campaign – the biggest ever response to an European Commission public consultation, with over 100,000 voices coming from the UK alone. Proof that people believe in the value of protected areas. But whilst this is key to influencing the political outcome of the review our battle is not over. Before 9th December we need as many people as possible to write to their MP, asking them to contact Rory Stewart so he defends the Nature Directives on behalf of the UK public at this meeting.  Adding to your letter, you can also back Rory Stewart to #DefendNature using Twitter and take a #DefendNature selfie in front of your favourite site or species protected by the Directives. All of which you can find out more about here.

    Bluebells (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    The Nature Directives have helped to save and restore charismatic Scottish species like marsh fritillary butterflies and corncrakes, as well as habitats such as bluebell woods and peatlands – and there is the chance for them to help so much more. Changing the Directives would be a costly exercise and create uncertainty and investment risk. We believe that the UK and other European countries should reject reform of the EU Nature Directives and focus instead on their full implementation, which predictions indicate could support 122,000 jobs and contribute €3.05 billion to local economies. Together we can help keep the path to conservation and sustainable economic development clear, but to do this we need to let our MPs and Rory Stewart know that this opportunity is in front of them, even if they can’t clearly see it right now.

    Thanks again for your support.