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
  • 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 (RSPB-images.com)

    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 www.langholmproject.com 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.    

  • What the National Planning Framework means for nature in Scotland

    What the National Planning Framework means for nature in Scotland


    Last Monday, Scottish Ministers published the third National Planning Framework for Scotland (NPF3) and a new version of Scottish Planning Policy (SPP).  You can find both the NPF3 and the SPP here: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Built-Environment/planning/NPF3-SPP-Review This could be seen as a dull subject- it’s not, especially if you care about what Scotland will look like, and how it treats nature in the decades ahead.

    In very broad terms, NPF3 sets out where development should (and should not) happen whereas the SPP sets out how development should happen. They are primarily planning documents, intended to shape Scotland’s built development over the next 20-30 years.  It’s clear the NPF in particular is intended to be a bit more than that though.  It describes itself as the “...spatial expression of the Government economic strategy”.  It could therefore have a major impact on how Government spending priorities affect the natural environment and the look of places which people visit and love.  

    RSPB Scotland passionately supports planning, and  wants a strategic framework to guide where necessary infrastructure goes (and where it does not), and which sets out a clear framework for developers, the public and decision makers to follow. We and several other environmental groups had some major concerns with early drafts of the NPF3, which in our view focused heavily on delivering sustainable economic growth at the potential expense of environmental protection. 

    However during the consultation Government and the Scottish Parliament both rose to our challenges to make the balance tilt more equally between development-and protecting the best areas for wildlife.  They recognised that if these documents were to set out a vision for the sort of place we collectively want Scotland to be in 20-30 years they needed to be more than just about growth at any cost - they also needed to recognise the importance of a high quality natural environment to our future prosperity and quality of life, by protecting and enhancing our most important places, by ensuring that development is genuinely sustainable and delivered to the highest standards.

    Both documents are now quite positive - there is lots of recognition of the value of biodiversity, for example, and the positive contribution it makes to quality of life in Scotland, and the benefit it provides to tourism and our produce-like the food and drink sectors.  They are well worth looking through if you get a chance (they’re pretty readable for government policy documents too!).

     Highlights include:

    • The 14 “National Developments” set out in NPF3.  Most of these are defined areas where the principle of development will be supported but some are Scotland wide – such as a new walking and cycling network or electricity grid upgrades. Some of these will be environmentally challenging so RSPB Scotland will be looking to work closely with developers and the Government to avoid environmental harm.
    • A new “Presumption in favour of development that contributes to sustainable development” is set out in the SPP.  It will be interesting to see how this is interpreted by developers and planning authorities.  We think this presumption is unnecessary and could lead to some confusion.  A presumption in favour of development in isolation would be a major concern but, in practice, this will be outweighed by the need to contribute to sustainable development.  Hopefully, the need to prove that a development will contribute to sustainable development will mean a step-change in the sustainability credentials of many development proposals. And it won’t pass sustainability tests if precious wildlife sites would be destroyed.
    • The SPP sets out a revised spatial framework for onshore wind, focused on protecting designated sites but also wild land and “carbon rich soils, deep peat and priority peatland habitat”.  Improving protection for peatlands was one of our asks so it is great to see it taken up.
    • In addition to restating the protection given to designated sites, the SPP sets out that the planning system should “...seek benefits for biodiversity from new development where possible”.  We look forward to seeing biodiversity benefits becoming an integral part of most new developments. This is potentially an interesting steer from the Scottish Government.
    • There is strong support for habitat and green networks in the SPP and NPF3 and the Central Scotland Green Network retains its national development status in the NPF.  Delivering benefits for biodiversity is now a more explicit aim of the Central Scotland Green Network description, which is very welcome.  Our work around the Inner Forth is already starting to contribute towards these aims and its great to see it given a boost.

    All in, this is very positive from the Government.  Many other Government documents would do well to take on board some of the messages in NPF and SPP.Indeed SGRPID and the ‘Agriculture’ team are clearly not as advanced in their thinking and practise.  As with all policies though, the real test will be in the implementation and RSPB Scotland will be contributing, but also monitoring this very closely over the coming months and years.