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
  • Better farming regulation not less

    Better farming regulation not less

    Farming, like most sectors, is subject to a wide range of rules and regulations but in recent years the industry has made the charge that it is subject to too much ‘red tape and bureaucracy’. In Scotland, this led to the Government asking Brian Pack OBE to conduct an independent review. The ‘Doing Better Initiative to Reduce Red Tape in Agriculture’ recently produced an Interim Report with 66 recommendations and Mr Pack has invited comments.

    As a major land owner and active farmer ourselves, we understand the frustration felt by many farmers faced with unnecessarily bureaucratic administration. But, we believe that regulation (alongside other policy tools) has a vital role to play in helping farmers meet high standards which are good for business in the longer-term and assist in delivering competitive advantage, reducing costs and protecting natural resources. After all, Scotland trades on its clean, green and healthy environment in marketing its goods and produce, and the benefits of regulation – for farm businesses and society more widely – are seriously underplayed by Pack in his report.

     An assessment of the costs and benefits of regulation in England by Defra stated that ‘...where £1 is spent on regulation (mainly by businesses and public authorities), there is a £2.40 return to society (mainly economic benefits to business and the public and environmental and health benefits). It seems likely that this ratio (2.4:1) may understate benefits compared to costs...’ I wonder what a similar assessment in Scotland would show? Why hasn’t Pack even looked at that?

    One question we do need to ask is ‘where does all this red tape and bureaucracy come from’? The report acknowledges at the start that much of the burden farmers complain about – form filling, complex rules and subsequent inspections – comes not from environmental or other legislation but from farmers voluntarily claiming payments under various schemes of the Common Agricultural Policy. Such payments – funded by taxpayers - amount to almost £700 million each year in Scotland. The audit burden surrounding these payments is necessarily stringent to ensure that public money is spent effectively and fraudulent claims are not made. Whilst steps can clearly be taken to streamline application processes and inspections, and the report offers some ideas on how to do this, it should be no surprise to anyone that money from the public purse inevitably – and rightly - comes with strings attached.

    One area the report does make a number of helpful recommendations on is the need to improve information, guidance and advice to farmers on complying with legislation. Work carried out in the last few years by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in priority water catchments has highlighted widespread non-compliance with simple rules designed to protect the water environment. These rules include not applying fertiliser too close to water and not cultivating land within 2m of any surface water or wetland. SEPA staff walked 5,000 km of waterways and identified over 5,000 breaches of these rules – roughly 1 per km. SEPA is now undertaking follow-up contact with land managers to advise them of breaches and to give advice on how to remedy this.  But it is also critical that SEPA follow up this advisory approach with enforcement where land managers do not remedy these breaches. Similarly, with large numbers of SSSI's in unfavourable condition due to overgrazing and agricultural operations we should be pressing to know why Government isn’t tackling what appear to be some serious breaches of the rules.

    Publicising the requirements - and showing why they are important - is a first step. But so is proper implementation and enforcement of regulation, particularly regarding the environment. This is an issue we raised with Brian at the start of his review but which is largely overlooked in the report. It’s an area we think the Scottish Government could do far better in. A good example is in relation to Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations which are in place to protect uncultivated and semi-natural land from certain damaging farming practices but which, in our view, are being very poorly enforced indeed. Looking at England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a benchmark clearly reveals Scotland is way off the pace. And this stuff matters if our countryside is to be something that continues to provide a home for nature and our producers can claim that caché of stewardship of a world class environment. The risk is that our competitors might ask a few hard questions about our commitment.

  • Giving nature a home in the Firth of Forth

    The sea. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition between its great power and its unequivocal beauty, but there is something about the sea that captivates the mind. Or at least my mind. It is full of special places, which are home to the most amazing variety of creatures, perfectly adapted to their environment. It also offers great experiences. Gannets plunging into the waves as they hunt for fish-an amazing sight that can be viewed from Edinburgh’s coastal areas-with a huge colony on the Bass Rock.

    Protecting these special places is at the heart of what RSPB Scotland aims to do. For me the marine environment is the most intriguing and interesting area of our work. Our knowledge of marine wildlife and the interactions between man’s use of, and impact on marine habitats is growing all the time.

    One of the most important places in Scottish waters lies in the east, a few miles off the coast of Edinburgh. The Firth of Forth Banks Complex is an offshore group of sandbanks which are important spawning grounds for the lesser sandeel.

    For those of you who aren’t familiar with the lesser sandeel (Ammodytes marinus), it’s a small, silver fish which lives in the cold waters of the north Atlantic and is a very important source of food for seabirds (sandeels make up 90% of a kittiwake’s diet) and other marine species like dolphins and porpoises. As well as pelagic fish of high commercial value.

    The Firth of Forth is special because the sandeels that spawn there between January and March populate the whole of the southern part of the North Sea. Sandeels are a keystone species in Scotland’s marine environment and without the spawning grounds of the Firth of Forth the huge seabird colonies around the east coast could not be supported.

    As this area is so important, it has been proposed by the Scottish Government as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), although, bizarrely, it has not been proposed to protect sandeels despite the wealth of evidence to show how important the area is for this species. So why is the Firth of Forth not being designated for sandeels? The proposed MPA overlaps with an area licensed for a windfarm development and the developers, fearful for their investment, have said in their MPA consultation response that they don’t want the site to be protected at all. If I was a windfarm developer I might think the same, but I’m not, I am interested in protecting the environment and making sure that the best marine sites are protected, now and in the future.

    The Marine (Scotland) Act, which gave the Scottish Government power to create MPAs, was also meant to put in place a plan which would allow marine industries to develop within the confines of the environment, and reverse the damage inflicted by years of under-regulated industry at sea.  Sustainability and the health of our seas was at the core of the legislation, which is why we praised it.

    Very soon the Scottish Government will have to make a decision on whether or not to designate the Firth of Forth MPA. They have two choices, 1) They follow the advice of their scientific advisers, stay true to their own guiding principles on MPA selection and designate the MPA or, 2) they ignore science and make a mockery of a process which has taken over a decade to get to this stage.

    Here at RSPB Scotland we feel passionately about nature and hold our values as a totem of our integrity. We use science to inform our policy, even when that means we have to take tough decisions. It’s not always an easy road to travel but it’s the road we are morally obliged to take. I hope the Scottish Government feels the same way and makes the right decision by designating the Firth of Forth MPA for sandeels, and by ensuring this essential resource is protected for the future.

  • Dredging is not the panacea for flooding problems

    View of RSPB Insh Marshes, a natural floodplain.

    It would be difficult not to be aware of the floods south of the border with the devastation dominating the headlines and grabbing much political attention. Scotland may seem to have escaped relatively lightly but the distressing consequences of flooding will be fresh in the minds of the people of Comrie and parts of Dumfries & Galloway, which have experienced their fair share of flooding in recent times.

    In Scotland, SEPA estimate 1 in 22 homes are at risk of flooding whether from rivers, the sea or urban surface water run-off.  There has never been a greater need for a co-ordinated and sustainable approach to managing floods, one that will enable us to adapt to the changing climate which looks set to bring ever more extreme weather events.  But there is a solution, and the answer lies in working with nature and natural processes.  There are obvious steps that can be taken such as avoiding developing new housing on floodplain areas but, crucially, we must also challenge the land management practices that contribute to flooding. 

    Picture a landscape where the upland vegetation is overgrazed, moorlands and peatlands are drained and damaged, soils are compacted by the trampling of livestock, rivers and ditches artificially straightened and scrub and hedgerows have been removed.  It is widely accepted that flood water flows through this type of landscape far faster than one which contains healthy peatlands, wetlands and other natural features that intercept and slow the run-off of water.   Farmers and other land managers have a valuable role to play in storing and stemming the flow of water across their land.  We need to ensure this happens via means such as strong agricultural cross compliance measures which protect these natural features and constructive support mechanisms for farmers who go above and beyond the regulatory baseline to provide flood risk benefits to the wider community. 

    One thing that is certain is, despite the calls of many, dredging of watercourses is not a magic cure all. Indeed, it is far from it, as shown by a recent report by water management experts CIWEM (Floods and dredging – a reality check). The report acknowledges that dredging may play a role in flood risk management in some cases but, in the wrong place, it can have devastating unintended consequences.  Dredging speeds up water flow through river channels thereby potentially increasing flood risk to downstream communities and it can destabilise river banks, increase erosion risk and lead to damage of essential infrastructure such as bridges. Dredging can have considerable adverse effects on biodiversity with for example, damage to vital spawning grounds for Atlantic salmon.

    It is essential that all dredging is carefully planned and regulated, and its impact is monitored to ensure it does not increase flood risk nor have adverse impacts on wildlife and water quality.  The advantages and risks of dredging must be fully considered in the context of a sustainable approach to flood risk and flood plain management – this is not the time for knee-jerk interventions that may magnify the problems. Giving carte blanche to potentially damaging activities like dredging is a reckless and potentially costly gamble.