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
  • How did nature do in the elections?

    The election results are in and the new MSPs are gathering in Holyrood. How did nature and the environment do? They didn’t grab the headlines, but in numerous hustings across Scotland organised by RSPB Scotland, Environment Link and our partners, candidates were put through their paces. The Hustings were well attended, and unfailingly polite and respectful. But passions did shine through on occasion.

    One of nature’s strongest advocates was ‘Bob’, a red squirrel character, who spearheaded our awareness raising campaign. It was remarkably successful with over 122,000 messages generated to the candidates, and no less than 181 of those standing for election ‘backed Bob’. Thank you to each and every one of you!

    But of course that was the fun part. Now it gets serious. With biodiversity in decline across much of Scotland, many of our protected sites (SSSIs and EU Natura sites) in ‘unfavourable condition’, birds of prey still being illegally killed, new developments, including poorly located windfarms putting wildlife at risk, we cannot afford to be complacent. There is much to be done. On top of this, the funds made available to SNH and through the CAP to support nature and high nature value farming are being squeezed. Scotland’s wildlife, countryside and green spaces need all the friends they can muster in Holyrood.

    So here are my top seven ideas for the Scottish Government and the new Parliament:-

    • Every school child should have the opportunity to visit a wildlife rich greenspace or local nature reserve, to be given a quality day with a field teacher – every year.
    • The Government should commit to fund its Biodiversity 2020 routemap, to ensure the high priorities identified within it are delivered.
    • The SNP’s proposal for a ‘Good Food Nation Bill’ must ensure that the links between good food, healthy eating, sustainable production and space for nature in Scotland’s farmland are recognised.
    • The Government should introduce a system of licensing for Sporting estates that requires sustainable land management, care for peatlands, native woodlands and other habitats, and which regulates species management effectively, including observance of the law. Sanctions for the breach of conditions must be serious and commensurate with the impact of any breaches.
    • The Scottish Government should introduce a spatial strategy for renewable development, guiding developers to areas where there is least concern, and alerting them to those areas where development is inappropriate or problematic. We need more renewable energy both on land and at sea, but it all must be of the right type and in the right location.
    • The marine environment is one of Scotland’s real treasures – with our long and diverse coastline, islands and large continental shelf.  With the Crown Estate transferring to the Scottish Government, now is the chance to create meaningful Marine Protected Areas, and deliver the long overdue EU Special Protection Areas to protect seabirds. An era of sustainable fisheries, action to combat the bycatch of birds and other marine creatures and an end to damaging fishing methods is now possible.
    • The Last Scottish Government has led the way in recognising the value of peatlands for wildlife, clean water and as carbon sinks sequestering atmospheric CO2 and locking it up. But plans are faltering and funding is hard to come by. Scotland must be a champion for Peatland science and conservation.
  • Nature knows no boundaries

    Nature knows no boundaries 

    I had the pleasure of visiting our Mersehead nature reserve last week, where spring is in the air and we were lucky enough to spot the first handful of migrant birds that have made it back to our shores for the summer, including swallows and chiffchaff. Combined with the fresh burst of green on the trees, the displaying lapwings and buzz of pollinators in the air the day left me with a zeal for the summer ahead, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of apprehension I have too...

    Spring is a time of change of course, and with the Scottish Parliamentary Election less than a month away – and then the EU referendum hot on its heels – a lot that could change in the coming weeks. For those of us who work in the conservation sector though there is a third make-or-break decision looming; the results of the European Commission’s ‘fit for purpose’ review of the Nature Directives, expected at the end of June. These Directives, or laws, provide vital protection for some of our most important species and the habitats and places they depend on.

    In the run-up to the EU referendum, we’ll strongly challenge both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns to explain how their stance will help protect and enhance the environment. Therefore, while the RSPB will at no stage be urging people to vote either way, we will continue campaigning to keep the Nature Directives strong and better implemented, and tell the world what we think is happening to these key legislative instruments.

    If you’ve been following our Defend Nature campaign you’ll know that the directives have huge public and political backing across the EU. What other issue so comfortably unites those who hunt wildlife, with those who work to protect it? Our infographic details the campaign so far, with some truly startling facts. Combined with a wealth of evidence from NGOs, scientists and businesses the Commission’s draft findings of the fitness check were published last November and were relatively reassuring. In short, the report stated that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose and have contributed greatly to meeting the EU’s biodiversity targets. Any problems with the Directives were attributed to poor implementation at member state level, weak enforcement and a lack of complementary action within the EU, especially in key policy areas like agriculture.

    Our hope is that the final report will remain focused on the evidence. However, we and our partners, Birdlife International, are concerned that although the Commission may not wish to renegotiate the directives, a ‘business as usual’ approach may ensue, which will not be sufficient to halt the continued loss of biodiversity we see across the EU, including in Scotland. So, in order to help lead the way Birdlife two weeks ago published its own recommendations in a report titled ‘From Nature Alert to Action’, which can be summarised as; we need better implementation, increased funding and action in the wider countryside to support positive management for wildlife. 

    As I outlined in a recent article in The Scotsman, urgent action is needed to complete the designation of the Natura 2000 network in Scotland. On land, the Natura network is nearly complete. At sea, however, there are major gaps in the network and almost 37 years after the Birds Directive was adopted while the most important seabird breeding colonies on our coasts and islands are protected, there are no SPAs to protect the vital feeding areas at sea of any of Scotland’s internationally important breeding seabirds.

    Problems have arisen in Scotland due to the failure of successive governments to support adequate research, leading to delays in the identification and subsequent classification of protected areas (particularly in the marine environment). Improved data collection could guide better targeted conservation action and aid the planning process by helping to inform the best location and proper assessment of development proposals, such as offshore wind farms.

    But it’s not only research that’s thin on the ground. The European Commission has acknowledged that funding for Natura 2000 management is highly inadequate. Yet, on the other hand, perverse incentives in the agriculture and fisheries sectors have caused significant problems for wildlife.  Recent reforms to the EU’s fisheries policy have the potential to improve the situation at sea if fully implemented, and Scotland has taken a positive role in this; however, rapid changes in agricultural practices in the last 50 years have resulted in significant declines for many species associated with farmland in  Scotland. Unfortunately, payments to encourage  wildlife-friendly farming under the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are dwarfed by the direct payments received by farmers, who have to do little to protect wildlife in return. Although the CAP has undergone numerous reforms, there has been a longstanding failure to properly address farming’s environmental impacts though this policy, and farmers in High Nature Value areas receive less support than intensive producers on better land.  

    Given that nature knows no boundaries, regardless of where the UK sits in relation to the European Union after the referendum, these laws will still have an impact on our wildlife, either directly for migratory species or indirectly through our shared climate, air and water. What happens to the Nature Directives will also dictate the success of much nature conservation work currently in progress, and our ability to meet international commitments to reverse wildlife declines by 2020.

    We hope the European Commission have listened to our voices over the past year but only time will tell. If you want to hear more about our mission to save nature, including the latest on this campaign please sign up to RSPB Plus. 

  • Langholm Moor Demonstration Project Guest Blog

    There has been some recent speculation in the media about the future of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project (LMDP), and the results achieved to date. There is no doubt that restoring a large, relatively isolated ‘island’ moor has been a challenge, but to dismiss what has been achieved as a ‘failure’, as has occurred in some quarters, is wide of the mark,

    Accordingly, I offered the Directors of the project an opportunity to set out how they view progress with the project, based on their monitoring of the results to date. Below is the agreed perspective from the partner organisations, including the RSPB, SNH, GWCT, the Buccleuch estate, and Natural England. It is clear that with key staff leaving before the planned end of the project, that future ambition needs to be given a health check. But let’s not underestimate the practical lessons learnt, and the opportunities for future joint effort.

    Langholm Moor Demonstration Project Guest Blog

    Langholm Moor Demonstration Project – to continue to October 2017

    The project’s Directors will be continuing this innovative, insightful project until at least October 2017, the agreed term. The recent position statement highlights some important changes.

    We, and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group of the LMDP (the independent scientists and game management practitioners), have been encouraged that the project has met some of its targets.

    First, habitat. Identifying the need for, working out how to and then successfully carrying out a major recovery of heather habitats has been tremendous result; in a landscape of grass dominated moor and dark forest Langholm is re-heathering, becoming more berry and moss rich, home to the sort of diverse life that Hugh McDiarmid celebrated in ‘Scotland Small?’. This is a real tribute to the innovation of the gamekeepers, especially Simon Lester.

    Second, harriers. We have recovered the population of hen harriers. The Special Protection Area (SPA) for this species gave us the target, keepers gave us predator and habitat control and the successful use of diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce the predation of red grouse broods. We comfortably achieved harrier recovery.

    Third, black grouse and other upland birds. We’ve been delighted by the healthy increase in the local black grouse population; and have made some progress with rebuilding the populations of other moorland birds.

    Fourth, knowledge transfer. Importantly, we have also had a large number of visitors from a wide range of interests who have seen moorland management best practice at first hand. Gamekeepers, scientists and voluntary Raptor Study Group workers have worked hard together to help achieve project objectives.      

    Red grouse numbers have also increased during the lifetime of the project but not enough and here’s the rub. We’ve agreed that there is no realistic chance of reaching our fifth target, the red grouse target density set by the project for achieving driven shooting. This is disappointing as for most moors the investment to produce driven shooting is what provides the economic model to underpin the management that delivers the good things Langholm has achieved.

    The resignation of the headkeeper in March, and other gamekeeper vacancies was not unexpected, given the relatively short remaining term of the project. We agreed to wind down the gamekeeping effort so there was no confusion about what had been achieved under a full keepering effort, including stopping hen harrier diversionary feeding, and further novel habitat restoration work. Agri-environment funded habitat management measures, to protect the land management work done to date, and a requirement of maintaining the SPA and SSSI interest, will continue through Langholm Farms Ltd.  

    The project will continue with a full year and a half of monitoring during the 2016 and 2017 bird breeding seasons, and this activity will also cover habitat quality assessment.  This gives the project time to gather further information on the beneficial effects of moorland management for red grouse, whilst the large amount of project data collected to date is analysed, and reports are produced for Directors to review before publication. As an evidence-based project, it is these scientific reports and information contained in the Langholm Demonstration Project 7 Year Review, which will inform next steps by the partnership. 

    Langholm Moor Demonstration Project Directors