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
  • 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; and 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.

    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 that 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 can be evaluated and replicated so, too, is the opposite true.

    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. 

    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 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!

  • The joys of playing with mud, sticks and leaves: getting children connected to nature

    The joys of playing with mud, sticks and leaves: getting children connected to nature

    A family pond dipping at Scotland's Big Nature Festival (photo by Anna Pugh)

    Just a couple of weekends ago, at Scotland's Big Nature Festival, children were everywhere; hunting for bugs, pond dipping, and generally exploring the wonders of nature.  Over the weekend 1,269 children took part in nature activities, but the popularity of the kids’ activities belies the trends we are seeing in society.  RSPB’s own research with the University of Essex shows that children are playing out in nature far less than ever before and that there is a real disconnection from nature developing in the next generation.

    Looking back I was very lucky. My father and mother were both keen on nature, and my father especially took me bird watching, and encouraged me to keep lists and take notes. A geography teacher at school similarly nurtured my growing interest, and the thing that perhaps clinched it was a friend at school who had a relative who was a bird ringer. Seeing birds in the hand sealed the deal! I was hooked on birds and wildlife.

    Bird ringing at Scotland's Big Nature Festival (photo by Majdanik Photography)

    Reconnecting our children and young people with nature is something that we are taking very seriously at RSPB Scotland.  Last week we launched the programme for the Glasgow Wildlife Garden Festival, a four- week celebration of nature and wildlife starting on July 1st and part of our Giving Nature a Home in Glasgow project.  Over 40 community gardens, allotment groups, and friends of parks groups have joined with schools to improve the greenspaces they manage for nature and to get more people out enjoying them and involved in caring for them. There are 75 events, from a survey of Easterhouse’s unusual water vole population, to bushcraft skills and canoe trips along the river Kelvin; helping young people who may otherwise miss out on the wonder that nature can offer is a bit of a personal mission for me.

    Children and young people are a huge part of our work in Glasgow. Over the past year we have taken over 2000 children as school groups into Kelvingrove Park to give them a first-hand experience of nature, and involved over 8000 young people and their families with activities in parks and community greenspaces. Our toddler group based at Kelvingrove Museum is starting to show our youngest supporters (or rather their parents!) the joys of playing with mud, sticks and leaves.


    Bug hunting at Scotland's Big Nature Festival (photo by Anna Pugh)

    The highlight of the Garden Festival for me will be the day-long Bioblitz, which will cover the whole of Glasgow starting at 5.30am and finishing at midnight.  It will be run from a hub at Kelvingrove Museum and Park and I am particularly looking forward to partnering up with Buglife for the invertebrate survey (mini beasts!) and spending a bit of time on the membership and information stall.  So whether you have children, nephews and nieces or grandchildren, or whether you don’t, come and get involved with the Glasgow Wildlife Garden Festival this year. You can find the full programme here.  Why not grow that spark of interest in the young people you know? Who knows - one of them may become the Director of RSPB Scotland one day!

  • Standing up for nature through the planning process

    Standing up for nature through the planning process

    Photo by Andy Hay (

    One of the most important things we, that is the RSPB do, is to stand up for nature when roads, ports, energy developments, forestry, housing or quarries threaten important areas for wildlife in the countryside.

    We have done this for an awful long time, from proposals to build an airport on the Maplin Sands in the Outer Thames estuary in the 1960s, the afforestation of important moorland in North Wales in the 1980s to superquarries on Harris in the 1990s. Each year across the UK, and now increasingly overseas as well, RSPB staff assess the impact of developments on key species and important sites.

    Persuading developers to take our concerns seriously took a big step forward with the adoption by the EU of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive in 1985, and its subsequent updates. The RSPB was heavily involved in arguing for this Directive, which requires all major developments to evaluate their impact on the environment, and seek to mitigate this, or find less damaging alternatives. This provided a welcome level playing field between developers, and different EU countries stopping a ‘race to the bottom’ at the expense of the environment. Of course, some developers do a better job than others in implementing these requirements, and we are not slow in pointing this out during the consultation phases and our staff are recognised experts in this field.

    The principle of assessing developments for their environmental impact is especially important where they might affect protected areas – and this is reflected in the EU Nature Directives.  Where development might affect a Special Protection Area or a Special Area of Conservation, the environmental impact assessment is expanded and is called a Habitats Regulation Appraisal.

    The RSPB supports the planning system, and the importance – to nature – of these EU Directives as part of that system.  I am pleased to say many industry leaders agree with us.  In our experience, developers welcome the certainty of knowing where important areas for wildlife are, how to protect them, and conversely where there are areas with less constraint and where sympathetic development can be welcomed.

    So how does the RSPB decide to get involved and what is our strategy?

    First, we actively try and influence Government and Local Authority spatial plans, so these clearly identify the most important areas for birds and wildlife. We promote policies to local and national authorities that will clearly signal that Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), EU Natura sites and widespread but scarce species in the wider countryside deserve and require special protection. Hopefully such plans will guide responsible developers away from conflict situations – so development and conservation is the outcome. But on occasions developers decide to ignore the plans, or the advice we offer and so a difficult period of confrontation may lie ahead. The planning system can be ‘adversarial’ once an application is submitted.  Planning authorities require an ‘objection’ to ensure our views (or those of Scottish Natural Heritage or other agencies) are fully considered. We sometimes offer a conditional objection, listing issues which if resolved would allow us to withdraw later. But at the end of the day if the development is in the wrong place, or at the wrong scale and its impact is unacceptable, we will sustain an objection – and be prepared to pursue this to a Public Inquiry, if necessary. This can be an expensive, complex and time consuming process for all concerned. In order to help staff decide when we will object, our Trustees have set out a clear policy to guide us. This helps ensure we ‘fight’ the most important cases, and our reputation with Governments, local authorities and developers is built on taking a consistent, evidence-based approach to what is at stake and the impact of what is proposed. In other words, we do not cry wolf!

    In essence if a development threatens a nationally important assemblage of birds, or a designated SSSI or EU Natura site, or sizeable area of a scarce and vulnerable habitat such as lowland heathland, or native pinewood, we will seek to defend it from damage or inappropriate development. We also, where resources allow, lend support or staff expertise to important cases involving other wildlife assets for example if Plantlife, Scottish Wildlife Trust or Buglife seek our help.

    The RSPB expends some serious resource engaging with the planning and consenting process – we have trained staff across the UK who work with planners and developers.  They are supported by experts in planning and law based in Edinburgh and our UK HQ in Sandy. Is it worth it? Well I think the answer is a resounding yes! We win c.80% of the cases we fight, and sometimes some new and innovative partnerships are forged as a result, that not only stops future problems, but invests in nature as well. Some of the people we fight, see that forging closer relationships with us, will help prevent future disagreement, and lead to better developments, which are more acceptable. A ‘win win’.

    At any one time we will have 3-400 ‘live’ cases on the books. You can read about some of them here. We can genuinely claim to access more planning cases than any other NGO. I know sometimes people are upset we don’t support their local objections – and of course some politicians and developers are upset we object to a development promising local jobs. My postbag though has many more concerned people at our lack of support for their local campaign. As I have explained we can only be effective by concentrating on the major cases – but clearly people fighting to save their local environment and wildlife, when often it is a David and Goliath contest, shows the deep concern citizens have for ‘their’ local place. I am not sure politicians – both local and national, or of any political persuasion quite get this. They all too often assume wildlife can adapt, or find somewhere new to go. Sadly that is usually not the case. Equally they undervalue what a countryside rich in wildlife offers, both in terms of public enjoyment, the health agenda, and in ‘services’ such as clean water, capturing and storing carbon, clean air, and by underpinning industries like farming and tourism.

    For general information on how you or your community groups can get engaged with ‘planning’ please follow this link.