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
  • Standing up for nature through the planning process

    Standing up for nature through the planning process

    Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    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.

  • Flippin' lek! How to watch capercaillie without causing a disturbance

    Flippin' lek! How to watch capercaillie without causing a disturbance

    A male capercaillie displaying by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

    With the days lengthening and spring approaching it’s the time of year that capercaillie gather at their traditional lekking sites deep in the pinewoods, to go about their fascinating annual breeding displays. The birds gather at traditional ‘lek’ sites, where the males do combat for the chance to mate with the cryptically coloured hens. It’s tempting to get out and scour the woods for a glimpse of this elusive bird - especially as it’s now such a scarce species in Britain - but we urge you to think again.

    Despite offering one of Scotland’s most dramatic wildlife spectacles, it’s worth remembering that capercaillie populations are perilously fragile and still decreasing in some areas. They are very sensitive to disturbance, both accidental and deliberate, and it’s believed that one of the drivers in their decline has been an increase in human activity in their breeding habitat. Recent research shows that capercaillie avoid areas of otherwise suitable habitat within 500m of forest car parks and access points, and 125m either side of regularly used paths.  So, in short, capercaillie need quiet areas of woodland and don’t appreciate being disturbed, otherwise they will simply abandon areas of good habitat that are already in short supply.  

    As a species protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it’s an offence to disturb capercaillie during the breeding season, whether they are lekking, nesting or brood rearing. This also includes approachable “rogue males” and “tame hens”, which can display breeding behaviour at any time of year.  Activities that cause disturbance to breeding capercaillie can only be carried out under a Scottish Natural Heritage Schedule 1 Licence.  Because of this, a significant amount of effort is made every year by foresters and landowners who have to plan the timing of their management activities to avoid disturbance. We are grateful for their help and support. Recreational users of capercaillie habitat, whether they are dog-walkers, orienteers, bird watchers or photographers should also help and act equally responsibly.

    Sadly, the capercaillie population in Scotland remains in trouble although there are some signs, particularly in Strathspey thanks to conservation efforts, that we may have turned the corner. Huge efforts are being made by a wide range of people to reduce human disturbance, a known problem for this fantastic species. We are appealing to birdwatchers and others wishing to see capercaillie to work with us on this matter and to attend organised capercaillie viewing at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre rather than seeking out the birds themselves.

    RSPB Abernethy Forest reserve offers the opportunity to watch a capercaillie display ground or lek without causing any disturbance at Loch Garten Osprey Centre. Caper-Watch will run every morning from 1st April – 17th May, from 5.30am – 8am.  There is no booking requirement or entry fee (though a donation would be appreciated to help pay for the staff time), and people can turn up at anytime during the opening hours. On busy days, a rota system operates to ensure everyone has the best chance to see some capers.  With luck, it offers a good chance of seeing ‘the horse of the woods’ safe in the knowledge that you won’t be disturbing them. So, please don’t go into the woods cold searching for these rare, and extremely sensitive birds. The future of capercaillie in Britain depends on us all working to save them. Thank you!

  • Spring is on the way - let's connect with nature

    Spring is on the way - let's connect with nature

    Bluebells in bloom by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    With the lengthening days and the warmth now apparent when we get a bit of sun, it is increasingly clear that spring is on the way.  What a great feeling!  I for one find getting up and about seems a whole lot easier, and my energy levels are increasing as each day gets a bit more daylight.

    The natural world is similarly inspired – reminding me that we are part of nature still, despite the fact that half the world’s population now live in urban environments.  And despite that urbanisation nature is still there to inspire us as this story (getting millions of hits on the BBC website) shows – the little girl who gets gifts from birds.  I love the simple pleasure and honesty about this – and the connection an eight-year-old is making with nature. The sad thing about this of course is that it is newsworthy. But when so few young people play outdoors at all, and even fewer have access to wildlife then we shouldn’t be surprised. Getting more children and families connected to nature is one of the RSPB’s key ambitions.

    Turning to Scotland it’s hard not to be excited by what spring will offer.  Golden eagles (the subject of a national survey this year) are already preparing to lay eggs – some will lay as early as mid March when snow still covers their territories.  A morning walk near large trees or in parkland should reveal a mistle thrush in full song – the “Maevis” as it’s locally known can often be seen silhouetted 20-30 meters up perched on an exposed snag singing his heart out!  It is another early bird that starts breeding before winter is truly out.  Buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels will soar in the warmer air, displaying over their chosen territories, and rooks are tending to their bulky stick nests, renewing their pair bonds and getting ready to settle down and rear a new brood.

      

    Curlew by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

    I also love the return of lapwings and curlews to the inland farmlands and moorland.  A true harbinger of spring – their calls and tumbling displays gladden my heart.  They are both in steep decline, particularly in lowland areas where intensive grass management, or winter cereals have squeezed them out, which is why we are appealing to farmers in Scotland to help look after them.

    Soon we can look forward to the wildflowers of the agriculturally unimproved pastures and herb rich grasslands, again these colourful and special areas are all too rare. Native woodlands will also come into bloom, with carpets of flowers seeking the sun before the leaves on the trees burst forth and shade them out.  The intensely coloured bluebells, the white of greater stitchwort and if you are lucky an early purple orchid.  Yes - I love the spring.  But the chorus of birds, the splashes of wildflower colour and the drone of bumblebees must not be taken for granted.  A child today has far less chance of hearing a skylark sing (about a 50% less chance) than I did when I was a boy. Agricultural production may have increased, but must we suffer further losses to nature?

    Let's think about what intangible benefits nature provides for our health and wellbeing and protect it, because we want a world richer in nature. And our kids today deserve to see it, and experience it just as much as I did.