February, 2013

Our work

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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.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • A fair deal for farmers? The money and modulation debate kicks off

    The NFU launched their "Fair Deal for English farmers" at their conference yesterday. 

    Although I was unable to attend the event, I hear NFU President, Peter Kendall, was on typically pugilistic form claiming that "every farmer was united in their hatred of modulation".

    Really?

    As I wrote here, it is no surprise that NFU and the CLA are opposed to moving funds away from direct farm support towards support for farming that delivers public goods such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife. 

    Yet, given the pretty dismal CAP deal, there is no way Defra will be able to maintain its £1.8 billion of agri-environment commitments in England without modulation.   As I have written previously, Environment Stewardship is not perfect and the entry-level scheme certainly should deliver more, but a reduction in funds could be disastrous for wildlife.  The higher level scheme provides a lifeline to many species such as turtle dove, cirl bunting and marsh fritilary butterfly. 

    I appreciate that this is a pretty tough time for many farmers, but many farmers will lose out if there are big cuts to agri-environment.  For example, these schemes currently consitute a third of income to many hill farmers.  No modulation would essentially mean that those farmers would not be able to renew there schemes. And for hill farmers in higher level agri-environment schemes, they'd receive more money than the 15% of direct support payments that they would retain.

    There is also a strange contradiction in the position statement where the NFU states that CAP greening measures should be diluted to the point of absolute ineffectiveness (points 1,3 & 4), and then argue that greening negates the need for modulation (point 6).

    So, given this nonsense, it was reassuring to hear the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, stick to his guns and say that he did plan modulate to "support those things that the market cannot provide".

    I'd go further.  When it comes to recovering farmland wildlife, Defra has no plan B.  It is almost entirely reliant on agri-environment funding.  Failure to modulate would be like giving up on government ambitions in its Natural Environment White Paper.

  • Shuffling the deckchairs (7): why we say 'no' to the proposed merger between Environment Agency and Natural England

    All this talk about agency restructuring can be a bit ‘niche’ to say the least.  But this is (trust me) vital stuff.  

    Yesterday, I made our pitch for the establishment of a new Forest and Wildlife Service to act as an independent champion for wildlife in England and act as the one-stop shop for sustainable land management.

    Today, I want to make the case against a merger between Natural England and the Environment Agency.

    Before I do, it’s worth remembering why we need agencies. Governments need them because some issues are so complicated, and important, that they require very specialist expertise and focus.   We have, for example, an Office of Budget Responsibility to keep an eye on the economy and we have the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to help ensure we have the best standards in health care.

    Broadly speaking, Natural England is needed to protect wildlife and landscapes, while the Environment Agency is needed to protect the public from natural disasters such as flooding and pollution. Both tasks are growing increasingly complicated, and both are considered by the public to be hugely important in their own right.

    But these are very different functions which can come into conflict (eg a flood defence scheme which impacts on a protected wildlife site).  A merged agency might mean that it needs to consent its own actions.  As Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, accepted the decoupling of operational functions from regulatory functions by proposing to separate the management of the public forest estate from wider forestry services, so should he respect this principle in the current debate about the future of EA and NE.

    In a single body, our great fear is that the EA’s core business of flood defence would inevitably be prioritised over wildlife and landscape protection.  Currently, the Flood Risk and Coastal Erosion Management team has almost 4,500 staff while NE’s biodiversity team has less than 500. If there were a merger between the two organisations, this asymmetry would be reflected in management structure and organisational priorities, with conservation objectives inevitably suffering as a consequence.  What's more, if Defra had to make further cuts in public spending (which sadly looks increasingly likely), my fear would be that cuts would fall disproportionately on those functions which did not relate to flood protection.

    And a full merger would lead to more upheaval at a time when the pressures on the natural world appear to be growing (ash die-back and extreme weather events compounding the many problems that the natural world faces).  I am also sceptical about savings that might be found from a merger.  As those involved in the creation of Natural England in 2006 or Natural Resources Wales today will testify, mergers don’t come cheap.  If the driver is to reduce costs then there are initiatives such as sharing back office systems and procurement processes which could realise savings without the disruption that a full merger would bring.

    As I have said throughout this process, we will judge any decision on what’s best for the natural environment.  Nature remains in trouble: over 40% of priority species, 30% of priority habitats and 30% of ecosystem services are still declining.  If Mr Paterson decided to create a single body, then this would leave England without a government agency devoted to protecting and enhancing the countryside, for the first time since 1949.   We think this would be the wrong decision and do little to help deliver this government’s stated aim to “protect wildlife and … restore biodiversity”. 

    But what do you think?  Are you attracted to the simplicity that a single body would bring, or do you fear that focus on wildlife would be lost?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Shuffling the deckchairs (6): why we still want a Forest and Wildlife Service please

    The consultation on the future of the Environment Agency and Natural England closed three weeks ago.  We’ve had our say and it is now over to civil servants and ministers to decide on how to refresh the agencies to meet government’s ambition for the natural environment.

    Things have changed a bit since the consultation was first issued.

    In January, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, rightly accepted the main recommendation from the Independent Panel on Forestry to split the public forest estate from the Forestry Commission’s Forest Service functions (eg regulation and advice to private forest owners/managers).  At the time, he also agreed to consider the future of Forest Services alongside EA and NE. 

    While many of us started this process being agnostic about the form the agencies should take, views have hardened.  This week I shall explain why we are now in favour of merging Forest Services with Natural England but opposed to a full merger with the Environment Agency.

    We’ve been here before. In early 2011, it was the RSPB who, during the forestry furore, called for the creation of a Forest and Wildlife Service

    Many of the points we made then, remain today.

    Defra needs to ask itself is whether it be easier to reconnect fragmented habitats and restore biodiversity (a stated aim of this government), if we had one agency responsible for all habitats, rather than having one agency for forests and woodlands and one for nature everywhere else? Common sense would dictate that a single agency would be better placed to put our ecological jigsaw back together, simply because they would have access to all the pieces.

    It should make sense to landowners as well as they’d have a single authoritative body to provide advice and incentives.

    Government has an opportunity to create an independent champion for all nature. In a recent national Forestry Commission survey, asking why people value woodlands, wildlife was the most popular response. This same wildlife is in trouble, with one in six woodland flowers threatened with extinction, a 56% decline in woodland butterflies and 70% decline in some specialist woodland birds.

    Combining Natural England with Forest Services could allow a single organisation to have a strategic overview of all terrestrial landscapes and habitats, allowing the integration of policy and delivery mechanisms for woods, trees and forests with those for the wider landscape, for example, by integrating the grant schemes and advice provision.

    Furthermore, given the relatively small size of Forest Services, any upheaval caused by a merger would be relatively minor, and considerably outweighed by the subsequent conservation benefits.

    Forest Services staff are highly regarded and their expertise would need to be retained (or ideally, increased) in any merged body. The current legislative duties, powers and functions on sustainable forestry and biodiversity would need to be maintained in the legislation governing any new body, including those on protecting England’s forests from pests and diseases. Natural England currently has neither the resources or expertise to simply take on these critical functions.

    So, is it time for a new, stronger, independent body that can champion all nature and provide a step-change in landscape-scale conservation? We think the answer has to be yes.

    But should government go one step further and merge all of this with the Environment Agency?  As I shall explain tomorrow, we think the answer has to be no.