December, 2013

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.

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
  • That was the year that was: a conservation quiz about 2013

    I like quizzes.

    And so, to help you reflect on the year just gone, here's a quiz based on the most viewed posts on this blog in 2013.

    I'll try post the results some time after midnight on New Year's Day.  For now, gather your family around, sit down with a drink, make yourselves comfortable and see if you can remember the highs and lows of conservation in 2013...

    Question 1: Who or what controversially gave two but rejected one? 

    Question 2: Who went feral this year and encouraged all of us to do the same?

    Question 3: Which woman replaced another woman at the top of a Royal Society?

    Question 4: Who said about who that it "had been infiltrated by more militant entryists than Derek-Hatton-era Liverpool city council"? 

    Question 5: Who described what as "a modern day Domesday Book"?

    Question 6: Who moved the goalposts? And a bonus point if you can remember why.

    Question 7: Who topped the birding chart in January this year?

    Question 8: Who said about what techology that "we cannot afford to miss out"?

    Question 9: Who failed to go for "the maximum" and why?

    Question 10: What has delayed houses being built at a Ministry of Defence site in Kent?  

    Good luck!

  • The CAP deal: short of what nature needs

    I was carol singing outside the Lodge (RSPB HQ) canteen yesterday raising money for Operation Turtle Dove when news of the Defra CAP deal emerged.  You can read our reaction here.  

    Those of you who have been watching this closely will remember that the key figure to look out for was the magic 15%.  This was the maximum amount of money that governments across the UK could transfer from direct payments to rural development measures including agri-environment schemes which reward farmers for protecting the environment and recovering farmland wildlife such as... turtle dove whose population has plummeted by 93% since 1970.

    Yesterday, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson revealed that Defra had gone for 12%.  This is more than Scotland who went for 9.5% but less than Wales that went for the maximum, 15%.  

    The complexity of the CAP is such that even if money is transferred, not all of it goes into agri-environment.  Some money can be siphoned off to pay for other 'competitiveness' measures.  But Mr Paterson has ensured that 87% of the 12% transferred into rural development will be spent on agri-environment - which translates into about £3.1billion over the 2014-2020.

    Are you keeping up?

    Bear with me, there's more.

    Defra had the chance to transfer more money across to support agri-enivronment, but chose not to.  Why? Because the National Farmers' Union lobbied over Mr Paterson's head and forced a compromise.  

    So what's the consequence of the compromise?

    If Defra had chosen to transfer 15% and dedicated 88% to agr-environment then it would have had £1.254bn to support farmers entering into new agri-environment schemes.  In the end, it has £926m.  These figures are funding available for new commitments, discounting the £2.155bn they have already committed to (which is included in the £3.1bn above).

    This is still a decent amount of money which we think can do some great things for the many farmers who want to help nature.  Mr Paterson and officials deserve credit for fighting to the wire to secure this amount of money for agri-environment.  If you followed economic logic and environmental necessity, you'd go for the full 15% - as that's how you'd get the best value of taxpayers' money.  But politics and crude lobbying for private interest prevailed.  

    The key will be to ensure the design of the new agri-environment scheme (which is innovatively called the New Environment Land Management Scheme) works hard for wildlife.  I am optimistic that we'll have learnt lessons from previous schemes and make the new one better.  This is the only way to turn round the fortunes for the 60% of farmland species that have declined since I was born in 1970.

    But, the reality is, as the graph below shows, there is still a large gap between the cost of meeting the Government's environmental commitments (for biodiversity and for water protection) and available resources (through agri-environment schemes) to do the job.


    So, in the new year, as well as getting the design of NELMS right, Defra will need to turn their attention to that other tool they have in their toolkit - regulation.  

    It is worth remembering that agriculture accounts for one third of all reasons for failure for water bodies to meet good ecological status (a requirement under EU law), but only pick up 0.1% of the costs associated with clearing up the mess. 95% is picked up by water companies and the Environment Agency (i.e. the public).  

    Given that £11.56 billion of taxpayers' money will now be given to farmers through the single farm payment up to 2020, it would be entirely appropriate to at least ask whether they should  pick up the bill for any pollution they cause.

    Finally, many thanks to the tens of thousands of people that supported the campaign to influence the outcome of the CAP review.  We have worked closely with the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and progressive farmers throughout this long process.  The final deal, while not perfect, at least offers the potential for farmers to do great things for widlife for the rest of this decade.

    Here's to more than two turtle doves in 2014.

  • A tale of two estuaries

    So, it's a battle between Heathrow and Gatwick.   But Sir Howard Davies, in his interim report on aviation capacity, has also said that he wants to spend more time looking at the option of building a new airport in the Thames Estuary.  See the immediate reaction from my colleague, Andre Farrar here.

    Our position has been simple - the environmental damage (on special places and the climate) posed by new aviation capacity is not justified (see here).  

    But, at the end of a day when the airwaves have been dominated by talk of bigger airports, I cannot help but draw comparisons with a debate that raged on the other side of the country in the Severn Estuary.

    The prospect of major infrastructure projects have overshadowed two of our great estuaries and have created an uncertain future of the people and wildlife of both the Severn and the Thames.

    A barrage has been debated and discarded on a number of occasions over the past forty years - most recently in June when a House of Commons Select Committee kicked the latest proposal into touch (see here).   And the debate over new airports in the south-east of England since the 1970s has had more turnarounds than a security guard in a revolving door. 

    Two big projects whose proponents over-emphasise the need, promise the world at a price that everyone can afford and with environmental damage easily compensated.

    But, as with a barrage, on closer scrutiny, it appears that the economics of a Thames estuary just don't stack up.  I am not surprised that the costs are spiralling - the airport now being estimated to cost up to £112 billion - more than double what the proponents originally claimed.  Those that proposed the Cardiff-Western barrage saw their costs increase on close scrutiny - up to £30 billion the last time the Government looked at a serious scheme.  I tend to think that the worst people to cost a proposal for a major infrastructure project are the champions of such scheme.

    And, the instinct of proponents of these big schemes is to either downplay the environmental consequences or worse wildly claim that there will be environmental benefits.  The backers of a Severn barrage had the chutzpah to claim that the wildlife of the Severn would benefit from construction of a barrage (despite the loss of 14,000 hectares of intertidal habitat and local extinction of fish populations).  Fans of a Thames airport planned to compensate for the damage to the wildlife of the Thames by creating massive new area of mudflats.

    But, within any of the serious reviews, of which Sir Howard Davies' is the latest, there are also some statements which get ignored when politics and propaganda intensify.  The Govenrment's 2010 review of Severn Tidal Power said that...

    "The Government does not see a strategic case for bringing forward a Severn tidal power scheme in the immediate term.  The costs and risks to the taxpayer and energy sonsumer would be excessive compared to other low carbon options".  

    And here is what Sir Howard's impressive report says about the UK's current aviation capacity...

    "The UK remains one of the best connected countries in the world.  Available seat capacity and the number of destinations served by UK airports are higher than any comparable European countries.  Heathrow still serves the largest number of international passengers than any airport in the world".

    So - is there really a need for new capacity?

    And when suggesting that building a new hub would mean the closure of Heathrow, he says...

    "The closure of Heathrow has potential for immediate adverse effects on employment in the area, though this may subsequently be offset by any longer term positive impact from the redevelopment of the site and the provision of new housing opportunities. The overall balance, nature and extent of economic impacts are highly uncertain and the process would add significant risk to the project.

    Yet, the Thames Estuary airport, which would lead to the closure of Heathrow, stays on the table at least for now.

    So, more scrutiny and more debate.  But, one thing to learn from the infrastructure debates that have dogged our two estuaries, the more you look at a white elephant, the more it stays a white elephant.  For that reason, I expect Sir Howard Davies will, next year, finally reject a proposal for an airport in the Thames Estuary.